Bessie Stringfield, Your New Patron Saint of Adventure

Each week we will feature the kind of everyday heroes you can look up to. They come from all walks of life, age groups and beliefs. We hope you’ll learn as much from them as we have!

August is the month of changes, of possibilities, endings and beginnings. Schoolwork looms nearer, pools are emptying, but the month also offers the potential for discoveries academic or otherwise. I have a love-hate relationship with August; as a curious (i.e. nosey) kid, I looked forward to being in school and being introduced to new concepts in the classroom. All my friends were at school, rather than scattered about on vacations or busy playing sports, and we could compare stories, sunburns, or how tall we’d gotten in the months away. However, August also symbolized the end of leisurely freedom – the late nights watching HBO and eating ice cream without my parents knowing were pulled to a jarring halt right around the middle of the month.

Still, what I remember most about August, about those weeks leading up to my return to normality, is watching my Dad prep for his classes. Most people think History teachers have it easy. The common belief is they simply tell every class the same thing over and over again. That’s true for most, but my Dad isn’t your average nerd. Each year he looked for unique ways to spark a little interest in his students. He read new books, watched new documentaries, and went off to conferences around the country. My brother and I always looked forward to what he would bring back from his travels to exotic places like Atlanta and Phoenix.

Bessie Stringfield, today’s person you should definitely know, reminds me so much of those days spent watching documentaries with my Dad, enraptured by the adventures and daring lives. Bessie was born in 1911 and by the time she died in 1993 she had earned the moniker “Motorcycle Queen of Miami” for her feats on the Harley-Davidsons she loved. Despite the restrictions of the times, Bessie got her first bike at the age of 16, then traveled the country alone. She slept on her ride when she was denied a room at hotels, rode in carnivals for money, then eventually made it through all of the states in addition to Europe. He skill was so formidable that she would become a motorcycle courier in WWII, tasked with transporting sensitive information.

She embellished many of the details of her life for the rapt audiences of her young relatives and the children she took care of after settling in Florida as a housekeeper, however the fact that she lived an extraordinary life remains unquestionable. She was posthumously inducted into the American Motorcyclist Association Hall of Fame in 2002, long after her death, but I doubt she needed the accolades to validate her bad-assery.

What I love about the story of Bessie Stringfield is her relentless pursuit of what made her happy. Against the protestations of her family, she traversed the segregated and misogynistic landscape of the United States in search of her own slice of that ever-elusive peace we experience in following our hearts. When I lie awake in this unfamiliar town, missing the comfort of a controllable environment, I try to imagine what Bessie might have felt right before she did a trick for an audience. I sit in awe of her grit and feel slightly gobsmacked that she had the audacity to be free.

If you need encouragement to follow where your soul wants to lead, if you need a push to re-discover your dreams, or just a reminder that it’s alright to be a little bit off, look no further than Bessie. August is the month of discovery, after all.

Who are you emulating today? Let me know in the comments whose stories you can’t get out of your head. As always, stay safe out there!

You can read Bessie’s obituary in the NYT here.

I love this art essay of her by Rejected Princesses, which you can read here.

The Catharsis of Loss

My grandmother died the Sunday before I moved across the country to begin a new life. I’d spent that day packing and loading a shipping container with my husband, parents, and brother, which was more fun that it had any right to be. Our raucous laughter shook the house we were leaving behind, rumbling out into the sleepy neighborhood. I’ve never had a day without joy when in their company, regardless of the weight of the world or the stress of boxing up your life to be replanted elsewhere. It was a joyful, yet bittersweet experience to share with my loved ones.

Once we’d finished with the house, leaving just what Mark and I would need to keep with us for the drive to California, we decided to go see a movie. We rushed to the theater, anticipation for popcorn and soda sky-high, anxious to have a respite from the heat and stress of moving. No more than five minutes after the movie began my father got the call. I don’t know that there are words to describe the loss of someone you care for, when it’s known they eventually have to pass on. Death is never expected when it enters your life, no matter how prepared you might be to let go. We left the movie in a general state of disbelief. My parents had spoken to her the day before. My brother, husband and I had laughed with her at my cousin’s wedding, but I still can’t remember what about.

Two weeks later my large extended family sat down to eat together after her memorial service, then descended into laughter. We teased one another, played with my cousin’s babies and shared stories in a sort of mad libs only close families can understand, picking up where others left off. I was struck by the realization that none of us were crying or down-trodden. The even was more of a party than anything, a potentially macabre celebration of a woman we all loved and lost.

Death is still a taboo subject for many people, but I don’t think it should be. Perhaps my mind is warped from being forced to confront how little control I have over the circumstances affecting my existence, but I believe the more we talk about a thing, the less said thing can break us down. The pain will still exist, however we might get up with more grace if we know how to move forward in a healthy way. My grandmother is gone, yes, but what she gave to me remains. I have her cheeks, her nose, the shape of her face, just like most of my cousins and aunts and uncles. We’re all stubborn as hell and never back down from a fight. Her death doesn’t have to be the end of the lessons she can teach us about who we are. In loss we are forced to confront the chasms separating us.

I’ve had quite a lot of time to turn over the feelings swirling in my chest: surprise, fear, sadness. The one that I’ve returned to the most is a sense of relief. The emotion isn’t tied to wanting her gone; I feel relief that my grandmother no longer has to feel pain. I feel relief that she got to meet so many great-grandchildren. Most of all I feel relief that she is with her own beloved mother again in a place that may or may not exist, but nonetheless removed from our perception. In loss we are forced to confront the chasms separating us. We get to choose whether or not to build bridges, who we want to move on with or leave behind. So, I feel relief that even without the maternal glue of my grandmother my family remained whole; that is where the peace is, the release of my fears.

I believe the real weight of losing someone is tied to the fights we will never get to have and the opportunities for growth we were robbed of. I didn’t cry during the ceremony, and I noticed few of us did. When the tears began to well up, I stopped them with a vengeance, because it didn’t feel right to cry. I didn’t understand why until I came across this quote by Harriet Beecher Stowe:

“The bitterest tears shed over graves are for words left unsaid and deeds left undone.”

My grandmother never left us to wonder how she felt, whether good or bad. Regret didn’t exist in her world. She was a woman of her word, and she passed that on to her descendants. She knew that when she was gone we would have to find peace in one another, but you can’t do that if you hide pieces of yourself. If I feel any sorrow, it is that my grandmother and I will never again be able to forge new paths together. Yet, I choose to focus on the paths we did carve out, the fights we did have and the growth those rows fostered. All in all, I have no regrets with my grandmother. If I did, I would have to find a way to make peace with them and make sure that I have nothing to regret with those loved ones I have left.

No matter how far I creep away from the staid Methodist teachings of my youth, I always return to the belief – the desire – that the end is worth the race. However, now I’m beginning to rethink the type of race we’re running. Perhaps it’s something more akin to a relay than a straight up sprint. We pick up people along the way, trade stories, pass on pieces of ourselves, then hand over the baton. My grandmother’s passing has created a new spot on the team, a void in my heart for others to occupy, but I’ll never forget how well she lived.

 

 

A Word with Caroline Luther

Each week we will feature the kind of everyday heroes you can look up to. They come from all walks of life, age groups and beliefs. We hope you’ll learn as much from them as we have!

You can learn so much about someone if you pay attention to the way they fly. Undeniable truths flash bright when we think we blend into the crowds, if you look up from your tablet long enough to spy them. Revelations are present in which seats we favor, who we clumsily ask to sit by and how we hold onto comfort miles away from the peace of the ground. Millions of us bustle through the tailwinds of each other, but how often do we stop to discover the familiarity of strangers? I’m guilty of this more often than I’d like to admit, after years of wrapping myself into a cocoon of downloaded movies I don’t want to watch and music I’ve listened to far too often in the face of unpredictable conversation.

My habit of shutting down during flights was put on pause during a recent flight home. I had the pleasure of meeting Caroline on that trip back to Kansas from New Orleans, after she hit it off with my mother in line waiting to board. I knew I liked her before we had a chance to introduce ourselves, thanks to those flashing truths. She and I spent the entire time laughing and sharing just enough of ourselves for me to realize she is one of those people everyone should get to know. Thankfully, she agreed to take part in this feature. Her interview is below, which I think you’ll truly love. Next time you fly, when you want to retreat, think twice. You might just miss out on a remarkable human.

 

What is your profession?

After some twists and turns through a graduate program in history (thought I wanted to be a professor) and several jobs in communications (grant-writing, writing-writing, graphic design, etc.), I’m going into my sixth year teaching high school history. And I love it.

 

As a child, what future did you see for yourself?

In early elementary school, I thought I’d be a teacher (both my parents were). I’m pretty sure I thought I’d stick close to my New Jersey home and most likely have kids. I’ve since moved to North Carolina and my husband and I have decided not to have children. I finally started teaching 13 years after graduating from college. Those are the right choices.

 

If you could change your life now, what would you do instead? Why?

Ooh, good question. Maybe I’d be a therapist (an LCSW rather than a Ph.D., though) or own a boutique selling women’s clothing. I need to care for people and nudge them to take care of and feel good about themselves. I’m usually right, so that helps me own my bossiness. Plus I like pretty things and have really enjoyed my stints in retail.

 

(Ask me again tomorrow and I’ll probably say that I want to be a backup singer!)

 

Can you share a time or event you didn’t think you could survive?

When I realized that my 53 year-old mother was going to die from colon cancer sooner rather than (years) later and couldn’t bring it up with anyone in my family. It was a bleak, lonely time. I just wanted to no longer exist.

 

What/Who pulled you through it?

Prozac. It took a while, though. And I credit my boyfriend at the time for making me make an appointment with the campus psychiatry department to get the prescription. He helped me get my life back and I’m forever in his debt.

 

How did the event/time shape the way you live now?

I’m very aware of my mental health. I try to be honest about what scares me and tell the right people about it. I also make sure to go to the doctors I need to see and keep track of the things that are most likely to kill me prematurely.

 

What are some ways you take care of yourself?

Loving on my cat. Getting enough sleep. Solitary exercise: running by myself at whatever pace works that day, yoga (mostly with an app but more and more just whatever feels right) and sporadic work with free weights. Sitting in an armchair in my living room listening to records. Giving my brain interesting things to do. Making sure to get the nagging things crossed off my to-do list and set my future self up for success.

What was the best/ funniest/ most memorable piece of advice you’ve received?

I read this in an article somewhere a long time ago. Former secretary of education Margaret Spellings talked about needing to put on one’s big-girl panties and get shit done. She might have even had a sign on her desk to that effect. I need that sign.

 

When do you feel the most free?

On summer breaks when my husband (who teaches English in an adjoining classroom) and I have 10 weeks of not going into work every day. We still work, but it’s nice to do that on our own schedules and have small adventures, whether it’s traveling, floating in a lake, going to Durham Bulls games, drinking local beers at local breweries or taking our books somewhere. Having a time-limited time when our time is our own is heavenly.

 

What do you want to be remembered for?

Making people laugh. Being a good teacher. Being good, period.

Friday Media Prep: The Human Spirit is Unstoppable

Every Friday we will feature the inspiring books, movies, TV shows, and other works of art you have to check out. Please share your suggestions below!

This week’s media prep is all about the beauty and power of the human spirit. Whether it be saving your soccer team, making music meant to encourage social change, or merely wrestling with concepts through art, we are a sight to behold. Let’s jump right in with this week’s good stuff!

 

Music

Mavis Staples. If you need more than that, you’re on your own. Google her!

TV

The World Cup Finals

In all honesty, I don’t even really like soccer. My husband used to play, so my propensity for making fun of all the flopping was an early point of contention in our relationship. Sure, I played for a few years as well, but every single person who has ever sported was thrown onto a soccer field by their parents as a five-year-old to learn how to follow a ball around. However, it is my rule that if there are black folks doing something, I’m going to cheer. Whether it be tennis or a spelling bee, I’m here for the melanin. Now that France (a team that’s black as hell) is heading to the final against Croatia (a team that is the complete opposite of black as hell) you might as well just call me a fan until Monday. Don’t hate. You can catch the battle for the gold? Gilded boot? Trophy! on Sunday. Belgium and England will be playing for 3rd place on Saturday.

Movies

Skyscraper

My stance on cheering for black people regardless of the event is the exact same for The Rock. Along with my brother and father, I used to watch with the elation of someone who just discovered processed sugar as Dwayne Johnson tore up the wrestling ring. I’ve seen all of his movies (even Baywatch), because he represents such a carefree time in my life, when pain would stop and I could laugh with my family like a normal kid. What I love about his movies – that seem to come out every 3 months – is how lighthearted I leave feeling. It might be a guilty pleasure to  some, but not for this girl. In his newest film he plays the a guy saving the day like always, so why not?

Articles

“What Marilynne Robinson’s and Margaret Atwood’s Gileads Can Teach Us” by Alissa Wilkinson

I borrowed my mother’s copy of Gilead by Marilynne Robinson a few years ago, when I was looking for a change of pace from mystery novels, comics and Marvel movies. I picked up the book expecting to a gentle mental push, but got more than I bargained for in this exploration of humanity, love, loyalty, and religion in the Iowa town that bears the book’s name. After reading Robinson’s take on the concept of Gilead, I picked up The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood for a book club. Only two of us could finish it, and I’m so glad I did. Sometimes being shaken to the core is what the doctor ordered.

I love how Alissa Wilkinson explores the nature of paradise through these two works. Our “promised land” , whatever you choose it to be, is more than a place. A promise and a curse, an end to pain or the discovery of frightful new depths; perspective is everything in this world, no less so than in the arts we love.

You can Read Alissa’s piece for Vox here

“Thai cave soccer team: how Buddhist meditation kept them calm ” by Eliza Barclay

Self-care is very often a means of survival, as we have seen in the harrowing story of the young Thai boys trapped in a cave with their soccer coach for two weeks. Their coach , Ekapol Chanthawong, lived and trained in a monastery for ten years, beginning at the age of 12, when he was left orphaned. He learned to meditate as part of that training, and taught the young boys to as well, to keep them calm during the ordeal.

There are so many messages to take away from this moment in history, from altruism to the wonder of modern technology, however what will stay with me is the knowledge that the human spirit is durable beyond measure. I highly recommend this article by Eliza Barclay if you want to feel better about the world, learn more about the remarkable young man who kept his team alive, or need a reminder of your own potential for survival.

Read it here

That’s all for this week! Enjoy your weekend (and life) the best way you can!

Media Prep

Every Friday we will feature the inspiring books, movies, TV shows, and other works of art you have to check out. Please share your suggestions below!

We’ve been granted another weekend to celebrate, so let’s do it! This week we’ve rounded up some of the best pieces of music, literature, and commentary for you to explore, as well as the movies hitting the scene. From Scarlett Johansson to mermaids, this list is a doozy. Enjoy!

Movies

Sorry to Bother You premiers this week and we can’t wait to see it. The film debut of musician Boots Riley, Sorry to Bother You has been highly anticipated since it was first screened at Sundance in January. Lakeith Stanfield leads a cast of Danny Glover, Tessa Thompson, Terry Crews and Armie Hammer in a look at race, wealth, identity and perception through the lens of a young black man. If nothing else this film is definitely timely.

Ant Man and the Wasp

This is the 8 millionth Marvel movie to hit the cinemas in their 10 year dominiation streak, but we can’t stop running to the theaters to check out the films. Ant Man and the Wasp is the sequel to Ant Man (2015), which followed thief Scott Lang (played by Paul Rudd) as he teamed with Hank Pym and his daughter Hope van Dyne (Michael Douglas and Evangeline Lilly) to save the day by shrinking to the size of an insect. Sounds crazy, but was so good! The sequel promises just as much of a fun ride, so you should check it out with the rest of us nerds.

Music

High as Hope by Florence + The Machine

This is the band’s fourth album and it arguably goes deeper than ever before. Florence Welch has opened up about her struggles with alcoholism, disordered eating, family relationships, and aging. Her voice soars and swells, stripped down to the essentials to deliver something beautiful. You can catch videos of the band’s recent performance here .

Books

The Seas by Samantha Hunt

Samantha Hunt’s novel is being reissued , and we highly recommend giving it a look if you’re interested in thinking about the nature of reality and identity through the eyes of a young girl. Narrated by a young girl who doesn’t reveal her name, the story explores her isolation with her mother in a small town and her belief she is a mermaid. We suspect the novel will stick with you long after you’ve put it down.

Articles

It was recently announced that Scarlett Johansson would be playing a trans man in her upcoming flick “Rub and Tug”. Writing for Slate, Evan Urquhart explains why it’s not only inappropriate, but downright offensive.  If you’re struggling to understand what all the commotion is about, Evan makes it quite clear. At a time when there is push back from marginalized groups about who gets to tell their stories, this misstep is particularly frustrating. Read Evan’s article here.

(If you already knew about Scarlett’s nonsense and just want to laugh at the burns she received, go here.)

In not so great news, the Trump administration is working to undo an Obama-era protection for diversity on college campuses, essentially creating a timeline for the revocation of Affirmative Action. You can read more about the process here.

Finally, in news that gives us hope for the future: on the 4th of July activist Therese Patricia Okoumou climbed the Statue of Liberty to protest the separation of children from their parents by I.C.E and the administration’s treatment of immigrants in general. Upon her release she had this to say,

“Michelle Obama, our beloved First Lady that I care about so much, said when they go low, we go high. And I went as high as I could.”

Please have that printed on a shirt for me IMMEDIATELY.

You can read more about Therese and view her press conference here.

That’s all for this week, folks! Take care of yourself out there!