A new wind has blown through my reading habits. Prior to finding Ellen Burstyn’s “Lessons in Becoming Myself”. I had been trawling through myriad self help books gaining some insights here and there but without finding much that touched my soul. I seem to find the books that connect me to something deeper on the bargain tables in book stores and it happened again. There was something in me that just had to read this.
As in “UP” here was a shining example of what I like to think of as Creative Mythology. On the first page there was a reference to Mnemosyne, the Greek Goddess of Memory, mother of the 9 Muses fathered by Zeus. Somehow fitting as each of them seemed to touch her life in some way. Music, dancing, history, love, comedy, tragedy, epic and lyric poetry, and astronomy were all under the governance of the Muses.
The book worked on different levels. Ellen appears to follow a couple of perspectives, that of her spiritual journey and also her journey as an actress. Both combine to evoke a profound life. Simply read as autobiography it gave wonderful insight into Ellen Burstyn and if I’d been unaware of who she is I might have thought I was reading a novel.
Ellen models beautifully the way to craft a life, showing the way to follow a dream, of letting go of the riverbank and moving into the flow. Sure, along the river there are rapids where the ride holds peril and Ellen’s story is not short of those. There are stretches where the river slows and the flow is gentle, allowing her be more conscious of how life is unfolding and she recounts these with keen attention.
I was moved by her struggles with addictions and relationships and how they mirror my own. She spoke of them with detachment observing them from the writers perspective seeing how she was touched by them at that time but now no longer. I’d like to say that for the me that’s still working with them.
I was enchanted by her life. So much so that I had to read it a second time. I noted passages and pages that spoke to me. The one that is sitting with me now is one I didn’t note. She talks about working with and being mentored by Lee Strasberg of the Actor’s Studio. The feeling I got from the passage was that what is happening in the moment whether part of the performance or not, is perfect not only for the performance but also perhaps for the actor’s life outside of her art. And so it is for all of us being able to perceive the perfection in the present moment. That was brought home for me as I watched the trees from the kitchen window seeing them in the early morning light noticing a nuance I hadn’t seen before and reflecting on Ellen’s perceptiveness as she notices the nuances of characters as her roles evolved.
In another profound passage she tells of being drawn into learning through doing crossword puzzles and as she discovered new words she was initiated into study. I can imagine there was a sort of a family tree evolving as she was led from a reference in one book to seek out another. Looking always for what might be the ultimate truth, that truth that will allow us to live fully in the present. And being aware, as Sartre said, of a “God-shaped hole in my heart.” Wow.
Ellen confronts her fears and has epiphanies on her journey. She meets some of the 20th century’s more famous people outside of the acting fraternity and is touched by these encounters.
Her strong connection with Sufism as a spiritual path because it honours the wisdom of all religious traditions again mirrors my own experience.
Ellen never shys away from seeking help in understanding herself when confronted by an aspect of her psyche with which she was uncomfortable and thence taking another step to becoming fully alive, fully present.
The photos from her personal collection show Ellen’s evolving radiant beauty while her roles show the diversity of characters she played.
The latter stages of her path were spent without companionship. It was a beautiful ending to find her under the auspices of the god Eros.