Lessons from Pat

When it finally came, the announcement was quiet and simple. After 38 years, Pat Summitt was retiring as head coach of the Tennessee Lady Volunteeers. Along with probably most other fans of women’s college basketball, I’d been expecting this announcement. Watching her uncharacteristically quiet demeanor along the sideline this past season was difficult, but seeing her determination to continue doing what she loved in the face of her diagnosis was brave and inspiring. (Pat was diagnosed with early onset dementia about a year ago.)

For those who aren’t fans of basketball in general, and women’s college basketball specifically, you may not be familiar with Pat Summitt. In addition to her longevity at Tennessee, she has many singular accomplishments. She has won more games than any other coach in NCAA history, in either the women’s or the men’s game. She never had a losing season as a coach. She is the only person ever to win Olympic medals in basketball as both a coach and a player. The accomplishment I respect the most is that every young woman who played for her completed her college education. Every one of them.

You can’t have a career like Pat has had without thousands of words being written to describe its impact. You can read a bit about her many accomplishments here, or just google her name and you’ll be presented with pages of links to articles heralding Pat’s impact. Her influence on women’s sports and specifically women’s basketball is unequalled, but my respect for her is based on more than basketball. She shows us how to be a woman of strength and character, a strong female leader who leads her own way, and she challenges us to do the same. Pat is a ferocious, uncompromising leader…..pioneers usually are. By definition pioneers slice through the status quo, exploring new perspectives and new ways of doing things. Pioneers are tough and resilient.

I never played for Pat. I’ve never even met her. Yet watching her leadership and influence blaze a path for other women has been inspiring to me as I’ve developed my own leadership abilities. I don’t lead in basketball, but my understanding of leadership and of what it means to be a strong woman owe a debt to her. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned from Pat:

Lesson #1 – Don’t wait for the boys to invite you to play.
Pat was the only girl in a family full of boys. She didn’t wait to be asked to play. She just joined in and played with the boys. She was blessed with a father who believed she was capable of doing the same chores and the same hard farm work that her brothers did. This had a huge impact on her belief in herself and her abilities. This highlights a secondary lesson. We need to spend more time telling our daughters that they are capable and that they can do the hard jobs.

Lesson #2 – Don’t believe you must sacrifice other aspects of your life to be a successful leader.
Pat wanted to be a wife and mother in addition to her coaching career. She didn’t see the two as mutually exclusive. This lesson doesn’t say that women can “have it all.” That’s a lie we beat ourselves over the head with. No one can have it all. Pat’s example shows, however, that we can have more than many of us think we can. She did things like take her baby boy to work, games and practices. Which leads to the last lesson from Pat….

Lesson #3 – Don’t just play the game by the rules that worked for the boys.
Pat changed the rules so she could accomplish her goals. For example male coaches hadn’t generally taken their children to work. She did. Her son was frequently at practices and didn’t miss a game. That helped her continue to coach and it gave her son invaluable opportunities to see his mom accomplish her goals. Now his education in basketball has blossomed into a career. He’s starting as an assistant coach at Marquette next fall, for their women’s team.

While not exclusively lessons from Pat, practice and working hard are lessons she embraced passionately. Practice and hard work won’t keep you from losing. Pat’s life has several examples of truly painful losses. However, without practice and hard work, success is unlikely and weathering life’s inevitable losses is made much more challenging.

Pat has been very clear about what she wanted to do with her life. Twice in her career she was asked to coach the men’s team at Tennessee. She turned them down both times. She already had what she wanted.

Time, and other fantasies

I am an eternal optimist when it comes to time, which I like to believe has an elastic quality allowing it to stretch and cover more than it looks like it should be able to at first glance. I have long harbored a fantastical picture of life in which there is time for everything I want and need to do, where my to do list is maintained in a constant state of “everything-ticked-off-at-the-end-of-each-day” perfection, where I rise with grace to process the impacts of every pain I experience without missing a step or pausing for breath. Like I said….fantastical.

Reality is somewhat different. In reality there is never enough time for me to complete everything that needs to be done, let alone pursue everything that interests me. My to do list is generally out-of-control, with deadlines and due dates regularly pushed back beyond all recognition. As for processing the impacts of the painful experiences of life, I have missed more than one step while gasping for emotional air as I recovered from one of life’s punches to my solar plexus. Which is going the long way around to say the last three months have been filled with more life than I could wrap my arms around and one of the results has been nothing posted here during that time. I’m happy to say life is returning to its more typical chaotic rhythm and I will be posting again going forward.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled program…..

Orange curlers, evening gowns and Saturday night traditions

Saturday nights followed a routine in our home, focused on preparing for Sunday, the Big Day in our pastor’s family household. This meant baths and our hair washed for my sister and me, followed by the ritual of sitting on the floor in the living room watching television while mom combed out and rolled our hair. This meant a sometimes painful and always too lengthy session of pulling out the knots, then winding the wet hair on those infamous orange sponge curlers. (Some people insist the colour was pink, but I won’t quibble. Anyone else remember Dippity-Do, a hair curler’s best friend?) The sponginess of the curlers was supposed to make them soft enough to sleep on….in theory. Invariably the next morning you’d wake up with at least one of your curls in an odd crimp from the curler being squished as you rolled around on your pillow during the night.

The television program we watched during this process helped to distract us from the painful tugs and pulls. We watched different programs depending on the season. However, there was a Saturday night in September every year with a program we never missed. “There she is, Miss America.” Yup, I was one of those little girls who gazed with shining eyes at the television screen, watching to see if the contestant I’d picked was going to be the new Miss America. Miss Texas and Miss California were both givens to receive our support since dad was from Texas and mom was from California. (Dad didn’t actually watch the program, but with so much family in Texas we had to support another Texan, right?) I loved seeing the beautiful dresses and held my breath when the group was whittled down to semi-finalists and then finalists. We were always allowed to stay up late to see the ceremony crowning the winner. The final moment was truly satisfying if, while the crown was placed on her head, our newest heroine of femininity had graceful tears rolling down her cheeks, glistening in the spotlights shining on the stage. <sigh>

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International Women’s Day

Here we are again at March 8th…an entire day dedicated to recognizing and celebrating the contributions of women to cultures and nations around the world….what a wonderful thought! Even more, in the US, the United Kingdom and Australia the entire month of March is set aside to recognize Women’s History Month, celebrating the contributions of women to our cultures and societies. (In Canada, it’s the month of October.) This year the focus of International Women’s Day is on ending hunger and poverty with a particular focus on women in rural areas.

You are probably already aware of this, but countless studies have shown consistently that when women are given greater access to income generation, property ownership and education, not only are the lives of the women improved, but so is the overall condition of their communities.  According to reports from UN Women, women produce half of the world’s food and perform two-thirds of the world’s work, but only earn one-tenth of the world’s income and own 1% of the world’s property.  Women are estimated to represent well over half of the world’s poor. When women are involved in making the decisions about where money will be spent, they consistently choose to spend money in ways that improve conditions for children. This results in improvements in children’s health and reductions in things like infant and maternal mortality. When women are equally involved with men in making decisions about how money is spent, girls are as likely to be fed as boys. When women are equally involved with men in making decisions about how money is spent, homes become far more likely to have sanitary latrines with a resulting reduction in disease and death. In the midst of a global hunger crisis, we could be benefiting from an increase of 20-30% in food production in poor areas by giving women equal access to land and resources. The list of improvements to societies and cultures from having women equally involved in decision making and access to resources goes on and on.

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Stay-at-home wife

Stay-at-home wife…..stay-at-home wife…..stay-at-home wife….the words blink on and off in my brain like those old neon signs from a 40s film noir movie. Instead of “Eat at Joe’s,” my internal neon sign says ”stay-at-home wife.” Wow. Talk about words I never thought I’d use in referring to myself. Stay-at-home wives belong to someone else’s life story, not mine. At least that’s what I thought. I never intended nor anticipated a chapter in my own life that would include this.

To be honest, I’d reached the point in my life where it no longer occurred to me to think of myself as a potential wife, let alone one who was based at home. After 40+ years of being single, I believed I would remain that way the rest of my life and had begun to think through how best to prepare for aging alone and the needs I would have for assistance in caring for myself. (I hoped not to become the stereotypical “crazy old lady with a cat.” Not that there’s anything wrong with being a little old lady with a cat….seriously…..some of my dear friends have been eccentric little old ladies with cats….ok, reeling myself back in from this tangent.) When my (now) husband and I reconnected after 25 years and decided to marry, it was almost as big a surprise to me as it was to my congregation and business associates. The future life I pictured for my husband and me looked something like Bob and Emily Hartley from The Bob Newhart Show. They each had a career they were pursuing and, contrary to almost every other image on television at the time, they were a married couple without children.(Yes, I know, seriously dating myself here. For those of you who may not be familiar with the particulars of this sitcom from yesteryear, both Bob and Emily were professionals in their own right. Bob was a psychologist and Emily a school teacher.) I’d worked since I was 16 years old. I couldn’t imagine a scenario that didn’t include me working “outside the home” (to use the common phrase).

Spending the last several years as a stay-at-home wife has been incredibly challenging, forcing me to re-examine my view of myself and my identity before God. What’s really interesting is how much I actually needed a serious break from my over-committed life and didn’t recognize it fully. I knew I was burning the candle at both ends and in the middle as I navigated a bivocational life, but I didn’t fully realize the toll it was taking. (You can see a little more about my previous life on the My background page.) These past few years have given me that break and I’m very thankful for it. Among other things, I’ve had the freedom to begin writing purposefully, something I’ve wanted to do for many years. Still today, though, when someone poses the question of “what do you do,” I can find myself flinching and getting butterflies in my stomach as I formulate an answer. It’s becoming easier to say out loud that I’m a writer, but it’s a work in progress. Which, now that I think about it, is exactly what life should be……a work in progress.