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DSCN1335Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Los Angeles

It was exactly six years ago today that I drove my trusted little Saturn into the City of Angels, the crimson sun setting behind the mighty palms. It had always been my dream to move to the West Coast, and at this moment in my life, I was spurred on by a fight for love. Sadly I was met with anything but. And so began the darkest years of my life: alone, jobless, and heartbroken in the vast and lonely sea of Los Angeles.

In a moment of desperation, I dragged myself into my neighborhood yoga studio. And that seemingly small decision would forever change the course of my life: it would be my first step into a profound healing journey and the beginnings of a major life transformation, the likes of which I never could have imagined. Yoga led me to Peru. Peru led me to San Francisco and here I discovered a whole new Jeannie and a whole new life: a beloved community, an unexpected and dramatic career turn, a book, so many magical experiences and powerful manifestations. It has been a story that this writer never could have written.

Golden Gate from Buena Vista with AnkitGolden Gate Bridge from Buena Vista Park, San Francisco

For six years, California has been home. In fact, from the moment I arrived here, I felt like I had come home. When my heart was broken, Los Angeles held me in her warm embrace and surrounded me with her Angels. California has taken my breath away with her unrivaled beauty: her brilliant sunshine, her majestic mountains, her pristine ocean. And then there was San Francisco. Oh, San Francisco. With her forward-thinking, progressive, risk-taking mentality, San Francisco has inspired in me a well of limitless possibilities and she has allowed for an energetic expansion beyond all measure. California has cracked my heart wide open and allowed me to connect with the Spirit within and all around me.

On a regular basis, I have stood in awe of her outrageous scenery: spectacular views of the shimmering Bay, the electric view of Los Angeles from the Hollywood Hills, the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge, the snow capping the mighty San Gabriel Mountains, the jaw-dropping vistas from the twists and turns of the Pacific Coast Highway, and the mystical fog cradling the dramatic San Francisco skyline.

California has changed me. She has saved me. She has inspired me. I am forever grateful for this place.

DSCF2697Baker Beach, San Francisco

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For years I have been traveling alone, and for years I have wished that I didn’t have to. During my 20s, I had a great international travel job that took me overseas multiple times per year, to wonderful places the likes of Madrid, Paris, London, or even Costa Rica. These were fabulous opportunities and I took full advantage, exploring as much as I could while there. But yet there was always something missing and I always wished I could share it with someone.

And when it came to love, it just never worked out timing wise that I had a partner with whom to travel and share my adventures. Inevitably I was always involved with someone either too broke or disorganized to get a trip together, or I was involved with someone on the other side of the country; always finding myself in circumstances in which I would end up traveling alone. And after experiencing a string of brutal broken hearts, travel became not only lonely, but sad, as I would find myself thinking of my lost loves, everywhere I would go, thinking of the “what-ifs” and the missed opportunities.

The good news is that experience changes us and time heals all wounds. And the longer we are alone, the more we learn to embrace our solitude, the more we learn to love our own company and to become our own best friend; and the more we come to crave our time alone. That is the place in life to which I have very happily arrived. So when I have recently found myself at a crossroads, unsure of which path to take next, I knew I needed to take a soul-searching journey…and I knew I needed to do it alone.

So I set out on a road-trip down the Pacific Coast Highway, just me, my trusty stick-shift, and the radio; ready for adventure, ripe for epiphanies, and open to whatever might come…

DSCN1364My first stop along the way was at the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, where I set out on a hike towards a waterfall. This was really my first time hiking alone and as I set out over tree stumps and craggy rocks, I contemplated the solitude, consciously taking in all of the beauty around me. I passed a pair of couples who had stopped to take a breath and were laughing amongst themselves. As is always the case when hiking, we greeted each other with a friendly “hello” and I walked by smiling to myself at their obvious enjoyment and laughter.

When I arrived to the waterfall, I scrambled up onto a rock and perched myself against a tree to eat my lunch, with the sound of water flowing in the background. I was immersed in the serenity of nature and I made note of my happiness, in spite of my solitude. As I was eating my sandwich, the two couples made their way to the falls, we greeted each other again and I offered to take their photos. We shared a few laughs and I delighted at the opportunity for human connection with complete strangers.

A few minutes later an older lady arrived on her own. I offered to take her photo as well and then we began chatting. We immediately began talking about the adventures of hiking alone, of all of the other solo hikers that you come across, and discussed how being alone presents such a great opportunity to connect with other people along the way. I was happy to connect with her in such a way and I felt proud of myself for venturing out on my own. I looked forward to whomever….or whatever… I would encounter next.

The encounter that happened next is one that would take my breath away. As I was walking down the last part of the path, almost back to the parking lot, I saw what I thought was someone’s dog, off leash, approaching me. I thought nothing of it. A few moments later, I wondered where his owners were, and realizing that there was nobody in sight, it occurred to me that it may not have been a dog at all. I heard it rustling around in the woods just to the side of me, so I stopped and cautiously peeped into the brush to take a closer look. That is when I realized that I was only a few feet away from a wild bobcat! Now, anyone that knows me, knows that I am not only a supreme animal lover, but I am also a huge lover of cats, having two kitties of my own.

My mom will tell you that as a kid, I was always the one who would stay in the petting zoo for hours, and that I had no fear at all of any of the animals. I was the kid that would constantly bring home wounded squirrels and bunny rabbits, attempting to nurse them back to health with an eye dropper. My mother was of course always worried about me getting rabies, but I never had any fear. I knew that I had a deeper connection to the animal world and that I was attuned to their energies. So when I found myself face to face with a bobcat, once again, I had no fear. This was probably a good thing, because had I been fearful, the cat would have sensed that and would likely have reacted more negatively towards me. Instead, he was cautious and moved away from me slowly, keeping his eyes locked on me the entire time.

Bobcat

I watched him with absolute awe and wonder, observing in him the very same behaviors that I see daily in my own cats. I admired the pointy tufts on his ears and the beautiful spots on his coat, and watched, fully captivated, as he moved gracefully and with great agility, up through the trees and brush and eventually onto the upper ledge of the hill beside me. For me this was an unforgettable moment that I will carry with me for the rest of my life; a powerful moment of connection with the natural world.

Absolutely thrilled with my magical encounter, I got back in my car and headed south down The Pacific Coast, continuing along my journey. Anyone who has ever traveled The Pacific Coast Highway knows that there is no shortage of mind-blowing, breathtaking vistas, all along the way. For that reason, one generally takes their time, pulling off to the side of the road often to take in dramatic views. At one point, while I was driving along, I saw a bunch of people pointing up at the sky. I pulled off the road to see what they were looking at. It turned out this was a prime location for spotting the great California Condor and there was a gaggle of birdwatchers, waiting patiently with their binoculars. I stopped and looked for a while, but after not spotting any, I hopped back in the car and continued on my way.

And then, there it was. As I was cruising down the highway, I looked up and saw him soaring directly overhead, a graceful, powerful Condor. Such majesty, such absolute freedom. I imagined myself flying like a bird, high above the Earth, taking it all in. I felt my spirit once again expand at the great fortune of having yet another beautiful connection with nature. Filled with amazement and gratitude, I continued on my way.

A little further along the highway, I stopped to take a picture at another fantastic vista point. And low and behold, there was the pair of couples from my first hike. We greeted each other again and this time chatted more about where we were from, where we were going, etc. I would bump into these same couples two more times over the course of my three-day journey, and each time we laughed with delight at the synchronicity; each time it confirmed for me the interconnectedness of all beings on this Earth. How wonderful it is to connect with other people, to get to know a little bit about complete strangers, reminding me once again that although I was traveling by myself, I was never alone.

DSCN1400

After taking in another marvelous vista, I got back in my car and continued on my way, a smile on my face. I coasted around the windy, curvy highway, having an absolute blast driving my stick-shift, the windows down, the music blaring, and the wind blowing through my hair. I thought to myself, “it doesn’t get any better than this.” A few moments later, I rounded a bend, and in the turn-off to my left, I saw a man with his Great Dane. The dog was up on his hind legs and the man was dancing with him. I laughed out loud… and then my eyes filled with tears… tears of joy.

I realized in that moment that life is not about what we’ve accomplished, how much money we make, or about any of the material things we’ve amassed. It is not about whether we are alone or with another. It is about connection: connection with other human beings, connection with animals, connection with spirit. It is about living in the present moment, and taking in the beauty, the magic, and mystery that surround us at every moment. It is about the experiences that leave an indelible mark on our soul. It is about the moments that take our breath away. It is about living. And it is about dancing with your dog…

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Cathedral of Cusco

I remember the moment as if it were yesterday. We were walking through the main square of Cusco, Peru, towards the majestic Cathedral glistening in the afternoon sun, when Danielle said to me, “It’s all perfect Jeannie. You are simply in the gestation period, things are incubating. You are getting ready to have a rebirth.” Who is Danielle and to what on earth was she referring? Danielle Hougard was the Anusara Yoga teacher who was leading me on my first ever yoga retreat. But she was not just any yoga teacher. Danielle is one of those special “Earth Mother” types, the type of woman who exudes love and motherly instincts from every cell of her body, the type of woman who is truly in touch with her intuition, the Spirit of Earth and Sky, and the energies of every living creature around her. This is a wise women who just seems to “know” things, and somehow when she says them you just know that you can trust her.

Danielle was responding to my story of how my life had fallen into ruins: I had moved across country to fight for love, only to find myself rejected and abandoned. If that wasn’t enough I had arrived at the beginning of the recession and was thrust headfirst into months of unemployment. Running out of money and desperate for work, I was compelled to take a minimum wage job at a retail store. It was depressing enough that I had gone from a successful, high-paying management career in Washington, DC, to making minimum wage, but in the depths of my own heartache, I was now forced to endure hundreds of happy couples strolling about arm in arm as the irritating Christmas carols pumped out incessantly through the loudspeakers of the shopping mall. But worst of all, every day I lived in fear that the man who had broken my heart would stroll in with HIS new girlfriend on his arm. This was my rock bottom. If there is a Hell on Earth, this was definitely it.

Fortunately through a stroke of “luck,” I was finally able to find a “real” job. Things were looking up, I could finally leave my minimum wage job and get back to building my career….Or so I thought. Sadly my luck would not last and I was laid off several months later, and found myself yet again in a period of protracted unemployment. So here I was in Peru, six months after having been laid off and I hadn’t had a single bite to the hundreds of resumes sent. My life was completely stagnating. I was having no luck on the job front, no luck on the love front, every cell in my body ached and mourned for the loss of my best friend, and I was depressed to the point where I did not want to get out of bed in the morning. The only thing I could feel in my life was a palpable feeling of stagnation. I was completely stuck.

Danielle’s response to this story was a friendly smile and a reassuring nod, telling me that everything I had just described was actually “PERFECT,” that although on the surface it felt like things were stagnating, that actually behind the scenes there were forces at work, and that I was simply in the gestation period…that I was simply getting ready for a powerful rebirth. Though to my rational (and depressed!) mind this sounded a little bit unusual and way too good to believe, the certainty with which she spoke these words gave me a momentary peace. I prayed that she was right.

By now you may be wondering what I was doing in Peru after the story I just described and given my obvious state of unemployment. Well, call me a risk-taker, but when life gets really dark and gloomy, that’s when something deep inside of me says “SCREW IT” and propels me to go do something incredible and adventurous, to try to drag myself reluctantly out of the muck. All of my life I had dreamed of going to Peru. When I was in high school Spanish class, my teacher would show us pictures of Machu Picchu and I just knew that I had to go there one day. So when I found myself in the midst of my “dark night of the soul,” and completely stuck, I knew I had to do something to try to unstick myself.

Several days after walking through that square in Cusco, we found ourselves on the very tip-top of Huayna Picchu Mountain, high above the breath-taking, mind-boggling and awe-inspiring creation that was Machu Picchu. This masterpiece defied human logic and comprehension. Its ruins were perfectly intact, each of its thousands of individual stones stacked so flawlessly and at such exquisitely engineered angles that they would remain intact and stable for hundreds of years of enduring the elements. There are honestly not any words I could ever use to adequately express what it felt like to be standing up there at 8,920 ft, literally on top of the world. As I looked around us, I was overcome with goosebumps at the beauty of the jagged, majestic mountains that shot dramatically up into the heavens, hugged and nurtured by the blankets of fog. If there was a God, he/she was certainly here. I felt the great Spirit of the Earth in the wind that whispered into my ears, in the Sun that warmed my back, and in the solid stone beneath my feet, stones that had held the weight and cradled the souls of hundreds of thousands of humans across the centuries. I was awed to my core. Standing up here at this great height, surrounded by the magic and mystery of Mother Earth, I knew I was being supported.

Me on top of Huayna Picchu Mountain, with Machu Picchu far below

At the end of our 10-day journey, completely moved and humbled by the Grace, beauty and humility of the Peruvian people, we returned home to the States, and I back to the chains of stagnation in Los Angeles. The minute I touched down in Los Angeles, I knew I had to leave. I am a stubborn person. And because I loved Los Angeles and felt a profound spiritual connection with her, I had previously been determined to stay there, despite the fact that the signs seemed to point elsewhere. But now the Universe had given me a breadcrumb to follow. You see, this yoga group, led by this sweet soul Danielle, was actually from San Francisco, and I only found them through an “accidental” twist of fate through a web search. Nobody on the trip could figure out why I was staying in Los Angeles after the horror I had described. They encouraged me to move to San Francisco. Considering that my life was completely stagnant and that I had already lost everything of importance that I could possibly stand to lose, I decided it was time to break free of my prison.

This is when Grace took over. Only five days after moving to San Francisco, for what was intended to be a one-month temporary sublet to test out the waters, a job offer had fallen unexpectedly into my lap. Over the weeks that followed, I frantically looked for a permanent apartment in San Francisco, searched desperately for someone to take over my lease in Los Angeles, packed up my entire one-bedroom apartment in 24 hours and drove the entire load, by myself, the six-hour drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco, and then started my new job the next day. Just like that, my life had shifted dramatically. Danielle’s words about an impending “rebirth” were ringing in my ears. But what I didn’t know was that this was just barely the beginning. I was only in the earliest contractions and still had over a year of “labor” ahead of me.

17 months later, after months and months of undue stress and anxiety in my corporate job, I was let go. Bowled over by the unexpected blow, I picked myself back up and threw myself immediately back into the job search. But the minute I did so, another breadcrumb was laid down for me. I had written my very first blog post, about my journey of healing through yoga, and it had felt good. But not only did it feel good, it got a good response. Somehow, as if in a daze, I suddenly found myself with my own blog and I began writing. Never having had any interest in being a writer, it was as if a higher force had suddenly taken over and was simply pulling my puppet-strings and moving me along a new and unexpected path. But this path felt right.

Now only eight short months since losing my job, I have over 20,000 beautiful, bilingual fans in 35 countries around the world, my work has been published in several different publications, I am now a regular contributor to Elephant Journal, writing in both English and Spanish, I’m about to be featured in Martha Stewart’s Whole Living Magazine, and I have just completed and submitted my very first book proposal, with the hope that I will soon be a published writer. I couldn’t have imagined this dramatic turn of events in my life even eight months ago when I lost my job. In fact almost daily I look back and scratch my head with delight and wonder. But there would be no way in my wildest, craziest dreams that I could have imagined this, as we walked through that square in Cusco talking about my impending “rebirth.”

A few weeks ago we had a reunion from our Peru trip, now just past the two-year mark since we took our trip, and I was reminding Danielle of this moment from Cusco. Danielle then told me something that I hadn’t yet known, something that made this entire experience even more unbelievable and magical to me: the name Cusco means “navel of the Earth.” Danielle had been right, I was in the gestation period and I was getting ready for a “rebirth.” What I hadn’t realized was that I had to go to Cusco, the “navel of the Earth,” in order for the “rebirth” to begin…

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Balinese Offering

As previously featured on Elephant Journal.

I had been warned that I would experience reverse culture-shock upon returning from Bali, one of the 17,000 islands of Indonesia. I have a little bit of first-hand experience with this concept, having spent my junior year of college living abroad in Spain. When I returned back to the United States and then to a small, rural college town in New England, I felt like I had landed on a different planet. I had gone from a diverse and international community in the midst of a pulsating urban center with a rich cultural and artistic history, to being in the middle of farmland in one of the least diverse states in the nation. So yes, I knew all about reverse culture-shock. But I was only going to Bali on a two-week yoga retreat; surely that was not enough time to experience any kind of culture shock upon my return. I was not worried.

I guess I should have heeded the warning. After the 24 or so hour journey home from Denpasar, we landed in San Francisco late on a Sunday night. My body had no idea what time it was; it didn’t know if it should eat, sleep, or go for a walk! It happened to be just before midnight on what would be the 4th of July, a surreal time to be arriving back home from my first ever trip to Asia. As we drove into the city, headed down the Octavia St. ramp and then made the turn onto Fell St., I was very aware of the fact that I was experiencing the exact same sensation I had had when I found my feet back on the rural earth of New England, all of those years prior; I felt like I had entered the twilight zone. San Francisco is a very vibrant and lively city, full of energy, and as the city was teeming with tourists for the 4th of July festivities, one would imagine it being even more so; and to the average bystander it probably felt exactly that: alive. But to me that night it felt like a dead zone. As we drove past the dark and austere buildings of brick and wood, the city seemed almost depressed to me.

Why did it all of a sudden look so different to me? Bali had provided a stark contrast. The island is famous for being a “spiritually elevated” place with some of the world’s most happy and smiling inhabitants. And that description couldn’t have proved more true. In Bali the idea of community is one of their most important themes. Within a particular village, all of the men are required to join what is called a “Banjar”, essentially the Balinese equivalent of a community organization. The Banjar meets weekly to discuss and decide on issues that impact everyone in the village; such as when to fix a road, rebuild a side-walk or whether or not to allow a bar to open. The men of the village take their Banjar responsibilities very seriously and any men that neglect their Banjar duties are fined accordingly.

In addition to the Banjar, the rest of the villagers are heavily involved in their communities as well. They all work together to organize and perform in local, traditional dance performances, which take place often on a daily basis. They help one another out in times of need. If someone’s house catches fire, you will see the entire community grabbing buckets of water and running to the scene to help. The community also comes together in times of ritual and celebration. In Balinese Hinduism, the highest honor that a person can receive is to have a cremation ceremony. When it comes time for this elaborate and beautiful ceremony, the entire community will come together to assist with the building of the cremation tower and to celebrate the life and right of passage of the deceased.

Balinese life very much takes place in the streets. You see the happy Balinese people out and about (amidst the dogs and hundreds of chickens!) walking, talking to one another, welcoming tourists. And everywhere you look you will see smiles, wider ear to ear smiles than I have ever seen. You see men and women alike bringing their sacred offerings to their Temples, multiple times a day; all to honor and appease the Deities in order to bring blessings upon their village, and the citizens within the village. Community is everything in Bali.

So imagine I come home to a society where it is rare for anybody to talk to their neighbors (unless you have a complaint!), where we spend much of our time isolated either in our homes or in our cars, or in our offices working like dogs, and where if you regularly smile at strangers who pass you on the street, you will more likely than not be taken for a crazy person! This city that had once felt so alive and energized to me, now felt very cold and harsh…and concrete.

What shocked me most of all was the number of homeless people in San Francisco. Knowing that I live in a city with one of the highest populations of homeless people in the country, this should not come as a surprise to me. I see it everyday, day and night, no matter where I go. But the reason that this was suddenly so glaring to me is that in Bali I saw none. Here I was in what the US would consider a “Third Word Country” and I did not see a single person sleeping on the streets or pan-handling. How could this be? I’ve traveled to plenty of Third and even Second and First world countries and seen ample and visible homelessness. So how is it that on this island of nearly four million people, I didn’t see any? The answer is the “family compound”.

Balinese family in their family compound

Anyone who knows me personally knows that this term has a funny, personal connotation to me. You see, my dad comes from a large Italian family, and because several of the siblings built their houses on the same plot of land, side by side and back to back to one another, they have created what we in my family call the “compound”. Well, it seems that my Italian relatives may have been onto something. In Bali, everyone lives in what they call a “family compound”. The oldest brother is the head of the compound, the wives then follow their husbands to their family compounds, and then the grandparents, aunts, uncles, and grandchildren all live together, all working together to support the family compound and its members. So you see, it would be really difficult to become homeless in Bali, because even if a member of the family finds themselves jobless or down and out, because they live in the family compound, they are supported by the rest of the family. Very simply put, the Balinese take care of their own.

So to come home to San Francisco, where on any given day I can see 10-20 people, without homes, without any way to wash themselves, pushing around all of their Wordly possessions in their grocery carts, wondering where they will find their next meal; was a sobering experience to say the least. I found myself wondering how this can be in the richest country in the world when a “Third World” island like Bali has no such problem.

Another element of Balinese society that stood out to me is the way they care for their elderly. They remain in the family compound, as the family elders to impart their wisdom on the grandchildren, and they are very much involved with the day to day functions of the family unit: cooking meals, making offerings, contributing to any family artisanship (ex. mask-making, puppet-making, etc). I came back to America thinking about the fact that we so often put our elderly in nursing homes, that we essentially pawn them off on someone else to take care of them. Now I recognize that this has just become somewhat of a norm in our society and that many people do it out of necessity, and certainly not out of any lack of love. I know it is a horrible decision for many people to have to make. But when I saw this very distinct society that has found a much more humane way to take care of their elders, through the family compound, it simply seemed barbaric to me that our society has developed in the way that it has.

The last aspect of Balinese society that really struck me as beautiful and contrasting to our own was their devotion; their devotion to Earth and Spirit equally. When Hinduism came to Indonesia from India, as early as the first Century, it mixed with the animist religions that already existed on the Indonesian archipelago, forming a unique brand of Hinduism, which today remains only on the island of Bali.  Animism encompasses the belief that there is no separation between the spiritual and physical worlds, and that spirits exist not only in humans, but also in all other animals, plants and all other parts of nature.  The Balinese people very much live off of the land, and because of this belief that we, the Earth and everything on it, are all part of Spirit, they have a deep respect and reverence for all parts of nature. Being an agrarian society, with rice being the most important crop, the Balinese take special care to nurture their fields. They understand that if they disrespect the land, that it will cause everything and everyone to be out of balance. For that reason they spend pain-staking amounts of time and energy to honor their Deities, the Gods of the sky, the Gods of the rice, etc, by making beautiful little baskets of offerings. To walk about Bali is to see hundreds of offerings, everywhere. You will see them on cars, in front of storefronts, in restaurants, at Temple gates, and on sidewalks. As a tourist you really have to watch your step to not step on them as you go. Multiple times a day you see men and women alike coming out in their lovely sarongs and Temple scarves, to leave a beautiful offering at a Temple.

Balinese woman leaving daily offerings at temple gate

When is the last time any of us went outside and thanked the land for providing us with our food and water? What does our society do to stay in balance with Earth and Spirit? I’ll let you answer that for yourselves. I have my own thoughts on the matter.  But I do know that many of our own Native American tribes do this. The society that I have described above is very similar to Shamanic societies all around the world. I have studied much on this favorite topic of mine, as it is something from which I believe we can learn great lessons. I am intrigued by how native societies all over the world, thousands of miles apart, have developed very similar rituals and ways of living that honor the Spirits around them, the Spirits of Earth and Sky. If I can apply a pop-culture reference, if any of you have seen “Avatar”, then perhaps you know what I’m talking about. That film was poignantly timed and did a powerful job of illustrating the beauty and wisdom of a Shamanic society, of the importance of respecting, honoring and integrating with the land around us. Picture the scenes in “Avatar” and you can pretty much picture Bali.

So what is my point? Am I saying that Bali is a better place to live than America? Bali is a beautiful, magical, spiritually “elevated” place, that is absolutely true. And would I accept an invitation to live there, even if only for a while? You better believe it! But I am not saying that any one place is better to live than the other, and I have to state that because I know that there will be people who read this and make that mistake. I definitely recognize the wonderful things about the United States (as I did after my adjustment home from Spain as well), but the beautiful thing about travel is that it gives you perspective, perspective to see what is good about one’s society and what we have to be thankful for; but it also provides us with the perspective to see what is not so good about our own societies, what can be improved upon and where we have room to grow as a people.

I believe the true definition of a Patriot is someone who is not so arrogant to believe that they are better than everyone else, but rather is humble enough to know that he can learn from other people, other cultures. And while a country that still performs animal sacrifice, a country that does not use toilet paper and a country where offerings are made to appease the Gods, would most often be considered “primitive” by the Western world, instead I would argue that it has a lot to teach us. The real question is, are we humble enough to learn?

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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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