Tonight I danced Argentine Tango with my sweetie. It was just a practica under the bright lights of a college gym – 4 couples in jeans and T-shirts, trying out steps, making mistakes, stopping and starting to recorded songs from a boombox – but it filled me with so much joy I might as well have been the belle of the ball at a milonga in Buenos Aires.
Do you do know what you love to do? Do you do it, regularly? I know I figured out a long time ago what made me happiest: dancing, making music, making art, spending time with people I love. I also figured out that when I’m not doing those things at least semi-regularly, I feel partly dead inside, like I’m just going through the motions of life. I’ve had stretches like this, when I’ve been overwhelmed with work and “have no life” for a time. I can do it, but it starts to kill me in doses. It’s no way to live.
In my time on this planet I’ve learned that following my passion is not just frosting; it’s essential. It’s what makes life worth living. Having multiple passions can make it challenging – I want to do all of them all the time, but have also learned that this doesn’t work so well either.. Balance is the ever elusive goal. But following my passions, really doing them, is non-negotiable.
My first passion in life (after cats – at 3 I was determined to grow up to be one) was dance. I didn’t discover dance until I was almost 17, but I dove into it with gusto. In the succeeding decades I’ve learned that this is my modus operandi whenever I discover something I love, but at the time it was a new feeling. I was swept off my feet by this passion, this great love of my life! Within a few months I was dancing every day, hours each day, and being young and filled with adolescent intensity I took this love oh-so-seriously. Missing a day of dance was like torture! (And I was already tortured by the desperate need to “get good” at this new passion and the feeling that I would never be good enough – but that’s an entirely separate subject, worthy of its own post.)
In a few short years I followed my passion to NYC, auditioning for Juilliard, a dream come true. My time there was not all it was cracked up to be (subject for yet another post), and even worse, a nasty case of tendinitis kept me sidelined for most of the year and ultimately ended my dance career before it had a chance to get off the ground. I spent the next several years in a state of some depression, figuring that I’d lost not just my passion but my one and only shot at passion. I consoled myself with the rather pathetic thought that at least I’d had a passion; how many people go through life without ever finding one at all?
Ah, the certainty of youth.
Then the most amazing thing happened. Eight years later, at the ripe old age of 28, I discovered (gasp!) a new passion: calligraphy. I’d been stumbling along, trying desperately to figure out what to do with my life, taking all sorts of art classes just because I could (ah, the joys of being financially supported by others!), and the feeling suddenly welled up in me again: passion. An intense love and desire to learn everything about calligraphy, to master it as I’d longed to master dance. Accompanied, unfortunately, by the same torturous feeling of desperation that I would never be as “good” at this new passion as I wanted… But no matter! I had been given a great gift: a new passion, something to focus my energies and make life joyous again. Joseph Campbell wisely instructed to “follow your bliss,” and finally I actually had a bliss to follow!
I was astonished and profoundly grateful. Passions, it seemed, were not limited to one per lifetime!
Indeed, four or five years after discovering calligraphy I found myself with yet another passion, or more accurately, I reclaimed my first passion, dance, but in a different form: salsa! By this time my body had healed enough to enable me to dance again, but the emotional baggage from losing my “career” – losing my identity! – before I’d been able to fully embrace it kept me away from the dance studio. It was just too painful. But social dancing, that was a completely different animal! I immersed myself with the intensity that was (I was discovering) my M.O., going out dancing as often as 5 or 6 nights a week. Oh joy! Oh bliss! I was in the middle of a divorce at the time, and knowing that I would be going out dancing soon quite literally got me out of bed some days.
Let me detour for a moment. Not long after my discovery of calligraphy I had taken several “model mugging” classes (highly recommended – a transformative, empowering, life-changing experience no woman should miss). I was passionate about these classes as well, and dove in the way I do, full steam ahead. One of the best parts of my model mugging classes was the “custom fights” during the middle class in the series, in which each student got a chance to choose whom, or what, she would be fighting: an actual assailant from her past, a situation she feared might happen, or an “inner mugger” that terrified her or held her back in some way. At the time I was still struggling to define myself, struggling with a belief that art, creativity, was somehow not important in the scheme of things. That what I really should be doing was, oh, I don’t know, finding the cure for cancer, or nursing lepers. Or even making gobs of money. Making art surely couldn’t be as important, could it? Society certainly wasn’t giving me the message that art and artists were truly valued!
Part of me knew that society’s messages were not The Truth, so for my custom fight I chose to fight the “inner muggers” that told me art wasn’t important, that I should be doing something “better” with my life, that somehow I was “less-than” because I was choosing to be an artist. It was the most intense fight of any I had in my 100+ hours of classes, and something changed for me as a result.
I realized that art/creative expression is not an “extra,” but is, in fact, one of the very things that makes us human. Horses run, spinner dolphins leap and spin, spiders make webs; we humans use our creativity. Whether that takes the form of painting, dancing, pounding on drums, or discovering new mathematical formulas, ultimately it’s all the same, and essential to a life well-lived. Expressing your creativity, finding your passion, is a crucial step in doing what the Dalai Lama tells us is the purpose of our lives: to be happy.
And guess what – it turns out there are no limits to the number of passions you’re allowed in life! Less than five years ago I discovered yet another passion: singing jazz. I’d played piano, violin, viola, guitar, sung in musicals in college, sung in front of hundreds of congregants in synagogue, but it wasn’t until someone introduced me to vocal jazz that the fire was really lit. And yes, I dove in just like I dove into every other passion in my life. (This time, thankfully, I had stronger sense of myself and was able to enjoy being a beginner rather than torturing myself for not being an instant expert – ah, the joys of maturity!)
Like dance, and calligraphy, and virtually every other creative skill, singing is challenging. Jazz is challenging. All of these creative skills take work, and lots of it, over a long period of time, to develop. A pattern was emerging: for better or for worse, I am attracted to pursuits that are not easy to master. Part of what attracts me to my various passions, I’ve figured out, is the learning curve itself. Much as I love achieving a level of mastery, in fact it’s the pursuit of mastery, rather than the mastery itself, that keeps me engaged. This, then, is really my overarching passion: learning! Learning of all kinds (even learning how to work with WordPress, much as it has made me tear my hair out!), but most specifically, working to master a new creative skill.
As it happens, my salsa “career” was cut short by injury just as my earlier dance career had been (which led to a year studying aerial arts at a circus school – hey, if I couldn’t dance on the ground, then dammit I’d learn how to dance in the air!), and when that injury was finally healed and salsa didn’t contain the level of challenge I sought, I jumped into a new dance passion, Argentine Tango. (This one, like jazz, should keep me challenged for the rest of my life!) And since I seem to discover a new passion ever decade or so (plus several “mini-passions” along the way), I look forward to what the coming years will bring!
The upshot? I’ve gone from believing that I’d found my (one) passion, and would live the rest of my life in dull grayness, to knowing that my passions are unlimited. Tango, jazz singing, calligraphy… Dance, music, art… These are what make fill me with life. What fills you with life?
Some people have one overarching passion that they pursue with single-minded focus their whole life.
(I’ve often wished I were this sort! If all of the energies that I spread out among my various passions were channeled into a laser-beam focus on one, just imagine the level of mastery I might have achieved! But alas, for better or for worse, that’s not who I am. I must content myself to be a jack of all trades, master of none. Though more recently I’ve allowed myself to embrace the label “Renaissance Woman.” I always wanted to be like Leonardo Da Vinci, and though my achievements certainly pale by comparison, it’s wonderful to appreciate my “broader-rather-than-deeper” approach in a positive light. Another benefit of maturity: learning to love who you are rather than always comparing yourself negatively to what you are not!)
Others (like me) are more fickle, falling in love over and over again. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter which camp you fall in. Just listen to your heart, pursue your passions, follow your bliss. The world will be a better place for all of us if you do.
I wish you joy in the journey. Me, I’m going out Tango dancing.