THE hard part is making Sharon Tennison sit still. Back when she was a nurse, she worked in intensive care. Then, spotting a need, she founded a company to manufacture nursing apparel. Later, this Kentucky-born ``grandmother in tennis shoes'' (as she doesn't mind being called) began speaking to audiences about the nuclear threat. Now she pours her considerable energies into Soviet-American exchanges. Her goal: to get as many average, nongovernmental, ``middle American'' citizens as possible into Soviet homes for visits - and to bring Soviet citizens to the United States in return.
According to national polls, Mrs. Tennison and her organization - a small, highly regarded nonprofit called the Center for US-USSR Initiatives (CUUI) - are part of a growth industry. Americans, who as recently as 1983 gave a 64 percent ``yes'' response to the statement that ``the military threat from the Soviet Union is constantly growing and presents a real, immediate danger to the United States,'' now reject that idea by a 3-to-1 margin, according to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll. Instead, 72 percent of the adults polled say that nuclear war is unlikely in the next 10 years - up from 49 percent in a 1981 Gallup poll.
Not surprisingly, CUUI is responding. Plans are afoot for 35 ``citizen diplomacy'' trips to the Soviet Union this year alone - a measure of the intensity of mutual interest between the two cultures.
Why this interest? Reflecting on her experiences one evening from her second-floor office tucked into a warren of rooms at the CUUI headquarters here, she calls attention to the special relation between the citizens of the two superpowers.
``Soviets tell us that they have always admired Americans more than anybody else on the planet,'' she says. In part, she says, that is because ``they have read our literature: They cut their teeth on Mark Twain and Hemingway and Faulkner. And perhaps because we live such a different existence, they have always been more intrigued with us than they have with Frenchmen or with Brits.
``And then, of course, during the war to be allied with us - the very fact that they got canned meat from us when they had nothing else to eat, and bundles of old clothes when they were totally bombed out - that burned an impression into their minds that is still there.''
But the issue goes deeper, she feels. She recalls asking a friend in Kiev late one night about the Soviet affection for Americans. The answer came as a metaphor. ```You Americans are like the butterflies of the planet,''' she was told. ```You have this lightness and this exuberance and this belief that you can do anything. And you're mobile, and no one restricts you. You bring that energy with you to the Soviet Union, and everybody that touches you feels it, and they get a little bit of it. We live on that after you leave. And we always want you to come back and bring more of it to us.'''
``I thought about that,'' says Tennison, ``and I thought, `That's true.' You just see the energy behind their eyes when all of a sudden they [the Soviets] absorb the belief that anything is possible.''
BUT what about the other side of the equation - the American interest in the Soviets? Why should that be looming so large these days?
``The big thing that all of us see who are dealing with them,'' says Tennison, ``is that [the Soviets] really humanize us. We begin to get a better sense of our own history and of world history, of literature, of the intangible human values, the intergenerational respect, the societal concern for all children and not just one's own children.''
The result, she adds, is that ``Americans become more real with Soviets than they become with each other.'' After a recent trip, she says, one American traveler commented that ```I've had more deep conversations in the last two weeks than I've had in the last two years in the US, because we Americans tend to prattle around with the superficial things and cocktail chatter without going deep.'''
By contrast, says Tennison, Soviets ``by their very nature immediately give [Americans] permission to think deep thoughts and to ask deep questions with each other.''
Why? Tennison feels that the tendency reflects the Soviet experience. ``Soviets don't want to lose any time. Life has been tough. About the only joy they've gotten out of life is the human contact, so they go for it anytime they get a chance. They haven't had the joys of buying a new BMW, or owning a penthouse, or taking a cruise. Those haven't been options for them. The one thing that always works is that deep human contact that always warms their heart, and so they've been able to develop that ... to a much deeper level than we have.
``In our American dream,'' she continues, ``some way or another we have lost touch with the things that are most deeply human. And going back to that country that has never had any of the stuff we've had is a jerk into reality.'' Again and again, she says, she watches American visitors realize that ``there are important things that we have completely forgotten about, that we forgot to instill in our children. And, all of a sudden, possessions and accumulations and cruises and those sorts of things look kind of silly.
``Isn't it strange that we would have to go to the home of the `enemy' to get back in touch with what really is of value to us as individuals?'' she muses. ``And what you find is that Americans make a second trip or a third trip - or, more importantly, that they start associating themselves with other people that have had this experience.''
Despite her hundreds of hours in Soviet homes, Tennison does not claim to understand fully what she sees happening. ``Whatever it is,'' she says, ``it is lighting a fire in a deep place in the Americans that they've not had lit before. And they are coming out of it forming new friendships, revising their world view, beginning to have a sense of commitment.''
That commitment is not foreign to Tennison. Her work on Soviet-American exchanges began in 1982, when she began speaking for Physicians for Social Responsibility about the nuclear threat and the need for disarmament. When people kept asking her, ``But what about the Russians?'' she organized her first trip to the USSR in 1983 - to find out, she says, whether they really were the barbarians that the stereotypes suggested.
`WE didn't consider ourselves an organization,'' she says. ``We considered ourselves a group of citizens who were out to see whether ordinary people could make a difference.'' She recalls that they took to heart a quotation from anthropologist Margaret Mead, who wrote: ``Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world: Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.''
Does she worry that the great Soviet experiment with perestroika and glasnost could unravel - that borders could be closed and citizen exchanges frozen? ``I don't think it will ever go back to where it was,'' she says. Even six months ago, she says, the Soviets she spoke with were concerned about reversal, but no longer.
One of the major factors in the change, she feels, is telecommunications. ``This little computer right here,'' she says, gesturing to a nearby Macintosh, ``sends messages to Moscow every day. And it sends them to unofficial people, who are able then to go out and do our running and start making telephone calls. I guess this could be disrupted. But that's not going to happen, because the Soviets are watching world opinion very carefully, and they are much more responsive to it than we realize.''