The last time I felt I had a role model worth looking up to, I was a sophomore in high school. I remember watching a senior girl and thinking “I could be like that,” and that it would be a good thing.
But when I looked around after high school, the journey to adulthood – to family and/or career – was being radically re-routed and there didn’t seem to be any pathfinders. I believed I had to make my own way. Rather than measure myself against an aspirational model, I competed intensely with my peers fearing they were going to be able to “do it all,” while I had discovered I could not. I examined other peoples’ lives in detail, hoping to detect a proven way to be at once competent and compassionate, successful and loving, challenged and not frustrated, and all of that. I made peace only decades later when I understood everyone lived the consequences of their decisions – Everyone -- and that we would all most probably make different decisions, one from the other but, if given the chance to turn back the clock, make the same ones for ourselves all over again in most cases.
In time, I completely forgot about role models. But then, just this fall, I serendipitously found a full cohort of them in what seemed a most unlikely place – my church. They are, in fact, what I might have derogatorily referred to as “Church Ladies,” women who – particularly the Episcopalians among them – have attended the same church for years, sitting in the same pews each week, singing the hymns, saying the prayers by rote, pursing their lips when disapproving, and doing the good deeds expected of them. I am quite sure they were “good little girls” before they grew up, married, had children, were widowed, divorced, remarried, or went back to school and, more recently, turned 70.
The surprise is that just below the surface of all this conventional propriety, there lurks a gloriously rebellious spirit that they have recently discovered in each other and, thanks to a new study group at church, shared with me. Now I want to be like them when I grow up.
Sometimes less than a decade separates us (and sometimes, to my everlasting disappointment, they do not even acknowledge that!), but that’s just enough time to get some perspective and to watch and learn how they have grown. “Grown” is the key word here, and I do not mean “grown old.” These are vital women actively engaged in life and still growing in mind and spirit, purposefully and deliberately. They are also a hoot – irreverent, adventuresome, intelligent, well-traveled, funny, opinionated, open-minded, and open-hearted. They don’t have the experience in “ladylike rebellion” that I have because they didn’t come of age in the 60’s, when I did; but they are learning quickly. As a group they have come to the conclusion that it is not always necessary to defer to authority, much less to men, and that no one holds a lock on what we should think or believe. Actually, they all knew that already, but finding each other in this study group has empowered them to say it out loud! Sadly, they’ve told me that for the longest time they have suffered in silence, thinking they were the only ones seeking – in this particular instance – a more meaningful expression of their faith; that they were the only ones fed up with the pabulum and the politics of the institutional church; that they were the only ones hungry to reconnect what they knew in their heads with what they felt in their hearts. A chance intellectual encounter over a book (The Heart of Christianity) by Marcus Borg resulted in the study group. There was a huge, collective sigh of relief as they shared their tales of the discontent and frustration sabotaging their faith journeys – they weren’t “the only ones,” after all. What emerged was an enthusiastic commitment to learning more about each other and, specifically, about more progressive thought in the church – and not just ours, but in religions worldwide. Eight weeks and two books later, the list of things we feel compelled to read just keeps getting longer. We’ll be going strong for years!
At heart, that’s why they’re such great role models for me. I want to be “going strong” for years. I want to maintain my insatiable hunger for books and learning new things; I want to talk about things that matter with other women; I want to make new friends; I want to keep my faith fresh and meaningful; I want it to be obvious that I am not yet done, and God is not yet done with me; I want to keep both my heart and mind open – in fact, open wider than some of my prejudices have to date allowed; I want to continue to expect more of myself; I want to risk a commitment to something new (another church study group? Really?) at 70 or 75; I want to live a more holy life; I want to break a few more rules and belie all those appearances; and I want to share my joy with others, the way these women share theirs with me.
Thank you, Church Ladies!