I do a lot of public speaking. I hope when I talk, I inspire, provoke and just get people thinking. I’m getting ready to do a lot more of it. As I begin to do more of this…I realize that a huge chunk of my personal history has been missing. The part between when I got sober and actually started Girls on the Run.When I started the program, I was three years sober, a not-ready-to-give-it-up elite athlete and the mother to a 12 month old.
Viewing the world through brand new sober eyes was both alarming and exciting at the same time. Nothing seemed real…at least nothing I saw, felt or believed was showing any consistent connection to what I had seen, felt or believed prior to sobriety. I swear I felt like I was hanging on for dear life to one trapeze rope and trying desperately to time it so I could grab the next as it flew at me, but the truth is, I could never seem to get the timing right. I always felt a little bit out of sync, either too rushed or too complacent. So, I hung out, held on and was always here, but wishing I was over there. The balance I had hoped would come once I got sober just seemed to get more pronounced. Either I was really balanced or I was really NOT balanced. There was no nice balanced space in the middle.
So, when the first nudge from the universe came along I was unbalanced and undefined enough to know any better than to heed the crazy call. I had never felt any sense of responsibility to serve the world prior to 1995. As a matter of fact prior to 1993, I basically didn’t care all that much about anybody but myself. I wouldn’t have told you this and no one else would have told you this, but secretly parading underneath my skin was someone pretending to care, but deep down, I really didn’t. I pretended to care so you would say that about me. “Look at that girl. She’s caring. Ohhh (wave fingers in the air) look at her. What a kind person.” I lived life as the perpetual candy striper…hoping my pseudo-acting-like-I really cared attitude might eventually prove worthy on some kind of go-to-heaven resume, or in attracting a really hot guy. Heaven or hot guy. In my 20’s this was a tough choice and as matter of fact I often thought they were the same thing.
But giving birth to my son…it’s as if the world, peered out from behind a corner I had never even seen and shouted at me “Hey you…yeah you the new mother…look over here. About time you gave me some attention. I’m struggling over here. How about you lend me a hand? It’s not like you’ve ever done anything about me before.” There was a lot I didn’t like about the world but there was also a whole lot about it I was learning to love, especially looking through the new context provided by sober eyes and a brand new baby, and while I couldn’t change all the things I didn’t like about the world, what I could do was change the one I lived in…the little tiny one that surrounded me…the one I saw on my way to the grocery store, along the greenway where I ran and of course, the one that lived inside of me.
And so I did what I could within that eight foot world around me. I read a few books, daydreamed a lot, journaled, danced to music whenever possible, sang loudly in the car, smiled at strangers, nursed my son, ate chocolate without feeling one ounce of guilt, built fires in the fireplace in the dead of summer, went to bed when I felt like it and woke up when I felt like it too, kept my eyes open and just waited. I waited because I knew, even then, that something was coming along. Maybe it was hope or faith or just some kind of clingy-pollyanna-ish, puppy-dog-eye-ish optimism that led me to believe so, but I remember feeling a powerful sense of anticipation…like at any moment I would walk into a room and whatever IT was would jump out from behind the furniture, throw lots of confetti into space and scream “Surprise, I’m here.”
In 1994 and 1995 I spent lots of time cleaning the house. Maybe cleaning house was the first easy “actionable” contribution I could make to my 8 foot world. During Hank’s first six months of life I was home every day. I would prop him up, strap him into the car seat, and carry him around or fold him up against my belly in one of those soft fabric thingies that looked like a hammock for babies and talk to him as I made my rounds. “Now Mommy is making the bed. Now Mommy is washing the dishes. Now Mommy is cleaning out the kitty litter box. Now Mommy is dusting the floor.”
I spent more time cleaning that first year than I did anything else. I wonder if I wasn’t instinctively preparing for never doing it again. I got a whole lifetime of it done, in my son’s first and second year…knowing instinctively somehow that I would never have time for it again or frankly never choose to see it as a priority.
In all that cleaning, journaling, dancing, singing and chocolate-eating, I began to find my energy moving toward feminist psychology. I don’t know why, it just did. A book entitled “Reviving Ophelia” was making the pop-culture rounds and I was intrigued with the topic. Marjorie PIpher was the author. She wrote about girls and how they were spiraling into an abyss, walled in by self-objectification, low self-esteem and feelings of little to no worth. I made it half way through the book and then had to put it down. The bleakness of it felt watching an “I love Lucy” episode for the second, third and fourth time. As a previous inhabitant of the dark abyss-full hell, I was helplessly frustrated by my inability to do anything for the other characters in the show, who were all continuing, despite my insider information and gesticulating at the screen, to be sucked into the dramatic black hole of their own despair.
The problem was, it seemed to me, that we were using old feminist language to try and articulate the entire feminine psyche, when in reality it was only describing a teeny tiny piece of it. The cold, hardened play-equal language—we can compete with the boys just like the boys can dammit—didn’t add up for the girls, including me, who’d just assume also honor their soft side, tender touch and yearning for “let’s all get along in the sandbox” approach.
The only feminist language I had ever known was filtered through my father’s thick trifocals when he, peered out over them, one morning after my mom had slaved for at least an hour to get eggs, bacon, fresh cut grapefruit and coffee on the breakfast table, after, might I add, her daily six mile run. “Those damn feminists,” he said. My Dad didn’t say damn very often so whenever he did said it I was little bit scared, but more humored by it, enough to have one of those uncontrollable smiles…like when you aren’t supposed to laugh in church, but you just can’t help it because the choir director’s chin shakes so funny when he sings and you just can’t NOT look at it.
I hated skirts for as long as I can remember and felt like wearing them was unfair because I couldn’t run and jump and swing on the monkey bars like the boys did. My dad cursed Gloira Steinem and my big brother’s wife Susie, for their wearing pant suits and go-go boots and somehow by their doing so, at least in his eyes, they had convinced me that I was being denied my fourth grade girl rights to wear pants in elementary school because our school made me wear a dress. . I’d have come up with this whole rights denial thing on my own.
I was a monkey-bar-activist before I was a feminist.
So the only feminist language I knew was the angry kind, the kind that sounded angry, filled with mother-hate and a “men are all Darth Vadars” kind of attitude. This disturbed me. I was feeling the most powerful I had ever felt in my entire life as the bringer-of-a life-into-the-worlder. There was nothing both so divinely beautiful and so disgustingly messy as motherhood. The eight feet of space I lived in, now included another person. A littler version of me, but with a penis, occupied my eight foot world. We were attached at the hip, Hank and I. So over the first ten months of his life, my energy started to bundle around a new feminist theory…one that combined the gifts of the tender, cooperative feminine and the kick-ass mom I needed to be for my son. Kick-ass but do it with your gentle feminine touch and don’t forget to say please and thank you like your kick-ass mom told you to do.
So when I wrote out the topics for the first curriculum, it took less than fifteen minutes. I was nursing Hank, and writing at the same time. The soft mother me holding my baby and the kick-ass feminist activist me writing out nothing short of what I would later see as a miracle. I was neither hanging on a rope nor suspended in empty space, but floating through, with absolute certainty, some kind of celestial jell-o, where everything that came into my thoughts and out through my pen, landed on the paper in absolute perfection. I went back less than a handful of times to make a few tiny changes but realized it was time to launch.
Lights on. The confetti flies. “Surprise, I’m here.”
Ten months after Hank’s birth, I loaded him up along with what little I had pulled together about this new program I wanted to try out, and headed over to the school I had attended in middle and upper school (I had also taught there for two years). The after-school coordinator was actually also the man who had served as my counselor all through middle school and high school. He knew me…well. His last name was Justice. I liked his name. It seemed appropriate for someone about to be as excited about my call to Social Justice as I was.
“This sounds cute. I say you give it a shot.”
Hank was nestled safely in the baby jogger next to us.
Cute would never be how I would describe my work, but who was I to argue. This was something brand-spankin’ new–a really odd kind of combination of sports and psychology–a Dr. Phil kind of curriculum that also required the intentional use of one’s own human body.
“Okay. It’s cute then. Let’s give it a shot.”
So now my eight foot world had edged slightly over to cover a different space and I had to actually communicate this thing, this Girls on the Run thing, in a way that parents would not be afraid of it or me and bravely sign up their daughters.
I created two pieces of collateral, one for the girls and one for their parents.
The original letter to the parents included a fuzzy heart-warming and mildly gut wrenching essay on why I was starting the program. I remember saying something about combating “the MTV images and an advertising industry gone haywire.” The language was dramatic and powerful, convincing and a little scary.
Thirteen parents called me and after conversations that ranged from a couple of minutes to thirty, they all courageously donated their bundles of energy to the program. I fondly recall, during one of those phone calls, one of the moms saying something like “Sooooo, it sounds to me like you are going to get into my daughter’s brain.” I wasn’t sure how to respond to that. I remember exactly where I was in my house at the time she said it. Kind of like remembering where I was when Ronald Reagan got shot or Princess Diana died. The memory of it was, for some reason, permanently tattooed onto my brain. I paused longer than I would have liked. What she didn’t know was, at that moment, all I could picture was some kind of campy sci-fi movie–a large squishy and gross-noise-making octopus resting painfully on top of her 8 year-old daughter’s head and sucking out all of the gelatinous material holding it all together. “Yes. I am. I (the Octopus) am going to get into your daughter’s brain.” Slurp, slurp, slurp. I wanted to chuckle, but didn’t of course. We are talking her daughter’s brains here.
As I write now, I realize how alive I felt in those days…real, wired and on fire. Every meeting with all 13 of those girls would send a new electric impulse down a neuron yet undiscovered or used in the same way previously. I swear at times I could literally hear the crackling noise of electromagnetic impulses moving around inside my head. My levels of self-awareness went from two on the Richter scale up to a six…and if you know anything about the Richter scale, the increase isn’t incremental, it’s exponential. I thought at times my head might crack open like an earthquake and all these joyful parts of me would start bubbling over.
There hasn’t been a day where I haven’t had some sense of bubbling over…it hasn’t always been joy. There’s been quite a bit of fear in here sometimes. And what’s really weird about all of this…is even though the program has now spread across miles and miles of North America with literally hundreds of thousands of people involved, I’m as excited, challenged,and sometimes overwhelmed by, the little eight foot yard that surrounds me: Mothering teenagers, the ageing process, relationships. Everyday I wake up, wondering what will speak to me, love me, teach me and reveal itself in that little eight yards of space.
What, within your eight yards of world can you change, celebrate and journey throughly into, with joy, wonder and curiosity?