I wrote before of the importance of deciding who you want to be: in other words, actively choosing the sorts of characteristics that you want to define you as a person. I realized recently that, although I’d never actively chosen who I wanted to be until recently, I had picked out several role models to emulate in my younger years. Because I had wished to be like them, I did end up acquiring many important characteristics from those role models.
I’d like to talk about one of those people today. Her name was…Emily Pollifax. Really.
When I was a young mom, just getting into homeschooling, I used to hang out on a homeschooling discussion forum. One day, someone asked the question: “Have you ever thought about what you want to do when you are done homeschooling your kids?” Different people had different answers, of course, but one—a woman I looked up to—had an answer that really stood out. “When I grow up, I want to be Mrs. Pollifax.” She then went on to explain that if we hadn’t read the Mrs. Pollifax books, we were missing out on something special. Intrigued, I checked out a book from the library. And I was hooked.
Mrs. Pollifax was a woman who had done everything society expected of her. She married a lawyer, then stayed at home to raise her children. When the children were gone she involved herself as a volunteer for various charities. Her husband passed on but she continued to do nothing but volunteer.
Then, one day, her doctor noticed that she seemed rather depressed. She replied that she felt she felt like she’d outgrown her usefulness: all that the volunteer organizations seemed to need was a good pair of teeth (for smiling). The doctor asked her if there was anything she’d wanted to do while she was younger that she’d never got around to, and she said: “When I was a girl, I wanted to be a spy.” When the doctor laughed at this, Mrs. Pollifax was affronted: what was wrong with her childhood ambition? So she applied to the CIA, got a courier job, and then proceeded to land herself in the middle of an international incident.
The neat thing about the Mrs. Pollifax (in this first book, The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax, and in subsequent books) is that she manages to wiggle out of the stickiest places primarily by being herself: creative, open-minded, and resourceful, of course, but also kind and keenly interested in other people. If anything, it is these last two qualities that help her most in her “courier” work (which never ends up as a simple mission it’s supposed to be).
You might see how this sort of story would appeal to a stay-at-home mom. “Yeah, I’m home with my kids now, but when I’m older…”
As I read, re-read, mulled over, and re-read the stories yet again, I found that I wanted to be Mrs. Pollifax too. Except without the CIA involvement. I would have an interesting job that involved travel (which I’ve always loved) and I would meet interesting people—not by accident, but because I’m just interested in people in general.
When UnlikelyDad took over homeschooling the kids in 2006, I was at a loss for what to do at first. Yes, I was tutoring. Yes, I was speaking at homeschooling conferences. But these were hardly full-time activities. I needed something to do with my life.
I got involved as a CERT instructor and was able to meet interesting people and teach them things like how to triage victims, how to splint an arm, and how to shore up unsafe buildings well enough to effect a rescue. And still I was not satisfied with my life.
I applied to grad school and was accepted to two traditional chemistry departments and two interdisciplinary programs. When I visited the traditional chemistry departments I noticed that something was lacking, something I couldn’t put a finger on. I didn’t understand what until I visited MyU and listened to all of the students in my program talk about their field work. Field work in the mountains; field work in rivers; field work at sea; field work at places I’d dreamed of visiting. And then I knew: I didn’t just want to do science. I wanted to have adventures doing science. If I didn’t do field work, I’d be missing out on that part of me that craved adventure.
And now I do have adventures during which I attempt to do science. During these trips I meet cool people and do neat things.
Stay-at-home moms of my acquaintance tell me that they live vicariously by following my escapades on Facebook. Some have told me that they are surprised that “someone interesting” like me is willing to be friends with “someone boring” like them. This is silly, of course: they’re interesting people too. They just happen to be interesting people with humdrum jobs. But I know that could easily change in the future: it certainly happened to me.
It may seem kind of funny to say that one of my role models was a fictional character, and yet it’s true. And though I didn’t really grow up to be like Mrs. Pollifax, I adopted the attributes I loved best about her and made them an integral part of my character.
God bless you, Dorothy Gilman, for creating a character that changed my outlook on life.