Phenomenal Women, Phenomenally

On this International Women’s Day, I’d like to take a moment to celebrate the women who have shaped me. Obviously, I can’t talk about everyone — as much as I’d love to sing the praises of Ann Patchett’s essays or Toni Morrison’s prose or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s ability to suck me into a story and never let me go, I had to stick to the basics. These are the most essential, those women who have inspired me, mothered and mentored me, big-sistered me in times of crisis, and kept me from doing stupid things. Without them, I wouldn’t be the woman I am today. In fact, I might not even be.

But I am. And for that — and for these — I am grateful.

Kate McKinnon

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credit: Jesse Dittmar for the The New York Times

It’s always a pleasure to watch a comedic genius at work, but when that comedian is the light that guided you out of a deep depression and set your life back on track, your enjoyment takes on new meaning. I knew nothing of Kate McKinnon before the Ghostbusters reboot, but, in true obsessive fashion, as soon as I walked out of the theatre, I began my journey down her IMDb page. As I grew more familiar with Kate’s career and began to learn her story, my post-grad problems no longer seemed impossible to surmount. Watching old YouTube videos in which she casually mentioned collecting unemployment or hating her telemarketing job gave me hope for “someday,” but more importantly, they gave me hope for this day, the one that I’m living right now, and hope kept the darkness at bay.

The adjustment from student to graduate hasn’t been easy these past 10 months, and at times, it’s gotten dark. Very dark. But even in its darkest moments (when I was, in fact, suicidal), Kate’s comedy pulled me through. So, you’ll have to forgive my zealous commitment to Kate and Saturday Night Live. I’m not exaggerating when I say they saved my life.

B’Elanna Torres

A Trekkie pretty much since birth, I lived for the school days when Dad was in charge and let us watch Star Trek on our lunch break. At sixteen, I’d seen scattered episodes of all five iterations, but Deep Space Nine was my favorite. Even though I’d finished it, I was still hopelessly attached and resented the idea that another show could replace it. However, when Dad suggested we start watching Star Trek: Voyager, my love for the franchise won out. 

Short, petite, and alarmingly ill-tempered, B’Elanna Torres was the last character I expected to love. She was also half-Klingon, which dropped her favorite character potential to precisely negative two. For those unfamiliar with Trek, Klingons, aside from Vulcans, are the most beloved alien race in the fandom. They’re also pretty ugly (think Beowulf with bedhead and a topographical map of the Rockies on his head and you’ve got a pretty decent picture of your average Klingon warrior). Additionally, they’re the loudest, most violent, most inebriated bunch, and I, a painfully shy sixteen-year-old, couldn’t relate. So you can see why I didn’t expect B’Elanna to hook me. But as the seasons progressed and her character development unfolded, the angry engineer who broke noses and cursed captains turned out to be a deeply emotional woman whose insecurities mirrored my own.

It may seem silly to say that a fictional character changed my life, but that’s exactly what she did. I didn’t know what to do with myself in high school; I was homeschooled and socially anxious, preferred books to boys, and didn’t know how to make friends, much less keep them, if they happened to fall into my lap. Everywhere I looked, I saw evidence of my insecurities. B’Elanna, herself a lonely outcast, seemed the perfect vehicle for my emotions, giving me something to hold onto while I waited for my circumstances to change.

Madeleine L’Engle, Lucille Clifton, & Annie Dillard

Around the time I met B’Elanna, three pivotal writers entered my life. It’s hard to explain what these women mean to me. I could (and probably will) devote an entire book to them, and it’s safe to say that I wouldn’t be half the writer I am today without them. Annie taught me what it means to be an artist, Lucille showed me that joy and suffering can coexist, and Madeleine laid the groundwork for the path of grace and truth that, years later, in the midst of a faith crisis, would allow others to lead me back to the light.

Rachel Held Evans & Dana Scully

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Perhaps it’s odd to pair a fictional TV character with a theological author, but in my mind, these two are permanently linked. I “met” Dana Scully in high school when my dad introduced me to The X-Files. At the time, I was too invested in B’Elanna and didn’t see the appeal of a 5’3″ lapsed-Catholic detective, but a few years later when Fox announced a revival, I decided to rewatch the show.

Around that time, I finished my junior year of college and headed into summer break galvanized by the things I’d learned in my women’s lit class (more on that later). The class had been inspiring, but it had also been infuriating, and my teacher’s examples of past injustice and oppression, much of which continued to be a problem, had exposed the flaws in what I thought was a logical world. Nothing was safe, not even religion, and pretty soon I’d entered a faith crisis. I didn’t know what to believe.

The resulting chaos hardened and embittered me, and after a summer of going through the motions of church, I longed to quit. After talking it over with a close friend, I decided to forget about church while I was at school and instead focus on finding answers to my questions. This commitment led to a string of Sundays spent reading theological books whose topics ranged from baptism to women’s roles to homosexuality. But as important as these books were to the formation of my personal beliefs, none of them helped curb my bitterness and rage.

None, that is, until Rachel Held Evans’s Searching for Sunday.

That book cracked me open and let the light shine into my soul. Reading about Rachel’s struggles with evangelical Christianity helped me see that I wasn’t alone; I wasn’t just some rebellious 20something looking to buck her parents’ rules, and best of all, I wasn’t a heretic for opening my mind to the possibility of a bigger, better, more loving God.

But even with the hope of Rachel’s words ringing in my ears, my grip on faith was tenuous. I felt guilty for doubting, and it scared me to admit that even on my best days, I still wasn’t sure that I believed in God. Could I really call myself a Christian?

Enter Dana Scully. I’d been watching her debunk aliens alongside her UFO-obsessed partner for several months before I began to notice the similarities between her story and mine. As I wrote in a letter to my sister,

Scully is a woman who knows herself, who is smart and compassionate and takes no one’s crap, but she doesn’t always know what to believe. You might not pick up on it until 7 years from now when you’re 21 and watching The X-Files in the middle of a faith crisis, but the whole show is about struggling to believe — think of Mulder and his poster. Mulder isn’t the only one who wants to believe, and Scully isn’t talking about aliens when she says that. Over the course of the show, she has to ask some hard questions. She sees and experiences things that seem to prove that God cannot exist, but then a miracle happens and she’s back to square one. She doesn’t always know what to believe — she doesn’t even always believe — but you know what? She never stops wearing that cross necklace.

So. Rachel gave me permission to believe while Scully gave me permission to doubt. To some, those may seem opposite, but to me, they’re two sides of a coin called faith.

Julian of Norwich

If The X-Files and Rachel Held Evans guided me through my faith crisis, Julian of Norwich brought me out of it. The God I had begun to consider in August of 2015 — the God who loved more than s/he hated; who cared about everyone, regardless their denomination; who worked through Buddhists and atheists and charlatans and “Christians”; who maybe didn’t care who you loved as long as you loved them genuinely — that God didn’t become a reality until November of 2016 when my Bible study partner and I finished reading Revelation of Love by Julian of Norwich.

“I never would have thought that a mystic Catholic nun would be the one to heal me, but here we are,” I wrote in a letter that night. “It’s hard to explain what Julian has done for me because I’m still trying to figure it out. All I know is this: my anger has drained away. My first reaction isn’t rage anymore, it’s broken-heartedness. I want to hug the whole damn world.” Coming on the tails of the presidential election, that felt like a revelation. A revelation of love.

Dr. E & Dr. Q

Anyone who knows me knows I loved being an English major, thanks in large part to my professors.

Dr. E taught Women’s Lit, the class responsible for not only my feminist awakening, but my spiritual and mental awakenings, as well. Before women’s lit, I considered myself pretty smart; after women’s lit, I realized how little I knew and set out to read as widely and deeply as I could. Dr. E also taught me to be a better critical thinker. When I came to her with questions about faith, life, politics, and art, she didn’t just hand me her opinions. Instead, she gave me books by authors of varying convictions and encouraged me to form convictions of my own.

Dr. Q taught African-American Lit, and even though we didn’t interact much until my last semester, we quickly became friends. Like Dr. E, she never told me what to think, but was always ready to discuss, and the deeper we got into the class syllabus, the more I found myself in her office, dialoging, discussing, and tossing around ideas. In fact, it was her class that gave me the tools I needed to explore Black literature on my own, something I’d longed to do but didn’t know how to start, due to lack of exposure and education.

Today, I consider both women to be dear friends. Their willingness to invest in me has changed me, made me a better person. I wouldn’t be as thoughtful, articulate, or passionate without their examples to guide me, and I wouldn’t be as aware of the world without the lessons they challenged me to learn.

Laura

I call her my mentor, but really, there isn’t a word for what we have. I guess the closest term would be “sister-friend,” though even that isn’t adequate. We met at a youth retreat (I a student, she a chaperone) and later got to know each other through email before starting a Bible study that continues even now. She was the one who introduced me to Annie Dillard, Lucille Clifton, Madeleine L’Engle, and countless other artists that I love. Without Laura, I wouldn’t have studied English, met my professors, returned to The X-Files, picked up Julian of Norwich, or dared to read a book by Rachel Held Evans. My entire life would look different.

I share all this not just to celebrate her, but to encourage you to invest in the people around you. Go outside your comfort zone. Strike up a conversation. Write a note of thanks to the people who encourage you. Walk through every door that opens and don’t dismiss someone just because they don’t fit your mold of what a friend, a sister, a mentor, a writer, or X,Y,Z should look like. I had people telling me I should get to know Laura for months before I met her, and every time, I ignored them because the thought of introducing myself to a stranger was terrifying. Thankfully, it worked out. But only because she went outside her comfort zone and started talking to me. And thank God that she did.

Happy International Women’s Day 🙂

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3 thoughts on “Phenomenal Women, Phenomenally

  1. Elizabeth says:

    Lovely. The way you wrote about Julian is perfect. I think you’ve also wonderfully explored how meaningful fictional characters can be to us. -Why- my favorite characters are my favorite is not something I had considered before, but now I want to take a closer look. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

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