Monthly Archives: March 2017

Smashing the Mold (Inspiration Series, Week 13)

Katharine Hepburn defied the Hollywood norms and set her own standards for style and substance.

When Katharine Hepburn had her pants taken from her RKO dressing room by someone who deemed her wardrobe insufficiently feminine, she did what any self-respecting Inspirer would do. She walked around in her underwear until her clothes were returned to her. 

Becoming a star at a time when the ideal woman was most often catering to the men around her, Hepburn not only refused to give into the tradition, she openly flouted it. She oozed independence, with a command of speech and stature that would not be ignored. 

Born to a suffragette mother who campaigned for feminism and a father equally focused on fighting for social change, Hepburn was encouraged to think for herself from an early age. The negative reactions of the community to her parents’ unorthodox views only strengthened her own, a trait she carried with her throughout life as she bent norms wherever they appeared. 

Her career didn’t start with a bang. She was fired from several plays and panned in others before hitting it big with The Warrior’s Husband on Broadway in 1932. Success led her to Hollywood, where she would win a Best Actress Oscar for Morning Glory – it was her second film. 

As her name grew, so did the certainty that Hepburn was not going to soften into a typical starlet. She argued with the press and generally shunned the celebrity lifestyle and its expectations; on one occasion she went after a paparazzi trying to get her picture; on another, she turned her attention to a woman who took a photo of her during a theater performance. Suffice it to say that lady left in tears.

She famously refused dresses and skirts as a requirement of her sex (in public as well as on set) and was often photographed in trousers, ignoring those who pleaded with her to feminize her angular body. Hepburn also eschewed makeup on occasion – in short, she did what she damned well felt like doing. 

Her love life fell equally outside the norms. It isn’t simple reconciling her romantic choices – including long relationships with difficult, married men – with the woman who seemed to put up with little bullshit from the world. Or perhaps it’s just another example of not being concerned about what anyone else thought. 

Surely Hepburn could have chosen to stand and pose for the picture, to wear the skirt, or to find a “suitable” mate. She still would have been a marvelous actor. It is that middle finger to convention, though, that secured her spot as an inspiration to so many, me included.

Seeing her choices, I can’t help but ask: How many times in my own life have I choosen to “go along to get along” in order to avoid conflict? How often do I allow expectations and concerns about “image” influence my actions? Perhaps most importantly, am I being true to myself?

It will always be easier to follow the playbook. And yet, by shunning conformity we open ourselves to that most elusive quality – authenticity, and to the freedom of living outside the lines. We can be a little more like Kate. 


My friend, the Warrior (Inspiration Series, Week 11)

Then and now. Who knew that behind the gorgeous face lay a soul of steel?

I’m not known for a stellar memory, especially when it comes to childhood. And yet, a few people stick out. The neighbors and friends who gave support after my mom died. This boy who told me I looked pretty after a miraculous haircut at age 12. And the popular girl in junior high who sent me “football” notes and made me feel slightly less alone. The faces of the first two have long since faded. But the girl from French class? Well, she is this week’s inspiration. 

I reconnected with Sandy in the most obvious millenial way – through Facebook. After more than 20 years I was still a bit awed by her, and thrilled that she wanted to see me, too. Exchanges followed, and then a get-together that was one of those nights where you can actually feel things changing.

We talked about our lives, our plans. After years of climbing the corporate ladder, Sandy was hopping off. Her new path was about as different as could be from the old one – she was working to become an actor. A frustrated writer myself, I listened with more than a little wonder as she talked about the joy she found in her drama classes, the thrill from being on stage.

It wasn’t long before she began to challenge me. What was I writing? What ideas did I have? Why wasn’t I doing more? The questions were hard to dismiss; it was as though my hopes and dreams were being re-formed and channeled through this energetic, persistent force with no intention of letting me off the hook. We’d talk on the phone and she’d laugh at my goofy blunders and daily screw ups, always telling me to put them in a story. She got me blogging and shared my stuff with others. After years of not writing, here I was. Writing. 

Fast-forward a year and while my life moved along pretty normally, Sandy’s went into overdrive, highlighted by the day she reconnected with the love of her life. Before I knew what had happened, she was making plans to relocate to Arizona. I’d love to say my support was unequivocal, but there was a touch of anger that I was losing her, along with some envy of the two guys who were welcoming her into their lives. I also wondered, where would her still-young creative dreams go in the desert?

I couldn’t have written the next part better myself. For while Sandy exited Stage Left from New Jersey, the woman – the artist – who entered Stage Right across the country would go on to do things I’d never considered. The transition, filled with challenges, heartache, and even tragedy, also brought out a fierceness, a dedication to her craft that included more learning and constant effort. While managing the demands on her time and energy at home, she acted, made new friends in theater and film, and entrenched herself in a creative community that would treasure her passion.

The inspiration she provides goes beyond success. Despite outward appearances, Sandy let me know that none of it came easy. She’d sound frustrated when I’d talk about her accomplishments as though they were a foregone conclusion and remind me that her confidence wasn’t nearly as strong as people assumed. Many projects brought new doubts about her talent, her potential. They didn’t stop her, but they sure as hell followed her. 

Throughout the last 7 years, Sandy has added producer, director, and coach to her resume. She worked damned hard to learn and master each new skill that was required. She gave each role her full attention, despite the demands of an already overfilled life and unexpected health challenges that made things even more difficult. 

Most recently, Sandy became one more thing, which seemed to pull at some of her deepest insecurities. The thing she’d once told me she didn’t think she could do very well. The thing I wanted most for myself.

She became a writer.

From afar, I watched the idea form, the words hit the page, and the journey begin to becoming an honest-to-goodness writer and author of a short film. She sometimes seemed to fight with every line of dialogue, but she never gave in, even when her inner demons told her she wasn’t good enough. Listening to her describe the process, I marveled at the spirit and dedication it took to keep going. Health problems threatened to derail her – she told them to fuck off and powered on. People she counted on didn’t follow through; she figured out how to keep going, building a personal army of loyal supporters to fight with her. She became a creative  tank, rolling over the self-doubt that would stop so many of us in our tracks. 

She defeated it, over and over. First with a finished script, then with casting the best actors, then with a physical transformation to get into a character that only she could play. The work began, and months later, this woman who was once not a writer was one, and so much more. Unwilling to succumb to the negative voices, she achieved what they’d told her she could not. 

I believe the Universe responded to her boldness. It sensed that regardless of inner anxiety, this creative soul would not be thwarted. And so it opened its arms and embraced Sandy. It wouldn’t make things easy for her, but it  would make them possible, and that’s all the room she needed. The ball was handed to her and she ran with it. 

I have generally been content to sit on the sidelines, cheer on others as they make plays and and move their lives forward. I’ve always assumed those on the field are experts, risking little. Sandy, through her willingness to share the struggle, the work behind the curtain, showed me just how false my impression was. She became a shining example of the rewards that only come to those willing to resist the easy road and put it all out on the line. 

I leave you with the two words that make me think of Sandy, the mantra we came up with long ago to address those old voices telling us we don’t have what it takes, that the chances for failure are real and scary. 

Fuck Fear. 

And along with it, the negative self-talk, the paralyzing doubt, the bad habits that build the wrong muscles. Fuck all the things, real and imagined, that keep us from pursuing our dreams with everything we’ve got. 

Taking up the Challenge (Inspiration Series, Week 10)

Despite all else, she wrote

The story of JK Rowling is pretty well known by now. A young writer comes up with this idea for a story,  or rather, a series of them, nearly fully formed, while riding on a train. She develops a cast of characters, begins to plot. And then… 

Over the course of the next few years, she loses her mother, her marriage, and her job, and finds herself broke, with a baby to raise and a diagnosis of clinical depression to round out her life. And yet, despite what to some might feel like a rejection from the Universe, Rowling continued to write, child in tow, day after day in local cafes – not waiting for a time when things might fall into place, but continuing to show up, pen in hand, day after day. 

She battled both inner turmoil and poverty, yet fought on, page by page. Through sheer will she completed the first book, which was quickly rejected by 12 publishers. (Spoiler alert: the book finally finds a publisher and does not do badly.)

Rowling is inspirational on multiple levels. She was handed nothing, other than, perhaps, an enviable imagination and a healthy dose of discipline. She was tested beyond what many of us could take –  who would have blamed her if she’d decided that this huge project was more than she could handle? And yet, she persisted. Rather than wait for life to get better, for the stars to align in her favor, she fought back against her demons (in fact, she worked them into her story). At a fork in the road that would determine the next chapter of her own life, she chose the one marked Create and worked her challenges into blessings that served her instead of keeping her stuck.

Just as her personal story inspires, so too, do Rowling’s stories, none more than Harry Potter. Beyond the tale of a kid who finds out he’s a wizard, his is a coming of age story that touches on nearly every human emotion and fear. From outcast to beloved member of a big family, from innocent follower to a conviction-filled warrior and leader; we follow a young man through adventures and experiences that test his soul, as well as his life. 

Harry’s resilience can be seen right away, when we meet him as a kid living with cruel relatives. Everything is awful, down to his “bedroom” in a cupboard under the stars. But while the news that he is a wizard will ultimately change his life, there are no guaranteed victories. Time and time again, over the course of seven books, he will be faced with choices (not unlike his creator) that demand he reach beyond what is comfortable. Rowling connects us to her protagonist through each phase of his new life, so that we feel as though we are his companions on the journey; we read with bated breath under a kind of cosmic invisibility cloak from which we watch him fight.

The lessons – on courage, on fortitude, on revenge – grow more subtle as Harry progresses through Hogwarts, and no one, not even those he cherishes most, will always do the right thing Even our greatest heroes, Rowling reminds us, come with flaws. 

From Ron Weasley’a occasional lack of loyalty to Dumbledore’s habit of leaving out key bits of information, Harry’s most treasured allies let him down at one point or another. Bad tempers affect nearly everyone at least once, and fights between friends are not uncommon. Good guys pick on others, while apparent villains often reveal complicated motives and emotions once their story is told. Through all of it – the excitement, the wonder, and the tragedy – Harry persists. He rides through the storms he can, waits out others, but never loses focus on the tasks before him. Just as Rowling never lost focus on hers.

Both the author and her young hero faced the big questions, the ones that confront all of us at some point in our lives. Will we pursue our biggest goals and dreams, Or will we choose the safe paths that provide comfort but so often hinder our growth? Will we prove ourselves worthy of the breaths we have been given?

And if our answer is yes, we will fight on, like JK Rowling and Harry Potter, there is perhaps, one question left. What are we waiting for?  As Harry’s godfather tells him, the answer is in our own hands.


The Advocate (Inspiration series, Week 12)

Though she lost her sight and hearing before turning 2, Susan B. Anthony spent a good part of her life fighting for others.

It is perhaps a most human instinct to lament our misfortunes, to ponder how much easier life would have been “if only.” I know that if I had a dollar for every time I wondered about my existence as a prettier, smarter, or more physically able person, I’d have far more in my bank account.   

Thankfully, our history is full of examples of people for whom even extreme “disabilities” seem to be not a stumbling block, but rather a catalyst, rocketing them into lives not only of personal triump, but of true impact. People like Helen Keller.

Her story is pretty well known, at least on the surface. Born in 1880, she was struck the following year with an illness that left her blind, deaf, and mute. As a young girl she was connected with Anne Sullivan, a teacher who would re-introduce her to the world through touch and vibration. In 1908 she became the first deaf-blind person to receive a bachelor degree from Radcliffe College. She had already written her autobiography.

By any measure, Hellen Keller’s ability to learn and overcome was extraordinary. We can all be inspired by her incredible will to break barriers and soar past expectations. For most of us, that would be one hell of a life. But Helen Keller, like other Inspirers, took it to the next level.

She became an advocate. 

In 1924 she became an advisor to the newly formed American Foundation for the Blind. Over the course of her 40+ years with the organization, she fundraised and spoke passionately about not only the needs of people with vision loss, but about their many abilities and their right to be treated with the dignity they deserved. 

It’s hard – impossible, perhaps – to imagine life from Helen Keller’s point of view. What is it that resides in people and enables them not just to respond to the biggest challenges life has to offer, but to move beyond them entirely and devote one’s life to helping others?

It was Alexander Graham Bell who introduced her to the woman who would become her friend, teacher, and confidante, Anne Sullivan. His work would also be a spark for Keller, showing her new technologies and giving her ideas on how they could help others in the blind community. In the 1920s she persuaded a radio manufacturing company to distribute them free to the blind. Later, she lobbied for talking books to be made.

Keller’s advocacy didn’t stop with the blind; at a time when women were not expected to speak out, she became an outspoken suffragist, argued against child labor, and even served as America’s first Goodwill ambassador to Japan, where she visited in 1948 and highlighted the plight of their disabled population. 

She was political, working throughout her life to affect change for the poor and disenfranchised. Even without sight or hearing, Keller knew that the privileges of her station were what allowed her to do so much, and how many weren’t provided the same opportunities. She visited poverty-stricken neighborhoods and fought against her immense fear of public speaking as she joined a lecture circuit to speak out about injustices. She used her celebrity to fight for those without a voice – a most wonderful irony from the woman who worked so hard to find her own. 

It is easy to sit back and watch others take up the sword or the pen; to applaud politely but resist engaging in the movements and actions that are essential for change to occur. We can wait for the “right time” or find a million reasons why someone else will be better at the thing. And yet, only at the moment that we stand up and move into the ring can we truly  declare ourselves an advocate, a participant in the struggle. That is when we begin to fulfill our promise. 

May we all find the cause worth fighting for, and keep ourselves ready for the good fight to come.

To Tell the Truth (Inspiration series, week 17)

Galileo Galilei surrendered his very freedom in confirming one of the world’s most important scientific principles.

Throughout human history, the world has relied on geniuses to move us forward, explain our world, and hopefully, give us context for our place in it. All too often these men and women are met with extreme resistance by society, labeled heretics, or ridiculed. Thankfully their superior minds are matched by spines of steel and an unwavering commitment to truth. 

Galileo Galelei (do names get any better?) was born in Pisa, Italy, in 1564. With an obviously superior intellect, he entered university to study medicine, but turned his attention to his true passions. math and science. Money trouble forced him out before graduating, but he continued to study and took a teaching post at the University of Pisa when he was just 25.

It was there that he conducted experiments and began reaching conclusions that conflicted with long-held Aristotelian teachings, such as falling objects moving at a rate that was dependent on their masses. In fact, his refutation of the long-held ideas about motion led to his dismissal from the college.

In 1602, having gained a better role as Chair of Mathematics at the University of Padua, Galileo continued his work; more experiments with motion led to discoveries about the arc of a pendulum swing (the ichronisim, for us wannabe scientists) – these studies informed the next stage of clock-making. 

Just a few years later, he would begin to express his agreement with Nicholas Copernicus’ theory that the Earth revolved around the sun and not, as popular opinion held, the other way around. He also learned about a simple telescope, and like any good genius, took it upon himself to build one that would allow him to see into the heavens. Through this fantastic tool he saw the Moon’s craters and that Venus had phases, proveing that it revolved around the Sun. 

His conclusions on heliocentrism came at a risky time. Though Copernicus’s had already posited the theory, the Catholic church of Galileo’s period deemed his work heretical and ordered him to recant it. He did, but following a book written and a series of events that ended with a trial, he was found guilty of heresy. Due to age he was given house arrest, which would last the rest of his life. 

This weekend’s Marches for Science could have been a tribute to Galileo Galelei who, 375 years after his death, remains a powerful spokesperson for integrity and the pursuit of knowledge. His full story is far more complex and nuanced than I can do justice to – the works and ideas of brilliant scientists both astound and deeply intimidate me. And yet, through the layers of information about physics, momentum, and gravity, shines more of those qualities that seem to be in the DNA of my inspirers. Deep intellect. Curiosity and questioning. Commitment to truths and the bravery sometimes required to speak them.

When those two qualities – intelligence and courage – come together, nothing can stop them. Not even the Earth, as it travels round the ever-stationary Sun. 

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