By Christie Aschwanden | June 19, 2012 | 7 Comments
This is a discussion about an uncomfortable subject—an emotion that everyone has felt, but no one wants to admit. Envy—it’s a four letter word. In the rare instances when we talk about it, we do so in whispers amongst our closest confidants. Mostly, we insist it doesn’t exist, because we don’t like what it says about us–that we’re all savages inside. I’d always felt squeamish about acknowledging my green-eyed monster, until a chance encounter with a renowned poet gave me a new perspective.
The first thing you need to know about Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer is that she’s drop-dead gorgeous, articulate, and engaging. Her warmth and grace fill any room and make her irresistibly likable. I met her for the first time at a writing workshop in Telluride five years ago where she greeted me by exclaiming, “Oh Christie Aschwanden, it’s so nice to finally meet you! I wrote a poem about you.”
Before I could react, she began reciting the poem from memory.
That night, I went home and wrote a poem back to Rosemerry.
In the five years since we exchanged these poems, Rosemerry has become one of my dearest friends. I wrote about the science of envy in the July issue of O, the Oprah Magazine, and as I began researching the story, I called Rosemerry to talk about the poems.
CHRISTIE: When you first recited your poem to me, I tried to act flattered. Now I can tell you how I really felt—mortified! The person in your poem wasn’t me. It was like you were holding me up on this pedestal and declaring me the winner of a competition I’d never entered and didn’t deserve to win.
ROSEMERRY: Ah, dear Christie! I hate to think I mortified you. I shared the poem with you because I had been performing it for a few months by the time I first met you in person and it had been so well received. I thought you would be flattered, or at least amused.
CHRISTIE: Of course a small part of me was flattered, but more than anything, I felt vulnerable. I know what it’s like to envy someone—your impulse is to tear them down to make things even. It hurt to think you might feel that way about me.
ROSEMERRY: When I wrote the poem, I had just received a rejection letter from Ghost Road Press, declining my poetry manuscript. My ego was tremblesome and withered. And then an hour later, I was writing the press release for your workshop and I read your bio. On paper, you seemed to have achieved the kind of writing life I wanted for myself. Plus, I had come in far behind you in Nordic ski races. I thought—wow, she’s really made it.
CHRISTIE: Which is so funny, because I had a similar response to your bio. I love poetry, but I’m totally intimidated by it and have never had the courage to try writing any of my own. And here you are writing a poem a day, and speaking at all these interesting events. Looking at your photo and reading your poetry I saw this perfect, creative life reflected back at me. You were something I yearned to be.
ROSEMERRY: The poem is, of course, not at all about you. It’s about this imaginary person that I chose to give your name to. I’m making fun of myself and the ego’s longing to be more, to do more, to have more, more, more.
CHRISTIE: It’s so tempting to think that if only we achieve X, Y or Z, everything will be perfect. That’s the real problem with envy— it’s based on a false belief. I suppose that’s what I wanted to tell you with my poem—hey, I’m not perfect at all. In fact, I was nervous about sending it, because it felt like a pale imitation of yours.
ROSEMERRY: Your poem totally leveled the playing field. It helped me see what it was like for you to receive the poem I had written. Our poems were having a conversation with each other. They playfully allowed any charge that was there to be discharged. It was like we were hitting a tennis ball back and forth. Now it’s even—we both made a friend.
CHRISTIE: We’re alike in so many ways. We live similar lifestyles in rural western Colorado and share a love of gardening and the outdoors. We’re outgoing, we stay up late at night writing, and we even have the same Meyers-Briggs personality type. Did our similarities shape your envy?
ROSEMERRY: Oh yeah. If you had been a photographer who bikes or an accountant who swims or a lawyer who plays basketball, I would have thought, wow, she’s got it together. But you were doing all of my things better. Ugh! It was so easy to compare us because we are so similar. Although now, I can say with all honesty that I am not envious of you, because I think of you as an inspiration.
CHRISTIE: I feel the same. Our similarities galvanize me. It’s so natural to feel threatened when you encounter someone who looks like a better version of yourself. Yet we’re all unique. No one can be a better me than I can. When I see you doing amazing things, it makes those things seem possible for me too.
ROSEMERRY: One thing that I love about my forties is the kind of “disowning” of my interests—seeing myself not as the sum of my labels, but more as the soul that inhabits that shell.
CHRISTIE: Our friendship has shown me how envy can be nurturing, instead of toxic, and I feel less prone to the malicious variety. I’ve seen you perform the envy poem numerous times now, and each time, I find myself slumping in my seat. It occurs to me that I am much more comfortable in the role of envier than I am as the envied one.
ROSEMERRY: Me too. After performing that poem, I’ve had people say things like, “I can’t believe you can feel that way. I have always felt that way about you.” I immediately prickle and try to brush the comment off.
CHRISTIE: Researchers actually have a term for this—STTUC (sensitivity about being the target of a threatening upward comparison). And you really are stuck, because there’s not much you can do about someone else’s envy. You can’t even talk about it, because it sounds like bragging. I felt so alone that first night you shared the poem with me.
ROSEMERRY: I’ve found that reciting that poem helps me connect with people by exposing my humanity. It brings us together in a way. All of us have felt envious of another person’s circumstances.
CHRISTIE: I certainly have, and it’s always about me, not the target. In my O piece, I talk about my urge to find fault in a friend who had landed a huge book deal, and then realizing that I didn’t actually resent her, I hated myself for not prioritizing my own pet projects. When I caught myself looking for reasons to criticize her, I would stop and admit—no, I’m just envious. It was such a simple thing, but it diffused my ugly impulses. I love what you said about this strategy—name it to tame it.
ROSEMERRY: Well, it is true. Having some perspective allows us to create distance from it, to create enough space that it can be seen for what it is: small. And then it loses its power over us. Just a little noticing can go a long way.
CHRISTIE: In your poem, you mention O magazine. And now you’ve published a poem in O.
ROSEMERRY: That was funny. The O magazine reference was one of the only factual parts of the poem–you really were published in O. A few months after the poem about you came out, I got an email from O requesting to reprint an old poem of mine. I was sure that you had a hand in that. I couldn’t imagine they’d just call me out of the blue.
CHRISTIE: I gladly would have helped, but I’ve been writing for O for seven years, and I still have to plead to get my work published there.
ROSEMERRY: I still think you called up Oprah and asked her to publish my poem.
CHRISTIE: I wish it were that easy! I, too, envy the life you created for me in your poem. I hated the poem initially though. I loved the poem itself; I just wished it didn’t have my name on it.
ROSEMERRY: At the time, I really didn’t take into account what it might mean to have your name on the poem. It was pretty presumptuous. But the poem needed a name to work–it had to be specific. And it really was your bio that made me examine my fragility. It didn’t occur to me to make up a name. Yours was just right.
CHRISTIE: I’ve come to see it as an incredible honor. You trusted me with your most fragile feelings, and created an opening for us to talk about an uncomfortable emotion in a very honest way. It’s such an amazing gift, one that has taught me a great deal about myself and made our friendship feel authentic and deep from the very start.
ROSEMERRY: Now that we’re so many years into our friendship, I see what a gift it has been for both of us to get to speak so openly. Thank you for that, Christie. I can’t wait to see what conversations we’re having a year from now.
More about Rosemerry here: wordwoman.com.