They come from different backgrounds, hold different beliefs, but they all have something in common.
They’re all women.
And they’re all women who have made an indelible impact on my life. I am who and where I am because these women each shared a piece of themselves with me.
Today is International Women’s Day, and it seems only fitting to pay tribute to the strong women in my life – women who have shaped me, sheltered me, strengthened me, taught me, stood beside me – women who have been and are my mentors and dearest friends.
When I was young, life wasn’t easy. I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian home with a mother who couldn’t separate god from the church, and a father who, while amazingly smart, insightful about the world, politically brilliant, and well-loved by the community, was prone to angry outbursts that were, more often than not, directed towards me. I was a strong-willed child with definite opinions and wasn’t afraid to question the status quo, until my dad started to get physical with me when I was in middle school. Then I clammed up, tried to fit in, but still voiced my opinions to my mother, who didn’t [couldn’t?] understand.
She sat me down at the table one day, when we were alone, and said something I’ll never forget. It simultaneously broke my heart and, in a way, liberated me. She told me that I wasn’t like them – the rest of the family – and she didn’t understand me. That she was sorry she didn’t share my thoughts and views, and that I should find someone I trusted to talk with about these things. She meant someone within the church. I interpreted it far more loosely, and found people at the place where I spent the most time – my school. Since then, I’ve made connections with strong women across the years, in different places, settings, contexts, and each one holds a special place in my heart. Today, I honor them.
Cindy Cone – She was my 6th grade teacher. I was a kid who didn’t make friends easily, who had anxieties about all sorts of things, and who desperately wanted to learn new, different, more challenging things than what was being taught in the main classroom. So she’d take me into the teacher’s office and diagram sentences with me – something that wasn’t being taught in our school any more – and give me creative writing assignments. We’d talk about books, about authors that she was shocked I’d heard of, much less read. And we’d talk about other things – about the kids who would pick on me for being different, about the kids who called me names, about how it was okay to see the world differently from the rest of them, and how, someday, I’d understand that what made me different would be what made me powerful. On our class camping trip, she played her guitar and sang us to sleep in the cabins at night, stopping by my bed and laying her hand on my head as she stood in the silence each night. That simple gesture has stayed with me for over three decades. Because of her, I learned to handle those who would bully me, and almost 30 years later, her words still come back to me when I need them the most– what makes me different makes me powerful .
Margaret Carlton – Margaret was, and remains, one of the single most influential people in my life. I don’t know if she is aware of just how important she is to me. It’s been almost 20 years since we’ve seen one another, but there isn’t a single day I don’t think of her and thank providence for the privilege of having been loved by that woman. We met when I was in 5th grade – she was my public speaking coach. Later, she’d become my English teacher in junior high. I’ll never forget what happened on Thursday, April 23, 1992, though. I was wearing a pair of jeans and a blue top, and was sitting in the hall crying after school because I’d missed the bus and my father, when I phoned, proceeded to scream at me and berate me yet again, before telling me to just walk home. [We lived on the furthest street from the school in the district — almost three miles away, and I was only 12] I was sitting against my locker, tears running down my face, utterly defeated, when she came out into the hall and saw me. She brought me into her classroom, and for the longest time, she said nothing – she just held me and let me cry. And then she gave me a kleenex and told me something that I’ve never forgotten. She told me that I was special to her, that I was certainly NOT stupid, that my father was too blind to see how talented and unique I was, and that she believed I had something in me that was bigger than my family and our little town – that someday, I would be doing things that would change people’s lives. She hugged me again, said that she and I were kindred spirits, and told me to never forget that she loved me and would always be rooting for me. Then, she drove me home.
She gave me permission to be myself, and not only to BE myself, but to EMBRACE myself. She embraced her quirkiness unashamedly, and saw the same quirkiness in me. She taught me to speak, and to be a presence in the world. I know that my life’s trajectory has been influenced, in large part, by her encouragement.
Pat Skrocki – my dear, dear Pat. I love this woman like a parent. She taught me how to write well, which is the single greatest gift I’ve been given. You are reading [and hopefully enjoying] my blog because this woman saw a gift in me and went above and beyond to develop it. She taught me structure, nuance, helped me refine my style. Every week, she pushed another piece of literature into my hands, and I devoured every one. She affirmed my ability to see and appreciate beauty, and could see my heart like no one else. We connected on an incredibly visceral level, and I still I consider her a dear friend and parent figure. When I was in Cincinnati, leading the Women’s March with Billie, we were standing up on the band shell looking out over the masses milling in the park, and there she was, front and center, smiling and looking so proud of us. Yes, it was an amazing day, full of powerful imagery and energy, but seeing her standing at the base of the band shell, proudly smiling, was the ultimate moment for me, and one of the most gratifying moments of my life. Every morning, I pass a small blue picture frame that hangs just inside my front door. It’s what she wrote in my senior yearbook. I cut it out a long, long time ago, had it framed, and read it every morning. I’ve read it every day for 20 years. It’s become my life’s motto, in a way. “Dear Chris, May you pursue only that which gives you joy, & never lose your capacity to appreciate all that is good. And as always, enjoy the trip.”
Pat LaMarche – At 5 AM, one snowy November morning in central Maine, a wild haired woman walked into my Christmas castle, wearing pajama pants, an old shirt that said “friends don’t let friends drink white zinfandel”, and a coat three sizes too big. She instantly irritated me….and quickly became one of my dearest friends. She was my first real, adult friend outside the army, and there was so much about her that I envied. I envied her courage, her kindness, her freedom to speak out and act on her beliefs, her unashamed sense of justice and advocacy. Over the years, we became close, and she taught me her ways. As I started to grow a backbone and finally worked up the courage to leave the army for good, it was her who told me that I had the courage within me to leave, that I’d had the courage all along. And I did. I had the courage inside me all along, but I was finally able to act on that courage because SHE modeled it for me…and I am so grateful that she did. And now we fight together – standing up for those whose voices are in danger of being drowned out, or have already been unjustly silenced.
Antonia Hyde – Sorry Toni, but I’m going to mention you by name here. I know she’s reading this, and that she probably won’t like being singled out, but I can’t NOT include her here. Antonia is incredible. She came into my life post-army, and has become one of my dearest friends and confidants. She has seen the good, the bad, the insecure, the ugly, the anxious, the worry…and the victories, the joy, the firsts, the reclamations….she’s been there through it all – never judging, always listening. She knows my heart the way no one else does, and gets to know things no one else knows. I can’t even find the words for how much this woman means to me – I’m sitting here at my desk with tears of love and gratitude welling up, because she occupies a place in my heart that few have ever reached.
And there are others.
My new friend Diane Davis.
The list could go on and on.
I am, because they are, just as you are because of the strong women in your life.
May we be them.
May we raise them.
May we spotlight them.
May we honor them today, and every day.