The Gravel Road: Abandoning Societal Definitions of Success for the Self-Determined Path

Country Dirt Road

Photo by Scamp, Dreamstime Stock Photos.

Lately I’ve been struggling with the notion of success—what it means, how we define it, how we unconsciously internalize cultural definitions of success and make them our own. And, ultimately, what it truly means to lead a successful, meaningful, purposeful life.

This year, I’ve struggled with my writing. I’m approaching four years of writing full time, and while I’ve had some successes—won two contests, had a request for a full manuscript, indie published two short stories, written a lot—I haven’t had a “big” win. I’ve started to wonder what I’m doing with my time, if my writing will ever have an impact, make a difference. I’ve started to wonder if writing is enough. And all that pondering has squashed my creativity, left me spinning my wheels, stuck in a ditch on the side of the gravel road that is my journey.

I tried to make it an interstate. But it’s not. My journey to “success,” whatever that might be, is a curving mountain road that snakes its way through forests, traveling alongside wending rivers and babbling streams. I will spot deer and ravens, wild turkeys and countless squirrels, maybe even a bear or a coyote. It is not a journey one takes in a sports car, zooming down the interstate. It’s a journey for a battered hatchback. A journey of thought. A labor of love.

Acknowledging that I had, in fact, internalized a societal definition of success helped me realize that what I want most is an adventure. I’m reminded of the precious, lovely, moving words of Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day”:

“I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?”

Ah. There it is. What do I plan to do with my one wild and precious life?

And then the answers poured forth. My trip to Germany in August offered clues, if only I bent my head and listened. I stood in the spray of a waterfall in Triberg and hiked to the ruins of an old castle, but the moment that brought me most joy was when, at the farm where I was staying, one of the goats escaped her pasture. My husband and father were unsuccessful in trying to corral her, so I went to help. She walked up to me and leaned against me, and I gently took her horns and guided her home. It was simple. It was beautiful. It took me back to my childhood, the place that inspired me to become a writer, walking the woods of home and dreaming up stories, all the while surrounded by creatures, both wild and domestic.

I can’t say I have all of the answers. But I have made my peace with the fact that my definition of success is not the same one that society has laid out so neatly for me, like a parent setting out a child’s clothes for school.

I will follow my stories wherever they take me. I will listen closely, as only our most creative selves can, and I will create. Maybe it won’t always be in words. Maybe I’ll learn to paint. Last week I made lavender goat’s milk soap, and the simple creative act filled me with wonderful energy. There are so many paths to explore. I won’t always drive my battered hatchback down the gravel road. Sometimes I’ll see a winding mountain path that leads over an arching footbridge and into the mossy hills. Sometimes I’ll park the car. Sometimes I’ll walk over the bridge. It’s not always about forging ahead. It’s about seeing the beauty along the way.

Blessed be.

Now tell me, “what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

denise signature

 

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12 thoughts on “The Gravel Road: Abandoning Societal Definitions of Success for the Self-Determined Path

  1. I love this! I missed you while you were away, but I see that you’ve been deepening, so that makes me happy for you.

    My one wild and precious life? Right now, helping my husband with his business, helping my son learn to drive (!!!!), and attending to my own needs for beauty, creativity, connection, and movement.

    Oh, and not laying out school clothes for anyone – as I never have.

    I’ve got a lot of practice at defining my own ideas of success.

    It’s a chock-full life, right now. But it’s wild and precious and all mine!

    • Shan, I’ve missed everyone too. Hopefully things will be settling down as we move toward autumn. Germany was lovely and taught me a lot about what I value and what I truly want out of life. Now it’s just a matter of finding my center, connecting with spirit, and moving forward. Good luck to your husband with his business. How are things progressing on that front? How do you feel about teaching your son to drive? Nervous? Excited? A little of both?

      • We’re moving forward in an organic, unrushed fashion. We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, so that we just can’t stay grounded. I just made a new set of signs for our samples. About to print them up; considering a mailing list in the near future. We just got our first placement in a small independent local store; that’s a big deal for us, because it’s the first step to the “next level.” It may not be huge sales, but it broke the ice, and we can tell other establishments that we are there.

        We’re also working on getting UPC codes, so we can sell in more venues, as well as gearing up for the fall festival/ craft fair season, building a website, and designing more marketing. Exciting stuff…small, still, but growing!

        As for Jeremiah, I’m facilitating his learning rather than teaching. I’m just a little nervous, but he’s the careful sort, and, two practice sessions in, he’s getting a feel for how to perform basic functions – turns, reverse, parking, adjusting mirrors, stopping…he’s stayed in parking lots, but says he’d like to try a quiet street next. He’s asking to go about every other day, and I leave a lot up to his discretion. My own father stressed me out while I was learning, and I don’t want to do that to Miah. I’d rather he take this step toward adult independence with confidence and security. I see this as a precious time of connection for us both, and I treasure it. =D

  2. Bravo!!! 🙂

    The dominant definition of success on our little blue marble is money. If you got it, you is successful and if you ain’t got it, you ain’t.

    All money is though, is a physical manifestation of energy. I believe how we choose to use our energy, in whatever form it takes, is a much truer expression of success.

    Time to consider your Self a highly successful woman! 😀

    • I’d rather we defined success based on “Are you happy?” And not, surface-level happy, but the kind of true, deep happiness that comes from being balanced, centered, grateful, and self-aware. But we’re not taught to ask such questions. It is true that a certain amount of money buys us necessities–food, clothing, shelter, electricity, transportation–but once we have stability in those areas, we often continue to quest for more, more, more–and that’s where the trouble arises. Thanks for your comment!

  3. What a beautiful post! (Your trip to Germany sounds especially lovely.) I agree, the path to success definitely isn’t a linear one. It’s so much more complex. And I relate so well to having other creative outlets. (I really enjoy crafty hobbies like cross-stitching, for example; writing/drawing isn’t the only way I create.) Best of luck on your own creative journey, wherever it takes you!

    • Germany was wonderful. I gazed upon the full moon glowing over the Black Forest, and I imagined how wild a place it must have been, how dark and full of beasties, before electricity and paved roads. I slept in a tiny cabin at the water’s edge, awakening to the sound of chickens and other livestock. It taught me a lot about what I value in this world, and what brings me joy.

      I agree that we need multiple creative outlets. I’ve noticed I get a lot of energy and joy out of simple hometending tasks that others might easily dismiss–rearranging a room in my home, or making a batch of lavender soap, or trying a new recipe. These things fill the creative well and feed/nourish my soul and allow me to pour myself into my writing.

      Thanks, Heather! It’s good to hear from you. 🙂

  4. When I read this post earlier in the week, I wanted to reblog your words (for the first time ever), for you’ve captured exactly how it feels to redefine how to nurture your creativity . . . perhaps in wild and unexpected ways. So I’m going to reblog this post and thank you for sharing that struggle to say, “This is me and what I wish to do with my life, my creativity.” Sometimes travel gives us the distance from everyday commitments to step back and reflect. Thank you.

    • Thanks for the reblog, Beth. It has been an important step in my creative journey, to step away from the questing for external validation and instead return to the place where stories, characters, entire worlds whisper and get back to the roots of writing. Simply listening and eventually, in time, sharing.

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