The Year of Girlfriends

3 01 2013

Late afternoon on New Year’s Day, my Twitter feed started to light up with mentions of my Twitter handle. While I haven’t signed on to the site much recently, I have notifications set to alert me when I am mentioned or receive a direct message. My friend, Molly, had tweeted: “Declaring¬†#2013 as the year of the girlfriends. ūüôā I may not survive my 30s without them…True words.” When she didn’t get an immediate response to this tweet, Molly tweeted again, calling on several of us to join her for #theyearofthegirlfriend. Nothing would satisfy her until we had all responded that we were “in”.¬†I may not always like being called out publicly, but I have to say I didn’t mind it for this pledge of friendship in the new year.

And what a group of women to be included among! Molly named only four or five of us, but there are more than that in our merry band of women friends. We range in age from mid-twenties to early 50s (that’s me, by far the oldest); we’re all over the map with regard to political leanings, social standing, marital status, and spiritual beliefs. What we have in common would be difficult for a stranger to parse, but seems to make sense to us. First and foremost, we were in the same place at the same time for a brief moment. This proximity cannot be underestimated as an initial catalyst, after all, even in a digital age we crave closeness on both the physical and emotional levels. But proximity alone doesn’t begin to explain what has kept us interested in developing and deepening our friendships with one another.¬†That¬†is about seeking out, from among those physically near, those whose inner selves call to our own best selves. My closest women friends, whether connected with this group or not, allow me to be who I am and love me in spite of my flaws. However, they also know I have a vision of a better me I’m striving to reach. So they nurture her, too, and help her bloom into being.

I don’t think Molly was exaggerating her claim that she might not survive her 30s without her girlfriends. In fact, I think she might have been understating things a bit. Recently, there has been a tendency to focus on women as “frenemies” and “mean girls”, to the detriment of real women and their meaningful relationships with one another. However, research apparently tells a different story. One study, a ¬†comprehensive study of women’s health, resulted in surprising findings – we’ve all heard about the “fight or flight” response to stress; women, however, may have a stress response better characterized as “tend and befriend”. (Text of the original study can be read¬†here. However, an easier to read article summarizing the findings can be found¬†here.) The study suggests that this “tend and befriend” response is triggered by the release of oxytocin, which is further enhanced by the presence of estrogen. The result is a powerful calming effect on stress not experienced by men. According to the study’s authors, this response may even explain why women outlive men. Other studies consistently show that having close women friends¬†helps women sleep better, improves their immune systems, staves off dementia and, ultimately, helps women live longer. One study (Flinders University, Australia) found that¬†women with more friends lived 22 percent longer than women with fewer friends. Even if these reports were exaggerated or from flawed research (I just searched and found them on the internet, after all!), they still point to a powerful truth – women need their girlfriends. It may even be a matter of life or death!

While I find it interesting that there are biological factors which affect and/or are impacted by women’s friendships, it is much more important to me that my friends impact my emotional and psychological well-being in positive ways – and that my friendship, love and concern have that same positive impact on them. I can only speak for myself when I say that my friends are sometimes the only motivating factor for getting me through the day. It isn’t that I spend every day baring my soul, my deepest thoughts and feelings to them. Or that they always have excellent advice. Rather, it is the acceptance and lack of judgment, the sensitivity to nuance of mood, the willingness to hold me up with their strength or to sometimes give me a kick in the pants that makes my girlfriends so important to me. My girlfriends can be fierce when necessary, but they’re never mean. And while we may occasionally hurt one another’s feelings, it is always unintentionally done – never purposeful “frenemy fire”.

So here’s to making 2013 “The Year of the Girlfriends”. To all my girls out there, near and far, old and young – be well, be happy, and be proud of your tending and befriending ways. The life you save may be your own, but you’ll likely lengthen – and enrich – a few other lives along the way!

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Get Your Bloom On!

2 08 2012
Springville, Iowa, July 27, 2012.
 
¬†I am standing in the middle of the main street of town, with my good friend Tricia Borelli and thousands of others, and I am suddenly overcome with emotion. I tell Tricia, “This is what I want for everyone!”

Let me explain what I meant – and it wasn’t for everyone to stand in the streets of Springville, Iowa-though I believe there could be worse fates. We had just finished what proved to be the hardest 10 miles of a 208-mile bicycling adventure (three consecutive days of RAGBRAI). With a sore body operating on little sleep, the 10 mile leg just completed, consisting of lots of climb against a strong headwind, called upon every reserve I had. This middle day of the ride was “supposed” to be the easy one, too. What a betrayal of my expectations!

As Tricia and I pulled into town, the members of our team who had arrived ahead of us flagged us down. We explored the town, grateful for the food and beverage options and for the hospitality of the local Methodist church which allowed us to used their indoor bathrooms. Take it from me: porta-potties used by thousands of bicyclists are not the preferred option. We had some time to kill before our last two teammates arrived, which meant real leisure to soak up the ambience.

People of all shapes, sizes, abilities, ages, ethnicities and backgrounds swelled the small town’s usual population of around one thousand to nearly ten times that. Banners flapped in the stiff breeze, music came at us from every direction, colorful costumes and jerseys caught our attention. The sun beat down on us and sweat caused our spandex-laden clothing to stick to our bodies. I downed a bottle of blue Gatorade with relish – something I would normally avoid as exuberantly as I avoid eating liver.

As I watched the spectacle and felt myself just one more colorful piece of it, I experienced one of those rare moments of clarity in life. This exact moment that I was living in with such joy, I would once have shunned. The July heat. The crowds. The physical exertion. The athletic, ebullient, friendly, happy individuals surrounding me.

Until the recent past, I eschewed entering fully into my own life. I stayed away from situations that called upon either my inner resources or the direct experience of strangers. In that way, I kept my world small and my life manageable. I felt safe but I rarely felt joy. I felt “in control” but never expansive.

All of that has changed, and my life is so much richer for it. Suddenly, standing in the middle of the street in Springville, my heart paradoxically wholly open and completely full, I realized: ¬†it isn’t enough to want these things for myself. It isn’t enough to continue to work on my own growth and development. To know and experience my own “before and after” is to want that for anyone else holding back from fully living their own lives.

You know who you are – those of you waiting for something to change in your life in order for you to feel happier, better understood, more passionate. Those of you who feel stuck in a place you never really intended to be. Those of you who feel called to…something else, even if you don’t quite know what that is. For each of you, I want the more you’re longing for. The future you don’t quite know how to reach. And I promise you two things. First, I promise that I will continue to hold your heart’s desire ¬†in my thoughts and in my prayers. Second, I promise that whenever the opportunity arises to offer something tangible –¬†and within my power or ability to give –¬†by way of support or encouragement to another late-bloomer (like me, like you) I will.

You may feel like a bedraggled weed, but you’re really a beautiful flower.¬†You may not, just yet, believe in yourself or in your ability to change your life. But I already believe in you. After all, I’m just another slow-blossoming flower on the midwestern prairie – if I found a way to fully open my petals and bask in the sun, so can you.





The Sunday Roast: Guest blog by Cindy Petersen

3 06 2012

Today is our second post in “The Sunday Roast” Series. Cindy Petersen is a May graduate of Mount Mercy University, and her story is truly an inspiring one. Cindy is currently the owner/publisher of Iowa’s newest community newspaper, The Hiawatha Advocate (click here to check it out). The newspaper industry is a struggling one, but Cindy is living her dream right now. If you have a business and/or the financial wherewithal to help support her dream, please check out the advertising and subscriptions page – a full year subscription is a mere $30. Cindy also publishes regularly on her blog, “Write to the Point” if you are interested in reading more of her work!

Cynthia Petersen, graduated May 20, 2012 from Mount Mercy University
in Cedar Rapids, IA with a BA in Journalism

Graduating from college at 49 is nothing spectacular. People much older than I have done it. But changing the course of my life is. And that is what I believe I have done.

Some people talk about fate, and destiny, and¬†believe that¬†‚ÄĚeverything happens for a reason.‚ÄĚ I, for one, believe that we are the creators of our own destiny and that life is what we make it. But I didn‚Äôt always think that way.

Seven years ago, I looked at where I was and I made up my mind that I wanted to make my mark in this world. I wanted to do more than just exist. I wanted to do something spectacular.

I spent years taking life as it came, raising 4 children, and dealing with life’s little tragedies.  But I learned how to remain calm in a crisis, and I became a problem-solver. I learned how to manage my money and how to make ends meet. I was a mediator, a counselor, a housekeeper, a chauffeur, and everything else that a mother does.

Now I realize that I was preparing for something spectacular.

I wanted to be my own boss and so I thought opening a restaurant was the way to go. I spent hours upon hours on the computer researching how to write a business plan, and why a marketing plan was so important. I chose all the plans for my restaurant; what I would name it, where it would be located, who my customers would be, what my menu would entail, how much everything would cost. I did everything I needed to do to make my restaurant a success. But in the end, it came down to a lack of funds.

And though it hurt me to have to give up that particular dream, I can see now that I was still only preparing for something even more spectacular.

As I got on my knees and prayed to God for chance to see my dream come true, I included that if this didn‚Äôt work out, I would go back to school and get a degree. (My father had said to me one day after reading an article I wrote, ‚ÄėForget the restaurant, go back to school, become a writer.‚Äô)

And the rest is history. I graduated Sunday with a BA in Journalism. But not only did I graduate, I also received the President’s Award from Mount Mercy University’s president, Dr. Christopher Blake, one of the top three awards given to graduating seniors. I was also nominated for two other awards; Who’s Who in American Colleges and Universities, and the Sisters of Mercy Award.

Getting the award itself was nice, but the satisfaction that I had done something to change the course of my life was what I really received that day. This was what I had been working for the past four years; that I had done something spectacular.

And I’m not done.

Most of you know that I started my own business last year and began publishing a community newspaper in February this year. Every lesson I have ever learned has prepared me to take on this huge undertaking.  But I still couldn’t have done it without going back to college. It was the last piece to my puzzle.

Something spectacular? You bet it is.

But it doesn’t stop there. It has only given me more reasons to find out what else life has in store for me and what I have in store for life.





Passages: What Women Mean

24 05 2012

Today, I will be attending the memorial service for a former student, Katie Beckett, who passed away suddenly on Friday. Katie touched my life and the lives of countless others through her tenacity, honesty, and willingness to fight for what was right. Please take a look at this piece from NPR, one of many tributes to Katie posted in the past week. I’m happy the piece mentions Katie spending time at the Barnes and Noble coffee shop, as this is where I’ve visited with her in the years since she graduated. In fact, we spoke there just two weeks ago.

Later in the weekend came a facebook post from my friend Sheila. Sheila told us that her mother, Ruth, has decided to enter hospice care. I had the pleasure of becoming reacquainted with Ruth last summer, when Sheila and I reunited with Mary, another high school friend, at Ruth’s apartment. Sheila and Mary brought their guitars so we could do what we did in high school – play and sing John Denver songs. Ruth requested the first song, “Forest Lawn” – a humorous song about an imagined funeral. She said it was funnier to her now than it was thirty years ago.¬†Later in the fall, Ruth sent me a lovely letter in which her honest and opinionated voice rang in every word. When Sheila posted that Ruth was entering hospice, she said Ruth had declared that “its time to kick the bucket”, a direct quote from a very direct lady!

Ruth, enjoying the John Denver sing-along last July

Needless to say, I’ve been thinking a lot about these two very different women this week. Different, yet similar in that they have both been known and respected for speaking truthfully what was on their minds and in their hearts.¬†Tonight, I had coffee at the Starbuck’s Cafe inside our local Barnes and Noble store, and their voices were very present to me.

As I left the store and¬†started my car, the John Tesh radio show, “Intelligence for Your Life” came on the radio. I was caught up in my thoughts, but suddenly keyed in on what John Tesh was saying – it was a list of “When She Says…What She Means Is…” Two items I remember from the list:

“When she says, ‘Are you hungry?’, what she’s really saying is ‘I’m starving’.”
“When she says, ‘We can do whatever you want tonight’, what she’s really saying is, ‘Please, let’s do what I want.’ ” (click here if you want to see other examples from a similar segment on the radio show)
 

¬†I’ve heard, and disregarded, such lists before. But tonight, I have to say it pissed me off. And frankly, I think we should all be angry about this crap. Whether the message of these lists – that women don’t say what they mean or mean what they say – is true or false is secondary to the fact that it should make us angry. If true, it suggests that women are both socialized to and feel prevailed upon to lie, dissemble, prevaricate…anything but say what we really feel. If false, it suggests that there is something in our culture which wishes to belittle women’s reasoning and communication skills, to reduce our voices to a series of stock (and stale) jokes.

So I looked into my own soul, and saw that there have been times when I’ve said the opposite of what I feel. Times when I’ve said I was fine, but wasn’t. Times when I’ve told someone I’m not offended, but I am. Times when I’ve said “Sure, it’s perfectly ok by me”, when it SO wasn’t. And as I thought of these examples, I got pissed at myself. For buying into the lies I was taught (in part by drivel like the list above) about what it means to be a woman. For believing, in those moments, that I didn’t have a right to feel what I felt. That if I said what I felt, others wouldn’t love me anymore.

Women, like Ruth and Katie, whose voices have been clear and present in their lives and in our world have a lot to teach the rest of us. First and foremost, that we don’t have to be anyone other than our honest selves to be loved. So let’s honor these women by working on this whole concept of saying what we mean and meaning what we say, in the full expectation that our world can change and our relationships deepen as a result. Luckily, we have some great role models to emulate!





Valentine Roses

9 02 2012

A few rose-related snapshots, leading you down the meandering path I’ve been following this week:

1. My mother and sister grow roses in their gardens, and over the years have picked up quite a bit of knowledge about them. I, on the other hand, love roses without understanding them at all. The wilder and more old-fashioned, the better. (Unless you plan to send me a bouquet of cut roses – then make them yellow tea roses, if possible – a preference I developed in college which I no longer remember the reason for.)

2. One year, a student organization on our campus was selling singing telegrams for Valentine’s Day. For a dollar, one could select from a group of four or five “love” songs, and the students would go to your friend’s room or office and sing it – along with a spoken message from you, the sender. My friend, Al, sent a telegram to my office: he picked “The Rose” for them to sing. He thought it was the cheesiest option and that I would laugh at it. Instead, I cried. In case you missed it, THEY SANG “THE ROSE” to me ON VALENTINE’S DAY. In my office. Duh. Any self-respecting woman of my generation would have done the same.

3. My maternal grandmother’s name was Rose. And while there aren’t many in my generation named after her, the next generation is a garden of Roses: Atalie Rose, Abi Rose, Aubrey Rose, Zoe Rose. All of them named after a grandmother beloved, but unknown, to them.

So, what led to these meandering thoughts about roses and my grandmother, Rose? One of the “joys” of having what appears to be a genetic predisposition to certain cancers, is the extensive family history taken, then distributed among family ¬†members (in our case, mothers, sisters, cousins – women related via the maternal line). I received a copy of this family history in the mail the other day, from my sister Chris. And I’ve been thinking about all these Roses ever since.

My grandmother, Rose Postel, died in 1965, days after the birth of my sister, Gwen. Gwen, our blue-eyed, blonde-haired beauty – the only one in a family sea of brunettes with dark eyes. Family lore is that Grandma always wanted a blonde grandchild, and that this was the final wish granted in her too-short life. I was four when Grandma died, she was 50.

Maybe there are those among you who think fifty years isn’t that short, as lifetimes go. Rose lived to see her children grown, married, starting families of their own. On the other hand, she only met half of her grandchildren, and the oldest was only five when she passed away. I don’t know what my sister remembers, but I only have one memory of Rose that I am sure is authentic (she is stirring up a batch of peanut butter cookies in her kitchen; they’re my favorite). But I do remember my mom, overwhelmed by her life with six kids, living with her widower father, being alternately sad and angry that her mother wasn’t there. I think I would have liked Rose, my dad says she had a keen eye and a sharp wit. Is it strange to say I miss her, when I barely knew her so long ago?

As I’m sure you’ve deduced, the fact that I turned 50 this year myself impacts my own perspective. I think of all the things I still hope to achieve and experience in my life – no longer the youthful yearning to have a meteoric impact on the planet – rather, the desire to live my own life as fully, as deeply, as possible. And I think of ¬†this garden of young roses – Atalie, Abi, Aubrey, Zoe…and their sisters and cousins. And I want to say to them: “Don’t hold back.” “Don’t let anyone (especially yourself) make you be smaller than you are.” Do. Be. Love. Live. So that at any age, you can say, “I’ve really lived my life.”

Because there are no guarantees. 30, 50, 60 Рeven if we hit the jackpot and live to 100 Рwe never know how many years we will have. But we do know we have today. Cancer sucks. But the only way to truly beat it Рand/or all the other life-sucking things we might encounter Р is to fully inhabit our lives, each day we are graced enough to wake up to them.





Saturday Night in Palo, Iowa

26 01 2012

So, I am standing in a small bar in small town Iowa, watching the small crowd rock out to a local guy singing the karaoke version of Snoop Dog’s “Gin and Juice”. Standing next to me is a woman I’ll call Beth (because that’s her name) who is pretty much the exact opposite of me in most ways:

Beth                                                  Me_________________________________

Young                                               Not

Tall                                                    Not

Beautiful                                           Not

Married                                             Not

New Parent                                      Not

Pretty sure we are at opposite ends of other spectrums (spectra?) as well, but these examples will suffice to point out our differences. Despite these differences, though, we are in complete agreement on two things: the men in our group (one of whom is her husband) are among the best guys around¬†and neither of us could ever do what the women on the “dance floor” are doing. And what, exactly, are they doing you ask?

Dancing. Dirty, uninhibited, take no prisoners, body-punishing drunken dancing. While screaming out the words to every song at the top of their lungs. Hugging and high-fiving each other. Challenging each other to shout a duet of “Love Shack” or “Baby Got Back” as soon as they can get their hands on the karaoke mic.

And while Beth and I are in agreement we could never behave that way, it isn’t because we are judging the other women harshly. Rather, we are judging ourselves and finding that we lack the ability to set aside self-judgement long enough to cut loose and just enjoy ourselves. Without regard to what the tall and short women standing by the bar watching us are thinking.

The atmosphere in the bar isn’t conducive to deep conversation, so Beth and I stand side-by-side, mostly silent. And I realize that it is fine with me that I will likely never be one of the dancing queens. But I do find myself wondering what I would¬†choose to do if I could just silence my inner critic for a few brief hours. If I could just realize that the bystanders, like Beth and I, are probably actually thinking about themselves. Here are a few:

  • Wear sloppy clothes in public. My friends Molly, Colette, Wendy: all of them can head out wearing sweats or scrubs, unshowered, no make-up and they just look “natural”. I look hideous.
  • Rollerblade. This one has the element of personal injury folded in with the fear of looking stupid in public.
  • Ask questions in public forums. Of course, this would reveal that I am not all-knowing, and I’m not sure the rest of the world can handle that truth…
  • Take an art class. Really? Even as I write this I realize how supremely silly it is – the whole point of taking the class is that you don’t already know how to do it!

Well, those are probably enough examples to illustrate my point here. Like many other women – even women as unlike me as Beth – I have spent a lifetime being socialized to keep my behavior within certain parameters, and I have internalized those boundaries. Above all, don’t look stupid/slovenly/slutty: the adjectives vary but they are all cut from the same cloth. This is one reason so many women aren’t able to cut loose and fully enjoy themselves (without massive quantities of alcohol to loosen their inhibitions). We watch our own behavior and apply such tough judgements to ourselves.

I’ve heard people say that women are each other’s harshest critics. That hasn’t been my experience. In fact, quite the opposite. I have found that women tend to be fairly generous with one another. The problem is one of projection: if I look at the women in the bar and project myself into their midst, I judge myself very cruelly. With self-censoriousness as the starting point, it colors how I view others, too. When I sneer at a stranger (0r her behavior) I am really “hating on” myself.

I wonder how our lives would shift if we could extend the same generosity of spirit towards ourselves that we do toward others who are trying new things, cutting loose in public, arriving for morning coffee unkempt? I’m pretty sure one of the first outcomes is that we would feel less judged by others, simply by being less judgmental towards ourselves. Definitely something worth trying!





Sisterhood: Part II

20 10 2011

It is a chilly, blustery, very gray day in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Early afternoon finds me in a local coffeeshop. It is a work- and school-day, so the other patrons are a different crowd than on the weekends: the few men here are solitary individuals, grabbing a quick lunch or working on their computers, while the rest of the tables are filled with pairs of women, deep in conversation. My computer allows me the luxury of eavesdropping without appearing to do so. At one table, the women are reliving last weekend’s tailgate at the Hawkeye game. In the comfy chairs by the electric fire are two older women discussing art history and their recent book tour. Another pair prays over their soup bowls, while yet another is going over an astrological natal chart. What these pairs have in common with one another is not immediately apparent. However, as I watch their interactions what I see is a certain intensity of communication – they lean toward one another, they nod, their faces are animated whether they are speaking or listening.

When I first began my recent ruminations on the idea of sisterhood, I was thinking about sisterhood from the perspective of women supporting other women in the great movements¬†for social justice: equal rights, ending domestic violence, working to address the unfairly high percentage of women/single mothers among the ranks of the poor and hungry. I was thinking about women like Wangari Maathi, Zainab Salbi, or Catherine McAuley. And because I couldn’t think about the concept of sisterhood without considering the reality of it, in part one I wrote about my sisters and my relationships with them. In part two, I intended to speak more abstractly.

And then I started hearing from my women friends. They made it clear that in part two, they expected to read about themselves. To them, it naturally followed that once I spoke about my biological sisters, I would write about the “sisters of my heart”. How can I, whose life has been immeasurably enriched by these women, deny them? So I will attempt, on this autumn afternoon, to write about the women who have become my sisters through shared conversation, shared philosophies, shared history and experience. But how do I begin this task?

The women friends who have taken up residence in my heart range in age from their 70s to 11 months. They are professionals, mothers, athletes, writers, beautiful children, wives, straight and lesbian. They have challenged my intellect (through education, book clubs, their writing, provocative conversation). They have nurtured my heart (seeing past my flaws, allowing me to see theirs, holding me when I have cried and celebrating when I have laughed). We have shared an energy that became synergy, and talked until we’ve entered the true definition of dialog. I can’t name you all by name, but you may recognize yourself if you’ve ever: eaten an entire pan of brownies with me; helped me learn to craft something beautiful in words or other material; invited me into your family when mine was far away; or (God love you for this) plucked stray hairs from my chin. If you’ve allowed me to mentor you, or if you’ve mentored me. If you have been there, and been there, and been there for years of being stuck – then been there cheering when I got unstuck. If you quietly continued to offer me love and support while I took you for granted.

Biology may teach us our first lessons about sisterhood, but true friendship teaches us how to spread that idea beyond our own gene-pool. Whether we are talking about our circle of friends or we’re talking about the great social movements, women reaching out to other women are powerful beyond all expectations.

(True story: the music-track playing in the coffeeshop as I write this is Bette Midler singing “Wind Beneath My Wings”).

I work with young women, and I have been dismayed by the oft-discussed concept of “mean girls”. At first, I fought the idea as a media-generated concept designed to sensationalize and sell magazines. In recent years I’ve seen this phenomenon grow among my students, and it troubles me. I wonder if it isn’t a self-fulfilling prophecy – as we talk more and more about girl-on-girl violence and bullying and present it in the news as the new norm, aren’t we teaching our daughters (and young friends) that this is how it should be? I grew up in the 1970s, when the women’s movement led to the portrayal of women’s friendships as life-saving. Either my women friends are counter-cultural holdouts from the 70s (which as a description would insult over half of them!) or there is something MORE TRUE¬†than the mean girl phenomenon. I believe we have a moral imperative to teach this truth to the generations behind us: that women loving and supporting one another is the real phenomenon. “Mean girls” are not natural – this trend is one sign of an unhealthy culture.

Finally, as I think of the amazing women who are my sisters – in every definition and nuance of that word – I feel like a fertile delta, where the generous river has deposited its gift of rich soil. My sisters have helped to make my life truly generative. Whether I ever change the world in a big way, like a Wangari Maathi, it will be enough to know that together we have sewn the seeds of a powerful vision of strong women loving strongly – a vision that our young friends and daughters will want to emulate as they see how deeply nourishing it is.