3 Things I've Learned from the Strong Women in My Life

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In light of the news landscape of this week, I felt compelled to share a little more love today. The world is harsh, and humanity often lacks kind words for one another. It’s taken me a few days to put together my thoughts coherently and there is still so much more that could be said, but here is a little sliver of my heart for you.

I have the privilege of knowing incredible people who have encouraged me, prayed over me, raised me up into the person that I am today, that I am still becoming. They have challenged me to grow and pushed me out of my comfort zone and I am endlessly thankful for the impact they have made in my life.

There are so many I could thank for the role they have played, and continue to play, in my world. But I have been given an incredible legacy in the strong women who have gone before me and who have taught me some of the most important things I know, some of the things that have fundamentally shaped my outlook on the world. It is an incredible blessing to have examples like these. So without further introduction, here for you today is one thing I’ve learned from my mother and each of my grandmothers.

 

There's always room at the table for one (or five) more.

Champion Mennonite woman that she was, my paternal grandmother was the master of feeding an army at a moment's notice. She always told people that she wasn't a 'fancy cook,' which was true. She didn't make fiddly little photo-ready gourmet dishes, but everything she made was hearty and wonderful. It didn't really matter what was going on or if she'd only planned to feed her and my grandpa – if you stopped by her house around mealtime, there would be food for you too. There were always more potatoes and carrots to stretch out the soup into a bigger meal, and you never felt like an inconvenience being there. The only thing you could do was hope that you happened to stumble in on a chicken and carrot gravy day.

Her example reminds me often that our ‘tables’ are often as big as we allow them to be. The number of people at our table might be small, but there are no end of opportunities to grow. Because if we want to have people in our lives, we have to allow them to pull up a chair and stay a while. We have to consciously make space for them, even though at times it means having less room for ourselves to spread out and be comfortable. We must listen to their stories earnestly and with compassion. Real, honest relationships take time. They require supporting one another through good times and hard times; it doesn’t happen through a one-off experience or just when it’s convenient. We must know each other, trust each other, believe each other. It doesn’t have to be glamorous or staged – it just has to be real.

If our words and actions communicate that others are unwelcome, unbelieved, it should come as no surprise when they eventually stop knocking, when they would rather keep their stories to themselves. It becomes an act of self-preservation to avoid the pain that comes from being stepped on in their vulnerability. We do more hurt than we know when we make brash statements about the believability of others simply because their experiences challenge the way we view the world. But when we are conscious to listen more than we speak, to open our doors to those with whom we many not have much in common, we extend love and compassion in ways we wouldn’t be able to otherwise.

 

It's okay – and important – to speak up for yourself and others.

My mom taught me from the time I was small that you shouldn’t necessarily agree with someone just because they are in a position of authority. She told me that teachers, leaders, politicians are just as human as anyone else, that they’re capable of making mistakes and that they shouldn’t be allowed to steamroller others just because they have been given a bit of power. She encouraged me to ask questions when people made decisions that appeared strange or concerning. She told me that even if I didn’t receive the answer I had hoped, there was great value in having taken the step at all.

She taught me that you can stand up for yourself without being mean or disregarding the humanity of others, that it’s not an either/or thing: the option is not split between doormat or tyrant. You can say hard things with grace. You can ask others to do better while still being kind. Because we all have blind spots, all need others to hold us to account from time to time, all need to learn to be more sensitive to the needs of others. We don’t always realize how our decisions affect the people around us.

Often, we can’t speak on behalf of other people because it is unwise to assume we know their stories and because they are not our stories to tell. But we can and should use the privilege we have to call out the universally unacceptable, and to work to dismantle the social blind spots that leave power in the hands of those who would disregard the voices of the oppressed. To love one another well is to seek a future where each of our stories can be equally heard and equally valued.

 

Change may take time and may be hard to see in the moment, but that is no excuse for apathy.

From the time I was old enough to string full sentences together, my maternal grandmother and I talked about absolutely everything. We were both avid readers of fiction and news, and would stay up late talking about books and politics and faith and food. We had season passes to the local theatre company for several years, and made regular theatre dates throughout my time in university.

I had the opportunity to interview her for a class I took, in which we were learning the process of using oral histories as a resource. She was a committed member of the Royal Purple for over fifty years, a service organization with a long history in the community. She told me about the ways that things change over time, and how learning to do better for one another is a hard-fought battle. When asked what she hoped would be remembered about the work that had been done by the service organization, she said this: “I’d like it to be remembered that a group of people working together can do a great deal.”

In one of the last big conversations that we had before she died, we talked specifically about how feminism had impacted the world since she was born in 1929. She spoke of how drastically things had changed for women, being able to seek education and careers that would have been unheard of when she was a child. She told me how much hope she had for the future, having seen the changes wrought even just in her lifetime. And she told me not to stop pushing onward into the areas where there is still so much room to grow, that she was convinced that there could be more positive change ahead in my lifetime than she could even imagine. I have to believe she was right.


Know that I see you, that I believe (in) you. When the world seems to simply be too much, remember that you are not alone in the fight. My table is always big enough for you to join in – literally and figuratively. Your story is worth sharing. It matters. Because you matter.

 

Joyfully,

Alice