Beyonce, Expectations, and Meditation
As many of you know, my husband works as a video, lighting, and set designer for performance and dance. In any given year he works on dozens of productions and consults with hundreds of artists regarding the visual design elements of their live performance.
After 16 years of partnership and five years of marriage, I can tell the mood of a production by the way he talks about it. I can tell if the team was excited, inspired, frustrated, disappointed, or worse yet, somewhat indifferent. But one of the things I love the most about being on the inside of his work is the vantage point I get to another artist's career as a consultant. Long before I recently started my own freelance career as an artist, writer, and teacher I got a glimpse into the ups and downs through osmosis. And sometimes the demands he receives from his clients and collaborators is nothing short of shocking.
The shock factor has worn off through the years but every once in awhile a client or collaborator will request something so impossible that my heart aches a little for what he's being asked to accomplish. There's just no way it's going to happen. I think most of us can relate to this feeling in working with clients, colleagues, or even in unmanageable demands from friends or family. Sometimes it's just not possible to fulfill, no matter what.
On the other hand, sometimes he's pushed so far outside of his comfort zone that pure magic ensues with his collaborators. Usually because of someone's committed vision, thoughtful communication, and skillful organization. But one of the comments that stays in my mind was spoken from a young dancer a few years ago.
He was working on a dance showcase that highlighted a handful of promising young talents from the Bay Area. The show was carefully curated from a noteworthy local choreographer and tickets sold out very quickly. Supposedly the talent was amazing and the show was a great success.
That's the part we see from the outside, right? The great success. Never mind the weeks of carefully orchestrated schedules, talents, shortcomings, and hard work. But this comment made more of an impression on me than witnessing the innards of the performance as an intimate bystander. My husband sat in the technicians' booth amidst a busy rehearsal and the young dancer took her place late, unapologetic, and stared up into the darkened tech booth.
She put her hands on her hips, looked at the team of designers and directors and said, "I want you to make me look and feel like Beyonce." That's right. That's what she said. And I wasn't there but I can only imagine how the designers broke into quiet laughter filled with more authentic disbelief. Did she just say what I think she said?
Yes, she did. Beyonce. They are asked to create some fairly impossible illusions and technical feats but making any young dancer, even a very beautiful, talented, rising star, look and feel like Beyonce? We all know that's not possible. Regardless of the technical limitations it's still not possible.
It might be the overstatement of the century to say that Beyonce is simply gorgeous. Even without the makeup artists, costume designers, personal assistants, and accoutrement of talented designers working to make her ready for stage, camera, or commercial she's simply gorgeous. She's also crazy talented, but I'm going to leave her talent aside because this dancer didn't ask to perform like Beyonce, more so she asked to look and feel like her. So the first part of this young dancer's comment might just come across as naivety. Maybe pride.
Maybe that wistful longing that can only be captured by youth--the time in our lives when we actually believe for a micro second that we might just grow up to look like Beyonce. Also the time in our lives when the pressure to look and feel a certain way might just be at an impossible high. I wouldn't go back to my teens or early twenties for all the money in the world. No way, no how.
But the second part of her comment is what haunts me. She wanted to feel like Beyonce. How can anyone know how that feels? And what makes us/ her believe that feeling like Beyonce is a one-way street? As if it's lined only with confidence, happiness, and complete emotional fulfillment at every intersection. As if she has somehow not just defeated the odds in entertainment, performance, and certainly what must have been one woman's complicated career, but also in feeling. As if her feelings are also superior or warrant coveting.
It pains me, really. To imagine wanting to look and feel like Beyonce. Good grief, the pressure. But it's this desire to be somebody else, to embody somebody else, to actually feel like somebody else that I find most interesting. Because, sadly, we all do it.
We all look at our work, relationships, finances, homes, or even our leisure activities and think somebody else is doing it better. We think that if we had what they had we would feel (fill in the blank) and that would be superior to our current feeling. Maybe we aren't bold enough to admit it. Or to ask a room full of weary technicians to achieve it, but we think it.
That dreadful demand of comparison. And the second part that troubles me is that my husband and his colleagues were actually expected to make her look and feel like Beyonce. Not by the producers or curators, of course, but by the very real place in this dancer's heart that expected she be transformed. Good grief.
And this makes me think of the demands we put on each other. On our friends, partners, families, or even on strangers on the Internet to fulfill this longing for us. To play into the belief that our lives would actually be better if we just had this one (sometimes unnameable) thing that from our vantage point it seems they possess and we think we are entitled to possessing it too. This is tricky stuff. But the over simplification is that, if I looked like Beyonce maybe I'd feel like I imagine Beyonce to feel and if I felt like Beyonce my life would be better. It makes me take a very dramatic deep breath.
In making artwork, in teaching classes, or in publishing writing, but also in parenting my son, loving my husband, or engaging with my friends I have to resist this temptation all the time. I have to resist comparison to other artists, teachers, and writers, but also to parents, spouses, and even my girlfriends. I have to catch myself. Notice myself. Redirect myself. And ultimately remind myself that while it's important to have goals, to make steady progress, to be self-aware, and to try to end each day with some sense of accomplishment or insight, it's not the goal to look or feel (or work or parent or love) like anybody else. Even Beyonce.
Not only is that impossible, certainly not the way to a successful career in the arts or in writing, but it's also not acknowledging my own strengths or giving myself the chance to, well, to better understand myself. Right? And it's not the goal to ingest somebody else's longings and wantings either, should they be projected on to us. We have to notice these projections too: Not about me.
We all know the Internet can be the perfect place to solicit advice, heap on expectations, or make landslide comparisons that we just wouldn't do if we were in the same room as the recipient. I can only imagine what celebrities must receive in these departments. It's somehow anonymous but also intimate. The perfect storm for comparisons and unwarranted expectations. It requires deep breaths.
My yoga teacher often talks about mantras and she talks about her ongoing practice of loving-kindness meditation (a beautiful practice also known as Metta). She once told a tender story about the practice of engaging this meditation in the moment of difficultly with another person. At first realizing the moment of conflict, pain, or friction to actually take a moment, and probably a dramatic deep breath, and silently repeat, "May you be happy. May you be well. May you be safe. May you be full of peace." And then there's the practice of repeating this phrase to our selves, "May I be happy. May I be well. May I be safe. May I be full of peace."
I don't have any grand conclusions on the thoughts of comparison, longing, or creating fantasy lives in the arts or in our everyday living. I think that's life's work. But instead I have this very real desire to find this young dancer and offer her this phrase alongside a picture of our beloved Beyonce. Know yourself! Love yourself! Create an atmosphere for peace! Find your own strength and be nice to our fellow technicians! I suppose I shouldn't shout it. And given that I don't even know her name this would be completely impossible.
So instead I'll offer it here to the notorious dancer, to myself, and you readers as we acknowledge that this mantra is truly a lifelong practice in the arts or anywhere else. And as we acknowledge that regardless of what it looks like from the outside, even for Beyonce, we are all stumbling ahead putting one tender foot before the other doing the very best with what we have. Now then, "May you be happy. May you be well. May you be safe. May you be full of peace".
(Photos of fennel harvested along the San Francisco Bay. A meditative practice for me--combining art and ecology, collecting wildflowers for natural dyes.)