January 15, 2012

The Many Faces and Facets of Courage

I spent the last week with a sick toddler, both of us covered in vomit and at times, too dizzy to even stand.

That Willa could be miserable, all puking and nauseous and still be cuddly and sweet and go on about her "work" -- mostly of dancing with her pig -- (especially because I felt like curling up into a ball) was remarkable. And, I think because she was such a little trooper, we both came out of it happy and healthy and surprisingly, well-adjusted.

It was just one of the many reminders I've gotten in the last two weeks of how many different ways courage can manifest itself.

Courage is everywhere: in foreign correspondents and people putting themselves in harm's way for the greater good, but also in quiet, everyday moments and seemingly ordinary lives.

The first reminder of this came in the story of Grampa Bob, my dear friend Brooke's grandfather, who passed away right before the New Year.

Bob and his wife Thelma, who died last spring, spread so much love and generosity and strength and humor in their lives. Their grace and their courage was palpable when you were around them. 

They gave these hugs, big, genuine, all-they-have hugs that you could feel long after their arms had unwrapped you. (And Thelma's perfume stayed all day too. Iloved that about her. Her perfume was sweet and thick, something special on an otherwise unfancied farm wife.) Even when they were both frail, they hugged with all they had, even though as you hugged back, you worried you might break them. 

Aging, but never broken, those two.

You can read Bob's full obituary here, written by Brooke, but to sum it up: Bob and Thelma lived a relatively quiet life, outside a small town, raising kids, food and a community. They weren't the loudest family in town, nor the most powerful, nor the richest. They were simple and good and kind. What mattered to them was marriage, family, faith, land, and community. And all are better because of them.

Their legacy is small, perhaps, but huge at the same time. Bob's funeral was so crowded that we arrived 20 minutes early and still had to wait in a long line to get into the small, packed church. The whole community came, all ages, all persuasions, all religions. Bob and Thelma's kids and grandkids milled about, all of them little pillars in their own right, strong and giving and funny and loving (and most of them blonde). As I watched Brooke, who recently moved back to Central Montana herself (as have her two brothers), and witnessed the grace with which she responded to each and every person who came to her, hugging them fully, all while wrangling two little ones and dealing with the loss of two of the most important people in her life, was, and always is, astounding. Bob and Thelma and Brooke and her siblings and cousins have seen more than their fair share of heartbreak in their lives. Bob and Thelma lost a son, too early, and then a grandson, way too early. Theirs has not been an easy life. But they've faced it with so much love and grace. 

That is courage -- courage I see in each and every one of their kids and each of their grandkids too – a legacy to be very sure.

Holly, from PBS.org
The second example of courage hit me while I listened to a college friend discuss her work as a photographer in the Middle East. Holly Pickett grew up in Butte and went to the University of Montana. She started her career at a mid-sized newspaper, but broke off the traditional path in 2008 to move to Cairo, Egypt, to freelance. Now, the courage to freelance is one thing. The courage to freelance in a foreign country is another. To freelance in the Middle East in wartime is a whole other story.

In an interview with Montana Public Radio's News Director Sally Mauk (Listen on MTPR here.), Holly talked about her work in the Middle East, including her documentation of the revolutions that started a year ago in the Middle East – the so-called Arab Spring. Holly is an incredible photographer, whose work has now graced the pages of the New York Times, TIME, the New Yorker and many others.

Holly's images, as Sally points out, are nothing short of haunting, especially those of the women and children and families affected by war and disruption. (See them here.) When Sally asked her about those photos in particular, she said:

“I feel like I'm there for a purpose... It's such a terrible thing to have happen, but I want people to see those pictures because I want them to know that it [war] has an impact on even children. That it has an impact on families, on regular people who really don't have anything to do with the fighting or the politics. I just think it's really important to remember that, that it has an impact on civilians.”

And after Sally brought up images of Holly literally dodging bullets, Holly said:

“For me, it's not really about excitement so much... It's not about seeking thrills for me, it never has been... it's just I feel like I'm there for a purpose and I need to do what I'm there to do.”

What struck me so much about the interview is how humble and grounded Holly sounds (as she sounds, by the way, in her very well-done blog). She's just an ordinary Butte girl, doing what she's meant to do (here's a really good profile of her). It just so happens that there are sometimes bullets flying around her when she does it. 

That is courage.

The third example, in a similar vein, was the launch of my friend Anne's new project, Speak Out Tunisia. Anne is a multimedia journalist and instructor who just comes up with these crazy ideas to go to dangerous places in the name of free speech. Her last project, Congo in Focus, trained Congolese students to tell their own stories via multimedia. Here's how she described the whole thing in a piece this week on PBS MediaShift:

“In Congo, I watched students learn to report on the truth in their communities and to tell the stories that they considered to be important, not only the stories the West has grown accustomed to hearing -- stories of rape, violence, war and corruption. In return, my students taught me about human resilience and the ability to affect change in the face of oppression.”

One of Anne's students recently had apiece featured on PBS NewsHour, about which, Anne writes:

“The fact that NewsHour chose to highlight a story reported, written and photographed by a Congolese instead of a foreign correspondent in Congo brought the point of my teaching journalism in Congo full circle.”

Now, Anne is raising money to go to Tunisia to help train newly liberated citizens there (after the overthrow of dictator Ben Ali and in general, post Arab Spring) to tell their own stories too.

A few months ago, Anne and I were chatting (after she'd returned from a sojourn in France) and she, all casual like, writes, “it looks like i might be doing a project in Tunisia in the spring … and then back to Congo, I think...”

To just decide to go to a post-revolution or war-torn country for the sake of helping people tell their stories, because someone has to, that is courage.

(Anne's project is fundraising on Kickstarter.org, where you can pledge a little (as little as $1) or a lot to her campaign. Click here to watch a video about it, to learn more or to donate.)

The fourth example is the story of Henry and his parents. Henry is just a few months younger than Willa and his parents have become friends of ours. They're also small-town, came-back-to-the-farm folks just getting rolling on the whole farm family/family farm thing. Last week Henry had to be flown to Seattle with major heart issues and he and his family spent his first birthday in a hospital room, with Henry better, but still not out of the woods and with absolutely no answers, even from some of the nation's best cardiologists, as to what was going wrong with Henry's little heart.

But, they still had cake because he's a little boy turning one and by golly, that calls for cake. And, not just any cake. As his mom posted, “Red velvet cake with pearl dust on an incredible cream cheese frosting. Because it was truly a celebration.”

Henry's parents have been keeping friends and family informed on Facebook and sharing photos too. In one photo, there's Henry's dad, smiling as his son dug into his first birthday cake.

That is courage.

(Email me at courtney.lowery@gmail.com if you want me to pass along information on how you can help Henry and his family.)

This woman has amazing reserves of patience and courage.
The fifth example was closest to home: my Mom. My Mom has been caring for my grandmother since my grandpa died about 10 years ago. My grandma's a tough old bird, but in the last year or so, age and life has started to take its toll – on her body, on her mind and most of all, on her spirit. In particular, the last few months, she's gotten worse and worse and my Mom, the only child living near her, is the one who takes her to the doctor, takes her to the store, takes her to bank, takes her call in the middle of the night when her hearing aids don't work, and also takes the brunt of her, let's call it high-spritedness.

My grandmother has never been a warm and fuzzy type, but age, maybe some dementia, combined with a tough life and then watching her closest family members die one by one over the last decade has left even more prickly, to say the very least. My mom gets help from her brother – a lot of help – but he's also two states away. So my Mom takes the days upon days off work to take Grandma to the doctor, only to have her berate her time after time, in front of anyone who will listen. She takes Grandma shopping, because that's what she likes to do, only to have her complain the whole time. She wades through bills and Medicare paperwork, doctor's orders and prescription schedules, only to have my Grandma tell her she's not so smart.

My mom takes the abuse, deals with my grandmother with grace and then explains to me that she understands, it's just confusion and anyway, she's all my Grandma has left and she's not going to leave her alone in the last years of her life.

And so, when my Mom's phone rings at 7 a.m. and she sees it's my grandmother, she picks it up and says hello, lovingly.
That is courage.

I know I started this post with an anecdote about a stomach bug and I don't want, for a second, to equate that with the feats of courage laid out here. Instead, I want to point out how intrinsic it can be and how inspiring it is to realize that it all, big and small, comes from a central place. 

Whether it's fighting for one's country or getting up the strength to smile and give a hug when you know you, or your baby is sick, the courage comes from a current running through all of us.

So this year (I turn 32 this week), I'm going to be courageous, in any way I can, and recognize courage around me, in extraordinary and ordinary lives all the same.


  1. Courtney, you are amazing. Period. I am waiting for your book.


  2. Thanks Carol. Your comment made my day. And Patricia, I'm so glad.



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