One of the things I love most about the work that I now do and the learning I do to support it, is that I’ve had the opportunity to develop deep and beautiful friendships with many amazing women of all generations. As I wrote in this post, I believe that we must all take responsibility for being conduits of this wisdom work – both receiving support and wisdom from women of older generations, and passing it down to the generations following us.
One of the women who has served as mentor and friend to me (and, truth be told, I have also had the opportunity to return the mentorship, so it’s a mutual benefit thing) is Margaret Sanders. I met her last year at a circle/story workshop, and I was drawn in almost immediately by the warmth and wisdom I saw on her face. She is an amazingly gifted educator, mentor, host, and wisdom-sharer.
It has become increasingly clear to me that we, as middle-aged (and younger) women, need strong role models in the generation ahead of us. We need women like Margaret who have forged a new path for women in leadership to support us, encourage us, and lend us their wisdom. I am grateful that I have Margaret in my corner, believing in what I do and challenging me to continue to move forward.
I asked Margaret to share a bit about her life as she steps into this new stage of “active wisdom”, and this is what she wrote…
I am a woman who turned 65 this year, and it rocked my world! Not just a minor tremor. It’s been a full-scale earthquake.
I believe there is significance in my story for others, because I have come to realize that I am at the front line of a surging crowd of baby boomers who are about to face the same thing.
This is my story from the front line:
I don’t see myself as a senior person, but other people do. The arrival of my Canada Old Age Benefit Card in the mail (seriously – who knew?) confirmed my new status as a person. Over the past year, colleagues who valued my presence in working with them or mentoring them have moved on in their careers, and that has caused me to question what I ever could do – or did know. I have been mired in the ditch of questioning whether and where I have value to contribute to this world.
I left my job as a school principal to care for my mother when my father died. She suffered from dementia, and needed “mothering” until her death a few years ago. I successfully reinvented my professional work to be able to give her the kind of loving attention she gave me all of my life.
It’s startling to realize that I am in this situation as a pioneer; I have no role models in my family history for what it means to be a professional woman. As a woman who has been successful and highly regarded for her expertise, who must re-find her place in the world upon seeing opportunities for paid “work” vanish, coincidentally, as the 65 year mark arrived.
Because I have been a new kind of mother model for my 40ish age children, they are extremely competent and confident professionals, spouses and parents who have no need of mothering. I’ve done myself out of that historical elder role.
I have Wisdom, expertise, energy and good health, and I am not sure what to do with those gifts in the currents of today’s world.
My views are broad, wide and long-term and I have come to see things in the way of Proust’s simplicity on the other side of complexity. Younger professionals are focusing on the absolute necessity of meeting today’s challenges. Their lives are frequently frenetic, and they have little time to “waste. ” [We live on completely different planes, and necessarily so – but my deepest instincts tell me that my wisdom has potential for changing their lives.]
I have lots and lots of things that I want to do to remain stimulated and independent and contributing over the next few years. There is a cost associated with all of these things. I want to continue to be paid for the value that I possess. I am trying to figure out how that might work.
So, I am at the point of reinvention again. Unlike all of the other transition points in my life where things seemed to resolve fairly quickly, it is taking a while to rebuild who I am and what I am about. But the good news today is that I know my experience is going to add up to something significant. And my reason for that today is that we have a new 46 year old premier-elect in Alberta, Canada and for the first time he is a woman. I am one of the shoulders upon which she stands. (Her mother died a few days before her election, and the one person she wanted to call first with the good news was her mother.) Invisibly, from behind this front-line head-line news, my experience and the experiences of the women surging behind me, enabled this new story to begin unfolding.
We baby boomer women have stories to tell, and our stories are changing the world. That may be where I come in …
There is so much bad news out there, if you look for it. Riots in London, failing economies, famine in East Africa, changing climate causing erratic weather disasters… the list goes on and on. Some days it feels like the whole world is crashing in around us.
It’s enough to make a person completely discouraged. It’s enough to make a person want to bury her head in the sand, and choose to live a self-focused life instead of spending seemingly useless energy on problems that are too big to manage.
Everything I see tells me the same thing over and over again… we need a big hairy audacious paradigm shift.
We need to imagine the world differently.
We need to imagine leadership differently.
We need to imagine ourselves differently.
We need to imagine community differently.
We need to get our heads out of the sand and instead of paying attention to the big ugly negative news, turn our attention toward each other.
We need to keep on caring for each other even though it hurts sometimes and often feels like useless resistance in a tsunami of bad news.
We need to start insisting that our news media focus on the good in people and not just the bad.
We need to engage our creativity and collaboration and stop listening to those people who tell us that consumption and competition is what makes the world go round.
We need to stop believing that the economy is our god and over-consumption is okay because it feeds the economy. We need to seek happiness in other places than shopping malls.
We need to turn to each other, focus on building our communities where we live, and trust that the benefit of local communities will have far-reaching impact (as my friend Kathy Jourdain so eloquently suggests).
We need women and men who will rise up and shift the tide away from aggressive “command and control” leadership to participative “engage and collaborate” leadership.
We need to sit in circles and tell each other stories that will help us understand and celebrate each others’ differences and similarities.
We need to engage our right brains in conceptual, creative, intuitive, spiritual thinking and start imagining new patterns that will shift us away from our self-destructive paths.
We need to get our egos out of the way and start admitting that the only way to find a new path through the weeds is to trust each other to contribute the necessary skills. And then we need to believe that we are better together than alone.
THIS is why we need more feminine wisdom in leadership. It’s not about women taking over from men (and making their own sets of mistakes). It’s about trusting the wisdom that tends to be more inherent in women than in men. (Even the Washington Post says so.) It’s about engaging our creativity, spirituality, compassion, collaboration, and empathy in the way we lead. It’s about letting our right brains contribute to our decisions as much as our left brains.
None of these problems is going to be fixed overnight. In fact, even using the word “fix” shows limited thinking on our part. These things are not simple problems with simple solutions. There is no linear logic to apply, like a math problem on a high school exam. We can’t just assign more police to the streets of London, for example. We need to look at the systemic problems that shaped what happened long before anything erupted. There is deep complexity that will require a lot of deep thinking and collaborating and failing and trying again and meditating and engaging in conversation.
When change happens, there is always a time of great chaos before new solutions are found. It feels like much of the world is in that place of chaos now. This is not a time for despair. This is a time for hope and creativity. This is a time to gather together and lean on each other.
The world needs new ideas. The world needs YOUR ideas. Get your head out of the sand and start sharing them.
Beth & Diane after building a leaf labyrinth together
Back in October, I had the pleasure of spending 4 days in a circle of powerful, warm, funny, wise women. We listened to each others’ stories, built a labyrinth of leaves, cried together, laughed together, ate together, dreamed together, and plotted ways of changing the world. It was one of the best experiences of my life. I felt like I was wrapped in the warmest hug of feminine support.
Even though I’d never met any of the women before, we were able to create an incredibly loving and energizing environment. This circle of women continues to meet periodically to offer each other support over the phone lines. I feel very, very blessed to have them in my life.
This is not the kind of feminine relationships you hear most about in the corporate world. No, we’re more likely to hear of cat fights, gossip, and “bitches” who do anything to protect their own interest. Some of that is true, and some of it isn’t. I’ve experienced both sides of the coin. I believe that the part that is true is largely due to the fact that there is incongruence between corporate culture and the most instinctual way for women to relate to each other. We haven’t found a way to bring our feminine wisdom fully into the boardrooms and cubicles (and frankly, our feminine wisdom might very well abolish both boardrooms and cubicles).
One of the greatest beauties of the circle/story retreat I was at in October was the range of ages and life wisdom of the women in the room. The youngest was a medical doctor who hadn’t yet reached 30, and the oldest was into her 70s. We had all archetypes – maidens, mothers, and crones – represented in the room, and it was a beautiful thing that reminded me of the best kind of community.
It was a particular delight to me to have such beautiful older women present – women who fully embodied and embraced the “crone” archetype. Beth and Diane in the photo above are two of those women. Wow! These women are amazing! Their energy, wisdom and pure delight in the world continue to inspire me these many months later. They didn’t try to hide their ages behind layers of make-up or plastic surgery as the fashion industry has convinced many women to do. They celebrate who they were, dance in the leaves like phoenixes rising from the flames, and share their wisdom and strength in the most generous way I have ever seen.
How I wish they could live next door to me and I could sit at their kitchen table whenever I need a boost of courage!
Yesterday I had the pleasure of having a conversation with Diane (whose face you see above). Even over Skype, Diane sparkles with energy and love. I adore her. She teaches Reiki, leads women’s circles, has a labyrinth in her back yard, builds sweat lodges, and does all kinds of amazing things in support of other women. She has become one of my most treasured mentors. I can’t tell you what it means to have a cheerleader like Diane who absolutely believes that I am on the right path and will do anything she can to help me along that path. If she believes that I will succeed, how can I not?
Qualla with her birthday cupcake
On the other side of the coin, I too have had the pleasure of becoming a mentor to a younger woman who sparkles with energy and love. Last year, when I was at ALIA, I met Qualla Parlman. We spent her nineteenth birthday kayaking off the coast of Nova Scotia, followed by a delicious barbecue on the dock. I didn’t get to spend a lot of time with her at ALIA (as we weren’t in the same sessions), but since then we’ve gotten to know each other better online and I absolutely adore Qualla and I would do anything to help her succeed. She is an emerging young leader who’s learning to trust her feminine wisdom and I just know she will do big things in the world. I am honoured to be a companion on her journey.
It’s the way of women, isn’t it? The true, natural, instinctual way of women – not the way we have been socialized to become (or to believe we are). We are meant to support each other through the generations and across the generations. We are meant to find wise women who will teach us the ways of the world, and then we are meant to BE those wise women and offer our wisdom generously and without apology to others who need it.
Who are your wise women, and to whom are you offering your wisdom?
Yesterday, I was angry. So angry, in fact, that I used the words “PISSED OFF” in my Facebook status. That’s rare for this careful communicator and polite Canadian.
I was angry because very few people are paying attention to the women who were gunned down at a peaceful protest in Ivory Coast. The media gave it only a cursory notice, and there has been no public outcry.
WHERE IS THE PUBLIC OUTCRY?!
I wanted women protesting in the streets. I wanted outraged media commentators taking a stand. I wanted public figures taking this on as their cause. (I later learned that Hillary Clinton spoke out against it.)
I wanted to see the public outrage, and yet I didn’t know where to start to be a catalyst for it. I made a feeble attempt (I expressed my rage to some public media figures, imploring them to talk about it), but I really didn’t know how to raise my voice for the cause.
Steeped in that rage and frustration, I went to my art class. (Yes, I know how bourgeois that sounds – the privileged white North American woman goes to art class while less privileged black women die in the streets trying to impact change. The irony is not lost on me.)
I went to art class with those women in my heart and I knew I needed to at least do something to honour them, even if I couldn’t spread my rage around the world like a wild fire.
And so I painted. A mandala is what emerged. Six trees for six women (I later found out there were seven). Six trees growing from entangled roots. Growing up through their blood. Growing and providing hope and shelter. Growing into something new and fertile and good. Growing the way I hope their stories grow – into positive forces for change.
I don’t entirely know what the mandala means, but I let the art emerge that needed to emerge.
a mandala for the women of Ivory Coast
This afternoon, I walked past the neighbours’ house to find that they had cut down two big, beautiful (and old) trees. It rattled me. Deeply. I wanted to sit on the stumps and cry.
I don’t know how the two things are related, but it feels like they are. Both made my rage flare up. Life was cut short and I feel powerless. After seeing the raw tree stumps I read this in an article about the murdered women:
Mariam Bamba, 32, picked up a tree branch next to one of the blood stains on the pavement where the women were felled by gunfire.
“This leaf is all that they were carrying when they were killed,” she said.
I’d already painted my mandala when I read that. I was struck with the poignancy of it – I was moved to paint trees, and the hopeful women who lost their lives trying to impact change were carrying tree branches.
This rage is not over, though it has settled some. I will look for other ways to remember and honour the women who died. Those women are our sisters, our mothers, and our daughters. Their death matters to us all.
What ideas do you have to honour them and help their stories grow into strong trees?
My sister and I took my two teenage daughters to see the movie Eat Pray Love this past weekend. It was enjoyable, if for no other reason than that it gave this wanderer lots of pretty location eye candy to feast my eyes on. And, as a mother who sat watching with her teenagers, I was glad that the producers chose to keep it G-rated. All in all, it was a pleasant way to spend an afternoon.
But… (you knew there was going to be a but, didn’t you?) the fact that I brought teenage girls to the movie also made me cognizant of a few things that concern me somewhat about not only the movie, but the bigger picture of what this movie & book represent. I couldn’t help but think what messages my 13 and 14 year old daughters are picking up in this era of what Bitch Magazine calls “priv lit”. Here are some of my thoughts on that subject:
1. The movie (even more than the book) does a poor job of establishing why the character is wracked with such angst that she has to ditch a marriage and walk away from her life for a year. The impression that you get in the movie is that Gilbert is just a bit bored and needs to inject some enthusiasm in her life. Well, call me old fashioned, but I don’t want my daughters to believe that you leave a marriage because you’re “a bit bored”. When you’re in a relationship, you commit to it and you work damn hard at making it work. I’m not saying every marriage is going to work (or that they should), but leaving is not a decision that’s made as lightly as the movie would imply. (Granted – they didn’t have a lot of time to tell that story.) Not so long ago, my daughters watched some of that commitment at work, when my husband and I put the whole “in sickness and in health” vow to the test and decided that love was worth sticking around for. Hopefully they’re watching us more than they’re watching the movie screen.
2. I’m all for self-improvement and “living your best life”, but… well, just how dangerous is the message that we’re communicating to our youth that we as women are “entitled” to spending hoardes of money traveling around the world and finding ourselves? What about the “giving back” part of that? When do we remember that our rights have to be balanced with responsibility? Sure it’s good (and important) to spend time growing in our spirituality and learning more about our giftedness, but then what? Then we get to flit away to an island with a sexy Brazillian and never have another care in the world? I guess I’m still too committed to the idea that we find ourselves in order that we can better serve the world. (And… you might argue that Gilbert is doing just that by writing books, etc., but my point is that my daughters only pick up a one-sided view by watching the movie.)
3. Along the same lines, I can’t help but sigh a little about the “luxury of angst” when I have met women in Africa who have to walk 10 kilmetres to fetch water for their families, or women in India who’ve had to give up their daughters (and lose them into the sex trade) to keep the rest of their families alive. Is it right that we get to spend so much of our time and money on ourselves “because we’re worth it”, when some of the luxuries we’re enjoying are on the backs of the poor?
4. As this article so eloquently suggests, maybe all of this priv lit that represents the post-feminist era is actually sending us backwards instead of forwards. “But though Oprahspeak pays regular lip service to empowerment, much of Winfrey’s advice actually moves women away from political, economic, and emotional agency by promoting materialism and dependency masked as empowerment, with evangelical zeal.” Maybe, while we get lost in this culture of “self-enlightenment for our own sake”, we’ll miss the bigger picture of how we can impact real change in the world.
5. And a bonus quote from the article linked above… “It’s no secret that, according to America’s marketing machine, we’re living in a “postfeminist” world where what many people mean by “empowerment” is the power to spend their own money.” Does spending money make us empowered? Really? Maybe we could seek empowerment instead by simplicity and generosity and justice. (I couldn’t help but notice that, although the main character left New York with just a duffle bag, she was still wearing a different outfit in nearly every scene of the movie.)
It’s not that the movie was horrible – it was actually quite enjoyable and there were parts of it that genuinely inspired me. However as I continue to imagine what gifts I’m going to offer the world as I build my consulting/writing practice (and dream of workshops, retreats, etc.), I find I have to examine some of the self-improvement/self-enlightenment/mindfulness work and determine which of it is moving us forward. Which of it is snake oil? And which of it is making us an even more self-centred consumerist culture than we already are?
As I’ve said in the past, I want to imagine what it looks like if “Sophia Rises” and we all learn to trust our feminist wisdom more deeply and let it impact the way we interact with the world and each other. Contrary to what I may have said above, some of it will mean that we have to take lessons from the Elizabeth Gilberts of this world and focus more of our attention on beauty, spirituality and relationships. Those are all very good things and they will help us see our way forward. BUT we have to guard against the temptation to turn these things into self-serving pleasure seeking consumerism.
Me, on a rickety old boat in India, in one of my favourite skirts
Recently, a friend (who likes to shop more than I do) gave me three large bags full of great, almost new, hand-me-down clothes. It felt like Christmas, especially since many of them look better on me than a lot of the clothes I already owned.
Because I’m a bit of a pack-rat, I didn’t have alot of room in my closet or dresser for this windfall. So last night was purge time. As best I could, I tried to be ruthless and let go of anything that a.) I hadn’t worn for awhile, or b.) didn’t really enjoy wearing even if it was recent.
The clothes I packed up for goodwill fit into three categories:
- Clothes that are too baggy because my body has changed OR because I’d convinced myself that an overweight woman like me shouldn’t wear fitted clothes.
- Clothes that used to fit me a size or two ago, that I still really like, and that I hope to fit into again some day.
- Clothes that I never really liked the look or feel of (once I had them home from the store and on my body), or that didn’t really suit my personality, but that I felt guilty about getting rid of because I’d invested money in them.
That list says a lot about the things that I hang onto:
- Old ideas about myself and how I should or shouldn’t dress or I should or shouldn’t look.
- Unrealistic ideals about what I want to look like “some day”, coupled with dissatisfaction over how I look RIGHT NOW.
- Guilt and unhelpful attachment to choices I shouldn’t have made.
- Shame over being the size I am right now and always a longing to be something different.
- Feeling that it’s wrong to want to look my very best, and that some days I should just be satisfied with boring, poorly fitted clothes.
- The sense that if I hang onto worn out, baggy, or not-quite-right clothes, I am fitting into the image I’ve painted of myself as a frugal/earthy person who doesn’t want to use up too much of the earth’s resources for her own consumption.
- The idea that I’m supposed to dress a certain way (professional/practical/conservative/not-too-loud/not-too-sexy) to fit certain roles I have in my life and to ensure I don’t offend anyone or rock the boat.
That’s a lot of baggage I’m trying to pack away in those goodwill bags. No, I’m not idealistic enough to believe that a one-time purge will allow me to shake all of those old ideas, but I have to start somewhere.
Here are some of the new ideas I’m trying to replace them with:
- It’s okay to look great, feel great, (and maybe even a little sexy!) and enjoy what I’m wearing.
- My style is somewhere in the range of eclectic/colourful/global/bohemian/wanderer/artist – and THAT’S THE WAY I DRESS!
- I am a good steward of the earth’s and my own resources AND I appreciate and value the beauty and comfort in what the earth has provided for me.
- I look good and feel good the way my body is RIGHT NOW, even if it’s far from society’s ideals.
- It’s okay to be who I am and let that shine through the clothes I put on my body.
- Old choices are in the past and I can let them go without guilt.