This advice was offered on her deathbed by the grandmother to a man whose spiritual advice I admire a great deal. He followed that advice. It cost him dearly.
Choosing to live outside the lines, to live a different life will do that sometimes.
However, that man also left an extraordinary legacy of books, materials and an example that, like other Outliers, serves to inspire me.
My personal muse, however, is early 1900s African aviatrix and horsewoman extraordinaire Beryl Markham.
While many have cometo know her through the novel “Circling the Sun” by Paula McLain, for decades I have admired and studied Markham’s brilliant and remarkable life.
The first female bush pilot in Africa. The first woman to be given a license to train race horses in Kenya (and she beat the men at their own game with lesser horses). The first person to fly from Europe to North America. First. First. First.
She was tall and slim and gorgeous and outrageous and universally hated and loved. She competed with Isak Dineson (the real life Karen Blixen) for the affections of that wimp — and he WAS a wimp — Denys Finch-Hatton. In real life, Finch-Hatton was no Robert Redford. In fact, he was little more than a charming underachiever, a selfish, self-serving ne’er do well, nothing compared to the exceptional women he romanced.
But I digress.
The Price of Being a Trailblazer
Markham lived outside the norm. She paid for it dearly. Even today people rip her for her rollicking choice of lifestyle. Raised as a child to hunt with natives rather than attend charm school, she was from the very beginning a rebel, defined by different, a trailblazer. A two time author, even today people attack her for not writing her own books. As though ghost writers don’t do most of the work for nearly every high profile celebrity today. Get over yourselves already. Even if she didn’t do all her own writing, she most certainly did own all her own accomplishments. As do we all.
Beryl Markham never did what others did. As a result she carved out a daring, amazing, extraordinary life that continues to shine to this day. Castigated by many in her own day but yet successful in so many ways, she is a towering example of a life well-lived. She was bullheaded and flawed and blunt. In other words, not a proper “good girl.” She was unapologetically powerful, even by today’s standards.
High School Reunions
When I head to Winter Haven, Florida, for my high school reunions, I am reminded of why I constantly choose not to do what others do. The year I turned sixty I had been invited to participate in a combined sixty-year-old birthday party- what had been billed at the time as “One Foot In the Old Folk’s Home.” I’d never been invited to anything by my high school before (too much of an Outlier).
Unfortunately, I had to demur. The day the event was to take place, I was instead in Salta, Argentina, exploring the Salt Flats, with my guide, Angiena.
I sent photos. Salta is breathtaking.
Not surprisingly I’ve been dis-invited to similar events. But then, they’re likely to fall on dates that I’m going to be kayaking to see musk ox in Greenland, hiking to see polar bears in the Svalsbard Islands, riding horses in Kazakhstan…
These days my high school buddies “reward” me by carefully photographing everyone at the reunions BUT me. When the photos go out to the mailing list, I may as well have not attended. This is how people punish Outliers. It’s puerile, childish, and, well….so very high school. But there you are.
Set My Underwear on Fire
People don’t like Outliers. Part of this is that Outliers remind us of choices we might have made, the Robert Frost’s Road Not Taken. What if’s. They made choices I could have made, too. There is a cost incurred for all our choices. As in, not to marry. Not to have kids. Not to live a traditional life.
These folks all have grandkids and deep families in Florida or elsewhere. I have deep families in Iceland, Argentina, Tanzania, Turkey, Canada, Sweden, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, Zamba, South Africa…you get the picture. My grandkids are everyone’s grandkids. My cousins, everyone’s cousins. When I walk a village in Uganda and greet an old woman respectfully by calling her “Mama,” I mean it. She knows it, which is why she smiles at me so broadly. Our embrace is one of recognition, not of strangers.
It’s an uncommon life. I am no Beryl Markham by any stretch, but I do buck convention. You can pay dearly for living outside the boundaries. There is no better or worse way to live, no judgment implied. It’s just what I chose. As a result I don’t know many mid-sixties women who have stories like mine. Like the 31- year-old Patagonia guide named Berny with whom I had such great sex that he set my undies on fire. Okay, well, the part about the sex is a lie. But he DID set my underwear on fire. Said undies, parts of it crisped to a curl, are hanging in my dining room. True story. You cannot make this stuff up. Berny still sends me emails asking if he can carry my luggage when I travel.
Live Your Own Life
There’s a great line in one of my favorite movies, Secretariat, when the big colt’s owner introduces the animal to her crippled father. He says, as he had said to his daughter Penny all his life, “Let him run his own race.” We’d all do well to follow that advice. What kind of life do you want to live? What stories do you want to tell?
There is no “right” way. I do know that trying to emulate some Hollywood twit whose life is likely a mess of divorce, drug abuse and depression is not my idea of being inspired. Or, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on plastic surgery to look like that massive twit Kim Kardashian? For God’s sake, GET YOUR OWN LIFE.
Those whose examples have called to me most have dared disapproval, denouncement, and denial. Not the folks who color inside the lines.
Oh, the lives they have lived. Jane Goodall, Beryl Markham, Amelia Earhart, Robyn Davidson, Blair Braverman. And the millions about whom we know nothing, but who dared to live differently, outrageously, remarkably, on their own terms. They paid for their extraordinariness with public censure, abuse, mockery. Especially now that we have social media with which we can castigate those who offend us in some way. If we dare talk about what we’ve done, we risk abuse for bragging.
As they say, it ain’t bragging if you’ve done it.
Outliers. Live outside the lines. Write your own novel. Whatever your version of extraordinary is, just do it now.
The ancient mapmakers, when faced with a lack of information about seas or lands, drew dragons beyond what was known. Beyond these borders there be dragons.
You’re damned right. Let’s go catch one and ride it.