Finding Heroes

I spend a lot of time thinking these days. Mostly about money, it seems, one of my least favorite topics. Not because there is anything wrong with money in general, but because I’d rather be thinking about books or adventures or the moon and stars. I am not, honestly, ever going to be the kind of person that finds joy in the material unless it comes in book, dog, or horse form (or cat, if I can ever get back to a cat friendly pack of dogs). Although driving a fast car can always bring a smile to my face.

This morning, I was, as it happens, thinking about writing and how to get better at it. Rather, I was thinking about a man I was listening to yesterday. He had, as a newly graduated business student, decided to become a buddhist monk instead of going off to live the life he’d been brought up to live. He was looking for fulfillment in a world that seems full of unhappy people and he could see that others who had walked the path he was on were throughly disappointed with it. So he decided to chase true happiness instead.

When asked how he had gone about becoming a monk when he’d come from such an unreligious background, he said it was quite simple. He found the monk that was most dedicated to being a monk and shadowed him, imitating his every move; he’d decided that, if this man had found peace, then the student, too, could find peace, but that, in order to find what the monk had found, he felt he had to completely dedicate himself to the model the monk was presenting.

He went to bed at 9 and got up at 2am to chant and clean the temple. He helped the poor and ate nothing but the simple fare provided at the temple. He lived the buddhist monk life so completely and fully that he became a buddhist monk. And, eventually, he found what he was looking for. That wasn’t enough, though; he felt like the next, logical step was to share what he’d learned. So he brought it back out into the world outside the temple.

Being the sort of person that I am, of course this is something I fully want to try for myself. Not becoming a buddhist monk; I’ve found as much spiritual happiness in my hikes through Allerton Park as I ever have meditating and I feel that I’m on a very different life path. I love meditation and often commune with the universe, but I don’t feel the need to climb a mountain and live in a cave. A cabin, maybe, but the solitude I want is the sort for writing, not the sort for deep religious experience. What struck me is that I am a writer that feels at odds with writing, uncertain how to become better and more fulfilled in my chosen career, so I decided to go take a closer look at how other writers I admire work.

This isn’t a new idea; I’ve done it before, but things have shifted and changed. This is true in all things and it is something I suggest everyone do once in a while. What I know I’m capable of has expanded. What I’m willing to do for my writing has changed drastically. What I used to think had to come naturally, I’m now willing to work for, if that allows me to write the stories in my head. I’ll change my entire way of being right down to how I eat, if it will help me understand my writing and maybe decide exactly why I’m still so determined to do this instead of looking for another passion.

Now, I have plenty of writers I admire. Terry Pratchet, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, and Maya Angelou to name just a few. But, somewhere in the midst of this question – how do these writers write – I came across a secondary question. Who are my heroes? Because writing, riding horses, running, it is all really the same thing in the end. You have a passion, you work for that passion, and the models should all come into the light because, sometimes, it helps to think outside the box.

And something very strange happened when I asked that question. Who are my heroes – real people only, no fictional characters – and why?

I couldn’t answer. Not one name popped into my head. Not one person came up as someone I hold up to the light as the shining paragon of who and what I want to be. Even a second grader can answer this question; it is human nature to have heroes. Yet there I was, nothing but silence as I reached for a name that wasn’t there.

I often listen to audiobooks as I drive. For me, there is very little difference between reading the words and listening to them. I’m fairly sure that this is part of how I ‘see’ things when I write or read or listen. It is often just as vivid and alive as a movie on a screen and the manner of the imput doesn’t much seem to matter.

Today, either because I was a little disturbed by my inability to call to mind a singular true hero – at least one that was an example of what I want out of life – or simply because there is a book I wanted and, lacking the money to buy the hardcover, decided to use one of my audible credits (which often collect outside my attention because I like to listen to the books I already have a few times before moving on).

The joy of this particular book – Waypoints – is that was written by Sam Heughan (star of Outlander) about a journey on foot through the Scottish Highlands and the actor did us the favor of reading it as well. And, treasures abound, he took actual voice notes during his journey and INCLUDES THEM. I highly recommend the book so far, if we can get a little off topic for a moment. In this case, the Audible version offers you something the book itself cannot which is the sound of a man on an epic journey he was very much not prepared for during the raw, real moments when he realizes he might just be in over his head.

Anyway. Call it happy chance or fate, maybe a little bit of both, but I ended up with this book today, listening to this guy. He reminds me forcibly of myself in certain aspects – I am actually quite impulsive and, had I the money, might have stopped halfway through this book to take off on a month long hike in the wilds just because there is such a romantic and wild vibe to the idea of just jumping off that cliff without bothering to look first. As someone who actually has spent time camping and being out of doors on long hikes, I do encourage everyone else to not be like me. Do your research; Mother Nature will have no pity at all on you.

Maybe it was his Scottish accent – I’m partial to a good Scottish voice. Or maybe it was the open, honest way he exposed his faults. He didn’t even try to pretend that his idea had been made in a calm and rational manner. But I found myself falling a little in love with this guy, despite having avoided Outlander based on the knowledge that there is a whole lot of sexual abuse going on. Like me, I’d say this man has a way of landing himself in way over his head and then deciding that, to hell with giving up, let’s just swim like we knew what we were doing all along. Sometimes that works. Other times you end up calling for a rescue and trying to explain why you decided to fuck around and find out.

Listening to him got me to thinking about my life. I do have heroes. My parents, for instance. Both of them had faults and I don’t think that either of them actually got where they wanted to go. Maybe that is why it scares me to call them my heroes. Because success in the traditional sense wasn’t in the cards for them.

Or maybe my idea of success is too limited; they didn’t come from a generation that loved money or fame. They came from a place where owning a house was considered the end all be all goal and they attained that. They were good people that never sacrificed their morals for cheaper versions of themselves. They had a family and they had plenty of reasons to get up in the morning. I know my father was often frustrated with how little we had, in the material sense, but he lived and died as a good man who did not compromise his ideals to make things easier on himself. Even when it was hard, he was honest and kind and generous. My mother was a tough woman and often difficult to deal with, but she was no less honest or hard working herself. They were people who believed in working for what you want and helping others and they brought me up to be the same.

Every hero on my short list has one thing in common. They are ordinary people who had ordinary lives. Some of them, as in the case of a mentor I had when I was very small and learning to deal with a heart defect, had a tragically short life as well. Not a single one of them can be found in a movie. No-one has written a book about them (yet) and they haven’t saved the world – although there may have been plenty of animals and children whose worlds they changed for the better, so that is debatable.

So there I was, listening to this drop dead gorgeous man expose himself as a complete nut who wakes up one morning and decides to hike nearly a hundred miles through the highlands in late fall (trust me, it takes a brave man to do that with training) with zero preparation, and I resonated with him on every level.

He didn’t come from a family of actors. He didn’t have anyone telling him that he needed to follow in their footsteps. Yet here he is, succeeding at it and completely uncertain how to deal with having fans who recognize him on the street as his character. He’s a man I can connect with because I too decide to chase after mad impulses with almost no idea of what I’m doing and, on those rare occasions when people have read my books and see only the writer, I am utterly hopeless in knowing how to respond. And, best of all, he makes me think that maybe it’s okay that I don’t have a million bestselling heroes to list off because, in a lot of ways, that leaves me plenty of space to be the odd, impulsive little duck that I am.

At some point, I found myself driving along one of those long, empty fields that dominate central Illinois in early winter. The wind was blowing hard today and there are empty corn husks rolling over the road. The sky was a wide, perfect blue with few clouds and the occasional flock of long necked geese flying overhead. In the air over the broken, stubbled remains of this year’s crops, a hawk was fighting the wind to stay in place as it hunted for lunch amid the untilled rows. And I felt a deep affinity with this animal.

I have spent my life fighting the current of an ordinary life, a river of wind that pushes me back from my desires and tries to hold me here. Yet, like the salmon, I cannot stop my push for home. It is not in my nature to turn back or give in. I don’t have a hero to name for you. No ordinary woman who grew up trying to chase a crazy dream, no man who found success despite how ordinarily forgettable his family might have been. But I ended the day feeling like I don’t really need that sort of hero. Success isn’t about the amount of suffering you have done. Nor is it about chasing someone else’s version of what you want. Success is sometimes just jumping up and declaring that you are going to hike a hundred miles then refusing to quit when you realize that you weren’t exactly prepared for the journey. Really, that could be a good description of life itself.

I know these posts might seem odd, like I am looking for validation. Really what I’m doing is trying to find my path through the woods. I’m beginning to understand that I can follow the model of someone else for a while. But, in the end, it has to be my journey and I’m going to have to do it my way. Writing these posts is helping me sort out a little bit more of what that looks like. And sharing them with you means I’m not writing in a vacuum. Creating needs the artist first. Then it needs the breath of other people. Or, as Stephen King says in his book On Writing (paraphrasing): First you create for yourself and you do it with the door closed. But, then you have to write it the second time for everyone else and the door open.

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