09/27/20

Forever Friends: Leaving a Legacy of Learning and Love

Friends Sylvia Patzlaff (left), Chris Clarke Epstein (middle) and me bed-dancing (instigated by Chris) at my first NSA Convention, 1987

One of my forever friends, mentor, colleague, instigator of all things creative and empowering, Chris Clarke-Epstein passed away on Friday from metastatic breast cancer. Whew. You think you can handle it and you should hold it together because that’s what she would do and want for you, and yet my walks are plodding and my heart hurts—for her, her family, for all of us who knew her and those who never will.

I know I’m writing a memoir here in this post and Chris would edit me for brevity but some moments, some lives, give and teach you so much, you ask for a one-time papal dispensation on word count.

Last Wish

I also know so many, many people are feeling as deeply as I am. Her leadership, reach, and impact on members of the National Speakers Association (NSA) and her local Wausau community are legendary. Our shared friends on Facebook number 319 and many have written such beautiful tributes and memories to Chris and I have loved reading all of them. If you didn’t know her, I hope you have a Chris in your life, and if you don’t, make it a priority to find one. And vote. Early if you can. One of Chris’s last wishes.

Along with the feelings of sadness, I’m equally grateful for all the life I was lucky to share with her and her family over the years, especially during the early growth of my speaking career and our leadership in NSA that gave me a life I never could have dreamed up on my own.

Big Sisters, Best Advice, Hardest Truths

Chris and I met at our local Wisconsin chapter back in the 1980’s. Wow, we were young and so excited to share our motivational messages and learn the speaking business. Similar to many of you, along the way Chris and I became close friends. She was the big sister I had always hoped for. She always had the best advice and sometimes the hardest truths, spoken with care and always with the intent to help me be a better me.

Chris celebrated me, encouraged me, made me laugh (including dancing on hotel room beds when we were conference roommates), lighten up, and step up, and cheered me on as we moved through NSA Chapter Leadership and into National leadership. She’s the one who whispered in my ear at a Wisconsin chapter meeting for board nominations, “Put your hand up. You’re ready. You can do this.” Two chapter presidencies followed.

“Yes, your decision is difficult for many reasons. So try this on: What is it that you most want and need? Decide for that and decide on a reasonable time to re-evaluate, let’s say, six months. And in between then, live that decision with your whole heart, no wavering or looking back, only forward until that future day arrives. Only then, evaluate and ask yourself, “Am I better off now than I was back then?” Likely you’ll be better off, but if not, you go back to the other choice or make a new one.”

Chris’s values, her belief in herself, and in me gave me the confidence to follow my heart and move to San Diego. Twenty-eight years later, it’s turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life.

A few months after moving to San Diego, 1992.
There is nothing like Big Talk on the beach with a best friend!

“Of course we’re here. Where else would we want to be but here!”
-Chris Clarke Epstein

My Mother, My Friend

After my mom died and while I was writing my book, “My Mother, My Friend,” Chris shared her stories and her mom JunieB with me. When the book came out, my first stop on the book tour was hometown Milwaukee at a Barnes & Noble where the most intimidating audience of family, high school and college teachers, and friends who had never seen me speak were coming. Chris and June drove four hours from Wausau and surprised me just before I was ready to go on with the biggest hugs and “You can do this.”

Chris, her mom JunieB, and me at my book signing, 2001

Happy Moments, Memories and Photos

As the years went on and our paths went in different directions, we didn’t connect as often but every phone call was as if no time had passed. Two summers ago I took her writing class and as always, her insights and edits made everything better. When her mom passed last January, Chris wrote on Facebook that she went through photos to remember her mom from her favorite memories and suggested that we not only do the same but that we remember to take the photos in those happy moments. I’m so glad I did. Over the past few days as I’ve been going through my photos, thinking about Chris, her fierce love, messages of lifelong learning, showing up, and embracing change, the words from an old Flavia card kept wandering into my mind. I finally looked it up. For those of you who knew Chris, I think you’ll agree that she was all of this and more…

“Some people come into our lives and quickly go. Some people move our souls to dance. They awaken us to a new understanding with the passing whisper of their wisdom. Some people make the sky more beautiful to gaze upon. They stay in our lives for a while, leave footprints on our hearts, and we are never, ever the same.”

– Flavia
Mentors matter. These three women leaders (top/Leslie Charles, center/Chris Clarke-Epstein, right/Marilynn Semonick) mentored me through my speaking career.

Who is a Chris in your life? Do they know? I encourage you to write them an email or handwrite and send a letter, or better if you can, go visit them. Tell them what you’ve learned from them while you still have time. Chris would love that.

PS. And remember to vote. And vote early.

09/19/20
Ruth Bader Ginsberg doll at San Diego Administration Building Women's March, 2019

What Would RBG Do? Democracy, Death, and Mindful Photography

Ruth Bader Ginsberg doll at San Diego Administration Building Women's March, 2019

“Fight for the things you care about,
but do it in a way that will lead others to want to join you.”
-Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Supreme Court Justice

Rest In Peace and Justice, Judge Ginsburg. 

You know a person has reached iconic status when dolls, puppets, cartoons, t-shirts, posters, political signs, avatars, coffee mugs, buttons, Saturday Day Night Live, and little girls dressed in black Judge’s robes with white lace collars and black glasses for Halloween trick-or-treating are showing up everywhere in photos and memes on social media and public outings.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg gained that iconic status for many honorable reasons. Her fight for human rights, her integrity, impeccable attention to facts and detail, her work ethic, stamina in the face of multiple cancer diagnoses in her later years, and her serious nature tempered by her dry humor, are legendary. All of these qualities and her lifelong commitment to social justice, in particular the rights of women, continue to inspire me and millions of others.

Hearing about her death felt monumental for many reasons, including learning that her last wish spoken to her family was that “I not be replaced until a new president is installed.” Think about that for a second. One of the most respected humans in the United States is not just thinking about her family’s future as she’s dying. She’s thinking about all of us and our country’s future. What does that say to you? To me, it says many things, but most importantly, that going forward I live my life and use my voice and vote in a way that honors her legacy.

Mindful Words and Photos

At some point, we all learn from experience that words and images can make one person think and feel a certain way — especially politics and death in an election year — and doesn’t always lead others to the same thoughts and feelings.

As someone who has learned through uncomfortable trial and error at times to be more mindful of the words I post and the photographs I take and post publicly, I hesitated to post the RBG doll photo I took at the 2019 Women’s March here in San Diego out of concern for seeming disrespectful of Justice Ginsburg’s passing and trivializing her significant contributions to our country and its future. But the image kept showing up in my thoughts and I’ve learned to pay attention to that creative calling.

I’ve also found it helpful to apply my mindful self-compassion practice to my writing and photography, so with those guiding principles to make a decision about the image, I read through tributes and stories about Justice Ginsburg’s life and went back through my photos from that day at the Women’s March.

What’s the Deeper Message?

There are so many beautiful photos and meaningful tributes to Judge Ginsburg’s influence and passing online, which convinced me to keep exploring the deeper message of this iconic photo that kept looping in my mind but that I hadn’t looked at in over 18 months.

As I scrolled through my phone looking for my Women’s March photos, I finally found the image, remembering that I took the photo spontaneously when the homemade RBG doll popped up in front of my face and made me smile while I was listening to very serious speeches on human rights issues in front of our City of San Diego Administration Building that day.

“Think back to 1787. Who were ‘we the people’’? … They certainly weren’t women … they surely weren’t people held in human bondage. The genius of our Constitution is that over now more than 200 sometimes turbulent years that ‘we’ has expanded and expanded.” -Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Georgetown University Speech, 2015

Just after the mini RBG photo, I scrolled to another photo and remembered an equally humbling and energizing interaction that day. An older woman in a wheelchair was being pushed by her daughter, holding a sign that said, “I didn’t go through hell and proudly study to become a U.S. Citizen for this crap. #WomensWave #immigrationreform #healthreform.”

Besides witnessing this woman’s anger and activism, I was immediately transported back three decades, remembering how I wheeled my mother around in a wheelchair for four years after botched spinal surgery and before her death from ovarian cancer. Preparing her for an outing, getting her in and out of the car, lifting her and the chair over bumps in cement sidewalks and damp grass required herculean strength that often exhausted and frustrated me to tears in addition to the sadness I felt for her lack of personal mobility.

Immigrant American citizen mother in a wheelchair holding a sign at the 2019 Women’s March in San Diego.
2019 Women’s March, San Diego | Photo by Mary Marcdante

With my mom’s memory in mind, I asked them for permission to take their photo, and they both nodded yes. Beyond the mom’s sign, her wheelchair, and looking frail, I don’t know the rest of their story, but I do know that people don’t go the effort that she and her daughter and millions of others around the United States continue to do in the name of racial and social justice without themselves or someone they love having personally suffered so much that they would give their life energy and risk their safety to do it.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg fought every day in the highest court in our country for 27 years for all citizens’ rights to freedom and during that time also fought her own battles with colon and metastatic pancreatic cancers. Why did she fight so hard?

“Women belong in all places where decisions are being made. It shouldn’t be that women are the exception.” -Ruth Bader Ginsburg on CNN, 2009

What Would RBG Do?

As I felt my way through the photos and memories, a burst of doubt and then cynicism surfaced. My thoughts included, “Is this too trite?” followed by “Seriously, you’re stressing on a stupid photo? Post it already — or don’t, but stop thinking you’re so important that it matters.” Ugh. Inner voices can be as mean as people in real life. Sometimes worse. These are times when I’m so grateful for mindful self-compassion meditations.

I stopped and did a one-minute compassionate breathing exercise. When I finished I had this idea to ask Justice Ginsburg’s spirit, “What would you do?” The answer came quickly. “Do a search on Google for my quotes.” So I did. And I found so many inspiring ideas and more than enough responses of “I never thought of that!” my energy shifted and sparked that same empowered feeling I had that morning at the March.

“People ask me sometimes… ‘When will there be enough women on the court?’ And my answer is, ‘When there are nine.’ People are shocked, but there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.” -Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 2015

I also found articles on RBG’s humor and this comment about how she felt about her pop icon status by Betsy West, the director of her documentary, RBG: “In many ways, I think she’s embraced that [pop icon status] as an opportunity to reach a wider audience about the message of democracy and the rule of law.

2019 San Diego Women’s March Participants Marching and Chanting, “This is what Democracy Looks Like.” Video by Mary Marcdante

So…does a photo of an RBG doll honor her death and legacy and spread the message of democracy and the rule of law a little bit further? What do you think?

I think Judge Ginsburg would affirm the decision. Photo posted.

PS. Your vote matters more than ever on Tuesday, November 3, 2020. Check your U.S. voter registration status or register to vote here and vote early if you can.