Friday, August 27, 2010

"They Also Serve Who Only Stand and Wait"

John Milton, a seventeenth-century English poet, observed that “They also serve who only stand and wait.” Milton closed the sonnet, “On His Blindness,” with these words because he realized that those who accept the “mild yoke” placed upon them are among the most content and fulfilled. Calpurnia was such person. So is RyAnne Noss.

I began this Blog, “In Atticus’ Shoes,” with the story of an unknown soldier in Japan after the U. S. firebombed, then atomic-bombed Japan into surrender. That G.I. gave a desperate mother some powdered milk, and his gift saved a life. Years later, that infant, saved by one G.I., thanked Americans for her life. With this blog on August 27, 2010, I return again to the soldier who has never been far from the spirit of the posts.

RyAnne Noss, with a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering, married a soldier who served eight tours of duty before sustaining a TBI—traumatic brain injury. Scott, her husband, fit and brave and active, no longer exists except somewhere inside a body that requires constant care. Many women would have walked away. RyAnne has not. She put her career, ambitions, and desires on hold to care for her Scott.

She is not alone. Eric Edmundson’s parents, Ed and Beth, and Eric’s wife, Stephanie, have sacrificed their financial security and ransomed their futures to restore Eric to the best possible state he can attain. Ivonne Thompson is another like RyAnne. Each of these individuals, so eloquently and movingly portrayed on “NOW,” a PBS program November 20, 2009, has put aside personal agendas. Each has elected to serve by standing for a loved one and waiting for miracles in the form of a single laugh, a step taken, a glance of recognition. Each care-giver bears the yoke—although I could never conceive of it as mild, as Milton did his blindness—because each is in the service of something greater: a life. And each proves his courage and conviction every day.

To learn more about RyAnne Noss, Ed and Beth Edmundson, Stephanie Edmundson, and Ivonne Thompson, as well as the soldiers who inspire them, visit where you can read the transcript of “Who’s Helping Our Wounded Vets?” a program featuring Senior Correspondent Maria Hinojoso and produced by Abigail Leonard. I believe that you may even want to buy a DVD of this program because the story will inspire you. You will feel proud that there are such selfless, loving Americans living among us and caring for the most severely wounded soldiers who used their courage for us.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Calpurnia from To Kill a Mockingbird

Atticus trusts Calpurnia to care for his home, his nutrition, and his most important possession: his children. He believes she has the right moral and spiritual “lights” by which to guide them, and he refuses to heed Alexandra’s nagging to let her go. Atticus values Calpurnia as a person and an employee.

Calpurnia is more than a domestic servant and nanny, however. She and Helen Robinson are icons for the plight of black women in a segregated society, women who left their own homes and children from sun-up to sundown in order to care for the homes and children of their white employers. On the night that snow falls in Maycomb, Atticus invites Calpurnia to spend the night; on nights when Atticus must attend State legislative sessions, Calpurnia works, without invitation, only expectation, a full 24 hours.

No doubt Calpurnia is proud to be Mr. Finch’s employee. After all, he is a most respected citizen and an attorney. In addition, Atticus values Calpurnia for her character. This, too, must make her proud for she has earned his trust and regard.

But it is Calpurnia’s character that grants her standing among those who display courage. Calpurnia has the courage of her convictions as she instructs and disciplines Jem and Scout, especially Scout. She stands up to Lula, a fellow church member who condemns Calpurnia for taking white children to Reverend Sykes’ service.

Calpurnia also stands up for education when she teaches her son, Zeebo, to read. He can then read the hymnal and lead the congregation, teaching them the words to sing and waiting for their reply in song. Surely her desire to insure her son’s knowledge is a testament to Calpurnia’s faith in possibilities—if not for her, but for her son.

Above all, Calpurnia stands for moral principles, proving that such strength of character resides in the heart and mind of those forced to live humbly. She becomes the paradigm for the best qualities in Maycomb’s oppressed citizenry and reason enough for an end to segregation.

Do you know of others whose courage includes living by timeless moral precepts?

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Mr. Link Deas

Last week, I mentioned a minor character, Link Deas, as an example of courage. Link demonstrates that Atticus is not alone in believing a man should be judged by his deeds, not the color of his skin. Like Atticus, Link Deas recognizes hard work, honesty, and perseverance as admirable traits. He is therefore able to speak in behalf of Tom Robinson and support his widow, Helen Robinson, when she must provide for her family alone.

Link Deas is Tom Robinson’s employer. He knows Tom to be a decent man and says so, interrupting the trial to testify even though Atticus did not call him to the stand. Mr. Deas wants those sitting in judgment to know that he has known Robinson for eight years and that Tom never caused any trouble. Link must hope that the jurors will understand that an eight-year record trumps a belligerent drunk’s accusation.

After Tom has been convicted and shot trying to flee, Deas creates a job for Helen—perhaps because he knows how she will struggle without her husband’s income or perhaps because he knows that racism killed Tom Robinson and some sort of justice must be brought to balance the scale. Whatever Mr. Deas’ motive is, he has proved his courage in speaking out in spite of his neighbors and his customers. He acts to right wrongs, and in doing so, proves that he is not blind to the suffering of others, that he is willing to risk his own safety in the cause of others.

That is what our society requires: an empathetic heart and a will to act.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Harper Lee

On July 11, 2010, the golden anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird, a news program, CBS Sunday Morning, devoted time to the four-day celebration in Monroeville, Alabama, the real world parallel to Maycomb, the setting for Harper Lee’s prize-winning novel. James McBride, author of The Color of Water, was one of the people asked to comment upon the novel’s impact. He chose to celebrate the author herself and her remarkable courage in telling a story about racial injustice so unflinchingly, so candidly, and so powerfully.

Indeed, truth-tellers are some of the most courageous among us. They face disbelievers, rationalizers, deniers, and just plain liars to appeal to the better natures in all of us. They are the cockeyed optimists who believe that the truth, packaged as fiction or exposed in non-fiction, can change the world and turn away pettiness, cruelty, brutality.

In Lee’s novel, Tom Robinson told the truth, knowing it was unlikely to set him free, yet he told it anyway. Atticus advocated for Tom’s truth, proving it by revealing that Mayella’s injuries were to the right side of her face, by showing Bob Ewell to be left-handed, and by reminding jurors that Tom could not use his left hand. The jurors deliberated a long time, suggesting that the truth was powerful enough to trouble their consciences, but even irrefutable evidence and logic were not enough to win a verdict of not guilty that day in that fictional courtroom.

Little Dill was one in the courtroom who saw Tom’s truth and the hopelessness of it. He grew sick and had to flee, ashamed of the disdain in Prosecutor Gilmer’s voice when he spoke to and about Tom. Dill sensed Maycomb’s willingness to punish Tom Robinson in order to satisfy their need to believe in their own superiority and that truth sickened him.

Outside, on the Courthouse steps, Dill met Mr. Dolphus Raymond who offered Dill a sip of Coca-Cola to settle his stomach. Scout warned Dill about drinking too much because she, like everyone else in Maycomb, knew Mr. Raymond as an unapologetic drunk. In fact, Raymond only played the part to spare others from his truth: he preferred the company of Maycomb’s minority citizens and eschewed the company of whites. He admitted to living a lie when he explained, “It ain't honest but it's mighty helpful to folks... you see they could never, never understand that I live like I do because that's the way I wants to live.”

Dolphus Raymond’s masquerade reveals another truth that Harper Lee courageously unmasks: a divided society makes cowards of us all. We lack the courage to be ourselves, as Dolphus Raymond suggests, and in our cowardly facades, we prevent others from living up to their full potential. We need Tom Robinson, Atticus Finch, Maudie Atkinson, Link Deas, and, most important of all, Harper Lee to set the bar toward which we all must strive. We need soldiers like them, at home and abroad, to insure that all people tear down the walls, the divides, the masks.

To Kill a Mockingbird
was published in 1960, the first year in a decade of tumult, struggle, and controversy. Fifty years later, we still do not live in a perfect, peaceful world, but we now lean more in the direction of that ideal than ever before. What strides can we make in the next 50 years and who will be the courageous voices?