Enlightenment is a Gas

“You kids weren’t into it,” is what my mother told me when I ask how come she didn’t stick with being a stage mother. I’m twelve years old; my contemporary, Brooke Shields, is on the back page of Life magazine. Brooke’s turning heads as a model, as an actress. Why isn’t that me? ? Only two or three years later Shields is in Chicago filming “Endless Love” at my alma mater, the University of Chicago Lab Schools. I might be an extra in the crowd scenes at the museum of Science and Industry or on the Midway. But, thanks mom, I’m not an actress. My career begins and ends before the first grade. My mother is nonplussed when I ask how began my brilliant career.

A scout spots me in nursery school as a kid with appealing, universal looks. That’s what he wants: black kids, white kids and whatever. . . .the rainbow coalition. While my mother demures, she thinks being on TV will make me “weird,” the scout persists. A year later he offers to take both my brother and me. That’s more palatable to my mother, who in 1969, doesn’t yet know how to drive a car in America. So off we go to the studio, both my parents, my brother and I, to film in an old-school local Chicago kid’s show, “Tree Top House.” We aren’t ever as popular as Ray Rayner. The Tribune cites us as “lacking focus.” But we make headway for having a host who is African-American, and children of every ethnicity.

The producer loves me because I’m quiet. I’m never bored. Never work with kids or animals? They squirm. They fidget. They are unpredictable, often unprofessional. But I’m ok. TV in the 1970s, with actual reels of film, hot lights and small sets, is not an exciting venue. My brother remembers the director who tells him to go play by the “steps.” (Three steps. Not much of a play place for an active, intelligent, sensitive 5-year-old.) As for me? I’m content to wait. I’m happy in my own little world. When we’re on I hit my marks. Well to be fair, I play myself. We’re kids in a classroom resembling Romper Room, but our show is so low-budget that when the teacher suggests we go to Wrigley Field or the Play Dough Factory or the ice cream store – those inserts fill with stock footage. I never get to leave the set. 

The key to being a successful actor is that ability to put on another person’s skin. To fill this role from the inside out one must inhabit the proclivities of the “other.” When one “invents” how the character reacts in unforeseen situations the performance stands dry, contrived, unbelievable, dare I say, incredible. To be an effective actor one must move beyond invention into natural response. I don’t think to myself “How would Kumari react to animals in the treehouse?” I AM Kumari, I do react, spontaneously, naturally, organically. So I do well on the House. In the Tribune publicity shot from 1971 I’m in profile, looking at Tasha. Of course I am, because she was speaking. As a result, I have a very natural, relaxed look on my face – not the “camera-smile” that haunts my family photos.

Unfortunately few of us (the Kardashians excepted) are paid to play ourselves, even fewer are ourselves off camera, in life. Sound preposterous? Addictive personalities use substances, shy personalities prevaricate, due to discomfort, an unsettled sensation in their own bodies. An inability to live in one’s own skin pervades modern society. Until or unless reality can outstrip fantasy, there’s no money shot in being authentic. That’s the real reason people falter, stumble, hide behind Facebook pages. It’s not for lack of understanding the helpful Jungian therapist. It’s not for miscommunication with the parole officer, the life coach or the retreat leader. People stay, when they do, buried deep beneath the surface, when coming out lacks payoff.

Allow that to absorb before you dismiss the idea.

I can argue the defense or argue the prosecution. What’s in it for me to be real? After all, if I air my opinions people will know I’m a bitch. (Or at my age, a witch.) Why bother? I bother, because the side effects of hiding, with drugs or without, are wearying. Being someone else is too much damn work. From my mother I realize life does not have a meaning to find, like an Easter Egg hunt. I decide the meaning of my life. My mother learns to drive on the right side of the road, to translate kilometers into miles, to read a map. The journey is the truth of life. All the flat tires, roadside attractions and bathroom breaks in toto. Enlightenment does not equal happy, happy, happy, because if it did, enlightenment would entail ingesting heroin every day for the rest of life. Not.

A solid stays true to herself. A liquid will take on the shape of his container. But enlightenment is a gas, ever expanding, to fit the allotted space. The price of enlightenment is surely, absolutely, truly, that not everyone likes me. Oh well. I do apologize when I am wrong. Are we there yet? Are we there yet? I know I’m not there yet as long as I keep doling out loose change to pay for tolls: a snafu here, a disagreement there. Tit for tat is not that. If I remain calculating, I’m only knocking on Heaven’s door. Enlightenment isn’t a wide fate that one busts open by force. It’s a silent deconstruction, I relax into enlightenment with ever-increasing comfort – like settling into a warm bubble bath. Keeping it real does not require bad manners.

Don’t use Enlightenment as an excuse to exploit the vulnerable.

For the person who isn’t that into acting. There’s nothing wrong with being an actor, per se, if that is what one authentically wills to be. Lord knows, entertainment is one of the most spiritual vocations possible. The trick is to know when I’m acting, and when I’m just being myself. I might self-censor to get through one meeting but I don’t stay at that job that’s killing me. I don’t exit my nest planning to learn how to fly on the way down. We are not birds, we are people. Our hearts are not built to tremble at such high speeds. There’s nothing less authentic about formulating an exit plan. Maybe thinking ahead is enlightenment itself.

Enough of this obtuse advice, for those who want a straightforward path:

  1. Meditate regularly. Don’t ask me why, just do it first, as best you can.

2. Practice a self-led physical activity with the purpose of getting in touch with your own physiology. I.e. learn to pay attention to your own bio-feedback

3. Create a vocabulary for your own feelings. Knowing the difference between anger and fear can save your life.

4. You don’t have to do these things in order, but one will build off the next

What happens next?

1. Take baby steps. Try doing small things that scare you before big things that rip the be-jeezus outta ya

2. Comfort yourself when you make mistakes as soon as possible. Accept the possibility that no one else may comfort you.

3. Love and hate others. People. Animals. Plants. The planet. Meaning exists in relationship. No relationship, no meaning.

When are you Enlightened?

  1. When you’re out of “it.” Disentangle. Cultivate the macro world view. Perhaps enlightenment is realizing I can’t save every puppy on the beach.

2. Santosa, genuine contentment verses extremely stimulating and garish grief. When life is nice, very, very nice. Stop waiting for excellent, perfect, or sucks-less-than. Watch out for the moment of “nice, very, very nice.” That’s when the universe whispers

3. When you’re looking/listening to the speaker and not scripting a response. Seriously. Enlightenment is checking in, not checking out. Stay tuned, stay engaged. Relationships anchor meaning and meaning is key. There is no enlightenment in a vacuum.

Now y’all play nice!