The life I used to want . . . or perhaps the better way is to say the life I thought I wanted? . . . was a grand one. A life of being celebrated, and documented, because of what I’d put into the world.
Maybe it’s age and the wisdom that hopefully comes with it. Maybe it’s disappointment, and choosing to redefine a goal instead of wallowing in the failure of an old one. Or maybe I just lost my appetite for grand. But today there is a very different life that I want. And it comes closer to a renunciant’s path, to Zen, and to nature, than ever before.
Let’s take Oprah Winfrey for a minute. I think the legacy that she has carved for herself is a noble one; that of being the spokesperson for discovering one’s best self and living one’s best life, and the idea that this has nothing whatsoever to do with financial prosperity, but instead with spiritual prosperity. Yet the irony can’t be lost on even Oprah that her own financial wealth makes the very kind of zenning, sentient life she purports virtually impossible for her. A woman with homes (plural) that rival the size and scope of art museums, and require staff. A woman who has entourages. A woman who is stalked and hounded and quoted and misquoted by a frenzied culture desperate to crack the code that is the Entity Oprah, because we all want whatever magic has befallen her. How does one live in that life and temper the monkeys in the mind, never mind the monkeys coming after you?
Yes-Men surrounding you constantly will lose you your touch with reality, and make you operate from an engine of dissociative ego. And I often wonder to what degree she is aware of that peculiar power (or is it a liability?) and takes full advantage of it. I think back to her controversy with the author James Frey [read about it here, if you're not familiar]. I have my own opinions about what he did, which is perhaps an article for another day, but I have always, and for this article’s purpose, also questioned her role in this, because of the Yes-Men phenomenon that ostensibly makes Oprah incapable of ever being wrong, and gives her permission to wield the ax at her discretion. Did she really think that what Frey did was morally reprehensible? Or had she just been personally humiliated, and therefore needed to use her power to humiliate him in return? Was the punishment that she doled out to him on national television really about teaching James Frey some ethical lesson? Or just about saving her own face? And does she even choose to recognize that whether she feels it’s her responsibility or not, she has set herself up to shape the zeitgeist for a lot of America and what America should think about such things?
I only choose to analyze the Oprah phenomenon, as opposed to anyone else out there in the celebrity world, because she is not just a celebrity but a pop culture icon, and there has been a pretty wide swath in my life of envisioning a similar station. A few years ago I wrote a grief memoir about the death of my mother (not yet published), but what the book is really about is an examination of our relationship; complex to say the least. One of the commonalities that I examine is both of our desire for fame. I am an entertainer. My mother’s life was in politics. And we both had an appetite unlike anyone else in our family for renown. There was something just so fundamentally dreadful to us both about living unsung (let alone dying unsung) in anonymity. And somehow the belief that if only a hundred people were touched by our gift, versus a million, that our gift was meaningless.
I have had many knock-down-drag-outs with my soul on the place my art and my contribution has in the world, and where I place its value. Is its value in acceptance by the larger public? Acceptance by the boutique few? Or is it measured by no barometers at all save my own instinctive sense of personal best?
I think we all know my answer, but putting that into actual action and ownership has been another trick entirely. Believe it or not, getting older helps. A lot of delusion gets shed away. I think I know what kind of famous person I would be, and it isn’t pretty. Talk about dissociative ego. Today I am finding more peace with the artist I am, and with the spiritual being I am, while living in a world (“in this world, not of it”) that woos only greatness, as defined by financial station, celebrity, and popularity. And yes, I’m even finding more peace with that world, as well.
And so, any longer, here’s what today’s dream looks like. Here’s what’s truly attractive to my soul:
(And let me preface what I’m about to say with this: I don’t begrudge the Oprahs of the world their wealth, their station, their largeness and their guaranteed seats in the history books and Forbes Magazine. These choices, and these good fortunes, are not bad ones or wrong ones. I’m just finally finding a different value for my life.)
I want to live simply.
I want to be awakened every morning by the sunrise, and honor a ritual by which I prepare for bed nightly, instead of letting myself fall asleep to the white noise of the television, fighting with everything in me to stave off sleep, just because the waking hours feel like a desperate drug to this addict.
I want to bask in quiet and stillness at least a few precious moments every single day.
I want to encounter every wonder with the patience and pace required to catch every detail, and I want to write about it, because every one is as remarkable as a Van Gogh or a Stravinsky.
I want to read books and, through them, get lost.
I want to stare at a painting in a museum, and have my life changed. No, it doesn’t move. No, it’s not interactive. No, it doesn’t trend. There are no hash tags. No friends. No followers. No algorithms. No memes. It hangs on a wall merely, and blows our illusions out of the water, if we’re canny enough to see.
I want to be canny enough to see.
I want to sing, not for my supper, but for the gods.
I want to earn my wage outdoors, with labor and sweat and sun about me. I want to plant gardens, and eat what I’ve grown, and work my body like the vessel it is.
I want to forgive my body its daring to creak and ache, and instead awe at its magic to move, to protect, to repair and regenerate, to create, to haul lumber and compose symphonies equally.
I want to open my doors, and meet my neighbors. And hold children. And praise animals. And laugh with friends till it hurts. And invest in compassion.
I want to watch the rainfall with the same fascination as when I watch a great movie.
I want to abolish from my own brain, my own agitated sense of desperate measures, once and for all (warning: incoming rant), the emperor’s new clothes of this insidious Religion of Prosperity that’s gripping our culture today, and the irresponsible false promise that all we need is a positive mindset and to walk in the world AS IF, for all our problems to be solved. If only the billions of starving, war-torn, Third World citizens of the earth would stop for one second to apply its principles . . . Don’t they know! I’m not knocking positive thinking – a huge proponent actually – I just reject this idea that it’s a magic pill. The world IS insecure. It is unsure and unpredictable. It will always, and till the end of time, give us joy beyond measure, and loss, heartbreak, and disappointment beyond measure. And all the praying to the manifesting, law-of-attraction gods will not make us magically immune to pain and disappointment. The true key is not to be constantly coveting an over-there reality that may or may not ever come to us, or to try and create a cocoon of cotton candy denial around us from all the realities of life, but to amass the masterful tools meant to help us respond to all of it – the fortunate and the unfortunate – with grace, humility, mindfulness, and compassionate vigilance. To truly be able to recognize the beauty, and power, and opportunity for transformation and swift healing in whatever experience is given to us. Which doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t work toward goals, or not try to cultivate a can-do mindset. But what it does mean is that if we live only for the GOAL, then we completely miss the GOLD of the absolutely magnificent right now.
I want to never miss the gold.
I want to learn the lessons that every encounter with every kind of being on the planet is meant to teach me. And I want to appreciate them for that, instead of collecting enemies.
And I want my only prayers from this day forward to be NOT “Dear God, please give me . . .” But two words, and two words only: Thank you.
I want a simple life.
Angela Carole Brown is the author of three published books, The Assassination of Gabriel Champion, The Kidney Journals: Memoirs of a Desperate Lifesaver, and Trading Fours, is a recipient of the Heritage/Soulword Magazine Award in poetry, and has produced several albums of music and a yoga/mindfulness CD. Bindi Girl Chronicles is her writing blog.