How I learned to keep the wolf away.
With the New Year here and our resolutions already melting away to make room for the demands of everyday life, I got to thinking about how walls literally and figuratively hold us back from doing “our thing” – that activity or creative endeavor we’re drawn to do. So I’ll start this piece with my own story of feeling stuck behind a wall eighteen years ago in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Standing along a seventeen mile fence line, my Marines and I were tasked with “protecting” everyone on the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base from the marauding commies on the other side. At any given time, I had six Marines standing in guard towers. So that's six teenagers with M-16s along a seventeen mile front between us and the bad guys. That’s one Marine per three miles in a tower. (The remaining twenty or so guard towers sat empty.) So there we were, guarding the last outpost for a Cold War that ended fifteen years before.
Rarely in my life have I felt more mediocre or stagnant than when I stood guard along this wall. Nearly every other Marine Officer I knew was in Iraq or Afghanistan -- seeking danger and doing what they signed on to do as Marines: to fight! But not me. I just sat in Cuba behind a wall of razor-wire. And unless I decided to drive my government-issued pickup truck through the fence and across a minefield to the land of big cigars, cheap Mojitos, and ’57 Chevys, I wasn’t going anywhere.
I still recall sitting down during a night off with a microwave pizza, watching the 2004 movie, King Arthur. Watching Arthur and his knights riding north to meet the invading Saxon barbarians in battle, I recognized the wall they eventually came upon -- a wall that a century earlier marked the northern edge of the civilized world. It was Hadrian’s Wall.
Named after the Roman emperor, Hadrian, who built it four hundred years before Arthur’s time to keep northern barbarians from invading Roman Britain, the wall stretched eighty miles from the Irish Sea to the North Sea across the narrow waist of Britain. Hadrian’s Wall was an architectural marvel that historian Adrian Goldsworthy writes, marked “the end of the [Roman] empire, where civilization stopped and barbarism began.”
During Rome's imperial heyday, as many as 60,000 soldiers and auxiliaries manned the wall. But by the time Arthur arrived, those men were long gone, and their abandoned forts, garrisons, and towers were now occupied by a smattering of British Warlords.
In the movie, Arthur enters perhaps the most famous of the wall’s seventeen forts at Vindolanda, which at one time garrisoned thousands of Roman troops. Amidst the nearly vacant and dilapidated fort, Arthur meets with the local warlord who grants him safe passage.
As the mythic king and his knights gallop through the gate towards the northern mists, the camera pans over them, showing the wall they leave behind. As the knights gallop in a wedged formation, I see the warlord’s garrisoned soldiers standing on the wall, watching the braver and more capable Arthurian knights ride out of view. Unlike Arthur and Lancelot, these garrisoned soldiers have no great quest. They just stand there, marking time, going nowhere.
Watching, I sighed, “that’s me.” I had no dragon to slay or holy grail to discover. I was stuck. “What the hell am I doing here?” I finally asked myself. “I’m doing nothing,” I answered.
Feeling no agency in my life, I began to consider leaving the Marine Corps, whom I conveniently began to blame for holding me back in life by assigning me to bullshit units, in bullshit places, doing bullshit things.
As I considered my options, I kept coming back to my great love: history. In Gitmo, reading history became my way to escape. One book I read at that time that stood out from the rest was a narrative history of the Peloponnesian War, written by an exiled Athenian General named Thucydides.
Reading a book that's 2500 years old, written by a guy who actually faced Spartans in combat stirred me with wonder. And one particular battle he describes fascinated me the most. It was the Battle of Sphacteria fought in 425BC where a seemingly indestructible Spartan army did the unthinkable: they surrendered.
In my office almost adjacent to the Gitmo wall, an idea hit me: I’d like to write about the Battle of Sphacteria. So I did. I sat down and started to write. As one page turned into two, I began to feel better. For the first time in a while, I felt some direction and movement with what I was doing.
When I finally finished the piece and shared it with another officer I worked with, he said, “Sorry man, I just don’t think it’s very good.”
So I emailed it to my fiancé (now wife), who – and you might find this shocking – had not read Thucydides. But like a good partner, she read what I wrote. When she sent it back to me with red lines, corrections, and edits galore, I realized something that seemed obvious to everyone who read my stuff: I was a bad writer. In fact, I was horrible. But she encouraged me to keep at it -- to just keep writing. So I did.
As I wrote and wrote, I began to realize that what mattered wasn’t so much the quality of my prose, but how writing made me feel. It made me feel better. Writing gave me something to do, something that was hard, creative, and satisfying -- something I could call my own.
The Value of Pain
Looking back, I’m grateful to the Marine Corps for assigning me to places I didn’t want to go on missions I didn’t want to do. Had they given me all that I wanted, I would have continued to rely on them for my opportunities, my identity, and my happiness. But because I didn’t get what I wanted, the resulting pain became my wakeup call -- my call to action.
Responding to the pain, I realized that nothing – not a wall in Cuba nor a bureaucracy in the Marine Corps – had the power to make me feel stuck. I could flourish in life, but to do so, I had to act. I had to find "my thing" and do it. So I did. And that first five-page piece I wrote about surrendering Spartans became my first steps towards a new future. Eventually, those five written pages turned to hundreds of pages, and over the years, to thousands.
And believe me, it hasn't been easy. Writing isn't always fun, and sometimes, it's downright excruciating. But that's because it's hard! Yet through it all, I've always believed that "writing is what I want to do." And I’m here to tell you, it’s worth it. Because during those magical moments when an idea hits me and I’m running wet from the shower to write it down or typing so fast that the muse can't steal it back, I feel an elation that’s difficult to describe – something no amount of money or prestige will ever give me. It's a feeling every creative person feels when they draw, build, write, dance, sing, play, or do.
When I finish a piece I’ve been toiling on for days or weeks, I feel like I’ve brought something into the world, something that has never existed before. So I guess that's art. And I gotta tell you, art feels damn good -- and it matters. Why does it matter? Because it keeps the wolf away.
Keep moving, barbarians.