“A woman knows very well that, though a wit sends her his poems, praises her judgment, solicits her criticism, and drinks her tea, this by no means signifies that he respects her opinions, admires her understanding, or will refuse, though the rapier is denied him, to run through the body with his pen.”
The theme of this year’s International Women’s day is “Inspiring Change.” In honor of this, I have thoughtfully considered which women have inspired me most in my mid-twenties. Whether it is within the realm of politics, pop culture, social activism, or the arts, there are countless fierce and fearless females whom I believe will leave this earth having influenced and touched the lives of many. Some of these women have attained humongous fame and others have remained on the sidelines, using their skills to work their way up to a place where their voices, stories, truths, and talents are effectively being communicated to the masses through various mediums.
I admire, respect, and look up to hundreds of women in the media and on the news and behind laptops writing books or making music, but I narrowed it down to fifteen women of whom I believe perfectly embody and fabulously embrace all that it means to be a woman with a voice in a world that doesn’t always listen to what we have to say. Of course, I could write entire essays detailing why I admire each of these woman but for the sake of my (and your) sanity, I have simply listed them here with a quote that I feel stands alone in explaining why I am inspired by them.
Without further adieu, 15 women who inspire me to keep chasing my dreams and working hard and never, ever giving up, no matter how hard the journey gets.
1) Lupita Nyongos – Actress, film and music video director of dual Kenyan and Mexican citizenship. Recently won an Oscar for her gripping and iconic performance in 12 Years a Slave.
It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else’s…no matter where you’re from your dreams are valid. – Lupita Nyong’o
2) Mariel Hemingway - American actress and author. Grand-daughter of Ernest Hemingway. She worked on the documentary film Running from Crazy, produced by the Oprah Winfrey Network chronicling the Hemingway family’s history of suicide, substance abuse and mental illness and was shown at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013. In October 2013, Hemingway received a humanitarian award from the San Diego Film Festival for her role in the documentary
If you don’t step across the threshold of what you already know into the world of challenges, you never truly measure yourself. - Mariel Hemingway
3) Annie Dillard - American author, best known for her narrative prose in both fiction and non-fiction. She has published works of poetry, essays, prose, and literary criticism, as well as two novels and one memoir.
Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.
- Annie Dillard
4) Jennifer Lawrence - American actress.
It’s just so bizarre in this world; if you have asthma, you take asthma medicine. If you have diabetes, you take diabetes medicine, but as soon as you have to take medication for your mind it’s…there’s such a stigma behind it. – Jennifer Lawrence
5) Allison Williams - American actress, comedian, and musician. She stars as Marnie Michaels on the HBO television series Girls.
Something that’s been lovely about the last couple of years is that I’ve finally abandoned the pursuit of perfection, which I think I was pretty stubbornly holding on to, just always trying to be the best at everything I did. I grew up enough to realize that the people I respect aren’t perfectionists. And I was like, ‘Oh, that’s so much more perfect. –Allison Williams
6) Michelle Obama - American lawyer and writer and wife of the 44th and current President of the United States, Barack Obama.
“The arts are not just a nice thing to have or to do if there is free time or if one can afford it. Rather, paintings and poetry, music and fashion, design and dialogue, they all define who we are as a people and provide an account of our history for the next generation.” – Michelle Obama
7) Elizabeth Warren - American academic and politician, who is the senior United States Senator from Massachusetts and a member of the Democratic Party. She was previously a Harvard Law School professor specializing in bankruptcy law.
Look around. Oil companies guzzle down the billions in profits. Billionaires pay a lower tax rate than their secretaries, and Wall Street CEOs, the same ones that direct our economy and destroyed millions of jobs still strut around Congress, no shame, demanding favors, and acting like we should thank them. Does anyone here have a problem with that? – Elizabeth Warren
8 ) Sandra Bullock - American actress and producer.
…life is a series of disastrous moments, painful moments, unexpected moments, and things that will break your heart. And in between those moments, that’s when you savor, savor, savor. – Sandra Bullock
9) Kristen Wiig - American actress, comedian, producer, and writer.
When you go out of your comfort zone and it works there’s nothing more satisfying. – Kristen Wiig
10) Mariana Tosca - Actor, producer and social activist. She sits on the Board of TheTenDollarClub.org, a nonprofit organization which funds poverty alleviation projects in underdeveloped countries around the world and founded the Los Angeles Homeless Coalition, offering shelter, relief and skills training to the homeless population there. Also a strong force in animal rights activism.
I think we need to share our food with others who haven’t yet experienced cruelty-free cuisine. That’s how we effectively change the world. And with food, you don’t have to do a lot of talking. There’s never a need to get into all these lengthy arguments, you just give somebody something that tastes great and then they start asking questions. ‘Wow, that’s really meat free? That was amazing.’ And that’s how you help shift perception. Food is the almighty persuader.
Peace begins on your plate. – Mariana Tosca
11) Mindy Kaling - American actress, comedian, writer, and producer best known for portraying Kelly Kapoor on the NBC sitcom The Office and creating and starring as Mindy Lahiri in the FOX sitcom The Mindy Project.
Teenage girls, please don’t worry about being super popular in high school, or being the best actress in high school, or the best athlete. Not only do people not care about any of that the second you graduate, but when you get older, if you reference your successes in high school too much, it actually makes you look kind of pitiful, like some babbling old Tennessee Williams character with nothing else going on in her current life. What I’ve noticed is that almost no one who was a big star in high school is also big star later in life. For us overlooked kids, it’s so wonderfully fair. – Mindy Kaling
12) Malala Yousafzai - A schoolgirl who was shot in the head by the Taliban for wanting an education and survived and went on to deliver a keynote speech to the United Nations on July 12, 2013 and author a book detailing her experience and struggle.
I raise up my voice-not so I can shout but so that those without a voice can be heard…we cannot succeed when half of us are held back.
13) Beyonce Knowles - American recording artist and actress.
We need to reshape our own perception of how we view ourselves. We have to step up as women and take the lead. – Beyonce
14) Melissa McCarthy - American film and television actress, comedian, writer and producer.
[re harsh review from a critic focusing on her weight] I felt really bad for someone who is swimming in so much hate. I just thought, that’s someone who’s in a really bad spot, and I am in such a happy spot. I laugh my head off every day with my husband and my kids who are mooning me and singing me songs. – Melissa McCarthy
15) Shyima Hall - Sold into slavery at 8-years-old in Egypt by her parents and spent the next four years working 20 hours a day for a family that hit her, called her stupid, and kept her in a cell-like bedroom. Shyima moved to California with this family soon thereafter and was rescued two years later after a tip was sent to child services. She has authored a beautiful, honest, and heart-breaking memoir entitled “Hidden Girl.”
I want people to know this can happen. Slavery is not in the history book. It’s right next to you. – Shyima Hall
*Trigger Warning* This post may provoke if you suffer or have suffered from self-harm.
“It’s amazing to me that any other organ in your body can break down and there’s no shame and stigma to it, but if your brain breaks down, you’re supposed to keep it a secret” — Rick Warren
The night I was admitted into a psychiatric hospital I shared a room with a girl named “Star.” When the nurse showed me to my bed it was close to four in the morning and Star was asleep. Being twelve years old at the time, the sight of a stranger’s body underneath a thin fleece blanket on a tiny twin bed constructed of wood in what looked like a prison cell terrified me. I wanted to go home. I wanted my mom to tuck me into my own bed and for the nightmare of that experience to be over and erased from my memory. But the thought of that made me sad, too. For I would simply be walking from one nightmare into another — the only difference being I was familiar with the nightmare at home. And when you’re a kid you typically assume that what is familiar is more safe than what’s not. My stepdad had the police take me in that night after he convinced them I was a harm to myself when I called 911 during one of his drunken episodes.
I learned a lot from the experience. And whether I wanted to learn these things or not didn’t matter.
I walked into the room assigned to me and sat on edge of my bed. I wondered how I could make the cold, hard surface comfortable with a scratchy fleece blanket and pillow. The tears that I had cried in the hours prior started up again and awoke my roommate.
“You okay?” A tired voice echoed off the sterile walls. She sounded older than me. I was immediately embarrassed that she had heard me crying.
“Um…yeah… I’m sorry,” I stuttered.
“I’m Star. What’s your name?” She peeled the blanket away from her face and looked up at me. Her hair was yellow like a stick of Juicy Fruit bubble gum and her brown eyes were puffy with sleep. She was thin and her face seemed aged well beyond her teenage years.
“Jamie…” I answered.
“Hi Jamie. What are you in for?” She asked stoically as she sat up in bed. I didn’t want to talk to her. But there was something kind about her way of conversation.
“Well I didn’t do anything wrong…I mean, I’m not here because I’m crazy,” I said between sniffles. I went on to explain what had happened the night before.
“He was drunk and breaking my stuff and I was scared so I called the cops but when they came he told them I was nuts and they brought me here…so…yeah. What about you?” I slowly regained composure. The talking helped.
Star held out her arm and said, “this…”
I gasped in shock. Half of her arm was covered with bloody dashes and scars.
“Guidance counselor at school saw them. I did it to myself. They 51/50′ed me.”
My eyes grew wide and I didn’t quite understand.
“I’m a cutter,” she continued, “you know what that is?”
At twelve years old, no, I did not know what a “cutter” was. I knew that some people hurt themselves on purpose every now and then but I didn’t know it was a disorder.
Star told me that her mother was a drunk and that her dad molested her when she was nine. She had been cutting herself ever since.
That experience there sitting on a twin bed at four-thirty in the morning in a psych ward with a girl named “Star” was my first close encounter with someone who struggled with self-harm. My next experience would happen nine years later in college. I had a girlfriend who came out about her cutting to me late one night after she’d had a “relapse.” She pulled back the long sleeves of her shirt to show me her scars. The amount was indiscernible and the sight of it was heart-breaking.
I comforted her and told her something I had maybe only told to one or two others. And that was that around the age of thirteen or fourteen, a couple years after meeting Star, I hurt myself on purpose, too. This lasted for about three or four months, at the height of my step-dad’s abuse and alcoholism. I won’t ever forget the night I sat on my bedroom floor with a razor and cut my foot so badly it bled all over the carpet and I had to scrub the stain and keep it hidden from my mother for two days to get it out. That was the last time I injured myself on purpose. I have never talked about this to anyone in detail, not because I like to keep secrets but because put bluntly, self-harm is one of the most misunderstood and stigmatized issues in the realm of mental health. And it’s easy to see why. “Cutting” is typically a closeted behavior that is uncomfortable to talk about and impossible for anyone with no knowledge or understanding of it to really “get.”
On the surface it sounds deranged, disturbing, and dark. But underneath that, beneath the act and the inflicted cut itself, lies an untold story.
The first time I harmed myself it was with a safety pin. I was emotionally numb and desperate for an escape. I wanted to feel something that would distract my attention from the swirl of pain that had swallowed me whole. There was nothing I could do to run away from the abuse or the hurt, or so I thought. I wanted how I felt inwardly to be reflected outwardly. Crying offered no relief and I was defenseless against the taunts of a man under the influence of an entire case of Bud Light. So one night after my stepfather had thrown a frying pan full of grease onto my bed and starting yelling at me and calling me names because I had left the bathroom light on after using it, I sat down at my bedside and broke skin with the head of a safety pin I found on my mother’s dresser. I felt a rush of adrenaline course through my veins and the sensation of something beyond the emotional numbness that so consumed me. This made me want to do it again. So I did. This lasted for a couple of months.
I was not suicidal or having suicidal thoughts when I hurt myself. And that is one of the most difficult truths about the problem that people don’t understand. “Cutters” typically don’t cut themselves with the intention of killing themselves. They do it for, among many reasons, the feeling of control, escape, adrenaline, and the displacement of pain from the emotional level to the physical.
For me, it was a release of the intense, pent-up pressure and depression and rage I felt toward my stepfather. It momentarily transported me away from the fogginess of the pain and the misery of what I had to come home to each night after school. It became an adverse coping mechanism. And not one that I felt I could talk about with anybody, even after I stopped. I was afraid of being branded as a “crazy” or as another emo teen trying to get attention. So I kept quiet. Like most people who struggle with self-harm are prone to do.
It wasn’t until I had cut myself to the point of non-stop bleeding for hours and hours and having to scramble to hide it that I realized I had a serious problem. Therapy wasn’t an option and I didn’t feel comfortable confiding in anyone about it for help so I made the choice to quit on my own. The reality that what I was doing was not solving my problems, only giving them more power, had given me the drive I needed to quit. So I threw out the safety pins and other random sharp objects I had kept hidden in a jewelry box and decided to be done with it before it got worse.
If you have read these words and felt you can relate or have thought “that’s me. That’s my story, too,” my hope is that first, you know you are not alone. And second, that you are not crazy, defective or damaged. Furthermore, I hope that you know that you too can overcome and heal. You are worth it — all and every part of you, the good, bad, and broken. You are worth more than your pain. And you deserve to live a life that celebrates that.
I will never forget the girl named “Star” that I shared a room with at a psych ward many years ago. Though deeply troubled, she was a friend to me in an extremely dark, confusing, and painful circumstance. And she was honest about her story and struggle with cutting. Looking back now I can see how her transparency humanized the “concept” of self-harm and made it something that was very real and tangible and saddening — not something that should be ignored, diminished, or stigmatized in it’s place under the rug with the other “taboo” mental health topics.
Because beneath each cut, there is a story. And beneath each story there is a person living out that story — a person who deserves to know that they are worthy despite their pain, self-inflicted or not — and that there is hope. I wish there was a magic cure or an easy remedy. If there was I would have told my friend in college what she needed to do in order to stop. But healing is not black and white. Recovery is not linear. It will look different for everybody, with the end goal being the same: to learn how to healthfully cope with what we can’t control, and to love ourselves and find beauty and strength in who we are within the story that lies behind the blade and beneath the cut.
The past three days have been cold, gray, and wet. A big storm moved in over the typically cloudless, Easter-egg-blue skies of Orange County last Friday morning and hasn’t budged from it’s bulbous, moody place in the wild blue yonder ever since. For this Florida-raised thunderstorm-enthusiast and rain-lover, this is cause for celebration and thanksgiving. Because it’s not every day (or week or month even) that it rains in Southern California.
This morning before church I sat in the company of a hot mug coffee and my own quiet thoughts by our living room window while the rain watered the earth outside. It was dark from the lack of early morning sunshine that usually seeps in through the cracks in the blinds as I watched the land take a long drink from the rainfall. This put me in an existential kind of mood and prompted some self-reflection. For no reason other than by random chance I was reminded of the scene from one of my favorite movies, The Dead Poet’s Society, in which Robin William’s character, English teacher John Keating, sits and philosophizes with his students about meaning and purpose and creative intentionality in life. In this scene, he references one of Walt Whitman’s famous and oft-quoted poems from Leaves of Grass:
“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.
To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer. That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”
- Dead Poets Society
I love this. I love this not only because I am a lover of the arts and of Walt Whitman’s writing, but because of the question it asks:
What will your verse be?
In other words, what meaning will our lives and legacies give to the world?
That’s a big question to grapple with and pin down an answer to. Whitman penned Leaves of Grass, a collection of over 400 poems celebrating his philosophy of life and humanity, over the course of his life and it was not finalized and published until his death, as he was constantly revising and editing and adding to it. Sort of like life itself.
Every poem in the collection with the exception of one rejects the standard rules of poetry by not rhyming or following rules for meter, line, and length. This also seems like a metaphor for life and how we choose, or don’t choose, to live it. Whitman chose “Leaves of Grass” as a title for the purpose of pun. I remember learning this in college and being fascinated by it. The word “grass” was a word given by publishers to works of little value or importance, and “leaves” represents the pages upon which they were printed. I can think of no more clever and genius a title for such an enduring and human body of work.
While I watched and savored the winter rain this morning I mulled this over in my head and thought, what am I contributing that has been given to me in this life? What verse do I have to add to the collective poem of humanity?
Simply stated — my story. It is my story that I give. And it is not a one-time transaction. It is an everyday labor, a submission to vulnerability and an act of ceaseless trusting and hoping. Through this constant laboring and in the practice of searching deeply within myself for the truths that have been reflected in the hindsight of my experiences, I hope to contribute a verse that is as beautiful as it is painful in how I have been redeemed and plucked from the pits of darkness and abuse. And I hope that my verse will be as pure and enduring and human as those who have gone before me like Walt Whitman and the countless number of literary and artistic giants that have left behind legacies perhaps not only for the purpose of inspiring but for healing. For I am absolutely convinced that no matter what creative medium we choose, so long as the truth of who we are is being infused into our work we will have contributed to something greater than just a single song, story, painting, or poem. We will have contributed to what Whitman calls a “powerful play” — a powerful play that we are all invited to add to. And that is the play of the life we all experience in all of it’s beauty, romance, passion, and pain.
What will your verse be?
Some days feel more fleeting and mundane than others. Sometimes these days bleed together and become indiscernible from days passed and create the feeling that life has become blurred and blended together with just enough monotony and blandness and suffocating formality to make us wonder: what are we really doing here? Does life mean what I think it means? Are the things that I think are important really that important?
These are the thoughts that flood my head-space some days. And always for different reason.
So I look to the things that help remind me that below the surface of the monotony and smallness of my individual story lie the treasures that point to the bigger picture.
Treasures like the memory of my wedding day — the way I wore my hair (curled and with a white flower pinned on the right side), and the way it felt to lock arms with my big brother who wore his handsome air-force uniform as he walked me down to give me away to my groom, and how time seemed to freeze during the instrumental version of Coldplay’s “yellow” that we danced to as our first together as “husband” and “wife.” These are the details that have been perfectly preserved like amber in my imagination, alongside the less grand and romantic things like the smell of a Southern California rain-shower and the pig-like “snorting” sounds that come from my dog Wallace, a half-deaf pug, when he curls up next to me in bed in the minutes before I rise for coffee and prayer.
I think we all have different kinds of “treasures” and that that’s sort of the point. We learn from one another. We can learn how to appreciate things by watching and witnessing how someone else appreciates them. For example, it is no secret here that I do not want kids. Yet, watching my coworker run her fingers through her baby girl’s licorice black hair while she rests her sleepy eyes, round and dark like Russell Stover chocolates on her mama’s chest, makes me appreciate the beauty of parenthood and unconditional love and the unique glue between a mother and her baby that no words of poetry could capture in all of it’s depth and beauty. I also hate math. Yet, helping a woman who was born with a developmental disability add and subtract the numbers needed to balance her checkbook independently as part of my work and watching her eyes sparkle and widen with wonder at her ability to do simple mathematics makes me appreciate how education and knowledge can empower someone and fill them with confidence despite their handicaps.
What we treasure matters. It matters because there will be days that don’t sparkle like others and seem no different than recent days passed with no glittery endings or good news to celebrate. And when these days happen upon us, it is what we treasure that will fill our cup and quench our thirst. Because there is more to life than the stale passing of time and the anticipation of “the next thing.” All we really have is now. And the treasures we have carried with us into the “now” and the moments that will follow which is typically the stuff under the surface that can’t be seen by the human eye alone, but must be viewed through the lens of our heart and soul and history.
The time directly related to our lives is not limitless. It will run out. And when that happens we won’t have the chance to press “rewind” and go back. This reality begs us to savor and observe and appreciate the mundane and blurry days by remembering what lies underneath — the treasure we have buried. It’s a way of paying it forward. And it’s learning how to live in awe and reverence even when there’s no sparkle amidst the blur.
“I love finding gems. However I’m not talking about ludicrously expensive diamonds, or priceless sapphires. I mean the impetuous, primitive rushes of passion and love we experience so rarely that they become impossible to ignore. That overwhelming sense of selflessness and beauty. Hope and desire. Happiness and strength. These are the moments that define us as people. As individuals. Should it be falling in love, playing a guitar for the first time, donating to charity, meeting new people, staying up till three in the morning listening to old Bob Marley Vinyls or beating the elite 4 on Pokemon. Whatever it is, it’s moments like these that are worth more than any gem or diamond. Treasure or material goods.”
― George MacDonald