I’ve Been High

Markus Pernhart - Romantic Vista of Triglav (1860)  “I’ve Been High” ~ by Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Michael Stipe (R.E.M.)

Have you seen?
not will travel
Have I missed the big reveal?
Do my eyes,
Do my eyes seem empty?
I’ve forgotten how this feels.

I’ve been high
I’ve climbed so high
The light, sometimes it washes over me.

Standardized Success: By my fortieth birthday, despite all predictions to the contrary, by current societal standards my life was a success. I truly felt I had it all. I was happily married to my soul mate. My wife and I had built a successful business. We were a financially sound enterprise. I was esteemed by colleagues and clients, and was often sought and consulted for my expertise in my field.

I held court on my fortieth birthday by plopping down in my beach chair at the shoreline near my summer house, craft beer in hand and feet dangling in the warm wash of the Lake Michigan waves. Several dozen friends and family stopped by to toast me and wish me continuing success. Looking back on my life that day, I knew I’d climbed so high. The light of it washed over me.

And yet, I knew there was more. This was success, but what did it mean? Had I missed the big reveal?

Have you been?
done will travel
I fell down on my

Was I wrong?
I don’t know, don’t answer.
I just needed to believe.

Something More: Six weeks after my fortieth came 9-11-01. A year after that we lost a loved one, and learned of the terminal illness of another loved one. Life went on. Business was still business. Success paid the bills—but the challenge of it no longer tasted so sweet.

We knew it was time to reevaluate. I’ve told the tale before (in detail here), but I’ll synopsize for those who haven’t heard it. We walked away, leaving the comforts of success behind. Have-done will travel.

We downsized, moving to our beloved cottage in the woods. We sold or gave away the lion’s share of our possessions. Life slowed down. Things were less certain, less secure. And yet we found the time to search for meaning and peace, to attempt to be in the moment—seeking to better know ourselves, and to enjoy each other every day. Striving for success by our own standards.

Were we wrong to walk away from the comforts of making a lucrative living? I don’t know, don’t answer. But I still suspect we are meant for something more than making money and accumulating possessions. I just needed to believe. And still do.

I’ve been high
I’ve climbed so high
The light, sometimes it washes over me.

So I dive into a pool.
So cool and deep that if I sink I sink,
And when I swim I fly, so high.

Taking the Plunge: Writing fiction has stripped away all of the vestiges of my so-called former success. And not just due to a lack of monetary compensation. I am the boss of one—myself. I amFree-diving image no longer an expert. Far from it. I am, and shall long be, a humble student of the process—a protégé to those who’ve spent a lifetime swimming these waters. It’s daunting. There are no lifeguards. If I sink, I sink.

But since diving in, I’ve come to realize that nothing feels more natural, or more rewarding, than writing. I know my early attempts were awkward, and yet they awoke a love of learning and challenge, and revealed a longing to strive for deeper understanding.

The exposure afterward can be cold, but also bracing. The muscle memory gained through practice allows me to go deeper with each attempt than I’d previously dared. By most societal standards, I am not yet a successful writer. But when I swim I fly—so high.

What I want
All I really want is

Just to live my life on high.

And I know
I know you want the same
I can see it in your eyes.

Success by Choice: Every writer I know was or is a success… At something. I know plenty of successful novelists and publishing industry folks. But I also know fiction writers who are former doctors, lawyers, and journalists. There are former painters and actors. And so many are so well-educated—with multiple degrees from prestigious schools.

Or they are successful because they did not have such opportunities. Some have raised themselves up from the humblest of upbringings, taking steady jobs and bonding with partners for love, and raising beautiful children. And they write for an hour after the family is in bed, or before they get up. I think I admire them the most.

But we all choose to write—to dive into those daunting waters. Only to expose ourselves to the cold afterward, hoping to learn and grow. Striving to go deeper. When I see your posts, and hear of your ongoing writerly struggles, I know you want the same thing I do—to live life on high. I can see it in your eyes.

We know that when we swim we fly. We are all successes. By our own standards. Just for continuing to dive and to strive—and to fly, so high.

I’ve been high
I’ve climbed so high
The light, sometimes it washes over me.

Washes over me
I close my eyes
So I can see
Make my make-
believe, believe in me.

Seeing the Real Me: It’s odd to think that only by delving into a make-believe world have I come to know myself. I’d hardly paused to try to recognize myself through the years of my successful business run. I didn’t really know what I considered heroic or honorable. I hadn’t asked myself what I really believe are admirable traits in my fellow human beings—let alone myself. I’d never asked myself if I thought mankind was intrinsically noble or base. I hadn’t asked what my marriage really meant to me, or what I hoped to achieve before I left this earth—what I’d like to be remembered for, or even if I was worthy of being remembered.

Sure, by society’s standards, I’ve been high. But my writerly self finds those standards lacking. I’ve found that writing takes me to another level. Society might see my fiction-writing as a make-believe form of success. But I close my eyes to their standards. I close them so I can see. Only through my make-believe perspective have I come to believe in me.

How about you? Do you consider yourself a success? By whose standards?

Image credit: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/photo_20329071_freediver-gliding-underwater-over-vivid-coral-reef.html’>mihtiander / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

37 comments on “I’ve Been High

  1. brindle808 says:

    Profound post, Vaughn. “We know that when we swim we fly. We are all successes. By our own standards. Just for continuing to dive and to strive—and to fly, so high.” I think that sums it up beautifully. I learn and grow from my writing – my process of learning to express myself. Each time I dig deeper and reveal, I consider that a success.


    • I heard this song yesterday for the first time in a long time, and it brought tears to my eyes. The album it appeared on was released about the time of our life-change. It meant a lot, and means a lot. The post just came pouring out of me (I was supposed to be working on something else, but…).

      Yay–I’m so glad you consider yourself a success, Brin. You are bravely doing what it takes–stretching and growing. I’m so proud of you! Thanks for your ongoing support!


  2. This is really powerful, Vaughn, and I can really relate to so much of it. Especially this: “I’ve come to realize that nothing feels more natural, or more rewarding, than writing…” As for success: by choosing to write every day and of enjoying every minute of being able to, I feel like a success. Great post!


    • Oh good, I’m so glad it resonates for you, Julia. For me, this post was difficult to hit the publish button on.

      You make an excellent point about enjoying the process. We can all get caught up in the angst of it, but it’s important to step back and realize how lucky we are to have found this means of expression and striving for self-knowledge. Thank you for your kind praise!


  3. Very deep. I was successful too. Finished 20 years in the Air Force, worked at at major computer company. Retired and did volunteer work. All of that time I was searching for something else. In 2011 I tried writing. I’ve been writing ever since.


    • Hi Connie, nice to see you here. Wow, you had a number of successes! Funny how our hearts knew to keep searching for a certain type of fulfillment. Thanks for sharing. I’m glad we both found our hearts’ calling. As my friend and mentor Therese Walsh always says: Write on!


  4. ddfalvo says:

    Who we are is largely defined by the choices we make. There’s nothing wrong with success, it’s not the antithesis of good, honest living. It’s a means, nothing more.
    But success that doesn’t fulfill the soul, that’s a wrong turn. A detour of destiny. Finding our way, that’s the endeavor of a lifetime–a journey that never ends, made better with good company. Your inspiring words remind us all to keep forging on and revel in the moments as we go. 😉

    I am the master of my fate:
    I am the captain of my soul.


    • I totally agree, D, that there’s nothing wrong with success. What I found problematic was the “rat-on-a-wheel” syndrome that came with business success. I found myself easily caught up in worrying about what others thought of the car I was driving. Funny, for the past ten years I have never felt judged by my beat-up old pick up truck. 😉

      And I do feel there is an intended destiny in my writing journey. I’m not fatalistic–it is incumbent upon all of us to strive–but I do feel I’ve found my heart’s calling. Love that last couplet! Thanks for your wise words and your ongoing support!


  5. katmagendie says:

    beautiful, Vaughn – like you


  6. sugaropal says:

    Would you believe this is what I wrote this morning? From the POV of my male adolescent protagonist while he studies for a Spanish quiz…. “To fly. Volar. To swim. Nadar. Swimming underwater is kind of like flying. For me, anyway. No roads to follow—I go where I choose, as deep as I can, as far as I can, until I have no more breath. The ocean frees me from time and gravity, makes me feel connected to something so big and important I can’t find the words to describe it.” Keep living life on high, my friend 😉


  7. liz says:

    Loved this, Vaughn. It sounds as if you and Maureen have priorities I can get behind. Success right now means something completely different than it did in my twenties, and I’m more than ok with that.


    • My definition of success has always been a work in progress, but I’d like to think that I take in a bigger viewpoint on life now than I did in those days. We both always thought there was something a little empty about conspicuous consumption. Thankfully, now that we necessarily live more simply. I’m pretty happy with the evolution. Thanks, Liz!


  8. After years in an artistic field, I took a “straight” job in retail home improvement. I was shocked. So many people complained because the cabinets and whatnot they’d ordered were not the color they expected, or had arrived late, or just didn’t satisfy… They were making life and death scenes over stuff. Stuff… I was horrified. Some of these complainers were physically old too, and they were upset about material stuff that perhaps they wouldn’t be around to use in the near future. I didn’t get it. I still don’t get it. How can material stuff be so important that you will abuse people and threaten their livelihoods because that material stuff doesn’t make you happy?

    Then, I had a personal epiphany. I was supposed to see this. I needed to realize how often I was guilty of this stuff, too. How I forgot how big the picture is, and how it is what you do in all the little moments in our narrow time-trapped perceptions, that resonate in the big picture.

    It has not been an easy lesson. But when I took up my pen again I realized, It’s not about the stuff that never lasts, it’s about the journey.

    Blessed be your journey.


    • Wise words. I agree, we are “meant” to see and learn.

      Mo sometimes thinks I’ve gotten too impatient with people. Although she is much more patient and optimistic than I’ll ever be, I don’t think it’s the people. I’m impatient with attitudes toward things that are meaningless, and with close-mindedness. I don’t have time for people who only want to put others down. I’m impatient with people who are able to be totally tuned in to their phone twelve hours a day, but don’t have the attention span to read a book, or even to discuss a book others have read.

      Thanks for sharing, B. It’s a valuable lesson you speak of, and we all need to continue to strive toward remembering it. The only stuff I want to be buried with is my rune ring and my sword. The rest is eventually destined to compost. 😉


  9. Great to hear your voice again, Vaughn. This was an honest, insightful, and inspiring post. I’ve had little of what most would consider success…traditional success, I suppose. Still, I consider myself a success and the reason is because I had long ago plunged into the abyss, but managed to prevent my demise, managed to catch an edge to cling to at the very last. When virtually everyone I knew had given me up as a memory I clawed my way back, rediscovered my writing, and found a way to “go all in.” The process continues, as it always will, but I’ll not be denied the right to keep trying.


  10. Julie Luek says:

    Vaughn, I did something very similar when I turned 47. After a successful 20+ year in higher education, I decided to give my dream of writing a full-time try. It meant changing lifestyles, kiddos included, which hasn’t been easy, nor has it been tremendously difficult. For me and my peace and joy and contentment, it’s definitely been worth the transition. I’m still finding my way in this writing dream but know that I’m on the right path for this chapter in my life.


    • There is so much power in knowing you are on the right path, isn’t there, Julie? I can only imagine the added difficulty to life-change with kiddos involved. I admire your courage and fortitude. I know you’ll find your way–I can see it in your eyes. 😉 Thanks, Julie!


  11. Thea says:

    I get by, most days, and I have found that when I don’t fret and just open my arms and say yes, I tend to be successful. But I did a big free wall some years back and I have no regrets. Easy? No. Fun? yes. So far I’m still in the game.


    • That’s a powerful affirmation, Thea, made all the more powerful by your personal presence and your humor. I know you’ll not only stay in the game, but come out a winner. Thank you, my friend, for weighing in.


  12. I agree, there’s so many different types of success. And being successful in life isn’t just about having things, but about being a good human. There are plenty of “sucessful” people out there who fail miserably at being aware of the world and people around them, not to mention their own inner awareness. And thanks so much for saying “We are all successes. By our own standards. Just for continuing to dive and to strive—and to fly, so high.” You remind me that the joy is in the journey, not in the destination. 🙂


    • Oh, good! I’m so glad these words resonated for you, Lara. I know you’ve had a few tough days in the past weeks, but I also know what a success you are. You are brave, and a born story-teller. I don’t think there’s any going back for you–you’re a writer. 😉 Thanks for reading and letting me know it was a good reminder! 🙂


      • Thank you, Vaughn – you are the nicest, bestest cheerleader. 🙂 Those things you said mean so much more because they are coming from you. I think you’re an amazing writer, and human, and I’m super-excited that you included me in your tribe. There’s not really an emoticon that fits, maybe a heart? But I don’t know how to make those. 🙂


      • ❤ (Worth a try. 🙂 ) Back atcha!


  13. “It’s odd to think that only by delving into a make-believe world have I come to know myself.”

    That line truly resonated with me. I better understand my needs, values, and what I believe is the essence of love since writing. When all my frustrations and stress over living paycheck-to-paycheck surface, and I find myself immersed in my story or poetry, all of that falls away and I feel that blissful synchronicity.

    I’ve failed at many things in my life. But all of that taught me a little about spirit, and compassion- both of which you have in leaps and bounds.

    Sometimes, it’s lovely to daydream about “success” as a writer, but with all the woes in the world, there I am, fulfilling my creative spirit. And there you are, and all our creative friends, swimming those same vast waters out there somewhere. You know what? I like knowing that, it’s balm for those long days and inner demons. To know you all are out there, like me, swimming and flying.

    “So I dive into a pool.
    So cool and deep that if I sink I sink,
    And when I swim I fly, so high.”



    • I’m glad you’ve found that immersion and the resultant bliss, Tonia. I’ve found, through all of my ups and downs, that “there’s always something.” From what I recall of the days when we were riding high, they were some of the most angst-filled years of my life. No matter the circumstances, we must all guard against surrendering to that “something.” Because it’ll poison the spirit you mention. But I know I’m preaching to the choir here. I know you’ve got a good handle on it.

      I’m with you–our community is such a comfort, isn’t it? You recently named me a mentor, and it shook me (in a good way). You’ve always been an inspiration to me, Tonia. And I know how much I appreciate my mentors. So to be considered as such, especially by you, is humbling and truly an honor. Thank you, for everything!


  14. Jo Eberhardt says:

    I missed this post in my life upheaval, and I’m so glad I remembered to come back and read it.

    Success. For so many people in the modern world, the word is interchangeable with Money. And I certainly get impatient and frustrated with that style of thinking.

    I’ve had many opportunities in my life to be Successful, as per other people’s definition of the word. And every time, my soul has rebelled. I’ve given away Money and Stuff, because giving it away made me happier than keeping it. I’ve left high-paying jobs because I disagreed with changes to the company culture (and subsequently spent three months unemployed, living in a cockroach-infested house, unable to even afford to pay the rent on that. And I’d do the same thing again.

    I got married with 20 people present, including myself and my husband, in a hand-fasting ceremony at 9am on a Sunday morning, where we called on the blessing of the elements and the old Gods. The whole thing cost less than the price of an average wedding dress — and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

    I went to university. I worked in retail and became the youngest ever retail manager for a major chain of bookstores. I had children, I worked in high-stress, sales-based environments. (And I was damn good at it.) And then I stopped working and made the decision to stay home and raise my family — and that’s the toughest job I’ve ever done!

    But through all of it, I knew what I needed to be doing was writing. It’s my Calling. It’s in my blood. It’s my Wyrd. And so here I am, living in the most simple of ways, having again sold or given away almost everything we own, with all the distractions of modern life having been replaced by fresh air and space. Space to walk and think and feel and, most importantly, write.

    And this is where I feel like a Success.


    • If there was ever an exemplar of my intentions for this post, it’s you, Jo. In comparison to what you’ve undertaken, my life-change feels like bragging about ‘roughing it’ after staying in the Ritz. I admired you before I knew you’d walked away from these successes based on principle, but all the more now. And hearing about them doesn’t surprise me.

      Your wedding sounds lovely and perfect. Isn’t it funny how we can choose not only to be successful, but we can choose simplicity and contentedness. We choose happiness. It’s within us to grasp it or not. On my mopey days, I have to remind myself.

      I believe you’ve found your calling. I know it because I feel it myself. And I think we’re the lucky ones for that, and for choosing to follow the Call. The only bad thing about your life-change is the spottiness of your internet service. Not a bad thing in regards to your Calling, but since it’s the place we see one another, sux for me. Thank you for being such a brilliant star in my writerly world, Jo!


  15. fandina says:

    Love your writing, your story and your outlook on life and this post says it all!

    I nominated you and your blog for the Sunshine Award…can’t wait to read your answers to my questions! http://susannahfriis.com/


  16. M.L. Swift says:

    I believe success is somewhat measured by the contentment a man (person) feels about his life. Many financially successful people seem to always want more, aren’t happy, and wallow in stress and misery. They may have things, but in the end, do those things provide comfort? Are they truly a success? I think not.

    In my life, I’ve traveled, made excellent money, invested well, and am now able to take the time to venture down a path which some may call frivolous and a lark. But for once, I’m doing something I truly love. I left a lucrative job, downsized, and made the transition from city slicker to country bumpkin on a nudge from above. I’m glad I heeded the nudge, because this is exactly where I needed to be.

    I don’t live high on the hog, but simply. It’s better that way for now. I was too high for too long and lost sight of the big picture—the purpose of my life. The thin air does something after awhile…

    As long as I continue to heed the nudges and take the next directed steps, then success will follow. I may not become a rich man, but will most assuredly be content.

    Thanks, Vaughn, for another thoughtful post.


    • Sounds like we’ve tread very similar paths on high, Mike. Glad to hear you got the nudge. I needed several, but the last one was the charm, for both me and my wife.

      Funny you mention going from city mouse to country mouse. Same here, and now it’s been pointed out to me–in spite of my former life as an urban highwayman–that I’ve completely lost any semblance of patience for traffic. If I have to wait 20 or 30 seconds on a busy weekend to pull onto our local highway, I growl and grumble. I suppose l feel that life’s too short for gridlock. 😉

      Same here, we’ll probably never be wealthy, but there’s so much more to life, and we’ve never looked back or regretted our move for a moment. Thanks for your awesome comment, Mike! Have a great week!


      • M.L. Swift says:

        Ha! Just a note: after living in California, I learned to have patience in traffic, but now…these drivers get on my nerves! They don’t know how to navigate in traffic and test my patience much more than the CA hwys did.


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