On choosing heroes

Heroes 2

When my ancestors were young I like to think that their heroes were knowable, that they were members of their families, their tribe. I imagine they would sit gape-eyed at the feet of the elders and listen to tales of hunts for better lands, confrontations with long-toothed predators and the chaotic mood swings of the mushroom-powered shaman. They would then hug the cast of the stories before they went to sleep, or sneak a peek at them over the camp fire as they keep watch out over the plains. I think that it has always been important for us to draw inspiration from positive sources, and I don’t think we should lose sight of that as we grow older.

As I was a nipper my world view was influenced by my Grandmother’s eel hunting exploits, my Uncle’s exotic travels and my Grandfather’s explanations of how storms build. Soon I discovered I could share other’s lives through reading, and I found a new additional cast of heroes, exciting people and creatures I’d never met. I learnt moral lessons through the exploits of wolves, swordsmen, and most importantly boys who ended up on accidental adventures. I could then engage my imagination and draw some aspects of my day-to-day world into these fables. I’d imagine Hiawatha being as feisty as Renita in my maths class (until she started calling me square-head), and whenever I encountered a sea-faring adventurer they had my Dad’s knowledge of the sea along with their Captain Haddock beards and inventive line in curses. The converse is that I could also take the lessons I learnt from my stories and apply them to the world around me.

The stories that we directly or indirectly place within our children’s grasp help them determine what we deem as important. And if was tales of honour, honesty and strength that I could access at eight, they subconsciously affect me at fifteen, and still echo through my ideas as I make decisions in my forties. It’s so important then to offer up positive role models for those we’re trusted to influence. If we replace Asterix, the Famous Five and Tom Sawyer with a couple of Kardashians and a Rihanna then perhaps we deserve to reap what we sow. And to focus this even further, I think there is huge value in helping people find heroes in the people that surround them.

As I’ve gently (cough) aged I’ve abandoned the untouchables as an influence on my behaviour. I’ve replaced H.R. Giger, Timothy Leary and the guy who got to play Boba Fett with people I’ve shared travel, conversations and tears with. I’ve realised that the people most capable of inspiring me these days are the ones I can share real life adventures with. Rather than hoping and wishing to have a life like a Rock God or Somali pirate I aim to be as patient, tolerant and thought-provoking as the people I meet in trailer parks, Hallowe’en costumes and woodland cabins. I think it’s important to be continue to be mindful of who we look up to our whole lives, as like snow-boarding or motorbike riding, wherever you aim your gaze that’s where you end up heading for.

Why though do I think it’s important to replace those who have reached fame and mass market appeal with local heroes though? It starts with being human. I remember watching a Miss World competition when I was young, and as I watched the parade of pretty ladies I thought how strange it was that I knew girls at my school who were more beautiful than any of them. The girls I shared classes with so much more than an image, they ran races against me, beat me in spelling competitions, and shared stories of unicorns with me. It was the fullness of these girl’s character in which I found much of their delight, and so now I get dismayed and sometimes a little offended when people choose to promote the media creations they read of in magazines over the people around them.

There is a danger in choosing to worship images without flaws as none of us exist without learning from our failures. We’re all imperfect. If my heroes are knowable their glories can be offset against their flaws, they become human, and then I can hope to strive to be their equal. When we meet and get to know other people we get to understand the motivations behind their loves, the frustrations behind their anger and the sources of their sadness. In growing to understand the way they handle these things we can learn powerful lessons.

The other incredible benefit of local heroes is the chance of mutual inspiration. When I was a child I used to dream of earning Tom Sawyer’s respect in a battle of wits, and now I actually have a chance of offering my heroes something to think about. There’s a chance that I’ll inspire them with my own tales, what greater reward is there than having someone you respect and admire cock their head at something you say, and think it through? Sometimes we fail to realise that our own experiences can offer important lessons to others, even our perceived losses or failures.

As I grow as a writer I become more understanding of what it can take to succeed in a creative field. My writing heroes growing up were great and popular novelists like Orson Scott Card, Stephen King and Ernest Hemingway. Since then I’ve read of their techniques, beliefs and habits, burrowing through their writings for inspiration. Just a few months ago though my first girlfriend contacted me after reading my blog on ‘being shy’. When I left her all those years ago she was working on her first article for a national newspaper. While we were together she had always written fantasy stories and I used to be fascinated at the back-stories she had for her characters, though I don’t remember letting her know just how much depth I found in her ideas. Sigh. To date she has published several books and attends conventions across the USA, inspiring new authors. Her vision, her determination, her path-building is now a very personal inspiration. I’ll continue to re-read King’s rants about adverbs, admire Scott-Card’s endless inventiveness, and hope to live my stories half as dramatically as Hemingway, but it’s her that I think of when I hit walls of frustration.

Pip is just one of the many people who have helped me find the energy and drive to strive towards my dreams of sharing my stories and ideas. Reading books as a child armed me with the heroes I needed for my battles through childhood. Writing books as an adult is introducing me to the heroes I need to lead me through my emancipation as a freer thinker. To all those people I’ve met that lead their lives rather than being led by them, I thank you. To each of you that makes the difficult decisions in the face of disapproval and disbelief I salute you. None of us should ever settle for less than what we think we are worth, and if we forget from time to time how valuable we are, we only need to look around us for inspiration.

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On making decisions about who to help

At times I wonder whether I’m being callous when I decide I’m not going to help with a particular problem or cause. I might have been talking to a Greenpeace champion about fracking in Northern Canada, watching attention-starved children in ‘The Long Way Round’, or walking past an old gent curled up with his ageing Alsatian outside my train station. And I don’t really react, I neither travel to the home of Ice Road Truckers, board a plane for Bucharest, nor buy a hot chocolate for the old fella. I just turn away and let the issue slip down into my sub-conscious, and swallow back the lump of guilt that rises in my throat.

There is a degree of pressure on all of us to recognise the troubles that other people, other species, and our environment are facing. If I read the paper, listen to the news on the radio and check Facebook, I’ll have learnt of a dozen local and global problems by lunch time. How can I ignore so many opportunities to help? Even though all these problems appear to have at least a couple of degrees of separation from me, I feel a compulsion to do something about at least some of them. I can’t do everything though, I can’t save the world, can I? How do I balance genuine care and concern against beating myself up for my inaction?

Lately I’ve begun thinking that the key to my self-improvement might lie in consideration. If I actively think my choices through rather than letting myself operate on some sort of auto-pilot then I tend to make better decisions. More importantly though I also then learn more from each choice I make, I pay more attention to the results and any unforeseen consequences. So what happens when I start making thoughtful decisions on who to help?

A couple of months ago I caught up with a loveable Essex lad I used to cook with. Over several rounds of cider I found that he had made a conscious decision in determining which issues he would tackle. He explained that he didn’t want to appear naive or unconcerned, but that he no longer read newspapers or internet news sites. He had realised he could spend all his waking hours ranting about issues he could never affect, or he could instead spend that time interacting with his workmates, family and friends. He’d chosen to focus just on the people he came into contact with each day. He now has the time and inclination to stop and chat to the upset looking Polish plumber on the way to work. He draws his understanding of the world from those around him and prefers to develop opinions based on first hand experience. I see it as a considered switch to ‘think globally, act locally’, as he deals only with the issues within his own realm, though he has an understanding of how his actions might also affect the wider world.

At the time I liked the idea of consciously limiting my concerns to those closest to me, and fending off those issues that don’t directly affect my relatives, my friends or my neighbours. I thought that if we all simply concentrated in helping those around us then we might also gradually impact the larger issues. But after further consideration I’ve realised that most of us don’t take the time to create our own moral code, and as such I can’t trust that everyone will act in the best interests of anyone beyond themselves. So I think I need to concern myself with the wider ideas as well, the bigger issues.

But being concerned isn’t enough. Nor is just showing concern. A few days after catching up with my British mate I found myself back in my home town chatting to one of my best friends and confidantes. We talked about the frustration of listening to people get fired up on ideas and then never doing anything about them. We focussed on our social responsibilities and found firm agreement on the need to turn the energy we might spend venting anger over an issue into action. Ranting to my friends¬†about the Eastern European slave trade might earn me kudos for being a concerned, informed person but doesn’t really result in anything positive. In fact continual one-sided conversations about the world’s evils results in me acting as an amplifier for fear rather than a catalyst for change. Rather than spending my time repeating what I’ve read on news sites I need to start considering each situation, and then deciding whether I’m actually going to do something about it. If I am horrified to learn that insufficient lighting along university walkways is resulting in woman fearing to attend night classes then I have a choice: I can spread the contagion of dismay through angered conversations about men’s inability to police each other or I can use my spare time to raise money for new lighting. It is so much more positive and rewarding to use the passion born of dismay to plan useful action, rather than to promote society’s failures.

The rewards of deciding to act to help others are many, but just as important as considered action is considered inaction. The by-product of thinking each issue through and determining which to act on, is that I’ve also considered which of them I’m not going to act on. If I have made a mindful decision to contribute to a particular problem then I can discard it without shame rather than simply suppressing thoughts of it. I can then answer to people if they confront me about my inaction, though the only person I ever really need to answer to is myself.

A friend recently introduced me to American writer/activist Colleen Patrick-Goudreau. Colleen has a piece of advice which I think summarises my ideas on being charitable: ‘Don’t do nothing just because you can’t do everything’.

365 days on

Arbour

I don’t always want to look backwards on New Year’s Eve but this year has been my most transformative ever, and the happiest I can recall. I had some sad and harrowing moments, but these were entirely offset by incredible times with beautiful people, many of whom helped me learn to better understand myself. Old friends and new have provided new viewpoints, unconventional ideas, and someone to measure myself against. Four people in particular have helped me understand what it is that makes me happy: a couch surfer, a film maker, a child and my new best friend.

A Canadian dancer and snake breeder entered my life through a Couch Surfing request late last year. Over a couple of months this independent thinking woman introduced me to the possibilities my own country offered. Seaweed soups, diving for paua (and ending up with sea snails), and late night discussions on a nest of sofas were among the more endearing moments from our friendship so far. But it was her deep and thoughtful contemplation of the ways in which she interacts with the world that had me cocking my head like a curious spaniel. She introduced me to a range of ideas more quickly than I was able to take them onboard, but I’ve spent many odd moments digesting the fruitful concepts she fed me and adding them to my understandings. I’d like to thank her for living her life like an adventurer no matter what her circumstances are. She helped draw my eyes up from my navel to the horizon, and helped me understand how to plot a new path for myself.

An American film maker was a second Couch Surfing discovery. Our friendship was born from similar interests and it grew quickly through the sharing of incredible experiences. We spent six weeks soaring in New Zealand, teaching each other, complementing each other’s world views and growing as individuals. But when I caught up with her later in Colorado we found a way to undo our bond with doubts and insecurities. We sacrificed our ability to inspire each other to better things and I came to understand the fragility that our pasts can instill in us. I gained from our time together though, she taught me to write as myself, to have faith in my good nature, and never to place too much trust in the judgement of others. As we travelled through the heart of the United States I began to truly understand the deep beauty of the world we live in through her gentle appreciation of the intricacies of nature. I’m forever grateful for the time we had together, though sad it had to end with us managing to grow so far apart.

The new child in my life is my wee niece. When I returned from my travels I visited my brother, his girlfriend, and their duck-fixated daughter. She taught me of the ability of children to reconnect us grown-ups to our truer selves. When she crawls into a room she’s a focal point, and it is endless fun watching normally taciturn New Zealand males gently place their beer bottles on the table and sink to her height, replacing stoic stares with wrinkle-webbed grins. Though children this age are armed with only facial expressions and grunts, they are a reminder that even without language we can communicate so much. This smiling little girl also reminded me that I never want to forget how to find simple pleasure as she does, in the way clothes hanging on the line cast bouncing shadows on a lawn, in the potency of the flavour of a lime, in the infectious giggles of others. Plus she’s going to grow into an awesome excuse to buy slot car sets and radio controlled cars over the next dozen Christmases.

The fourth and most important new person came into my life just as this amazing year was coming to an end. I arrived back in Aotearoa ready to carve out a new life, to create a beautiful, simple space in which I and others could learn to craft their own homes. As I began my hunt for land I met this woman, this fiercely independent kiwi girl who has lived her life making difficult choices and then learning so much from the consequences. In a year of meeting influential people she’s been the most incredible revelation of all. She’s someone who understands the joy of thinking independently, the importance of living within the world rather than just on top of it, and the benefits of living mindfully. She sees and appreciates me for who I am, rather than who she or I wish I could be. She magnifies my hopes and amplifies my dreams, and I hope that I contribute as much positivity to her life as she’s already brought to mine. I like to think she’s the best possible reward for simply being good.

I’ve been fortunate to travel this year and meet a beautiful array of people in the places I visited. I learnt the pleasure of the honest compliment from Ron in Colorado, rediscovered painting for the sheer joy of it with Belfast Kate in Derry, and rediscovered the poignancy of romance when I visited the lock bridge in Cologne with Ilja and Ivo. But returning home reminded me that we don’t always have to hunt out great people in Reykjavik, Westmeath or South Dakota. Catching up with my cousins Ben and Bam reminded me of how much fun it is to return to the people who knew you as a volatile young immortal, and I met the most important person of my new future in Cuba Street, over a cup of tea and forty minutes of breathless conversation.

So this year I’m not going to a big New Years festival, or catching a flight to Fiji. Instead I’m going to spend the evening with my cousin’s family, along with my guru/mentor/heroine. I realised some time ago that it isn’t the setting that’s the most important thing, it’s who you share it with.

Some of my most memorable events of 2013:

1. Dolphin swimming in Kaikoura, capturing it all on GoPro, and then it being set to one of the most beautiful pieces of music in the world.

2. Realising the true impact of altitude after (very briefly) chasing a fit young dog up a mountain at 10,000 feet in Colorado, surrounded by wild elk, deer, and evidence of bears.

3. Experiencing extreme-costume-envy as my sister and I engaged in a Derry Halloween. Her home-made ‘Beaker’ costume hatched smiles in children, flashbacks in adults, and a great photo of her and I high-fiving in front of a Northern Irish police Land rover. And having the photo taken by a PSNI despising Belfast girl dressed as ‘Spring’.

4. Watching my usually-separated-by-thousands-of-miles family battle it out to get to sit next to my nine-month old niece at a gorgeous meal in a sunny Marlborough vineyard.

6. A day which started in Paekakariki laughing more deeply and painfully than I have in years, and ended in Shannon where I realised coming back to New Zealand was the best decision I could have made.

8. A night in a lighthouse on Wellington’s South Coast, watching the skies transform and realising there was no other place on this Earth I wanted to be more.

9. Hiking to the cold face of Franz Josef glacier whilst being overflown by hundreds of helicopters in the breaking light of dawn.

10. Being introduced to the ‘tiny house’ movement by Jupiter, in her gorgeously renovated trailer at the base of the rocky mountains. Be well, Jup’s, my thoughts are with you, wild woman.

11. My Grandmother Zoe’s wake, a chance to learn how she impacted so many people in such favourable ways.