Heroes & Icons

What if we memorialized every great person who ever existed with a monument? Would there be a spectacular array, an endless crowd of museums and statues, or would it be a pitifully paltry showing?

We are accustomed, most of us nowadays, to thinking of people celebrated for simple excellence as entertainers of various kinds as being iconic or heroic. Does this last? Of course it does–in some small few out of the thousands. Mostly, though, at some point it becomes easier to see through the facade of greatness to recognize natural, ordinary  mortality, albeit often tinged with real excellence. photoAnd what recognition and reverence do we afford the true human treasures among us? The teachers and nursing home attendants, the hard-working janitors and the patient and nurturing parents who all work without expectation of worthwhile recompense for the true betterment of the world? Imagine the world decorated with art and architecture honoring the dedicated fireman who didn’t die in a dramatic explosive fire while saving orphans but instead served faithfully as a firefighter in his town for twenty-six years before quietly retiring to a modest split-level where he keeps his two young grandkids under his loving, watchful eye after school until their mother gets home from work. Picture statues commemorating the great deeds of the quiet lady who owned the small neighborhood grocery and after a hundred-year storm opened it and gave away everything on the shelves to the neighbors so they could survive until the needed services could be reestablished.photoThe collection of dedicatory art might be a lot less flashy and showy. But if every real great among us were recognized in this way, there would surely be a whole lot bigger and more meaningful museum of marvels among us, wouldn’t there.

We Wait for Change…

…when we should be agents of change. We wish for rescue when we should be out seeking ways to aid others. We huddle fearfully in the late summer, already conscious that the autumn ahead will lead inevitably to winter’s dormancy or killing frost, when what we could be doing is plotting the way to make use of the transition to position ourselves to take fuller advantage of the ripening and plenitude ahead.digital illustrationWe are, after all, only human. But the exemplary people of generations past have proved, and those of our own time are still showing, that as long as we exist to worry about them the ages and seasons, the events and goings-on do indeed go on, cycle and change, and that if we choose to do so—if we determine to do so and act on it—we can make the changes better and the growth so much the more meaningful and joyful. If we wait for change, it will happen, all right, but it will happen however and whenever the universe or others in it decide. Ours is the calling to engage in the world, no matter how intimidating it is, and move toward what we desire. It may seem like plowing on foot through chin-deep snow, but trusting that there’s a thaw ahead and behind it, renewal, we can stay the course.digital illustrationAt the other end of it is potential that surpasses even our fondest, wildest imaginings, if we dare to move instead of lying waiting.

It’s interesting to me that I wrote the foregoing portions of this post a few weeks ago and set it aside for this very date, not knowing that it would follow immediately on the heels of my publishing my first book, something I’ve longed to do for years but never had the nerve until now. Funny how we sometimes put things in motion without even realizing what we’ve done; it’s a saving grace of our race, I think. O happy day, when we stumble into our dreams because we kept seeking them despite all sense!

Perfectly Imperfect in Every Way

In a comment on my gardening post last week, Ted reminded me of the inimitable Mary Poppins, and I was in turn moved to recollect her frank self-description as ‘Practically Perfect in Every Way‘. In the case of that charming fictional character, it was simply and inarguably the truth. The rest of us, mere mortals, can’t quite go that far if we’re honest.

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Saints Cury, Cecilia & Goar. I selected these for portraiture in this modern-medievalist piece because of very earthly interests: Cury is one of my birthday saints and famed mainly for his 'miraculous' hospitality; Cecilia is the patron of musicians (for my husband, of course) and even sometimes purported to be the inventor of the pipe organ; Goar's feast day is celebrated on our anniversary and he, sometimes portrayed as a potter, was thus also an artist. He also happens to have a lovely little town on the Rhine named after him. There *can* be perks to being a saint, even a minor one, apparently . . .

Which is why I like saints. It’s doubtful I’d really enjoy meeting them in person, to be precise: it’s the nature, the character of them, that really fascinates me. Because, as I understand it, what separates the saints from the rest of us ordinary slouches is not that they were born or made saints but that they became saints by rising above the ordinary way they began. Unlike superheroes and the majority of fairytale protagonists, it’s not often a transformation that’s accomplished by the wave of a wand or inadvertent exposure to radioactive substances, but rather is brought about by internal change and will and choice.

There is hope for me in the idea that most saints–and I gather this is true of the heroines and heroes of many significant belief systems, along with many of the major religions–start out as plain, simple, unimpressive and very mortal humans and for one reason or another are moved to do the things they do that gradually re-shape them into extraordinary beings. Some of those avatars, indeed, start out as pretty sketchy characters, if not outright jerks, despots, and other first-rank varieties of meanies. It’s the process, the journey, and the ultimate commitment to do and be something else that makes them extraordinary.

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Saint Monica could be the perfect example of overcoming obstacles--much of her sainthood was earned just through working to see that her ne'er-do-well son shaped up, the outstanding troublemaker who eventually reformed enough to become himself Saint Augustine of Hippo. Apparently her efforts did not go unrewarded . . .

Chances are beyond-excellent that I will never become a saint of any sort. But the real hope and inspiration in the lives of heroes, saints and exemplars is that nearly all of them began their lives as someone or something far less extraordinary than the way they ended them, and if so there’s always a possibility that with a little thoughtful effort I might actually improve along the way too. Don’t hold your breath, but I might just turn out slightly better than expected. Apparently, miracles do happen.

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Saints Valery (a French abbot) and Finian (an Irish bishop)--hereafter known as the Feastie Boys since they're also among my birthday saints. They remind me as well that one can come from different places, times, backgrounds and any number of unique circumstances and rise beyond them all to distinctive heights . . .