17 Essential Lessons from Strong Women 7


mountain sunset

Why is it we so rarely thank those who have impacted our lives? Why do we keep pearls of wisdom to ourselves — the kind word, the inspirational story, the lesson learned? Why don’t we spread that goodness?

Since Thanksgiving season is officially upon us, it seems the perfect time to do just that. To share some of the simplest comments that have had a big impact on my life. And still do. 

Because this life of mine has been blessed with amazing women and men. While I certainly believe we should also recognize the men, for this moment I’d like to pay special attention to the women. Because sometimes women just get one another. And that’s okay.

What follows is a sampling of my favorites. I hope that you’ll take what you can or want from them.

And to the strong women I am quoting, know you are appreciated to my core. Know you are cherished. Know you have spread your goodness beyond yourself and for that, I am forever grateful.

Quick Note: I’ve included extended explanations and/or context for each. You can easily jump to the corresponding write-up by clicking the quote.

‘Today, I’m grateful for the ice chips.’ — Sandy Schneider

‘Save 30% of every dollar you make.’ — Tracey Freel

‘You’re as beautiful as you think you are.’ — Maija Wilson

‘Invest in the things you believe in.’ — Valerie Yurina

‘Never be hungry.’ — Linda Judd

‘It’s never too late to start.’ — Portia Smith

‘You can do this.’ — Julie Fox

‘Kill them with kindness.’ — Mary Rae Cowles

‘Pie for breakfast is perfectly acceptable.’ — Mary Elizabeth Wright (aka Gavey)

‘You’re worth it.’ — Alice Liang

‘Show up first. Bring the best basketball.’ — Kate Starbird

‘Different doesn’t make you stupid.’ — Angie Repsold

‘Always wear your retainer at night.’ — Katie Ludwick

‘Just let it go.’ — Merry Judd

‘I’ma long-distance hug you.’ — Shandon Smith

‘When you can describe a thing, without naming the thing, that’s when it starts to get good.’ — Marilyn Abildskov


Today, I’m grateful for the ice chips.

‘Today, I’m grateful for the ice chips.’ — Sandy Schneider

Sandy Schneider is arguably the best high school women’s basketball coach of all time. Not because she’s an exceptional student of the game. (Which she is.) But rather because she has an uncanny ability to draw out the best of each and every one of her players.

She’d often share stories before games and at Saturday practices. One, in particular, stuck with me.

We’d suffered a severe loss the night before. The team was upset. The captains had newspaper clippings detailing our defeat. They had stats outlining our flaws. But when Sandy walked into the team room, she didn’t talk about the game.

She just started talking. Almost to no one and to everyone all at once. She told us of visiting her friend who was battling cancer. How the woman’s eyes had lit up because she could have ice chips now. I’ll always remember Sandy’s eyes ringed with red, her practice polo slightly frayed at the collar, and her voice shaking slightly as she told us, “Today, I’m grateful for the ice chips.”

Sometimes, in my darkest of moments, I like to go get a bowl of ice chips and remember what it is to be grateful.

save 30 percent

‘Save 30% of every dollar you make.’ — Tracey Freel

When I started my business, I met with anyone and everyone who would sit down with me. I’m not sure how I got connected with Tracey, but I’m darn lucky I did.

She’s a wickedly talented writer who had used her skills to start a successful business. She made espresso. We played with our puppies. And at one point, she set down her coffee cup very firmly, looked me in the eye, and said, “Save 30% of every dollar you make.”

That way I’d have the money for taxes and everything left over would be a built-in bonus, she explained. I went home that day and structured my earnings and savings chart based on her advice. I’ve been following it ever since. It’s given me — as a small business owner — the kind of financial security that lets me sleep at night.


You’re as beautiful as you think you are.

‘You’re as beautiful as you think you are.’ — Maija Wilson

The 2004 Saint Mary’s Women’s Basketball freshman class had one long and lanky foreign beauty and a slightly awkward, well-endowed power forward. I was lucky enough to be friends with the former.

Maija was stunning. And still is. In our first or second month on campus, we were getting ready for a party. I was so incredibly nervous about how I looked. Maija was standing in front of a mirror, covered in unfortunate florescent dorm room lighting. She brandished mascara like a wand, informing me, “You’re as beautiful as you think you are.”

I watched her from then on. Elegance and confidence radiated from her whenever she walked into a room.


Invest in the things you believe in.

‘Invest in the things you believe in.’ — Valerie Yurina

Valerie is one of my good friends. She also happens to be an accomplished hairdresser who built an incredibly successful business.

As I started my own business, she’s shared a wealth of helpful tidbits. But my favorite is, “Invest in something you believe in.”

As a small business owner, there’s no pension or retirement plan, unless you make one. Which is a real and legitimate concern. While investing in stocks has its risks, by investing in things you believe in, you’re giving yourself an advantage. Because as Valerie explained to me, if you’ve identified a company you believe in, you’ve identified traits that are likely to make that company successful.


Never be hungry.

“Never be hungry.’ — Linda Judd

Marrying Garrett came with a lot of perks. Like an extra-large human heater and someone to kill the spiders at the top of the skylight. But I also got a few other pretty epic additions to my life. Among them is Gran (aka Linda Judd).

She’s among the first 50 female lawyers to practice law in Boise. Which means, she quite literally helped break the glass ceiling. She’s kind and spunky and has a knack for helping you deduce a random rambling of thoughts into a comprehensive statement.

She’s also not someone who likes to be hungry — a sentiment with which I full heartedly agree. In fact, the very first time I met her we were staying in a condo at Lake Coeur d’Alene. I ate a lot back then. I still do.

Gran caught me scrounging in the kitchen for leftovers. I remember being so embarrassed. And she just laughed and said, “I have a very easy diet plan. Never be hungry.” We got out snacks and stood in the kitchen talking and eating and making sure we were never hungry.

I knew then, Gran’s a woman after my own heart.

It's never too late to start!

‘It’s never too late to start.’ — Portia Smith

I started following Portia over two years ago on Instagram. I was enthralled by her zest for life and her ability to ‘do it all.’ As a fulltime lifestyle blogger and stay-at-home mommy of two, she still managed to travel; maintain an impressive beauty, fashion, and workout routine; and be a warm and genuinely kind human.

In June, I was lucky to go on a trip with Portia and two other fabulous boss ladies. It. Was. A. Blast. But it also was the proverbial kick-in-the-ass I needed.

I’d recently turned 33. I had been battling a pretty intense mental slump. And, I just couldn’t see how to move from making lists of what I wanted to accomplish to actually doing it. On the first day, Portia and I were talking as we worked in this adorable hotel room at the edge of Eastsound Village.

She told me the story of how she started her blog. I remember her saying, “I was 33. I wanted my family to travel. And I decided to make it happen. It’s never too late to start.”

I’ve hung onto that the last few months. It’s been like a mantra. “It’s not too late. It’s not too late.” And I’ve just started. Not always successfully, but it’s like it gave me permission to try and fail and try again.


You can do this!

‘You can do this.’ — Julie Fox

In grad school I wanted to start a blog, but I was petrified. I was convinced I wasn’t a good enough writer. I wasn’t a smart enough person. I didn’t have enough expertise.

Julie and I were sitting one night after dinner, drinking dessert port and talking about things we wanted to do. She looked at me and said, “You can do this.”

The truth was, I wasn’t a rock star in any of those fields. I’m still not.

The truth also was, I could do it. And I still can. She was right. I didn’t have to be perfect. I just had to show up and keep showing up. To keep doing it.

kill them with kindness

‘Kill them with kindness.’ — Mary Rae Cowles

My mom (aka Mary Rae) may not be an expert at matching nylons and lipstick. But when it comes to class, she could run her own etiquette school. It’s not just the manners and the grammar that she has down pat. It’s the kindness.

It’s her ability to take a potentially volatile situation and diffuse it with grace. She always used to say, “Kill them with kindness.”

And what she meant was, be so kind your behavior is above reproach. Be the example of goodness. Shine a light on what it means to be a lady.


Pie for breakfast is perfectly acceptable.

‘Pie for breakfast is perfectly acceptable.’ — Mary Elizabeth Wright (aka Gavey)

Gavey (aka Grandma) had her quirks, like ‘tidy’ piles and earrings with sweatpants. She was a tomboy, through and through. She also found ways to support all things her grandchildren thought were good ideas — like pie for breakfast.

“Pie for breakfast is perfectly acceptable,” she’d tell me. “It gives you a full serving a fruit.” And frankly, now that I’m an adult, I like to think pie, apple pie bars or left-over deep-dish pizza topped with a fried egg are all perfectly acceptable. I’m sure Gavey would approve.


You're worth it.

‘You’re worth it.’ — Alice Liang

Garrett and my relationship wasn’t all heart-throb and roses. In fact, we had a pretty major ‘hiccup’ back in the day. We were young. We were impulsive. And frankly, we were still learning how to be good partners.

(Truth be told, we still are. I firmly believe it’s a never-ending process and that’s okay. But we have learned to ‘fight’ cleaner, love with more intention, and committed to never leaving. For us, that’s what makes it work.)

During our major ‘hiccup,’ I remember Alice saying, “You’re worth it. Do you realize that? You are worth it.”

Since then she’s made a similar comment at a lot of big turning points in my life. When I was worried about submitting a bid to a new client. When I struggled with defining my sense of self-worth. When I didn’t quite know how to fully embrace a new stage in my business. Alice has always been there, reminding me, ‘I am worth it.’

Maybe it’s all people, but I feel like it’s women more often than not, who don’t value their worth. Who think if they’re alone, they’re less. Who think their work is worth less than it is. Who devalue their expertise.

But the truth is — we’re worth it.

Show up first.

‘Show up first. Bring the best basketball.’ — Kate Starbird

In middle school I was lucky enough to go to Standford basketball camp. It was a week-long camp where you stayed on campus, participated in all sorts of training sessions, and went to several ‘basketball’ lectures.

For a lot of the kids the camp was glorified 24-7 babysitting. For me, it was heaven.

During one lecture, Kate Starbird was the featured speaker. If I had to bet money, she doesn’t even remember speaking. The talks were just part of the job as a player/camp counselor. Most of the kids who sat in the lecture hall for her speech probably don’t remember it either.

I do. It changed my life.

She said, “When you’re the first to show up and you bring the best basketball, they have to let you play.”

And they did. I was in sixth grade. I showed up an hour before any of the men and when they said I had to make two three-pointers in a row to play, I made both. And then a few more during the game.

But it was more than just pick-up basketball. It was how I learned to show up first to meetings with professors. It’s how I started to acknowledge that maybe the playing field wasn’t always equal, but I was going to make it so I couldn’t be ignored.

And hot damn, if that’s not scary at times. And good. Oh. So. Good.

Different doesn't make you stupid

‘Different doesn’t make you stupid.’ — Angie Repsold

I have my qualms with Lakeside, but all things said and done, I went to a pretty incredible high school. And not just because I graduated with four kids who had perfect SAT scores.

There was a tribe at Lakeside who not only taught me to advocate for myself, but instilled in me the belief that learning differently didn’t make me stupid.

I have learning disabilities. I struggle — severely — with memory retention. I move figures while doing math. And, I rearrange entire words within sentences.

While I was at Lakeside, a special class was created the second semester of my freshman year for the kids who struggled. (If I’m mistaken on those dates, please forgive me.) The class was taught by Angie Repsold, who also taught a series of AP classes.

Our math class met for three years. We became a family. So much so, we met for breakfast/class at Angie’s apartment.

I remember Angie would tell us, “Sure, you learn differently. Different doesn’t make you stupid.”

I also remember every year, near the end of the year, she’d put questions from her AP test on our tests. And we’d pass them. We could do the same math. We just needed it presented in a different way.

Always wear your retainer at night.

‘Always wear your retainer at night.’ – Katie Ludwick

You know how your orthodontist tells you to wear your retainer or your teeth will move, but they don’t in a month or a few years?

Joke’s on all of us…except for Katie Ludwick.

This girl always wore her retainer and still does! The retainer clan is one I have since joined. And hot damn, I wish I had earlier!!!


Just Let it Go.

‘Just let it go.’ – Merry Judd

I’m not a person who forgets. Sure, I forget things like names and dates and to take the roast out of the oven. But when something happens ­— a cold word, an ungracious slight, a pinched arm at recess in second grade — I don’t forget. I’m kind of like an elephant I guess.

That also means I have trouble forgiving. I have trouble moving on.

My mother-in-law Merry doesn’t. She always says, “Just let it go.” And she means it!

Something bad happened? That sucks. Be upset about and then let it go. You messed up at work? Take a moment to learn from it and then…let it go. You didn’t get invited to the birthday party in third grade? That’s right — let it go.

I’m still a work in progress. I hold onto everything. But the few times I could follow her advice, it’s been amazing.

I’ma long-distance hug you.

‘I’ma long-distance hug you.’ — Shandon Smith

Sometimes you know someone. You know they are kind and generous. You know they laugh with abandon and hug with every ounce of their love. And yet, you don’t really know the person.

That was Shandon for me, until a few months ago. We’d been friends in college, but had lost touch. Then I started following her weight loss journey on Instagram. Her openness and strength inspired me. When I saw an article online about losing weight and turning the lost stones from your resized wedding ring into a necklace, I Instagram messaged her.

And then I got scared I’d offended her. And then she messaged me back, “I’ma long-distance hug you.” And I felt like she was. And it was exactly what I needed at the moment.

Our friendship blossomed from that exchange. We became accountability partners — sometimes being more accountable than others. And whenever my day’s not going so hot, I think to myself, ‘I’ma long-distance hug you,’ and it makes me smile. And that’s priceless.


sunset

‘When you can describe a thing, without naming the thing, that’s when it starts to get good.’ – Marilyn Abildskov

My teacher’s voice sounded like the female version of Sean Connery. She spoke in a soft confident cadence that rolled from her belly through her throat. I imagine it still does.

The days she read sections aloud always felt like a win. It didn’t matter if I liked the piece or not, the way she read captured me. Her pauses. Her inflection. Her small sigh at the end as she set down the book.

Marilyn was one of the exceptionally talented professors who taught in Saint Mary’s MFA department. I was incredibly lucky to be part of the program. (Thank you basketball for getting me in!)

Among the many lessons I learned, was the beauty of description. Marilyn said, “When you can describe a thing, without naming the thing, that’s when it starts to get good.” And then she challenged us to write about something without naming it. It was a lesson that pushed me beyond the ho-hum of loving this and liking that. It’s one that I come back to when I feel my ‘craft’ is beginning to slip. And, it’s the tactic I turn to when I really want to tell someone how I feel.

What’s a Comment or Statement that’s Inspired You?

Add to the list! Share a comment or statement that’s inspired you. Include who said it and why if you want. Let’s keep the inspiration flowing!


About Mikaela Cowles

I’m a food-gobbling, book-reading, aspiring photog. Born and raised in Seattle, I love dancing in the rain, bouquets of fresh basil and green grass between my toes. I like how kneading butter into flour makes my fingers soft. I’m passionate about all things sweet potato. I prefer my coffee black, my scotch on the rocks and my steak bloody. I hunt, when I have time; play basketball; and hike. I’ve been known to laugh so hard I hyperventilate. And, I’m the owner of Making Language Count, a boutique freelance writing business.

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7 thoughts on “17 Essential Lessons from Strong Women

  • Elaine Way

    Dearest Mikaela,

    First of all, it is a pleasure to see your blog posts…whether it’s a new recipe or nuggest of inspiration that have helped you on your journey. I will be 61-years-old this month and there is one quote in particular that I have carried with me through my long life:

    “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly….what is essential is invisible to the eye.” …Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

  • Mary Rae Cowles

    Years ago, probably 35 or more, I went to a forum. One of the featured speakers, Jane Carlson Williams, discussed the importance of “pushing out the rough edges” of your life. What she meant was don’t do the things that are easy. Push out the rough edges and tackle something that is truly difficult. Now, I can’t sell. In fact, I hate selling anything to anybody. For me, this was a very rough edge. However, for my first Junior League placement, I decided to “push out the rough edges” and sell advertising for the League’s magazine. In the end, I learned three things: if my family were starving, I could sell, I still truly didn’t like selling, and pushing out rough edges was very important. Honestly, I have been “pushing out the rough edges” ever since. One more blessing, probably 20 years after that forum I had an opportunity to tell Jane Carlson Williams the impact she had had on my life. Learning to push out the rough edges was a blessing but perhaps an even greater blessing was being given the opportunity to tell her what a difference her presentation had made in my life.

    • Mikaela Cowles Post author

      Last month was the first time you shared this story with me and I have cherished Jane Carlson Williams ever since. It’s always been an inspiration to see you tackle big projects and take on new challenges.

  • Jan Canavan

    Thanks Mikaela…or I guess I should actually thank your Mom for sending this to me. Even though Bob and I have spent only a little time together with your Folks, they feel like close friends. I can see the apple did not fall far from the tree! You have been blessed with some wonderful and special relationships and you have a gift for sharing …thanks!