In Competition with Flowers
I sneak into the upper balcony of Cincinnati’s famed Memorial Hall. Above the stage and proscenium read nine words - unity, wisdom, martyrdom, patriotism, philanthropy, integrity, manliness, equity, and will—several of which I bristle at, given various situations in our country today.
The word manliness gets me. I’m here as attendee to a Power to Pursue summit, conceived by four women in their 30s and 40s, to inspire other women (and a few men) to chase their dreams.
With loads of work at home, a coaching client awaiting me, and a sister arriving in town soon, I don’t know what’s called me here. These women speaking effortlessly about helping others has intrigued me. There appears no competition between them, no battle lines being drawn. And their steady parade of quotes, easily churned into Instagram graphics if anyone is taking notes like me—Life is not transactional. I have a board of directors in my head, Extending a hand, holding hand, reaching behind,—are authentic and reachable.
Doable even for me.
As a toddler, I once ran up our basement steps and cracked my head on the metal edging. I incurred several stitches in my head, and acquired a black eye and a bit of infamy amongst siblings. My mother, crafty and sly, propped me on the couch. She retrieved the camera and scribbled a few words on a note card which she placed in my lap against my baby belly. It read, I’d rather fight than switch. The line from an old Tareyton cigarette commercial.
I have been that kind of woman—always in competition with the world, but mostly with myself.
Watching the gallery of women younger than me claim their strengths and what is theirs in familiar and unfamiliar spaces, I want to be them again—or at least their age. The competitive part of me wants to claim that power too.
Perhaps I already have.
One of my long-time mentors, Mary Pierce Brosmer, founder of Women Writing for (a) Change, and I exchanged several emails earlier in the week. She first inquired about Italian citizenship. During that conversation about our shared Italian American heritage, we also wrote words about our mothers, the spaces we wished we would have been able to inhabit twenty or thirty years ago, and our gratitude for anyone, like my mentor, who did.
What does that reclamation look like? At the Power to Pursue, it was taking a leap to open a coffee shop, advocate for female-focused medicine, or switch to working in the community for a burgeoning local brewery.
What was I doing at their age, I try to remember. Writing?
No one who’s thirtyish thinks, nor sets forth, to write about death. And so this battle in me, the rather fight, the competition, is a life or death one I’m always processing. The poet David Whyte asks, “Will you become a full citizen of vulnerability, loss, and disappearance, which you have no choice about?” That was me, desperately seeking the answer.
The day before Power to Pursue, I had driven to Mason to stock up on flowers and greenery for my ceramic and terracotta outdoor pots. Despite the oxygen in the air and bountiful colors lifting me while nearly blinding me, I walked through the aisles deflated. The selections were picked over. I was late. Way past the planting date of Mother’s Day. Time and duty and interest had prevented me from starting this task sooner. My former neighbors set their seasons by my plantings. I was so predictable I was their Farmer’s Almanac. My plantings were the best and brightest, I hoped. And I wanted to be first. To complete the task, yes, but also to say done.
It’s long been a hindrance and a gift. I can get sh— done (thanks, Annie Knect!) but also some sh— gets lost in the process, including me.
At the nursery, I trudged down the aisles, wearing the moniker of last to plant.
My cart gave off the scent of uninspired, despite the sweet white alyssum and purple fading to blue lobelia, until after checkout when I loaded my car. An older woman wearing a blouse that shone brilliantly with its mix of oranges and reds approached. “I just want to admire your collection.” She sniffed at the air, politely asked about all the plants, where I planned to use them. Noting how we were both late in planting this season, she informed me about a bad shoulder, but she would have surgery soon (did I know Dr. so-and-so?) which she hoped would not be like the first shoulder surgery ten years earlier.
What was uninspiring to me had been a whiff of breathable air to this widow who ran a farm with the buzz of bees and a wellness store on site.
While I felt like the final person on the block to plant flowers, I was first in her purview. Maybe the only one for that day (other than a young farmer she called a helper).
I drove home resolved to let this competition to pass.
Friday hit. There I was, at an event where women held each other up on stage (not literally, of course). Women expanding the spaces around, by holding them open for others.
The great Audre Lorde once confided to a friend, “when she wrote, she imagined a circle of women around a fire. She would speak, listening for words to make change, to draw people closer together to investigate what they had in common, as well as their differences.” This too was the vision of Mary, my sage and teacher.
We don’t realize how much of the sky we have held up for others by simply listening, being ourselves, telling our stories to chart the path for others.
Or it’s the curse of the writer to always be in competition. The nature of the industry hoists this upon us, though I can’t blame others. I could blame (or thank) my mother for putting into motion a mantra that would define me. What if her notecard had read, I’d rather just switch?
During my early writing years, I wrote a story about hurdles, the ones short people like me decide in seventh grade they’re going to jump over as their contribution to the track team. In my reading, I spoke the word fierce.
Nowadays, I am equally as fierce about lifting others as I am myself. I can sit in the upper balcony of Memorial Hall, congratulate the participants and founders silently, and slip out for my client appointment. And save my fierceness for where the world needs it, to possibly change manliness to a word that better represents, or to conquer bigger things.
In Working Together, David Whyte writes, “We shape ourselves to fit this world and by the world are shaped again. The visible and the invisible working together in common cause to produce the miraculous.”
No one thinks, at the age of 30, they’re going to write about death, then, they do. That too was miraculous, the forces invisible and visible which worked together inside and outside of me.
But whenever these forces don’t cooperate, I’ll keep fighting, instead of having to switch.
How does competition impact you? I’d like to hear more. And if you’re free this Sunday, check out my memoir chat at the Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati, in conjunction with the production of Tiny, Beautiful Things, based on the book by Cheryl Strayed. This is the closest I’ll come to being in conversation (and not in competition) with the illustrious writer of Wild.
If you’re struggling as a caregiver or have a loved one who is experiencing dementia, check out Before the Diagnosis: Stories of Life and Love Before Dementia, which includes insights from my own journey. If we tell more stories, we eliminate the stigma, and discover the ordinary beauty of "just being" with our loved ones and ourselves.