The most common question columnists get asked is, “Where do you get the ideas for what you write?”
That’s not hard to answer, because the world is full of ideas, and the issue is not finding any but picking just one out of the vast array of possibilities.
A couple of days ago I was tossing around a half-dozen topics, and just when I was about to select one and go through my papers and computer files for the material I’d been gathering on it, a co-worker came over to my desk and said something shattering and utterly unexpected.
She said, “Did you hear Anne Farley died?”
And all my plans suddenly collapsed, made inconsequential by the tragedy of a death.
It’s not that I knew Anne well or that she was a close friend. We had been co-workers, but that was many years ago.
However, we had maintained a tenuous contact because every few months she would submit a personal essay to the Maine Observer column that runs on the bottom of the Sunday Telegram editorial page.
I edit those columns, and I was always pleased to hear from Anne, because her pleasant pieces not only offered a slice of everyday Maine life as seen through the eyes of a Mainer, which is the goal of the column, but they offered a view of what Anne was like as well.
They were happy columns, not bubbling over with enthusiasm (she was not bubbly), but taking pleasure in what used to be called “homely” things, those objects, places and people that make up the essence of our everyday lives and fill them with satisfaction.
Anne was reserved enough as to seem diffident, yet with an essential sweetness and quiet, confident joy about her that made you think that if you could someday be as happy as Anne, your life would have been a rousing success.
If you’ve read the story, you know what happened:
“Farley, 57, died Wednesday morning after saving her granddaughter from a strong current off Old Orchard Beach on Tuesday afternoon, said Deputy Police Chief Keith Babin. She was pulled from the ocean near the border of Old Orchard Beach and Saco around 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, along with several others who had been caught in the current from the outflow of Goosefare Brook, Babin said.
“Witnesses told police that Farley jumped in after her granddaughter fell into the water. Farley got her granddaughter out of the water but was unable to escape the current herself. All of the other swimmers caught in the current were unharmed, including Farley’s granddaughter.”
I don’t recall sitting at my desk with tears running down my face before, but now the next time it happens won’t be the first. Not because, as I said, I knew Anne all that well, but because I was completely overwhelmed by her courage.
What she did represented the absolute best that we are capable of as human beings, an act of utter heroism on the part of someone you would never think would have the opportunity to show such luminous bravery.
I’ve observed physical courage on the battlefield under enemy fire; knew people who gave up their jobs for a principle, losing a position but maintaining their integrity; watched others hold to uncomfortable truths when they could have taken refuge in comforting lies; seen incredible sacrifice and hardship not only endured but welcomed for the sake of love and truth and faith and honor.
And yet, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”
It is what spurs people to applaud when soldiers pass through an airplane terminal or shake one’s hand and say, “Thank you for your service.”
Indeed, we live with heroes every day, with police and firefighters and other emergency and security workers. Any of us could have to respond to a life-threatening situation, but these people live with the awareness of it as part of their daily lives.
As someone said in the wake of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, “You can always tell who the brave people are, the ones willing to sacrifice themselves for others. They’re the ones running toward the smoke and the flames and the shots and the explosions when everyone else is running away.”
I almost think I know what Anne was thinking when she saw her granddaughter — not her own by birth, but her husband’s, as if that mattered in the slightest — was in trouble.
More surely, I know what she was not thinking: She was not thinking for the remotest fraction of single second about her own safety or the possible risk to her own life. A child needed help, and there was nothing to think about except how to get from where she was to that child as quickly as it was possible to move, to take the girl in her strong arms and bring her to safety ashore, out of the treacherous surf and currents.
Anne McNaughton Farley’s heroism is a shining example to us all. Still, I like to think that each of us would have done the same thing in the same circumstances, and that we would have thought just as little about the consequences before doing it. I hope I would have.
What she did is the essence of what it means to be made in the image of God.
And now we know that she herself has been rescued from the treacherous surf, and has been carried safely ashore.
M.D. Harmon is an editorial writer. He can be contacted at 791-6482 or at: