creativity, personal journeys, simple living, the writer's journey, who I am

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?”

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