My thoughts on the brass ring

I loved Dani Shapiro’s essay called On the Brass Ring, which I read yesterday. Dani’s central point is that, for a writer, the only “brass ring,” the only crowning achievement that means anything, is the continued ability to “go into the darkness” and write. There is no other goal for which to shoot. Her comments, while specific to writing, I think can be generalized more broadly.

This is my favorite passage:

There is no brass ring. The procuring of agents, publishers, book contracts, sales, reviews, grants, awards–all writers can be forgiven for comparing, for believing that such a moment might signify arrival. Except that there is no such thing as arrival. You arrive, and discover that the front door has been moved. You arrive again, and it has been moved again. You realize, at a certain point, that you’d better damn well enjoy the journey, because there is no destination.

This is an eloquent evocation of one of the central lessons I’m learning right now. I’m a reformed brass ring grabber myself, and it was only in my 30s that it began to dawn on me that every time I got somewhere, well, there was somewhere else to go. That elusive sense of – what? accomplishment? achievement? I think I know now that it was peace I was and am seeking – never came.

My father told me once that my greatest skill was doing “just well enough to get to the next hardest thing.” This is the hook on which I hung my identity for 30 years. In fact my direction felt so clear and predetermined (by where the next brass ring was) that I didn’t even think about it. Instead I focused on my velocity. But then, in the last few years, I have simultaneously realized that there was no obvious next thing and that living this way didn’t bring me to any kind of real satisfaction anyway. What was my velocity worth without direction? This speed, which I’d previously thought was such an asset, disintegrated into a vaguely panicky sense of agitation and unease.

It seems such a sad thing that my greatest strength is something so shallow and ultimately meaningless. I hope that I’m finding new and deeper strengths as I’m learning that, as Dani says, there is nowhere to go. There is only here. I realize that persistent focus on the next brass ring both distracts and insulates us from right now. Distracts, because it pulls our focus into the future, and we thus miss the riches of the present. Insulates, because with a brass ring to aim for, we can avoid tuning into our authentic desires and simply numb ourselves to the voice of our heart, whose song can be intense and uncomfortable.

So that is the work of right now, for me: the acceptance that there is no brass ring for life, that there is in fact no destination. This is very difficult, and abandoning the markers by which I both steered and defined myself is terrifying. What if, without those brass rings, I am … nothing? What if I try to listen to that still small voice and … can’t hear anything? But it is also an unavoidable truth that the rings are meaningless, and, perhaps more importantly, that they never helped me get to that still point of peace that I have been seeking for many years. And so I turn my face back to the light, tune my ear to the internal voice, trusting that I will be able to hear it, and try to remind myself: begin again. Be here.


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19 Comments

  1. Posted April 2, 2010 at 6:35 am | Permalink

    You are so right. Life, and a lot of other things like writing, is about the journey, not the destination.

  2. Posted April 2, 2010 at 6:36 am | Permalink

    I really needed this. I love the brass ring imagery. I struggle with this exact thing. I’ve been working on it (with the whole sobriety-one-day-at-a-time thing) and I’m so slow to implement this peace in sitting in the now. It’s hard to re-train a brain, isn’t it?

    My friend Ellie (One Crafty Mother) said something I really needed to hear one day…she said, “don’t leap before grace.” I say that a lot now, in my head and to other people, trying to remind myself that what is going to happen in my life, all on its own, is so much better than what will happen if I over-think and focus on the brass ring. Sometimes I feel like that means I have to just float (like that damn feather in Forrest Gump), and that’s terrifying…but it’s also truly more peaceful than the race I was running (literally and figuratively) in the past.

    And yes, I wrote a post in your comments…sorry about that. 🙂

  3. Posted April 2, 2010 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    I always feel better when I learn that there’s an actual name for something I’m feeling, that there’s actual science behind it, as if that validates it. Perhaps you also feel that way. If so, I present “the arrival fallacy.” Gretchen Rubin writes about it a lot in The Happiness Project: “the belief that when you arrive at a certain destination, you’ll be happy. … The arrival fallacy is a fallacy because, though you may anticipate great happiness in arrival, arriving rarely makes you as happy as you anticipate.” I feel this all the time too, so I was glad to put a moniker on it.

  4. Posted April 2, 2010 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    “Be here” feels so important, Lindsey, as does “keep moving.” For me it’s a constant push/pull between the two. I want to be present, of course, to all that’s happening around and in me at any given moment AND I am aware that more will yet come – things hoped for and others unbidden.

    I wonder sometimes: if I were totally able to focus on the here-and-now that the what’s-yet-ahead might take care of itself. Perhaps.

    But that leaves me not knowing how to think about and incorporate hope. Hope feels future-focused. And it has become clear to me that I am not willing to let go of it, nor it of me.

    Maybe the trick is to hold on to hope in the present; to let myself soak in it while in current places that feel more parched.

    No brass ring. No solid answers. In the midst, I’m grateful for your words, your writing, your heart.

    admin Reply:

    You make a good point about hope. At least for me, I think, the challenge is that hope often turns into attachment to a future outcome … it becomes very specific, and hooked onto something particular happening. In that way it becomes destructive. So perhaps it is about keeping hope’s emphasis open, keeping her from hitching us too tightly to something in the future that both pulls us out of the now and that sets us up for disappointment.

    Ronna Detrick Reply:

    I totally agree that this can be the downside to hope; movement toward expectation and/or demand. I keep thinking there’s something mystical about a kind of hope that is unattached, that just “is,” that permeates and exists for no other reason than…well…to give me hope.

    I don’t know; maybe that’s faith.

  5. Posted April 2, 2010 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    Lindsey, I was in the prime of my life where I had a sense that I was achieving, accomplishing and reaching the personal goals I had set for myself. The problem was that I was so focused on this that when my life was turned upside down in one split second I felt totally lost. It took me a long time – a very long time – to find myself again, to reset and to accept that being paralyzed from my neck down didn’t necessarily mean the end of living – the end of hope. I still like to think that I have brass rings in my life. They are just different.

    A beautiful post, thank you!

  6. amy
    Posted April 2, 2010 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    I just love your blog. Each day’s post is better than the last one. I struggle with reaching for the “brass ring” and the “arrival fallacy” every day. I am trying to meditate more often and I keep a “gratitude” journal. Every morning I write down one thing that I am thankful for in my life and one thing that I like about myself. I’ve found that it helps me appreciate the here and now because usually I am thankful for something that happened in the previous day. It’s a silly exercise but it brings me great happiness. you should know that discovering your blog has been a recurring item in my gratitude journal! Thank you thank you for your insightful posts. I’ve shared your blog and thoughts with others and they are equally enamored with A Design So Vast. With gratitude, Amy

  7. Posted April 2, 2010 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    I’ve always thought it meaningful that, if you insert a space into “nowhere,” you end up with
    now here.” It’s another reminder to live in the present, to be here now and enjoy the moment, whatever it is. Which is, as we all know, oh-so-tough to do.

  8. Posted April 2, 2010 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    Wow. I’m grateful Kelly sent me here. This is a beautiful post, and I’m looking forward to reading more.

    There is something interesting about the way it takes time, experience and a different view-point for the meaning of simple words to truly reach their importance. Be Here Now. It means something so very much more to me at this time in my life than it meant when I was younger, and in other circumstances.

    I’m struggling these few months trying to chart a course. I know that to accomplish something worthwhile in any avenue, requires focus, and maybe that is the brass ring mentality. All the things that my internal voices (yes, there is definitely more than one) are quietly suggesting different adventures, and each will take focus to succeed in an enjoyable way, but each focus is in wildly different directions.

    I previously had a health crisis that helped me to slow down, to find peace in the simple act of being, to understand the cues my body gives for needing rest and recovery. I am well past that health crisis and finding that I can easily be still, but the peace and calm are being replaced by restlessness, and those inner voices with their wildly crazy ideas.

    Thank you for giving me yet one more way of viewing this. Focus is not merely the means to the “successful” end, it is also a way to more truly enjoy the journey.

    Hugs and butterflies,
    ~T~

  9. Posted April 2, 2010 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    I was always on the go to achieve the next big thing, and then the biggest thing in my life happened – my daughter – and suddenly I’ve shifted my focus.

    With her, I want to savor every moment, and live in the now, because as trite as this sounds, time flies, and before I know it, she’ll be 18 and moving away. I don’t want regrets of what I should have done with the time I had with her. Only great stories of even better memories.

  10. Posted April 2, 2010 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

    I love this post and all the comments too. It seems that the more we really compare notes, the more we can trust that we matter and are part of the group separate from any measurable metrics we might achieve—supporting each other in our unique journeys that, I trust, all meet in the vast middle of our collective consciousness.

  11. Renee (Micheamustro)
    Posted April 2, 2010 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

    I like this too, “hope often turns into attachment to a future outcome. n that way it becomes destructive. So perhaps it is about keeping hope’s emphasis open, keeping her from hitching us too tightly to something in the future that both pulls us out of the now and that sets us up for disappointment.” ~Renee

  12. Posted April 3, 2010 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    Lindsey, there is no lovelier aspiration than to be. It seems to simple. Yet, the ripples that go out from such a life choice go far. This was an elegant post.

  13. Posted April 3, 2010 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    I’m with you. Listening to the voice within. Struggling to be here. Right now. With this.

    And I’m here. Living in the darkness.

    Beautiful words, Lindsey. Thank you.

  14. Jennifer Jordan
    Posted April 3, 2010 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    Another beautiful post and somehow, once again, just the words I needed to read and think about on this beautiful spring day.

    I am so glad my friend, who writes another incredible blog, marbury v. madison ave, directed her readers here.

    Much appreciated thoughts, memories, questions, feelings. Thank you very much for sharing them.

  15. Posted April 4, 2010 at 12:23 am | Permalink

    Brass rings are tricky. I see them and feel myself aiming and jumping, looking ahead even (now to upcoming tween years with my children, and future handling/focusing/publishing my writing, a bigger house, etc).

    Brass rings are a trap.

    I enjoyed Shapiro’s thoughts, and agree with her. What we have is now, right this minute and the next.

    We need to redefine our journeys, without brass rings in the landscape, but with each other, our families and our friends, the important essence of life, more than the mirage of rings.

  16. Christa
    Posted April 4, 2010 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    Dear Lindsey,

    I think perhaps you are already there. Or here. Depending on how you look at it. Sometimes, it takes a while to see that you have arrived…

    Just be. You are a wonder and your words shed light for all of us.

    Thank you.

  17. Posted April 4, 2010 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    Write on.

  18. Posted July 29, 2011 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    what a lovely post 🙂

    we just popped by to visit after mutual friends did a delicious #FF on us both…..will do so again, you have a very lyrical writing style which is most pleasing to the eye and ear.

    about a year ago, we stood at the huge picture window on the ridiculously high floor of the skyscraper that our day job requires our presence in (daily – still a shock, the whole “everyday?” 9 – 5 life) and thought “ok, we made it. this is the view of someone who has “made it”

    now we can relax.

    and then we got 3 x tumors and had to face a whole other side of life – the realm of the unwell.

    still. it was nice to have that moment. and then get a cold slap and a big wake up call. we regret nothing. even as we approach surgery. we are changed ENTIRELY for the better.

    enjoy where you are. it sounds pretty great. we shall visit you again.

    all the best from team gloria. x

  19. Posted July 8, 2012 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    Oh, sweetie, I think your greatest gift is the ability to learn! You listen to your thoughts, and others’ suggestions, and you are most definitely compassionate. It’s OK to be a speed demon, hell we’d never get anything done otherwise, but when you can slow down and notice all the sweetness in life, then it makes all the pieces of you fall into place–exactly where they need to be. Lovely post.