Day 17

So…I have had what feels like a permanent creative BLOCK to writing pieces for this blog.  Yesterday I figured out why.  Writing for me is a space where I explore and frequently revel in the joyful state I’m now calling the “nothingness”–that state in which I feel completely connected to the present moment.  I’m not thinking about where I’ve been, where I’m going, but where I am, right now. Writing gives me the opportunity to mentally and emotionally move moments from a state of judgment and filtered context to a state where they are unfiltered and generally seen for what they are…inevitably these moments and experiences, when unfiltered and unjudged all sieve down to what I believe is the only thing that is real…and that is love.

So, I’m going to have to stray from the initial premise of this blog.  Instead of spending time in the space of my neurotic thoughts, I’m going to delight in and share those moments that take me OUT of my neurotic thoughts and into the real, genuine and deeply-hearted experiences of my work.

This means I’ll also be moving some pieces over from my old blog to this one…scattering some of the old in between the new.

Which leads me to right now.

May I introduce you to to Leigh.

I’ve been traveling so much lately. I always come home with a strong dose of gratitude. Gratitude for the amazing women and men connected to our GOTR movement.  Time on planes, in cars and alone in my hotel room, gives me plenty of time to think, imagine and dream. I realize that we really are not creating a movement, but are part of one that is already happening. This new definition of beauty is showing up everywhere and I’m finding that the women and men involved in our program are as impacted and as moved by this message as are the girls we serve.  This is where Leigh’s story comes in.  Leigh Wallace is with one of our Girls on the Run councils. I had the privilege of meeting her several months ago at one of our Girls on the Run trainings in Charlotte, NC.

Over the course of two days, women from across the nation descend on Charlotte, NC for a very intense Girls on the Run training. Participants take back tangible tools and systems to efficiently deliver the Girls on the Run program…but what remains with me are their stories. Frequently wrapped into and around a woman’s story are her struggles in battling our culture’s obsession (and our buy-into that context/filter) with bodies, sexuality and power.

I’ve got to be honest with you, when I met Leigh I was intimidated by her. Her physical strength is obvious. She is one of the strongest-looking females I’ve ever met. Her energy, though, was a bit reserved…probably intimidated by my extroversion and wide open persona…a kind of mutual intimidation society, if you will…me of her physical presence and she, of my emotional one.

After a day together, Leigh e-mailed me her story.

As a little girl, Leigh was tough. In her words, “I was the athletic girl in my grade and this made me popular with the boys. I knew that they respected my athletic ability and my power and I really liked that. I didn’t feel pretty, but I guess I probably thought I was cute in a way. I didn’t see myself as a tomboy but I did relate well to boys and worked very hard to prove to them that even though I was a girl, I could still do most of what they could do”

But something happened around middle school. Like many girls, Leigh began to filter much of her self-worth through a context we’ve named the Girl Box, a filter which girls often begin using around sixth grade with heartbreaking results. At this vulnerable age, the formerly vibrant and strong Leigh began to think they must morph into a girl overly-occupied by her appearance. First it showed up as restricting her food intake and then it appeared as over-indulgence. There seemed to be no end to the madness and yet, running was the one safe space in the day where Leigh felt some degree of control. She won championship races in 9th and 10th grade and got 3rd her senior year in the Kansas State Championships.

Appalachian State came knocking at her door and so the move to Boone brought with it an opportunity to buckle down, focus on her love for running and get on track with her eating. With a renewed sense of self and a desire for comfort in her skin, Leigh appeared on the ASU campus.

But changing locations didn’t prove to be the remedy she had hoped. With her continued obsession with weight, Leigh was sidelined by stress fractures and distracted by her roller-coaster relationship with the scales. Her first year at ASU certainly didn’t shake out to be what she had hoped.

And then IT happened.

September 29th, 1989 Leigh set out on an early evening run. Planning to be back by 6:30, she and her boyfriend (now husband) would then go out for a nice dinner together.

A light rain began to fall when the car slowly approached. A very scary man sat at the wheel. “Get in,” he demanded, pointing to the passenger seat with his gun. Not knowing what to do, Leigh agreed.

What occurred over the next several hours is unthinkable. He drove Leigh to a remote area outside of Boone. With a frightening and disturbing sense of calm and coolness, he raped her while psychologically tormenting her with threats of death. At first, before the numb set in, all she could think about was how loved she was. “My mother will miss me when I die,” she thought. A strange sense of gratitude seemed to float down upon her shoulders, as the violence raged around her…an overwhelming and gentle gratitude for her body, her friends, her family and her life.

Hour after hour, the torment continued. Somewhere over the course of that time frame, Daniel Lee, shared with her that he had murdered another girl-Jeni Gray. He calmly described her slow, cruel and painful death and threatened to do the same to Leigh.

Leigh managed to escape from Daniel Lee, hours later at a gas station. At the trial, as Leigh testified, she intentionally stared her tormenter in the eyes…her proof to him and herself that she wasn’t weaker because of this experience but was much stronger. Daniel Lee received the death penalty for murdering Jeni Gray. He died in prison, several years later, from a brain aneurysm.

After the kidnapping, Leigh was stronger, indeed. She went on to become a 2-time Southern Conference All-Conference performer in cross country. In track she was named the Southern Conference Most Outstanding Performer. Upon graduation, she continued to train on her own and compete. She won several state and regional races and ran her 5K PR of 16:56. She teaches and coaches at the high school level…many of them to victory in the state championships. Now, Leigh is prepared to engage 3rd, 4th and 5th graders in the Girls on the Run program.

She is married with two children, wanting first and foremost to be remembered as a remarkable mother, not an elite runner. She is loved, respected and embraced by her family, her community and at last, herself.

I share this with you because it’s important that our culture honors women like Leigh…that we stop buying into and filtering our thoughts through antiquated ideals of beauty and recreate them to include the stories of women who are strong, brave and authentic. As I read her story that she so openly shared with me, I wept…my head in my hands and my heart in my throat, wondering…how I could possibly honor someone as brave, courageous and bold as she. And as I write to you, right now, I recognize that no words could ever do justice to the pain of her experience, nor the power she has gained from it. But what I can offer comes from Leigh herself.

“I don’t know…I guess I just love to inspire people. I love to see that light go on when someone realizes that being strong is one of the greatest feelings in the world…and to know that running makes you just as strong mentally as it does physically! To know that no matter what life’s circumstances are and no matter how hard the world may seem to be trying to hold you back, that our own personal strength and belief in ourselves is something that no one can take away without our permission. I believe this more than I believe anything and am committed to helping others believe it too.”

Leigh is, without a doubt, strength, beauty and Girls on the Run personified.   She found in her place of forced nothingness, the courage to be, share and become love.

What is your take away after reading Leigh’s story?  How does someone overcome such a traumatic experience to emerge so strong, content and peaceful? I’d love to for you to share.

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8 Responses to Day 17

  1. Demetria says:

    Kent County GOTR (Century Park Learning Center) Coach~As I started reading this day’s blog entry, my first thought was “GRATITUDE”…that was yesterday’s lesson, how fitting. Then as I read the HORROR that happened to Leigh on a run, my first thought was not to go to GRATITUDE but to SORROW. WoW…Leigh intentional chooses a different emotion from her experience and so can I! Her strength in her circumstances is what stands out to me! We all have it in us, we just need to discovery how to bring it to the surface. Thanks for sharing this powerful story of triumph.

  2. Michele Batz says:

    I am in AWE—what an inspiration she is, to take that dreadful experience and turn it into a postive one to not only make her stronger but to share her story with us, to inspire us to stand strong, think smart and not to look back, but look into the future with that power within herself.

    What a story!

  3. Rob Cannon says:

    What a story of resiliency!
    What IS the source of resiliency?
    One twin was asked, “Why are you a drunk?”, and he answered, “Because my father was a drunk.” The other twin was asked, “Why aren’t you a drunk?”, and he answered, “Because my father was a drunk.”
    This little adage suggests that resiliency resides within. Victor Frankl discovered this during his imprisonment in the concentration camp. He developed logotherapy (i.e. “meaning” therapy) around this idea. I am currently reading a great book titled “Two Souls Indivisible,” the story of Vietnam POW’s Fred Cherry and Porter Halyburton, which espouses the same idea… resiliency in the face of evil requires one to find meaning. Leigh seems to have uncovered meaning in her determination to inspire others from her terrible ordeal. Not trying to sound trite, but it’s an ultimate case of making lemonade from lemons…. taking something that’s sour, and combining it with something else to create something good.
    I suppose we are all pre-loaded with a certain amount of resiliency, but I think the good news is that if we discover “meaning” we can face most any adversity.
    Thanks for the inspiring story.

  4. Rob…awesome suggestions for a read. You remind me of something one of my yoga instructors shared once. He and three of his friends were on route during a very challenging hike, when the temperature dropped, the wind accelerated and rain began to come down in torrents. They drudged along for nearly a mile and still had two more to go.

    The three of them were silent as they walked along, but the intense weather was beginning to drain their spirits. One of his friends then said, “Well, we can either choose to be wet, cold and miserable. Or wet and cold. Which do we choose?”

    So much of our perspective on life’s experience, even the most traumatic, is left up to our choosing. Leigh, overcame this particularly atrocious experience by choosing to find her power in the overcoming.

    Thanks for your comments guys!

  5. Greg Ward says:

    Molly,
    In an opening paragraph of this story you pretty much summed it up in three words, “Leigh was tough!” Of course, nobody BUT Leigh could feel what she felt in the midst of this nightmare come true. Somehow though, she simply dismissed the physical mechanics of it all and instead reached deep down inside to forge her way though where others might have given up long beforehand. “Leigh was tough”… What an dramatic understatement!

    Leigh, if you’re reading this, from one caring human heart to another, I am glad that you survived to make your happy ending! Not only are you a force to be reckoned with, but a stellar example for all to follow!

    Molly asked, “How does someone overcome such a traumatic experience to emerge so strong, content and peaceful?”
    My answer: “Love.” I believe that in Leigh’s case, sheer love coursing through her veins gave her to power to overcome circumstances with each passing moment during her ordeal. Love is a such powerful thing, but not always for the best. In Leigh’s case, I believe love empowered her when she needed it most. In other cases, where domestic violence is involved for example, love can hold a person prisoner. I will include a few examples below:

    This morning a friend wrote: “While you scream at your woman, there’s a kind man wishing he could whisper in her ear.
    While you humiliate, offend, and insult her, there’s a man flirting with her and reminding her how beautiful she is. While you hurt her, there’s a caring man wishing he could take her pain away. While you make her cry, there’s a man stealing smiles from her. Post on your wall if you are against Domestic Violence & Mental Abuse.

    Based on my own past experiences, this post took my breath away. Of course, I’m always trying to view the bright-side, so with that in mind, above message is beautiful and shows hope. Even so, the fact still remains that each and every day we read disturbing comments both on facebook and in other news forums. Again, this post in particular caused my heart to sink because of what I have seen in my life. Sadly, some of us continue to witness dear friends who have been subjected to unwanted helpings of evil. Mostly I would hear their tales of woe after the fact, but other times I have personally witnessed the violence. For those of us on the outside looking in, we suffer right along with the victim in a flurry of heartache and helplessness. Simply put, the compassionate ones only wish to insulate the victim we wish to help, much like caring for a bird with a broken wing. The stark reality is, in the end the victim MUST find their own inner strength to get out of these situations. Of course, this, like so many other things in life is so much easier said than done. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could simply wrap our arms around the victim tightly, protecting them from any further harm? Unfortunately, like a scene from, “Night of the Living Dead”, the evil ones continue to lurk through the shadows until they can spew their poison on someone new. We all know the offenders need to be stopped, but what is the answer? I wouldn’t know. This is the point when frustration kicks in for all concerned. In certain cases where I’ve been a live witness by coincidence, I would offer a safe way out while placing myself in harms way. In many if not most cases though, victims choose to stay with their abuser. With a feeling of helplessness, I would find myself shaking my head on the way to my car as a police officer on the scene would suggest, “Hey, we can’t help someone who isn’t willing to help themselves Greg.” With that in mind, all I could think of on the drive home was the need for even more domestic assault shelters and safe houses. Perhaps at that point, qualified people might finally have a chance to supply much-needed counseling, helping victims to break away for good, providing a ray of sunshine though those dark clouds that have plagued the victim for so many years. In my mind, the ultimate goal would be to send them on their way with a healthy dose of self esteem, the proper tools, a refreshed sense of hope and love in their heart.

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