I was in tears as I read Becoming, the memoirs of former First Lady Michelle Obama.
Becoming is a reminder that, for eight years, we had caring, compassionate, and competent people in the White House. Comments on the current administration notwithstanding, it was heartening to remember that for two presidential terms, the residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue were people who really and truly cared about the people they were there to represent.
More than just a reminder of the goodness we miss, Becoming is a story of adaptation, learning, change, and growth. It is, as Mrs. Obama mentions often, a book about “swerve.”
I know this notion well: all through my childhood, I was a “box checker” like the former First Lady. I made lists, real and mental, of things that I needed to do in order to be successful, in order to be who I wanted to be. Like Mrs. Obama, I was buoyed by “consistent love and high expectations,” and because of this, I grew into the person I am today.
But I also realized, as I grew older, that the world is not governed by the “code of effort-result” but instead by forces that are sometimes out of our control. I grew to learn to swerve, to go against my natural proclivity towards rigidity and move in the direction the world was taking me. Like Mrs. Obama, I have learned to balance my box-checking with swerve, and I cherished the stories of how she had learned this balance, too.
“You don’t really know how attached you are until you move away, until you’ve experienced what it means to be dislodged, a cork floating on the ocean of another place.”
The first part of the memoir, prior to heading to the White House, was my favourite part of Becoming. It was a reminder that powerful people are people just like us: that in some cases, their experience of growing up—the stories of working through hardship, and of being the recipient of the grace of those who saw potential in us, of people who opened doors to opportunities that were closed to so many of our more-deserving peers—are so emotionally similar to our own that we see ourselves in their success.
There is a moment in Becoming when Mrs. Obama, then young and in school, doesn’t tell her parents about the class trip to France because she knew they didn’t have the money, and that she was already immensely grateful for the love, home, and opportunity they could provide. Eventually, her parents find out, and the future First Lady is sent to France with her class on an experience the likes of which her parents could only dream of having.
I can’t help but think of my parents, as I was growing up, who always seemed to be able to ensure I had access to every opportunity that came my way even when I knew they didn’t have the money. (I think, too, at the things I did not ask them for because I knew the pain that would come from them having to say no because of our limited resources.) I think of how, now that I have grown up, I better understand just how hard it was for them, how much they scrambled to never make me feel like I was wanting. I think of their unending sacrifices and I am so thankful. I am ever so thankful.
Becoming is a story of reckoning with the challenges but also the graces of the past, but it is also a memoir loaded with hope for the future. It is a reminder that, with compassion and caring, we have the power to change the world in our small ways. Mrs. Obama reminds us that we all come from somewhere, and that somewhere will shape who we are—but also, that we have the opportunity to shape those somewheres right back.
This is a memoir that reminds us of what it means to lead with grace and kindness; it is a memoir that will make you weep in gratitude for having been able to experience that grace and kindness, in many ways, for eight years now gone by.