Heroes and Gods

Anais Nin, Henry MIller, Tom Waits, Dalia, my father, Gypsy Caravan, Elvis Costello, Ruth St. Denis, Diane Ackerman, Anne Rice, Rumi, Anthony Bourdain, Robert Parker-Harrison, Beatrice Wood, Nick Bantok, Deborah Turberville, Olivia Parker, Man Ray, Tasha Tudor, Alice Waters, Emeril Lagasse, Edward Espe Brown, Susan Albert, Janet Evanovich, Suhaila, Baron Baptiste, David Bowie, Collette, Omar Faruk Tekbilek, D. H. Lawrence, Isabel Allende, and the latest: Derek Sivers, Seth Goldin, Chris Guillebeau….

I say everyone needs a few heroes or gods to look up to. Me, I’ve got an abundance of them. Some change constantly. Some have been revered for decadesWho is a god? For me it is someone I honor, one who can lead the blind, one with more than natural attributes who demands my human worship, a person of supreme power and influence. A hero? A legendary figure of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability, an illustrious warrior, a man or woman admired for their achievements and noble qualities, a person of extreme admiration and devotion. My gods or heroes include anyone who’s influenced me in some huge way, wowed me, changed me, made me stop, think, and look hard around me. Heroes, legendary figures, gods, goddesses, illustrious warriors, idols. I use the words interchangeably. I didn’t originally mean a hero as in one who saves lives, but I guess in some ways, many of mine have saved me at one time or another.

How do people get on my god list? I am seduced and inspired by my gods and their work. Music, words, photographs, dance, poems, gardens, food, kind deeds. They have done something deserving to entitle honor from me, that has been life altering or affirming, in my process of learning and searching and living. Sometimes they get put on a pedestal, or have a temporary altar made for them. Cher, for example, definitely the temporary altar type, although I had much admiration for her, it wasn’t long lived enough for godhood. But Henry Miller and Anais Nin, ah, they are way up there on my pedestal. Life transforming they were for me when I was going through one of my many and always relentless times of life inquisition.

I remember reading Henry and Anais while in art school, San Francisco, 1981, in my early twenties. I was devouring life through words, photography, art, drugs, alternative rock n’ roll, sex, late night conversations, eccentric wild youth. Through their books I found out about other ways of living that I was never exposed to growing up, not that I was a deprived child. I knew there had to be more out there, although not knowing what “more” was, I wanted and needed to find it. With Henry and Anais I did. I traveled with them, from the streets to the cafes, the bordellos to the parties, eavesdropping on their explorative conversations with psychiatrists to poets. Sex, hunger, thirst, people. Their lust for life was infectious. Henry and Anais made me want to run out in the street and do cartwheels, their words were so invigorating.

Being pioneers into my new life quest, I devoured almost every book written by them. Anais’s diaries filled me with questions and answers, giving me permission to experience life in a different way, through her words and her experiences. To live with freedom and beauty, I worshipped her. She went up on my pedestal.

Reading first Sexus, Plexus, and Nexus-The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy by Henry Miller, and delving, or diving, into most of his other books, his writing did the same thing to me. His boldness and curiosity took hold as no other had up to this point in my life. He was almost savage in that he wasn’t afraid to live and went after what he wanted. He looked around him and saw and took everything he wanted. People I knew who also read him thought he was sexist in his sometimes degrading words for women, but I thought it was because he was obsessive and infatuated with women, he adored them. He wrote about his travels, his writing, his sex. I wanted to be able to experience life like he had. A different book of his, published later on in his life, was Paint as You Like and Die Happy, a book on his paintings. Although never quite as well known for his paintings compared to his writing, his work impressed me because he painted with childlike innocence and adventure, the same way he lived. He painted with freedom, no rules except his own imposed discipline. His philosophies taught me to go deep, to not settle, and experience what I honestly wanted. He was my god.

Someone asked me the other day, “If you could have dinner with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be?” What if I were to meet some of my gods? Have a meal with them? Were I to sit down with Elvis Costello for lunch, I would be tongue tied, I’m sure. Or Henry Miller, or Tom Waits, or Tom Robbins. I know how to have a conversation, but I’m not good at small talk. I can chat briefly with strangers, although these people aren’t strangers. I’ve grown up with them, in a way. I know quite a bit about them, at least what they have wanted me to know. Would I want to sit and have a conversation with them? I don’t want to know they are human. They’re my gods, for gods sake.

In some way, I would love to have dinner with Henry Miller. He always enjoyed himself and other people, but I’ve so venerated him on my book shelf, and in my mind, that maybe I don’t want to go that far. What if I didn’t like him? What if he pissed me off? All those years of reverence might have to be tossed, and I couldn’t bare that.

What I want is to see the world through the eyes of my heroes, which then, became my eyes. Not to become them. Absolutely not. It’ s a yearning, a desire for more understanding, and the willingness to experience other’s experiences through their words and music, without having to make them mine. They make a road for me to look down, walk on, or turn away from. I admire from a distance. Learning to be myself, in my world, the ever-changing world, with it’s scariness and beauty.

Books are like prescriptions. Their words can be so timely, giving me what I’m looking for, what I need, to heal, to laugh and cry, to find an answer at just the right moment, or after years of searching. I revere them, have shelves of them. Shelves of gods and heroes. Altars. Going to my bookcases, getting overzealous as I write these pages, I want to pull all the books out, my influences, my heroes, what has made my world go round, and what has taught me about sex and love, spiritual beauty, darkness and pain, artistic freedom. I go back and forth in time with my books. Teenager. Adult. Poet. Druggie. Songwriter. Teenager. College student. Rocker. Healer. Dancer. The alls of me. There is no stopping me. The rampage has set in. Fertile wanderings. My books are now taking over the dining room table as I read and write. It is a feast. A feast of the senses.

Diane Ackerman opened up my senses even more, as if I needed more opening, using words as aphrodisiacs in A Natural History of My Garden, and A Natural History of The Senses. She made me swoon, reflect, to behold first her world, then mine, with my eyes, nose, ears, mouth, and fingers. Reading her words was experiential. Poetic. She wrote how “the whole body ripples in orgasmic delight”, from a sneeze. I can feel it. She watched “vines evolve from flowers to succulent purple fruits, sense-luscious and nearly bursting with fragrance”. If there was ever a time when I questioned myself or my existence, how could I not fall in love with words, again, as well as with the world, again, following her journey? Up on the “Writing Great Things” goddess pedestal she went.

In Aphrodite, A Memoir of the Senses, Isabel Allende wrote about seduction and sex and love and food. These have become a theme for me, a mantra. Be still my beating heart. She wrote “…dusk incited me to sin…in my fiftieth year I find myself reflecting on my relationship with food and eroticism…” “Aphrodisiacs are the bridge between gluttony and lust’. I too, have a constant love affair with food and wine and cooking and eating. Not only for pure sustenance, but pure pleasure, too, and adventure and the delight of a meal with a loved one or many. To read about it, then to open up every pore, to smell, eat, taste, touch, love. I believe it’s the “I Want To Experience Life” pedestal for her.

From Letters To A Young Poet, by Rainier Maria Rilke writes, Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come”. Another art school read. That tree image has stayed with me, sometimes as a behemoth, sometimes a sapling, enduring, it’s own juices flowing. I call upon it when I need strength to continue, to be honest with myself, with my words and my art, not be afraid of what may come after. Rilke, in this book, has a conversation through letters with one man, about creativity, writing, love, passion, spirituality. The pages are bent and worn from me marking outstanding phrases. I read and reread it at a time in my life when it was relevant and needed, art school. When my peers ripped my work apart, questioned my vision and style, only trying to be helpful. When I felt sometimes as if I couldn’t stand on my own feet., I read Rilke. I was learning to express myself with words, art, and actions, always on that quest of and for experience, and trying to put it into a visual context. Rilke helped guide me, as any good god would do.

Not only thoughts on how to be an artist, but how to be alive, Rilke writes to his friend, “For one human being to love another human being: That is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation.” Love, selfhood, he was writing to me, I was sure. “To walk inside yourself and meet no one for hours.” For me to be alone, listening and observing and not being afraid of the quiet. As I reread him now, writing this, he is relevant still. He is god.

Songs and words started to shape me in my rambunctious early teenagehood, and I still have some of those gods. Playing my first musical instrument began with organ lessons at age seven, but it wasn’t until my guitar strumming preteens that musicians started imprinting on me. The singer Melanie, inspired me to pick up the guitar. she was a hippie skirt wearing, vegetarian, guitar playing woman, who also inspired me to become a vegetarian, until my father made me eat roast beef at our Sunday dinner about a week later. I admired her intensely at first but she was a short-lived goddess, after the awful roller skating song she released, I moved on. She fell from grace.

I strummed along with my still much-revered goddess, Joni Mitchell, who sang poetry with jazzy, strangely rhythmic music. I played and sang along with the beautiful yet political harmonies of my gods Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. I kept playing my guitar, writing my youthful angst driven songs along the lines of their song, “ Four Dead In Ohio.” I was living in Ohio, in junior high, at the time of the Kent State shootings, about 1970, and their boldness of words and politics through that song and others showed me rebellion and strength, how to stand tall.

There was my girlhood crush on Cat Stevens, a wild-haired musician whose smile made me swoon and his songs made me weepy. His words were poetic and poignant to me in my growing womanhood:

“I was once like you are now, and I know that it’s not easy to be calm when you’ve found something going on, but take your time, think a lot, think of everything you’ve got for you will still be here tomorrow, but your dreams may not”. (Father and Son)

I played his albums over and over again, never deciding on a favorite. My god could do no wrong, although I recall being crushed when I heard rumors of his homosexuality. I got over that and I can still play his songs when I pull out my guitar. I play his CDs now and I still weep.

I have a vivid picture of sitting in my downstairs bedroom, listening to Ziggy Stardust, by David Bowie, another hero. He was the brilliant, androgynous, bizarrely sexual man, that made my heart beat with excitement of a new sound and vision of rock music and stardom. It must have been about 1972, hanging out with my friend, also a David, who later got murdered for drugs. Not such a happy ending for him, but it’s a happy memory of him, for me. And Bowie, still prolific and brilliant today, he remains my god.

When I hear certain songs I have an abundance of amusing memories that play through my head like mini movies . Thoughts of certain heroes bring up colorful images of the past. I hear a song and I remember the words, the music, sometimes the clothes I used to wear. I am reminded of my romantic idealism from my starry-eyed young womanhood by gods of that time whom have been permanently tattooed in my memory. Like cruising down the highway in my dark blue Buick Skylark convertible, nicknamed the Buck because the ”I” was missing off the front grill, singing along loudly with Steppenwolf, “Born to be Wild,” and Traffic, “Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys.” I felt invincible and free, wind in my hair and ready to take over the world in my sixteen year old want-to-be-a musician way. How my gods shaped me back then, made me listen to the music and the words, offered me a chance to listen to the quiet as well as the stories. Their words taught me to take time to reach inside to find myself, and to take time to dream. I will not forget.

Forward again to art school, there was Elvis. Costello, not Presley. An inspiration. Prolific to beat all. Since 1977, the man has put out so many brilliant recordings, I’ve lost count. His words, so right on, were satyrical and cynical, were titillatingly honest, saying what I wanted to hear. How did he know? If I needed to think, I‘d put on one of his albums. If I needed to cry or laugh, I would put one on, they could evoke so many different emotions in me. I would sing along, or pull out my guitar and play along. I put him way up high on my “Inspirational Pedestal.” Always.

If I didn’t have my gods, would my world be different? They have given me many ways to think about life, what or how I wanted to be when I grew up, and now, too, what I desire in my life. I enjoy having my gods. It’s playful, in a serious sort of way. My philosophy about living. I think we all need someone to look up to, to be inspired by, to learn from. Some may call them role models. I like that added something. Why not make them extra special, give them an act of reverence? Like draping a velvet cloak on a priest’s shoulders, or bowing down before the pope and kissing his ring, or raising up the little white Eucharistic host as the body of Christ? My worship has nothing to do with being raised Catholic. Or does it? Looking back now, that catholic upbringing did influence the ritualistic side of myself. I honor ritual and have raised my own traditions, like building altars and lighting candles, and I have my own way of meditative prayer. Changing water into wine, I’m all for that. It just doesn’t have anything to do with God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

About ghosts and all things dark, I read Anne Rice and The Vampire Lestat also in those art school years. I found the book in the dumpster in my apartment building, having no ideas what it was about. This was before the book became a cult classic. I fell in love with it, the writing, the story, and the characters, dark and mysterious and sexual and romantic, everything I thought I was. Who was this woman who wrote it? She quickly became a dark legend over the years of writing seductive sequel after sequel and series of erotica, vampires, witches, ghosts and gods. Although I didn’t join the forces of gothic fan clubs that sprung up from her readers, I, too, had my goth days of moody music, big hair and white makeup during that time period. It was the books and Anne that I admired. An independent successful woman. I wanted to write like her. I respected her and her prolificacy, her ability to do intensive historical research, and her ingenious mind to make up those other worldly worlds. Goddess.

There are those times when meeting someone in person can bring on hero worship. My husband and I were fortunate enough to stay with Michael Abelman and his family this summer on their organic farm in Canada, purely by accident. What a gem of an accident. We traveled to their B&B in Canada, not knowing who they were, but hoping the farm would be a delightful place to stay and celebrate our twentieth wedding anniversary.

Eating their most glorious breakfasts laid out for the guests was bounty enough, but we spent time chatting with them and observed them living their beliefs about the land.

What spirit Michael has, and a vision of a good whole earth. Through his organic farming practices, he keeps alive old ways while building new ways of organic farming and sustainable agriculture, and he provides education and opportunities to those who seek his expertise. To use the land and sustain it, to work with the farmers, to grow and eat good food, of this earth, our bounty, not the world of biggie this or that, or processed items that resemble food, but this earth. Michael sticks to his ideals, works hard, honestly, without fail. In his farmer’s spare time, he travels the world and writes books about farming. While at his B&B, I read two of them, On Good Land, about his urban organic farm in Santa Barbara, California land, and From The Good Earth, about our planets land and the old ways of farming from around the world. Hero worship, in person. Providing me with more inspiration for my own gardening and eating and way of life., and how I can continue with even my small good gardening deeds to support our earth.

How I admire Alice Waters for her advocacy for farmer’s markets and sustainable agriculture. My heroine, the great chef, restauranteur, cookbook author, and supporter of local organic farmers, spoke at a book signing of her latest cookbook. She doesn’t just ride on the success of her world famous restaurant, Chez Panisse in Berkeley, and multiple cookbooks. She uses her success to underwrite food programs for education. Supportive of today’s youth, trying to be rid of yet another McDonald’s in the the school cafeterias, teaching and preaching about good food and slow food and family meals. She continues writing and lecturing locally and internationally, working on rebuilding gardens and food programs, to teach children about eating and gardening. She’s a visionary and my hero. She’s on my “I’m Impressed” pedestal, for her her vivacity and dedication to spreading her work and her word. Amen, sister.

As my dining room table is now overflowing with books and CDs, on my walk down memory lane, my kitchen table, close by, is covered with the seasons local organic pears and apples. I drink the wine of my favorite local organic winery, and if possible, I cook the food from the local farmers, to bring harmony into the lives surrounding me, mine foremost. My walls are covered with the art of people’s dreams, theirs’ that I can only fantasize about and honor. I dance and write my own dreams, inspired by those who have come before me, but they are mine.

As I have aged, matured, ripened like those pears into my forties, I don’t put so many gods on my pedestals. I still have them, it takes more to impress me now. I wouldn’t say that I am jaded, or have seen it all, not at all. I hope I never approach life with those views. I still love to be wowed, knocked off my chair, and given ideas to ponder. Now I am more selective who I choose for godhood. I have lived through drugs, rock n’ roll, promiscuous sex, spiritual searchings. I have found intense, romantic, and satisfying love with my soul mate. I have become a successful artist and career woman. I have worked my land and learned how to sustain myself. Not that my search for enlightenment and life meaning and adventure is over. Never. There is too much is this most fantastic world to experience

My gods, I thank them. Why not worship them, put them on a pedestal? Through words and music and art, they have helped to make and shape my life, to maintain my sense of humor, even through my darkest searches, and encouraged me to retreat or march forward with open arms. Maybe I do romanticize them a bit too much. In my eyes they are living to their full potential. Courage, my gods give me courage. Courage to dream, write, dance, cook, love. To keep on.

Let the heroes be worshipped. And the gods be praised. I testify. Amen.


(ED: I posted this in parts before, but one of my heroes, Derek Silvers, asked about heroes on his blog, so I thought I would post again, for the new readers as well… it’s always good to revisit the idea. Who are your heroes? gods? Bring it on!)

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