Learning Self-Love from an Accidental Mentor
This is the first in a series of weekly posts from Accidental Mentors subscribers about one of their accidental mentors. Today's guest writer is Amy Russell.
Amy Russell has been Unitarian Universalist minister for more than two decades at churches in Maryland, Ohio, and Virginia. She is partially retired and enjoying life as a grandmother, quilter, and writer of fiction. She lives in Richmond, VA where she enjoys walks with her Airedale, Sam, and her husband, Bill.
At the time I met her, I was a young working mother with anxious doubts of my ability to pull off the Supermom schtick so many of my generation seemed to expect. How could I be the nurturing, bring- the-cupcakes-to-homeroom mom while also be the confident businesswoman who flies to New York for the day? I mused about this in meetings where PowerPoint presentations droned on endlessly while I tried to will my eyes to stay open after nights of children’s bad dreams or wet beds.
Invited by a friend to an interesting sounding women’s circle, I didn’t suspect that the friendship I found there would be life-altering. I wended my way down the ceramic tiled stairway into a musty smelling basement, nervous at my first foray into a Unitarian Universalist church. My anxiety disappeared as Joanne, the leader of the group, introduced me to women of varying ages as they entered, all warmly welcoming. That circle of free spirits immediately became a sanctuary, a place where I could share openly my vulnerability and my determination.
It was in that circle often led by Joanne, that I began to learn to love not only the feminine divine spirit within me, but also my female body, which had frequently been my nemesis. Standing up proudly and running her hands down her full-figured body, Joanne admitted her practice of standing before a full-length mirror, completely and unapologetically naked, determined to love her body despite the seeming betrayal of aging flesh. “We must love our bodies,” she admonished us. “We must believe in ourselves, even if no one else does.” I listened, considered, and learned.
It was Joanne who became my accidental mentor and lifelong friend when she recognized something in me that reminded her of her own journey, a journey toward becoming a strong, confident but nurturing woman.
In her sunny breakfast nook, we would have wide-ranging and hours long conversations about everything from world affairs to our shared love of fiction. Often her two cats would stalk us from their perches on high kitchen shelves. She would talk to them, not in a sweet high-pitched voice, but instead with a dry, sarcastic tone as she called them “cold, arrogant, bags of fur”.
That day as she was brewing tea and filling a small plate with my favorite soft oatmeal cookies, I told her that I was having second thoughts about my career as a corporate trainer. She turned with an amused look on her face, her blue eyes alight.
“Well, I’m not surprised. You have so much more to offer the world.” she said smiling.
Warm pride filled me, but also a bit of fear. “What do you think I have to offer the world?”
Joanne set my teacup in front of me and sat down, her face reflecting her caring attention. “You’ve got many gifts. So, you can take those skills anywhere. But where do you want to make a difference in the world?”
“Well, I’m thinking about ministry, “I said tentatively.
Joanne’s face showed her delight, “I was hoping you’d say that.”
The next few years were not easy as I made my way toward my goal. There were many more times of sleepless nights, and difficult days doubting my ability to complete my journey to ministry. But whenever I reached out to Joanne, she would once again remind me that whatever I wanted to be, if I believed in myself, I could make it happen.
At my ordination, Joanne gifted me with one of the many small, artistic objects that I remembered from her own collection: a bright blue ceramic Egyptian cat representing protection. It has graced my office shelves ever since reminding me of a cat’s arrogance, the epitome of self-love and determination.
We stayed in touch, visiting whenever I was able to get back to Ohio. Her continued interest in my unfolding journey into whom I had become meant the world to me. Many years later, when I lived in another city, I learned of her decline with age and a move into assisted living. I arranged to go visit a couple of months later.
I came upon her sitting quietly staring out the window in her small, overcrowded room. When she looked up, her face clouded with confusion for a moment, then broke into a joyful smile of recognition. As we talked, I noticed her sagging shoulders and sad eyes, no longer her former enthusiastic self. When I asked her about her adjustment to her new life in this facility, she shook her head with resignation. She shared with me in a no- nonsense familiar tone that she had come to the “end”. When I questioned what this meant, she just shook her head and said, “I’m done.” She knew what she wanted.
The next day, when I arrived for another visit, I found her lying in bed, eyes closed, two nurses hovering, anxiously trying to get a response. “Joanne! Joanne, can you hear us?” She was breathing, but unresponsive. They told me that she had a “do not resuscitate order” and that if I wanted to say good-bye, now was the time.
I sat beside her and held her hand, telling her how much I loved her and what she had given to me over the long years of our friendship. Tears rolled down my face as I held on tightly, hoping to see her eyes open again. But slowly, I felt her life’s energy leaving this world and leaving me. The honor of being with her at that moment did not escape me.
Now and then, when my spirit is flagging, my eye catches on the brilliant blue of the Egyptian cat statue, staring down at me from a shelf with its’ determined eyes. It reminds me, as Joanne often did, that despite whatever obstacle I’m facing, if I believe in myself, I can find the determination and self-confidence of a haughty cat.
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Thank you to Amy and to those others who have already submitted your Accidental Mentor stories about one of the women in your life who has inspired you, helped you, guided you, or positively impacted who you are today. I’m still hoping to receive more stories from you. If you haven’t submitted yours yet, please get it to me as soon as possible. Here’s more information: