“Your story is not my story!”
The outfit I have chosen is discarded in the clothes-swamp floor of her room. Jeans and a sensible t-shirt strewn among sparkly dresses, floral skirts, and chunky sequined sweaters. I know this walking down the hallway before I even enter. “We are going to be late,” my voice rises in warning as my footsteps fall heavy on the hardwood floors.
I don’t really think of myself as a strong woman.
I just think of myself as a woman.
The Year of Phenomenal Women with Tamara Cook
When I was a teenager, I had the amazing opportunity to hear Maya Angelou tell her story live. I had been blown away by I know Why the Caged Bird Sings and her poetry including the beautiful and a bit cheeky Phenomenal Woman with the famous refrain, “I’m a woman phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, that’s me”. I loved the strength that Maya Angelou projected in her story and especially in this poem. So, when my husband and I decided to design a coming of age process for our twins building up to their 13th birthdays, I was inspired to call the process with my daughter the “year of phenomenal women.”
As I thought and prayed about how I wanted my daughter (and me!) to grow, the fruits of the spirit from Galatians 5 seemed a beautiful guide for our journey. During a silent retreat, I sketched images linked to each fruit and brainstormed scriptures, books, movies, songs, inspiring women and related activities. I then reached out to an artist at Kitengela Glass to commission small round stained-glass circles to represent each fruit. Each outing began by giving my daughter a stained-glass which now all hang across her bedroom window. Our outings ranged from extravagant nights away to a simple lunch on the way home from the salon but each holds a special place in our hearts. Our conversations ranged from the silliness of crushes to the deep complexity of cross-racial adoption and identity. We laughed. We cried. And we each grew more into the phenomenal women that God made us to be and become.
Here is a taste of our experience during the year linked to each of the fruits of the spirit:
Love: We kicked off the year with a night away including a sushi-making class. We studied the famous love chapter in 1 Corinthians 13 about love as an action, not as a fairy tale. The stained-glass was a simple but powerful heart. We stayed up late watching movies linked to love (one from her generation: Catching Fire with lots of examples of selfless love and one from mine: Pretty in Pink with several different angles on what love means). I tucked her into bed by reading our worn copy of I Love You as Much and singing The Rose, a song I used to sing at bedtime.
Joy: We considered the joy of our salvation in Psalm 51 and the line in Amazing Grace “the hour I first believed” that always brings a smile to my face. The stained-glass was a smiley face. The outing was a lunch out where we spent time joyfully staring at the clouds and imagining what shapes we could see.
Peace: We explored the armour of God described in Ephesians 6 and especially what it means to have our feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. The stained-glass shows a dove in the shape of a hippy peace sign. Our shoe shopping outing was perhaps a bit too silly of a connection but we had a deeper conversation around I am Malala.
Patience: We listened to U2’s 40 inspired by Psalm 40 and the idea of waiting patiently for the Lord. This stained-glass is an acacia tree reminding us of the patience of Wangari Maathai who embodied peace in her fight to bring the green belt movement to Kenya. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, the same year we adopted the twins while living in Kenya.
Kindness: We pondered the words of Isaiah 58 to loose the chains of injustice, share food with the hungry and provide shelter for the poor. The stained-glass was a sunrise recalling verse 8 “then your light will break forth like the dawn.” We also learned more about the work of Jane Addams and the Hull House.
Goodness: What better description of goodness could there be than the sermon on the mount in Matthew 5? The stained-glass was a mountain and I had hoped we would go for a hike but she wasn’t interested so I didn’t push it and we still had a good talk.
Faithfulness: In a world where faith can be so misunderstood, Romans 12 especially verse 2 reminded us that faith is not about conforming but about being transformed by the renewing of our minds and testing and doing God’s will. The glass was a simple cross reminding us of how Jesus embodied faith as well as all the other fruits.
Gentleness: The imagery of Psalm 23 reminds us of God’s gentleness as he leads us beside still (and gentle) waters. The stained-glass was a stream and we read a stunning rendition of Psalm 23 interpreted for an African-American urban community.
Self-control: We used Paul’s self-discipline metaphor in 1 Corinthians 9 of training for a race as we prepared for a 5k and our last night away. The stained-glass was a rainbow finish line accompanied by a silver necklace with all the fruits inscribed. We ran the 5k on our own because the race we registered for was the same morning as the baptism service. Both twins had decided to follow their steps of faith into the pool that morning where Daddy dunked them with tears in his eyes.
It has now been almost a year since we finished the Year of Phenomenal Women. The teenage years continue to come with the expected and some unexpected challenges. But those stained-glass windows still glisten in the window to remind us both what it means to be phenomenal women.
Tamara is a follower of Jesus, wife of an amazing man who happens to be a pastor (www.lavingtonvineyard.org), mama of three very cool kids, and head of digital innovations at Financial Sector Deepening Kenya (www.fsdkenya.org). She was raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee, studied international affairs at George Washington University, got an MBA at INSEAD in France and has lived with her family in Washington DC, Nairobi, Paris and Seattle while working to increase the value of financial services for people living in poverty.
Read more from Tamara in A Voice Becoming: A Yearlong Mother-Daughter Journey into Passionate, Purposed Living.
I had a proud mama moment this week. My youngest, a budding activist who happens to be a 5th grader, declared she was one of a few kids who raised their hands when the teacher asked who knew of Malala. She then apparently took over the discussion about girls’ education and Malala’s efforts, having not only read the book, but watched the documentary, He Named Me Malala.
Malala is her hero.
She knows about the youngest Nobel Peace Prize recipient because I bought her the Junior edition in 3rd grade. In 4th grade, I pulled her out of school when limited viewing of the film came to town. And, we’ve continued to discuss global inequity, girls there vs. here, how education decreases terrorism, and the overall privilege she enjoys. She stayed up late the night CNN aired Michelle Obama’s We Will Rise, celebrated Advent with the family at the After Spring Syrian Refugee documentary, and cried with me over Hidden Figures last week.
She’s an activist because of me. She’s a little women’s rights campaigner because of me.
And I’m proud.
A friend asked how to have tough conversations with kids and I knew, he was referencing porn, sex and sexuality, online safety, suicide… all the things we parents muster up the courage to address. We look for books and ask our elders, hoping for an easy, miraculously “safe” way to handle these sensitive topics. And then, if we’re intentional, we schedule a night, a breakfast, a weekend to convey the information, breathing a sigh of relief. We expect behavioral adaptations will follow.
What if they don’t?
Are my kids the only ones who have a short attention span? Is my son the only teen who says “got it” ten billion times a week as the most obvious attempt at covering up a blow off? Surely, I’m not the only parent who repeats herself.
I think osmosis is more effective than a fire hose. Hanging truth upon experience is what makes meaning. Slow parenting looks like repetition over time plus example. And this? This is not accomplished in a singular event.
We cannot teach our kids media literacy over dinner. We won’t raise sexually pure kids as a result of one special weekend. We will not inoculate them from peer pressure after one bullying presentation.
How do parents have tough conversations with their kids? Start young. Don’t stop.
My 10-year old can handle watching a film about Syrian refugees because we’ve talked extensively about global issues. She could read about Malala’s volatile and dangerous life at age 8 because I didn’t shield her from the world’s pain. She wears a “People Don’t Buy People” sweatshirt to school because she gets modern day slavery. Even if she doesn’t fully understand it or picture what it entails, she gets people being forced to do something they never wanted to do.
Raising children to engage the brokenness and darkness and glories of the world as adults requires exposing them to the brokenness and darkness and glories of the world as kids (in age appropriate chunks). As Kate Conner, author of Enough, writes, “Crack the door and let all of the broken, beautiful humanity flood in like a sunbeam. Let it in; let it move her. Let it inspire her, wreck her, challenge her. Let it change her. If you want her to catch the fire, you’re going to have to put her near a flame.”
If you want to have tough conversations with your kids, you’re going to have to get them near the flame. And of course, you’re going to have get near the flame too.
Disney's Queen of Katwe opened in theaters on Friday and is a huge departure from the studio's typical films. Based on a true story, it is nothing short of stunning. I took my 10-year old daughter and her first request upon leaving was, "Can we own this one?" Here are 5 reasons this is worth watching:
1. Phiona, the protagonist, is an uneducated girl from the slums of Kampala, Uganda who discovers a talent and a passion embedded within. She is relatable enough to American girls (she argues with her mom) and yet different enough to stretch their familiarity. She is Ugandan! How rarely are we given a heroine from another country whose accent is even difficult to understand at times!
2. This is a story about Uganda: it's economic disparity, it's poverty, it's struggles and it's joy. There are no white people! It is filmed in country. And it does not shy away from the brutal reality of Phiona's life. In a way that is entirely age appropriate, viewers face the fear that Phiona's only future may involve being taken by a man.
3. It is pro-marriage. Phiona's chess coach is a loving, caring mentor as well as husband and father. His wife financially supports their household so he can work with the slum kids. Their relationship is a healthy example of marriage both for the chess club as well as the viewing audience.
4. There are strong female leads without debasing the male characters. Phiona's mother is a richly complex character. In her we see the fight to survive and provide for her children mixed with realism and cynicism. As we watch Phiona develop and change, we see similar growth mirrored in her mother. Theirs is a beautiful, loving relationship.
5. It is simply inspiring! You will find yourself cheering for a chess game and simultaneously crying and laughing with all the kids. They are delightful. (And for those of you with an intolerance to pain, it has a happy ending!)
Get thee to the movies!
We went to the Netherlands to bike.
We also went to see Corrie ten Boom's Hiding Place and Anne Frank's Annex. We went to experience their stories and immerse ourselves in their world, strong females whose voices still live. In a land that produced such women, I suspected there were more. I sensed we would discover them on the journey. Yet for all the heroines, I also knew the Netherlands had thousands of exploited sisters. Women from Eastern Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East sex trafficked in the infamous Red Light District. I wanted to experience their stories too. If I'm going to invite my daughter into the company of women as a finale to this rites of passage year, she needs to know the breadth of the sisterhood: pain and need coexist with strength and hope.
In Utrecht, we searched in vain for a statue of Trijn van Leemput, pick axe in hand, symbolizing her rally of other women to demolish a castle-turned-Spanish garrison at the onset of the 80 years war. Historians have picked at the veracity of this tale, but I guess that a people who valorize women can have all the legend they want.
In Gouda, we stayed with Jet and discovered a woman motivated by God's love to care for people in her home: foster kids, long-term residents, weary travelers like us, and entire families during transitions. She lived in a 19th century town home, so narrow the stairwell resembled a ladder. It had one small toilet closet and a newish shower room on the 3rd floor. She had recently been to Cambodia to learn more about IJM's work and we connected over human trafficking.
In Oudewater, we weighed ourselves on the official scales used to acquit Dutch women accused of witchcraft during a time in which thousands of women were put to death. It was thought that witches needed to be light enough to fly and if one could prove her weight was "normal" on Oudewater's official scales, her innocence was sealed. We were appalled at the crazy false accusations and hysteria around women who deviated in the slightest way from the majority.
Haarlem gave us Corrie ten Boom, a woman compelled by her faith to protect as many Jews during the German occupation of the Netherlands as she could. A woman who sacrificed her own security and ultimately, lost her father and sister in concentration camps. We learned about Hannie Shaft, 25-year-old Dutch Resistance fighter known as 'the girl with the red hair'. She was killed by the Germans just 3 weeks before liberation for her ceaseless fight to sabotage their efforts. And long before WWII, there was Kenau Simonsdochter Hasselaer, the fearless Dutch heroine who inspired Haarlem to rebuild the city's defense wall. Her statue stood proud in the train station courtyard, sword beneath her feet.
By the time we were back in Amsterdam, I was pretty convinced we were walking among giants. My daughter had easily named women who exhibited the categories we discussed all year: Jet loved, Kenau led, Hannie fought, Corrie sacrificed, Anne Frank created. And what about the women who have lived in the Begijnhof since 1150, the devout women (not nuns) who chose to serve the Lord in prayer and service within a circle of Amsterdam townhouses? Or all the brave women highlighted in the Dutch Resistance Museum for their courage during the occupation of Germany (in Holland) and Japan (in the Dutch East Indies/ now Indonesia)? What of the women we had met along our bike journey who went out of their way to escort us to the next path, stop others for assistance, and offer us shelter?
On our last day, we made our way to Dignita, Not For Sale's cafe and culinary training program site. I wanted to learn more about the state of the Red Light District and hear from on the ground experts. Secretly, I wanted my daughter to see the out working of a life lived with passion. My passion may never become hers, but I desperately want her to discover one as meaningful. In fact, I have a working theory that the antidote to a teen's obsession with boys, bodies, and besties is catching a vision for a bigger story.
[bctt tweet="I have a working theory that the antidote to a teen's obsession with boys, bodies, and besties is catching a vision for a bigger story."]
Dignita is committed to re-creating stories for the trafficked men and women they offer culinary certificates to. We didn't need to walk the district to learn about the women photographed like monkeys in a window; to hear that the majority are threatened to come under the rule of a trafficker. We were told the district is dying (because more tourists are voyeurists than paying customers), but that it is moving underground, online. Why pay 200Euros/ hour for rent when the sale of sex can be arranged online? My daughter was concerned about the laws (having heard all about human trafficking already). Why was this legal? Why were there not better laws to protect these women? Who is going to change this?
I saw her blood begin to boil. The first signs of a heart breaking is anger. Holy anger leads to passion.
[bctt tweet="The first signs of a heart breaking is anger."]
This is catching a vision for living a bigger story.
Experiencing the women of the Netherlands, the strong and brave and exploited alike, provided a framework upon which to hang meaning. These are lessons you can't just teach from a book or gain from a movie. Sometimes you have to walk in their shoes, see the places from which bravery sprung forth, imagine the moments in which choices were made.
[bctt tweet="Sometimes you have to walk in their shoes, see the places from which bravery sprung forth, imagine the moments in which choices were made."]
We've come from a beautiful global sisterhood. To this I invited my daughter: this, this is the company of women you join as you become a woman.
Women! Are you like me and doubted if it was possible to address the bulk of what we face as Christian women without alienating one end of the spectrum or the other? Did you wonder if there was a framework that could encompass, for example, the realities of our bodies or friendships in a deeply spiritual, yet tangible way? Fellow Redbud, Amy Davis Abdallah, PhD, has crafted such a "manual." It is a comprehensive exhortation to women to live fully into who we were created to be.
Now, here's the funny thing. As I struggled to design a yearlong rites of passage journey for my tween, one of my early thoughts was to organize it the same way Amy has: Relationship to Self, God, Others, and Creation. Some of my original scratch pads contain these wandering thoughts. In grad school, I learned that these 4 categories make up Biblical Shalom - the true meaning of peace. I decided to go a different route, and I'm so glad I did! I could not have addressed them in the same beautiful and powerful way as Amy.
One of the things I appreciate about The Book of Womanhood is its lack of judgement. Topics such as "Femininity and God" and "Sexy Self-Care" could be rife with conflict, but are handled in a gentle, accessible manner. Another thing I wholeheartedly agree with is the journey mindset which invites the full spectrum of women to contribute and receive. Amy writes, "A rite of passage invites 'younger sisters' to journey together with 'older sisters' who offer wisdom and experience and are still continually growing."
This was written for college women at the college where Amy teaches and seems entirely appropriate for that audience and older. As I continue (6 more weeks!) to usher my own tween through an initial transition from girl to woman, there are solid principles I find helpful even if I won't cover them in detail with her. The only thing missing is a detailed plan of how the college women walked through this material over the course of the year. I want details!
So here's the cool thing women: for ONE WEEK, Wipf & Stock Publishers will offer 40% off The Book of Womanhood. Use the Discount Code "WOMAN" at check out. Don't miss this amazing opportunity to be affirmed and exhorted in your unique design as a woman.
Is this you?
You have battled thru the Mommy Wars and wrestled with sleep training and discipline methods and school choices and career/stay at home dilemmas. You have fought to find your own voice and now you know, in your bones- you are valued, purposed, wanted.
And more than anything, you want your daughter to know this too, beyond question.
You read Sarah Bessey and Addie Zierman and connect- your faith has taken a beating too. The same Evangelical space no longer fully holds you. You attend IF: Gathering and your heart swells- there are strong women speaking your language. Jennie Allen and Jen Hatmaker and Ann Voskamp remind you- you are strong, valued, purposed, wanted.
You are a mama to a tween. And you are wondering. How in the world am I going to raise her in this new spiritual space I find myself occupying?
You look out at what's available to your kind and you find princess archetypes, balls and promise rings, purity and covenants and spiritual weekends and you think, fine, good, but insufficient. The weight of your daughter's glory hangs in the balance and requires so.much.more.
You look out at her kind and you see young women living small stories, preoccupied with a world of their making of which they are in the center, being swallowed whole by the drama and gossip and narrative of teen culture. You wonder, is it stoppable? Preventable? Especially when you glance back at your kind and realize some of them never grew up. You have people in your spaces still living small stories.
[bctt tweet="You have people in your spaces still living small stories."]
In fact, you realize this is an epidemic. Too many peers have yet to discover their voice. Too many are preoccupied with a world of their making. They can't see past the immediate, the constraints, the hurdles, but worst- they don't believe they're needed, valued, purposed.
And so you look at your daughter. This young girl becoming.
She must know in the core of her being that God has purposed her. She must know He is the center of the story of which she is called to be a part. She joins the tale He is telling, through the passion he has placed in her heart. And the drama? The drama is the unfolding of redemption; the story of mercy poured out on a people. Who will be her people? What will be her place? Which problem will she embrace?
Because you realize, a girl living out her passion does not have time for drama of the teen sort. She is too busy growing in curiosity and wonder and being wrecked by a God who calls us to a story of epic proportions.
Is this you, Mom?
Is this you looking for hope for your girl-child-becoming?
Can you recall a memory of when you were first wrecked? When you were young and naive, did you ever get preachy and make everyone around you feel guilty? When were you so gripped with passion that you sacrificed time and money to advance your cause?
Mine? I became a right-wing, secular humanist-fearing activist in high school because of a camp I attended. I came home and raised my voice and got all heated about certain magazines in our public school library and went before our school board and landed front and center in our local newspaper. It makes me chuckle and roll my eyes now. I would love to take my principled 17-year-old self out for coffee!
But you know what? I was passionate. I had been wrecked by God. My faith was young and naive and maybe I was hearing him wrong, but I loved him and wanted to align my life with the things he cared about. I did it in messy, broken ways... the way we do when we are following a story one chapter at a time.
Do you want more for your daughter? Pray that God would wreck her. Pray that she would develop a passion that sets her sights on a meta-narrative and gets her out of the small story of American teen drama. Welcome her into your own passion.
And mom? If you lack your own, well, you know where you must begin.
Together on the journey,