A Strong Woman

“A strong woman knows she has strength enough for the journey, but a woman of strength knows it is in the journey where she will become strong.”


Tell me about a time this was true in your life or in the life of someone close to you.


  1. Fran Stekoll says

    I’ve been strong all my life. My kindergarten teacher told my mother I would be a leader in life. When I lost the job of my dreams and my mentor Gladys Rohe took me to a Mid-Life Career Seminar in San Francisco with Richard Bolles (author of “What Color Is Your Parachute”), he picked me out of an audience of 500 and said I would achieve whatever I wanted in life.

    However, there are draw backs to being a strong woman. Some of my so-called friends can’t stand my strength. I’ve been told I come on too strong. I’ve also been told that my energy and attitude are overbearing and that I was bi-polar and that I should calm down as I am difficult to be with for any length of time.

    I think being strong could have ended my first marriage as well. They say opposites attract and in my case that seemed to be true; however when I gave my power away and allowed him to become stronger, and then took my power back, he bolted.

    I am sometimes weak depending on the situation. I think strong; but know when to be strong. Writing has given me balance as has meditation. Sometimes when I meet a strong person, I take a back seat. If that person bothers me, I know it’s because I’m just like them.

    I’ve learned over time how to control my strength. As I’ve aged I’m mellowing out. My current situation has afforded me the ability to be still and listen. I’ve been told I’m the only woman who listens to him. This tells me I’ve matured in my ability to be strong, yet have control as to how and when to use my strength. There are words to a hymn, “We are weak and He is Strong.”

    I grew up with the idea that men were to be the strong species and women were the weaker sex; however I know now that this is an omen. Thank God I had a strong Mother figure whom I used to resent; but now I realize I am just like her. The other song that comes to mind is “I am Woman” I am what I am. I like who I am, and I am still becoming who I am.

    I do not lean nor bend, nor break. I’m strong and tall and rarely quake, I find that I’m leaned on by those who must depend on me. There’s different levels of pillars of hope; some are tall, some short, others merely slope; but each is strong in its own direction. Some are cold, some warm: they’re pressed to perfection. The pillar of hope and peace and strength stands solid, not minding its breadth or length. The pillar of strength I came to see, is the one people have who depend on me. I guess I’ve needed to perk them upright, for without my strength they’d lose their might. I suppose to some more than the rest, I’ve leaned on to show I can pass the test. So when I crumble and weaken and fall, the pillars depending on me seem so small, they hover and grasp for their own strength within, and really aren’t sure where to start- how to begin. When I regain my strength as I usually am able to do, those who leaned on me when I fell had become their own man.

    • says

      Fran, I love the way you’ve shared with us the lessons you’ve learned about modulated your strength over the course of your life. It’s amazing how many different types of strength there are.

      • Lee Xanthippe says

        I enjoyed the journey of this piece..starting in kindergarten…I thought it was interesting, both the point of view of the writer/author and the author’s consciousness of other people’s views of her…I liked seeing the evolutions or understandings of self in this piece…thank you, Fran!

    • Judy says

      Fran, What an enjoyable read–the ability to look back and realize that being comfortable in our skin is more meaningful than being powerful, strong, or right, yes? I was right there with you singing Helen Redding’s, “I am Woman.” Thank you so much for this telling.

    • Eve says

      I am hoping to mature enough to know when & how to use my strength too. Listening has not been a strong point of mine. Thanks for your piece, Fran.

    • Terry Gibson says

      Fran, this is an interesting story. I’m always curious about how people relate to strength in women. So many who won’t tolerate it at all, will mislabel it. Thanks Fran. So much to think about here.

    • Diana says

      A wonderful piece on finding balance. Also revealing in the reactions some people have when a woman comes on “too strong”.

  2. Lee Xanthippe says

    I no longer care about being strong. I mean physically I want to be as strong and healthy as I can be and still live my life, not like I’m lifting the heaviest weights or anything, but…

    A friend of mine recently went through something very very difficult. And was the support for her husband who was severely injured and many people were telling her to “stay strong.” But sometimes it is too much pressure to try to stay strong on top of everything else one is managing.

    I think sometimes the pressure to “stay strong” can make it so that one cannot share their vulnerabilities. Sometimes we feel weak. Sometimes we can learn more about ourselves and be more in touch with ourselves and others if we can recognize where we are “weak.” I guess it is ironic because recognizing our weaknesses is a kind of strength. Being able to share about our weaknesses is a strength. Being able to ask for help, which feels like weakness to many, can be a strength.

    My guess is that, no my observation is that, people who need to hold onto their so-called strength and cannot be in touch with their vulnerabilities, people who cannot ask for help, are the worse off for it.

    That said, being able to trust the journey, or my journey so far, has been life-changing. I trusted my irritability and frustration and, at times, pain, that led to me finding the people and voices I needed to hear. To find the writers—Pat Schneider, this site, Sherman Alexie, Laurie Clements Lambeth, Jim Ferris, Anne Finger, Simi Linton, Neil Marcus, Petra Kuppers,…the people who were speaking to my heart through their words, their performances. The people—the feminists, disability activists/writers/performers, artists, the glbt people, the people of color, the cross-cultural people, the choreography teachers and improvisers who trust their visions and voices and research and experience. The people who question deeply, the people who change the world and dance and tell the best jokes.

    In a workshop with AXIS Dance Company who have dancers with physical disabilities as well as nondisabled dancers who dance together (as equales) and work with many amazing choreographers….Anyway in the first workshop I took with them, I remember a striking moment when we had all been learning choreography and working on duets, then showing them, and I was watching a duet between Sonsheree Giles and Rodney Bell (both of whom would later do a duet on “So You Think You Can Dance”—there’s a clip of it on Youtube)…but in this workshop, Sonsheree lifted Rodney and his wheelchair up. Well, actually they both worked together so that she could lift him up and so they could both stay balanced. She was on her back on the floor with her legs up supporting him. He was in the air facing her, his body supported by her feet and legs, both their arms gripped together.

    It was a lifting that took both of their strengths and balance, it was a creative act, to lift together, to be lifted. Then, somehow they still stayed balance as Rodney let go of her and let his arms hang slack, then mostly she was supporting him. As I saw this shifting image, many things went through my mind. What was I seeing?

    I was seeing that lifting took both of their strengths, but then when he let go I saw that being able to accept the support of another, that Rodney being able to accept the support of Sonsheree, that Rodney being able to trust her to hold him up, was a strength.

    Accepting help can seem like weakness, but also it is a strength.

    • says

      Lee, thanks for taking us right into this wonderful workshop and sharing this wonderful, powerful moment with us.

      P.S. I’m honored that you see this site as one of your inspirations.

    • Janet says

      I love what you said, “I think sometimes the pressure to stay strong can make it so that one cannot share their vulnerabilities.” Like you said when we are experiencing our vulnerabilities or “weaknesses”, we get more in touch with ourselves. Thank you.

    • Polly says

      Lee, this spoke to me. The part especially about how the ability and willingness to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, and ask for help, are really about strength … That is a lesson I absolutely need right now. Thank you so much for posting.

    • Judy says

      Lee, You hooked me with “Sometimes we can learn more about ourselves and be more in touch with ourselves and others if we can recognize where we are “weak.” And, with the telling of dancing. Thank you so much for the insights, wisdom and lovely writing.

    • Eve says

      The description of the dance you described where they were able to incorporate the wheelchair was so uplifting! The insight you had at that moment was very powerful. Thank you for sharing it with us.

    • Nancy Schoellkopf says

      What an amazing image of the two dancers balancing each other, even though one was in a wheelchair! For years I worked with students who had severe disabilities, and so often we professionals spoke about “independent living skills.” Later everyone in the community realized that a better goal is an interdependent life–something we should all aim for. As you say–accepting help can seem like weakness, but also it is a strength.

    • Terry Gibson says

      Lee, what a wonderful thing you shared with us here! I saw that episode of “So You Think You Can Dance” (a series I always watch) and it was spellbinding! You described it beautifully. I see it again and feel the hush that fell over the audience. As I matured, I learned that strength entails every part of our being (even displays of the so-called ”weaker” emotions), no matter what other misguided people might think. Thanks so much, Lee.

    • Diana says

      I love you take on sometimes it takes strength to show and allow yourself to be “weak”. A very thoughtful piece.

  3. Barbara Keller says

    I’m sorry. I don’t want to be combative. I think this is a modern myth. The strong woman.

    Most women are very strong. Life is hard. Shall I list the efforts women must make to survive? First they go to school in a dangerous time, (scanned for weapons as they go in), work in a hard economic time which means mostly too much work and too little money; or they go to school for 17 years to get a professional degree and then run themselves ragged.

    They run a home and raise children in a time when children are afflicted with more allergies, more disabilities than ever before, (half the children anywhere in the US are on drugs for attention issues). The children face more temptations, more fears, and get less support from teachers and extended family than perhaps ever before. And mostly women do this alone because men seem to be in a coma. People joke about the man who can’t grow up and spends his adult life in his mother’s basement playing video games, but it’s not so funny when it’s your man.

    So it is my opinion that just to reach 30 a woman has to be very strong, courageous and determined.

    The myth is that there is some kind of righteousness, power and freedom in being the ultra strong woman who does it all easily, gracefully, and still looks bloody gorgeous at the end of the day, or at least on Saturday night. A woman who can still compete with the porn girls in movies when it happens a man is in her periphery.

    And that I think is insane, part of the cultural insanity that makes women feel not pretty and never adequate. Do you think more hard times will make a woman feel pretty and adequate? I don’t.

    OK, that’s my soap box for today. Thanks for reading.

    • says

      Hi Barbara, everyone deserves to rant every once in a while. I love the anger in your piece actually–the righteousness. As the mother of sons, though, one of whom is a responsive, caring husband and father–and the other of whom is on the path to becoming the same, I have to speak about about slamming men in general. They don’t like to be stereotyped any more than we do.

      • Barbara Keller says

        Of course you’re right. I would guess they are the outstanding exceptions in a sea of troubled and lost guys. Thank God for yours. Hooray. My anger isn’t against the guys, but the culture that makes ridiculous demands. I do believe life today is even harder for men and it’s worn them down to a nub.

        • Lee Xanthippe says

          I enjoyed the soapbox and the use of that word “soapbox”. When I read this as a piece of writing (although I do not necessarily concur with the statements about men), I found the statements of men to be one of most powerful in this piece. I found the image of the childlike man in the basement with video games sort of chilling in this context and I liked the use of the word “coma”. And that “it’s not so funny when it’s your man.”–that line took it from the abstract to the actual for me.
          Thanks much, Barbara…

          • Lee Xanthippe says

            Maybe more of a note for Laura or just putting this thought out there, but as I wrote the previous note, I realize that I feel a tension between reacting to the writing posts as a piece of writing vs. reacting to the person writing the piece. For me, I am more comfortable reacting to the writing I think because when I am looking at the writing, I can see the writing better without the cloud of my judgement (of the ideas) or internal pressure to agree of disagree with ideas.

          • says

            Lee, when you’re confused about how to respond, it’s always better to respond to the writing…to the words on the page, and how well they express the writer’s ideas, than to the writer for having those ideas.

    • Judy says

      Love this conversation. Here’s my example of stereotypes so deeply entwined in the culture (back in the day and still): in middle school, son #2 said he wanted to play the flute, he was influenced by Jethro Tull and James Galway—not surprising since those was often the music of household.

      At dinner that night, he told this story–when he announced his instrument choice, his female teacher’s comment was, “a flute, but that’s a girl’s instrument.’ To which my son responded, holding up the flute, “show me the vagina on this, Mrs. Smith.”

      The next day, the teacher called me to tell me what my son had said adding, “I finally GOT IT and thanks to him, I learned a valuable lesson about stereotypes.”

    • Ilana says

      Barbara- I have read the conversation but would like to respond to your piece outside of that. First, I enjoyed the rant immensely. Really needed it this week so thank you. You know how I feel about my wonderful Zander but everyone is different and we’ve all seen men, people in general, act in the way you’ve described. I think you’re right about a lot of what you said. Women are under an intense amount of pressure. I have three children whom I carried and gave birth to. Hence I have a little bit more around my middle than I’d like; more than society allows me to accept in myself. No amount of 5am spin, weightlifting and allover kick my rear classes will eradicate the evidence of my pregnancies.

      In addition to body image, just life in general, I do the best I can and often feel that it is not enough. That’s just the way it is. Thank you for reminding me that society often makes unreasonable demands. I often make unreasonable demands on myself. I need to take a breath, take a break. Guess I needed your rant to remind me of that. Thank you! IM

      PS. So sorry that your name happens to appear in my piece as the villain. I used her real name. Don’t worry, she didn’t spoil it for me 😉

  4. pj says

    Today’s quote seems to be a corollary of the “is life a destination or journey?” question.

    Growing up in an all male household, most of these touchy-feely, squishy topics are still rather foreign to me, but with two daughters I learned a few new things. I would have to say that you could just say “Strong Person” and tick off the traits that makes them smart- I would think that most of them would be the same or very similar at least. Both are good managers- getting good results thru people independent of what sex they are. Now may be the time to start using more descriptive words, like “focused woman” to differentiate more specifically the chief trait.

    Why does the “strong” name appear in describing women but rarely with men? Does this mean it’s redundant? Does it mean that women are weak unless “strong” is added/?? Don’t call me Archie Bunker- I’m just playing devil’s advocate.

    • says

      PJ, I think women grow up strong–most of us anyway.

      I love your honest sharing here…and how many new ways of thinking about life are coming up for you because of your willingness to take the risk of being part of a community here that is not a “natural fit” for you.

      • pj says

        I hope you see my point- that if most women are s trong it is redundant sort of like saying”oh there’s that smart MENSA woman!”

        • Polly says

          I think women are strong, but we are socialized often by the media and this patriarchal society to not see ourselves as possessing strength or to bother striving for it. That’s why it is an important discussion. We’re supposed to be pretty, and proper, and nice. The strongest people I know are women.

          • Polly says

            PJ I forgot to add that I agree with Laura’s comment: your perspective and the way you have of exploring this are really interesting. You definitely compelled me to weigh in. Thanks for posting.

    • Lee Xanthippe says

      Ooh, I like the observation about redundancy! And the contrasts between the all-male household and “these touchy-feely squishy topics”–nice language! Thanks, P.J.

    • Hazel says

      I agree with PJ. I think people are strong. Roles change as does our society but the people who make those changes are strong. We have moved from agrarian to cyber society in a matter of a little over 100 years. That is such an overturning of roles for just about everyone in the United States, Canada, and Europe with most of Asia right behind. The way we do just about everything has changed but the people who make those changes are still strong forging ahead to make the best of whatever situation they along with their families find themselves in. Thank God we have different strengths so we can have a division of labor for the greater good.

      Thanks for sharing PJ.

  5. Hazel says

    The story of Mother:

    “I was born in a prairie dog hole somewhere in Lincoln County, Colorado.” That’s what she always told us when we asked our mother where she was born. When I was old enough to ask my grandfather where she was born he had pretty much the same story only he called it a “soddy” instead of a prairie dog hole. He had pictures of the half-dugout house in the side of a hill with timbers for a ceiling holding up a sodded roof. He laughed and said sometimes the roots would grow down into the two room “house” and he would take out his pocket knife and cut them off.

    She was the twelfth of thirteen children and she was born with “a hole in her heart” or more commonly called in those days a “blue baby.” It wasn’t just that she happened to be born on the 17th of December, 1915 that she was called a “blue baby,” as in she might have been that cold. The valve that is supposed to close in the heart when babies are born sometimes does not, it is not a problem now, the surgeons just operate and stitch it closed and babies grow up healthy, but then my grandfather carried her around on a pillow giving her small sips of milk and brandy until she was six months old. The doctor that my grandmother took her to, the next time they could get to town after she was born, said that if they could keep her alive until she was five years old she would probably live.

    She was always the “runt” and liked to do quiet things. That was not really much of a choice for her in a bunch of active children and an early life of “fruit tramping.” This was a time when poor families, especially if they had a lot of children, would follow the crops as they ripened around the country from southern California to Northern Washington. They had a Model T truck on which they piled all their belongings held down by a galvanized washtub and the bigger children found niches amongst the stuff to keep out of the wind as they traveled from place to place. My mother hated this life. She wanted to be clean; she wanted roots; she wanted to go to school. Actually she was the first in her family to graduate from high school.

    After high school she was still having to work in the fields and was picking hops in Oregon when she met my father. He was really good looking and they flirted a bit and got to know each other when he came to help her pick, when he wasn’t “letting down the lines” for the other pickers. One day he said, “I hate this.” Mom said “Me to!” He said, “Let’s go get married.” So they did.

    Suddenly she found herself married, pregnant, in a logging camp in Klammath Falls, Oregon while my father worked in the woods which was a very dangerous job. Staying in camp was not all that easy either. Clothes had to be washed on a washboard after the water was carried and heated on a kerosene stove with two burners. One day she saw a rattle snake crawling along the floor in the cabin. She was able to reach her 22 rifle and shoot it. When she was sure it was dead, she drug it outside and laid it over a standing barrel. It hung nearly to the ground on both sides.

    Mom and Dad moved around quite a bit in those early years of their marriage. It was, after all, the depression years and jobs were hard to get and harder to keep. My father was a hard worker and very strong but even he had trouble. Finally as the rumblings that we might be getting involved in a war somewhere in the world and the country began to build arms the economy and the jobs began to get more stable. Dad secured a position in the big C. D. Johnson sawmill in Toledo, Oregon. He was able to buy a small piece of property “up the slough” from the mill. He built a garage which Mom made into a one-room house for the three of us. She was now pregnant with my brother but she insisted on making a garden and having flower beds around the house. She and I walked into town to the library to borrow books. She devoured them like a starving child given a plate full of food. She read to me and taught me, by four I was reading.

    Dad was bringing home lumber from the mill as he could afford to buy it and laid out more rooms for the house. He worked on it as he had time. Then mother became pregnant again with my little sister. She was very ill. The doctors wanted her to abort but she didn’t want to so the result was she would have to spend the last five months in bed. The complication seemed to be what they called “pernicious anemia” at that time. Mother never seemed quite “right” after that, she became severely depressed. She became interested in religion, all religion, then specifically Seventh Day Adventist.

    We moved to Salem, Oregon where Dad continued to work in a sawmill and Mother pushed us to excel at school. She helped us with our schoolwork – relentlessly.

    Finally when we were teenagers able to take care of ourselves after school she decided to go to work as a file clerk for the State of Oregon. She took the test and was surprised that she passed it (we weren’t, she had studied for it!). As fast as she could she would study for the next higher position, take the test, pass it and get a raise in pay and a better job. She worked for the State of Oregon for twenty seven years before retiring as the secretary to the state comptroller.

    Mother was not strong! From the beginning of her weakness plagued life to the end she was “sickly” and she was only 5 feet tall. I would say, Mother was FIERCELY DETERMINED. Whatever she set out to do whether it was to have the most fantastic vegetable garden in the county (I’ve got pictures), or whether to make it as far as she could go within the state system, she accomplished her goals to the very BEST of her ability. When she retired she went to community college and got an AA Degree in creative writing.

    She could be difficult at times but she was a good role model.

    • Judy says

      Hazel, Love this telling. The opening section on the ‘soddy’ grabbed my attention immediately. Would love to have stood in your mom’s garden. Thank you for this lovely story–your mom sounds pretty strong to me.

    • Nancy Schoellkopf says

      Wow, Hazel, such a beautiful story of a beautiful, “fiercely determined” woman. You included such amazing and heartfelt detail. Thanks for sharing.

      • Hazel says

        Thank you all for your comments. I think I could probably write a book just about her. We always seemed to be at odds over something the whole time that I lived with her, but it’s funny now that I am “older” I can see both sides more clearly. I always respectfully disagreed with her, with feeling. lol

    • Diana says

      I like the “prairie dog” self description. I admire that she had the strenght to pursue her dream latter in life and get her degree. That is inspiring.

  6. rosemary says

    A dream vision of myself as a young adult standing on the shore facing the ocean, holding hands with an older woman and a young girl. I knew I had to dive into the depths of the water ahead because the land behind was dangerous. I had reached this point in my life with courage and determination but knew that in facing the unknown I would find power. because for me, knowledge is power.

  7. Judy says


    On the second knock, Mary answered the door. She was a short, round, brown-eyed, 80something woman with a tight-curled-helmet-style do, gnarled arthritic fingers, and the neighbor of my fiancé, John. I was gradually moving into his apartment, now that my boys were on their own. I’d come ‘a-borrowing’ as my mom would say, hoping to find measuring spoons to help prepare spaghetti dinner to surprise John. Mary and I laughed about divorced men and their not-so-well stocked kitchens. She invited me in for tea while she rummaged her kitchen for measuring spoons. “Would a melon baller do, dear?” she asked with a twinkle.

    “Ya know,” she said in her lilting Irish, “his ex must have gotten all the good kitchen stuff. ” With a laugh she closed the last utensil draw saying, “What’s my excuse? I’ve been single all my life.” Our banter continued over a cup of Lipton tea, which we dipped three times as she told me about a contest she once had with her only living relative, 78-year-old, Katie, her cousin back in St. Louis. “Katie and I always say we’re like tea bags: when it’s gone, it’s gone”

    With thanks and a hug, I returned to the apartment to make my Mom’s magic powered spaghetti sauce and blew that extra ingredient, an air kiss, into it while thinking about Mary and what her life must have been. Later that night, I took a bowl of spaghetti and meatballs next door to her and we became fast friends. For the last years of her life, she was our blended family’s adopted ‘grandma.’

    An only child, Mary came to Chicago from St. Louis after the Korean War. She had studied opera there and hoped to join an opera company. When her dream evaporated after singing only a few times in the chorus, she went to work as an accessories saleswoman at Marshall Field’s. On weekends, she sang at Chicago’s Club Alabam (the infamous jazz club on the Rush Street entertainment strip). A real chanteuse, her eyes glistened as she told stories of sitting in on jam sessions with some of the greats of the time—Lester Young, Monk and Old Blue Eyes— Mr. Frank Sinatra.

    She often showed me a black-and-white photo taken at the club—she in a velvet evening hat with a peek- a-boo lace veil, a print dress, classic pearls, and elbow-length gloves. She held a lighted cigarette and looked like she’d ‘French inhaled it.’ Overflowing ashtrays and highball glasses seemed to outnumber the guests at the table. The group of five–men in pork pie hats and print ties–all looked like they were having a swell time. She said she would often be called up to sing—usually from the Billie Holiday songbook. And, the crowd loved it, she’d say shyly.

    She once started to talk about ‘the guy.’ A man she fell in love with but didn’t marry, adding she wanted kids. I respected her privacy and waited for her to tell the story. She never did. Fiercely independent, intelligent and proud, she, like her downstairs neighbor, Connie, did not want to give up her apartment and go into a nursing home. She wanted to remain in her tiny studio until the end. Her eyes would drift as she described visiting her friend in ‘one of those damn nursing homes where they drug you up and put you out in the hall while spittle lands on your once beautiful robe.’

    John and I talked with the building superintendent, who also kept an eye on all the elderly women. Together, we helped with doctor’s appointments, shopping and daily life. Our kids, when visiting us, would run errands to the drug store for Mary.

    She had a series of strokes that put her where she did not want to be—in the hospital. When she reached the fax of her Medicare benefits, she was sent home. It was a horrid cycle—at home for a week, in the hospital for a week, at home, in the hospital.

    During these home stints, a series of home health care providers would arrive to take vitals, assess her well being, and confirm arrangements for Meals on Wheels—which she hated. She was in decline and she knew it.

    When Thanksgiving arrived, Mary landed in the hospital again, but with congestive heart failure. On Christmas Day, our four grown kids, John, and I took her gifts and, balloons. We shared a meal in her hospital room. It was glorious to see her broad smile as we all leaned in around her for the photo we made into a poster and placed in her view across from her bed. She died peacefully two days later.

    John arranged a small memorial service at a local church before her burial in St. Louis. At her Cousin Katie’s request, I flew down for the burial. After the funeral and over a cup of tea, Katie gave me Mary’s opera encyclopedia—a treasure to this day. I never mentioned Mary’s tale of the three dip tea bag or the meaning Mary said they attached to it.

    I doubt Mary thought much about whether she had the strength for her journey or whether it would make her strong. Like many of her generation, she simply put her head down and said, “Go.”

    • Hazel says

      This is a wonderful story and so well told. Thank you so much for sharing. I love the expression of the three dip tea bag, “when it’s gone, it’s gone.” Mary was fortunate to have you and your children to help her and, so you could tell her story.

    • Polly says

      Judy, I’ve been meaning to comment on this for days. Mary sounds incredible, and it sounds like she exuded strength. I love the story of your friendship – it’s beautiful. I also have a soft spot for old Irish ladies, and Billie Holiday. Thanks for sharing.

    • Janet says

      I have read this story several times. It’s a wonderful story, beautifully told. You did a great job of creating a portrait of Mary. Thank you for sharing.

    • Janet says

      I have read this story several times. It’s a wonderful story, beautifully told. You did a great job of creating a portrait of Mary. Thank you for sharing.

    • Terry Gibson says

      I will reread this story again and again. It flows so brilliantly that it is sheer poetry to me. So rich. Thanks so much, Judy!

  8. Janet says

    Strong from the Beginning
    11:05pm, 1974. Scared to death, at seventeen, I lie on my bed. The end of a Beatles tune plays on my stereo. “She’s leaving home, Bye, Bye.” It is the tenth time I’ve heard it. A warm, August, L.A. night, so my window is open to the backyard where the full moon shines on perfect green grass, orange trees, and rose bushes.

    Peering into the mirror over my dresser, I stare at my face, perfect features, clear, milky, skin, long blond hair, curvy yet slender figure, and a soft aura that matches the violet colored walls. As I brush my hair, these tiny, slit scars mark my left wrist. They have become white and silvery over the past year, so they can only be seen if you look closely. No one ever does.

    My dad’s gone, my older brother is off in the Navy, my ten year old brother, Jimmy, sleeps down the hall from my room, and mom is sleeping across the house. My parents, two years earlier, tried to save their marriage by building a new wing on the house. They changed everything except themselves. At the time, I spent so much time at my friend, Lisa’s, I barely knew what they’re doing. One day, I came home and it took several minutes to find where they had moved the front door.

    I put on my backpack which contains, one sweater, two t-shirts, three pair of underpants, a toothbrush, a pair of jeans, and a little make up bag. I put a copy Somerset Maugham’s, THE RAZOR’S EDGE, in the front pocket. It makes it bulky but I can’t go without it. I resonate with the main character, Larry, and his search for the meaning of life, and his finding a conscious connection with the Divine in India. I am young and romantic so I don’t see the character, Isabelle’s, selfishness. I identify with her pining away for Larry while she’s married to someone else.

    I have a piece of stationary, folded neatly in quarters, in my hand. I have written my mother a letter.

    “Silently closing the bedroom door.”
    “Leaving a note, she hoped would say more.” (The Beatles)

    My room, everyone calls it “the cave”. Everyone knows you can knock on the door all day and, most likely, I won’t not open it. At thirteen, my parents figured out that they had lost me to my room. So one day, my dad put a new TV in there, along with some recording equipment, and art supplies.

    I am walking into the kitchen. Lisa’s going to be here any second. I am still busy.

    I go into my mother’s room. I put the letter on the pillow on the empty side of the bed. Mom looks peaceful lying there, tousled brown hair, a rounded figure under the light, summer blanket, unaware of my presence.

    “Why would she treat us so thoughtlessly?
    “How could she do this to me?” (The Beatles)

    I don’t want to hurt her. I need to stop hurting myself and this is the only way. I go back to the old side of the house. I really don’t know why I hurt myself here. I am going to live in Oregon with my boyfriend and his family. His letters and calls come in a steady stream with him begging me to come. So I’m not just leaving, I am going to something. As I go toward my brother, Jimmy’s room, I pass the old master bedroom. It is empty since my older brother went away. It is ghostly dark with the tall bushes just outside it’s windows, neither moonlight nor sunlight can pierce its’ space. Despite the warmth of summer, I shiver. I see Jimmy is asleep. I wish I could take you with me, Jimmy, Jammer, Windjammer.

    “Oh, gee, I bet Lisa is here.”

    11:00pm, 1989. I stand close to the hospital bed where my mother lies awake. A warm, July, L.A. night so I am dressed in a t-shirt and jeans. The nurses and doctors tell us to stay close, there’s not much time. Even my dad is here. He stands out in the hall with my older brother. I see them through the open door.

    I have never been with someone at the time of their death before. Earlier that evening, my mom would act like she was seeing things or someone who was not there. She would raise her hands up toward the ceiling. At one point, she’s saying, “I was a terrible mother.” I didn’t know how to respond. I don’t know if she knows I am there. And by now, I have come to see, yes, she was a terrible mother.

    I wipe a little sweat from her forehead. She looks at me then she looks down at her blanket.

    “I used to put you in bed with your father when you were three.” She starts. “And I would go sleep in your bed.” Then, with speech as slow as humanly possible, she says, “I regret that I did that.”

    I back away from the rail of the bed ever so slightly and stand there feeling love and hate, all at the same time. This is not the first time she’s said this to me. She would say it all the time when I was a child. I just didn’t know its’ meaning until two years before this point. The, “I regret that,” part is new.

    I notice her mouth tighten as she turns her head further in my direction.

    “Your dad would do things to you.” She says, “It wasn’t that he didn’t remember, it was as if he didn’t know he was doing them.”

    This part is new, too. I stiffen my shoulders and take a step toward my mom who has closed her eyes now. I pat her arm, thinking, “Do I hate her or love her?”

    11:30 pm, 2011. Cold, December, L.A. night. I can’t sleep so I put on the TV. There are stories all over the news about boys being molested. I turn it off. I start to meditate on a lesson from, The Course in Miracles, “God goes with me wherever I go.” With timing known only to God, I remember what my mom had said to me before she died. And I am thinking, “It really happened. I was really molested, by my own father.” For the first time, I cry.

    5:45 am, 2013. I feel free. Strong woman or woman of strength, it goes both ways with me.

    • says

      Janet, thanks for sharing this beautifully rendered story of a life unfolding, decades at a time. The writer in me loved the description of the thin lines of your protagonist’s wrists and the book she carried…the Razor’s Edge…even as my heart went out to her. I’m glad you felt safe enough to post this piece here.

    • Judy says

      Janet, What a roller coaster ride–my heart was in my mouth followed by tears with the last graph. I didn’t realize it was fiction until Laura’s post. Powerful.

      • says

        Judy, I didn’t assume it was or wasn’t fiction–but since I didn’t know, I thought it best to treat it as though it was a character, and not make assumptions. Often, even when someone in a writing group is writing memoir and brings in a piece for feedback, I talk about the writing by discussing the protagonist. It helps the writer feel more separation from the emotions of the life experience–and treat it more like a piece of writing–which is of course what they want in a writing class–to transform the experience into something artistically rendered.

        • Janet says

          Thank you Laura and Judy. It is a true story. I’ve only reached a distance from “my story” recently where I can attempt to write stories from my experiences. Thank you for your kindness.

    • Terry Gibson says

      Janet, I rode the waves with you, soaking in the images and descriptions. My heart dropped in the words your mother said to you. I also felt slapped; in other words, I was relieved the ‘news’ you received wasn’t new to you. Of course, I wish none of that happened but I can’t imagine any protagonist or person getting that story for the first time in that manner. Good job, Janet. I think I’ll try this approach with some of my own work. Thanks.

      • Janet says

        Thank you, Terry. My mother was a pretty damaged person but I am grateful for her deathbed confession because it was instrumental in understanding myself and helping in my recovery. Thank you for sharing.

        • Terry Gibson says

          I’m happy that was true for you. It was always surprisingly few words in life that impacted me the most, imparting knowledge I needed so desperately. I’m glad it helped you, Janet.

  9. beverly Boyd says

    It’s been almost forty years since I sat in that room with five other women: half my life ago. We were participating in a workshop or women’s group that my therapist was facilitating. The activity that day was to create a collage depicting ourselves using pictures from the pile of magazine she had provided.

    One of the first pictures I came across was of a man and woman at the end of a long day working in the field together. The sunset behind them bathed the scene with orange and gold casting a shimmer on their homespun garments and highlighting the clods of soil in the field around them as they walked along holding hands. Their fatigue was plain to see. The satisfaction and pleasure from staying with the job together and completing a day’s work was also plain to see. They would sleep well tonight to replenish the body for the day ahead. The picture became the centerpiece of my collage.

    When it came time to share about our collages the others couldn’t understand why I would want such a depressing picture to describe me. Why should I want to work so hard? It was especially difficult when the leader joined them rather than insisting on allowing me a safe place to share.

    To them it represented hard work and struggle. To me it represented strength.
    It represented my pioneer great grandparents: the same ones who missed the wagon train in Nebraska and wintered over in a cave. Instead of going to California as they planned the next year, they took out a claim to homestead. When the Locust plague of the 1870’s hit and wiped out everything they had worked on for three years to stubble they stayed on and started over though many others were discouraged and left.

    There were many stories of hardship and everyday heroism that I learned about them and others who were my ancestors.

    On my father’s side, a woman generations before had arrived with her husband on the second Mayflower. I don’t say that to brag but simply to recognize that they had endured an arduous journey to get to America to have a new life in a land where they would have to live in the way they were unaccustomed to and would mean doing without comforts and conveniences that even the poor enjoyed in England. At first it must have been like your worst campout nightmare, and they did it anyway.

    One of my ancestors is said to have saved the children in the one room schoolhouse where she taught. She realized that the mowed fields around the school provided a safety zone where a fire that raged around them would have no fuel. Two families, who insisted on taking their children with them to what they believed was safety, perished in the fire.

    When I had our first son my navy husband was on a four-month deployment in the Pacific. I was on my own with a colicky baby and all that goes with it. I took strength from remembering the strength and courage of the women I descended from. Their blood runs in my veins. Certainly I could get through.

    It got me through the U-2 crisis that happened when he was at sea in the area where he might be in danger.

    It got me through the “Cuban Crisis” when the submarine he was on was ordered to leave port as soon as the shipyard finished some dockside repairs. The fact that he was in port when the crisis started did not mean he was going to be there to protect his family.

    It got me through deployments after the Thresher (not my husband’s submarine, thank God!) went down in the Azores for a submerged transit to Norfolk. No one, even their command headquarters knew they would not show up until a few hours before their scheduled arrival with dependents already waiting on the pier. So much for the innocent belief that certainly their command knew where they were.

    It got me through just the day-to-day life I showed up for as the family grew to seven children, with sieges of mumps, measles and a decade fighting a staph infection.

    It got me through moving the household nine times (five across the country) and somehow my husband was usually not able to be on hand to help.

    It got me through winters of snow shoveling while the ship he was on was cruising in the Caribbean!

    There was so much that it got me through and when I took that workshop it was getting me through a divorce and the uncertainty of how I could make it as a single mom with seven children and no job experience.

    And it is still getting me through. It’s getting me through my aging years when my teeth, ears, and other body parts don’t work as well as they used to. Needing to take naps and ask for help lifting things I could manage quite well myself before. And even that takes strength when those around you accustomed to my being independent.

    I’m not sure what the future will bring, but if those strong women before me did it I know I can too.

    • says

      What a wonderful testimony to you and to them. I’d so glad you’re carrying their strength and sharing it with all of us. That strength you speak of emanates from you. This was a beautiful piece, Beverly. So glad you shared it with us.

      • beverly Boyd says

        Laura, thanks for the compliment. I do believe that “strength emanates from me”. Thank you for validating it.

        This prompt was “A strong Woman” I have to say that my family has been blessed with strong, kind and loving men who have encouraged strength, courage, self-confidence and resilience in their daughters and wives as well as their sons
        They also belong in this testimony!

    • Hazel says

      Great story, very well told. I especially liked your statement: “Needing to take naps and ask for help lifting things I could manage quite well myself before. And even that takes strength when those around you accustomed to my being independent.” I find “asking for help” the hardest part of this deterioration of the body due to aging. I hate it! But my husband (11 years younger than I) keeps saying, “I’m here for you, for whatever you need.” It makes him feel good, I think, but I still don’t like to ask.

      • beverly Boyd says

        Hazel,how lucky you are to have such a supportive husband! My second husband was twenty years older and I can echo your husband. I was always glad I could be “there” for him. He, in turn, often thanked my for the gift of repose I had given him…not to have to be out chasing a dollar to get by and not have to try to show up in a combative relationship. It made me happy to be able to do that.

    • Ilana says

      Astounding, Beverly- What a story of courage and strength. Correction, what STORIES of courage and strength. This piece is a rich collage. I am so happy you have that to draw on and grateful that you shared it with us. As far as the women in the group… kudos to you for recognizing the value of your piece despite their shallowness and inability to see what you were trying to communicate. IM

  10. Ilana says

    But I am Ilana M and I’ll Be Ilana M Until the Day I Die

    When I read this prompt I knew what journey I wanted to write about. It’s all part of the same journey actually, but I was blissfully unaware of this latest bend in the road. I have been on this journey since August of 2011. That was when I finally faced the demons of my past. I began by recognizing that what happened to me was incest. It was also physical and psychological abuse and the biggest shock, it was not my fault. Slowly it became clear exactly how devastating the effects on me truly were. I had been so certain that my multitude of “character flaws” were inescapable consequences of being horrible little Ilana M. But they weren’t. Each phobia, each inadequacy, was a direct result of what other people did to me. The moment I realized that I made a decision. I was going to face down all of my fears, one by one, until they couldn’t keep me trapped anymore.

    For most of them, it was easy to figure out how. Not easy to do, mind you, just easy to figure out how to do it. For instance, fear of cooking; commit to a recipe and see it through. Fear of traveling; go on a trip. Fear of anger… screeching halt. I was not about to go out and piss someone off so that I could learn how to face that fear. So, I let that one sit. I knew it would come to me eventually. And so it did. I haven’t been in an enormous number of car accidents but enough that I know the sinking feeling that comes with the sound of crunching metal.

    Two years and two months ago a truck came out of my blind spot and totaled my minivan. I immediately apologized a blue streak and told everyone that I must not have checked my blind spot before changing lanes. It’s entirely possible, even likely, that’s what happened but reality had little to do with my confessions and apologies. That is not what happened this time.

    Tuesday afternoon, at 2:40pm I made a left turn onto a busy street. I’ve made this turn hundreds of times and I always pull into the median and then check to see that no one is coming from my right. I thought I didn’t see anyone and I started to move into the lane. A car came out of nowhere and we collided. Just a bump. My five year old son, MJ, and I barely felt it but the cars were both damaged. The metal crunched and the sinking feeling hit my stomach. I knew that most likely the accident was my fault I just hadn’t seen her coming. Either way, because I was making the left turn I knew I would be found at fault. The woman stopped about 25 meters in front of me. Watching her walk toward me I made a decision not to apologize. I would be polite and act like I was sorry but to actually say “I’m sorry” was not on my agenda. “I’m sorry” had always been my favorite defense mechanism; an almost involuntary response. I once apologized to someone for his attack on me. “I’m not that person anymore.” I told myself. I also decided not to crumble or panic. Whatever else happened I would not let her anger scare me. If I managed that then this whole experience was going to be a very positive step in my healing. Here was an opportunity to face down that last fear and I was going to make the most of it.

    The woman, Barbara S, did not disappoint me. To the contrary, as soon as she reached me the screaming started. “Didn’t you see me?!” She shrieked. “No. I didn’t.” I said calmly. [What the hell? If I’d seen her I wouldn’t have gone!] The screaming did not stop there. “Did you call the police?!” still at the top of her lungs. “Not yet.” I was fumbling with my phone. Something new and powerful in me wanted to tell her there was no need to scream and yell. “No one was hurt. It’s not the end of the world.” My voice was still quiet and calm. “I was hurt, God dam it!” (No one was hurt. In the entire two hours I spent there, not one ambulance as called for any of the four drivers or our passengers.) As she inhaled to scream at me some more there was a screech and then a loud crash. “Oh my God!” She turned her screaming face in the direction of the noise. Another car had slammed into hers. Another screech and crash followed as a second car crashed into that one. She ran off, presumably to scream at the other drivers. I called my husband and the police.

    The next person to approach me was a man I will always think of as “Officer Asshole.” He asked me what happened and I included that the woman was screaming at me when the other two cars hit hers. “Don’t tell me about the screaming.” He demanded in an irritated tone. “Just tell me about the accident!” He was rude and angry as I handed over my license, registration and proof of insurance.

    I called my daughters’ school and made arrangements for them to stay for afterschool programming. Then I called my husband again to fill him in on my timing. Not far away, he decided to come over and help me. MJ and I sat there for a long time. The second accident was much more serious than the one I had been involved in and the police left me alone for a while. Finally Officer Brown approached me. Just before I got out of the car to talk to him my son, who had climbed into the front seat accidentally hit the horn. He was convinced that the policeman was going to yell at him for honking. I hadn’t expected him to be any different from Officer Asshole but my children come first and MJ was scared. “Sir? My son just honked the horn by accident and he is afraid you he’ll get in trouble. Would you mind reassuring him?” The man smiled. “No problem, buddy. You didn’t do anything wrong.” Seeing my son was no longer frightened I thanked him. Then he addressed me. “How are you doing? Other than all of this, I mean.” I can’t remember how I answered him but he was so kind, taking the ‘accidents happen’ attitude. Officer Brown answered all of my questions about how they were proceeding, continuing not to judge or punish me. Then he handed me my ticket and explained the mandatory court appearance. “I gave you the lowest point value violation I could.” I nodded my appreciation.

    “Now, you need to fill out this card with your information and give it to the other driver.” He handed me a note card that had spaces on it for all of my information. “Um. Okay but like I said, the woman was screaming at me. I just don’t want to interact with her. Could I give the card to you?” He said that was absolutely fine. Just then my husband joined us and introduced himself to Officer Brown. My hands were shaking so I had him fill out the card. As the three of us stood talking, Barbra S approached us. I did not look away from the police officer’s face but out of the corner of my eye, I could see her feet moving impatiently. Finally she stepped closer to the policeman and hollered over his shoulder at me. “An apology would have been nice!” Then she stormed off in a huff. Maybe she gave him the card before she left. I don’t remember. I looked at Officer Brown, “I cannot apologize to someone who is screaming at me.” I said, simply. He nodded and the next words out of his mouth will stay with me for a long time. He said, “There are horrible people in this world. Don’t let her spoil your day.”
    That is the end of my story. At the very beginning, even as the familiar sinking feeling hit my stomach, I knew that this time would be different. This would be a learning experience and I would leave it having achieved my goal of facing down my fear of anger. It wasn’t going to be easy or painless but it would be done.

    This accident happened for a reason. I am profoundly grateful that Barbra S came into my life. For a little while I wished that she had found some other reason to yell at me the way she did. It would have been nice if I didn’t have the repercussions of a car accident for which I was at fault. However, the more I think about it the more I realize that it had to happen this way. I was at fault. Any person in the world would have a right to be angry with me. That was part of the challenge. I did not let that excuse her behavior or convince myself that I deserved her treatment of me; a trap the old me would have been eager to fall into. I don’t think there was any other way I could have truly challenged myself and learned what I did from the experience.

    So what did I learn? When I was 14 years old, in a moment of intense self-loathing, I wrote the following phrase in my journal. “But I am Ilana M and I’ll be Ilana M until the day I die.” This was in response to the thought that if I could just be anyone else in the world I could be a better person. What I learned is that I do not believe that anymore. I am Ilana M and I will be Ilana M until the day I die. Ilana M is a caring, compassionate, loving and wise individual who makes mistakes once in a while. No one, including Ilana M, deserves to be mistreated, no matter what they do. Thank you Barbara S for helping me see the truth.

    • says

      I’m sorry about the accident, Ilana, but I’m so glad we got this story out of it. Often when something bad happens in my life, I console myself by saying, “At least it will make a good story.” And in this case, you got a lot more than a good story out of it. You got a lifelong insight and a profound piece of healing. Congratulations.

      • Ilana says

        Thank you, Laura. You are right and it will be even easier to reap the benefits of this experience once the negative repercussions have passed. I look forward to that day. IM

    • beverly Boyd says

      I applaud you for being able to recognize the opportunity to try a different way and act on it. That takes a lot of being present. And yes, you are caring and compassionate as well as wise, and you are becoming wiser all the time!

      • Ilana says

        Thank you Beverly. It took a lot of courage to describe myself that way and was even harder to take in your saying it but I’m working on it. I will get there! Thanks to the good people in my life and the less than kind people, I will get there. IM

    • Eve says

      Your story was incredible. I thought it would be a difficult task to not apologize for the accident, but she made it so easy. It also makes me think, could I be a Barbara? Could she think that she was so strong that she needed to teach you a lesson by screaming in your face? I know that I am not that kind of person now, but maybe back in the day I could have been her. I have to carefully think before I open my mouth as to not let the old Barbara in me rise her ugly head in some sneaky way. When it happens I usually realize it immediately and the apologies come easily, but I pray each time that the Barbara in me will leave forever. That I will listen more and react less. Thanks for your piece, Ilana. I have missed you.

      • Ilana says

        Eve- We are who we want to be. As long as you give yourself time, patience and above all, forgiveness for the past (need to take my own advice here) you don’t have to be Barbara S if you don’t want to. Take care of yourself, Eve. IM

      • Eve says

        “Get the Fudge Out of Me, Barbara!”

        Now she has a name.
        That part of me that speaks without thinking.
        That part of me that is not proactive, then reacts in a negative way.
        That part of myself that needs a good bitch slap.
        That part of me that causes the rest of me to feel sorry, and needs to apologize for myself.
        That part of me that likes my foul mouth.
        That part of me that enjoys binge eating, and then makes me feel really FAT!!!
        That part of me that looks in the mirror with only regret.
        That unforgiving part of me that wants to blame others for my own actions.
        That part of me that judges others, yet cannot see myself.
        That part of me that won’t let go.
        That part of me that is hard as a stone.
        That whiny little voice in me that feels sorry for herself.
        That bratty part of me that lashes out.
        I long to let go of the Barbara in me for once & for all, but she’s part of me and she needs forgiveness as well.
        She is wounded.
        She has just been trying to survive this unforgiving world.
        She’s just been trying to figure it all out.
        I thank you, Barbara in me, for showing me more of myself.
        I let go of you with love, but you cannot live.
        There’s no room for you as my heart begins to bloom.
        I am learning to accept His Great Love & Grace for us all & there’s no room left for you, Barbara, at all…

        • Ilana says

          Eve- I love that this awful woman now has a legacy and doesn’t even know it. SO glad I used her real name! I’d almost like to tell her and write a thank you note. IM

    • Polly says

      I love the strength, poise, and self-awareness in this piece. You are a very strong woman, Ilana. Thanks for sharing.

    • Diana says

      Hi Ilana,
      Glad you learned something valuable from that. I think the Barbara S’s of the world look for excuses to have what they think are socially acceptable excuses to yell at people.

    • Terry Gibson says

      First off, Ilana, I’m glad you and your son weren’t hurt. These words jumped out at me, ” I had been so certain that my multitude of “character flaws” were inescapable consequences of being horrible little Ilana M. But they weren’t. Each phobia, each inadequacy, was a direct result of what other people did to me. The moment I realized that I made a decision. I was going to face down all of my fears, one by one, until they couldn’t keep me trapped anymore.” I still wait for people to point out my many flaws so I can correct them, and have even been known to ask while in a very unhealthy place emotionally. You can imagine where a mental state like that can lead a young girl or woman in the wrong company. I am happy you accomplished what you did in dealing with Barbara S. and that you got a kind officer to deal with later. Like you, I still tackle my fears, even while three shades whiter (if possible) than ‘white-knuckling it.’ Take care, Ilana.

  11. Polly says

    “I found god in myself and I loved her. I loved her fiercely.” – Ntozake Shange

    I am currently striving to reach that point. I believe that I do possess the strength to accomplish some important things in my lifetime. I seem to operate in this cyclical way where at various points in my life, I astound myself with courage and with a drive I didn’t know I had. At other times (like now), I wonder what happened to that girl, that young woman with the fire in her belly who had absolute confidence that she could achieve whatever she set her mind to … She’s there. Somewhere.

    So the questions at hand as I understand them are: do I know that I have the strength for the journey, and more importantly, do I recognize that it is in this journey that I will find my strength. The answer: I hope so.

    Almost 8 months ago, I had a shocking realization. I discovered that I had been violated and robbed of my sacred right to control my own body, as a child, that there are indications that this went on for perhaps a decade (although I might never know the exact timeline – I don’t remember an end), and that as a result my sense of self was scarred, when I was not much more than a baby. Rough. I tend to downplay the horror of it when I talk about it even now, but I know, and I feel the things I won’t necessarily articulate to most. My therapist will sometimes catch me off guard by vocalizing and validating just how traumatic it all is, and in those moments it hits me, and I allow myself to feel it more deeply. In short, maybe the fact that I am still here indicates that I am strong. Arguably one definition of strength is a resilience of spirit. A resilience of self. If I am correct in that assertion then I believe that I am a strong woman.

    Yet I falter. A few days ago, my first thought upon waking was “maybe today I will get hit by a truck on the way to work. Maybe this is the day.” I was dumbfounded. The thought seemed to have come out of nowhere, and what could I possibly do with that information? I want to live. When I stop and think about it, of course I want to live. But occasionally I am at a loss and I don’t know how to go on. It’s hard to determine what the next step is. I am deathly afraid of failure. I’m scared that somehow I’m not good enough. All my life I have had this nagging sensation that I’m not good enough. I don’t deserve success. Regardless of the good that I do, or how hard I work, I don’t deserve praise. And I am so damned scared to show vulnerability, even when I am clearly safe to do so. At times there is an insurmountable level of shame.

    What I invariably return to, time and again, is that there is a spark within me that simply refuses to die. There is and always will be a burning desire to reach new heights, and to contribute my value to the world. Self-fulfillment is ahead. I have a lot to be grateful for. I am a walking contradiction even in the time I’ve spent typing this piece, but I’m worth the beauty that awaits. I will heal.


    I’m interested in exploring the ways in which gender and perceptions or expectations of strength intersect. As a proud feminist, I got really excited when I saw this prompt last week. I adore the strong women throughout “herstory” who have paved the way, and the ones who continue to work to make things better. I wanted to incorporate all of that in this piece but couldn’t find a way to do so while allowing the rest of this to flow. This was a great prompt, Laura. Thanks.

    • Ilana says

      Polly- Thank you for this piece. So much of it resonated with me that I got that amazing “I’m not alone” feeling while I was reading it. I especially connected with the last two paragraphs. I often feel like a walking contradiction, or carry an intense level of shame. I am worthy by I am not. And that “maybe today I’ll get hit by a truck” thought has come into my mind. I guess these things are all normal in their own way and we will survive all of them. We just need to recognize our own value and take care of ourselves. Polly, I raise my pen to you. “L’chiam!”, to life, yours, mine and all of the strong women who touch our lives. IM

    • Hazel says

      Thank you for sharing this piece! Because of dyslexia, and no one knowing what it was, I never thought I could do things well enough and often received criticism of the things I did. The nagging, “Not good enough” phrase always raises its ugly head in everything I do but I am finding a new voice now that I am over 75 and it sounds good, maybe even “good enough”.

      Thank you again for validation.

    • says

      Polly, thanks for this intimate piece. It rang so true. I think you will find a new kind of strength through your healing process. So much of the “strength” I had before I healed was bravado and a false front. The strength I have now is more integrated and includes more vulnerability. It’s a yielding, compassionate strength, not a hard, invulnerable one.

      • Polly says

        Laura, I truly appreciate your words. It’s comforting to know that I can get there, that there is a place of healing that is attainable. I feel vulnerable but I spend a lot of energy trying to shield it. I look forward to that integrated strength you describe. Thank you.

    • mariah says

      Polly, thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for sharing this piece! I loved reading what you had to say and could definitely relate to recently discovering truths about past abuse at an extremely young age. I too have been exercising my mind a lot recently about perceptions of gender and strength. Although vulnerability is such a scary thing to approach, I think you did a fantastic job of portraying it in this piece along with amazing strength, especially about that spark that just won’t go out. thank you.

      • Polly says

        Mariah, wow, thank you so much. It’s an amazing feeling when something I write really reaches someone. It’s great to hear from you. Take care.

    • Terry Gibson says

      Polly, I saw myself throughout this as well. I was in my therapist’s office the other day and we were talking about where I’d move if my relationship split up. I heard myself say, “I’m not sure I want to live anywhere.” I was shocked as I know they were. I wasn’t consciously thinking of hurting myself or taking my life! It scared me. Later, I was happy, content, and feeling sure of myself. Feelings of unworthiness. They never ever stop for me. But by fighting on, it improves, often before I realize it. I use a checks and balances approach, knowing what to watch for when I’m not doing well (lack of sleep, personal stress, or have a flu) and relaxing some when I am. Strong women always inspire me and I believe they are never more strong than when vulnerable. I truly believe that. Thanks Polly. I appreciate your posts.

      • Polly says

        Terry, thank you. It’s good to hear how you cope with those feelings, although I’m sorry that you have to. “Never more strong than when vulnerable.” I love that. Thank you.

  12. Diana says

    I smell of Maple syrup and sweat. A layer of grease coats my hair. I lift the collar of my work smock to my nose. Cigarette smoke has infused into the rough polyester fibers. I survey me reflection in the dim bathroom lighting. It’s 2:40 in the afternoon and I am exhausted. My hair pulled back in a tight ponytail bears an unnatural sheen. The open grill cooking bacon, hamburgers and ham, the constant use of the deep fat fryer and LoMelt poured onto hot waffle irons lifts and spits oil into the air all shift. The ponytail accentuates the fullness of my face; a witness to my youth.

    The company issue smock hangs in an unflattering square from my shoulders to the top of my thighs. A thin belt loops and is tied to try to give a waistline. Autumnal shaded vertical zigzag strips of brown, orange and yellow run down its length. In combination with fluorescent lighting, they make a dizzying Escher-esque optical illusion. Two deep pockets function to hold pens, order pads and hastily swiped tips. My underarms have grown tender rubbing against the thick rough seams.

    I turn on the hot water. As steam begins to fill the bathroom, I release my ponytail and my long hairs falls forward and down around my shoulders. I peel out of the smock and get a whiff of b.o. I kick off my “sensible” rubber soled shoes while simultaneously unbuckling and casting of my cotton/polyester blend black slacks. My sweaty underwear tops the pile.

    I slip into the shower and let the warm water wash over my head rinsing away oil, sweat and syrup but leaving disappointment, confusion and desperation behind.

    My dorm mate and I had decided to stay the summer. Neither of us had much to go home to. She had a chaotic, alcoholic father. I had a disinterested post -divorce Dad and a critical grandmother awaiting my return.

    I was 18. For Dad, I was legally an adult. As such, I was released from his responsibility and no longer on his dime. I could do what I wanted. My grandmother’s vision for me was clear; get a college degree I would never have to use because I would marry well. I would live nearby, have kids, and be active in our church and in women’s groups. I would be well known and well respected in the community. I would be a paragon of Southern womanhood. Any move I made away from that goal met with negative comments made with a stern hard etched brow and fixed jaw. Her plans were as rigid as her hard line Evangelical spine.

    Tory and I had decided to get local jobs, rent an apartment and stay the summer. The two major employers in town, the university and the nuclear power plant, didn’t hire summer help. I had applied to every low skill entry level job available. But, with the recession, the local residents filled those jobs for the same wage and for longer term. Tory and I were coming up empty and getting desperate. We had to be out of the dorms by the end of finals week.

    With move out date bearing down on me, I swallowed my pride and filled out an application at Waffle House.

    George, the manager and front line breakfast cook is weathered and gruff. Stringy dirty blonde hair hangs beneath a paper cook’s cap. He sizes me up with intense Coke bottle green eyes. With a cigarette nub clenched between his teeth, he says in a Mafia boss voice, “You’re hostess material. You’ll great customers and seat tables. You’ll get $3.35 an hour. When it’s slow, you’ll pick up tables. Then you get $2.01 an hour plus tips.” “Betty!” he bellows over my head into the kitchen. A short, round woman with a long pony tail down her back emerges from the commissary. She has the same hair and eyes as George. They could be brother and sister. “This is Betty. My wife. She handles the girls” Betty gives me a warm smile and shakes my hand with a soft warm grasp. I will soon learn that “handles the girls” means she handles the situation when George’s temper flares and he makes a waitress cry.

    I walk out of the Waffle House relieved to have a job yet humiliated at having to stoop so low to get it. Under the parentage of George and Betty I joined the dejected and colorful Waffle House crew. There is Lou Ann, the bar fly from Bakersfield; Linda, the middle-aged Loretta Lynn look alike mired in an abusive relationship; Joseph, the high school senior, forced to work since his contractor Dad has been black balled for his out spoken anti-nuclear power plant views; and Sherry, the single mother of three boys. All our stories are different yet the same. We all have desperate circumstances and uncertain futures.

    I stayed at the Waffle House all summer. I found out that George was a marshmallow under that Mafia boss persona. Betty was the tougher one. I grew to respect and care for my co-workers. I even had fun serving the myriad of Ozark Mountain tourist that came through that season. Fall came quickly and I didn’t return to school. The corporate office transferred George and Betty. After they left the place no longer felt safe and warm. It lost its family aura. I moved on too. I didn’t go back home.

    • Laura Davis says

      Diana, a lovely, evocative vivid piece. You really captured the place and the people. One of my favorite prompts is, “Tell me about your first job.” This reminds me a lot of the responses I get.

      Im just curious. Was this part of a larger piece? Don’t like it.

      • Diana says

        Hi Laura,
        No it isn’t part of a larger piece. Until I started writing in response to this prompt I had forgotten about George and Betty and the Waffle House.
        I hadn’t considered expanding it but that is a thought. I would have to go back to it and just see what happens. I’m curious. As a reader what parts of the piece would you like to hear more about?

        • says

          It just read to me like an excerpt from a coming of age novel or memoir. That isn’t to say it can’t stand alone; it can. I just felt that the characters and setting felt more established and developed than I’d expect in just a short sketch or piece. I wanted to know more about that girl in your story and the people you wrote about.

          • Diana says

            I found I am recalling more of the Waffle House since I posted this piece. Like the day Miss America sat at one of my tables or the day Linda came in late, haggard and bracing her left side after her man locked her out of their trailer. Perhaps this prompt has spurred something larger.

    • Terry Gibson says

      Diana, I love this story too. It reminds me of the small-town feel in many family-run greasy spoons and restaurants I worked in. Much of the work was deplorable but I loved greeting and taking care of customers. Quite a mishmash of life’s richness and characters showed up three times a day; they were unforgettable. I get a sense of a coming-of-age story too. I can see more and would want more on the people, what came next, and after that. An avid audience here. Good luck if you expand. Thanks!

  13. Bobbie Anne says

    It seems like all of the women who have responded to the strong woman topic are strong woman themselves! All of you deserve a big hand for the courage it takes to have faith and conviction of one’s beliefs. I applaud all of you strong ladies. You inspire one to continue on life’s journey. Thank you.

    I have been taking an 8 week 1 hour class titled ‘Strength For Life’ offered to cancer survivors. I didn’t think I’d like to exercise in a group or that I’d fit in. Well, ladies, I have just completed the fourth exercise class. In addition, I take1 aquasize class once a week, yoga, and stretching exercises every day and physical therapy exercise. I was in an accident, but I’m on the mend. I’m doing this for me. Guess what? I lost some wieght all over, and I feel better.

    • Terry Gibson says

      I’m very happy that your class is rewarding you with what you want. By the way, sorry about your accident. It’s so nice to have you here right now, Bobbie Anne. My short-term memory is a mess some days but I remember from previous posts how strong you are. I really hope you can remember that and applaud yourself. Thanks very much and take care.

  14. Deb Mansell says

    I didn’t know the strength I had until I started to work with my therapist, Liz.
    Liz showed me slowly and gently what I had done to survive and how much strength that had taken.
    Liz helped me to see the strength I had inside of me, that I was able to face the pain and share my story and not fall apart.
    And I didn’t fall apart I am still here, still being strong and using that strength to tell my story.

    • says

      Hi Deb, Welcome to the Roadmap blog. I’m glad to meet you and happy to read the strength and honesty in your very first post. I just want you to know what people in this community rarely go back and read pieces from prior weeks–so your writing may not get much (or any) traffic. But give a try to writing about the current week’s post–and it will be very different! I hope you keep coming back.

  15. Andrea says

    My grandmother’s true love and second husband, survived the war and then was killed in a plane crash with my grandma’s cousin and a family friend. The pictures of the two family caskets covered with American flags and surrounded by massive flowers, is burnt in my mind from childhood. Her 16 year old son from her first marriage, was later washed away by a rogue, Oregon wave during a school field trip with another child.

    My grandmother was raised by her Aunt after her lovely, musically gifted mother died unexpectedly at 38. Her aunt played baseball in high heels and pants in a time where women simply did not do either — wear pants or play baseball. She also divorced her drunken husband during the depression and ran for the county clerk’s office in order to support herself. She won against the male incumbent.

    My mother’s childhood sweetheart and husband committed suicide when my brother was only two.

    As I struggled through my divorce recently, I often felt that my world was coming to an end, but as I look back through the women that preceded me, I understand that my struggle is surmountable. To survive the death of a child, the violent death of your spouse and to do what needs to be done to take care of your family fiscally in uncertain times, is strength. These women gave me a very gifted, very blessed life — in both the genes they passed down to me and the wisdom of recognizing our resilience.

    While this strength allowed them to survive, it is their resilience that allowed them to heal. They were all able to love again, to risk again, to open up again. They were able to embrace their art, sing to their children, help their communities and be touched by the world. Survival does take strength, but the strength to allow yourself to be soft is what makes life worth living.

    • says

      Andrea, thanks for this beautiful tribute to these wonderfully strong, resilient women. I’m so glad you have their strength and example to draw upon!

    • Debbie says

      Their heartaches make mine seem so small. I love this line – ” While this strength allowed them to survive, it is their resilience that allowed them to heal”. I have been thinking about it all day!

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