I want to be fifteen pounds lighter. I want a few more digits in my checking account balance. I want to make love with her, the one over there sipping the electric blue cocktail, but I want to make love with her, too, the one I see twice a year whose letters always smell of lavender. I want to stay up late making up stories and having private dance parties. I want more stamps in my passport. I want to sleep until noon but not get out of bed until two. And at the end of it all, I really, really want to be someone’s favorite writer and sell a lot of books.
Dang. When I read that list back, reading it aloud and sincerely, I sound kind of like a child. A brat. Arms outstretched, fingers all grabby, eyes wide, mouth open.
We all want things, but we often dismiss our desires. Like it’s mature or noble. I’m imagining some long-suffering church-lady with cloudy eyes, blue outlining her brown irises, frown lines wrinkling her forehead and mouth saying, “I might not get what I want, but I got what I need.” She buries memories of chances not taken, decisions not made, an entire body of shoulda, coulda, woulda’s returning to ashes and dust before she’s ever put in the ground.
Maybe I’m generalizing. I’m sure my relationship to desire is framed by pathology beyond my understanding — being an African-American woman, our strength is often characterized by our suffering, our willingness to go without, our self-sacrifice for the happiness of others. I’ve seen it in my grandmothers. I’ve seen it in my mother. I’ve seen it in myself. It’s almost as if pursuing our desires, let alone having them in the first place, is a fault, a betrayal to our role in the world. Further, if I do have the gall to actually want something for myself, it better be something that doesn’t challenge anyone else or upset the status quo. And if it does, I better keep it to myself.
Knowing what you want is the first step to realizing your whole self, becoming who you are. It’s not until you know what you want that you can actively endeavor to have it. It’s a lesson I’m still coming to terms with, a challenge that was set before me a while ago. I just didn’t realize how necessary it was, what the work of knowing exactly what you want consisted of, what the acknowledgement of desire demanded.
In 2002, three months before graduating from Marquette University with a business degree, I took my first fiction writing workshop. It was scary and difficult, yet inspiring and so, so wonderful. I panicked, like I’m known to do when something is too good. Is this for real? Can I have this? Can I do this? Having only minored in literature, I hadn’t ever really considered that I could be writer, that I could actually do for a living what my family considered a hobby, that I could actually be one of the storytellers I admired so much in my studies.
A few weeks before my last undergraduate semester ended, I sat on the floor of my Milwaukee apartment, worrying about my future, wondering if everything I’d done up to that point had been a mistake, asking myself if I knew anything at all about myself, about the world. In a moment of distraction, I flipped through a Shepherd Express, Milwaukee’s alternative press newspaper, trying to stop thinking, stop worrying. I turned to Free Will Astrology.
Free Will Astrology by Rob Brezsny (November, 2002): “This week’s counsel is extreme. Don’t read another word, Virgos, unless you feel ready to carry out a task that will require you to be daringly rebellious and brazenly optimistic… you must be able to sincerely believe that the cosmos or fate or God — or whatever you call the Vastness — is on your side and wants you to succeed at the thing you enjoy most…”
Sitting on the floor of my first-ever apartment, the calendar counting the days to my winter graduation with a degree in Human Resources and Information Technology, I read that horoscope at least seven times. The last line? A quote by Paulo Coelho: “Know what you want and all the universe conspires to help you achieve it.”
I cut the horoscope out. I taped it to my writing folder — a beat-up accordion-style joint that I still have to this day. The years that followed consisted of varying moments of actualized desire. In 2002, I left Wisconsin for Florida because I wanted to live somewhere else. In 2005, I quit my corporate job and moved to Chicago because I wanted to be a writer. In 2006, I came out to my family and friends as a lesbian because I wanted to be true to my sexual identity.
None of those things were easy, but they happened in a special way that felt ordained, ordered somehow by something bigger than me. It’s only in hindsight that I see the connection. The desire and the action. The self-actualization and the moves to make it so.
I’ve read Brezsny’s Free Will Astrology every week since that fateful day in my studio apartment. And recently, the messages have been eerily similar to that one from over ten years ago: “Once you give yourself the space to examine recent events in your life, you might find yourself dictating the outcome of the next few events, instead of feeling like you’re at the mercy of fate.” And: “These days, you need to be at the heart of the hot action, not floating in a cloud of abstract thoughts. The dream has to be fully embodied and vividly unfolding all around you.”
The difference is that the challenge has shifted from just knowing what I want to saying it and acting on it. There’s power in giving voice to desire, in making it exist in sight and sound. I say it. I write it. Then, I truly believe — as trite as it may seem — that the universe, God, ancestors, and everyone in between, is conspiring to help me.
Make no mistake: the key words are “help me.” Not do it for me. Not deliver on a dime. I have a responsibility in this. It’s desire and action, self-actualization and making moves. My list of wants becomes less a childish list of “I want, I want, I want” and more a journey toward making my desires reality.
Ten years after the challenge to know what I want, I finally understand that desiring things is about giving of yourself and doing the work. And maybe, most importantly, being bold and honest enough to say and go after what you want.
I want to lose weight, so I’m riding my bike and not giving a fuck about how ridiculous I look in my helmet. Safety first because they’re bumping off cyclists down here in Tampa. I want to make a living, have a little skrilla to travel and live comfortably. I’m working on it. I’m teaching my ass off, giving my best to my students and trying to write my comments legibly on their papers. “I’m ninety percent sure that says ‘show not tell.’ Yeah, because ‘glow for hell’ doesn’t really make sense.” I’m listening to my heart and re-evaluating my romantic preferences. Relationships aren’t one-size fits all. Intimacy and love between consenting adults can be any number of things, and maybe the right women are waiting for me in a new community I never knew I needed.
I’m aligning myself with writers who challenge me to be better and devouring the work of writers I admire. There are new voices and classics I have yet to get experience, and there is no such thing as reading too much Baldwin. With a successful short story collection and my first novel coming out next summer, I’m writing more than I ever have, developing my craft and believing in my voice. I’m striving to become one of my own favorite writers. I’m not all in the mirror staring at myself, gushing and fawning, stammering out, “Oh my god, I’ve got everything you’ve ever written!” I mean, I could. It’s true. I got all my shit. But it ain’t like that. It’s about feeling good about my work, trusting my talent, being thankful for it and loving it. Even if no one else does.
These are the things I can do. The things that I can demand of myself: self-love, self-reflection, self-acceptance. I can’t worry about anything else. Daring to rebel and with brazen optimism, I trust that the great Vastness, and everything in it, is on my side. It’s helping, assisting, conspiring, as it were, to grant me what I want, what everyone has the right to desire: a healthy, prosperous life, full of the work and the people I love.