Of all the things I love to do in New York, going to an afternoon movie is one of my favorites. I love the transition from walking through the hustle and bustle streets to sitting in the storytelling vacuum of a dark theater, then emerging back into the madcap fray when it’s over. It’s a disappearing act that feels like an actual escape.
Yesterday afternoon, I went to see Battle of the Sexes, the film that tells the story of Billie Jean King’s televised tennis match against Bobby Riggs. The match became known far and wide as not only a triumph for King, but a symbol for women in America who faced a gap in equality as wide as the Grand Canyon. It was 1973 and after Riggs endlessly boasted about the superiority of men not just in tennis but in all aspects of life, King served up a wallop of a win, the kind heard ‘round the world. Entering the movie theater, that’s all I really knew, but as I watched her story unfold, I was taken by her righteous anger at being so openly disparaged for who she was–the skin she was born into–and how her story transcended a tennis match. On that big screen, she embodied every person who’d ever been “othered” because of the skin they were born with. Hers is a story of overcoming.
Even though I already knew the ending, I found myself rooting for her, so much so that my RLS kicked into high gear until she landed the win. It was exhilarating not because I anticipated a specific outcome but because I knew what her strength in that polarized situation meant to so many women across the country. I was so riled up, it took all my self-control not to shout, “Get it girl!” at the screen.
When the credits rolled and we stood up to leave, an elderly woman walked slowly in front of me, checking her feet before taking each step. When she reached the bottom of the stairs, she turned back to me, smiled, and asked if I was a tennis player. Perhaps she had cataracts because I, in no way, look like a tennis player, but I politely told her I wasn’t. She enthusiastically answered, “Well I used to be!”
I’d seen this lady as she took a seat on my row before the movie started. She struggled to get situated and looked almost downtrodden as she sat down, but by the end of the film, there was an undeniable pep in her albeit shaky step. “I didn’t know I would love the film the way I did!” she told me. “It meant so much to me.” I didn’t know her backstory and I don’t know to what extent she played tennis—for all I know, it was simply a hobby—but something about this film resonated with her in a way that lit her up. Even without knowing anything about her, I could tell hers was a story of overcoming as well.
Tennis was never one of my spiritual gifts but in college, Lisa and I test-drove the sport together as one of our elective physical fitness classes. Neither of us knew anything about tennis and by our approximation we would be horrible at it, but we figured if we took it together we’d at least have fun trying. Three times a week, she and I drove over to the tennis courts and made it our goal to simply land the tennis ball onto the courts rather than in the field beyond them. We laughed when that didn’t happen and cheered when it did and though our effort was valiant, neither of us were destined to compete at Wimbledon. We do however still text “love-love-deuce” to each other every now and then as a reminder that for a semester, we had an educationally-mandated excuse to get coffee together and listen to Beyoncé as we drove to tennis.
Leaving the movie theater yesterday, I thought again about how bad I was at tennis, but I also got to thinking about the strong women in my life; those who’ve overcome and in the process, reshaped the lives of people around them, i.e., mine.
In eighth grade, I ate lunch every day with a girl named Amanda, an aspiring country singer. She had a rhinestone cowboy hat and predicted the demise of Leann Rimes’ career a decade before it happened. Over lunch one day, she mentioned that her parents were divorced and upon hearing that, I made a face. One of the things I’ve learned about myself is that nine times out of ten, I am unable to control my facial expressions when I feel a certain way about something and apparently, I grimaced at the mention of divorce. So she asked me why. I wasn’t all that familiar with divorce at the time. My next door neighbors lived with only their mom, but we didn’t ask or talk about where their dad was. All I knew was that divorce equaled sin, at least that’s what people at church conveyed to me, so I told her as much.
She began to tear up and in my naiveté, I couldn’t understand why. Rising from her bench, she stood and looked down on me as she told me I was wrong. She explained that her parents’ marriage falling apart had nothing to do with the state of their souls and she asked where I would get such an idea. I told her the adults at church said so. Over the course of one lunch in a suburban junior high school cafeteria, she sternly clued me in to a different, less tunnel-visioned way of seeing not just her life, but life in general. She may have only been in eighth grade, but she was strong, self-assured, and I spent about a week apologizing and offering and buy her Little Debbie’s from the snack stand. Her combative strength changed my perspective.
But not all strength is the same. In college, Dr. Amy taught many of the English classes I was required to take and I came to look forward to that hour with her each day. It wasn’t that I was enthralled with every book we read, it was that I was captivated by the way she spoke. Her voice was soft but clear; calm but decisive. When she spoke, she didn’t do so flippantly. Her words were measured and specific, filled with care and learned wisdom.
This wasn’t something that came naturally to a reactive, cut-and-dry person like myself, but sitting in her classes, I began to implement mindfulness into the way I used words. She may have been audibly soft-spoken like a church mouse, but she was mighty like a lion in her command of the English language. She’s one of the few people whose prayers resonated inside of me like earthquakes, whose clarity of intention made what she said palatable to my over-studied brain, and whose measured-spirit showed me that gentleness does not equal powerlessness.
Despite my affinity for Dr. Amy’s classes, I transferred to a larger liberal arts university so I could study writing. As a byproduct of the move, I was immersed into an entirely new group of friends, one of whom was Cheryl. We’d met through my roommate and bonded over enormous glasses of sweet tea and our love of 90’s nostalgia. She eventually moved into the apartment across the street from ours, part of our very FRIENDS-like existence we were lucky to have for a couple years, but regardless of where she lived while we were in Waco, she spent most of her time in my living room.
As graduation approached, her mind was set on a particular job–a job she’d dreamed about–but there were specific steps and more schooling required to obtain it. From my living room, I was witness to the hard work of waiting she endured for over a year; how the prolonged periods of patience wore on her. Yet she never gave up and she never conceded defeat. She persevered knowing she had the ability to reach her goal.
The day she found out she was accepted into the graduate program that was the necessary next step in her goal-reaching journey, we’d just returned from spring break. We’d spent a week traveling around the major cities in Texas together, crashing with whoever’s parents were closest. That afternoon after days of driving, we were tired and really just wanted to sleep in our own beds. Cheryl drove home to her apartment and my roommate and I walked upstairs to ours. Upon opening the door, we discovered the power was out, a byproduct of my roommate forgetting to pay the bill. As he angrily called the power company to get the lights turned back on, I set myself to opening the blinds in the windows of the hot shadowy apartment to let the light in. Then, only minutes after she’d left our parking lot, Cheryl bounded back up our stairs. She flung open the front door and waving her acceptance letter in the air she screamed, “I got it!”
Together, we jumped up and down my the dark living room, she being one step closer to the dream job that a few years later, she would in fact obtain. It required hours of study, years of interning, and even taking a job in another state so that when the position finally opened, she’d be able to claim the dream that was hers. But she did it and she never lost sight of her goal. She persevered with fervor, discipline and diligence.
The truth of the matter is that I’ve never known life without strong women; they’ve been guiding and even carving my path since breath number one. This starts with my mother who sacrificed for me and my siblings when our family didn’t even have the money to buy apple juice. She worked from home so she could be there when we were young, then outside the home so she could fund the lives of three teenagers. This same strength lay within my grandmothers, both of whom imbued their wisdom and relentless love into me every chance they got. My sister, as recently as this summer, showed me that changing directions and going after a new dream requires the strength and mindset of a long distance runner. She also showed me that when the obstacles of unfamiliarity, insecurity and doubt manifest, it’s best to sing as your plow through them. Both of my aunts have served as mentors to me in different ways, both in word and in action, and my cousins are a brood of bad ass go-getters who attack life head on. Also, the men in my family have enough sense to marry strong women so my familial circle has only grown stronger with each marriage.
Outside my family, I’ve always had close friends who are females. When I was a toddler, I only wanted to play with Lindsey and Alyssa in the Sunday School room. In elementary school, I couldn’t wait for recess so I could run around the playground with Cassandra pretending to be Mario and Princess Peach. In middle school, I hung out with the girls who played percussion in the band and in high school, on both the church and the satanic public school sides of my life, girls named Rach served as my home base. Rachel at school spent hours sitting with me on the big green couch in the yearbook room talking about FRIENDS and Rachael from church spent every other hour sitting with me in a movie theater or park bench talking about life.
Every day, I carry the wonder women of my life with me; my life forever changed because of them. I learned to consider life outside my bubble from Amanda, to speak with intention from Dr. Amy, and to persevere from Cheryl. I’ve learned to sacrifice like my mom, to be present like Rachael, and to laugh and sing my way through life’s challenges like Lauren and Lisa. The list could go on and on.
Today, three of my closest friends from college are in the middle of life-altering moments. One is fighting cancer, again. Another just suffered a miscarriage. The third is a recently diagnosed bipolar mom. Each are around 30 years old and each face the battlefield in front of them—a battle of their body, of their mind, of grief, of confusion, and of loss.
Being witness to each of them, I’ve been inspired by their resolve to persevere—to be honest in both their feelings of hope and their feelings of defeat—and it’s been life-changing to see them take every step, even if it’s a shaky struggle. Whether they know it or not, their stories-in-process of strength, even in the face of a tsunami’s worth of struggle, are emboldening the people around them to believe harder, stand taller and trust fuller. They are world changers.
Why are they going through this? Why does their own world feel like it’s spinning backwards? I don’t know. But what I do know is to never underestimate the powder keg power of a strong woman. I’m in awe of them and I proudly stand in their armies; the locked-arms network of support who are lifting up three true wonder women and believing them forward. Inside each of them resides determination like The Little Engine That Could, faith like Daniel in the darkness surrounded by lions, and strength like Wonder Woman herself. And just like that Amazon heroine with the gold arm bands, nothing can stand in their way.