There is a dance between our dreams and vocation that can be interrupted when ambition cuts in.
Sometimes we stumble upon what becomes our joy when pursuing a dream from childhood. I knew a physician who was propelled through medical school by an early childhood dream. But in mid-life, he became deeply involved in hospice care by discovering his bliss was helping people to die better instead of living longer. Surely, somewhere, there is a bank teller whose joy is quilting while someone else makes a living from quilting but their true delight is tending chickens. What we do for money may not be the thing that animates our soul.
The arts are rarely kind to an artist’s bank account, and so their day job is often not what keeps them alive inside. In an uncut interview Krista Tippett recorded with Mary Oliver, the poet spoke about being poor as she first sought to make a living from her poetry. Part of what she was doing in the woods and marshes about which she so often wrote, was actually looking for food – berries, mushrooms, roots, and wild onions. Most people are unwilling or unable to live a pauper’s life for the sake of their art, and so they do it the other way around: eek out their art while living a more commercial lifestyle. Thus, the proverbial waiter-actor, accountant-saxophonist, dentist-sculptor, or math teacher-watercolorist.
This vivisection of lifestyle and soul happens beyond the arts of course, with mechanics and mathematicians and parents among others, desperately wishing they could ply the thing they love to make a living from it instead of what they get paid for.
Whatever the subject of the unpaid passion, the dance between dream and talent proceeds haltingly then gracefully then spasmodically across a lifetime. But ambition can tap the dream or the vocation on the shoulder and butt in. When that happens, greatness and disaster are both waiting in the wings.
Countless are the number of folks who took their aptitude and dream on the road in pursuit of joy, meaning, success, fame, and even riches. “A Star is Born” tells the familiar tale told one way or another throughout the millennia. Rarely does it lead to Carnegie Hall or a Nobel Prize. More often perhaps, it leads to ownership of a boutique near the beach or a small winery overlooking Seneca Lake. Sometimes the strains of untold effort ending in repeated and inglorious failure, leads to despair and the abandonment of the talent altogether.
I have learned while climbing the steep hill to sell my novels and find outlets for poems, how ambition can quickly change a lovely, graceful dance into tortured manic kick-boxing. Where once the joy was in painting a world with the fortunate rendering of words, ambition for sales and recognition wrings away the last remnant of bliss. This happens to cheese-makers, farmers, classroom teachers, carpenters, parents, and car salespersons as well as artists. While ambition can be the yeast upon which talent or vocation arises, more often it becomes the toxin within, which shrivels the dream. Learning to nurture the dream while managing ambition turns out to be basic, essential healthcare.