Coming into character

If you asked second-grade Dani what she wanted to be when she grew up, she would not only instantaneously exclaim “pediatrician,” but she would proceed to inform you that she was going to attend Stanford University — and then medical school at Stanford. The second-grade teacher who introduced me to the name “Stanford” was simultaneously the first person to praise my writing and the first to say that I excelled at my command over storytelling.

And while medicine was my academic ambition, writing was my first medium of creative expression. Creating alternative worlds with a pencil in my hand felt as natural as wanting to attend Stanford. But art and creativity had no place in my clean-cut vision of success in the medical field, so I quietly tucked away the passions I naturally excelled at, passing them off as hobbies.

Fifth-grade Dani could be spotted checking out an SAT prep book the size of her torso from the public library, explaining to the librarians that she needed to get a head start to ensure her acceptance into — you guessed it — Stanford. I fed off the librarians’ wide eyes and smiling words of approval.

That same school year, I asked those same librarians for help finding a source on Lady Gaga for a school project on my personal hero. Once impressed with me, they now looked at me with grave concern. They lectured me about how I needed to find better role models.

It confused me that others didn’t appreciate the brilliance and relentless expression of Mother Monster’s performance art. From wearing eccentric costumes to dangling from the ceiling while dripping blood at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, or VMAs, Lady Gaga’s work moved me in a way that pure academia never could. But as the librarians scolded me, it was once again reinforced which values were rewarded and which were not. So again, I tucked away my eccentric artistic interests away for that which is more acceptable.

As early as age 7, the values of elitism, power, prestige and wealth drove my every decision. During my time in high school, these values drove me to participate in as many clubs as possible, pursue leadership positions and take every AP course offered to ensure my acceptance to a prestigious university, but still, they were driven by the allure of a life of power and importance.

But despite all of my efforts to become a person of traditional value, alongside my power-hungry ambitions grew a more genuine but equally powerful gravity toward the arts. The elementary school girl who wanted to pursue medicine was the same girl who glorified artistic eccentricity, found a home in community art classes and spent hours lip syncing in front of the mirror. The same straight-A-aspiring valedictorian was the same person who felt most alive when taking center stage in drama club productions. I felt the most fulfillment when bringing an alternative reality into fruition through theatrical performances I directed in French. But with my narrow-minded definition of success, my desire to pursue creative expression was simply a fantasy and a hobby. I never considered it substantive, and I always suppressed it.

When I was 17, I experienced a spiritual awakening when backpacking in the mountains in Big Sur, which changed my perspective on myself and my future. Climbing to the top of a mountain and feeling the spirit of the Earth hold up a mirror to reflect my authentic self back at me, I knew I could no longer continue to wound your spirit by ignoring my truth. It was painful to realize that perhaps I wasted 17 years of your life suppressing my talents in order to chase a life that fundamentally, with all of its honor and recognition, has never brought me true fulfillment. Perhaps there is more to life than making money and being someone important.

For the past two years, my life has become much like Lady Gaga’s 2009 VMA performance as I roam around my own personal stage. I am mourning yet celebrating my liberation from my former superficial values and aspirations that demanded a life full of power, prestige and honorable solitude. When I close my eyes and allow my soul to wander toward its calling, it brings me back to writing, performance and all of the creative passions I spent so long ignoring. I see myself dedicating every ounce of my being to bringing my creativity into physical reality.

Maybe a life of purpose can be as seemingly simple as growing with the forest, conversing with the sunset or putting on a performance for any audience who can appreciate it. Flirting with the idea of an alternate destiny, I must soon make the decision to commit to one set of values.
Am I brave enough to pursue a life of deeper fulfillment instead of hollow institutional prestige and validation? Maybe I am throwing away all of the opportunities my hard work has granted me so far. Maybe my creative pursuits will result in failure by all conventional standards. Perhaps I will never achieve fame, fortune or power. But that’s not the point anymore.

“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members until the summer’s regular opinion writers have been selected. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.