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Previously featured on Elephant Journal.

Growing up as little girls in America, we are fortunate to have no shortage of empowered women to whom we can look up as role models. From the early childhood years we learn about Susan B. Anthony and her contributions to the women’s suffrage moment, and as we mature we delve into the progressive politics of Eleanor Roosevelt, a woman ahead of her time, who made tireless contributions to workers’ rights, women’s rights and human rights as a whole. More recently we can look to Oprah Winfrey, with whom I grew up, having been at the impressionable age of 11 when the Oprah Winfrey Show first launched. Throughout my adolescence and into my womanhood, I watched in awe as Oprah changed and inspired the world for the better. Pretty incredible for a poor, black girl from rural Mississippi. For me, Oprah encapsulates the essence of female empowerment.

Now why am I singling out women as the shining examples of empowerment? Of course there are thousands of examples of empowered men who have made significant impacts on our society, but as we live in a society where women still earn on average 20% less than men, and men still dominate the executive offices, I think it is more important than ever that young girls have positive, powerful and capable female role models. As I think of Oprah and the other empowered female leaders of our time, it occurs to me that I don’t need to look any further than my own circle to find powerful examples of female empowerment… starting with my own mother. Here, I would like to introduce you to some of the incredible women in my life, who have inspired and continue to inspire me, everyday:

Meet Marilyn (a.k.a. Mom). Mom was born into a generation where most women did not have a college education and many did not have careers. Of course, never one to sit idly by, Mom was way ahead of her time. By the age of 35, Mom had earned a Master’s degree while raising three children under the age of five, she had a solid career in education and had lived in two countries and five different states.  Later on, motivated to further her career, while raising three teenagers and working a full-time job, she proceeded to earn her Ph.D., and added three more states to her list of homes. She has now been a distinguished professor at three different colleges, has published three books, has lived in eight different states and has traveled to 20 countries. Mom taught me everyday, simply through her own actions, that women in our society can accomplish anything they want. Of course it’s no surprise that Mom was as empowered as she was, having come from a long line of empowered women. Her mother, my Grandma Monks, although from a generation when women rarely drove, was tenacious enough to get her first driver’s license at the age of 62, and even more amazingly to earn herself a Bachelor’s degree at the sprightly age of 72. As if that weren’t enough, that same year she decided she also needed to hike to the  summit of a 3,165 ft. Mt. Monadnock. And what of her mother? My Great Grandmother Beckford was the most feisty of the bunch. As a widow, she raised two kids during the depression, she ran for a legislative office in 1940 (only 20 years after being granted the right to vote!) and she refused to take social security until age 80 when she stopped working. Who does that?? With influences like those, it would be hard to imagine any other possible outcome than for both my mother and myself to have ended up as empowered women. When asked what she would do if she had all the money in the world, Mom answers, “I would build a home in Maine, make sure my kids all had homes, travel to Greece and also I would support an incubator for people who developed unique plans for helping disadvantaged or troubled teenagers.”

Meet Julie. Julie and I met almost 15 years ago as colleagues planning educational tours abroad for students. An adventurer from the start, by the age of 15 Julie and a friend had decided to send themselves to Europe for the summer, where they spent a month in Spain, followed by a second month in France. This was just the beginning of her adventurous life. Over the following two years she spent a total of six weeks in both Guadeloupe and Ecuador on study programs, and by the age of 22 she had spent two separate years living in two separate parts of France. Was that enough?  No way. A Francophile practically from the minute she left the womb, Julie went on to obtain a Master’s degree in French studies at NYU, taking her to live in France a third time. Throughout all of this incredible journey, she has managed to devote herself selflessly to several different volunteer organizations; among them completing an entire year of inner city volunteerism with City Year, and additionally with two organizations specifically focused on women’s economic inclusion and empowerment (a topic about which Julie is impassioned): Women for Women International and Women’s World Banking. All of this hard work and understanding of foreign cultures and economics has led Julie to a prestigious career working in international trade and investment with the French government. Julie is now responsible for creating and nurturing business ties between French and U.S. entities, companies, and governments. She has now traveled to 25 countries across five continents. When asked what she would do if she had unlimited wealth, her answer is “I would do what I am doing right now – only more of it – more money to causes I support, I would take care of my family financially, and I would travel more.”

Meet Kim. Kim and I also met at the same educational travel company where I met Julie (apparently an incubator for empowered women!). Another daring adventurer, by the age of 23, Kim had already lived in three separate foreign countries: The UK, France and the Netherlands. (Italy and India would be added to this list before the age of 30!) Having had the dream to work in the field of foreign affairs, Kim worked tirelessly to get herself accepted to Harvard and earned a Master’s degree in International Education. Ever the consummate achiever, Kim went on to be awarded the prestigious Presidential Management Fellowship in 2003, leading her to a highly successful career with the U.S. Department of State.  Throughout her seven year tenure at the Department of State, Kim has excelled to achieve the highest GS grade level, for her performance on managing foreign assistance, and has spent a tour living in India. She currently has the very important responsibility of managing all of the United States Government’s foreign assistance used for security purposes, including our commitments to Pakistan, Egypt, Iraq, etc. Kim has traveled to a staggering 72 countries and her work has taken her, with two separate Secretaries of State, to every continent except for Antarctica. In addition to maintaining this high-powered career, Kim is now serving in the most important role of her lifetime, as the mother of a beautiful baby girl. With Kim as a role model of female empowerment, I have no doubt that her daughter will follow in her mother’s footsteps to achieve equally impressive accomplishments. When asked what she would do if she had unlimited wealth, Kim answers, “After providing a modest safety net for my daughter, I think I would pay it forward in as many situations as possible, help the neediest and those truly struggling, support key issues that are important to me such as animal welfare, abused and neglected children, education reform and the environment.”

Meet Kathleen. She is one of my favorite examples of total female empowerment, and not for any of the reasons I’ve mentioned above with my previous friends.  In fact, Kathleen has had quite a different story from any of these ladies. You see, Kathleen gave birth to her first child at the tender age of 15. Even she herself finds that hard to believe as she reads it! She went on to have a total of three children, and unable to take the traditional path of college and career, she had to make great sacrifices for her children. Now a single Mom, and barely over the age of 30, her oldest child is soon to be entering college… and despite the hardships and obstacles she has faced, Kathleen has managed to work herself into a very successful career in banking, all the while raising three happy, healthy and well-mannered children. Having gained the perfect niche skill-set, Kathleen became integral to the FDIC during the plethora of bank loan and mortgage defaults that occurred after the 2008 recession. This unique and sought-after experience later led to Kathleen being hired by one of the largest and most prestigious banks in the state of Georgia. When I look at Kathleen’s life, I am completely in awe. Not only is she without a doubt, one of the smartest, most eloquent and well-spoken people I know, here is a woman who can take on the world. True. Female. Empowerment. When asked what she would do with all of the money in the world, Kathleen answers, “I would take care of my family, who has supported me all my life, and show my children the world through travel.”

Meet Steph. Last year I was traveling with a tour group to Brazil and Argentina. Among the members of the group was a lovely family from New Zealand, who were visiting their daughter, Steph, who was spending the year living in a remote village of Argentina. Having studied abroad in college myself, when I met Steph and saw her level of maturity, I was sure that she too must be a college student spending her junior year abroad. I was shocked to learn that she was only 16! Only 16 years old, and this brave young lady took herself to the other side of the world, where she knew not a soul, to spend an entire year away from her family and the comforts of home. When I think back to myself at age 16, I could barely fathom leaving the state, nevermind the country, for that length of time. This was a truly impressive young lady. When I look back at my other friends mentioned above, who took similar, life-changing actions in their teenage years, I am filled with excitement to think about what Steph’s incredible journey will have in store for both her, and for the world. Where will she go? What will she do? Anywhere and anything she wants. The world is her oyster. When asked what she would do with all of the money in the world, Steph answers, “I would follow my desire to go to college and study law, and to learn Italian and French. I would then like to travel further abroad, extending my horizons, giving support to those who are truly less fortunate. I would eventually like to do work involving international relations.”

This is just a small glimpse into the lives of the empowered goddesses that surround me, and it is just a reminder of that which women are capable, at all ages and under all circumstances. Who are the women in your life who have served as powerful and positive models of empowerment for YOU? Have you ever thought about how they have influenced your own life and about ways in which they might have shaped who you are today? Have you ever looked at your OWN life and realized how you might be more empowered than you ever realized?…. that in fact YOU might be serving as a model of empowerment for others? Write down your own story, as I have done with these “Wonder Women,” and you may just be surprised by what you find. Look around you and within you, and see the examples of strong, capable, empowered women, both young and old, who shape you and inspire you everyday. And if you have the chance to serve as a role model for a young girl, take it.

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It is true that when times get tough, you learn who your true friends are. It is also true that friends come and go throughout our lives. And sadly, it is sometimes true that someone who you thought was a true friend, turns out not to be. I’ve learned that tough lesson more than once and that, unfortunately, is a lesson that stings no matter how many times you learn it.

So what makes a “true friend”? Well, of course everyone has their own definition of that, and as we grow and learn, that definition can, and frankly should, change. I’ve been told on more than one occasion that my expectations of friendship are too high. But whenever I am told that, I think to myself, “Thank goodness for that!”. I expect a lot from myself as a friend, and I always strive to be the best possible and most loyal friend I can be. I would never want to change that. Why on earth would I want to expect less from a friend than I expect from myself??? That’s like saying “Hi Jane, nice to meet you. I look forward to a disappointing friendship.” That would be ridiculous, right? The idea that one should have low expectations of a friendship, is completely absurd to me. I outright reject that premise.

For me, a true friendship should be a 2-way street, their should be mutual give and take and mutual respect. Now this does not mean that one has to talk to a friend every single day, and that one should expect that. Every friendship is different. Although rare, there are “best friends” that you talk to everyday, and those who find that are very fortunate and should not take that for granted. But there are also those great friendships that endure the test of time and distance. You might go months, or even years without talking, but then when you do, it’s as if no time has passed at all. Those are some of the best friendships I have ever had. Because even though you speak rarely, those friends are there for you when it really counts, and you for them. Regardless of which type of friendship you’re dealing with, the most important factor is that it is balanced.

Now of course even with the best of friendships, like any relationship, there are times when it may be out of balance; times when external factors distract us and steal our energy; times when one might give more than the other and vice versa. A good friendship should allow for those ebbs and flows. We of course all live through the dark times when we may be the one more in need of taking, rather than giving. But when you look at the overall picture, over a span of time, the friendship should be balanced. If you are the one who is constantly making the effort, the one who is calling and following through, and it is not being reciprocated, then that is not a balanced relationship and is not fair to the person who is doing all of the giving. Nor is it healthy or sustainable. At that point you need to ask yourself “Am I more often happy or disappointed in this friendship?” If it is the latter, then give yourself permission to let the friendship go.

And if you do have to let a friendship go, of course it is upsetting, but just know that it is part of life and learning. One must always be true to themselves and respect themselves first and foremost, and if you find that a friendship is becoming more toxic to you than it is beneficial, then it may be time to let it go. And instead of being sad, be grateful. Be grateful that you had the opportunity to learn and grow from that relationship. Because even the worst of friendships are a gift. They have the power to teach us some very important lessons and they also provide us the opportunity to become better people and better friends ourselves. And most importantly of all, be grateful for those friends that have proven themselves to be true. For even if you only have 1 of them, 1 true friendship is far more meaningful and fulfilling than 100 superficial friendships.

This post is dedicated to all of the true friends in my life. You know who you are.

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Image by Flickr photographer: WhiskeyTangoFoxtrot

All of my life my father has said to me, “Jeannie, friends will come and go throughout your life.” I always hated that idea. As someone who has always been a fiercely loyal friend, I’ve always felt adamant that if someone was a good friend, they should stay in your life forever. Well, if you’ve lived any amount of years into adulthood, then you can imagine that I’ve lived through a lot of disappointment in my life: Because of course as my dad predicted, many friends have come and gone.

Sometimes people simply drift apart, other times friendships go down in flames, and still other times one person will continue to make the effort, while the other seems to stop caring. I’ve experienced all of these scenarios more times than I care to count. And for some reason it always seemed to affect me more than it did most other people. In fact, I remember the very first friend who “left” my life. I was only 10 years old and she had been my best friend throughout my childhood. We were always at each other’s houses, we would spend hours playing in the woods, doing silly and adventurous childhood things. And then one year we ended up in different classes, and suddenly our circles and in turn our friendship changed. We drifted out of each other’s lives and I was devastated.  I have vivid memories of sitting in my mother’s office crying endlessly as I listened to depressing Phil Collins’ songs. Ok, so I was a bit melodramatic even as a kid, but I was heart-broken.

Now I’m 25 years older and I’d like to say I’ve gained a bit of wisdom. As years have passed and I can look back on my prior experiences, I now have the perspective of being able to see that each one of those instances happened for a reason. In each scenario, I was growing and changing, and so was the other person. And in many of those cases we were simply growing apart, in different directions. We were walking down different paths. And I’ve now learned that each time someone I cared about left my life, it was happening to make space for someone new that was to enter my life; someone who was more aligned with the path I was currently on.

This lesson has culminated for me more than ever in the past few years. Having gone through my “awakening” of sorts, it has completely changed me. I have a different perspective on life and the universe in which we live, I have had experiences that have confirmed the immortality of my soul, and I have learned how to access higher levels of my consciousness. This has been a unique and life-altering experience to which I find that many people cannot relate, and it has been difficult and frustrating trying to explain it to friends that I’ve known for years. And as has always been the case throughout my life, some friends have fallen away. But they have made room for others and more than ever, I find myself meeting person after person who has gone through similar experiences. Synchronicity happens left and right and “magically” seems to bring the right people into my experience, and I suddenly find myself surrounded by friends who are on this same path. I’ve even seen the return of old friends who left my life long ago, and we unexpectedly find ourselves back on the same path, after a long detour. You know that friend I was crying about when I was 10 years old? She is one of those friends.

So what’s the moral of this story? My dad was right, people will come and go. And yes, it will be sad, even heart-breaking at times. But you can trust that it’s for a reason. It’s to allow yourselves to grow and expand in different directions and to make room for new people to come in to support you along your current path. So if you find yourself facing a situation where you are losing a friend, although it may be hard, let them go with love. Then open your heart to the new people who will come into your life to support you; and you never know, they may just come back.

This post is dedicated to Jessie.

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photo by Cornell University Library, via PhotoRee

We’ve all had friends or loved ones that we can see headed for the proverbial “train-wreck:” When the person in question is so deeply entrenched in their own drama that they are blinded to what others can objectively see from the outside. So what do you do in this situation? How do you help someone that has gotten so far off the tracks? It’s not an easy answer.

But, we’ve all been there, now haven’t we? How many of us have dated the guy that we insisted up and down was the “one,” when all of our friends can see that it is a toxic and unhealthy relationship? Or how many of us have been stuck in an unhappy job situation, but found a million ways to justify why it’s the best thing for our career, despite our friends telling us to move on? We’ve all been there. Probably too often to count. I would like to think that we learn from these scenarios and that with increased wisdom we can avoid repeating the same patterns again in the future. Some of us do, some of us don’t. Some of us need to repeat it again and again until we finally learn the lesson!

So I come back to my original question. If you are the onlooking friend, watching someone agonize through an unhealthy situation, and they do not want to hear what others can see so clearly, what do you do? I have learned this the hard way- the best answer is “nothing.” The simple answer is that they are not yet ready to hear it. Now I’m of course not saying that you shouldn’t intervene if someone is ready to jump off a bridge! Nothing that literal! I’m talking more about the emotional life dramas in which we all get wrapped up. If there is one thing I have learned through years of challenging experiences, it is that we all have to learn these lessons for ourselves. 100 friends could tell me I’m with the wrong guy, and they could all be 100% right, but it doesn’t matter. If I’m not ready to admit that to myself, nothing that anyone can say or do will convince me of that fact. I can only come to that conclusion in my own time.

It is also my belief that we are all on this Earth to learn different lessons, that when we incarnated into this life, we chose key challenges throughout our life, to help us grow and evolve as souls. If there is any truth to that, then that means that each experience, no matter how painful or difficult, is invaluable and not to be missed. And as much as none of us want to deal with pain or strife in our lives, it is the most valuable tool for learning. I have a favorite saying that a wise person once said to me: “the only way out is through.” To truly learn the lessons that we were put on this Earth to learn, we must walk our own paths, we must walk through whatever trials and tribulations are set before us.

So if you have a friend or loved one that you see headed for a “train-wreck,” step back and allow them to experience their Karma, to walk through and into their own learning. Send them light and love, knowing that you will be there for them when they get to the other end of the tunnel.

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