Strength and Vulnerability

My mom’s last words to me were: “You are strong.” Who knows what she meant as I was sixteen and not savvy enough to ask her what she meant by it. Maybe it was her way of telling me to “Be strong.” Or maybe it was to reinforce that she felt I was strong in my bones. I will never know, and maybe it does not even matter. It was the first line of my college entrance essay. I wish I still had a copy of it. I would be curious to know how I had processed the next two years of my life before writing about her to get into college. I think I wanted them to know that I was not just another number, that I had lived a life that many have not before they enter college. I wanted to somehow stand out. I needed to stand out as I had no Plan B. I applied to one college and luckily I got in.

I am rambling though. I recently came across this quote from Brenda Shaughnessy. She is an American poet and trust me, I do not follow her at all because somehow my brain and poetry just do not mix. I have never melded well with poetry or understood it. Sure there are poems that sink into my core and change the way that I look at the world, but most of the time I feel perplexed and wonder how they did it. In any case, I am definitely not into poetry because it took me this long to introduce this quote to you:

“I came to see that what constitutes strength is not just a muscle or will. It can also include the most desperate vulnerability, the saddest heartache, the lightest, sweetest laughter.”

I do not remember how, but this quote came into my inbox last week, and stuck with me. I had to share it. So often we think others are strong because they have been through so much (I get that from time to time based on my past). Sometimes we might think someone is strong because they consistently stick to a routine or a workout schedule. Maybe they get up at 4 am to ensure that they have the opportunity to push themselves and their bodies before the rest of their family wakes up and starts the day.

I have written quite a few posts on vulnerability. It is a word that energizes me. There is something about being vulnerable that gives an aura of strength. It says that person is not afraid to put oneself out there and be granted with whatever reaction is returned. Whether they share the scary parts of their life, their saddest and lowest parts, or as Shaughnessy says: the parts that bring laughter. I will give you an example.

A few weeks ago I was traveling with a colleague and my boss. We were walking through the airport to our gate and talking. I was following both of them (both are men) and as they each walked into the bathroom I started to follow them in, only to realize I was walking into the men’s restroom. Ooops. Luckily I caught myself in time, reversed course and moved on to the women’s bathroom. They both had a good laugh and via text it got back to my other co-workers. I could have either be completely embarrassed and devastated, or just rolled with it. I rolled with it and had a good laugh with them.

Sometimes being vulnerable brings us to our strength, whether through tears or laughter.

A Phenomenal Woman

I am sure a lot of people are writing and sharing about Maya Angelou today, yesterday, and in the coming weeks. She deserves the fanfare. A stellar woman, with so much poise, brilliance, and badassness. The Internet is buzzing with her quotes, thoughts about her life, and how she inspired millions upon millions of people in the course of her life. I love, love, love her last tweet:

Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God.  11:43 AM – 23 May 2014

I wonder what was going through her thoughts, if she was coherent, if she was so closely talking to God. Regardless, she shared such wisdom with the world, and we are all the better for it.

One of my all time favorite Maya Angelou poems is: “Phenomenal Woman.” In case you have not read it, it still brings tears to my eyes. I think I first read it in college. It was one of those poems that I instantly memorized and often has come back to my thoughts. I often wonder if it was the first time that I actually thought about the idea of a woman being “phenomenal.” Sad, but true. Here is the first verse, but I encourage you to click the above link and read the entire poem.

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say, It’s in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
I only hope that we can continue to raise our girls to know they are phenomenal — whatever their age, background, or disposition. Here is also a past blog post with another favorite Maya Angelou quote.

“i carry your heart with me”

Over the weekend I got sucked into the movie “In Her Shoes” with Toni Collette, Cameron Diaz, and Shirley MacLaine. It has been years since I have seen it, but for some reason I was enraptured as though it was the first time I watched it. The sister story line, the death of their mom, and then the interwoven story with a long-lost grandmother, and a clueless dad, kept me engaged even though I had a list of things I wanted to do. I had forgotten the ending too. Cameron Diaz reads an e.e. cummings poem: “i carry your heart with me” to her sister during her wedding. It brought tears to my eyes.

i carry your heart with me (i carry it in
my heart) i am never without it (anywhere
i go you go, my dear; and whatever is done
by only me is your doing, my darling)

i fear no fate (for you are my fate, my sweet) i want
no world (for beautiful you are my world, my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)

It makes me think of Chris. For those of you who know me, or have been reading this blog for a while, you know that I am addicted to my husband. This precious poem makes me think of him with immense love and gratitude. It also makes me think of my sister and my 2 month old niece. I am sure my sister will think of little Charlie if she reads this blog. It also makes me think of my mom, my dad, and my grandma, so it serves those we have lost. Such a timeless, versatile, and expansive poem. Of course, it also makes me want to write in all lower case.

In case you want to remind yourself, here is the excerpt of Cameron Diaz reading this poem to her sister:


“I have been taught to filter.”

My father always said that children were to be seen and not heard. I think of it often when I have a hard time finding my words. I think of it when I am angry and pissed and I struggle to keep my emotions in check, because when I am mad it is harder to use my words. I was not taught to use them. Since I knew to keep my mouth shut, I learned how to filter. If I ever made a bad choice, and got into trouble, then the potential punishment was in the form of his wooden fraternity paddle. That thing scared me. As did my dad’s disappointment.

I began to read voraciously when I was very young, and I started writing and illustrating my own stories too. Sometimes I wrote to get out of my world. Now I write to make sense of my world, to put the puzzle pieces together and try to understand it all. The thoughts and opinions I have of myself and how I perceive each situation. Did I handle it well? Did I react confidently and with poise? Or, did I go overboard and lose my cool? I remember a few classmates in college that impressed me with their writing ability. I can remember someone in particular that was able to put pen to paper about womanhood in the rawest of forms, and I never felt I could write like that.

So when I saw “Shrinking Women” it reminded me of my days studying Sociology, Women’s Studies, and Women’s Writing in college. While I was intensely into my studies, and at times felt like a hard-core feminist, I could never write poetry. I actually even had a hard time following poetry in general. Unless it was short and sweet, I was usually not interested. Lily Meyers, who wrote, “Shrinking Women” kept me listening. Maybe it is because I relate to her story. She won Best Love Poem at the 2013 College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational last April, and is a 2015 future graduate of Wesleyan University (Middletown, CT).

Here are a few lines that stood out to me:

“My brother never thinks before he speaks. I have been taught to filter…You have been taught to grow out. I have been taught to grow in…I learned to absorb…That’s why women in my family have been shrinking for decades…How much space she deserves to occupy…I asked five questions in genetics class today and all of them started with the word: sorry.”

Lily will make you think about how women view their body and their space, and how your actions might make your sister, friend, daughter, or niece view their body and space. It gets good at around 1:25 minutes. Maybe her passion, youth, and talent will make other women get rid of their filters. Enjoy.