“Don’t meet your heroes.” It’s an adage that people repeat often, and often for good reason. When we think of heroes, we think of human beings who are the inverse of normal people: their positive attributes outweigh their flaws and foibles. When we meet them, we find that…well, they’re just people. From perfection, there’s nowhere to go but down. Among those I admire are Virginia Woolf, William Faulker and Nicola Tesla; if any of these people were alive, I’d know better than to meet them lest the messiness of their personal lives affect my respect for the work they produced. There are many things I admire about Oprah Winfrey, but having grown up watching her, I’m pretty certain that the self-love that Winfrey teaches on television would be greatly overshadowed by the self-love that Oprah practices in her day-to-day life. I’d be grateful meet her, of course, but I would be prepared to encounter the flawed human being behind The Oprah Brand.
Yesterday, I had the remarkable opportunity to interview, for the second time, my “hero,” or heroine as the case may be. I wouldn’t normally use that word, but that’s the word from the cliche. I’d probably use “muse” or “inspiration” left to my own devices. In any case, after having spoken twice with this person, I can say definitively that if you idolize a person for the right reasons, you should definitely make every effort to meet him or her–as long as you can do so in a substantial way. When people say “don’t meet your heroes,” they don’t mean “don’t ask your heroes for a selfie” (although that could be disastrous and dream crushing in many instances, too); they mean, the person you’ve elevated to superhuman status is nothing more than human, and you’re bound to be disappointed about it.
Anyone who knows me already knows who my heroine, muse, inspiration, idol, whatever you want to call her, is: Tori Amos. I don’t have a crush on her; I think she’s beautiful outside and inside, but my allegiance to her isn’t superficial–it’s substantive. It’s because, as with a parent or a teacher who alters the trajectory of a child or student’s life, her words and actions have had a profound effect on my world view and how I behave in this life. I’ve encountered her in passing several times, but I don’t have a single selfie with her, and I’m totally OK with that because–thanks in large part to her music–I’ve learned that wise teachings are sacred, and trophies are not.
I spoke with Amos briefly yesterday for an interview about her forthcoming project, the original cast recording of her original musical The Light Princess, and hopefully that interview will materialize soon and I’ll link to it here. But since the interview is for print, the thing that won’t make it to the story is Amos’s demeanor and delivery; if anyone reads this, I encourage you to type “Tori Amos interview” into YouTube and watch how this person speaks: every word is chosen carefully and delivered with respect. Every comment she makes about any person–even, as in the case of my conversation with her yesterday, Donald Trump–is thoughtful, deliberate, and measured. Not for the sake of safety and self-protection, but because Amos–and you can hear it in her voice–cares. She really cares.
January 1 will mark the 20th anniversary of the release of Boys for Pele, Amos’s avant garde 1996 album that is, in my opinion, one of her masterworks alongside Scarlet’s Walk and Night of Hunters. Pele was the first Amos album I ever listened to, and it was so off putting to someone conditioned by a lifetime of pop music that I initially hated it…before being drawn back to it six months after I purchased it. The album then drew me in, irresistibly, and guided me through my own most difficult experiences to see the proverbial light on the other side. Ultimately, it was one of many breadcrumbs that led me to experience (or work with, as Amos correctly describes it) ayahuasca, which–and I mean this in all seriousness-is a spiritual, realer-than-real teacher who has a this-world counterpart in the album Boys for Pele.
I went off on a tangent. It happens; one of my writing professors’ most important criticisms of my writing is that “you can’t resist following shiny objects.” It’s true, but as she also said, I always come back to my point.
Tori Amos in conversation speaks slowly, which over the phone can be slightly awkward because it’s hard to know for sure whether she has completed a thought or is choosing her next words with great care and consideration. (Usually it’s the latter.) As time passes, she is only more thoughtful, more of a sage.
Anyone who reads this, I suspect, will be a Tori Amos fan and understand what I mean here. There’s a great irony in my appreciation of this artist because although I was raised in a completely unreligious environment, Boys for Pele in all its darkness and with a song called “Father Lucifer” frightened me back in 1996 because I wondered if it were some sort of Satanic exploration. I came to find out that Amos is the daughter of a Methodist minister, brought up in confusion with strong Cherokee spiritual beliefs as well, and that only made listening all the more confusing and confounding. But the music dared me to listen, and when I did, I realized that Amos despite being labeled by many at the time as a “man hater” and a “devil worshipper” is exactly the opposite–and that’s what has made her my hero to this day.
I’m one of those people who will tell you “I’m not religious, but I do consider myself very spiritual.” That’s in part due to my nature and in part due to Amos’s influence on my world view. When people tell me they are Christian, I admit, I have an immediate bias against them, and a fear of them, because I’ve found most churchgoers to be clannish, tribal and separatist–actually the opposite of what I believe were the teachings of Christ, who preached practicing compassion. Real compassion and empathy, which is rare today and rare certainly among those who identify themselves as practicing Christians.
I don’t write that to be antagonistic. It’s an observation based on my life experiences.
Tori Amos is, after my parents, my greatest ‘hero’ for a number of reasons–her unbridled imagination, her astute observations and ability to articulate them, her creative discipline and never-ending evolution, her business prowess, and I could go on–but more than anything, because she practices empathy unlike few people I’ve ever known or known of.
Amos’s play, The Light Princess, is an expression of empathy toward teenagers. As we spoke, the current state of U.S. politics organically came up in conversation and I couldn’t resist asking about Donald Trump; remarkably, Amos discussed him without attacking or personally condemning, but rather by observing the greater concern of so many Americans rallying around someone who preaches hatred of entire groups of people. When discussing it, Amos’s voice was super-saturated with real concern and heartbreak.
Tori Amos is the polar opposite of so many people who make headlines these days; she’s a brilliant thinker and could easily make headlines by making astute, pointed remarks about today’s idiocracy–but she won’t go there for a headline. Amos is a person of integrity unlike almost any other, and she’ll reject easy press in favor of sending measured, carefully worded compassion into the world. The opportunity to speak with her one-on-one is something I treasure because she is challenging in the most uncommon and unexpected of ways: in conversation, everything from her cadence to her word choice challenges you to really listen and to think about the words that you give back. Her mission is greater than self-promotion, and I can’t actually think of any other person in the public eye today about whom that can be said.
So the lesson is, if you’re ever given a chance to meet your heroes, do it. Just make sure you idolize people for the right reasons.