I lost the second most important mentor in my life the day I left for Africa. She left us forever.
It was a while before the message got to me. My lifelong friend, mentor and wonderful Wonder Woman Steffie Allen passed away from complications from Parkinson's on May 11th. The news finally reached me once I got back.
Steffie's life reads like a storybook of those women we most wanted to be: brave and different and fearless and fighting for other women along the way. I was affiliated with various projects of hers for years. I would call, we'd have tea. Or I would call and ask her to be one of my guests on a conference panel. She was funny as hell.
Once a woman in the audience asked her if she liked men. With her typical wit, she answered,
Of course I do. I love men. I married three of them!
In her later years, she stopped answering the phone. I had begun to travel a lot more, and the odd times I did call I couldn't reach her. She normally always called back. Finally I got her husband on the line. She had Parkinson's.
I was devastated in that way that as we age, we are forced to accept that our older friends and mentors are not going to be there forever any more than our parents. It's like having the roots pulled out of your garden.
Still I called. I left messages telling her I was thinking about her and sending her love. People pull away when you get that kind of disease, wholly unable to watch the deterioration of such a vibrant and beloved figure.
My calls went unanswered. All I can do is hope they were heard and appreciated, for she was so very much appreciated in my life. In all our lives.
Steffie's business life, like my friend Meg (they were great friends too, and members of the same organizations along the Colorado Front Range), was far more successful than mine. She inspired me to write my own book. I did that twice, to her great delight. She was ever terrific at removing the apostrophe/T off the end of I can't, and reminding us that it was very much a mental dance.
Her mental dance failed her at the end. But those of us touched by her, just as with Meg, get to go on.
As I completely retool my life at nearly seventy, that milestone now six months away and counting, I remember that Steffie stopped working so that she could play golf and be with her grandkids. I recall her husband's commenting, the last time I visited her home in the Cherry Creek neighborhood of Denver, that it was Steffie's eye which brightened the place with so much color and life.
That is an apt description of how she affected so many of us.
I wonder if she could sense what was coming, and chose to take those last years to dedicate solely to her intimate family. She most certainly deserved it after years of dedicating herself to us.
My social media buddy JC Spears, who is multiple-boostered, is suffering through this third bout of Covid this week. As he approaches his big four-oh this August, he and I have been discussing the nature of our friendship, which has sprung out of a work relationship nearly six years ago.
He is now family. We've tried lots of efforts that didn't work for me, but we have twice-weekly conversations which challenge and feed us both. I wrote him from Africa in a terrible state once I realized that my company had tanked and with it, the ability to keep my house which he was sitting at the time.
He told me that he knew in all our efforts that there was a chance things wouldn't work. You know that going in but you don't really plan to fail. However, at some level you have to, for given the last few years, so much that many of us past fifty used to understand about the world has shifted. That is just one reason why I appreciate his viewpoint. As a very gifted Millennial, his point of view and input are not only terribly useful, but they serve to keep me useful to others.
Steffie had about fifteen years on me, not quite enough to be my mother, but close. Her viewpoints and experiences set a decade and a half before mine set her up to have a bird's eye view of the massive changes I would be living through in the Sixties, much like so many women are facing now. She gained from working with younger women as much as we gained working with her.
Spending time with much younger people isn't just smart, it's healthy for both of you. I need those viewpoints and the debates we have challenge me constantly. When JC and I are talking I can hear stupid things based on utter nonsense about to get said by my idiot brain, and I get to skewer them. And when one tumbles out, we both get to skewer it. Also, every so often he will insert foot in mouth, and we do the same. Debates are there to invite if not force growth, but they require mutual regard.
I dearly love being able to debate and explore differences without having to constantly worry about sensivity land mines. These days people take offense if you blink too often, assuming it means something other than you have an eyelash stuck on your iris.
JC wrote me that if nothing else, I was teaching him how to age well.
That's what Meg did for me. She was working out with a trainer twice a week until a fall caused her death at 92 in 2016. She was too proud for a walker, and she went out on her own terms. I respect that.
Steffie taught me a great deal about giving myself permission to be damned good at what I do. I am still learning that lesson, but unlike Steffie, I am gearing up for a very, very busy decade of traveling, adventure and exploration. I am good at those. And very, very good at finding ways to surf the top of the tsunami waves rather than being crushed by them. That example is what JC is referring to. He's had his share this year, these past two years, as have we all.
I spent today, the middle of July 4th weekend (with a fire in the fireplace no less), organizing a trip to Colombia for the first two weeks of August. Meg and Steffie would have been proud. For no matter what I've been through, the final word is always going to be mine on whether or not this was a life well-lived. I don't need to be like them. What they, and all good mentors and role models want, is for us to live our best lives on our terms.
In a world where too many of us understand "relationship" as "what you're going to do for me," These extraordinary women from another era were forever asking what they could do for others.
Those people I admire most all think like that. The takers aren't leaders. They are parasites. Today we seem to admire parasites, and we deserve what we admire.
One of my favorite poets, the great Indian Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, wrote:
“I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.”
The greatest influences in our lives, if we are truly fortunate, teach this by example.
I have been deeply moved by great women, whose lives were joyous because they were in service. If I am truly fortunate, I might find the same thing in my life. I've got plenty of time left to do just that.
This is my thank you to Stephanie Allen. A fond and respectful farewell, with deep gratitude for so many life lessons learned by your example. You are loved. May our lives be worthy for having been touched by yours.
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