I was asked to write about my hero, recently. I say recently, but really that was so many weeks ago. I just couldn’t do it until now. It’s not that I don’t know any. I do. It’s that I couldn’t only pick one. It’s that I couldn’t only pick one, and I couldn’t write them. I don’t mean write about them, because that’s easy to do. I couldn’t write them. I tried, though. I chose only a few everyday heroes, and I tried to write them
Maybe my heroes are the couple sitting two tables over, sipping coffee and reading the newspaper together. No phones. No laptops. No screens to cut the space between them. They read quietly and with focus, only averting their eyes from the ink occasionally.
They only avert their eyes from the ink occasionally to catch one another’s. It’s brief — not even a full second — but it’s a smile. It’s a conversation. It’s a smile for no one else in the room and a conversation only they are privy to, but it’s a sweet one. You can see the sweetness, the doting. I’m happy here, coyly watching this couple who doesn’t need modern distractions. I’m happy to watch them, taking in only the stories they have on paper and filling in the blank spaces with each other’s eyes.
This is their routine. You can see it like you can see the sweetness and the doting. They’ve perfected the art of reading in silence and feeling each other’s energy. They use that energy, not words, to know when to trade sections. They use that energy to look up and have their sweet, silent eye conversations.
He takes a sip. She takes a sip. I watch. This is coffee.
I want them to stay because they look like love. Undramatic, simple love. The love that doesn’t require others to rally around them.
They talk now. It’s quiet, and I can’t hear it, but I don’t need to. I don’t even want to, really, because I like my story best. He folds her section of the newspaper into his as their smiles that once hid their words widen to let them out. They love each other, and I can see it. They like each other, and I can see it.
They love each other and like each other, and I can see it, and that feels heroic to me; so, maybe that’s who my heroes are. The people that sit together, having conversations with their eyes, their smiles, their voices. The people who fold each other’s stories into their own, loving and liking each other.
We’re driving through rural Southeast Texas. It’s springtime. It’s hot in rural Southeast Texas during springtime, but the air is fresh, so the windows are down. We wind through the tallest pine trees. Pine trees so dramatically tall that they brush the dramatically blue sky with their needles. Pine trees so dramatically tall that only God can see the tops.
I don’t turn the radio on. I never do, really, but especially here, on the winding roads of rural Southeast Texas, deep in the piney woods, where the musical choices range only from pop to new country pop. We don’t need any music, though, because we have Bugs. Bugs isn’t her real name. It’s just what I call her.
Bugs is fiery. She’s red-headed. She’s witty and curious and is filled to the top of her fiery red head with undeniable sass. She’s adventurous and practical, and in this story, she’s a five year old. She’s sixteen now, and she’s still all of those things, but for now, in this moment, she’s five.
Bugs and I are on an adventure to nowhere, windows down, saving the unfortunate pop music for somebody else. She asks questions. I give answers. She asks questions, and I give answers like a verbal seesaw. I love that she wants to know things. Anything. Everything. It gives me hope for her. It gives me hope with her. For fear of silencing her too early, I hide my satisfaction, my pride, and I commit to never dismissing her curiosity. We seesaw for miles — hours, maybe — and then she stops. She averts her eyes from the pine trees, and they catch mine.
Bugs: “Aunt A, do you want a turn?”
me: “Sure! Let me think.”
me: “Got it. Bugs, why do you ask so many questions?”
Bugs: “Because I’m five and I don’t know very much yet.”
me, smiling directly at her, now: “Of course. Don’t ever lose that wonder.”
This is my Bugs. My fiery, witty, curious, and practical niece. She is a seeker. She is a seeker who understands that the world is full of unknowns, and she’s unafraid. She’s unafraid to be where she is, and she’s unafraid to ask the questions that take her someplace else. Someplace better.
How heroic it is to stay both interested and humble. How heroic it is to lean into the wonder of life, messy as it is sometimes, and embrace the humility of it all.
We sit next to each other at the end of the bar. Easy sips of easy beer between easy words is how this story normally goes. Not tonight, though. Tonight, it’s easy sips of easy beer between strong words. Exciting words. Hard words.
We have known each other for a while. That sounds vague, I know, but the length of time is irrelevant, tonight, so I won’t give it unnecessary weight. We have known each other for a while and words are the reason we do. You see, he is also a writer. He may qualify that title with an ‘aspiring,’ but that’s an untruth. Empirically, undeniably, he is a writer.
Empirically, he is a writer, and he’s quite brave with it. In that way, he’s already been inspiring. I’m not a brave writer. Or, I wasn’t a brave writer. I was a writer who told stories with too many words and used too many parentheticals. I did this to guide my readers’ reactions, although I was never courageous enough to say it. I was a writer compelled to hide vulnerability with facts and humor. I was a writer who was afraid of my own writing. And then, I befriended the man sitting at the end of the bar with me — the man who is a brave writer.
We sit next to each other at the end of the bar with our easy beers and hard words. They’re only hard because they matter. The topic is sensitive and consequential. It’s divisive to others, others outside the bar, others in the world.
The topic is racism.
We sit on the same side, both of the bar and of the belief, and we don’t know what to do about it. We don’t know what to do about the racism, that is, so we talk. Mostly he talks, and I fumble with fascination. He asks me questions that many wouldn’t dare without the protection of a screen and a keyboard. He asks me questions that I wouldn’t have dared before I was a braver person, unafraid of her own words. I return hard questions and give partial answers, saving the full ones for later. I save the full ones for later, after I’ve processed them enough to communicate the way I best do, which is to say communicate them through written word.
The questions are also irrelevant, much like the length of our friendship. I won’t give them weight, either. Not here, because they belong to the bar and to my journal. The inspiration, the bravery, even when it’s hard… that is significant.
Isn’t that what we seek from others? Isn’t that what we need from heroes?