Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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I have long been grateful to the voice inside my head that silences me from time to time, when I am about to put my foot in my mouth. Like the time I was about to tell a great aunt how beautiful her teeth were; I later found out she was very self-conscious about her dentures. Or the time in elementary school, when everyone was talking about who they would want to be if they could be anyone else in the world; they were all naming famous baseball players and movie stars, and I was about to say, “Margaret Mead,” except the voice told me to shut up.
It wasn’t until much later that I understood that in second or third grade you are not supposed to know about Margaret Mead, much less want to be her, especially if you are a little boy. But I had a children’s anthropology book that she had written, and I loved it. I loved the idea of a person traveling all over the world trying to understand other people. In fact, at the time, it seemed to me that I would probably have to do that in order to begin to understand the people around me, as nothing in my environment was providing a clue. Einstein and Gandhi interested me for a while, but no one impressed me like Margaret Mead. Because of her I began to read anthropology and archaeology books, and I was determined to grow up to be just like her.
As it turns out, I became an adult who hates to travel, hates to sleep in strange beds, hates plane flights and buses even more. In spite of that, I don’t think that I have abandoned my first and (except for Superman in a vague and abstract way) only hero, role model, heroine. In the body work and in the writing and art that I do, I always try to be going somewhere new, to understand another little piece of what it means to be human.
In the last few years several biographies of Mead have come out. In reading them I was thrilled to discover that she was looking at the same kinds of questions in her personal life about gender and sexuality that I was. I am certain that, in part, it was her pioneering work that has brought us to the place where we can talk about androgyny and life choices that would have been unheard of when I was in elementary school. If I were suddenly nine again, that little voice might not be silencing me now. There are other teachers, gurus, and mystics whom I admire, who are helping us to move into an inner stillness where we can connect to life as we know it can be, but I look at Margaret Mead in all her curiosity and vitality, and I see an example of how we will probably be when we get there.
Brooklyn, New York
When I was a boy, I covered the walls of my room with magazine pictures of sports stars. I think this had something to do with my need for heroes. I had yet to meet anyone, back then, who embodied qualities I admired. Without models to emulate, I had no way to mobilize the best in myself.
Then one day I read Emerson’s words: “The essence of heroism is self-trust.” Something deep inside me responded with excitement and recognition, and I wept.
Since then I’ve had many mentors, teachers, even a few gurus. But every time I’ve submitted myself to someone else, an alarm has gone off inside my soul, warning me: the heroic journey is for those who trust themselves instead of others. Be true to what is true within you, no matter what it costs, or what you have to risk.
My heroes now are those human beings who have found a way to serve our world and become more themselves in so doing. It’s easy to be a martyr, to sacrifice your own needs and feelings in order to “serve” others. It’s also easy to be narcissistic and self-absorbed. What’s more difficult, and infinitely more valuable, is to find in yourself the wholeness that responds wisely to our wounded world.
Ben Lomond, California
The elevation to hero status of humans — who are not touched by the divine, not elevated morally and spiritually by their actions — is an illness of modern culture.
In our technological culture, our heroes are television, movie, and sports stars — people in fields where a very few are very successful and earn a lot of money. They do our living for us. So many people wish they were someone else, with someone else’s job, income, admirers, and joy in living. They willingly, if unwittingly, let go of what they could be if they refused to accept substitutes for self, personal responsibility, and effective and motivated imagination.
We inhabit a shoddy culture. Check it out for moral values and spiritual development, or room for individuals to grow, love living, and work according to their talents and desires for their own good and the good of the culture.
Heroes commit moral deeds, from a position of spiritual and moral strength. They gain spiritual growth from their acts and bring greater good to those for whom they are acting. Mother Teresa is an example. I think some of the Greenpeace people also fit the definition.
But the ranks are thin. As a culture, we lack the spiritual force for heroism. We have reduced the scale of our expectations. Military heroism is nearly impossible, since military actions are immoral by definition — attempts to injure, kill, and coerce by exercising greater force. The military is destructive to the environment and extravagantly consumes irreplaceable energy. Heroism cannot be achieved in the service of immoral forces or goals.
We have the means, the knowledge, techniques, and tools to solve every problem that confronts mankind. Heroism now consists of accepting responsibility for bringing about the worldwide will to solve our problems.
David Byrne was my hero until I heard he bought a “Mercenaries Never Die — They Just Go To Hell And Regroup” T-shirt at a flea market in Dallas. Maybe my standards are too high.
Then there’s Howard Stern, the insult deejay — do you know him out there in America? I love his candor and kvetch, but being absolutely honest about being selfish doesn’t make you unselfish. Not quite.
I’m reading The Poems of Mao Tse-tung. It’s so crisp. Listen to this:
Our huge army pours into Kiangsi.
Wind and smoke whirl whirl through half the world.
We woke a million workers and peasants to have one heart.
But he’s not my hero. The last poems, from 1962, start talking about stamping out ants. I guess he means capitalists — but people aren’t ants.
Jimmy Olson headed an army of giant red ants once, and now that I think of it, he was a bit heroic. It’s not easy leading an army of giant red ants, and he was young. But he’d get in trouble and call the Man Of Steel on his watch. Without that watch, he might have been a real hero. Or dead.
Heroines, hmm. Emily Dickinson? Too narrow. Can you be a hero and never leave a room? Nelson Mandela’s wife, Winnie? I never read her book.
All my heroes are fictional, I suddenly realize. Like this girl I saw on television when I was twelve. She was an Indian, captured by the white men; they held her underwater for long, long minutes. It was excruciating. Still, she refused to betray the location of the wigwam. She was a heroine.
True heroes are anonymous — that’s why they live in fiction. Anonymous people end up as fiction. Like your grocer says, “I knew this kid who walked 1200 miles, across Poland, to save his sister,” and you put it in your novel.
Maybe my real hero has not yet been born.
Brooklyn, New York
Lately I’ve been thinking about John Lennon. I never really “processed” his death — I still can’t quite believe he’s gone. I know that many people feel this way about John. We all felt as if we knew him well, probably because he articulated his vulnerability so well. He knew how to say, simply and directly, things that we all feel. Sometimes I didn’t even realize I felt something until John sang about it: “Look at me. Who am I supposed to be? Who am I supposed to be?”
John Lennon was a visionary, a poet, a musical genius, and, to my mind, the best rock vocalist ever. (Whose voice could evoke in you the range of feelings that John’s did? Didn’t he move you to poignant tears? And passionate rage? And humble hope? Didn’t he break your heart sometimes? As well as rock your ass off?) But of all his qualities, I think the one that caused so many to love him so deeply was his ability to communicate his experience in a universal language, one we instantly understood as if it were being whispered directly into our hearts. He was honest and he took risks. He was scared and he was brave, and he didn’t hold anything back from us.
That’s the stuff of heroism, I’d say: a lifetime of work that results in millions of people feeling less alone. I wish for John the same thing I wished for him in 1980 when he died: I hope he is surrounded by “limitless undying love that shines around me like a million suns. . . .”
I was a serious and sad little boy, having been raised by women who knew what a child needed but not what he might want. When birthdays came, I got practical gifts such as school supplies or new clothing. Who wanted such presents? What I wanted was a Boy Scout magnetic pocket compass, a pet dog (instead of my boring goldfish), or a Radiolite wristwatch with a luminous dial (the kind that a boy down the block had). I was perfectly free to express these yearnings, but I prudently kept them to myself.
Greater than anything else, though I lacked the language to express it, was my desire for a father. To me, the most beautiful word in the language was “Dad.” I could never use that magical word because my “Dad” had died. He died of overwork, I was told, “so that you can have nice things.”
Into this solitary childhood world appeared my first hero. Mister B. lived across the street from the summer cottage we rented. He was a commuter, one of those people who went on the train daily to work in “the city.” He had a night job on the “lobster shift,” which meant that he left for work in the afternoon and returned at some mysterious hour long after I had gone to sleep. I saw him on weekends, when he had time to talk with an adoring neighborhood kid.
Once, Mister B. had been an officer in the Coast Guard. From some tour of duty, he had brought back a genuine Eskimo kayak, covered with sealskins, with a narrow double-bladed paddle fashioned from driftwood. It sat on sawhorses in the back yard, the sealskin covering redolent of oozing grease in the warm weather.
I learned from Mister B. that Eskimos tan leather with urine. This seemed practical enough and a bit exotic; however, it was not too effective as a preservative. The lashings inside the kayak frame were slowly rotting in the heat. These could be replaced only if the sealskin covering were stripped. But, alas, on all of Long Island, there were no new sealskins. So the Eskimo kayak sat inverted on Mister B.’s sawhorses in the back yard, stinking and falling apart.
At some point, Mister B. enlisted my assistance. I was flattered and eager to help him. An active boy, and driven by a passionate desire to please my newfound friend, I was able to wriggle headfirst into the kayak. Once inside, working by gloomy brown light, I retied each rotted lashing with tarred fishline, at every point where a rib crossed a longitudinal strut.
All summer I labored at this smelly task. I could tolerate being inside the kayak for only a short while. My fingers got raw from the rough cuttyhunk. My eyes burned from my sweat. I was instructed to tie only the square knots a sailor would use, not the landlubber’s granny knots, which would not hold. Mister B. supervised my work, and his wife brought pitchers of cold lemonade to refresh us. Over a number of weeks, the task got done. The frame lashings were replaced, and the kayak was seaworthy enough to go out on a walrus hunt.
How I adored Mister B., who let me share in his everyday life. He told me stories of his adventures at sea. He passed along his back issues of Yachting magazine, which I treasured along with my comics. His wife once packed a picnic basket, and he took me out on Great South Bay in his racing sailboat and let me handle the tiller. He even offered to pay me for the hours I spent tying knots.
The money was tempting. But I’d been expressly forbidden to take money from a neighbor. The thought crossed my mind that Mister B. could buy me the Boy Scout compass or the wristwatch with the luminous dial. They were both for sale at the general store next to the railroad depot.
In the end my diffidence overruled my greed. It was enough to have sailed with him in the racing sloop on Great South Bay. The summer was over, and my family returned to the city and my first full year of school. I never saw Mr. B. again.
Irvington, New Jersey
My heroines have always been elderly women — the type with lines around their eyes like roadmaps of good memories.
A few years ago, I worked at a retail greenhouse. Mrs. Voss was a regular customer, a sweet, small lady, crisp and clean. Her greeting was always the same: she hadn’t come to buy anything, only wanted to be in the warm sunshine, to look at the pretties on this lovely day.
Her hats fascinated me. Every time I saw her, she wore a different one, each soft and subtle-hued. Growing old with her, they had become a part of her.
More outstanding was her smile, which seemed to me a smile of contentment. I hope she never wanted to be alone there, because I always followed her around, soaking in those smiles like soothing balm.
One night I was glancing through the paper and saw the name Voss in the obituaries. I had never asked my customer’s first name. There was no one to ask now, as we had no mutual acquaintances.
I went to the funeral home. As I walked through the door, polite old eyes turned toward me, and I felt awkward, self-conscious about my youth. I couldn’t walk back out, so I took a deep breath and approached the casket. It wasn’t the right Mrs. Voss. I started to leave and felt compelled to look again. Then it struck me — no hat, no smile.
I still think of Mrs. Voss and the love for life she shared with smiles.
A few years ago, I attended a “latent self” party, where people wear costumes to reveal who they’d like to be or secretly think they are.
A few months earlier, I had painted a Superman “S” emblem on a blue T-shirt as part of a gag. I decided to wear this to the party, under a plain dress-shirt and other “normal” attire, a la Clark Kent. When someone questioned why I wasn’t revealing any “latent self,” it was fun to respond by unbuttoning a couple of shirt buttons to show the emblem underneath.
I have always been instantly moved to watery eyes when I hear or read of any act of heroism. I experience this spontaneously at a depth I do not understand. Something about the layers: beneath Clark Kent, behold, a superman; beneath my T-shirt with the emblem of a hero is me.
Santa Fe, New Mexico