You can’t be successful at everything. You simply can’t. Every success has its corresponding loss. That’s Alain de Botton, in a breakneck-speed examination of success and failure, over at TED talks.
He’s looking at the nuances of success in the context of career anxiety and the modern age. I’m thinking about them in the light of the coming new year, as Lyle and I get ready to burn old brush and new wishes in the backyard.
It’s kind of a tradition. One night when 2008 was new, we went down to the beach in St. Malo, with scraps of paper in our pockets. We had written down our old fears, painful things from the old year, our wishes and goals for the new year, prayers for loved ones, visions for the future. We knelt in the wet sand and lit them with a lighter, the flame flickering in the wind.
A recurring dream for me, a wish I have for myself, is to live by my writing. Why is it such a struggle? How can I bring more ease into it this year? What if that dream is real, and possible, but it just looks a little different than what I’ve imagined?
De Botton suggests that there’s always an element of the haphazard to success, and that the idea of work-life balance is an illusion. Perfection of art or perfection of life, but never the two together. This idea of loss being success’s shadow, its twin sister, its soft belly, is familiar to me. It’s inherent in the process of making art. Every poem I make leaves a trail of its trimmings, the words and images I had to cut in order for the true poem to live. Artistic choices include sacrifice, entail loss. Perhaps the same is true of making a life.
We sacrifice something in order to succeed. To gain one thing, we must lose another. Maybe not forever, or even for long, but for a time. A risk. A jump. A leap of faith.
My friend Yared Nigussu, a painter living in Vancouver, B.C., brought the Alain de Botton video to my attention. Yared’s a bright, talented artist with a delightful laugh, a friend Lyle and I made while living in St. Malo. He’s been working hard, as long as we’ve known him and surely long before, to make a living as an artist.
Lyle and I both want that for ourselves, and this year we’re hoping to braid our talents and efforts together to make it happen. I’m going to use my writing and editing skills to help him with his business. If, in turn, that makes his business more successful, it might mean that I can cut back my day-job hours and put more time into my writing.
I made a lot of resolutions last year. This year I want to make poems, cartoons, graphic novels, screenplays, little books. This year, I want to go slowly, to bring a sense of ease and openness with me. To stay positive and keep doing what I love.
Lyle made me a little book about our wish-burning; I made a poem. I share them both with you here, because they help me remember that the wishes are alive with me right now. Today is made of them, I am made of them. Old wishes brought me here, and tonight’s wishes will inevitably carry me somewhere, too.
Lyle writes: “Melissa, what was written in the prayers before we found ourselves here? What was burned? To this circle, we bring ashes.”
You Can’t Name the Things
In this circle, we carve the sand
with our fingers. It is not
very deep, this circle, this groove
we make in the wet crumbling at the edge
of the world. In the dark,
we can hear the ocean grumbling,
hungry for the prayers we are about
to burn. In the distance—miles
it seems—the sea wall and its stones sealed
against the wind. In the houses
with their mouths clapped shut:
the private breathing of sleepers. Out here
after midnight, the second day
of the year, we burn our old decorations:
the crimped paper stars we hung
for a Christmas tree on fishing wire,
ripped into angles, written with wishes:
words for what you can’t name, the things
you write and burn, flame the one tongue
you can give them. Only home-
made star parts, cheap sheets of paper
from the corner store, but here they fly
upward. The wind catches them in strips,
leggy ashes that skitter downshore.
They flicker out into the dark
of the waiting year, too new, too hungry.
Too cold, we run home and eat the rest
of the oysters and warm our cheeks
over the radiator, the yogurt forming
in jars on top. Above, the window
under the roof—full of streetlight and
our blank reflections, our blank reflections
murky as sea stars in a night aquarium