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Ah, Summertime….

Conjures images of children splashing in the swimming hole; carefree, broad days of endless imagination playing pirates and cowboys and knights and dragons; and late, starry nights of Hide-n-Seek in the shadows.  Memories of stomping down the next-door field of alfalfa into mazes to play tag (sorry, Mr. Farmer…); games of Five-Sticks with the neighborhood kids on the front lawn, after the chores are done.  (Do these memories date me??)

Actually, some of my favorite summer memories are the long hours spent curled in the big armchair in the cool of the house, reading.  Hours at Gramma’s, stretched out on her smooth, green velvet carpet, reading.  Hours in the hammock under the apple trees, reading.

I read everything on the bookshelves at home – Alcott, Austen, Baum, Cooper, Dickens, Eliot, Kipling, London, Maugham, Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Stevenson, Thackerey, Tolstoy, White.  In alphabetical order.  Gone With the Wind, Sherlock Holmes, Robinson Crusoe, The Count of Montecristo – over and over again in no particular order.  I was Scarlett, I was Jo, I was Dorothy, I was Mowgli.  Every once in a while, I would discover a hero, but I don’t think I understood it at the time.  I only knew that something inside of me stirred and shifted; grew bigger and more hopeful; and I seemed to find myself crying for no reason that I could understand and had to put the book down until I wore myself out and fell asleep and then woke up and could start reading again.

C.S.Lewis says that we read to know we’re not alone.  I must have been a lonely child, for reading was my best companion.  When we recognize ourselves or are stirred by some deep, indistinct longing put out there in words, I believe we aren’t so much shaped by what we read, as by what is revealed and exposed in us.  It is a vulnerable thing to read a book.  Heroes, perhaps, help us to know, and believe, the unknown, un-accessed, terrifying part of our better selves.

Now, thinking about those long summer days, there are fictional heroes that come to mind from those pages.  Not the everyday hero with a sword; I mean the quiet kind.  But only a few, really, still stir me.  For today, here are my top five:

#5 – Polwarth

#4 – Sydney Carton

#3 – Rose-of-Sharon

#2 – Cordelia

#1 – Bishop Bienvenu

Polwarth is the unassuming gate-keeper in George Macdonald’s trilogy of parables about the curate of Glaston. He goes about his business quietly, kindly and with his eyes and heart open. Though a dwarf in stature, his simple honesty and wisdom have a gigantic impact on those who tarry with him.  One curious scene, in The Lady’s Confession, portrays Polwarth’s benevolent and humble character as he absorbs the fastidious re-arranging of his familiar old bookshelves by a well-meaning young lady who is slowly recovering from a terrible trauma, and it is a year or more before he manages to get his beloved books  “muddled into order again.”  This scene quite unsettled me for awhile; I recognized my own fierce desire for control even of my ‘messes’, and the agitation that comes with their disruption. I wrestled with what I took to be, at first, cowardly dishonesty on Polwarth’s part, to not, respectfully, ask the young lady to leave his bookshelves alone.  But in a moment of compassion, I was able to grasp what Polwarth understood; her “usefulness” was an important part of her healing, and he graciously set his preferences aside, for her sake.

Sydney Carton, the alcoholic lawyer who steps up to the guillotine instead of his look-alike and love-rival who is the true condemned man in Dicken’s Tale of Two Cities, says that it is “a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done”.  It may be argued whether his death is noble or suicidal, but in any case, he humbly and bravely is willing to sacrifice everything so that another man may live – the condemned husband of the lady he loves. It is suggested that he lived a “worthless” life, but perhaps the honest worth of one’s life is determined by its impact on another, and in this story, Sydney Carton certainly gives back life, liberty, love and family to a doomed and hopeless couple.  And this isn’t even talking about the hope and courage he is able to impart to the imprisoned little seamstress at her death.  You’ll have to read the book.

Rose-of-Sharon – such a delightful name, one of the Okie Joads suffering in The Grapes of Wrath.   She was a self-absorbed, petulant, skinny girl, too soon pregnant, and as the migrant family finally lost every last shred they owned struggling to survive, she too lost her baby.  Barely escaping in the swirl of a muddy flood, they stumble upon someone closer to death than they, and Rose-of-Sharon’s new milk is the only hope of survival. I first read this book when I was 13, but I knew about breast-feeding.  It was a frightening awakening for me that summer, that a young woman could set aside her own dignity and modesty, and, for the first time in the story, despite her own need offer herself for another’s life.  I think the terror was that it might be required of me someday.  This was a scene that never made it into the movie.

Cordelia, of course, is the youngest daughter of Shakespeare’s King Lear.  Her simple statement of loyalty to her father cannot compete with the extravagant protestations of love and flattery offered by her two sisters, and she forfeits her reputation, position, share of the kingdom and, ultimately, her life, for her honesty and integrity.  How I hate to be misunderstood!  How quick I am to defend myself, attempting to secure what I believe I deserve – maybe pardon, sympathy, esteem, good feelings…   Cordelia reminds me that I can “entrust my soul to the one who judges justly”.

Monseigneur Bienvenu, the Bishop of Digne is one of my most favored characters, described thoroughly and delightfully by Victor Hugo in Les Miserables.  Not altogether human, meaning that he is too perfectly good and humble, he lives without disdain and always with serene benevolence.  He once said of a big, black, hairy horrible spider, Poor thing, it is not his fault.  He is the one who restores to paroled convict Jean Valjean both his freedom and his dignity, in the form of two silver candlesticks that he forgot to steal. Free from any need to protect his own safety or possessions, the Bishop treats the tramp Valjean with unexpected respect and kindness, thus shifting the entire course of his life. Forget not, never forget, he blesses, that you have promised to use this silver to become an honest man.  I find inspiration in the character of this humble Bishop, showing me what it could be to live as a peacemaker in the small moments of every day.

These are the heroes I gathered from the summers of my youth.  Not understanding their importance, or knowing what to do with them, I returned them to the shelf and went outside to splash in the sprinkler or play Tarzan in the woods with my siblings; but they each one stayed with me.  Only in time have I gone back, re-read and re-remembered.

Popularly, we tend to think of heroes in the sense of a mighty deed for a mighty cause, a Dragon-Slayer.  My little collection of fictional heroes are unsung people, unnoticed for the most part, doing simply what they each must do to be true to themselves.  They relinquish something that is dear to most of us – life, livelihood, comfort, dignity, reputation, security, – so that some one else can be set free. Someone who may never know, either the gift or the cost.  Yes, reading books helps us to know we’re not alone…. and comforts us in the companionship of humanity.

SYDNEY CARTON

The GOOD PRIEST  Les-Miserables-Movie-Clip-The-Good-Priest.html

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