I loved Dani Shapiro’s essay called On the Brass Ring, which I read yesterday. Dani’s central point is that, for a writer, the only “brass ring,” the only crowning achievement that means anything, is the continued ability to “go into the darkness” and write. There is no other goal for which to shoot. Her comments, while specific to writing, I think can be generalized more broadly.
This is my favorite passage:
There is no brass ring. The procuring of agents, publishers, book contracts, sales, reviews, grants, awards–all writers can be forgiven for comparing, for believing that such a moment might signify arrival. Except that there is no such thing as arrival. You arrive, and discover that the front door has been moved. You arrive again, and it has been moved again. You realize, at a certain point, that you’d better damn well enjoy the journey, because there is no destination.
This is an eloquent evocation of one of the central lessons I’m learning right now. I’m a reformed brass ring grabber myself, and it was only in my 30s that it began to dawn on me that every time I got somewhere, well, there was somewhere else to go. That elusive sense of – what? accomplishment? achievement? I think I know now that it was peace I was and am seeking – never came.
My father told me once that my greatest skill was doing “just well enough to get to the next hardest thing.” This is the hook on which I hung my identity for 30 years. In fact my direction felt so clear and predetermined (by where the next brass ring was) that I didn’t even think about it. Instead I focused on my velocity. But then, in the last few years, I have simultaneously realized that there was no obvious next thing and that living this way didn’t bring me to any kind of real satisfaction anyway. What was my velocity worth without direction? This speed, which I’d previously thought was such an asset, disintegrated into a vaguely panicky sense of agitation and unease.
It seems such a sad thing that my greatest strength is something so shallow and ultimately meaningless. I hope that I’m finding new and deeper strengths as I’m learning that, as Dani says, there is nowhere to go. There is only here. I realize that persistent focus on the next brass ring both distracts and insulates us from right now. Distracts, because it pulls our focus into the future, and we thus miss the riches of the present. Insulates, because with a brass ring to aim for, we can avoid tuning into our authentic desires and simply numb ourselves to the voice of our heart, whose song can be intense and uncomfortable.
So that is the work of right now, for me: the acceptance that there is no brass ring for life, that there is in fact no destination. This is very difficult, and abandoning the markers by which I both steered and defined myself is terrifying. What if, without those brass rings, I am … nothing? What if I try to listen to that still small voice and … can’t hear anything? But it is also an unavoidable truth that the rings are meaningless, and, perhaps more importantly, that they never helped me get to that still point of peace that I have been seeking for many years. And so I turn my face back to the light, tune my ear to the internal voice, trusting that I will be able to hear it, and try to remind myself: begin again. Be here.