This week I’m thinking of all the women in my life, because March 8 is, after all, International Women’s Day and this is, by extension, International Women’s Month. The idea itself dates back to 1910. Its historical roots lay in the socialist movement of the late 19th century, and the international celebration of women was first put forth by German Socialist Clara Zetkin, a fervent fighter for workers’ and women’s rights in late 19th and early 20th century Europe. Zetkin started out as a member of the Socialist Democratic Party in Germany (the SPD – which is, incidentally, the oldest political party in Germany and still one of the major parties today, having governed most recently in a grand coalition with the Christian Democratic Union and the Christian Social Union, the CDU/CSU, until late 2009). But she took her fight to the streets early on, founding the Spartacus League (Spartakusbund) with fellow revolutionaries Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht and joining the the German Communist Party (KPD), in the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the German Revolution of 1918. Unlike her contemporaries Liebknecht and Luxemburg, whose fate came in the form of a bullet, Zetkin managed to keep her head and work within the framework of the German parliament, the Reichstag, most of her life. Her last act as political activist was to fight against National Socialism; she was forced into exile in 1933 when Hitler assumed power, and died later that year in Russia at the age of 76.
But this is not about German politics or history or revolution. This is about how, from all the chaos of the early 20th century, a legacy was born. And so, I suggest, even if you don’t agree with the politics of Clara Zetkin, you might agree that she was remarkable for her time.
And certainly you’d agree that the women who surround you today are remarkable, too.
Which leads me to reflect on women who have put meaning into my life. They are not necessarily rebelling in the streets or founding political parties. But they are doing things that are nonetheless worth mentioning here.
I’ve known Anna, for example, some thirty-five years; we met when we were silly eight-year-olds taking swimming lessons at the Red Cross in Deale, Maryland. Anna has lived all her adult life in South Dakota, so we don’t see each other much, but the swimming pool bond remains. Anna is a hardcore devotee of the outdoors. She’s an erstwhile outdoor climber (the hardest lead, no falls, she did was 5.12), and the first woman hired by the Homestake Open Cut Gold Mine in South Dakota’s Black Hills — and the only crew member to wear a pink hard hat (“Blasting was fun,” says Anna, “Kaboom!”). She’s also an artist and mother of a 16-year-old dream-child. She hung up her pink hard hat years ago and today teaches art to youngsters and takes her passion for the outdoors outdoors whenever she can. Nowadays, Anna is a mountain biker extraordinaire, peddling off-road on her Specialized Epic ’08, upgraded with
disc brakes and twist shifts. Sometimes she rides with her brother, sometimes with the Dirty Grlz or the Peddleheads, sometimes with her boyfriend (who is, conveniently, a bike mechanic), and sometimes alone. She rides for recreation and competitively. She rides to smell the trees and feel the speed. She sometimes slows down and brings along her birding binoculars. And her bandaids, ’cause in biking, as in life, she’s not afraid of a few bumps along the way.
Laura meanwhile is happily ensconced in life in Carlsbad, California, juggling her time between her job as contracting agent, soccer, softball, mother of two, and her expectations as a soon-to-be mother of three. When we first became friends she spent her days as an angler, diver, and sailor. She and her husband took off sailing in 2004 and did a 2 1/2 year Pacific loop which took them through Mexico, French Polynesia, Niue, Tonga and New Zealand. She was not a sailor to begin with, however, but an avid diver. That passion was ignited when, at sixteen, she took a course which involved walking into the tempestuous surf off a San Diego beach fully loaded down with gear – a day she remembers well since it was predicted by the older, stronger men in the course that this thin-framed blonde would never make it. She, of course, made it all the way, while the tough guys rocked and dropped in the surf around her one by one.
Laura shares her fondness for diving with her husband, and so they decided to sail the Pacific in search of some of the world’s greatest dive spots. Somewhere between re-rigging, painting, canvaswork, provisioning and in all other ways outfitting their Fantasia 35, Gunner Too, Laura learned how to sail – and sail well. Along the way they met us, and, over several months’ worth of meals and adventures and animated conversation, a permanent friendship formed. Laura’s eyes light up when you ask her about fishing with her dad. And don’t get her started on lures. “Originally I had a mackerel lure with a wire leader on the line which was hit — but that fish got away,” she recalls when I ask her about one particularly large wahoo she caught in the Marquesas. “Right afterwards, I tied a black rapala on the line, and that is what this wahoo was caught with.” No girl woops a wahoo like Laura. But she’s not just a fisher and diver. She can bleed an engine and serve up mouth-watering sushi all in an afternoon. Not to mention change the oil, take apart a winch, reef down sails, and manhandle any fish who happens to take an interest in her carefully chosen lure.
Margo lives on the opposite coast from Laura and divides her time between her professorship at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, her work as Architect at Oracle Corporation (which follows from her earlier work at Sleepycat, the company she founded with her husband which, among other things, developed the Berkeley Database), competitive soccer (“I’m a fanatic,” she admits), eclipse-chasing around the globe, and her two children. My friendship with Margo goes back to adolescence. First a friend of my older brother Marc, she’s known me through college years and early adulthood to now, and all the missteps and successes since. Besides all her obvious achievements, her greatest claim to fame is perhaps the fact that, after visiting thirteen doctors, she was the one who finally figured out that gluten-induced neuropathy was the cause of her son’s excruciating hand pain. “It’s amazing what you’ll do when your kid is in pain,” she says. It’s thanks to Margo that I now have the recipe for the most kick-ass GF/CF (gluten-free and casein-free) Chocolate Cream Pie, which she found here but then substituted almond milk for cow milk, Feishman’s margerine for butter, and GF cookies for the crust with almond oil.
I met Saaima during the noisy days of my tenure at a software consulting company in Boston in the ’90s, and she has, over the years, been my employee and employer, advisor, confidante and friend. When I met her she was a software programmer, but since then she’s become a writer and editor, website designer and fashion consultant, importer, magazine publisher, and children’s fashionwear designer. She singlehandedly launched a magazine in 2003 which put on the printed page her devotion to a cross-cultural lifestyle. The idea came to Saaima as she helped friends and family members plan their South Asian weddings on North American soil. Seeing the need for a resource to help couples plan a traditional wedding that could mix east and west cultures, Saaima buried herself in the business of layout and design, resource collection, advertising and marketing. Her first son and the first print issue of Shaadi Style both saw the light of day in 2003. Since Shaadi Style’s 2003-2006 run, Saaima has launched a few other businesses, and her most recent efforts see her still embracing South Asian culture in the form of Henna Fashions, a children’s boutique inspired by her daughter’s name and all of her children. She works with an aunt in India: Saaima conveys ideas to her aunt, who then finds fabrics in markets and works with a tailor to make clothes specific to Saaima’s instructions and ideas. With four children of her own, Saaima’s life is filled with color and art, inspiration and energy.
My friend Dale lives an entirely different kind of life, dividing her time between the great oceans of the world and her farm and jewelry studio in Birchrunville, Pennsylvania. I first met Dale on the dock in Redondo Beach, California. At the time she lived aboard her Hardin Voyager 44, Estimated Prophet, with her dog Tonka. She was the fittest single mother and grandma I knew, a woman with a 100 ton US Coast Guard Captain’s license who supported herself as a delivery skipper and teller of sailing yarns. We only knew each other a couple months as we outfitted Momo for offshore adventures, but it was the kind of friendship that grows out of mutual admiration and respect, and a lot of belly laughs. Dale was the last person we saw when we sailed out of that harbor forever: she stood on the pier with Tonka, waving energetically with her hearty smile.
Since then, she has sold her boat, moved back east, launched a yacht delivery business, fallen in love, bought a farm and several horses, and joined her husband’s jewelry design studio. On any given day, you might find her halfway between South America and California aboard a rollicking catamaran, picking icicles from the rigging on a wintry East coast delivery, choosing semi-precious stones for the latest designs at Purple Gem Jewelry, galloping around the Pennsylvania countryside atop her Nokota stallion, Lief, tending her vegetable garden, or making a meal with her kids and grandkids. She is a force to be reckoned with, Dale is, and I can only say how glad I am that we wandered down the same dock on that sunny November day.
Priscilla is another childhood friend, who has pursued a lifelong love affair with health care (and I don’t mean debating it, I mean doing it) and music. As a Geriatric Care Manager, she has helped many people through hospice and their final hours of life. I was moved by a recent conversation with Priscilla, when she talked about death as a unique and even beautiful experience for each individual. And that’s Priscilla: pragmatic, fearless, and loving to the core. Meanwhile, she has poured her spare energy into her community, founding the Florence Community Band in 2001 and presiding over it ever since. They started out with ten people at the first rehearsal, and now the band has grown to an active roster of fifty and boasts an eclectic repertoire and loyal following. Priscilla is the conductor, but she also fills in on percussion sometimes (“My favorite is the timpani!” she says) when there are guest conductors at music festivals. She also plays in a rock band called The Mike Hooker Experience (you can become a Facebook Fan). Priscilla plays keys, flute, alto sax, and percussion toys toys (tambourine, shakers, etc.), and she sings (mostly back-up, but lead on a couple songs). The eight member band includes, in addition to the typical lineup of guitar, base, voice and drums, a trombonist/trumpeter and a sixty-five year old barber on tenor sax
(“He ROCKS!” says P). If you pass through Florence, Mass on any given weekend, you might just hear the community band playing Gershwin’s Symphonic Portrait in the local park or you might come across Priscilla rocking out her own version of The Mammals‘ Kiss the Break of Day. Or you might find her baking cakes with her three kids or on an occasional date with her devoted husband of twenty-one years.
Meanwhile, you won’t find Julia anywhere near you, unless you happen to be in Aden just now. She’s in the second half of her circumnavigation aboard her wooden boat, Macy. She built the boat herself in her home town of Jamestown, Rhode Island, after finding the new wood bare hull. It took nine years from the purchase of the hull to the launch. Julia knew since she was a young kid that she wanted to build her own wooden boat. And when she was ready to build it – after years of working as crew and mate on schooners, skippering a 40-ton schooner one summer while in college, earning her 100 ton auxiliary sail Coast Guard license when she was 26, working as steward of a yacht club for nine years, and acquiring skills needed to build a boat by working as a finish carpenter over many years – she did. “I knew I wanted a traditional looking boat made of wood,” she says, and adds with her characteristic humor, “What is more romantic and impractical than that?” But she is a generous soul, my Julia, and she gives credit all around: “The realization of this dream required a divorce, or independence, and the… kind support of my brother…” In addition, half way through the
project a man name Dave wandered into Julia’s life. Dave just happens to own a Rhode Island lumber yard; he soon fell in love with the boat project and became Julia’s friend and partner. He’s still with Julia and the boat, too, sailing toward Masawa, Eretria and on the lookout for pirates even as I write.
Finally, how can I write about women who’ve touched my life without mentioning the one who started it all — my mother. Cecelia resides in the same mid-Atlantic town where I grew up, nestled into a comfortable corner of the Chesapeake Bay. A native of North Carolina, she broke out at sixteen, taught her first piano lessons, and got herself into university on a full scholarship. She’s been on the go ever since. For as long as I can remember, she has taught fifty students a week (that’s 500 fingers running up and down the keyboard every Monday thru Friday), starting out with a 5’5″ Baldwin baby grand and then a 7’ (still a Baldwin – those were the pianos my siblings and I grew up with). In the last ten years her studio has expanded even more, and two Bösendorfers and one Brodmann have replaced the Baldwins of my youth (and if you don’t believe my mother about the sublime nature of the Bösendorfer, just ask Tori Amos who takes hers all over the world with her). It’s thanks to my mother that I can teach my own kids a thing or two about functional harmony or the difference between the Baroque harpsichord, the classical fortepiano and the modern-day piano (though it’s admittedly easier to reference Wikipedia for the purpose of this post). Looking back, I realize how fortunate I was to have seen Ashkenazy and Horowitz, Nureyev and Fonteyn perform at Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center by the time I was ten – and to have had Mozart and Bach, Chopin and Beethoven, Debussy and Rachmaninoff as companions to my sometimes rocky youth.
I have not played the piano in many years. It’s something I left behind when I left Maryland. But I attended the 50th anniversary concert of my mother’s piano studio a couple years back and I witnessed the outpouring of love that so many people in her community shared, and it moved me more than I thought possible. To me, Cecelia is of course a force of nature: besides mother, she is teacher, mentor, disciplinarian, artist. Reader, communicator, musician, storyteller. Survivor, debater, beer-drinker, baker. Beach-goer, traveler, internationlist, humanist. Educator, supporter, critic, and fan. Optimist and pessimist all at once. But it’s quite a thing to sit in a room and experience the woman I know best in all this world as seen through the eyes of others. And to see that she is even more.
Of course, there are many, many more women I’d love to mention here. Calm Nelia and wise Sabina. Adventurous Kate and spirited Shelly. Curious George and cynical Jenny.
There are sailors, teachers, artists, writers. Doctors, dentists, engineers, scholars. Psychologists, scientists, musicians, philosophers. Mothers, daughters, wives, sisters.
But this post has to stop somewhere, and I must send my daughters off to school now, so that they too might grow and impact the world, in their own fabulous way.