Being the Hero of Your Own Life

When we think about our own personal heroes, can we see a pattern? How did they rise to the challenges presented in their day?

How are we rising to the occasions and the challenges presented in our time? Right now. Are there injustices we can speak up against? Are there places where our voices will make a difference? What are the rights and wrongs happening right now today?

I am about one-fourth of the way through Charles Dickens’s, David Copperfield. It’s astonishingly good, as are most of his books. And, like others, it calls out some of the injustices of his day—child labor, poorhouses, domestic violence, emotional cruelty, sexism, bullying and so on. With his wide audience and engaging stories, he had tremendous power and is credited for being the impetus for many social justice reforms.

However, he had his own blind spots.

One reader, Eliza Davis, wrote to him, accusing him of portraying her people, those of Jewish ancestry, in stereotypical and negative ways. She cited Fagin, from Oliver Twist, a cruel and selfish man teaching young street urchins to steal. Eliza begged him to show more complexity in his Jewish characters.

Dickens was unimpressed.

Dear Mr. Dickens, By Nancy Churnin

However, taking a page from Dickens’ own, Christmas Carol and the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge, Eliza wrote him again:

Dear Mr. Dickens, by Nancy Churnin

And this time, Dickens was moved. And changed. From then on, his Jewish characters were complex and kind, and the exchange between Eliza and Dickens is credited for having a part in reducing anti-Semitic views and laws of the day.

Eliza had the same tools at hand as Dickens himself: pen, paper, and a keen sense of justice. While she lacked his fame, she made up for it by essentially teaming with him to bring about change.

What are the injustices of our day? It can be challenging to see them, sometimes, because we’ve been so steeped in things the way they are, that they seem normal. But if we pretend we are explaining our world to an alien, for instance, we might be hard-pressed to answer some of their questions. It is in those places, those places we know to be wrong, that we can strive to be the heroes of our own lives.

An open house for emotions

This has been a week of extreme emotions for me. When I try to think of a metaphor for that, it’s tough because the emotions varied so much. Weather, maybe? Tornados to still winds, gentle rains to pounding storms, beating sun to numbing cold.

And then I remembered this poem by Rumi. I am not my emotions, though they might overwhelm me. Consider the emotions as visitors, and myself a guest house where a crowd of sorrows may enter and take up some space for a while before they pack their bags and move along.

The Guest House

by Jelalludin Rumi

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Facing fear

I’ve got something on the horizon that scares me. It’s unavoidable, so the only way out is through. But sometimes to keep from spinning out of control, I find a song that grounds me in the moment. Feet firm, breath in and out, listening to the music and reengaging with the beat of life. For me, right now, this song comforts me. I hope it brings you comfort, too.

Jobs of yore

Consider jobs. Today’s jobs may not be tomorrow’s jobs, just like yesterday’s jobs aren’t today’s.


and knocker uppers

went the way of electric street lamps and alarm clocks. (Go here for a fascinating list of 51 jobs that don’t exist anymore.)

And yet the people who had these now obsolete jobs led as full and vibrant of lives as we do. We are not our jobs. Our worth has little to do with the job we have. Our jobs are external to our essence.

For proof, consider this paragraph written by AI:

Sure, I’d be happy to help with that! While our jobs can be an important part of our identity and sense of purpose, it’s important to remember that we are not defined solely by our careers. Our individual identities are made up of a wide range of experiences, values, and beliefs, many of which extend far beyond the workplace. It’s important to recognize and honor the many facets of our identities, including our personal passions, relationships, and hobbies, as well as our professional aspirations. While our jobs may provide structure and direction in our lives, they are just one piece of a larger puzzle that makes up who we are. By embracing the totality of our identities, we can find greater meaning, fulfillment, and happiness in all aspects of our lives.

Generated with Hello AI:

We are at an inflection point when a bot can write copy like this in seconds. We’ve seen self check out lines in grocery stores and libraries. Automation in every aspect of manufacturing. We’ve seen artificial intelligence pass the bar exam and win photography contests. What are the arenas for only human hands and heart? What are the jobs of our future? What does artificial intelligence lack that only humans can provide?

First among these must be soul. And then heart. Compassion. Human to human contact. Empathy. If and when AI enters into these realms, the world will be a very complicated place.

Facing fear

Standing up to fear changes a person. It helps you to put matters in perspective. Where once fear loomed over you, insurmountable, now you can honor the courage it took to move past it into unfamiliar territory.

Eleanor Roosevelt was a courageous woman. Despite her husband’s attempts to placate the South, she regularly bucked segregation and was a vocal proponent of civil rights. She was able to call out racism and force others to see it for what it was:

By 1939, ER decided to attack the hypocritical way in which the nation dealt with racial injustice. She wanted her fellow citizens to understand how their guilt in “writing and speaking about democracy and the American way without consideration of the imperfections within our system with regard to its treatment . . . of the Negro” encouraged racism. Americans, she told Ralph Bunche in an interview for Gunnar Myrdal’s American Dilemma, wanted to talk “only about the good features of American life and to hide our problems like skeletons in the closet.” Such withdrawal only fueled violent responses; Americans must therefore recognize “the real intensity of feeling” and “the amount of intimidation and terrorization” racism promotes and act against such “ridiculous” behavior.

You can’t clearly see a problem before you if you are too scared to look at it and call it out for what it is. Where are the injustices in your immediate orbit? Are there people being treated unfairly? How can you add your voice to help identify the problem and move toward healing? These problems are right here, close to home.

As Eleanor Roosevelt said:

Where after do human rights begin? In small places, close to home– so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person: The neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.

-“Remarks at the United Nations,” March 27, 1958

Fear is a crippler. It keeps you rooted in a course of action you know to be wrong. Focusing on the fear helps it to loom even larger before you. Instead, focus on the better world you are trying to help build. Spreading love and justice is exciting and uplifting. Being part of something bigger than yourself, working for a common goal, in an effort to improve people’s circumstance is rewarding.

You don’t have to see the whole path in front of you. Take, and keep taking, that next step forward.

God winks

Often, when we look back at our lives, we will see strange coincidences that came at meaningful times in our life. That person you met, show you watched, book you read, something you overheard that serendipitously was just what you needed in that moment. My pastor calls these God winks. It feels like someone is watching over you and caring.

Of course, these could be just coincidental. But they are important, pivotal, coincidences.

Emma Thompson puts it this way:

I think books are like people, in the sense that they’ll turn up in your life when you most need them. After my father died, the book that sort of saved my life was Gabriel García Márquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. Because of that experience, I firmly believe there are books whose greatness actually enables you to live, to do something. And sometimes, human beings need story and narrative more than they need nourishment and food.

Emma Thompson in @oprah’s O Magazine.

The most important thing is having the eyes to recognize the impact and the willingness to be open to change and growth.

God winks are everywhere if you develop the eyes to see them.

A very buzzard homecoming.

Recently, I pulled down an old scrapbook from my junior high days to show my granddaughter Lily who is just that same age now as I was then. It contained many ‘treasures’. Among the many letters and cards from my late grandmother was one talking about the buzzards coming back home to Hinckley, Ohio, a phenomenon which I remember amused me. Imagine celebrating buzzards!

She wrote:

It should cheer you somewhat to know that the buzzards returned to Hinckley, Ohio, on schedule on March 15th. It is always a comfort to know those gorgeous creatures ‘do their thing’ each year, as anticipated. It would be a bit discouraging to prepare pancakes and sausages for 35,000 eager folks, and have no buzzards to join in the celebration!

Oh, how I loved her, her humor and wit, her warmth and love, her writing style. I have always felt such a kinship with her and reading over her letters makes her feel so close.

Her letter got me thinking. First, about buzzards. Sure enough, a quick bit of googling shows that buzzards are still returning to Hinckley on schedule and have been celebrated since 1818!

And then about the cyclical quality of nature. The monarchs go south and then back. The swallows return to San Juan Capistrano. The elephant seals come back to Cambria. We humans who love animals mark their going and celebrate their homecoming, yes, even the buzzards, and note the steady passage of time.

And finally about how those we’ve lost stay with us even after they’ve gone. Lily has a freckle on her right hand which I’ve told her is her Nana freckle. I load it up with kisses often when I see her. When I’m gone, I hope that freckle will remind her of how very much I loved her. My grandmother and I were separated by thousands of miles, but our letters exchanged helped us stay close. Those letters remind me now to pause and share bits of life, simple moments, with the people I love. Those moments become the memories and precious treasure later.

Even the ones about buzzards.

(I couldn’t quite bring myself to make the lead picture with buzzards. Lol)

Bird chirping weather.

Every day this week, I’ve woken up to birdsong, which is a particularly delightful way to pass from dreams to reality. I’ve been working on the garden—planting, pruning, weeding, trying to make a pretty space. Birds singing out there make me feel like they approve and they’re calling me to the adventure of creating ‘our’ space together. It’s a party out there, and I’m both the host and an invited guest.

Those singing birds make me feel so hopeful.

‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all …

By Emily Dickinson

I’m spring

As I age, I have a new appreciation for those poets like Dylan Thomas raging against mortality. I do not want to go gentle into that good night. I like it here.

Here is a new variation on that theme I enjoyed:

Sorrow Is Not My Name

—after Gwendolyn Brooks

No matter the pull toward brink. No
matter the florid, deep sleep awaits.
There is a time for everything. Look,
just this morning a vulture
nodded his red, grizzled head at me,
and I looked at him, admiring
the sickle of his beak.
Then the wind kicked up, and,
after arranging that good suit of feathers
he up and took off.
Just like that. And to boot,
there are, on this planet alone, something like two million naturally occurring sweet things,
some with names so generous as to kick
the steel from my knees: agave, persimmon,
stick ball, the purple okra I bought for two bucks
at the market. Think of that. The long night,
the skeleton in the mirror, the man behind me
on the bus taking notes, yeah, yeah.
But look; my niece is running through a field
calling my name. My neighbor sings like an angel
and at the end of my block is a basketball court.
I remember. My color’s green. I’m spring.

A simple prayer

People have always told stories. Plopped down on this earth with so much beyond our understanding, we struggle to make sense of things, to find cohesion and purpose, and to fit. We long for meaning outside of our circumstance and kinship beyond our borders.

Stories help. They comfort and guide us, inspire and warn, and make us feel less alone. Others feel the way you feel. And, at the root of story, is a turning away from ourselves toward something greater.

My book GERTIE, THE DARLING DUCK OF WWII, was just released. It tells the non-fiction story of a time during WWII when things were bleak, hopes worn raw, when a little duck built her nest on a high pole above a foul river. A hopeless place, really, for keeping the ducklings alive. Yet, the city of Milwaukee rallied around this little duck and saved her brood. Stories about Gertie’s struggles captured the attention of the entire world, comforted soldiers overseas, and gave everyone a glimpse of a better day. Stories about Gertie shared the front page with stories about Hitler, kamikaze pilots, and concentration camps.

For me, Gertie’s story will always be an embodiment of Psalm 91:4, “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.” To me, her story feels like a message of hope in the darkest of times, a prayer and response.

At heart, most stories are a prayer—a way of reaching for something more, a hope, a yearning, a plea. Stories help connect us and give us peeks behind the curtain.