I posted this picture on Instagram last week.
I received a bunch of messages about it. One was from a dear friend who went to get a new tattoo, a cute little black elephant on her wrist, symbolizing a large part of her heart – her deep compassion and passion for animals. She got nervous sitting there in the waiting room of the tattoo shop. Nervous about putting this on her body, yes, but I suspect the anxiety ran a little deeper, too. By getting that little guy inked onto her wrist she’s showing a bit of her heart. She’s saying, this is a thing that I love and also, please understand me.
When she saw my post while she was waiting, she thought, perfect, and did it.
It’s curious, how hard we struggle to claim our own space in this world. We make big, bold, very public and sometimes expensive proclamations about our choices in partnership and love when we get married, but when it comes to the more private, soft whispers of our hearts we cup our hands over them, we swallow our words, we won’t even write them down.
This same friend told me a few weeks prior over brunch, “I started journaling, and it’s been life changing, but I kind of stopped, because I started to feel so self-conscious about it.”
What was she afraid of? What about this made her so embarrassed?
That someone would find her journals and read them?
That she had thoughts inside her nobody – not even her husband, even those who love her best – knew?
That she had a private, inner life to begin with?
We laughed, I nodded, said I understood – because I do – it can feel so awkward, even precarious to take up space with these things. I used to feel that way when I prayed or meditated. Back in the day I felt that way in yoga class when we were instructed to “Ohmmm.” It’s so personal. So tender. So odd. Yet I felt at home when I did it. I wanted to keep going back there.
Our Deepest Fear
I haven’t stopped thinking about that conversation, of what it was that actually made her stop writing in her own journal, to herself.
As I mulled it over, these words kept bubbling up, by Marianne Williamson:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?Actually, who are you not to be?
This is it, I think. We shy from giving voice to the most scared whispers of our heart – for so many reasons, but I believe this is at the root. Because:
What if the words don’t jive with what our life looks like today?
What if we secretly long to be somewhere else, or with someone else, and we don’t know why?
Or what if we do know why, and our reasons seem selfish, and terrifying?
What if we can’t stop thinking about elephants, but have spent so many years working on our chosen “career” that it just seems so wasteful/impossible/impractical to change course now?
What about the people who have invested so much time and energy in who we are – how would our thoughts confuse, or betray them?
What if we don’t think we’re qualified, worthy or deserving?
What if our desires just seem silly, and strange?
What happens if we breathe air into these thoughts…and they grow?
What if we shine so brightly we scare ourselves?
The Big Desire
The first time I experienced big, magical desire was when I was six or seven. I saw Olivia Newton John play Sandy in Grease and just about died of desire. I wanted to wear her outfits, to sing like her, to dance with John Travolta and transform from poodle skirt wearing, innocent cheerleader to powerful, cigarette-smoking, leather leggings wearing badass. I watched that movie at least fifty times, memorized the songs, sang them in my bedroom alone in front of the mirror. I rehearsed all the lines, pretended I was smooching John Travolta and blowing the Pink Ladies’ minds, who thought I was so dull, wholesome and sticky sweet.
I practiced “Hopelessly Devoted to You” while singing into my reflection in the bathtub and “Better Shape Up” while wearing my mom’s heels.
The love of musicians continued. I so badly wanted to be one. Tina Turner, Michael Jackson, Madonna, and then later, Jewel, Alanis Morrisette, Gwen Stefani, Ani DeFranco. I would watch them on MTV and The Grammy’s – so bold, so beautiful, with their voices and their expression. So in their element, pouring their talent onto a sea of crooning hearts, connecting to the places inside us that breathe love and loss and jealousy and heartache and angst. I wanted to do that. I wanted to do that so very badly. I wanted to have an instrument to express myself, to tell people how I felt and how to feel and to do it so heart achingly beautifully. I wanted to do this I didn’t know how, because I could not sing for shit, and all that stuff was for someone else who wasn’t a girl living in Castle Rock, Colorado with a basic life, freckles and a bunch of average skills. I wanted to do this and I didn’t know how else it could be done. I didn’t know that my instrument could be any number of things – that it was not the medium that was important – but the big, aching desire to create and express. That mattered. That matters. A lot.
As we grow up and we set about making decisions – in my case, often by rote or because I wasn’t confident enough to listen to my own voice – about school, our jobs, where we live, who we spend time with, we create a life. Sometimes that life very much reflects our insides. Sometimes only parts of it match. Sometimes – often – we outgrow things, our desires change, and we adjust. And sometimes, we can’t recognize ourselves in any part of our life. I’ve been on all parts of this spectrum, but even on the more “matching” side, I had this unnamable ache, a longing – the same ache I felt when I was six.
I have come to realize: I didn’t know what it was, but something inside me did.
Something inside you knows, too. We just have to follow our clues.
Following The Clues
Getting the little elephant tattoo wasn’t a proclamation that my friend is changing her life, but it’s a small expression of the very fabric of her heart. She’d been thinking about it and wanted to do it for months or longer; she couldn’t stop thinking about it (this is a clue). So she did it. Right now it’s a little ink on her wrist – a symbol of something she loves.
But perhaps one day, she’ll be sitting on the train reading a book, and a stranger will ask her what it means. Perhaps she’ll find herself explaining to this person not only what it means, but much more, and did they know that Barnum & Bailey’s circus just stopped using elephants in their act because of cruelty? And the stranger may say, no, but that’s interesting. Perhaps an eavesdropper will say, I just couldn’t help but overhear, and I’m reading this beautiful book by Barbara Kingsolver called Prodigal Summer – have you read it? And my friend will say no, what’s it about? And the eavesdropper will explain it’s not about elephants, but about wolves, who are not extinct, but are also magical creatures for sure. That she’s learned more about her own relationships with humans through reading this book about wolves, and that she highly recommends it.
Perhaps my friend will pick up this book, will read it, devour it, and will look up more about the author.
Perhaps she’ll notice Barbara Kingsolver is doing a reading at Brookline Booksmith this spring, and she’ll get tickets and get there early to sit in the front row, and while she’ll love the part where Barbara talked about the book, what will mesmerize her to the core, what will speak to her very guts, is to hear Barbara talk about her brief time living in the Congo as a child.
She will mention tigers and tell a story about them, and my friend’s heart will explode with joy and longing for tigers that she didn’t even know existed.
Barbara will sign her book and my friend will place it on her shelf, at home. Perhaps one night she’ll be having a dinner party and one of the guests will grab the book off the shelf, casually. The guest will ask my friend if it’s good, and what’s it about, and my friend will get a chance to share the experience of the tattoo that led to the train conversation that led to the book that led to the book signing that led to the conversation with Barbara Kingsolver that led to this book the guest is holding and that yes, it’s a wonderful book, but the story behind it is what’s most special to my friend.
Perhaps the guest will say, that’s amazing, do you want to work with animals? And my friend will explain that she’s always sort of longed to, maybe, but she doesn’t know what that looks like, and the guest will remember a podcast she just listened to on Radiolab about Dolphins, and that she also has a cousin that just started volunteering at the zoo, where he gets to feed rare animals, and maybe he can connect my friend with his cousin?
And my friend will say yes, perhaps, or maybe she’ll say no, but realize that she was so thrilled by the conversation, so lit up inside by getting to talk about this thing that her heart loves, this thing she’s so curious about and has been since she can remember, that she’ll remember to keep talking about it more, to putting a voice to her desires, to put her intention out to the universe again and again – reminding it to keep throwing signs her way, to keep reminding her who she is, to keep tossing her clues to follow – and that if it does, she will follow them.
Perhaps one day, my friend will get the opportunity to work with elephants, or tigers, or dolphins. Or maybe along the way she’ll realize she wants something else entirely, but the only way she’d have found out, is to keep following the clues. To pay very close attention to her curiosities, to the whispers of her heart, to not regard them as silly or strange – but as sacred and beautiful and important.