Yesterday I walked out the back door at 5:00 a.m. and the heat slapped me in the face. It was 93 degrees and the sun hadn’t shown itself yet. I leashed up the dogs and we headed out in the pre-dawn light. The walk was like an obscene phone call – lots of heavy breathing and tongues hanging out. The heat pulled at us and we all walked with our heads down. The sun topped the mountain on our return and the first ray to hit my face was merciless, confirming the weatherman’s prediction of over 110. In my early twenties I had a bout of heat exhaustion, since then, my body rebels if I over exert when the mercury climbs above 95. My planned 16 mile bike ride was out and there would be no long walk to the coffee shop. My expectations for the day withered like the heat stroked squash plants in my garden.
Back home, I settled in front of the computer until Chris, one of Tom’s workers, tapped on the glass of the patio door and crooked his finger. “Come see the owl”. I followed him down to where the garden edges up to the greenhouse. A couple of the crew were clearing out a dead jojoba and trimming the remaining trees. Chris pointed up. In the tangle of branches and leaves, an owl perched, surveying the work going on below him. He was a tiny thing, less than a foot in height, but impressive despite his small stature. He blinked those great yellow eyes. Ohh! The sudden movement surprised me! Everyone snapped photos and I wondered if the owl realized that his presence caused a mini-work stoppage. We were all enthralled. Throughout the next half hour he stayed in his spot supervising the work below. After the crew finished and things quieted down, I walked back out. Owl was still there. He blinked his eyes at me. I took one step to the side and his head swiveled; those yellow eyes tracked my every movement. His presence had caused quite a stir, yet he was unruffled. You deserve some peace, I said and left him alone.
Later that day, Tom walked out to the outdoor shower to rinse off the day’s sweat. He shouted, Owl! I ran over and there was the owl regally perched in the ironwood tree. The doves, finches, and thrashers were quite unhappy to have a predator in their midst. They flew and chattered at the owl but he was unmoved. Only that great head turned from side to side as he considered his choices for his evening meal. The thought of him possibly killing a songbird disturbed me, so I sent him thoughts of mice and pack rats hoping he’d take my advice and consider them better fare.
Out here in the Sonoran Desert, we coexist with coyotes, javelinas, and roadrunners. Quail gambol about, hawks soar, and the occasional mountain lion lopes through. While I stop and watch the wildlife, I have to admit sometimes I take it for granted. I’ve become used to the coyote lapping at our water fountain in the yard and quickly side step any rattler that slithers through. Owl, in all his extraordinary beauty, renewed my appreciation for the life humming around me. He reminded me that all too often I get caught up in my expectations, those things of relatively little consequence and miss what’s important. If I’d taken that bike ride, or that walk, I might have missed Owl’s visit. I might have missed seeing the blink of those yellow eyes, the easy turn of his head. I tend to delve inward, spinning and sorting the thoughts in my head, and when I do, it’s like donning a pair of blinders. My own thoughts obscure what’s happening around me. If I’d have missed seeing Owl, I’d have regretted that much more than missing a bike ride.
This morning I ran out to check on Owl’s whereabouts but he was gone. Tom thinks he’ll be back since so many critters call our gardens home. The dogs danced around me, eager for our morning walk and, as we headed out, the heat again dragged our feet. The dogs still trotted along, heads down and panting, but this time I shoved my expectations for the day to the back of my mind and remained fully alert, scanning the desert for whatever might come my way.
My women’s group meets twice a month to discuss all things spiritual and metaphysical. We drum, we chat, we eat, we provoke each other with new thoughts and ideas, we hug, and we laugh. Each member of the group takes a turn hosting and the hostess decides the direction for the evening. Sounds formal, but it isn’t; part of the fun is the surprise for often you don’t find out what we’ll be doing until you walk in the door. Tonight’s meeting, however, is different. Our hostess asked us to think about the heroes in our lives and the influence those heroes have had on us. Seems a straightforward request, but for the past two weeks, I’ve come up empty.
Part of my problem is trying to define the word hero. What comes to my mind is that little bumper sticker you see sometimes on cars: WWJD, the acronym for what would Jesus do? Lucky people, they know Jesus is their hero and they tell the world about it. When confronted with a sticky situation, they simply take a moment to ponder how Jesus would handle things and take it from there. But when the word hero was tossed up as our assignment, no one – and I do mean no one – came to my mind. Last night, I told Tom about my dilemma and asked him if he had a hero. Immediately he said, my mom. Then he brought up his admiration of Abraham Lincoln, a name prompted by the book he just finished, Team of Rivals. I had to admit, his quick answers made me envious and a little perturbed with myself.
Why don’t I have any heroes? As a student in a parochial school, I spent hours reading the Lives of the Saints. They were rollicking good stories, a bit tragic and bloody, but spellbinding. In particular, I resonated with Catherine of Sienna only because I fancied myself as her namesake, yet her story, after all these years, is lost in the cobwebs of my mind so, although she likely was heroic, I can’t count on her for inspiration.
After I read his book, Sacred Hoops, I hoisted Phil Jackson, former coach of the Chicago Bulls, up on a pedestal. That man, I thought, had it down as he interacted with his players by incorporating the philosophies of the Lakota Sioux and Zen Buddhism. When he moved to LA and cheated on his wife, the pedestal cracked and crumbled. I still admire his philosophy, but I recognize he’s human and no more special than anyone else.
I considered my parents, good people with solid values. Certainly they influenced me. Often when faced with a difficult task that requires me to stretch beyond my limits, I grumble for a moment or two, then plunge forward stoically, a trait passed on to me by my father. Too many times, when raising my own children, my mother’s words fell from my lips. My grandparents, my own children, aunts, uncles, cousins – the whole of my extended family – have touched me in ways small and large. I love and admire them all. Even my ex-husband, who tormented and angered me, served me well in that he made me strong and fearless, the exact qualities I needed to stand up to him.
Then it came to me. Humans are human and humans are frail. It’s the rare person who might be able to stand up to the intense scrutiny of heroism, yet often, I witness acts of kindness, small tokens of behavior that strike a chord in my heart and reinforce my belief in the love that is the foundation of humanity. I may not have heroes in my life, but I am deeply grateful for the small heroic acts that I witness on a daily basis.
- The young man who gave up his seat on the train so my future daughter-in-law could sit down with her sleeping child.
- The friend who rescued the tiny hummingbird after it crashed into her window.
- The crew of people who go out week after week to clear the hiking trails.
- The smile and chit chat Tom shares withour waitress, Laurie, at the local café.
- My friend, Alyce, who fights a daily battle to ensure her husband receives adequate medical care.
- The driver who waves and sits patiently while I cross the street on my morning walk.
- My neighbor, Lois, who handles her husband’s descent into Alzheimer’s with grace.
- My other neighbor, Karen, who, despite being a widow, still plays the piano every morning with gusto.
- The gentleman who retrieved my pen when it fell out of my purse while I hunted for my keys in the parking lot.
These acts are the threads of life. They bring a smile to the face, lift the heart and, for a moment, remind me of why we are here: to share our gifts and help each other. No matter what form of assistance we give or receive, it is good. In a few hours I’ll head off to my women’s group with a blank list of heroes, but an overflowing list of heroic acts. I’m good with that.