What do you want out of life? Who do you want to be when you grow up? These are questions we all have heard since childhood. Ambition is revered in our culture, even exalted. Without it, we are told, people are nothing; they are losers sitting on their couches watching daytime TV.
I enslaved myself to ambition for many years. I’m still motivated by it, though in a hybrid that oscillates between crass materialism and blinding spirit. In its purest form, my ambition comes more from within, in contrast to the culturally-sanctioned outward motivation I was taught. Like Rumi, I am burning with desire to serve the Beloved. To bring forth words and images, in the most beautiful, clear, inspiring and moving way I can possibly manage.
Even as I write this, my heart leaps, the same as it does when I read a line of Rumi or Hafiz or Rilke.
This doesn’t quite capture it, though. I most long to notice, to live moments of pure connection, and for my creative work to bring forth my response to them. Standing at the top of my front steps, I notice the early evening sky and snap a few photos of it with my phone. That veneration started a few minutes earlier on my walk with the dog, as we turned back onto our street, heading west.
I saw that the dense masses we’d been living under for days were breaking up and heading east, leaving in their wake scattered glimpses of blue soaring far above clouds still heavy with gray, but now tinged with the gold and peach of the late afternoon sun. The quality of light emanating from the sky settled like a whispered prayer over everything, utterly peaceful.
How marvelous it is that we have just the one sun and one moon. They are all we need; their uniqueness an urgent encouragement to notice and appreciate, to venerate.
The sun itself wasn’t visible. I never did see it, only its effects. It wasn’t dazzling or showy, but quiet, promising, a great opening sigh after days of ennui. Being a hidden source of a calming and sublimely moving atmosphere, being known by the effects of one’s presence — could that be a model of how to live in the world?
This is the ambition. To have moments like that, where it’s easy to draw a deep breath and appreciate. And, in reaction or simply to express gratitude, to celebrate, to exalt, make a piece of art. A photograph or painting, or a bit of writing. Oh, I know, in this moment, how Gerard Manley Hopkins felt, how Mary Oliver feels, out there wandering the dunes on the northern tip of Cape Cod.
The voice that constantly nags me, that was installed, then fed and watered for my entire life by parents, teachers, bosses, clients and my own husband, asks: where’s the transferable skill in that? Where’s the money?
A fair question, I admit. Even Rumi had a day job as a baker. Most artists, most acolytes, dedicants to the divine, to the muse, have something. Or they hustle, as Tom Waits has hustled. Or they dig for clams, as Mary Oliver has. (Maybe, in its day, their bookstore in Provincetown helped a little.)
My withdrawal from my profession needs to end, but not from mindless obedience to cultural expectations, to march to the drumbeat of progress and materialism. There’s a quote I often see about this; it used to inspire me.
“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
~ Howard Thurman
Mostly these days, this sentiment frustrates me. I know that some people appreciate what I do (for which I am very grateful), but even the poet David Whyte relies on the response of the marketplace to know if his work meets a need in the world.
People who reach their goals do so by refusing to give up. It may take years or decades, but they just stick with it, meeting trial after challenge with will and conviction. This is the advice from my journal this morning. Maybe it will serve others on their journeys as well:
You are on the right track. Follow your gut; it knows. Follow your heart; it feels. These questions are useful to help you stay grounded. You do not need answers. Let the questions guide you to actions in the world. To conversations, vulnerabilities, sharing and honesty. And let them inspire you to do your best work of living and celebrating the beauty, abundance, diversity and wonder of this world, moment by fleeting moment.