What I’ve Learnt From Strong Women

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It’s almost 9pm as I write this, and the full moon in Gemini shines bright in the dark sky. I should be studying, or sleeping, but instead I am reading a blog I wrote in March this year, and thinking about how much I have changed since then. The blog is called Holding Out For A Heroine (check it out here: http://elizaserenarobinson.com/holding-out-for-a-heroine/), and is about the importance of female role models. I have learnt a lot about strong women this year, partly from spending time with them, and partly from becoming one.

Last semester I had this brilliant film lecturer. I worshipped the ground she stands on. I still do, to a certain extent. She reminded me of my strength and potential, at a time when I was floundering. I looked at her and I saw the kind of woman I wanted to grow up to be. For about two months I mostly admired her from a distance, because I was too anxious to talk to her outside of class discussions. But in March I began to talk to her more, and she told me about this feminist arts festival she had founded, that would be on in November.

From the moment she mentioned it, I knew this was my chance. If there was one thing I knew about festivals, it was that they usually needed student volunteers, and this would be my opportunity to build a solid working relationship with her. I wanted her to be my mentor, and I knew that wasn’t something I could just ask for out of the blue, so my best bet was to spend time with her, and learn from her that way. Looking back, this was the first hint of Ambitious Eliza crawling out of the woodwork after years of hibernation. When I want something bad enough, I will scheme for it like there’s no tomorrow, and usually get the outcome I want. But I am a lazy person, and an impatient one. It is not often that I successfully play the long game and win.

But this time a week ago I was volunteering at Glasgow Feminist Arts Fest, so my plan worked. It was a valuable experience for me in more ways than I could have hoped for, and it’s only now it’s over that I can fully see the profound effect it’s had on me. But I’m going in chronological order, so let’s skip back a bit.

I met with Becca a couple of weeks ago, to discuss the things I needed to do for the festival. Something was different this time. Normally, when I saw her I would turn into the human equivalent of the heart-eyes emoji, and go all ooey gooey and blurt out the occasional accidental “I love you.” For a long time, I worshipped her and held her on a pedestal as this amazing goddess of a woman. I viewed her this way even up until a few weeks ago. But lately something shifted within me, and the way I relate to other people changed. I’ve stopped being so open, for better or worse. I’m less verbally affectionate with people, less talkative, more reserved. I found myself sitting in her office, conversing with her like a normal human being, without being giddy or putting my foot in my mouth every other sentence. I wasn’t sure if this was simply because I was tired, or if it marked an irreversible change in me. How do you go from doing a happy dance every time someone replies to your emails, to interacting with them like a normal person? It’s weird, and out of character for me.

At the festival, I spent more time with her each day than I’d spent with her in the 10 months I’ve known her. In amongst the busyness, I had opportunities to ask her questions, get snippets of life advice from her. More than that, I saw her in a whole new light. I saw her under pressure, I saw how she handled things when they went wrong. Where I once held her up on a pedestal, I now saw her at her most human, and my worship was replaced with a profound respect. I thought she was amazing from the moment I met her, but now it is on a whole other level. My respect is rooted in reality rather than infatuation.

In spite of this, my anxiety caught up with me by the second day of the festival. I had a lot on my mind, most of which was unrelated, and this anxiety mutated into all these different fears. I was in an environment where I met lots of new people, and because I was in a fragile frame of mind, my anxiety kicked in with a vengeance. I kept feeling like I was in the way, worrying that I wasn’t doing anything productive. I felt like I was hovering, and I was so paranoid about being annoying. I felt like my brain was eating itself from within. Furthermore, it hit me that this was a brilliant networking opportunity, and I was letting it go to waste because I didn’t think I had any value to these people.

I loosened up slightly in the evening, because of the magical powers of gin and tonic. But I still had this icky feeling as if I wasn’t good enough. I couldn’t help seeing the irony: I was at a festival dedicated to creating space for women to have a voice, and my brain was convincing me that I wasn’t worthy of taking up space, that my voice didn’t deserve to be heard. Furthermore, I was aware that the festival would be over as quickly as it had begun, and my opportunity to learn from Becca would soon slip through my fingertips. I wanted to ask her so many questions, but I couldn’t think of a single one.

On Sunday I had the morning off, and I knew it was time to regain control of my mind. I made a home cooked meal for the first time in days, and did a load of laundry, which was enough to shift me into a healthier frame of mind. Then, I had an epiphany: I’m not stupid, I’m just not spontaneous. I’m smart as hell when I have time to think things out and write them down, but I hate being put on the spot, hence why I feel awkward in social situations. So I wrote a list of ten questions I wanted to ask Becca, and hoped my limited time would make me brave.

We had a couple of free hours in the evening, and I asked her if we could talk. I only ended up asking one of my ten questions, because it was enough to segue into multiple topics of conversation. I asked her about networking, and whether it gets easier. The advice she gave that really stuck with me is that networking is a patriarchal institution, and to think of it more as building a community, instead of this transactional world of “I do this for you, you do this for me.” This resonated strongly with me, because a strong community is fundamental to my wellbeing. I have been so lucky to find a sense of community within my improv society for the past couple of years, but it hadn’t occurred to me that it would be something I could also create within my professional life.

She gave me advice about career and friendships and life in general. I looked into her green eyes and listened intently to every word she said, grateful my rose-coloured glasses had vanished. Whilst worshipping someone and having a massive girl-crush on them is all well and good, it is infinitely more rewarding to build a solid connection with someone you admire, and have a conversation as equals. When you worship someone, it doesn’t tend to be them that you actually worship, but rather your perceived idea of who they are. When you respect someone, it’s based on their words and actions, based on evidence rather than imagination. Respect is a rock and worship is a mirage. I will choose to respect people rather than worship them any day.

After our conversation, my anxiety faded. I managed to be chatty and sociable and not worry about how much space I was or wasn’t taking up. Something had shifted inside me, and I could see a different world, a different future. After the festival finished on Sunday night, I sat with a group of women — film lecturers, PhD students, filmmakers — and I didn’t feel anxious or scared, I felt enveloped in the warmth of community, in this beautiful world of women who support and celebrate each other. It’s the kind of world I want to live in, the kind of world I will work hard to create.

It’s been almost a week now since the festival ended. My sleep schedule still hasn’t recovered, but my heart is bursting with a lifeforce I thought was long since dead. I was so caught up in my duties and the luxury of being outside the university bubble for a weekend, that it didn’t quite hit me just how unique GFAF actually was. To have space for women creatives to come together and be celebrated is beautiful and still so rare, and I am infinitely grateful to have been a part of that.

In class yesterday, a film and television producer came in to talk to us. I didn’t ask any questions during the Q & A, because thinking things up on the spot isn’t my strong point. But I went up to talk to her afterwards, so I could practice my networking/community-building skills. I asked for her advice on what I can do now to make me more employable for the television industry by the time I graduate. We got talking, and I told her about volunteering with GFAF, and by the end of the conversation I had her email address, and she said I could contact her if I was looking for somewhere to do an internship next summer.

You can imagine how smug I felt after that. My friend always teases me for being a massive suck-up who always feels the need to ingratiate myself with people in positions of power, but what may seem like fruitless pandering is in fact a calculated move. I am ambitious, and when I know what I want, I will do anything to get there. I want to work in television, and — like it or not — the media industries are built on nepotism. I may be an awkward, anxiety-riddled person in most social interactions, but I can turn on the charm when I want to, because failure is not an option for me.

I lost sight of my determined, resilient side for a while. This year has been a purge of all the parts of myself that no longer serve me. I let go of so much, and it was a gut-wrenching process. I spent most of this year consumed by a deep sadness I couldn’t shake, like damp spreading under the layers of my skin, a welcoming home for the darkest, thickest of mold. There are still days where I feel sad for no reason, days where the anxiety takes hold and my breaths constrict in my throat. But I feel more like myself than I have in years. I know what I want, I know the steps I must take to get it. When I have a plan, I am unstoppable.

The other advice Becca gave me was that I must choose my battles. “Pick your battles” is a cliche I’ve heard over and over in my life, but I am notoriously bad at taking advice. But she could tell me the sky is blue and I would think it was profound, so I paid more attention to these words than I normally would.

I have often felt overwhelmed lately. When life gives you lemons it smacks you over the head with the whole fucking lemon tree, and my eyes have stung with lemon juice too many times to count. I am a chronic overachiever, and saying “no” has been a hard lesson to learn. Not just saying no to others, but to myself.

I wanted my novel to be finished by now. My plan is to self-publish it (there are a number of reasons for this, but that’s a matter for another blog), and I originally intended to do that by the end of this month. Ha ha ha. When I realised that was unrealistic, my new plan was January. This time I made a promise to myself, a promise that I would keep my promises. I have yet to finish editing my novel, and I have four essay deadlines an an exam within the next three weeks. Sooner or later, I have to face the fact that my novel must take a backseat for a few months.

I see now that this is a battle I must choose. In theory, I could finish my novel in time to meet my self-imposed deadline. I could push myself hard, work myself to the point of burnout, reject my social life and become a writer-recluse for the next couple of months in order to achieve an unrealistic goal. But why would I be doing that? Pride? My desire for my book to be an Aquarius? (yes I care what my novel’s zodiac sign is, don’t judge!) I often forget that I am young. I get so caught up in the desire to build my empire that I forget I still have time on my side. I’m twenty, and the whole world lies in wait at my fingertips. In choosing my battles, I must learn not to make myself the enemy. I choose self-compassion, I choose kindness, I choose to postpone my novel for another couple of months, even though that disappoints me.

This year I have been blessed to meet so many strong women. The one that surprised me most of all was the strong woman that existed within myself. In March, I wrote that I was holding out for a heroine. At the time, I found that heroine in Becca, my film lecturer. She still is a constant source of inspiration for me, as I’m sure she will be for as long as she is in my life. But lately I found a new heroine. Her name is Eliza, and she’s somewhat clumsy in the way she meanders through life. But she learns from her mistakes, and she is the most ambitious person I’ve ever met. She’s confident and brave, and smart as hell. I have had a tempestuous relationship with myself for a good chunk of my life, but I’ve reached this point where I can say “holy shit, I’m amazing”. Not in a narcissistic way, but as a recognition of everything I have accomplished. I am amazing, and I am learning to own that. There is still a part of me that’s afraid to take up space in the world, and that is a battle I will choose to fight. I deserve the space I occupy, I deserve for my voice to be heard.

When I first met Becca, I saw all these qualities in her that I aspired to emulate. She was my hero because I looked at her and saw the potential that I too could grow into. I’m not there yet, and I will grow in a different direction because we are very different people. But I can already see myself acquiring the qualities I admire in her. Perhaps that is why I have become my own hero, because I have learnt from the best, and become the kind of woman I knew I was meant to be.

The picture below is currently my favourite photo in the world. It’s blurry and the light is too dim, and as pictures go the quality isn’t great. But it is a visual reminder that I spent last weekend working with a woman I greatly respect and admire, a reminder that dreams come true, a reminder that life is full of blessings and beauty. Above all, it is a picture of two strong women who have taught me a hell of a lot this year.

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