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.

Six Superpowers of Humaness


Has anyone noticed how in entertainment we are being inundated by (apparently) women, men and children who flaunt an unbelievable array of superior capabilities? Or perhaps they are creatures that only look like humans; some of them do morph rather easily. But I feel swamped every time I turn on the television or examine the new line up of bestsellers. I search for those ordinary decent human beings who achieve humble but worthwhile goals. I am more often faced with either unhealthy, i.e., dangerously flawed characters or secretly altered ones who now command vast and potent powers. The thing is, I really am interested in regular people making their way through the beautiful and daunting landscape of life. I don’t need superhuman examples of prowess. I seek the well-functioning, ever evolving essential Human Being.

Not that this pop phenomenon is new. Comic book, fantasy and sci-fi authors, CGI masters–writers and graphic artists who are world builders of a unique sort–have been giving us fantastic tales for well over a century. And before that, we had mighty mythology based on demigods who were compelled to act out otherworldly feats of bravery and skill. I am sure there have always been stories demonstrating what we humans would like to possess–more fearlessness, strength, power, cleverness if not outright brilliance, the ability to first and last succeed and so on. It may lie in our make-up to desire more than what and who we are from birth. As Homo sapiens, we have need of that drive toward invention, a grasp of problem solving. So there seems an internal itch for most people, a restlessness, perhaps a dissatisfaction that motivates us to strive for something better. And thus, to become greater and more effective. And often, more important. Who hasn’t thought of or plotted for the glory of victorious moments?

The superhuman landscape used to be populated with primarily men who could outrun, outsmart and out-kill everyone else. Destruction seems the byword. Women have gradually begun to further assert their own place within this artificial matrix of amazing powers. We were once given the Six Million Dollar Man to admire but I loved that Bionic Woman in the nineteen seventies. How I cheered her on as she used a supercharged mind and body to make things right! And Wonder Woman, well, she was a whole other symbol of woman rising; her outfit was stunning, as well. And then children began to display unusual skills in stories and shows. Check out any Saturday morning cartoon and accompanying ads and you’ll see what I mean. They love the idea of being stronger, faster and indestructible as much as teens and adults do. Even small people like to win, be on top, and think they want or need to be “king/queen of the hill.” Cue raised wooden sword and a flimsy paper crown. I admit I liked dress-up and being queen, too.

But what have we gained from this long history of unusually skilled, oddly gifted, characters that we loved or loathed? I wonder how it has impacted our individual and collective psyches in the end. Afterall, the standards these beings set are quite unreasonable.

Is it all taken in the spirit of light entertainment– or are we working out our deepest fears and desires via these heroic personages? Likely some of both. We are given, after all, that impulse to overcome adversity and large brains with which to resolve conflict like no other creatures on earth. We can already do marvelous things with our limber bodies, gross and fine motor control, our collective senses, and an ability to heal from serious trauma and illness, to even transform physically and mentally. But if we could be better equipped, more innovative, stronger and more courageous–then we could accomplish so much more, we think. Even save the world, maybe. Hence the fantasy human, the more perfect specimen. Meantime, these superheroes I find on the screen and in books seem primarily to destroy, maim, kill, take ultimate control–in the name of an ideology, a dream, a ruler of some perfect kingdom where all will be well once more after all obstacles are removed. Or so the story goes.

I propose that the skills we have been designing and idolizing are, if not entirely wrong ones, far less important, if at all. How much of what we yearn for the most has to do with an everlasting perfection of Divine Spirit/God/Creator/Higher Power? And what if we already have capabilities that can change the world, save others, create a greater vision? Isn’t it possible we are emphasizing the physical realm far more than is necessary, even to the point of neglecting our mental, emotional and spiritual well-being?

On my walk today, several everyday human powers came to the fore on my thinking. I thought about what has changed my own life from one that was once imperiled to one that became much more empowered. There are countless stories of individuals who have been more inspiring than I could hope to be. But I have discovered through trial and error and rigorous self-evaluation that there are some things I cannot manage without. They do not include excellent ongoing health or award-winning physical prowess, though those would be lovely. Money is not on the list, nor even a huge circle of friends. And this isn’t about the basic needs, though I am well aware that the lack of food, shelter, health care and safety alter lives in ways that can be dire, even life threatening. Instead, they are powers of heart and soul that we can tap to render powerless those poisons that harm human life in ways as devastating as illness, hunger, and violence.

1. Empathy. Not sympathy, but empathy, that feeling that I can know what you are undergoing because I, too, am human, and I, too, have felt diverse emotions and had myriad experiences. They may not be the same as yours, but I can put myself in your place for a moment and feel your anger or your pain, your longing or joy. Empathy allows me to identify with what your life experience, motives and situations. I may then sympathize with you and commiserate with you–but first empathy has to be present to enable me to respect your experience and recognize it as valid and real for you. I need strong empathy for others to begin to connect to them and to be caring in even simple ways. Otherwise, relationships are shallow, transitory, without mutual appreciation and I give little to nothing of my understanding or concern. Empathy, then, empowers us to be more considerate and responsive human beings. It helps us reach across large divides of socioeconomic and cultural differences. It keeps us from falling prey to our worst selves and has the power to mediate peace and generate great goodwill.

2. Compassion, after which the word mercy entered my mind. It also is attached to empathy. Without compassion I would not be moved to assist anyone, would not be willing to overcome reticence and take a risk to be there for others in their distress. I would not care when someone else is suffering because it would not be seen as my problem. Compassion enlarges our understanding and strengthens our hearts. It moves people to interact in ways that offer solace as well as time and energy. But it can also be what keeps us from reacting impulsively and unfairly to others, to say things that are undermining and hurtful. When you have compassion, you sense another’s sensitive spots and feel suffering and so, respond sympathetically. You choose to be gentle and helpful because you desire the same and want others to experience life that way, too. Compassion moves from your heart to another’s and creates a vitally important bridge. But do not mistake it for a softness that is weak. Rather, it strengthens your character and shores up bravery.

Mercy is only an act of extreme compassion. It may be a little dangerous to experience because it can mean putting one’s own self on the line, doing what is unpopular when others may be unable to see the value in such a compassionate response. You may hold the power to do otherwise, to be inclement in your action, yet you choose not to be. It may mean that the person has been deemed undeserving of such care and acceptance by others yet you are still moved to offer both and abundantly. Mercy alleviates terrible misery and offers freedom from harsh judgment and a punishing response; it accepts another person or situation as they are, with deep kindness.

3. Forgiveness, without which there is little hope for ourselves or the world. To be unforgiving means that anger and resentments are stockpiled. It indicates we think we are right and others are wrong and they need to be punished somehow. The old angers take up room in our souls and minds and crowd out potential for growth. They keep us stuck, grind us down. Have you been around someone who is resentful of something that may have happened twenty years ago? It lives in their bodies: hunched shoulders, tight mouth, frown lines. They move as if ready or even looking for a fight. They are marked by discord because they cannot let go of what someone said or did or what did not happen as they believed should. They blame and conspire to get even or get revenge. Without forgiveness, they will never know serenity or lasting joy. One foot is in the past and the present is spoiled, the future a repeat.

When we forgive, we are freed of the toxic state that drove us into a wilderness and kept us hostage to loneliness. Hanging onto old hurts and wrongdoings sours life and impedes becoming effective individuals. It weakens us to keep close and hate the thing that wounded us. At its worst, a lack of forgiveness ignites rage that is taken out on others, intentionally or mistakenly. Forgiving is letting go and letting God–or time or other circumstances we will never know about–take care of things. It means not worrying at all about who deserves what. Learning to take responsibility for our present lives and be engaged in this moment. And all this includes forgiving one’s self. And then moving on.

4. Hope. Without hope people would not get up every day and get on with the work and risks of making and living a life. It’s just hard being human in so many ways. We all experience setbacks and losses and if there is not hope, despair can seep in and spread like a slow flood. Then it is difficult if not impossible to see good coming of any efforts. People do finally stop trying. They can die–emotionally, spiritually and sometimes physically. Or they numb themselves further with addictions and distractions. Hope is the power that changes a viewpoint from bleak to brighter. If we don’t have it within ourselves we must seek until we find it, as it will transform everything.

Offering hope is one powerful key to serious change. It renews energy. It offers solutions. If held out to someone, it indicates that you care enough to see a reason for him or her to keep trying, keep believing life can be even a bit better, even much more so. Hope is a lifeline that can lift one person up out of the quagmire of self-destruction and self-loathing. It can take fear and make it obedient to a new courage. It assesses trouble and then infuses it with the healing of greater possibilities. Hope is a light, carrying us from the stormy seas of human living to that obdurate lighthouse which reassures us there is a safe place for us to land. And to start again.

5. Gratitude. Without it we humans cannot appreciate all that we have. And if we are not appreciative, we are surly and anxious and tend to get lost. Flailing about in the bottomless well of complaints. Gratitude–for one small thing each day if that is all we can come up with–reminds us what counts most and what we do have. Not what we don’t have–it will always be something we do not yet or may never have. Unhappy with your life? Sit down and write a list of what you can appreciate. It might be the camellias starting to bloom. It may be your neighbor’s two little dogs that don’t bark all day and night. It could be that fact that you can open your cupboard and find enough food for a week. Or it might be that you can make another choice, do one thing different, find a new path because you have a mind and a will that enable you to do so. The power of appreciation and gratitude is that you find out you have blessings you just forgot. Next option: share what you have with someone who could use a boost, too, and see how much more gratitude you reap. Be prepared to feel refreshed and ready to do more good. Like taking expensive vitamins but much better.

6. Resilience. That’s right, we human beings were born with the ability to recover over and over, to bounce back from punishing times. To recreate ourselves, if necessary. Resilience means we have elasticity; we can be pushed and pulled and even broken down and still we can get back to our innermost heart and soul and start again. We do not take failure easily, do not stay down for the count if we can help it. But if there is not a way to overcome at the moment, we tend to think we just have to wait out the bad times, gather all our strength and be ready for change when it becomes possible. We persevere and find a way through or around impediments in our lives. We take stock of ourselves–resources, energies– and our attitude becomes regenerative. And that means we overcome and make things happen even when it seems it cannot be. Our will and our minds and hearts seek triumph and completion. I believe we all harbor a profound, inherent love of life, will do all we can to enhance and enjoy it. So we will not be defeated for long, not if we have breath and a smidgen of hope. It all works that much better when we pool our collective skills and gifts. There is power in one, yes, but there is more creativity, wisdom and strength in adding to that one. Not to mention companionship, a boon to any good thing.

So there you have it, my thoughts on a few amazing powers we already have. We may forget them in the hectic mad dash of our daily living. I could write for hours more about the unique, life changing ways and talents we human beings have. And it also hit me when I looked at the list and realized that nearly every human power is rooted in, of course, love. I guess I thought it had already been made obvious by naming compassion, mercy and empathy, hope and forgiveness, gratitude and resilience.

Love. It means I want to do good things, even a great deal of them, for me and for you–and always, only the best that I can do even if that is not quite up to snuff sometimes. This is my aspiration, in any case. It is what I want for my children and grandchildren. Not to emulate some fantastic, overdressed, frighteningly overbearing and willful “superhero”.  Just to be the extraordinary ordinary human being that we have always been meant to be. We are already heroes, my friends, waiting to happen.