August 2012

Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity…”

John Muir

Hey All!  Today is the beginning of a little over a week of different types of posts.  With Labor Day weekend here, my husband and I are getting away.  We are going to do some camping and hiking in some pretty cool spots. I am hoping to do some writing around the campfire, and we are both hoping to take lot’s of photo’s. Though I am not always thrilled about the bugs or bathroom arrangements camping, I can’t quite explain how peaceful it can be in the outdoors and how it has a way of filling up one’s soul.

Though I will be away, there are still some good posts coming your way next week and the following Monday.  My favorite is next Wednesday’s post, when we will hear from a guest writer–so stay tuned! Also, I am looking forward to coming back and continuing this journey with you,  as we work at Redefining Female.

Finally, I haven’t forgotten today is Fabulous Female Day, and today we are doing something different.  One of the blogs I follow did a “Women of Valor” contest this past week, in which people wrote in about a Women of Valor that they know, and there were some incredible posts.  The Blog is by Rachel Held Evans, and she explains:

“Eshet chayil—woman of valor— has long been a blessing of praise in the Jewish community. Husbands often sing the line from Proverbs 31 to their wives at Sabbath meals. Women cheer one another on through accomplishments in homemaking, career, education, parenting, and justice by shouting a hearty “eshet chayil!” after each milestone.”

Here are two of the posts that touched my heart:

Sarah–A Woman of Valor

Her friend Jenny writes:

Today, Sarah’s life bears so little resemblance to the woman of Proverbs 31 that she would probably laugh at the thought of inviting a comparison. There are no fields to be bought, because there is no money left. There is no husband to sing her praises, because she left him after he smashed in the cabinet door inches from her head. Her three children may rise in the morning and sing her praises – or they may rise in the middle of the night, complaining of a tummy ache or a molar cutting through. Yet she will still be up before dawn, preparing for work at a job for which she is severely overqualified.

If I had been asked 10 years ago to describe a woman I admire, or a woman I deemed valorous, a single mother barely making ends meet would not have crossed my mind. Yet it is when I look at Sarah that the meaning of Proverbs 31 becomes most clear.

Sky–A Woman of Valor

Her Husband wrote of her:

“For three years, my wife has been a stay-at-home mom to over 20 foster children under the age of six, one adoptive son, two soon-to-be daughters, and a soon-to-be son. She has been raged against, spat upon, hit, kicked, scratched, insulted, and ignored. She is isolated by circumstances, by confidentiality agreements, and by her fierce protection of her children’s dignity…Faced with crippling tragedy, she speaks resurrection to our children. With a passion that rivals the best of gospel preachers, this 4-foot-8 suburban white woman will decry complacency, hopelessness and fear, guiding our children into a vision of healing, restoration and wholeness.”

Please take the time to read the rest of their stories by clicking on their names above. If you are interested in reading more women’s stories, check out Rachel’s blog:

Have a great weekend, and may you find Rest!

A week ago today, after three years of training to swim from Florida to Cuba, Diana Nyad told reporters:

“I’m not going to get that moment I dreamed of for so long.” 

After swimming 48 miles, she was pulled out of the ocean by her operations director because of dangerous thunderstorms, and severe jellyfish stings on her mouth and face. At first, she was upset for being pulled out, but as she and her team talked about it, it became clear that this was a feat, she was not going to conquer.

Initially, when she was pulled from the water, she said:

“But I have plenty left in me and I want to go on.”

Isn’t that how we all feel when a dream we have worked for, for so long, all of a sudden feels pulled from our grasp?  Even though all signs point otherwise, we so strongly feel “I can do this”–that coming to a point of acceptance is almost an out-of-body experience.  We’ve worked, trained even, for that moment when we would be able to see the finish line and be able to say on some level “I have arrived.” But in one moment, or through a series of moments, we watch as our dream slips away.

When Nyad was interview on the Today Show, a day later, the sixty-three-year-old swimmer was much more optimistic.  She said she didn’t regret one part of her journey and that it was magnificent. Though it was her fifth time trying, very few of us would be able to so gracefully back down so quickly. Some of us, like Nyad can say we had a great team, a magnificent journey, and we wouldn’t change a thing.  Others of us though, are left with a long list of “what ifs?”

“What if I had done…? Would I have my dream?” 

“What if I hadn’t said…?”

“What if I had…?”

Sadly, no matter how many times we go over and over the “what ifs?” our dream is still lost. Its still over. And when we finally realize that and stop questioning our path, we grieve.

Last post, I shared that I have recently been coming to terms with the death of a dream that I have had for a long time.  Eight years ago, this weekend, I moved five states away from my family and everything I knew, because I felt it was where God was leading me, and I thought that I was taking the path that would lead to that dream.  Elements of my dream existed in what I did for seven years, but never did I reach the point, I saw in my mind, as the “finish line.”

Nine months ago, I left what I thought was the path to my dream, but not without thinking that someday, I would return. Then, over the past couple of weeks, I have begun to realize, I wasn’t really on the path I thought I was on for all of those years.

I wasn’t on the path to my dream.

I was really on the path that lead me to a greater knowledge of myself and God’s love for me. I was on a path in which I got to meet incredible people and literally travel all over the world. It was the way I met some amazing friends and my awesome husband. It truly was the path I needed to be on. To me, it looked like the way to my dream, but it wasn’t, and I am beginning to feel thankful for that.  I wasn’t on my path, but I was on God’s path–and I know that because so much good has happened in this place. (Some painfully bad things too, but mostly good).

I am now (finally) in the place between grieving and acceptance.

And I am still on this path, just waiting to know where the next turn will take me.

What dreams of yours feel like they are dead or dying?

Whose path are you on, and where is it leading you?

My first boyfriend was way older than he should have been. Our relationship was the product of our school system including the 8th grade into the High School; he was a senior and I was an 8th grader.  Yes, there have been scarier age differences–but after working with Jr. High and High School students for over a decade–let me tell you, my mom was right to be concerned. She only let us continue “going out” because he didn’t have a license, which meant whatever actual “going out” we were going to do, would have to include her (go mom!).

Alas, my journey with the “senior boyfriend,”  however, was cut short, just over two months later, when I couldn’t handle his flirting with other girls any longer. So I “dumped” him at a youth retreat.  Red faced, he went back to playing some crazy game, and I ran teary-eyed to the bathroom, my girlfriends in tow. By the end of the night, he was giving me sad looks across the room, and I was feeling guilty for breaking his heart.

The retreat ended, and back at school my feminist gym teacher gave me a high-five for breaking up with “the senior.” The only problem was that I hadn’t really broken up with him.  I told him the usual “let’s just be friends” and instead of being a turn-off, he took it as a way back into my heart.  Every day for a month after the “break-up,” he would come to my locker and pass me notes between class, begging me to take him back. My 8th grade heart still cared about him, but I knew we didn’t have “a future.”

Finally, one day I came home from school upset.  My mom knew I was still holding on to the relationship and I was having a hard time letting go. She made a cup of tea while I told her the “woes” of my day which mainly involved “the senior.”  I said “Mom, I feel so bad but I know I can’t go out with him again.”

We sat down at the dinning room table, and over her steaming cup of tea, she told me something that I am still learning now, seventeen years later. She said:

Melissa, what happens when you take a handful of sand and hold on to it really tightly?”

“All the sand runs through your fingers.”  Growing up near the ocean, I knew this.

“In life you have to hold people and the things you really want, as if they are sand,” she said. “You have to hold them with an open hand, and allow God to either put them in you hand or take them out in His timing.  If you hold on too tightly, you will surely lose them–but if you keep your hands open and trust God, He will give you what is truly best for you.”

I had to let go of “the senior.” I had to trust that God’s plan was good. I had to trust that by letting go of my first boyfriend, I was opening myself up to new opportunities and relationships in my future. And, as I was only fourteen, my mom was very right!

But now, so many years later, my mom is still right.

Recently I have been reminded to think of the things in my life as sand.  I have found myself over the past two weeks, wrestling and holding on tightly to a dream that I have had since I was eighteen. A dream, I am finding, that is just not meant to be.

In a culture where we were raised to believe that you can do anything, and nothing is impossible if you try, this is hard to accept.

But what if our dreams for ourselves aren’t the right dreams? 

Maybe they are good dreams–even ones that help people–but what if they aren’t the best dreams? The dreams that would truly fulfill how we are wired and gifted?

What if, by holding on to a lesser dream, I am losing both it and the dream I am meant to go after?

I have been trying to picture my dream as if it is sand in the palm of my hand. Can I release it?  Can I trust that God will give me a new dream? the best dream?

This past week at Redefining Female we have been looking at the power of women’s friendships.  So, for today’s Fabulous Female, I thought it would be fun to celebrate some incredible friendships that have served as catalysts in bringing out the best in some pretty inspirational women.  For the sake of this post, I will only share three friendships–but I am sure there are countless more to name!

Many of us today forget about the decades of fighting it took for women to be given the right to vote, nor do we know about the friendship between two of the women who were instrumental in the fight. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton met in 1851 when they were in their early thirties; little did they know, they were about to embark on a friendship and partnership that would last over fifty years.  Susan was known as the “Napoleon” of the movement, as she was the people organizer and rally leader all over the country. Elizabeth was the “brains of the operation”–the thinker and writer who wrote pamphlets and speeches for the cause. In addition, she was also a wife and mother to seven children.  Susan would often come over to mind Elizabeth’s kids so that she had time to write, and then later they would work late into the night, figuring out their next move.  Elizabeth explained:

Night after night by the light of an old-fashioned fireplace,…we plotted and planned the coming agitation, how, when and where each entering wedge could be driven, by which woman might be recognized, and her rights secured . . . . Such battles were fought over and over again.”

Neither women ever lived to see the day when voting was legalized for women, but their fight wasn’t in vane.

The next friendship for us to celebrate today is between a woman many of us are familiar with, and the woman who made her famous.  Julia Child met one of her best friends, Avis DeVoto, by accident.  The two became friends when Julia wrote a letter to Avis’ husband, one of her favorite magazine writers, and Avis replied. Soon, the two were pen pals; Julia writing from France, Avis from Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Very quickly, through their transatlantic letters, the two became much more than acquaintances. Even from a distance, Avis saw Julia’s great talent and passion for cooking.  Having a background in publishing, Avis not only encouraged Julia in writing her book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, but also was actively involved in the ten year process it took to get it published.  Though Julia’s book was denied by publishers numerous times, both Avis and Julia saw it’s potential to forever change the landscape of cooking in American.  Avis persevered in finding Julia a publisher, and the rest, as they say, is History.

Finally, in case you have been going through Olympic withdrawal as I have, the last friendship I want us to celebrate today is between Misty May-Treanor and Keri Walsh Jennings.  Becoming volley-ball partners just after the 2000 Olympics, they have made history by winning Olympic Gold in 2004, 2008, and 2012.  But what is most fascinating to me is their friendship on and off the court.

After the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Misty thought she was done. Keri found another partner, and Misty began to pursue other things; but within two years, she knew her journey with Keri wasn’t finished.  She called Keri, and they reunited. Misty told ESPN“The first two gold medals it was more about volleyball. The friendship we had was there, but it was volleyball, volleyball, volleyball. This was so much more about the friendship, the togetherness, the journey — and volleyball was just a small part of it.’

For the two years leading up to their third win earlier this month, Misty and Keri worked hard at preparing for London. They struggled through injuries and even the testing of their friendship. At one point, they felt so out of sync that they started seeing a sports counselor. Keri is quoted as saying that in counseling “What we learned was that we didn’t want to let each other down. I don’t want to let Misty down. And that was keeping us kind of timid.” As we know, neither of them let each other or their country down this past month, and a big part of that is from the trust they have in one another.

After winning gold, Keri said:  “I’m proud to finish the journey with Misty. It’s been 11 years of really fun and crazy times. She’s the best there ever has been. And for me to be able to play with her so long and be able to call her a friend and a sister is the biggest gift ever.” (ESPN)  Misty and Keri have a friendship in which they have been able to celebrate each other’s talent and bring the best out of each other.

Who of your friends bring the best out of you?

For hundreds of years, in the rural villages of Jiangyong in Hunan Province of China, there existed a secret language among women, known as Nushu. In her book, When Women Were Birds, Terry Tempest Williams explains “ These whispered writings were passed on from mother to daughter and the closest of friends, ‘sworn sisters.’” (p. 156-157) Nushu was the way that woman shared their souls. A Nushu saying is telling:

“ Beside a well, one won’t thirst; beside a sister, one won’t despair.”

Last week, I was walking with one of my “sister friends.” We were spilling out all of what is going on in our lives, and my friend turned to me and she said “Man, without good friends, we’d all need counseling!”  As human beings, but even more so for women, there is something about sharing our stories and burdens with one another that enables us to not only cope, but also rise above our circumstances. Something sacred happens when two women share a journey together.

In the book of Ruth, we find a such a friendship. In the first chapter, there is a passage of scripture that has been used as wedding vows, yet was actually a promise made between two female friends.  After both women find themselves widowed, Naomi tells her daughter-in-law, Ruth, to go home to her family, for she has nothing left to give her.  But Ruth refuses, and she promises what one would promise to a spouse. She says:

“Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.”

Ruth 1:16b-17

Ruth’s name means friend, something Naomi greatly needed, and yet it was in this friendship that Ruth found her place in History in the lineage of Jesus.

It is in our female friendships that we share some of our most intimate struggles, grievances, and victories–yet our friendships are also our key way of dealing with our stress. A  UCLA Study of Friendship Among Women, explains scientifically what we know intuitively: that when under stress, we as women don’t always experience the “flight or fight” response.  That actually, one of our first inclinations is to gather with other women. The study goes on to say that when we do this, a calming effect occurs.

Those of us who have had a friend hold our hand during heartache or listen to our numerous “vent sessions,” know this calming effect well. Yet for some reason, when things get crazy in life, it can be easy to let those friendships fall to the wayside.  We can get so caught up with work and family–or get so overwhelmed by the stressors of our life–that we forget the importance of picking up the phone for some girl time.

Just over a year ago, I called my mom and I shared with her that I was struggling with some things in my life, and like mom’s often do, she had some important advice.  She said, “do you have any of your girl friends that you can talk to and pray about this with?”  I have an incredibly supportive husband–but by the sound of my voice, my mom knew–I also needed the support of my friends. I needed some girl time, and I had to be intentional about making it an-as-regular-as-possible part of my life. And the times I do this well, are incredible blessings.

Amidst our increasingly busy schedules, how can we seek to make time for one another?

How can we make “coffee dates” or “girl’s nights” happen?

If we are in a friendship “dry-spell,” what would it look like for us to seek out new friendships? (Perhaps with a woman who has been on the fringes of our circle of friends?)

Regina George from the movie Mean Girls

“There is a special place in Hell for women who don’t help other women.”

–Madeleine K. Albright, Former Secretary of State

We’ve all crossed paths with them somewhere on our journey.  They are known as the “queen bees,” Regina George’s, mean girls of the world.  Whether we were in 7th grade, our freshman year of college, or even in our workplace–each one of us bears our own share of scars from times when we have found ourselves pushed out of our circle of friends, humiliated in front of that “one guy,” or been the subject of a nasty rumor that went through the whole school before we found out. We all have at least one story–and that is if we are lucky!

But what about the times that we are the “mean girls?”

The times we walk into a new group of people and size up the other women in the room–deciding who will be our friends, who will be our competition, and who we don’t want to be seen with.  The times we see a woman in the mall and think “what was she thinking when she put that on, this morning?” The times we gossip with our friends about another woman because it temporarily makes us feel better about ourselves. The times a woman we know succeeds in something, and we just can’t be happy for her. Or, when we let jealously separate us from someone who might have been a good friend.

Recently, a friend of mine was in a salon getting her hair done, and when the girl in the chair behind her was finished, she got out of the chair and started playing with her hair in the mirror.  She then grabbed her purse, and as she was walking out, stopped again to look in another mirror, saying to herself, loud enough for everyone to hear,  “I’m so cute.”  All the other women in the room watched, speechless.  The girl paid for her hairdo, and then looked at herself in another mirror, one last time before going out the door.

My friend admitted to me something that I have been guilty of too:  In that moment, her first thought about this girl was “how vain is she?”  Then she caught herself.  She explained to me “ We are so used to women complaining about their looks that when we hear someone be happy with the way they look, we accuse them of being shallow and vain!”

For some reason–perhaps it is how we have been conditioned, or its our own insecurities–our first default response as women is often to judge one another.  As my friend shared, not only do we struggle to celebrate ourselves, we struggle to celebrate each other.  We struggle to celebrate with women who are able to do things we can’t. We struggle to offer grace to women who don’t measure up to the impossible standards that we, ourselves are struggling to reach. And whether we are just “silently judging” or blatantly judging, I am afraid we are doing more damage than we realize–not just to others, but to ourselves as well.

By placing walls of judgement between us, we are missing out on opportunities to build up other women and to learn from them too.  When my friend realized her attitude toward this girl was faulty, she told me that her thoughts began to change to “wow it must be really nice to see yourself that way. Good for her! I wish I could know that feeling too!”   Perhaps if we were able to be kinder to each other as women, we’d also learn how to be kinder to ourselves.

What would it take for us to reprogram our hearts and minds so that our default towards other women is no longer judgement?

What would it look like for us to offer grace to or even celebrate with the women who are outside our inner circle of friends?


“I am a writer because writing is the thing I do best. ”

–Flannery O’Connor

For today’s Fabulous Female, I want to share with you the story of one of my heros.  I have to confess, she is another writer and I promise that I won’t be choosing writers to celebrate every Friday, but her story seemed to fit well with our topic of success this week.

Flannery O’Connor was one of those people who discovered what she was passionate about and gifted in, and went about doing it.

Born Mary Flannery O’Connor on March 25, 1925, in Georgia, she was the only child of Irish Catholic parents, Edward F. O’Connor and Regina Cline. Regina was from a well-known southern family and quite a socialite, who would have loved her daughter to follow in her footsteps. Flannery, however, from the time she was a child, preferred to spend time in her room, writing books about the birds her parents let her keep as pets. Her first “claim to fame” was when she was six years old. She explained:

“When I was six I had a chicken that walked backward and was in the Pathé News. I was in it too with the chicken. I was just there to assist the chicken but it was the high point in my life. Everything since has been anticlimax.”


Though it must have been difficult to top having a chicken that can walk backwards,  Flannery made a impact on the world through her writing that was greater than she probably ever realized.  However, before she was to make her mark, her story was about to be changed, irrevocably.

When she was only twelve years old, her father was diagnosed with the autoimmune disease, Lupus.  Being much closer to her father than her mother, she was devastated when he passed away three years later.  Little did she know, she too would later develop the same disease.

Flannery continued to write throughout high school and into college.  She wasn’t the outgoing, life of the party type–yet she developed a name for herself through drawing comics for both her high school and college newspapers.  It was also in college that she began to truly own her Catholic faith, which became an incredible influence in her writing and in how she saw the world.

After college, she was accepted into the famous Iowa Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa.  Her over-protective mother was less than thrilled about her being so far away from home, but Flannery knew it was the path she had to take.  And it was there that she was inspired to create the character of Hazel Motes who first appeared in her short story The Train, and then later became the main character of her first and most famous book, Wise Blood.

Throughout her time in Iowa and for a few years following, Flannery wrote and began publishing short stories, all the while working up to Wise Blood.  Her writing was slowed however, when she became incredibly sick and found herself, at twenty-six, back home and in the hospital.  It was then that she was diagnosed with Lupus–yet her mother, wouldn’t let the doctor tell Flannery that she had developed her father’s illness.  Regina took her home expecting her to live only five more years.

While home, Flannery began to heal better than the doctors expected.  She made the best of her situation by rekindling her love for birds, raising peacocks, ducks, hens, and other exotic fowl. Despite her illness–that was at times debilitating–Flannery continued to write, eventually publishing over two dozen short stories and two books. When she was able, she traveled to different universities to give lectures on faith and literature.

Finally, when her sickness was beginning to take its last toll, she went to visit one of her closest friends, Sally, who knew of her sickness but who had been told by Regina not to tell her.  On the way home from picking her up from the train station, Sally couldn’t take it any more.  She pulled over the car and told Flannery that she was dying from Lupus.  Rather than being angry or mad, she thanked Sally, and said that she had sensed it.  Having the truth said out loud, seemed to free Flannery, and she continued her work, writing even up until her last days in the hospital.  She died, at the age of thirty-nine, on August 3rd, 1964.

What set Flannery O’Connor apart as a writer was her unique, raw style that set literary critics on edge.  She had a way of fleshing out the grotesque in humanity, in order to point her readers towards their own redemption. She explained: “All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless, and brutal.”  Through telling the stories of wild and broken characters who receive undeniable grace, Flannery sought to reveal humanity’s need for Christ. And despite harsh critiques, she never wavered in her approach.

Flannery O’Connor is one of my heros and today’s Fabulous Female because she did not seek the approval of other people.  She knew who she was, what she was good at, and she went about her work, despite her failing health. Because of her ability to stay true to herself and her beliefs, she was able to redefine literature and give an incredible example of what it looks like to live out one’s faith, even in times of trouble.

For more on Flannery O’Connor check out this site or if you have more time, this book by Brad Gooch!

“For Far too long we have been seduced into walking a path that did not lead us to ourselves. For far too long we have said yes when we wanted to say no. And for far too long we have said no when we desperately wanted to say yes.”

–Terry Tempest Williams, When Women Were Birds

Have you ever heard or said the words: “Well, she’ll have to learn the hard way”?  I heard them a lot growing up, but being the overachiever, play-by-the-rules type, they weren’t usually applied to me.

Enter Adulthood.

As I shared in my last post, I came into my first two jobs with the strong impression that to be successful I had to strive to be the best and to fulfill other people’s expectations of me.  However, no where factored in that equation was a healthy balance of taking care of myself.  It was a system that worked really well in school–having only to please my professors–but worked miserably in the real world.

I only began to realize how badly my system worked, after I turned twenty-five.  At that point, I had been at my second real job for about a year and a half, when all of a sudden, it seemed, everything went to crap.  My boss was moving up, people were resigning, and all of a sudden I felt like the duck on the Aflac commercial–who, when he discovers that he is on a sinking boat, thinks it is his responsibility to plug all of the holes.

Though I wasn’t alone, I was going down.

Two months of “plugging holes” went by, when our team was blessed by two new additions to our staff.  All of a sudden the boat seemed to be floating again, and I thought everything was going to be OK.

Then November came around and I got bronchitis.  I lost my voice for at least a week.  Imagine trying to run a program and teach 60-70 Jr. High students, without a voice?  Yeah, I am sure many people have done it, but:

December: bronchitis and no voice for a least a week

January: bronchial pneumonia and no voice.

February: bronchitis and you guessed, no voice.

March: it was getting old.

On one of my many visits to the doctor for antibiotics, I asked her “is there anything I can do to not get sick this much?”  She looked at me with a blank stare.

One thing that isn’t talked about enough is that when we stop listening to our inner voice that’s telling us to take a break, our body often starts speaking in a voice we can’t ignore.  By February and March, I knew I couldn’t live this way.

I had been journaling and praying to God about all the changes that were still happening in my job, my recurring illness, the feeling that I was still carrying so much on my own, and “oh, Lord, I am still single, remember?”  Finally, in March, I reached my breaking point. I didn’t want another date with my doctor in April,  and I was ready to hear what God had to say:


Ok, He didn’t exactly say that, but close.

As I sat in bed, journaling–home sick for what felt like the millionth time–I began to feel God showing me that I was trying to live into impossible expectations.  There were things that I thought people expected of me that they didn’t, things I expected of myself that superwoman couldn’t achieve, and expectations that some people had for me that weren’t healthy–and I was trying to succeed in them all! 

As I thought all of this over, I began to feel God show me one more thing. He said:

“Live into my expectations.”

All of a sudden, my “to do list” and “people to please list” shrunk significantly. All I had to do was begin to ask the question “what is God expecting of me?”

Some of you may be thinking: “easier said than done” and maybe “yea, like God is going to give me a to do list every day?”

But as I thought about His simple words, I realized a few things:

  1. Because God created us, He knows what we are capable of, even better than we do–so His expectations are going to be doable.  
  2. When we are in relationship with Him, everything that He expects of us, He expects us to do with His help.  
  3. The second commandment is to love others–if I am doing my best to love (not please, there is a difference!) the people God has put in front of me, I am living into His expectations.
  4. God created us to be in community, so we don’t have to “do and be it all.” I had people in my life who could help me not only plug holes, but help our ministry thrive.

Now, these truths freed me–but not overnight.  (A few months later, I landed myself in the hospital with a gallbladder issue and acid reflux). I needed the help of friends, mentors, and a counselor, to begin to undo all of the patterns of striving and people pleasing that were part of my way of doing life.  I needed to learn how not to live into the unhealthy expectations others and I had placed upon myself.

Whose expectations are you living into?

 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

–Jesus, Matthew 11:28

This past spring, my parents finally did it: they asked me to clean out the boxes I had left at home that were full of the stuff of my childhood–more accurately, of my years in High School.  So, when I was home, I sat cross-legged on my parent’s living room floor and sorted through embarrassing photo’s, passed-between-class notes, 9th grade art projects, and mementos that fall under the category “why did I keep this?!”

As I sorted, one thing continually struck me:

My whole life as a High School student had been about success.

All four years, I strived academically, working myself into ninth place in my graduating class. When I applied for college, I had to attach four pages to answer the question “what extracurricular activities were you involved in?”  I knew by freshman year that I was never going to fit in the “popular” crowd, so I settled for being the most liked: my senior class superlative? “Best Personality/Most Friendly.”

Yea, I was that girl.

I was a goodie-goodie, overachiever, and sorting through my high school “time-capsule,” made me feel a little sick.  Why? Because all of that striving had made me successful by the world standards, yet I wasn’t taught how to be successful at becoming and accepting myself. It set me up to enter college, trying to become the “perfect picture of a successful woman,” by fulfilling other’s expectations for me.

My ideas of what “success” meant, shifted and changed through college and then into my first two jobs. But my tendencies to push, to fulfill other people’s expectations, to strive–were all still very present. I was good at people pleasing and yet it left me very empty, and I found myself in a very broken place around the time I turned twenty-five.  Thankfully, however, I was blessed with some very cool mentors, and one of them said some profound words. He said:

“Melissa, whenever someone tries to become more than who they are meant to be, they always become less.”

If we were to name things in our culture that we treat as “gods” (think small carved statues), success would be right up there with apple products and caffeine. We are raised to value and work hard for success; however the true definition of success for a woman is very difficult to interpret.

Historically we have been the Keepers of the Home, and Mothers of Future Generations. More recently, however, our roles have become muddled.  The media gives us constant, contradicting personalities to aspire to–as if it is possible to cook like Giada, decorate like Martha, mother like Michelle Duggar, run your own mega corporation like Oprah, and yet be a supportive and strong wife like First Lady Michelle Obama.

Where does the pressure to be all of these things at once, come from?

(“whenever someone tries to become more…they become less…”)

All of my striving actually made me feel less and less like the person I wanted to be, and more broken.  Through the help of friends, mentors, and some counseling, I started on a journey that I am still on, to figure out how to be me–nothing more, nothing less.

If we are going to Redefine Female, we need to redefine success, and its new definition will need to make room for the truth that being “a success”  will look different for each of us.

All of the women we aspire to are usually really amazing at one thing, and good at a few others. Who we are meant to be is something special, so why do we feel the need try to be a bunch of people rolled into one?

“The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.”

Anna Quindlen, Author

This Friday’s Fabulous Female is an author, civil-rights activist, a mother, an actress, an educator, a playwright and much more. Yet perhaps what makes her most famous is her poetry that she has recited in venues all over the world, including President Bill Clinton’s inauguration.

I was first “introduced” to this incredible women in High School, when, for summer reading, I was assigned her book, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.Today’s Fabulous Female is none other than Dr. Maya Angelou.

In my own immaturity, the summer I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, I couldn’t understand why our school would have us read a book in which someone experienced so much brokenness. In the book, Angelou chronicles the first seventeen years of her life in which she was a victim of racism and rape, in which she struggled to find her voice, and in which she became a single mom at the age of seventeen.

What I didn’t understand then, was that Angelou was giving us an incredible example of what it looks like to not only survive the brokenness we all face in life, but to continue singing even when we find ourselves caged in. And she has continued that example by going on to live an awe-inspiring life.

As a young woman, she toured Europe as an actress, studied modern dance, and was a part of the Harlem Writers Guild. For a year she lived in Cairo, Egypt, where she was the editor of The Arab Observer. A year later, she was in Ghana, teaching at the University of Ghana’s School of Music and Drama, writing for The Ghanian Times, and serving as feature editor for The African Review.   She mastered French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic, and the West African language, Fanti.  During her time in Ghana, she met Malcom X. She served with both he and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Civil-Rights movement.

Later, she wrote I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, and over 30 bestselling fiction and non-fiction books.  She has written screenplays and scores, and appeared in Famous Films such as Alex Haley’s Roots and Poetic Justice.  She is now eight-four years old, and she is not done living.

When I read her biography, I couldn’t help but think of St. Irenaeus’s words when he said “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.”  Maya Angelou has lived and served humanity all over the world.  She has given us an example of what it means to be a strong, feminine leader who shares her gifts and talents fully.  When she recites her poetry, she gives voice to the human condition, touching people where they feel their greatest pains, joys, injustices, and victories.

There is much more to her story,  and I don’t feel a blog post can fully capture it. So I believe it is best to leave you with an invitation to see her interviewed, and to hear her recite her poem, “Phenomenal Woman” that celebrates what it means to be Fabulously Female.

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