The elements of this painting emerged from my childhood idea of luxuriousness, one I yearned for then and thought about often. I wanted to wear a fox stole and a satin gown with a string of pearls, and live in a mansion that overlooked a lake with swans. My desires were probably impressed upon me through movies from the 1940s and my high-minded grandmother who liked the finer things in life.
For younger readers, wearing a dead animal around one’s neck may seem like the height of cruelty and disgustingness, but in my day our grandmothers saw these furry ornaments as a symbol of distinction and refinement. When no one was home I’d sneak the coveted carcass out for dress-up, and with lipstick and rouge I’d pretend I was on my way to being the next Hollywood starlet or glamorous socialite.
The stole wasn’t just fun to wear because it was sophisticated. It was also a real taxidermied animal, complete with little teeth. You could feel the bones in its arms and tail. At the same time I got to look like Zsa Zsa Gabor, I was able to snuggle and stroke a real creature that seemed the next best thing to a live pet. That smelly stole kept me company, stoked my highfalutin dreams, and delivered an hour or two of quasi-happiness.
My graceful swan is up to her belly button in her lake. Water is laden with symbolic connotations, so I chose to go with the fluid idea (pun intended) that it represents reflection and cleansing.
Somewhere along the path of life I’ve been lulled into the comparatively reasonable and routine status of being an adult with a capital A. I’m an artist, so my life is not commonplace or uninspired, but this painting alerted me that real life had hammered away at my confidence in my kid-world daydreams and what they stood for.
I was reminded of an exercise I’d done several years back. Someone asked me to write a list of all the things I wanted. What struck me at once was how defiant I was about taking on the task. My first response was, I don’t want anything. I’m good. I was so resistant to making the list that I became even more interested in why this undertaking was so thorny for me. The list of reasons that highlighted my trepidation was more enlightening than the list of wants itself. Here is my list of qualms:
- If I wanted stuff, I’d have to work way too hard to get it.
- If I got what I wanted I’d have too much responsibility to keep it up.
- I might get what I wanted and not like it, and that would be a waste of time.
- I could lose serenity, time, energy, and money, and get nothing in return.
- I’d be materialistic and greedy and not spiritual if I wanted things.
- Achieving or receiving would make me more visible, and in contact with more people, which brings up these problems:
- Critics would come out of the woodwork. I could be a laughing stock.
- I’d have to work hard on people skills to get along with everyone.
- I’d get fed up with not having enough alone time.
- People would see me when I’m not at my best. I’d have to keep my game face on all the time.
This list boils down to a fear of failure and a fear of success. Breaking them down into specifics allowed me to examine their accuracy. I have boldly followed a dream for decades, and in some ways, the list above is well-founded. I have had to work hard, take on responsibility, risk my time, energy, and money, take abuse from critics, use my people skills with great patience, and deal with lots of failure. These things may sound awful, but they offered copious compensation. To my great pleasure, I have achieved much of what I set out to accomplish. The failures have taught me life’s most critical lessons and helped me develop skills I wouldn’t have imagined needing or being so grateful for. The hard work was mostly enjoyable, and the responsibilities manageable, with pacing and delegation. In all, I can definitely say that going for what I wanted was without doubt a wise, brave, educational, and consciousness-raising thing to do.
After looking at my fears, I rolled up my sleeves and wrote my first want list. It was absolutely skimpy compared to my childhood daydreams, but it was valid because it was authentic. I didn’t wish to start a world famous charity or drive a Ferrari or travel to Antarctica. I only wished to live life a little more comfortably. At the time it seemed like I was wishing for the moon. The pesky list of fears blocked my view of even not-so-distance possibilities. It felt like a stretch to wish for things like a refurbished home, a yoga retreat, a bigger savings account. My fantasies of youth had all but vanished.
After the list was completed, I refused to jump in and go into overachiever mode to make my wishes materialize. It was enough to write it all down. But I didn’t realize I’d unlocked the door to a cage of unconscious restrictions.
The things on my list started trickling into my life, and it didn’t feel like work. I’d find myself curious enough to google one of my items, then take some inquisitive steps in the direction that seemed best, and watch the next course of action unfold without much pushing on my part. A turning point in transformation came when I pushed the Buy button on flights to Paris. Up until that point I would think of Paris and a split second later shut it down with, “I can’t afford it.” After I wrote it on my want list, I decided that poo-pooing it wasn’t going to be helpful. It didn’t take much thinking to surmise that I could go to Paris, that lots of people go to Paris, that even people with little money find a way to go to Paris. Within months I was there, and it changed everything. It opened up a new vista of freedom.
Wants are a prompt from the Universe to try something, learn something, create something, share something, see something. I will not respond and rise to an impulse without learning about myself—my capabilities, my fears, my shortcomings, my power. If I desire it, it’s coaxing me to venture forth because it has something to tell me.
Desire gets a bad name sometimes, especially in spiritual circles. It’s not unusual to hear that desire is the worst thing! But it’s the attachment to the outcomes of a desire that causes suffering, and yes, the religions of the world are correct about how much misery that affixation brings.
How I’ve suffered from my insistence on expected outcomes, and on getting addicted to the pleasure that those outcomes temporarily bring. The school of hard knocks has brought me to be hyper-aware when I feel a wishful impulse. My top-most goal is to remain open and surrendered to where I’m being led. I’m most interested in what it has to teach me, and am willing to change course, switch plans, or step off the trail if I lose the scent. Challenged and tested I may be, but trapped and delusional I will not.
There are different kinds of desires, from material gain to power and prestige, and then more altruistic longings that involve being of service. There’s even a desire to be free of want, which some claim is the highest calling. In my experience, both selfless desires and worldly ones eventually lead to the same realizations. I’ve gone after material things and sought appreciation from others. The path to these objects of desire opened me to new acquaintances and new understandings. Sometimes I got what I wanted and didn’t like it, but learned incalculable lessons while I was at it. I’ve also found purpose and fulfillment in being of service to others, but don’t find it more high-minded than other desires. Desire, in combination with an even more powerful dedication to surrender outcomes, can be a persuasive teacher and a dependable guide.
To be free of want is a lovely goal, but is for the already-enlightened or the brain-dead. I’ll focus my thoughts on the rest of us.
I have to be careful about wanting for other people. I’m a big believer in intercessory prayer, and of wishing well for others and humanity. But if I’m too invested, formulating what I want for others can reek of control. I held a workshop where participants were asked to write their desires. Every woman in the room wrote about their kids, their husbands, friends, family, and causes. I heard crickets chirping when I asked them to write about themselves. When queried, the consensus was that they felt selfish desiring only for themselves. It made me sad, and a little angry. I wanted them to exhibit the same generosity for themselves as they did for their loved ones. There is nothing less spiritual about having, expressing and enjoying our own gifts. And too much attention on others, even well-meant attention, is a recipe for neglect and avoidance of oneself.
Obviously I related to the others-first attitude of the workshop women. My list of misgivings about wanting things showed me that on some level I’m not sure I deserve better. Settling for “just okay” saves me from peeking into the scary unknown. If I step out, I have to leave things behind, things I formerly found familiar and comfortable, even if it was undesirable things like poverty or destructive relationships. Doing without can become cozy, and I can end up priding myself on being skilled with the tools of having little: resourcefulness, frugality, and tolerance of other people’s bad behavior. On one hand these abilities are handy and beneficial. They become a gloomy trap when they are lauded above the ability to reach for, receive, and accept the riches of life. To be attached to NOT having abundance allots a shabby and narrow existence.
The physical appearance of wealth is not the best indicator of true bounty. There are examples galore of people with enormous riches and power whose fortunes were gained through avarice and deceit. I try not to let these distressing examples make me forget that the Good Life is found in the balance of giving and receiving, and in both earthly and eternal affluence. I don’t want to use the greed of others as an excuse to evade my inner call and miss out on delights of all kinds.
The good fortune, beauty, and grace that I intended to celebrate in my swan painting are a state of mind, an outward expression, and a natural outcome of embracing what inner guidance compels me to undertake. As I painted and shared about this concept, I found myself more comfortable and more excited with the idea that the world has good things in mind for me. It propelled me to be more broad-minded about the definition of the good life, and curious to explore the avenues that are opened by my truest impulses. But if you see me on that road, I will not be wearing a stinky fox stole.