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Step 3: Set Your Goals
I hate the question "Where do you see yourself in five years?"
I also hate any alternative forms of this question.
In fact, just don't even say "five years."
You'll most likely get this answer: "I want to be like Carmen Sandiego. Traveling the world with a fabulous trench coat and fedora. I've been practicing my burglary skills, but figured maybe I can just be rich enough to hire henchman to do it for me. So, running an underground black market for valuable world treasures?"
Then here comes that damn question at the end of Chapter One. I've already written my obit. What more do you want from me, book?! "Write goals that include your personal and professional aspirations within a five year span." Then I'm asked to go through and write next to each goal whether it was a short-term goal (can be done within a year) or a long-term goal (can be done within 2 - 5 years).
No. Nope. No. The resistance is real. The resistance to think that far ahead was already there. Cole was the first person who started chipping away at my resistance.
Cole and I spoke about our mutual and individual goals together, mostly on walks around to purposefully get lost and find our way back home again. The mutual goals were fun daydreaming with a hint of strong possibility. Some of them we did attain. When we talked about our individual goals, we talked about how they might affect our lives. We mostly chatted about how to support each other in those goals. There were lots of questions of "How?" but the answers would be "We can figure it out. I'll be here to help you." Finally! I had a partner who was in my corner and not minimizing the secret things I wanted for my life.
When I came to this next assignment, it literally paralyzed me. I stared at the sheet for 15 minutes, maybe? (Time is strange right now.) If I wrote these goals down and started working on them, I would be doing it without Cole by my side. If I wrote the goals down, I would be acknowledging that I have to move on. That time moves on and that I need to fill my time with living. I would actively pulling myself out of the grief where I want to stay comfortable in the past. I have been rewinding and playing our conversations in my head because we were so close to moving forward with our futures together. I am stuck in the loop and it's nice to feel that kind of love again. I didn't want to make these new goals without him.
I wasn't getting anywhere. Instead, I wrote a letter to my future self five years from now. I would be 38 then. Two years older than when Cole passed away at 36. I would have moved passed his age of death, two year away from 40, and that was a sobering feeling. "Did you want to still be grieving as hard as you are right now at the age of 38? No. I couldn't do that to myself. So, what were things that 38-year old Simone could do to help 33-year old Simone? It's okay to pretend that Cole was physically still around. Remember, Simone with Cole still had individual goals and he would be there to help you. He was good about being there when you needed him."
And then I wrote my goals list as if he were sitting right next to me. We did enjoy the satisfaction of creating a list. Here's a sample of my list that was over 40 goals by the time I am 38:
It was easier. It became doable. Yes, I talked to Cole out loud about these. I felt better. It felt doable.
Though Cole and I won't be able to hit the mutual goals we wanted with each other, there is one that I feel confident about continuing to dream about for us - a beach house with an outdoor shower.
You wanna come?
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Step 2: Write Your Obituary
On the first evening of Artist INC class I learned that one our assignments would be to write our own obituary. The practice was to give us clarity on how we wanted to live our lives and be remembered. Did our obituary line up with our personal values? Does it make us reassess how we want to live our lives? "Writing your obituary is a similar process to revealing your vision."
We didn't have to think of it as an obituary if it was too morbid. We could pretend that it was a speech at the Kennedy Center or imagine someone toasting us on our 75th birthday.
But it was too late. The word was said and it stuck. I would be writing my own obituary.
I've written two obituaries. The first was for a former boyfriend's mother, who treated me with love and kindness. Judy let me cook with her, never had an unkind word to say, and was genuinely interested in getting to know who I was besides being her son's girlfriend. She was a beloved educator, a strong and dedicated wife, and the first mother of a boyfriend who loved me. Her sudden passing was like losing a family member. I learned from her how to treat strangers like family with the utmost Southern hospitality and respect.
When Cole passed, I knew that I needed to write his obituary. Cole loved just about everything that I wrote. For an early Christmas present, he gave me the laptop that I'm using now because he was tired of seeing me "clonk along" on my trusty chromebook. My writing was one of the first things Cole noticed that separated me from the pack early on, if you will (i.e., my random haikus > random girls' cleavage shots). It was "refreshing" that I was smart, quick-witted, and could keep up with him intellectually. I hadn't been writing as much before I met Cole in 2017, and then I couldn't stop writing. I had someone in my corner, championing me to keep exploring my gifts. He read just about everything I sent him and loved it all. You always need that one person who is going to love everything that you do.
I didn't like this assignment at first, for obvious reasons. But I also didn't like the idea of someone else writing my obituary. I've seen enough obits go through a purification process, a censoring of who the person really was. Lifeless facts flanked by dates and those still left behind. I don't want that for me. I'm not sure when my time will come when this obit needs to be shared, but I've left explicit instructions with loved ones to adjust as necessary.
Here lies my obituary:
“To laugh often and love much; to win the respect of intelligent persons and the affection of children; to earn the approbation of honest citizens and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to give of one’s self; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to have played and laughed with enthusiasm and sung with exultation; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived - this is to have succeeded.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
Before Simone passed, she wrote in her journal thoughts about how well she had lived up to Emerson’s interpretation of success. She was 13 or 14 and remembered reading this quote on a magnet in a gas station with her best friend Frances on the way to Six Flags Over Georgia. That moment interrupted the notion that mortality seemed to stretch out forever. It was in that brief moment before purchasing a Soba that Simone began to awaken to what her life could be.
Simone lived a beautiful life.
Her love Cole Truitt said to her once that she was the kind of person that would walk into a space and everyone could feel the energy change just by the way she carried herself and how she made others feel safe and welcomed.
Simone and her mother shared the same laugh - mouth open, head thrown back, eyebrows raised and eyes tightly shut. If you didn’t feel her presence in the room first, you definitely heard Simone’s laugh.
Simone was a respected artist and leader of social practice in the theatre, as demonstrated by the many programs she helped develop that are still in practice today. In memory of her dedication to youth, a collection of her adapted scripts for youth theatre camps are now available on display at the local library in the room bearing her name - Simone D. Cottrell Arts for Community Resource Room. Simone was also a welcomed visitor in the literary and visual art worlds. She was able to strongly integrate the best art subjects and practices for the communities she worked with in order for them to learn in a unique, tangible way. She wanted the arts to be attainable especially for those whose dreams of being creative died when they had to “grow up”, “be realistic”, or had to spend their resources in ways that meant survival for themselves or for their families. She wanted communities to have the ability to create their own stories and share them when they were ready to do so. Preferably through a play.
Peers were eager to work with her and knew that a partnership with Simone meant creating something new and the process would be fun. Simone would say to those working with her, “We’re going to fail. But we’re going to have fun while we do it because I won’t allow us to not succeed.”
Simone also loved being a mentor to youth and would always welcome youth in her space when they were ready to make the arts a part of their lives as current leaders of their community and future leaders of the art form. On the first day of camps or apprentice training, she would purposefully make her teams fail to know what it felt like to pick themselves back up again as a team. Her first rule of leadership was knowing when to breathe in and breathe out, meaning that the loudest person in the room isn’t normally the leader. A leader knows the difference between speaking up and taking action and stepping back and creating conditions for others to succeed. This was no doubt a lesson she had learned as a child from her father, a former Marine who had fought in Vietnam whose many house mantras included the Marine Corps definition of leadership - Lead by Serving.
Simone was often emotionally vulnerable and allowed others to see clearly how life’s trials and tribulations affected her. She didn’t enjoy knowing that people suffered in silence when we shared so many common humanities. Usually at daily tea when others asked her what she was going to do about so-and-so and what-and-what, Simone would breathe and remind herself (and others) that folks write their own narratives for people to read. She didn’t need to assist others in damaging their narratives as they have already created their own karmic hell. She would focus on her own narrative and stick to that. She would sip her tea. The young folks would whisper a “daaaaamn…” and that was that. No one said that she wasn’t sassy and didn’t throw shade from time to time.
Other than the prolific work Simone created with our communities, she will be remembered for so many other things that made her just a little bit different:
Her collection of tortoiseshell cats named after socialist and communist leaders. May Chairman Meow, Evita Paw-ron, Fidel Cat-stro, and Meow-cilini welcome her with many cuddles. Her dogs Rice, Lucky, and Coco had typical names but were loved just the same.
Simone’s Summer Sunset Sunday Salons. She couldn’t resist an opportunity for friends to gather for a meal on her deck, nor an opportunity for alliteration.
She would call friends up for road trips to visit all of the waterfalls and swimming holes in the Southeast or elsewhere. Sometimes they were mud pits. Sometimes they were glorious.
She was arrested for protesting at least once that we know of.
She also ran away to join a rock band for two weeks without letting her family know, but somehow got her college assignments turned in on time.
Her casual tarot card readings made you rethink your life, especially during retrogrades.
At this time, where ever you are and whatever you are doing, find the closest mason jar and fill it to the rim with champagne. And let’s toast to our girl, Simone, for a life she filled with one-of-a-kind experiences, laughter, joy, and beauty.
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Step 1: Dream Big
Imagine Little Simone with two high pig tails and dressed in original, fantasy gowns made by her mother using the sewing machine in the kitchen of the single-wide trailer. She practiced the graceful walks of Vanna White and Kiki Shepard. Little Simone held a hair brush to her mouth like a microphone singing along to Mariah Carey on the radio. She was convinced that she could out-sing that 4th grader show-off who attempted the elusive chanteuse. Vision of Love? More like Waste.Of.My.Recess.Time.
There was not a doubt in the world that my future career would be in anything other than the arts.
It took me going to high school to learn that not all dreamers with stars in their eyes were created equally or equitably. I realized that I was poor. Like, dirt poor. Like, pretty stereotypical Mississippi poor-poor. But, at the same time, I also realized that my quite a few of my classmates thought that I was rich. Like, lived in a brick house in the suburbs with a tacky bird bath in the front yard rich. Reflecting back, I know that both of these perspectives were filtered by my involvement in the arts. I was first chair flute, but I couldn't afford private lessons to fully understand what I was doing or playing. I practiced harder. I was in the musical every year, but had to save my Christmas money to participate. I loved to dance, but joining a dance academy was not going to happen. I snuck into the studios at Mississippi State to pick up aerobic steps or hip-hop classes. What folks saw were the product and assumed I was wealthy enough to get extra help. What no one saw was the process of doing whatever it took to get a foot in the door or to keep my position.
Gonna say it now: My story isn't unique. It may actually echo a lot of other marginalized individuals' stories who have tried to make it into the professional arts. When I realized that having a job in the arts meant having to play catch-up to more affluent or privileged peers in order to be seen or taken seriously, dreaming gave way to strategy. And strategy was for survival.
The very first exercise in the first chapter of The Artist's Guide asks the following questions to help guide the participant in creating the vision of what they want to achieve.
The first question was pretty easy to do. I've used strategy to get to the next level most of my career. Careful planning. Careful study. Step-by-step process. And some luck thrown in for good measure.
The other two questions? Eh. Maybe if you'd ask me this 5 months ago, it would have been easier. I probably would have done it with a smile on my face laughing about how the things I dreamed about in my personal life were finally happening. After I had put away the big, lofty dreams of becoming an entertainer, I then slowly started killing the dreams of anyone wanting to share a life with me. I had been called "too much," "not realistic", "a gold digger", "doesn't fit in", "too serious", "too wild"...the list went on. The words and phrases said by family, not-so-great friends, boyfriends, and one particular boyfriend's mother over years became the list in which I interpreted my self-worth. I let their words minimize me into a space where I felt that I wasn't deserving of good, strong, loving relationships.
It took meeting Cole to get me to start dreaming again and even that took awhile. Once we hard started to get more serious, Cole asked me to live with him and I said, "No." I needed to get other things done in my life first and I needed to wait for other things to fall into place. A month later, he would ask again. No, I said. Another list of things. Another ask. Another no. Then one weekend we were roaming around Kansas City at night (one of our favorite activities). We took turns taking a left or a right and intentionally get lost. On our walkabout, we saw one loft rental after the next and talked about what it would be like to live in these rentals. It was easy. That's how I knew that this was the man, the person, the human being that I could allow myself to dream with because we could make it happen. And we made lists. We loved lists.
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2018 ended with me losing the love of my life.
2019 hasn't been any kinder.
In January, I was thoroughly prepared to grieve losing Cole and to do that in the healthiest way possible - creating art. But then the woo-woo universe decided to pile it on to see how well I could do by flipping my professional world upside down. I won't get into the nitty-gritty details, but to give you an idea of the breadth of external circumstances that have occurred, both my OB-GYN and my counselor said that what I'm experiencing is highly unusual and that these circumstances normally don't occur at the same time in a person's life.
My crucible has shown herself.
One prescribed me anxiety medication and the other is giving me free services as long as I need them. You can figure out who offered me what.
In an evening of extreme grief, I submitted my application to join Artist Inc. I figured that this could end up being a creative gift to myself in the future. Artist Inc. is a professional development opportunity offered by Mid-America Arts Alliance that "provides cutting-edge training seminars that address the specific daily business needs and challenges artists of all disciplines face." I was selected and started my first class this past Tuesday evening with 24 other artists. I'm the only theatre artist, which means I'm the confirmed extrovert in a room full of introverts as demonstrated by my no-shame crying when asked to the side how I'm really doing. And I tell the truth: "I'm not doing well, but I'm trying."
And when I say trying, I mean listening to my energy levels every morning and honoring the rhythms of grief. This isn't my first encounter with grief. It is the first time that I recognize the bastard fully and I'm not forcing its suppression. Grief doesn't go away, so I need to learn how to work with it. Processes are slow. Relationships take time to build. Energy needs to be conserved. Mental health needs to be discussed. And...I'm trying.
We were given the book The Artist's Guide by Jackie Battenfield for optional reading and exercises. In the first chapter alone, it is already asking the reader to take accountability of the life they want to lead. I knew that Artist Inc. would train me on becoming a stronger business-minded artist, but I didn't anticipate the amount of internal self-work needed to get there. I'm considering this a blessing in disguise to process the parts of grief that I'm trying to avoid while simultaneously placing me in the best position to thrive.
I would like to take you on this journey with me, chapter by chapter and with the exercises. I want a place to write the pain, joy, and anything else I discover during this professional development of deeply personal work. It would be super neat if you just so happen to fall in love with the craft of theatre (maybe become a patron?). I hope that by sharing perhaps we can engage in a healing dialogue or perhaps it sparks your imagination about what is possible. I preemptively thank you for bearing witness to an artist in constant, intimate learning of her human condition.
Here's to surviving our crucibles.