Because Avocadoes Need Plenty of Sunshine, That’s Why

Like many people from my generation I have a few personal heroes to whom I look to for inspiration. I know everyone is flawed and everyone screws up here and there and the hero I want to highlight in this post absolutely did, (for one, she ditched her only child in order to go off and have her amazing life) but, while I couldn’t do it myself, in a hard-to-describe-way that just made her dossier that much more fascinating to me.

Whenever I talk about Beryl Markham—and I do it not infrequently—I always mention the Avocado Farm. In some ways, this seemingly insignificant and certainly boring chapter in the famous aviatrix’s life engages and intrigues me more than any other.

First a little background: Beryl Markham was a British citizen born in 1902 and moved to Kenya as a toddler. Her childhood, depicted briefly in the film “Out of Africa” as the wild-child “Felicity” tearing up the countryside on the outskirts of Isak’s Dinesen’s farm was singular in many ways, not the least of which was the fact that she spent most of her time with the Nandi natives training to be a young male warrior. Her mother, horrified at what she considered primitive conditions in 1904 Kenya, fled back to England, but little Beryl wouldn’t budge. She was beautiful as all great heroines must be, strong-minded and smart. A natural with horses, she became the first licensed female horse trainer in Kenya. Her lovers included Bror Blixen, Dinesen’s husband, Denys Finch-Hatton, Dinesen’s lover, and Prince Henry, brother of King George VI. She learned to fly with Tom Campbell Black (both Finch-Hatton and Black died in plane crashes) and was the first person to fly the Atlantic east to west in a solo non-stop flight which she did in spite of prevailing Atlantic winds, fog and almost total darkness.

On top of all that, she wrote a book. An amazing book. “West with the Night.” To give you an idea of her ability as a writer—up to this point undiscovered—here is a comment on the book in 1942 from Earnest Hemingway—notoriously sparse with literary praise:

 “I knew (Markham) fairly well in Africa and never would have suspected that she could and would put pen to paper except to write in her flyer’s log book. As it is, she has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and some times making an okay pigpen. But this girl who is, to my knowledge, very unpleasant…can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers. The only parts of it that I know about personally, on account of having been there at the time and heard the other people’s stories, are absolutely true. So, you have to take as truth the early stuff about when she was a child which is absolutely superb… I wish you would get it and read it because it is really a bloody, wonderful book.”

So I hope I’ve set the stage for you to see what an astonishingly incredible person Markham was. A super nova in every sense of the word. Which is why the Avocado Farm stage always intrigues me to the point that I cannot let it go. I keep mulling it over and trying to make it fit into her biography—and maybe my own?

You see, after Beryl had done all these amazing things and was a mega-celebrity on all continents worth mentioning, she married Raoul Schumacher and moved to California where the pair ran an avocado ranch. Mary S. Lovell’s book “Straight On Till Morning” says that she and Raoul spent their days drinking and watching the avocados grow. After years of intense  international celebrity, of partying hard with the famous and the infamous and filling world headlines with her world-firsts accomplishments, she spent what we might consider today to be her peak years drinking herself to sleep every night and staring into space for nearly ten full years. She didn’t party or socialize. She didn’t do anything except fight with her third husband and drink.

And then.

In 1952 she left the avocados and the third husband and returned to Kenya. She started raising and training horses, and from 1958 to 1972 she was the most successful trainer in Kenya, winning all of the major racing prizes. Before she died in 1986 at the age of 84, West with the Night was republished and became an instant best-seller.  

So, okay. Back to the Avocado Farm. What was that? Do we all have a period in our lives where we’re growing avocados before we get back to being amazing? Or, as I suspect with my own biography, are our whole lives one big avocado farm with a few interrupting glimmers of awesomeness peeking through here and there?

When our heroes track mud on the living room carpet

Seventeen years ago, I found an awesome book called Simple Abundance by Sarah Ban Breathnach. I have worn this book out, underlined it, typed whole sections into my smartphone over the years, mined it for never-fail gems upon which I have launched many a blog post. I remember loving her voice, her assuredness as I re-read her words of wisdom, much of it researched by great writers and thinkers, explorers and doers in history and enhanced and made current to our lives, our time by Ms. Breathnach’s own gentle voice and common sense perspective.

It’s not hyperbole to say that she touched my life. I found comfort and balance in her words and reached for this book often. If you’re not familiar with it, she gives an essay for every day of the year and while she mostly speaks to women, her essays cover everything from raising children to digging out of credit card debt to finding your passion to cooking a simple meal.

Today, I looked up the chapter where she addresses Spending Habits. She wrote: “One of the greatest gifts my husband has ever given me is the ability to think before I spend. This is how savers behave. Savers don’t get a high from recreational shopping. Savers don’t shop in order to make themselves feel better…Today, be willing to gently explore your life-energy expenditures. Don’t blame yourself for bad choices. Do attempt to make better ones. Most of our problems in handling money stem from unexamined patterns rather than from uncontrollable urges.”

Okay. Very nice, and as true today in 2012 as it was when she wrote it in 1995. You might have read this in last month’s O Magazine, it’s so current sounding. In fact, Ms. Breathnach appeared on Oprah’s show 11 times.

Which is why I was so shocked to discover that a few years after selling 7 million copies of Simple Abundance, Ms. Breathnach ended up divorced, broke and sleeping on the couch at her sister’s. (As a writer, myself, this is definitely not how one dreams that being a mega-bestseller author will end up.)

We all have heroes that fail us. We are all human. I get that. I think it’s remarkably gutsy to write a book saying you have researched all the answers and then go on Oprah eleven times to underscore the point.

And then trip.

My hat is off to her for trying in such a big way. In fact, I may currently be even more impressed with Ms. Breathnach than I was before her fall. It’s one thing to be all Yoda and wise when you’re sitting in your comfy middle-class home when you don’t have to worry about a day job because you have a working spouse. It’s quite another when you’re homeless, in debt up to your eyeballs and jobless.  Here is one Phoenix, however, I have to believe is destined to rise from the ashes.

Not surprisingly, she’s got a new book out about her journey. But for me, I think I’ll pass. Don’t get me wrong, my hat is off to her and her unsinkable Molly Brown ability to fashion opportunity out of failure, but I’ve gotten a few years under my belt since I last looked outward for my heroes. Today, I’m looking closer to home for that and sorting out the codes and values that define my life the old fashioned way: by trying to live them day by day instead of reading about them.

Living and Loving an Ordinary Life

About 20 years ago, a crisis occurred in a Texas suburb which captured the attention of the country—and then the world. A baby, named Jessica, fell down a well. Rescuers worked for 58 hours to free “Baby Jessica” from the eight-inch-wide well casing 22 feet below the ground..

The fame that came to the people involved in this drama was intense and, like so much in our over-stimulated American culture, fleeting. The young man who did, without thinking, what he thought he should do, was lauded as a “hero,” which, no one doubted that he was. He was told how super-extraordinary he was on talk shows, radio shows, he appeared on Good Morning America, was the focus of best selling books and a made-for-TV movie. When all the excitement died down and the cameras turned else where, when the next “hot” story eclipsed the Jessica story, this young man was faced with going back to living his ordinary life. But for him, there couldn’t be ordinary ever again. How, after you have tasted being a superstar, after you have had Presidents shake your hand, after you have been made to believe that you were so special? How could you go back to pumping gas and living in your hometown after that? He couldn’t. After ten years of trying, he killed himself. His sister said: “After being famous for a bit, he just couldn’t settle back down to living an ordinary life.”

What is this so-called Ordinary life? Do any of us really aspire to have one? Can you blame this poor guy for not being able to go back to life before all the fame and excitement? Remember, he was happy before he got famous. He was content.

A few Christmases ago, my son really wanted the guitar video game called Rock Band. This game allows players—who have never picked up a guitar in their lives—to  perform in virtual “bands” by providing the ability to play three different peripherals modeled after music instruments. These peripherals are used to simulate the playing of rock music by hitting scrolling notes on-screen. Can you imagine? During this period of his life, he didn’t know how to play these instruments, but he did produce music—and really, amazingly good music, with his friends, in the basement using an Xbox and a device that looks like an electric guitar. My husband, who had a real garage band as a teenager, was appalled. Today, my son, after five years of weekly guitar lessons and endless hours of practice, is a very good, real, guitar player. The playworld of being a guitarist instilled the pleasure and kudos of the accomplishment without the actual accomplishment. But the lie was felt. The kudos were undeserved. And that lie, as pleasurable as it was, was still a lie and eventually prompted my son to go for the real thing.

We are surrounded, engulfed by technology. It makes our lives so much better in so many ways, but it’s also helped to undermine our sense of reality because it suggests that life is constant high drama. Ordinary life is more subtle. It’s difficult for a developing chrysalis on the backyard oak tree to compete with the excitement of saving the world from invading aliens or making a Super Bowl touchdown. (The virtual experience derived from the most basic of video games.)

The real world, the natural world, doesn’t typically allow one the likelihood of being twelve years old and playing in a rock band (especially without all the hassle of years of music lessons.) Or to be pumping gas in Texas one day and speaking to Diane Sawyer the next on national TV.

While it’s possible that you or I might be able to handle the five minutes of fame better than poor Kevin Draper did, it’s also possible that this young man is, in himself, a cautionary tale. A tale that suggests that the further we get away from what’s real, the more we layer on the superlatives, the over-the-top praise, and add the extra, unnecessary gloss, the further we get away from who we are in a true, organic sense.

Real life is dull. It’s housework, watering the garden, and staring off into space as you do it. It’s preparing a meal. And most pleasures in real life are small ones…a hot shower, a beautiful sunset, a bowl of soup, a good book. When did we all start looking to win the lottery? Or star in our own TV shows? When did the manic drama of what could be, take the place of what is?

I am sure that we should all strive to be the best we can be and to try to achieve great things. But, in the process of doing all the hard work required to achieve those great things, it might help to remember what perfection there lies in an ordinary life, lived with pleasure and enjoyment of our surroundings and each other.

Just a thought.