Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Finding and Being Heroines and Heroes

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I am almost unable to put down a nonfiction book that I had read about a few weeks ago. It’s a memoir of a woman who at the lissome age of 21 was recruited by the CIA. It is not ordinarily a book I’d be that eager to read–the CIA isn’t such a compelling topic to me (I wonder about its efficacy, actually), though I appreciate good stories (factual and otherwise) of high adventure or tales related to dangerous circumstances and, of course, accounts of bravery. But I was intrigued enough that I went in search of it.

Women (and men) who leap way past usual comfort zones to accomplish their goals are of interest to me–aren’t they to anyone? I wanted to know who she was and why she did what she did, i.e., what makes her tick. I asked the librarian since I hadn’t found it on the shelves or in “New Arrivals.” He looked it up in the system, murmuring, “Is the the real name of the author? Never heard of her–or this.” I had to admit her name was unusual. And if it was such a good book, how come the well-versed librarian in a savvy city didn’t know of it? Maybe it appealed to an obscure readership. I do like to discover off-the-beaten-path writers.

I plunged right in, as her writing grabs me as she gets right to it, her stark content underlain with deeper emotional nuance. Life Under Cover, Coming of Age in the CIA by Amaryllis Fox reveals some of her career in that agency. Quickly I’ve gotten halfway into the thick of it. I use “thick” specifically because it plumbs the depths of her astute thinking and hard choices, how it outlines rigors of her training then steps into fine surprises overlapping with the horrors of her work. She finds the training and assignments fulfilling as well as toughening. Ms. Fox is impassioned about saving human lives and helping make the world we must yet inhabit a safer place to coexist. She urgently wants to understand others, find a common humanity whenever possible even as her sole mission was to gather information to thwart terrorist plans of attack. She seems relentless about goals and mandates from the onset, and engages her considerable intellect at an early age. And I love how she is driven to find and fit together as many pieces as she can to make the picture whole, her mind a wide ranging sieve that keeps only the necessary bits. And then she embarks on more search and find. The number of data she analyzes, then utilizes, is mammoth. And she is tireless.

Did this labor shape her into an altruistic heroine? Or was it work that fulfilled a need of more selfish or ordinary dimensions? When did she know she wanted to do such work? I read on. It is a powerful narrative. Ms. Fox is brilliant but caring, someone who met grave obstacles with fortitude and persistence. That in itself impresses me. The governmental agency named CIA I’m not as clear about but am open to information and insight. I am anxious to see what transpires and how it all winds down to an end–as she is no longer in the CIA. As far as I know…this is what her bio notes.

It has gotten me thinking beyond the book. About why I am engaged by her story, what it means to general humanity that there are people who undertake these risky and difficult challenges. What does it mean that Ms. Fox offers herself to such a powerful agency when she might have helped refugees in Thailand? She changed her mind when she was interviewed by the CIA a second time.

We each might come up with our list of heroines and for different reasons, from the familiar to the famous, and who they are might inform others what matters to us. They inspire us first of all. They lead the way more often than not.

For myself only a few women, alone, would include Harriet Tubman, Madame Curie, Susan B. Anthony, Mother Theresa, Elizabeth Blackwell. There are many men and just altogether too many others to note here and now. And I would also have to name those in the arts who are movers and shakers or were once. (Twyla Tharp and Isadora Duncan, anyone? Leontyne Price, Pete Seeger; Barry Lopez, Joy Harjo; Ansel Adams, Vivian Maier.) The list goes on and on…and that is not mentioning the more obscure of the creators and doers.

But beyond famous people, who can we say deserves to be designated as hero or heroine–someone willing to sacrifice much, to go to extraordinary lengths for the betterment of life, of others– whether it is family or community or the masses around the world? What is the call to serve about? How can we answer it, if and when it comes? Some felt–and many presently do feel– they were or are simply doing their duty–to family, to country, to any greater cause they devote themselves to daily. They’re not even interested in being honored or pegged as “exceptional.” That sort of humility comes from trying and doing despite failing that eventually brings wisdom, I’d think.

“The greatest man or woman is a humble person,” my father intoned when praised for his own musical and educational work. And to many he was worth lauding not only the work but his genuine kindness, added to a dedication of his life to providing youth with musical opportunities that they took far into their lives thereafter. They have shared their thanks to him, even decades later. I grew up with this knowledge and watched my parents give themselves to the community–from teaching to volunteer work to donations to various causes, to their church, neighbors and family. In a sense–as it is for every child and in this case, because my parents were held in deep respect–they were a hero and heroine to me if in a mild mannered way. They had come from poorer upbringings yet made much of their lives. They had such interest in learning and people. So it was natural to think of helping others, of just being of good use. But how?

What I loved was the performing and fine arts–and nature and figure skating. I felt a passion of wanting to make the world a better place, too. I wrote of it, thought of it, read about it from an early age. I watched people engage in their chosen paths with sharp minds and burning hearts, both at home and in the world via television. I listened to Joan Baez and Bob Dylan and their songs triggered a deeper longing to be part of something that added to positive changes. I did not dream of being anyone’s bona fide heroine. To contribute to the greater good in some meaningful manner was a current that ran through me, even the worst of times.

I grew up in the sixties. We were nothing if not mobilized by a momentous desire for change that benefited human beings more inclusively. “Power to the People” was a common (if not so original) slogan and chant and although it has been criticized by some over time, to me it meant that power should be shared, that everyone was born with a basic right to dignity that included shelter, food, equal opportunity, education, justice. I debated, marched, wrote and sang of it.

I have gotten lazy over time. My fire for social justice began to cool as I became entrenched in my private struggles mentally, physically, spiritually. When I had children, I thought teaching them to be compassionate, fair, open minded–to ask “Why” and to critically think things through rather than be blindly led would help them, so I set about doing that even as I worked on my own issues. And they grew up as thinking, feeling people as hoped.

But I was never again involved in a political movement. I was certainly not even dreaming distance from embarking on an international and dangerous mission. I knew people who knew people who knew others…well, that was back then. Time passed. I was in my thirties. Then I stumbled into a career in human services, but instantly latched on to the work. First, working with home-bound elderly or others who suffered from brain injuries or were otherwise disabled; then addicted, usually homeless, mostly already having been incarcerated and/or gang-affiliated male and female youths; then mentally and socially high-risk adults. It suited me, despite not ever considering doing counseling for work (did handwriting analysis count…?).My mission was to create art of some sort, reaching out that way. Writing by then had overtaken all other modalities. So now this different direction pulled me. And it turned out that it required creative brainstorming and action of many sorts.

To be truthful, I can’t say there wasn’t danger involved working with those for whom violence was second nature and the primary defense for survival; who had known little in life but mistreatment; and who had spotty guidance if at all in better ways to be. Every day held a possibility that I might be attacked–it wasn’t a secure jail but a dual diagnosis rehab. Eventually I was a couple of times and police arrived to haul a kid off, to my unhappiness– and there came, still, threats.

Even the quite elderly who suffered from many problems…one never knew what I’d be in for when a door opened during my home visits– a naked ninety year old man standing and grinning in the doorway or a demented woman with hammers in her hands. Completely at odds with what clients called a “Miss Junior League” persona, I had developed a reputation for being unshaken by most anything but not, either, too hard. I sure didn’t know how I did it; I just went by my gut and I wanted to be there, do the work, give an ear to their complaints, be a voice for their needs.

But I sure was not anywhere near becoming a Ms. Fox, a woman who risked life and limb to protect a nation’s security every day–and millions more people beyond. I wasn’t interacting with arms dealers in a dark cafe or weaving in and out of narrowest alleyways to elude someone or protect myself. It was all pretty tame and after about 30 years, it seemed like far too little was accomplished. How many clients–people I had come to know quite well–had relapsed or even died despite how I had tried to help them, to insure they might stay alive? And I don’t mean the frail elderly who were closer each day to their timely end. Far too many over the decades. One feels like too many. One alone sears the heart.

Since all that–I retired several years ago–I know I’ve become more nonchalant. Selfish. I will be in my seventh decade and I could have been volunteering, getting out there to aid a child in reading or writing, or filling food boxes (though I did both years ago). I might be helping via church channels but haven’t found one here with whom I want to share my efforts. I could be engaged in politics–this is the year to do it, of all years–or I could work on a drug hotline or just shelve books, for crying out loud. I look for inspiration, pray for opportunities: what next can I do? I am a long way from being unable to be of good use in this world, even if not anywhere near becoming decent heroine material.

Instead, I do other things, like at last reading a heck of a lot. Learning about CIA undercover agents. Lessons of insects and seasons. My own endurance as life gets harder in some ways when I hoped to experience more ease of joy, peace of mind.

And I write, write, write. That is what I stick with all I’m much good for , it seems. It has been my calling since I was a child, too, and has not quieted within me. But am I yearning to be published more? Not really, not enough to get to it more. Am I coveting a book jacket with my name as the author on it? No, it no longer occurs to me that it is critical. My need is to simply be a writer, and to write what I understand as my truth, then offer it to whoever may read it. That is: persevere against all odds; love despite knowing love can often wound; seek answers even when it appears there are few to none; seek God in the mysteries of nature and humans for God inhabits all. It takes a little courage to share what I do though not all that much, not the sort I admire heartily. But I suppose it has become my kind of activism, nonetheless, just this in my now-quiet way.

It seems to me that we each do what we can do, and that if we find ourselves moved to be helpful in a minor way even that can be enough. It all gathers force and has meaning as intent plus action combines to strengthen–and moves change forward another small step. Our lives can be propelled by energy of life focused on doing good, just as they can be propelled by doing less than what is good. Or becoming inert, opting out of life’s rollicking, vivid stream, becoming aimless.

We have to be our own heroines, at times. We can also remain on the lookout for chances to not walk away, to not avert our eyes, to not say “no, not at the risk of throwing off my well-preserved image” or “no, I don’t have extra time” or “no, that is not for me to do.” Why not? If others are risking their lives for us, why can we not risk our time, alter priorities and do better?

Some people are meant for fancier or bigger or unusual things. I don’t think I could ever have become an Amaryllis Fox “wanna be.” She has had more fire, more boldness of body and mind, and her very special talents have been put to use in such specific ways. According to her book jacket blurb, she now offers analysis for global news outlets and speaks on peacemaking–so she has met changes with more invention. Peacemaking! I would like to hear her speak of this, for how we need peace to be made. I would like to thank her for being a perhaps unsung heroine of a certain unique order, and for writing a book that informs and, beyond this, moves me to care even more for the welfare of others. I, for another, would appreciate if we can agree to be more brave and empathetic in the face of uncertainties and strife. What else will help us find and share answers most needed? That is the sort of everyday heroics I would like to more often count on seeing and doing.

5 thoughts on “Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Finding and Being Heroines and Heroes

  1. Cynthia – we recently exchanged likes on your Brevity piece about writers of a certain age. Now I found this & love the serendipity. I recently read Amaryllis Fox’s memoir & was curious about her too. I learned that she got in a bit of hot water for not clearing it in advance with the CIA, but she seems to have landed on her feet & is now married to a Kennedy! I have a fascination with spies, especially women – more to do with chutzpah than heroism – & am now reading a novel, The Secrets We Kept, by Lara Prescott, about typists at the CIA during the Cold War juxtaposed with the true story of the publication of Dr. Zhivago & the CIA’s efforts to get it behind the Iron Curtain. I’m on WordPress too & have a contact page in case you’d like to communicate one-to-one: aliceloweblogs.wordpress.com.

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