On a plane trip from one coast to another this summer, I watched a string of VH1’s Behind the Music mini-documentaries. I learned about Lil Wayne, DMX, and 50 Cent. I was fascinated to see how these men navigated the hands they were dealt in life and made choices for their artistry and their lifestyles. I was specifically fascinated with the stark difference between the outcome of DMX’s life and 50 Cent’s. DMX’s childhood was marked by physical and verbal abuse from his mother, with whom he lived. The only person he felt truly loved by and safe with was his grandmother. 50 Cent’s mother was something of a mystery. She was a local drug dealer and sent her son to live with his loving grandparents, which allowed her to pop in for periodic gift-laden visits. DMX became a deeply conflicted adult who met with huge success as both a rapper and a Hollywood actor, yet continues to succumb to his drug addiction. He is clearly tortured by his past. 50 Cent, by his account, never took drugs, he only dealt them before making a calculated switch to hip hop. He not only succeed as a rapper, but expanded his efforts into entrepreneurism, and seems to by psychologically healthy adult fully in control of his destiny.
Watching the documentaries back-to-back made it seem that one fact of their childhoods created the difference between durable, lasting personal success and a fragile mental existence marred by addiction and personal conflict. 50 Cent lived in the loving environment of his grandparents home. DMX lived in a hellish family situation and only visited his grandmother. There is something that DMX said that struck me. He said that he would always straighten up for his grandmother. He said “In her eyes I could do no wrong, therefore in her eyes I did no wrong.” He had the ability to turn his back on his addiction for his grandmother. Since her death he has spent his life teetering between life-threatening addiction and stunning success. In that statement, DMX acknowledges his power to choose. With the right motivation from what he believes to be a worthwhile source, he could do and be anything. Without that external motivation, he does not exercise his power to live the best life possible.
I think we all operate like that on some level. Our choices may not be as extreme as DMX’s—he once shot his uncle and manager while in a crack-fueled state of paranoia—but we know what we need to do to live our best lives, but we don’t always make that choice. And some of us only make that choice with the right motivation.
The flip side of what DMX was saying was that without my grandmother, I don’t have the will to conquer my demons. I don’t fault him for his trauma. Pain, especially childhood pain, can be a relentless irritant, incessantly emerging to replay degradation, humiliation, fear, and shame. But the payoff of staring into the depths of that pain and finding a way to heal from it is mighty and, in DMX’s case, it may even be life-saving.
There is nothing that beats the power of the mind, the power of each individual to define their relationship to their circumstances and choose how they want to operate in life. Even in the most extreme situations, that choice still exists. There are those who seem to be born masters of this principal. They emerge from extreme violence, poverty, loss, or addiction as whole, complete, fully-achieving human beings. Somehow they create opportunities that millions of us with much more access to resources have ever dreamed of.
I look at this question on a smaller scale for myself and other artists who are struggling to create under the weight of the mundane details of daily life. It is a simple question: Are you a willing participant in your own good? Supportive of your own creative output and efforts? Thankful for the creative gifts you are given? Are you grateful for the opportunities that come your way? Or are you blinded by dissatisfaction and your perceived lack and failure?
While we moan about not being able to achieve the artistic heights we desire, we are often deriding ourselves out the other side of our mouths.
Oh, I just read that story you wrote, it was really great.
I wrote that years ago, I haven’t had anything published since.
Oh, you’re exhibiting your artwork. That’s exciting.
Not really, it’s just a café, it’s not a gallery, it’s not a real show.
Your set was amazing last night. I love the new song you sang.
Yeah, too bad I didn’t sell more CDs. And there were only ten people there. I need a real audience.
Who are we kidding? How far can we really get if we are our own worst critics? And even if/when material success comes, there are enough dead and addicted stars to tell us, we can’t outrun our own cynicism. A willing participant in her own good is willing to transform doubt, fear, anger, self-hatred into faith, gratitude, and self-support. A willing participant in his own good is willing to see the good things for what they are and allow them to continue to flower without the harsh glare of dissatisfaction and negativity. A willing participant in their own good is willing to allow their first efforts to be imperfect, to withstand the glare of their shaky beginnings, and grow little by little into the work that you imagine in your mind.
My aunt once said at her daughter’s wedding shower that sometimes in marriage you can start to think of your partners thoughts, comments, and dreams as noise. Your job as a lifelong mate is to “listen for the gold” in all that is being said. Listen for the gold. That is advice for the ages. What if we listened for the gold in our artistic efforts?
The older I get, the more I realize we all have way more power and possibility than we think we do. We have the power to snuff out our own dreams and we have the power to build up a small corner of our lives where our work is welcome, our efforts are applauded, and our artistic product is appreciated. We must will that for ourselves and will it to grow. It is damn near a spiritual practice to hush up the negative voices and will a positive relationship to our work. It is easy to think in “can’ts”:
I can’t write anymore because I’m too tired when I wake up and I have to take care of my daughter when I get home at night.
I can’t write a novel, so that means I can’t publish a book of my writing.
I can’t write any more short stories, I just don’t have any ideas.
Before I became a willing participant in my own good, these were the “can’ts” that stopped me. After allowing those “can’ts” to stop me for far too many years, I finally became willing to come up with a can for every “can’t”.
I’m too tired to write at night and I can’t write during the day because I’m parenting and working, but I can write on the train during my commute.
I can’t write a novel, for some reason it’s not in me now, but I can collect all the short stories I’ve written over the years, edit them and complete a book of short stories.
I don’t have any ideas for short stories because my brain is fried, but I can use writing exercises to tap into my creativity, put my internal critic to sleep, and have faith in my ability to create internally.
For every “can’t” there is a “can.” Becoming a willing participant in your own good means that you dare to find the way—the path to achieve, to surpass your demons, to overcome your challenges. We can blame inactivity on any and everything under the sun, but there are limbless people who run and/or compete in athletic contests, there are blind people who play music, and there are broken people who sing. The real truth is it is our will not our life circumstances that stops most of us from fulfilling what we know we came here to fulfill. When inspiration bubbles up in you, you have a choice. You can look at all the obstacles in your life and feel completely justified in saying “I can’t.” Or you can be a willing participant in your own good and—while being completely honest about your limitations—say: “I will.”
Be well. Be love(d).
Kiini Ibura Salaam
SELF PROMOTION LOG
The Mojo Series
This holiday I held a sale of the MOJO series. This was my first time making a focused effort to sell my artwork. I sold three of them and donated one to the Noel Pointer Foundation’s silent auction. I’m so very excited that four of the paintings from the MOJO series are out spreading their colorful and healing vibrations in the world. Check out the series at: http://kiiniibura.com/artwork/
Single Woman’s Manifesto
Single Woman’s Manifesto is still selling well at one New York location: Bluestockings Bookstore. One of the other bookstores that had carried the book has closed and the others do not want any more copies of the book. The book has a wide appeal but its small format makes it difficult for it to stand out amongst full-size books. Up until now, it’s required a prominent presence for it to sell. At Bluestockings, they have it face up on the counter at the cash register. That placement gives it the exposure it needs to sell well. At other, larger stores, it has been placed on shelves and out of sight. The books still sell in these bookstores, but not as quickly or as frequently as they could. This year, I learned that summer is a slow time for book sales. Book sales pick up in the fall and peak at holiday time.
• Number of bookstore acceptances: 5
• Number of bookstores where the book is currently being sold: 3
– The book is also in the exittheapple store in Baltimore, MD (they are the lovely publishers of the book), and at a bookstore in Detroit.
• Bookstore rejections: 3
• Book Distributor rejections: 1