From when we are very small, we have idols. People we admire. People we dress like, or talk like, or play sports like. Humans need idols, and heroes, and people who inspire them. Idols give us some kind of guidance or image that we turn into our own personal road map. Idols are, by and large, a good thing.
My first idol was Santa Claus. Not very special, I admit. Most kids idolize Santa. This big, happy guy who brings presents, as long as you have been good. Santa made you want to be good. The biggest day of the year before Christmas Day was always when you got to visit Santa. I used to wonder, how does he do all that stuff, and still have time to come to our local department store so I can talk to him? I didn’t think of it as magic; I figured he was just amazing. Certainly worthy of being an idol.
We all learn that Santa is not an idol, he is an ideal. If we are lucky, by the time we face this first crisis we have already found other idols to pick up the slack. A great teacher or a favorite aunt. A movie star or a cartoon character. A ballerina or a baseball player. We find different idols as we learn about life, hoping that some of what makes them special becomes a part of us.
I have had many idols over the years, which isn’t surprising given my age. Some have ended up having ‘feet of clay’ and some have lived on in my memory or imagination. I had a favorite great uncle who was an idol of mine. I never looked at him as the ‘rich uncle’ like the rest of the family. In fact, I thought his house was kind of scary. But he and I clicked. He was a famous concert pianist, and he saw the side of me that wanted to be creative and make beautiful ‘something’. I did play the piano for years, but when I got older, I realized that while I still longed to make something beautiful, it wasn’t music. I didn’t want to dedicate my life to it, the way he had. He still loved me, and we were still special to each other until he passed.
Once I realized I wasn’t going to debut at Carnegie Hall any time soon, I was old enough that I followed a lot of the local news. I devoured “Page Six”, and I read most of the other articles in the paper as well. I had an insatiable curiosity for the world around me, especially the world in New York City. I lived on Long Island, so it wasn’t completely unattainable for a girl in the late 60’s, early 70’s. Even as I plodded through Geometry and World History, I read about the people who were the stars in ‘our’ constellation. Even as I wore my bell bottoms, fringed suede jacket and peasant blouses, I followed the fashions and wondered if I would ever be that cool, that sophisticated, that free.
In my world, women weren’t executives. We cooked, cleaned, got married and took care of other people. My mother was so completely controlled by my father that when she got a job at Gimbels, it was a revolutionary first strike. We needed the money, and I guess that’s why Dad let her get a job. But it was always a case of letting her get a job.
One woman was particularly interesting to me. Her name was Francine Farkas. As I remembered it, her husband owned Alexanders Department Store, and she was an executive. A real one. One who made her own money. She was beautiful and glamorous and just looking at her you knew she was smart and strong. I loved reading about when she appeared at an event. I longed to be slim and wear smart clothes like she did. I would look in the mirror and see someone who really wasn’t smart enough, definitely wasn’t popular enough, and was seen as a freak by the outside world (at least, that’s what my folks always said). I could never be like her, but the idea that women COULD be like her made me wonder whether there might not be something better for me someday.
The decades passed, and I grew up. Living my life absorbed my attention. Striving for things I often didn’t understand, feeling mostly like a second class citizen. I never got to college, and every time I got a great job, it was because I talked my way into it, and then worked like a demon to prove I could do it. I moved up the ladder, much farther than I thought I would. But the nagging voice in the back of my head always told me that I wasn’t good enough, wasn’t equal to the men and women I worked with because I didn’t have the education. I tried to dress well, but always fell short, like someone who buys a knock off designer suit, and never notices that the label reads “Channel” rather than “Chanel”. I always felt like the dime store version of what I wanted to be. In the back of my mind, the image of Francine Farkas blurred, but never faded. It just seemed more distant, more unattainable.
In the past few years, I have been blessed to have many moments of growth, connection, and increasing awareness of the world around me and how we are all connected. I have learned how to live with joy. I have learned that I have skills and talents I never dreamed of. I have even had moments when other women said they liked my outfit! The whole experience has been like being reborn, but in different episodes of the miniseries. Each one has brought me closer to the woman I longed to be, all those years ago. She never disappeared. She was just waiting.
I know I am on the right path, because this past weekend, I met an Idol. I never expected it. I didn’t see it coming. And the reality of it made me so humble, so grateful that I have been able to walk where I need to walk. I was at the 2012 Women’s Toolbox Un-Conventional Conference in Massachusetts. My beloved mentor and friend, Janet Powers, had assembled a group of men and women who all clicked like we were each others' missing puzzle pieces. She gathered keynote speakers who are all successful and powerful women. These women shared their stories with us, in a true spirit of generosity. We learned that we ALL go through STUFF. And we just need to keep going and deal with the Stuff, because Stuff Happens. It’s how we manage the Stuff that defines us and helps us succeed. Seriously, the whole weekend was just full of Incredible Stuff!
But the best part, the cherry on the sundae, the thing that told me I was where I was supposed to be was when Francine Farkas Sears walked into the room!
Her company, Women in Business, had donated beautiful laptop bags for every person at the convention. (When is the last time you got something nicer than a pen and a squeeze ball as a giveaway at a convention?) We were already fascinated by someone who would do this for a bunch of unknown people.
When she first came in, I looked at her and felt a tug of recognition. Something in the planes of her face reminded me of someone. The way she dressed (SUCH an awesome belt…), the way she looked when she posed for a picture, kept nagging at the back of my mind. I had a hard time giving 100% of my attention to the speaker at the time, and I had to really drag myself back into focus mode.
Then, when she started speaking, and I heard her name, I remembered. It was like falling off a rock and having the breath knocked out of me. I was stunned at the thought that this woman was the very same woman who I wanted to be like, who made me wonder if there might be more out there for me. The same woman who traveled to China with Nixon (the only woman) and brought back beauty. I went to Alexanders when she opened up the new floor with all her fashions and ideas. I couldn’t afford to buy, but I took my time, looking at everything and wondering what it would be like to be able to do something that grand!
Magic sometimes proves to be something ordinary, rather than extraordinary. The magic for me was learning that this Idol of mine was also a Woman who had Gone through Stuff. Overcame Stuff. She spoke to us like your girlfriends speak to you over a table at T.G.I. Friday’s. She was real; flesh and blood and brains and humor. She was really, truly, as special as I thought. And the most special thing about her was that she shared herself and her story with us as just another woman in a room full of women, all wanting to be more, wanting to be the best of whatever they were. She shared laughter and tears. She shared her experience and her compassion. She was real, and really cool at the same time.
I didn’t want to be one of ‘those’ people who I’m sure she encounters in her life; fawning and exclaiming. I did mention to her that I had been to Alexanders when she did the new floor. But I didn’t want to break the spell. It was enough to know that she was a real woman too, and she saw me as a real person.
As luck would have it, we rode in the van together leaving the hotel with another super lady, Kim Toth. We shared thoughts about the passing of family, illnesses, children, dogs and the excitement of the weekend. She emailed me a picture of my friend Janet, and took my name and all my information. In the way that real idols transform us, she saw me and acknowledged me and showed me that I am worth all the dreams I am chasing.
Today’s Question: Who were your idols when you were young? Did you ever have a chance to meet one? Did you ever imagine what it would be like if you did?