Recently, at a meet and greet for a benefit, a young woman approached me and said, “I’m from your past. You might not remember me, but I was an actor in your ex-husband’s play.” She was wrong—I not only remembered her, I remembered the play, the way I felt back then, the way the theatre smelled and the kind of summer it had been. I sat down and had a wonderful conversation with her, grateful to have someone to get me off my feet and take me back twenty years to a time when I believed my whole life was in front of me.
This young woman, convinced she would be a famous actress, had gone through college, followed her star to Hollywood and spent most of her twenties on both sides of the camera. She decided eventually that the sacrifices necessary to pursue the often heartbreaking career of a performer were not worth it, and instead went to law school and is now making a difference, saving the world, fighting and righting one injustice at a time.
I admired her. I also envied her. And I began to think, “Maybe I should go to law school and be a public defender.”
Jack Kornfield, a wonderful writer and meditation teacher, would call this thought “number one on my hit parade.” By this he means that we all have perpetual, repetitive, compulsive, obsessive thoughts to which our minds return over and over, forgetting that we’ve solved the problem (or pronounced it unsolvable) countless times. It’s sort of like that joke on The Simpsons where Montgomery Burns inevitably points out Homer and asks Smithers who he is. “That’s Homer Simpson, Sir,” Smithers says each time. “Simpson, eh?” Burns mutters, scratching his chin. I might as well say, “Law School, eh?” Except that my “Simpson” comes in myriad disguises. Sometimes it’s Divinity School. Sometimes it’s getting an MFA in writing. Sometimes it’s getting an MA in psychology; sometimes it’s teaching high school English. Recently it was becoming a yoga teacher. I went through a phase where I thought I should become a poet—because that’s where the money is, naturally. Today I was on the phone with a friend who started to tell me about her teen age daughter’s amazing guidance counselor and I don’t know what she said next because I was off on my thought, “maybe I should be a guidance counselor.” If I’m reading a book to Lila, I think I should write children’s books. If I’m cooking dinner, I fantasize about opening a restaurant.
The common ingredient here, pardon the pun, is an obsession with being great. When I started my music career, I wanted to be the next Beatles. By this I mean, I wanted to be so famous, so successful, so influential that I would steer the zeitgeist my generation. If that meant sacrificing all semblance of a normal life, so be it. I felt sorry for Tracy Chapman and Billy Bragg, because they were just kind of famous. I wanted to be SUPER famous. As the years went along, I decided I would settle for “critically acclaimed.” I didn’t need the money. I just wanted to be adored by people with big brains and opinions.
Instead, I have built a sturdy little career as a folk musician. With my sister and the band we formed in 1991, I have released 13 CDs (going on 14 as of this July) and we continue to tour internationally. We have a lovely and loyal audience and have made friends all over the country through our music. Through the music, I now also have careers as a writer, novelist and life coach, and most of the time, I have more than enough to do, more creative projects and joyful experiences than any one person deserves to have. When I am spiritually centered, I know this. Then there are the other days.
One day, while on tour, I was staying with an old high school friend who was living in Mill Valley, a town in the Bay Area. She was six months pregnant and about to quit her six figure income job to be a full time Mommy.
“I don’t know if I can do it,” I said.
“Why? She said. “Nothing’s better than motherhood.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” I said. “I am scared that if I have a baby, I’ll love it so much I won’t care anymore about my writing, about my audience, about advancing my career. I’ll just fall in love with the baby and drift into a kind of happy ever after stupor.”
She looked at me with confusion. “But if you’re happy—then isn’t that the point? If you’re happy, you won’t care about your career.”
What I was embarrassed to admit then—and it’s actually embarrassing to admit now, too—is that I thought, “but the WORLD will not have me, then!”
I so want the world to want me.
Don’t ever let anyone tell you that Starbucks hasn’t done its part to raise the dialogue. This from a Starbucks cup two days ago:
"A person's pursuit of goodness leads to greatness, but the pursuit of greatness leads to ruin. Pursue goodness and you will achieve great things."-John E. Kramer, VP of communication, Institute for Justice. From Starbucks The Way I See It #245.
I have come to peace with the greatness issue, most of the time. I no longer strive to wear a size 2. I no longer detest everyone who gets reviewed in the New York Times Book Review. I no longer get depressed when Entertainment Weekly chooses not to review our new album. I have what the Buddhists call Sympathetic Joy for my friends in the arts who have achieved a higher profile and accompanying bank account. But I have to work at it, because I was born with a supersized ego, and I suspect that my life’s work—this go round anyway—is about deflation. I have been deeply blessed to have found a spiritual path and to live the life of an artist, to sustain a career doing what I love. I have been deeply blessed to share the journey with others—to be trusted with stories and problems and to witness metamorphoses. As a result of winning the husband-and-child lottery, most of the time I would rather be cuddled up with the two of them, or pureeing some organic chicken, or making scrapbooks of digital photos than doing battle with the ever more baffling media to try to Get Known. On Friday, I got off the phone with a client and made dinner for my husband and daughter, and felt so full, so grateful, that I didn’t even think, “Maybe I could be the world’s greatest life coach.”
Voltaire at the end of Candide concludes that the object of life, “in the best of all possible worlds,” is to cultivate one’s own garden. My husband is on vacation from grad school, and it’s springtime. He spends every free moment out in the garden, growing basil from seeds, moving plants to better locations, our half acre plot his canvas. Except it’s not just his canvas. “My favorite part,” he says. “Is transplanting little seedlings into their spots and patting them down. It’s like tucking them in at night.”
I’ve often thought that gardening is a man’s way of nurturing, of getting to be a mother. Gardening can be a practice divorced from the concerns about what the world thinks. One’s creation unfolds in a natural manner, partly divine, partly mid-wifed by our own attention and love and creative impulses, but not something one holds up to the world to judge as one does one’s career. (Of course there are some people who hold up their children or gardens to the world’s gaze as if they were accomplishments, but those people are very bad.)
And the truth is, my new old friend, the public defender, said, “I am so envious of you for making it.” I need these reminders from outsiders (and by outsiders I mean anyone who isn’t me). I need to remember that “making it” is always relative. That the real satisfaction, as I’ve said many times before, is in the creative moments when I am in the stream of songwriting, or onstage in the moment with my sister, or at my computer typing a new thought, or handwriting a page of dialogue, or on the phone with a client and listening to the story and seeing a new angle that might be helpful. These are the moments when I am not striving for greatness, but merely doing the next right thing; the “good” thing that’s right in front of my nose.
Last night, Tom and Lila and I sat on the floor of her bedroom reading her favorite book, Doggies by Sandra Boynton, and yes, I did think, “Maybe I would be a great children’s book writer.” But mostly, I gloried in my one year old’s newfound obsession. She can now point to the different dogs and say, “Duh!” And “Ar ar ar!” We got to the second to last page, where all the dogs howl a the moon. The precise text is, “A-a-a-a-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o.” And when we get to that part, Tom and I throw back our heads and howl like werewolves. For the first time, Lila looked up at us while we did this, very excited, and went, “A-a-a-a-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o.” too.
This isn’t just great. This is greatness. I have made it.