Friday, April 17, 2009

All Forms of Heroism

Last Sunday, Easter, was quite special for our little, ol’ state of Vermont. It’s not often it makes the national news, let alone, international; but as it happened, one of our own—Captain Richard Phillips—was safely rescued by the US Navy, after a harrowing, five-day pirate-hostage ordeal, hundreds of miles off the coast of Africa.

I can assure you that topics, such as Africa, Indian Ocean, and pirates, are exotic and rarely discussed, in these parts—and hardly, if ever, associated with land-locked Vermont—until now, I suppose. The small village of Underhill, which is home to Captain Phillips and his family, is barely a speck on a map without so much as a single, traffic light; yet it now rightfully claims having a genuine American hero.

I don’t have to recount for you how Phillips risked his own life, in order to save those of his 19 crew members. Everyone knows the story of how four pirates terrorized the humanitarian-aid-bearing cargo ship, forcing its captain aboard a tiny lifeboat, at gunpoint. The world—at least from our corner—seemed to hold its breath, awaiting the situation’s outcome. I, along with countless others, added my prayers to the multitude God received on the captain’s behalf. However, while I profess to be a woman of faith, I also consider myself to be a realist. As much as I had hoped the captain’s life would be spared, our troubled world’s hot spots all-too-often reveal life’s evil and vulgar underbelly, as well as the negative consequences of those influences. The situation was grim by even the most-optimistic standards.

The fact that Phillips’s ordeal happened to fall during Holy Week—the most sacred days of the year, for faithful Christians—arguably could be seen as more than mere coincidence; after all, does it not mark the time when Jesus offered himself up, in order that others might be saved? Yet we all know the fate of Jesus.

Okay, so they killed Jesus, but His story doesn’t end there—far from it. He returned in all His glory, just as Captain Phillips did this past Friday afternoon, to his home of Underhill. Like I said, it may have been only coincidence, but I think, either way, God must be pretty impressed by the captain’s exemplary behavior. (I know everyone around, here, sure is; so much so, Vermont is just about busting with pride, right about, now.)

Of course, the truly amazing thing about how the captain behaved is that he acted exactly how we’re all meant to act—all of the time.

Globally-speaking, imagine if everyone did just that; how wonderful would this world be? Seriously, if everyone could be as selfless as Captain Phillips—as selfless as Jesus and Mother Theresa and Gandhi—there wouldn’t be any pirates or terrorists or criminals or dictators or greedy bank CEOs or corrupt politicians or drug lords...not to mention all those types of people’s victims. Sure, there’ll be cynics who say that we won’t succeed at fixing the planet’s problems—that the sheer magnitude of them is just too great to overcome—and perhaps that’s true; but I say, why not at least try?

Why not try to fix the ills of this troubled world, one “Captain Phillips” at a time? After all, was not our newly-anointed hero just an ordinary American, only a few short weeks ago—working hard at making a living to support his family? Millions of us do just that as well, day in, day out. Yet, somehow, through unseen means, this unassuming Vermonter found it within himself to reveal his hidden, extraordinary noble and courageous nature at the precise moment when his crew needed him to do so, most. You could say that’s what distinguishes heroes from the masses, in the first place. They are deemed rare—arguably even pre-destined—individuals, willing to “walk the walk” at life’s most-critical junctures.

And I guess that’s my point. Not to diminish Captain Phillips’s feat, but how do the rest of us, ordinary Americans, know that we, too, don’t possess his exact, same character traits? Why shouldn’t we assume there’s a hero/heroine dwelling inside each of us, just waiting for the right opportunity to break forth? Maybe our “walk” won’t involve staving off Somali pirates on the high seas. Chances are we won’t experience the fanfare and media frenzy like the Phillips’ family, but that doesn’t mean our deeds can’t be noble or that they won’t require of us heroic efforts. “Walking the walk” for the rest of us might mean engaging in the not-so-exotic, like delivering meals to housebound seniors or volunteering at a local soup-kitchen on a regular basis. Maybe you take time each week to coach your child’s rec-league team or volunteer in a school or as a scout-troop leader. Some of us will no doubt be America’s unsung heroes, working as nurses, street-cleaners, teachers, bus drivers, and daycare providers, despite the modest paychecks.

So, do me—and yourself—a favor; the next time you go food-shopping, thank the single-mother cashier and the high-school student, who bags your groceries. Take the time to notice all the unsung heroes you come across, in the midst of your daily routine. They’re the ones who keep this country going strong. Maybe you won’t feel as proud as we, Vermonters, do right now, but I bet you’ll feel pretty proud to be an American.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Resurrecting Memories

With Easter on the horizon, I find my thoughts turning to my deceased mom, more and more. Part of that, no doubt, is because holidays are inherently linked with family, even those who are no longer, physically, with us. The other reason, just as compelling, is that death and resurrection are inexorably linked to Easter. Naturally, the specificity of Jesus’s death and resurrection give rise to general thoughts of death and the question of life-after-death.

When I was young, between the ages of four and seven, I lived in West Lafayette, Indiana, where both my parents attended Purdue University—my dad, completing his Ph.D. in Biochemistry; my mom, finishing her undergrad and then a Master’s in American Studies. Despite Purdue being in the heart of America’s conservative “Heartland,” counterculture thrived at that time, during the late 1960s. My parents were not immune to the influences of that movement; so, to a certain extent, I was immersed in it as well, even though I may not have really had awareness as such. It wasn’t till much later, when I better understood the reality of the Vietnam War, that I made the connection of my parents leaving us with babysitters, to go off and protest at anti-War demonstrations.

All my Indiana years were “war years.” While the Vietnam War had raged thousands of miles away, I spent many an afternoon playing army on a common lawn, with my brothers and the kids, from the same graduate-apartment quad as ours. Little did we realize, then, that actual, flesh-and-blood people were being maimed and killed, amid smoldering ash from torched, jungle villages. Back home, in our oasis of white-bread Indiana, my brothers and I coped as best we could with the “injustice” of being the only kids not allowed to own toy guns. Our unsympathetic parents seemed oblivious to the embarrassment we felt at having to rely solely on our thumbs and index fingers. Yet, somehow, in spite of our deficiency, imagined or otherwise, we held our own in the heat of battle; the neighborhood kids died just as readily from our “hand” guns as from any of the store-bought models. Under an afternoon’s warming sun, we took our turns, falling dead—spread-eagle on the ground for thirty seconds—before miraculously resurrecting ourselves and rejoining the game.

Too bad real war can’t work like that. Too bad adults can’t tap into early-childhood innocence and take a peek through that window of ignorance, through which we once were privy to observe life—during that time in our lives before we even knew of death, let alone of its universality and permanence. We certainly didn’t expend time marveling at—or even questioning the feasibility of—our immortality; forget about our fully grasping the miracle of resurrected life and how the claim of its one-time occurrence impacts all of humankind, forevermore, whether you believe in it or not.

My mom lived roughly half her sixty-one years as a practicing Roman Catholic and half as an agnostic with atheistic leanings. Despite her personal spiritual journey, she celebrated Easter every year, without fail—many of them with me, both when I was a child and an adult with my own, two children. Given the fact my parents left the Catholic Church when I was five, it’s fair to say my mom spent more Easters with me as a non-believer than as a believer. (I had rejoined the Catholic Church, making both my First Holy Communion and Confirmation, during my freshman year of college.)

Nonetheless, Easter was always a special time for us. My earliest Easter memory is from when I was four or five, because I can remember going to Easter Mass with the family—my two, older brothers, included—at the church on Purdue’s campus.

I donned my fancy Easter dress with a yellow coat and matching hat, all of which were bought just for that special occasion. I also wore a pair of white bobby socks, each with a small, embroidered flower on its lacy ruffles. Completing my outfit was a pair of black, patent-leather shoes and a matching purse. Seemingly, for this one occasion, even I—a proclaimed “tom-boy”—didn’t mind how feminine I must’ve looked. For once, I savored not looking exactly like my brothers, in my often-worn hand-me-down clothes of theirs; instead, at least on that particular morning, I relished looking more like a mini-version of my mom.

Still, despite the clarity of these recollections, my memories, in general, are fleeting. I can remember walking from our car to the church, my hand, secure within my mom’s. That Easter exuded freshness, everywhere—its air, laden with springtime’s renewal-of-life sounds and scents, as the mid-morning sun rays pierced around the edges of Purdue’s tall, brick buildings. An image of the church’s interior is pretty vague; although, it’s a safe bet to say it was huge and contemporary. I remember sitting way in the back, on the left-hand side, seated next to my middle brother. (We were inseparable, back then. Even with his being two years older than me, we were roughly the same size and often mistaken for twins.)

I remember straining to see past the wall of bodies, just to get a glimpse of the front alter; and, so, I have no real memory of the priest, readings, or homily. There was a folk-music group, consisting of hippie-like characters, playing songs, like “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” and “Kum-Bi-Yah.” I remember the singers standing, on the right side of the alter area, I believe, next to a wall of stained-glass windows; at least, the image I have in my mind is of them with sunlight streaming through the window panes, casting a golden glow behind them.

Yes, memory is fickle. I can’t explain why some memories resurrect themselves, while others shy away from the light. I’m just glad that, on occasion, they feel inclined to work their way to the fore—especially when they’re of my mom.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

In the Eye of the Beholder

I read my friend’s latest blog entry, which made it very clear just how much she hates having cancer—as if any of us would’ve doubted that. Obviously, that was a given; but I think it was still therapeutic for her to actually come right out in the open and spew a litany of specifics—everything from the color of her chemo drug entering her veins to the baldness on top of her head. I can remember reading one of her earlier blog postings—the one which focused on losing her hair—and finding such profoundness in her realization that she had been more upset after losing her hair than after learning she had lymphoma. And while that may surprise some at first, when I thought about it, I could understand what she was getting at. Naturally, her reaction made her question her own degree of vanity; but can we really fault her for being more upset about baldness than cancer? Or do they not really represent one and the same?

Anyone who knows my friend could tell you what I’m going to tell you, now: her hair looked great. It was gorgeous—long, dark, thick, and flowing, with waves just where you’d want them. I’m not a psychologist, but I’ve taken enough psychology courses to know that her self-image is firmly meshed with such a physically-identifying feature as her hair. And so, yes, I’m sure part of her emotional response was due the fact she feared not looking as good as she could to others, at least not on the outside. But, more so, I suspect her reaction—whether conscious or not—is because the baldness is a constant reminder that things are not right, for her, on the inside. Every time she looks in a mirror she’s forced to confront an image of herself that she, subconsciously, does not identify with, at all. By her nature, she is not weak, ill, or helpless. Thus, the incongruity is palpable, as it leaves her feeling unsettled in her most-forgiving moments—and, justifiably, angry, in her most-trying ones.

And that’s OKAY! What’s important for her to remember, throughout this ordeal, is that while she may look different on the outside, she still looks her same, old beautiful self to us.