In the movie, Verna USO Girl, Verna (Sissy Spacek) plays a clumsy tone-deaf song and dance girl because no one else is available. Verna neither sings on key nor dances to a beat, but she’s utterly convinced that her destiny is stardom. She is sure that when she dies thousands will attend her funeral. Their memory of her will make her immortal.
Verna does not become a star, but she does make a hit with Walter, a young GI (William Hurt) who falls in love with her. Although she returns his affection, she decides that she cannot disrupt her “career” to marry him, pushing herself to perform in battle zones where everyone else is too scared to move.
Finally a land mine halts her. She is killed.
Because she is the first USO girl to “die in action,” the military decides that her story will boost morale.
So guess what happens?
Thousands attend her funeral.
Dignitaries attend and walk behind the casket.
Bands march and play.
Oh, by the way, we are uncertain if anyone knows her name.
Is this a story about romance and / or missed opportunities? In part.
Is this a story about being consumed and blinded by misguided ambition? In part.
Is this a story about love held close to the chest, and love lost? In part.
It’s also a story about courage and heart and chutzpah.
And yet… does there need to be one moral to every story?
Here’s why Verna’s story resonates with me. Because I do know what it is like to push myself “to perform.” Lord knows why, exce pt that in the end I become a persona–someone I am not–and consequently, uncomfortable in my own skin.
And when that happens, I know what it means to not be present. Uncomfortable in my own skin, as in, unable to give or receive or welcome or savor or contribute. It’s as if there is a disconnect. This from Philip Roth’s The Anatomy Lesson, “He didn’t feel like a son who’d just witnessed his mother’s burial, but like an actor’s understudy, the one they use in rehearsals to see how the costumes look under the lights.”
Anavah is the Hebrew word translated Humility. I was raised in a religious tradition that taught me humility is synonymous with self-effacement. We went overboard making sure we were never guilty of the sin of pride, ensuring that the mirror to our self was always cloudy. In his book Everyday Holiness, Alan Morinis, sheds light and the insight is helpful. Anavah (Humility) means to occupy or take up our proper space, neither too much, nor too little.
Humility–another way of saying, “Being at home in our own skin.”
With no need to jump through hoops to impress.
With no fear of the winds of public opinion (or the less than pleasant voices in our own head).
It ain’t what they call you, it’s what you answer to. WC Fields
Remember the 1991 movie, Regarding Henry? Harrison Ford plays a genuine-SOB-lawyer, who is shot in a random accident. After, he is not the same, mentally, physically, or spiritually. During his rehabilitation, he has a friendship with Bradley, his physical therapist. “I thought I could go back to my life, but I don’t like who I was Bradley… I don’t fit in.”
Bradley says to Henry, “I got bad knees. Football, wrecked ’em both playing college football. Man, that was my life. What else was there. NO jack shit… safety hit me… game over, my life was over… ask me if I mind having bad knees. No way. I had to find a life. Don’t listen to nobody trying to tell you who you are.”
Okay. Here’s the catch-22: if we’re not to “listen to nobody tell us who we are,” then how do we occupy our proper space and live well in our own skin?
Where do we summon that unclouded mirror?
Where do we find that place of positive inflation?
When do we know that we are enough?
I was neurotic for years. I was anxious and depressed and selfish. Everyone kept telling me to change. I resented them, and I agreed with them, and I wanted to change, but simply couldn’t, no matter how hard I tried. Then one day someone said to me, “Don’t change. I love you just as you are.” Those words were music to my ears: “Don’t change, Don’t change. Don’t change… I love you as you are.” I relaxed. I came alive. And suddenly I changed! Anthony de Mello
For this moment, it is enough.
A friend sent this article from The Charlotte Observer. “Doris Gibson of Huntersville can’t see well enough to drive a car, but she can plant tomatoes. She can’t see well enough to read the newspaper without a magnifier. But she can tend angel’s trumpets. Though half her sight is gone to macular degeneration, Gibson is still an enthusiastic gardener of flowers and vegetables. It’s hobby and therapy. Hobby because it keeps her busy, focused on what’s happening, even if that means looking at the beauty of a scarlet hibiscus or a lily through a lighted magnifier. Therapy because it shows she can do something really well, like growing good tomatoes and angels’ trumpets. Her gardening keeps her looking forward to the next day. She is 85.”
For this moment, it is enough.
At one of my conferences this past month, I spoke with a 90-year-old woman. “I love my life, my ministry,” she told me. “What is it you do that gives you such joy?” I asked her (thinking, “isn’t it enough at 90 to operate the TV remote?”) “Oh,” she told me, “I go visit people in the old folks home.”
For this moment, it is enough.
Tonight I’m reluctant to get up from my chair on the back deck. The hummingbirds are doing battle near the feeder, miniature fighter planes in a dogfight. An English rose hangs near where I’m sitting. It smells of citrus. Tomorrow I’m on a plane to California, and I don’t want to miss one moment in my garden. We still have an hour before dusk, but the lighting gives the garden an intensity, each color vivid and passionate and alive.
For the past eighty years I have started each day in the same manner. It is not a mechanical routine but something essential to my daily life. I go to the piano, and I play two preludes and fugues of Bach. I cannot think of doing otherwise. It is a sort of benediction on the house. But that is not its only meaning for me. I t is a rediscovery of the world of which I have the joy of being a part. It fills me with awareness of the wonder of life, with the feeling of the incredible marvel of being a human being.
Pablo Casals (at age 93)