The life-affirming importance of speaking your unvarnished, messy, embarrassing truth
Dear Reader: this article is dedicated to two particular men in my life, one of whom wrote me recently during a particularly difficult time. His kind comments about how reading my stories about learning to deal with what Life deals out to me-often a long string of Jokers- was a fine reminder. When we speak the absolute truth about our lives, we can potentially transform others by example. Our truth, the real thing, is far more powerful than any story we could possibly manufacture about how we beat all the odds.
We beat all the odds by being born in the first place. What we do with that gift is something else again. Stay with me here.
Right at this moment, I am sitting on the second floor of a bed and breakfast in Valparaiso, Chile. Tomorrow I see an orthopedic surgeon for a nasty knee injury that I visited on myself on October 24th. That fall was the result of insisting on carrying my own big heavy luggage down flagstone stairs the day we would leave for an eight-day horse riding trip in Atacama, Chile, well north of here.
That story, the idiot egotistical choice I made to lug that luggage which resulted in a seriously-injured knee and facial wounds from going head-first into the stone steps, would end up being helpful to someone I love very much.
Here's why: at nearly seventy, I don't need to make up grand stories about my life, I live a grand life. It's full of ridiculous face plants, mistakes, failures, bad moves and poor choices. Every single day I am vividly reminded of my humanity, the aching, idiot dumb things I am like to do, and the prices I pay for them.
What makes that inspirational, such as it is, and sometimes transformational, which I often forget, is that those who love us best love us not for just those triumphant moments on the top of the podium.
Not at all.
They love us best for how we navigate the inevitable, the heartbreak, the deep anxieties and pains of life both real and imagined. This is what those I most admire call Goddess Work or Deep Work. It is here, as we shamble down the dim hallways of our lives, bumping into door jambs and knocking down the priceless art, this is where we learn, live and leave others most transformed.
Having all the money and accolades and effortless accomplishments that we jealously imagine of The Most Interesting Wo/Man in the World (which is patently bullshit no matter how you look at it) is ridiculous. We already do indeed, have a Perfect Life, when we understand the parameters around perfection. This article might be a useful detour on that topic.
If we live life bravely, without spending it complaining forever about what we are owed and poor me, that is a perfect life. That is an heroic life.
When we can look with humor, appreciation and deep love at that which makes us clumsy or awkward or a ripe failure, we are heroic.
Because all those around us, those who love us best, don't wish to be intimidated so much by our relative greatness and the (seeming) ease with which we live our lives. Rather, because all of us, facing age, loss, busted love and limbs and lamented dreams, need real-life examples of people who are dealing with those things and worse. They need examples of people who take life's beatdowns and turn them into the drumbeats that they alone can hear.
They find ways to be joyful and grateful anyway. That's what makes real heroes.
Not looking like Idris Elba or Brad Pitt or Viola Davis or Charlize Theron, gorgeous and sweaty on the big screen, triumphant in that fairy tale that appeals so much. We so often want to be special, like them somehow, while utterly missing the point that we already are heroes to those who matter the most.
The transcendent Anaïs Nin, who unlike this author really was gifted and who shone more greatly than many a shooting star, wrote of D.H Lawrence while barely through her twenties:
"Life is a process of becoming, a combination of states we have to go through. Where people fail is that they wish to elect a state and remain in it. This is a kind of death."- Anaïs Nin
I have gone through a thousand thousand stages, forever being reminded that I am a rank rookie, always will be. Might as well learn to enjoy it. I die to myself regularly, often some imagined better version of a self that I wished for but which Life proved otherwise.
I would love to stand at the top of a podium. A winner. ANY podium for that matter, with a medal hanging from my increasingly scrawny neck, a wreath of winner's garlands in my greying hair. I would love that.
This scene from A River Runs Through It, speaks to the terrible, aching unattainability of perfection:
I wanted, when young and foolish, to be unfettered by failure. Now that I am much older and much, much more foolish, I can see how silly we are, particularly while we feel indomitable, and as yet unbroken by life, that we believe such perfection even possible.
I wanted to be special enough to not have to suffer so badly. The Goddess considered me special enough to suffer quite a lot. As a result, I am - as we all are - ever so much more useful in Her hands.
As with most of us, my life has had its moments: the day I hefted my first book in my trembling hands, finally at 58 a published author, a book which would go on to win three prizes. Not big ones, but hey. Prizes. I'll take those any day.
The day I stood at the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, aching and tired and sucking in thin air, the day I realized that even at sixty, I was still capable of remarkable things.
Truth, I am far more capable of remarkably stupid things, but that's the whole point.
In-between those grand moments have been days and weeks and months and years of utter failure, defeat, loneliness, anger, frustration, suicidal thoughts, and hopelessness. Obesity, rape, incest, eating disorders. Not the stuff of legend, at least to a girl weaned on Disney Princesses.
Bet you can relate. Everyone in my life can. Most of us strive, and in striving, we are constantly failing, and asking, what on earth is the point? When do we get our Day in the Sun?
We get our day in the sun every single day we are alive. In our breathless striving to Be All That (we aren't) and to Be Better Than Everyone Else (we aren't that either) we can lose out on the very opportunity to live that grand life.
In January I celebrate finishing my 70th year. These days I am dealing with the effects of many injuries and surgeries for those injuries. I am dealing with a house that won't sell, the loneliness of a life lived mostly single, the reality of a changing body and a changing world gone mad with selfishness and social media insanity.
My friends, of which I wrote in the opening notes, are dealing with much worse. It's too easy to forget this when we swim in the soup of self-pity.
Who are you going to save today?
Each day the opportunity to stand on a podium exists for all of us. You have that too. In doing it your way you can transform the lives of those around you, whether as a fellow writer and storyteller or as someone whose example serves to uplift someone in your sphere. We often have no notion that we've had such an influence, but the Goddess makes damned sure that those who need to see you, see you.
Let's use the most recent example of the injury on this trip. After two long years of waiting for a chance to do another adventure ride, Atacama, Chile popped for me with bare moments to spare. Even given some twelve years' experience packing for such events, Covid quarantine had stripped me of much of the crisp competence with which I used to organize and plan for such an adventure.
I brought too much, forgot essential things, and was blindly focused on the Podium Moment.
I wanted to feel uber-competent again, in the saddle and on top of the world. Heroic.
As I have written elsewhere, that isn't what I got. What I got was a knee injury so serious - thank god I didn't break it- that the subsequent swelling and daily pain kept me limited to calm, quiet trots and mostly walking at the back of the pack.
My leg was useless. Here is a photo of what said leg looked like a week after the injury when much of the swelling had died down:
The pain was as otherworldly as the bruising. Still is.
How is this heroic?
This is what I fail to keep in mind every time I heft my backpack and head into the hinterlands:
I am a mild hemophiliac, which means that I don't clot normally. A high-impact injury like this is going to result in quite the bruise, including potentially fatal internal bleeding. That is a chance I take every time I skydive, bungee jump, ride horses or elephants or camels, get kicked or bitten or walloped on the face by a cheetah paw (that's happened too).
I also have Reynaud's Disease which makes being in cold places very dangerous for me. I get vicious migraines way too often. I have kidney issues and have had twenty two concussions, which means I have post-concussion syndrome.
Most folks would stay home. I go anyway.
I have done Macchu Picchu, Everest Base Camp and summitted Mount Kenya.
I go anyway.
I have kayaked the Arctic Ocean, leapt off Croatia's tallest bridge, scuba dived the famed Sardine Run off the coast of South Africa, sharing the freezing waters with bull and hammerhead sharks, tens of thousands of porpoises and billions of tons of sardines.
I've done most of these things badly (which, natch, is where my best humor stories arise).
I go anyway.
I head out knowing that my hands might freeze, that I might have a migraine attack in the middle of a big climb, that I might bleed to death after a bad fall, that the next concussion could be my last.
I go anyway.
Before you accuse me of being in love with pain, please. I don't enjoy being hurt. I love the challenge. I live for those hen's tooth-rare days when I do all of it right. I live for those moments when the gods and goddesses smile upon my aging face and grant me one temporary small victory over gravity or my aging, aching, awkward body.
Those victories, while fleeting, are enough to keep me trying.
That's good. Because the Big Moments are so rare that it would be a righteously lousy life if I didn't get bang out of the bumpy bits, which make up the majority of my life.
What has this got to do with you?
Because my bet is that you often fail to give yourself adequate credit for doing it anyway.
This: when you get up and go to work to make sure your kids have a meal, a roof and an education, you are heroic. When you forfeit the career you dreamed about so that you can care for elderly parents who would otherwise be grist for the greed mill of American sick care, you're heroic.
When you shrug on, not off, the challenges posed by a partner who happens to come with a big, sprawling, messy family, and you know who you are, you are heroic. You get up each day and shoulder the load and do it anyway, because to not do so is an insult to those who love and look up to you.
There are more of them than you may realize.
Most especially you transform people when you offer up thanks for those conditions rather than bitch, bark and battle with life and those you love about how you deserved better.
You deserve the chance to be a hero. You are indeed getting that every single hour of every single day.
People are watching. Those who need to see you, see you. All of us were born to be heroes. Not all of us rise to it. What we forget is that we often are doing hard, heroic things every day, interviewing for that job because the looming rent is terrifying us.
We forget that while we watch Marvel heroes take on great evil, the greatest evil you and I take on is Just. Giving. Up.
I have few gifts, a few talents, sprinkled across a life so varied and vivid that sometimes it shames me that I am not always and forever immensely grateful.
I am no Great Sage. No Massive Genius to transform the world. I am not All That. No great novel, no one invention to transform plastic waste, no app to make me a female Jeff Bezos (Goddess forbid, and thank Goddess she did).
Not Rich and Famous, not Young and Beautiful, not gifted with breathtaking talent, but for that one thing:
I can laugh in the face of damned near anything. My Excalibur is my sense of humor.
Failing forward, falling constantly and using that as a way to evolve upwards is living poetry. The Goddess gave me priestess training in how to wield my Excalibur. My beloved friend reminded me of this recently. I forget, as do we all.
I missed the real point. The video below is the real point.
French choreographer Yoann Bourgeois, here filmed by Mathieu Stern. I offer it here with many thanks:
Your brave can be someone else's save.
Tell the truth. Tell the real truth, and tell it with courage. Tell it without too much embellishment (but don't let the truth ruin a great story). You and I are heroes to someone, often people we don't even know.
And finally, this from one of my favorite sheroes, a quote that has lived in my Daytimer since 1983:
“Courage is the price that Life exacts for granting peace,
The soul that knows it not, knows no release
From little things;
Knows not the livid loneliness of fear,
Nor mountain heights where bitter joy can hear
The sound of wings.
How can Life grant us boon of living, compensate
For dull grey ugliness and pregnant hate
Unless we dare
The soul's dominion? Each time we make a choice, we pay
With courage to behold the restless day,
And count it fair.” -Amelia Earhart
Our imperfections and failures are precisely what make us heroic. Being vulnerable to what makes us human is what makes us heroic to others.
And being able to laugh at, laugh with and laugh because of our flawed humanity, is precisely what makes us heroes to ourselves.
Written with all the love in my heart to the two most important men in my life, you know who you are. You inspired this.
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