Making The Most of The Time We Have

Join author, educator, and learner, Annmarie Kelly as she laughs, cries, and kvetches with the writers, musicians, entrepreneurs, and wanderers who inspire all of us to reach beyond our divisions and discover what it means to be wild, precious, and brave.

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Unlearn Your Lessons with Elizabeth Lesser

Unlearn Your Lessons with Elizabeth Lesser

Elizabeth Lesser is a well-known author whose latest book, CASSANDRA SPEAKS, challenges us to think about how when women are the storytellers, the human story changes. In this episode, Annmarie and Elizabeth discuss the roles females have played throughout history, religion, and mythology, and how now is time for us to unlearn some of the gendered lessons we have come to believe so that all people can flourish and shine.

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Oblong Books – Wild Precious Life is brought to you in part by Oblong Books, independently owned and operated bookstores in the Hudson Valley. Since 1975, Oblong has featured a carefully curated collection of books in all genres. Find your next great read and shop online at oblongbooks.com.

Shelter in Place – All of us long for joy, rest, beauty, and belonging—but finding them isn’t always simple or easy. Shelter in Place is an award-winning narrative nonfiction podcast blending open-hearted personal essays and intimate interviews. With musicians' ears, writers' pens, and voices that invite you in, we examine life's timely events and timeless questions. Join us as we search for home in season three: escaping not out of life, but into it.

Books by Elizabeth Lesser:

Cassandra Speaks

Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow

The Seeker’s Guide: Making Your Life a Spiritual Adventure

Marrow: Love, Loss, and What Matters Most

Other Titles Discussed in this Episode:

Women and Power, by Mary Beard

Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy

The Seven Storey Mountain, by Thomas Merton

Atlas of the Heart, by Brené Brown



Take “the Other” to Lunch, TED talk by Elizabeth Lesser

Say Your Truths and Seek Them in Others, TED talk by Elizabeth Lesser

At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal, trailer

Brown Eyed Girl, by Van Morrison

Holocene, by Bon Iver



Follow Elizabeth:

Instagram: @ElizLesser

Facebook: @ElizLesser

www.elizabethlesser.org

Annmarie Kelly:
Wild Precious Life is brought to you in part by Oblong Books, independently owned and operated bookstores in the Hudson Valley. Since 1975, Oblong has featured a carefully curated collection of books in all genres. Find your next great read and shop online at oblongbooks.com.

Annmarie Kelly:
One of my favorite things about being a mom is that I get to see my kids embrace possibility. I get to watch my daughter's dream about heading up their own scientific laboratories and see my son given permission to express his feelings, and, of course, vice-versa. My goal is for all three of my children to believe in the promise of their own capabilities and power.

Annmarie Kelly:
As proud as I am about my kids' beliefs, I can't really take much credit for creating them. I was late to the gender equity game. Without realizing it, I grew up believing that moms were caregivers and dads were breadwinners. I thought I grew up believing that a girl could be anything and a boy could be anyone, but it didn't really. I knew that girls couldn't be priests or presidents and boys weren't supposed to cry. It has taken me a good deal of my adult life to confront and unlearn these gender stereotypes.

Annmarie Kelly:
My conversation with the writer Elizabeth Lesser today is largely about rewriting some of those scripts that most of us do not even realize we have. Elizabeth Lesser, welcome to Wild Precious Life.

Elizabeth Lesser:
Thank you for having me.

Annmarie Kelly:
So I first came to your work through your previous book, Marrow, about your shared journey with your little sister Maggie during her life and her illness. I have been a caregiver for two family members, one who's still living, my little sister, and my father who passed away earlier in this pandemic.

Annmarie Kelly:
Marrow was a Bible for me. If I cry about it now, it's because it was such a profound permission slip about how to weep and scream and be strong and also not strong, and to accept the waves of all that came. I reread it ahead of today's conversation. I don't know why I was surprised, but I was. I cried all over again.

Annmarie Kelly:
But thank you for sharing your story and Maggie's story. I saw a hawk on a tree branch above my house this morning as I was listening to the birds and hearing a bird call I've never heard before. All of that felt just right ahead of today's conversation. So thank you for that book.

Annmarie Kelly:
Your latest book, which is more that we're talking about today, your latest book, Cassandra Speaks, posits this notion that when women are the storytellers, the human story changes. This book was jaw-dropping for me in these other ways. I read it and it shook me to the core. I feel like it settled in my DNA and started rearranging in there. I swear, some days I feel different because of this book. When a book does that to me, I want to talk to the person who created it.

Annmarie Kelly:
So before I lose my mind and start fangirling about you and your open-heartedness and your mindfulness and your erudite writing, would you mind just answering our opening question, which is simply would you tell us your story?

Elizabeth Lesser:
Yes, but only after I say that might have been the loveliest introduction ever. I counted recently how many Zoom podcasts or interview or book club meetings I'd attended, and it was 107-

Annmarie Kelly:
Oh my god.

Elizabeth Lesser:
... during the pandemic. It's been amazing. It's been such a beautiful way to connect with people. But I get so tired of people just reading the intro to who I am and I'm just like, "Oh, blah, blah, blah." So that was just lovely. Thank you so much.

Elizabeth Lesser:
That story about being my sister's bone marrow donor and guiding her and myself through that process, and then her loss, the loss of her life, it makes me come cry just hearing that it made you cry and helped you through your beloved's healing and then also your father dying.

Elizabeth Lesser:
Grief is a wild ride. But as you intimate it, if you don't take the ride and you try to step around it, it doesn't help anything. It makes everything slower, longer, darker, weirder. So I'm so glad it helped you claim your grief. That's beautiful.

Elizabeth Lesser:
So my story, well, I was one of those weird little kids in a family of atheists, who just desperately wanted to belong to some kind of religion. I was the kid who like, I don't know, starting at age four, couldn't fall asleep. My mother would say, "What are you afraid of, the monsters?" and I'd be like, "No, I'm afraid of death." She'd be like, "Oh god, go to sleep."

Elizabeth Lesser:
I was just driven from the youngest age, look, this is a really strange thing being human. There's got to be some answers out there. There's got to be some people who are like me, interested.

Elizabeth Lesser:
So from a very young age, I was a seeker. I wouldn't say I ever became a religious person as in following a specific set of morals or dogmas, but I have availed myself to every single kind of spiritual path, meditative path, psychological technique, strange journeys, and shamanic visions, anything that could help me figure out both the life and death issues.

Elizabeth Lesser:
But also look what's happening in our world. We're speaking on a day when Russia invaded Ukraine, and my heart just breaks. Like really still? We're still acting like such idiots. War has an absolute lose-lose track record. What's the problem here? So to me, being a seeker has been both about how do I work with my own inner anxiety and questions, but also how do we get along as a human family?

Annmarie Kelly:
Oh, that's beautiful. I loved your stories of being a little kid sneaking off to go to church with your friends, because most of us who are dragged to church were desperate to have the sleepover be on Saturday night so that we could skip church. But my parents would always say, "Well, we'll pick you up ahead of time. We wouldn't want to miss church." So I love the idea that you were pulled toward the very thing that most of us as children were desperate to get away from.

Annmarie Kelly:
Though I was also a kid who stayed up late. I read ... Was it Mrs. Brisby and the Rats of NIMH? There was a child's book about these mice that were in a field, and Nicodemus. It had some biblical names, but I remember one of the mice died.

Elizabeth Lesser:
Yes, it did. I Loved it.

Annmarie Kelly:
I read this book as a child and I always wanted to know where the mouse went. Your parents just say, "Oh, to heaven, to heaven. It's fine." But I wanted to know the in-between, what happened after you died. I remember staying up late and positing that question as ... Now that I'm a parent, I know that, oh, my parents, they just wanted to go to sleep. They want to talk about these things in the morning.

Annmarie Kelly:
What I would do is they would put books in front of me. They would say, "Well, just read and take your mind off of it. We'll talk about it in the morning." Of course, we never would talk about it in the morning. You just avoid those big questions with children.

Annmarie Kelly:
But one of my favorite things about your work is that you walk us into the big questions. You seek answers to the big questions. We also sit with discomfort. We sit with answers that don't always please us, and hang out there and call it what it is. We don't say we're going to talk about it in the morning and then not talk about it. We say, "Let's talk about it right now." What a gift.

Annmarie Kelly:
Your latest book, Cassandra Speaks, I feel like, broke me open in ways ... I'm in my 40s, and yet I'm learning the story of Adam, Eve. This is a story I know, at least I thought I knew. There's Adam, there's Eve. They live in the garden. Everything's perfect. Just God says, "Eat whatever you want, just not that tree."

Annmarie Kelly:
We know that Eve talks to a serpent, she eats from a tree, she shares with Adam, and then boom, original sin. And somehow it's all our fault. I know this story, and yet I'm reading in your book that you're asking us to think about it differently. Can you take us through the story of Adam and Eve? Even if you're not a Christian, I feel like everyone knows the story. Can you help us to understand it differently?

Elizabeth Lesser:
Yeah. First of all, when I started writing this book Cassandra Speaks, and Cassandra is a Greek mythology, I really have a great love affair with storytelling. I love stories. People learn through stories. The reason my books are about my own life and other people's lives is because there's enough theoretical blah, blah, blah out there. We all know the general idea of what it means to be a good person and how to be a better person and what we should do, but it's the stories that inspire us to actually try to put things into action in our own life.

Elizabeth Lesser:
I mean the Bible is full of stories. The myths are stories, movies, novels. This is how humans learn and change. So when I decided to write a book based on my belief that women have been left out of the storytelling, to the detriment of everyone, not just women, I went back and made a really massive study of the stories that have moved cultures forward, not just Bible stories but myths from China and the Middle East and Greece, Europe, fairytales.

Elizabeth Lesser:
This idea that things were great until the woman came along and screwed it up is not just in the Old Testament. It's in Greek mythology, it's in Chinese mythology. It's Pandora, the story of Pandora.

Elizabeth Lesser:
But we do know Adam and Eve better than other stories, especially those of us westerners in the Judeo-Christian Islamic world. So, yes, as you told it, that's the story. Adam was the first human. He was all alone. There was no Eve. Everything was so great in the garden, animals, enough food, fruits. God liked Adam. It was all fine.

Elizabeth Lesser:
But then God felt Adam needed a helpmate. Now I often think that's funny. God was tired of taking care of Adam. So he was like, "I need to get someone else in here who will take care of this very needy fellow."

Elizabeth Lesser:
So now, first of all, listen, I'm saying it like this. I'm just a person making it up. But remember, a person made up the Adam and Eve story. Unless you're a Bible literalist, and maybe some of your listeners are, but unless you actually believe the story fell from the heavens fully formed and is from the voice of God, if you believe that, you may want to leave the podcast at the moment.

Annmarie Kelly:
You've been warned.

Elizabeth Lesser:
But if you don't believe that, if you believe it's a blessed story and a holy text but that other human beings wrote it, you have to remember that it came from the perspective of the men of the times who wrote it. So in their perspective, God said Adam needed a helpmate, so he made Eve. Eve was curious, which is often the cardinal sin of women.

Elizabeth Lesser:
Men can be curious. Men can go on hero's journeys and look for wisdom and insight. But when women are curious, like Pandora who opened the box ... She, by the way, was the first Greek mortal woman also. When women are curious and look for wisdom, this is bad. It was the first example of women being shamed into not looking for their own perspective on things and insisting that they be taken seriously.

Elizabeth Lesser:
So in the days, the biblical days, snakes were actually known as purveyors of wisdom. Snakes were wisdom totem animals. And so, a snake was wrapped around a branch of a tree. Let's call it an apple tree. We don't exactly know what fruit it was. Eve said, "We're not supposed to eat that fruit because God said if we ate it, we would be as gods and we would surely die." The snake said, "No, that's not what God meant. God meant if you ate that, you would be as gods and your ego self would die. You would become wise." And so, Eve ate it and offered it to Adam because she wanted to become wise.

Elizabeth Lesser:
Now in the Bible, there are so many men who follow that longing for wisdom, whether it's Noah or Solomon or the great kings or Jesus. What did Jesus do to become wise? Oh my goodness, everything. He changed everything to the point of dying because of his desire to escape the religion of the day and create a new love-based religion.

Elizabeth Lesser:
But the only hero in the Bible who is punished for her curiosity and her desire for wisdom is Eve. It's the first example of controlling women. That's the way I read the story and many, many other stories in the Bible and in other holy books, are really ways of controlling women. That doesn't mean the Bible is an entirely bad book and shouldn't be read. It's a beautiful book. But it is one group of people's perspective on what it means to be human.

Annmarie Kelly:
I just felt so incredibly reframed as a woman. When I started to see these stories, I knew. You mentioned because Cassandra and Pandora. I had never known [Gayatea 00:17:43]? Galatea. But I knew My Fair Lady in Pygmalion, the modern takes.

Annmarie Kelly:
So all of these stories that I hadn't realized had landed in my DNA, I'd never thought about the ways in which, as a woman, I've been made to feel less than for things that are actually incredible gifts, that my convivial nature, my loving heart, that these are not seen as attributes to world leadership. These are not the ways in which we are going to transform our country because I offer you tea and sit with you and listen to your story, that the things that are about me that are womanly, I have often thought of as less than.

Annmarie Kelly:
I went back to these stories in your book and thought about Adam and Eve could have been the story of the wonderful curiosity and the gift of wisdom and the fearlessness. It could have been a story of a woman as a kind of a seeker like you were talking about. Instead, it has been taught to us very different. That stuck with me.

Annmarie Kelly:
Cassandra is a story I also knew. But again I'm not sure all of our listeners know their myths. So in what ways is the story of Cassandra ... I guess, first off, why don't we just start with what's the story of Cassandra, for folks who don't remember their seventh-grade mythology class?

Elizabeth Lesser:
Yeah. I like where you were going, though, because it's one thing to know it and it's one thing to really question how has that affected me all those years ago? How has it affected all of us and how has it affected the whole world?

Elizabeth Lesser:
So the story of Cassandra is she was a princess, the most beautiful daughter of King Priam in Greece, in Ancient Greece. She was from Troy. Troy and Greece were enemies. You remember the Trojan War.

Elizabeth Lesser:
She didn't want to marry a man. She wanted to serve the gods and goddesses, but she was so beautiful. All the men were after her. The gods were even after her. Zeus, the king of the gods, and his son Apollo, and the mortal men, too. So you already know this is a made-up story, unless you believe that Zeus and Apollo were real. So someone was writing this wild tale.

Elizabeth Lesser:
And so, Apollo offered, as his way of wooing Cassandra, the gift of prophecy. He said, "I can make you see into the future. You'll be a seer, a prophetess." She wanted this gift. She didn't understand it was coming with a price. So he gave it to her. Then he demanded that she have sex with him in that moment, and she didn't want to. She did not want to lose her virginity. But he tried to force himself on her and she resisted. He got so furious that he said, "Cassandra, I put a curse on you. Yeah, you will still see into the future, but no one will believe you when you tell it."

Elizabeth Lesser:
And so, she did see into the future. Of course she saw terrible things, because the Trojan War was on the horizon. She saw all of her family killed. She saw the city burned and in ruins. She would say this to the people, "You better prepare. You better do something to avert this war," and they called her hysterical and crazy. It was the first form of gaslighting, that term that means you see the truth, but you're doubted. So you think, "Oh my god, am I crazy here?" And so, of course the war happened. It drove her mad this knowing the truth, saying the truth, but being disbelieved.

Elizabeth Lesser:
To answer your question what does it mean for us, there is a long, long history of women really perceiving. This is the wrong way to go, humanity. As you said, why isn't my female heart and intuition and capacity for compassion and empathy, why isn't that valued?

Elizabeth Lesser:
I'm telling you what I see through my intuition guided by empathy. Things are not going to go well, whether it's about wars or climate change or children or schools or in our relationships with our significant others, our parents, our children, our mates, and we have been disbelieved for centuries, even called crazy and hysterical.

Elizabeth Lesser:
So I called the book Cassandra Speaks because while I was writing at that trial with the doctor Larry Nassar, who was the-

Annmarie Kelly:
Oh my gosh.

Elizabeth Lesser:
... doctor who abused hundreds of gymnasts and other athletic girls and women. The trial was going on, and the judge ... It was a televised trial. The judge, Judge Aquilina, who is just an amazing woman, just a powerhouse and a do not take me as a fool kind of person, she said to the girls, "I'm going to see if I can change the rules here, so that any one of you who wants to speak is listened to, because you have been abused twice, once by the deed and twice by not being listened and believed. I don't know which is worse. I'm going to change that."

Elizabeth Lesser:
She changed the rules in the courtroom and allowed, over weeks, hundreds of girls to tell their story, and she made Dr. Nassar listen.

Elizabeth Lesser:
You could see the healing happening on their faces. No one had believed them. Their parents hadn't. Their coaches hadn't. Their universities hadn't. The United States Olympic Committee hadn't. No one had believed them. Over and over people had said what this man was doing. No one believed them.

Elizabeth Lesser:
So I saw them as our Cassandras. I was blown away by their courage and by her vision, that listening to and believing women is a form of healing.

Annmarie Kelly:
Oh, it so clearly is. I thought about that when I read that part of the book. I thought about how that story had often been reported, and how I know his name but I often didn't know theirs. I assumed, oh, that was to protect the innocence of the victims. But I didn't know that they had had the opportunity to speak up.

Annmarie Kelly:
I didn't know that part of the story until I came to your book, that here were women speaking, saying, "You hurt me and it wasn't okay. This is what happened to me and this is what I have dealt with, and I have to let it go." They had the moment to step up to the microphone and be heard. I didn't realize it was over weeks, but of course it would've taken that long. There were so many.

Elizabeth Lesser:
The testimony ... There's a documentary film about it. It's on HBO, I think, or Netflix. I don't remember. It's so worth watching because it's so brave and compelling. Truly, when people say, "Well, so you write all this stuff, and how do we undo it? How do we undo it?" That's an actual way that the legal system is finally giving victims a chance to speak and hold their perpetrator accountable. There are so many ways in which the Cassandra story has legs if we write a brave new ending to it.

Annmarie Kelly:
I love that because, again, I learned the Cassandra story in my seventh-grade mythology class. I learned that what Cassandra's story taught us was that when women speak, people don't listen. That was what I remembered.

Annmarie Kelly:
I didn't realize that was just down there in my DNA, all of the ... That Eve and Cassandra and Pandora. What I learned was that women are trouble. Women should be quiet, that when we do seek wisdom, we usually make the wrong choice, and that even when we do speak up, people aren't going to listen anyway. All of these are just sitting inside of me. I didn't realize until I read this book how much unlearning of the woman's story I needed to do.

Annmarie Kelly:
My husband ran for Congress a few years ago, and I helped him with writing policy and writing speeches. I did a lot of the writing for the campaign because that's what I do. I'm a writer. One of the things people would ask me is, "Well, how come you're not running?" I would just say, "I don't feel called to it," and it was totally true. I did not feel called to it.

Annmarie Kelly:
But I crawled around inside of it when I read your book and thought I don't feel called to it because of the way the men I've voted for and elected have done things. I don't feel called to it because I don't want to lead like that. And the story I told myself and, therefore, I am not a leader.

Annmarie Kelly:
But that's not true at all. What's true is that I don't have enough women I've seen who I've elected, who I've seen do things different. When you mentioned Tammy Duckworth in the book, I know who Tammy Duckworth is and how amazing was it to learn the story of her rolling the wheelchair in with her baby on her lap, that it took until the last few years until we'd ever had a rule that said, sure, bring your baby to the Senate so that you can vote.

Annmarie Kelly:
That's recent. We didn't even know. We didn't know that wasn't a rule because we didn't have enough women in situations where they're both giving birth and in positions of leadership. Of course you can do both of those things. Men have been doing it for years. Mind-blowing. Mind-blowing.

Elizabeth Lesser:
Yeah. I call it doing power differently, that there actually is ... I mean the whole middle section of the book is about power. We think of power as almost a dirty word, because it's been so perverted and abused and used to hurt and divide, what we see going on in the world right now, all over the world. If that's power, I don't want it. I don't want to walk into that arena.

Elizabeth Lesser:
But as the historian in Britain who wrote a book called Women & Power, Mary Beard ... It's a beautiful little book. She says if women are uncomfortable with power ... I'm paraphrasing; I'm not saying it right, but something like this ... perhaps it's not women who need to change. Perhaps it's power.

Elizabeth Lesser:
Another story I've unpacked recently ... I didn't know it when I was writing the book, but I loved this story. It's very informative. It's a science story. Stories exist in every genre. It's not just literature or myth or religion. Science is almost the religion of the 21st century. There are lots of science stories that we believe because it's science, and then it turns out it's not true at all, or it's not a full story.

Elizabeth Lesser:
So back in the 1930s and '40s, the head of the psychology department at Harvard, Dr. Walter Cannon, he wanted to look at what do human beings do under stress and conflict? No one had studied this before. It was just very new that PhD psychologists were bringing people into laboratories and synthesizing experiences and measuring brain waves and blood and hormone levels.

Elizabeth Lesser:
So he brought many, many people into his lab. He simulated conflict, stress, things like that. Then he measured their blood and hormones. He's the man who came up with the phrase fight or flight. Under stress, under duress, under conflict, humans have two responses. You either fight, you aggress, or you flee, both literally run away or you detach.

Elizabeth Lesser:
So that became the story. That's what we all think, fight or flight. Oh yeah, you're stressed? Fight or flight.

Elizabeth Lesser:
So in 2007, I think, a clinical psychologist at UCLA, Dr. Shelley Taylor, she and her colleagues were studying that study, and Shelley Taylor had this aha moment where she noticed all those people the Harvard doctor brought into his lab, they were all men. Only men had been studied, because only men had been studied for so many medical studies, whether heart disease or cancer.

Elizabeth Lesser:
We're just undoing that now to the detriment of women's health. Women had not been brought into laboratories, and we have all sorts of different physical attributes from our hormones to our blood levels, to our bones, to everything. So she brought women in.

Annmarie Kelly:
Of course, and I don't see myself in fight or flight. Do you? Do you see yourself in fight or flight? I don't. We tend and befriend. I had never heard that before. Of course. We tend and befriend. So she brought women in and what did she learn?

Elizabeth Lesser:
Exactly what you just said. She came up with a new phrase. She said, yes, sometimes women fight or flight. Under the most desperate situations, a woman will self-defend or run away. But the majority of time, most women first will have the instinct to tend to the most vulnerable in the room, or to create circles of belonging.

Elizabeth Lesser:
You come home from a stressful day and you don't necessarily want to drink a beer and zone out. You call your friends. You're like, "Oh my god, you're not going to believe what just happened." "Really? That happened to you? Me, too." "Really? What did you do?" Just creating ... Befriending, befriending as a way of tamping down stress and anxiety.

Elizabeth Lesser:
So imagine if for the past hundred years, we had known that there's two ways human beings, hello, respond to stress and conflict. Sometimes they fight and flight. Sometimes they tend and befriend. What if we had universities of tending and befriending, like West Point, like Annapolis?

Annmarie Kelly:
Sign me up.

Elizabeth Lesser:
What if we had that? What if children didn't only have to learn the dates of wars as history, but also tending and befriending type events that were called heroic? I am on a campaign to make tending and befriending cool and brave and heroic.

Annmarie Kelly:
I love it. You can sign me up for coursework at that university anytime. Let me-

Elizabeth Lesser:
No, no. You are running for office under the tend and befriend party.

Annmarie Kelly:
I'm on board. Yeah. I had never heard that tend and befriend was a thing, but it makes perfect sense to me. When I'm nervous, I talk. When I'm in a room full of strangers, I seek to connect. Again, this is an attribute that my entire life, I hadn't even thought of it, has been looked down upon and diminished, or at least poked fun at, "Oh, are you talking to a stranger again? Come on. It's time to go," or, "You're just yap, yap, yapping," all of those kinds of things.

Annmarie Kelly:
Again, it's all in good fun. I just had never thought about how that settled in me and what it looked like when it's time to share our ideas. The first thing I think about mine is, well, it's probably not very good, that imposter syndrome that follows you into a room. You're in a room where you belong.

Annmarie Kelly:
I was a writer on a campaign. Who better to talk about the ideas of the campaign than the writer on the campaign? But, well, I don't know. I'm just a writer, I'm not sure. You sit back. Why do you sit back? Because of a lifetime being told that these attributes you have aren't really attributes at all. They're just the frivolous nature of women who, when they speak, we don't need to listen to and who, when they act, are probably going to be creating trouble.

Annmarie Kelly:
I didn't know that I was carrying those stories in my pocket and that these things that other people have told me are, eh, weaknesses can actually be considered some of my, and our, greatest superpowers.

Elizabeth Lesser:
I tell this story in the book. I'll tell it quickly. I was asked after 9/11, as were a lot of therapists or meditation teachers, mindfulness people, to work with first responders in New York City who were having a lot of trouble dealing with their PTSD. They actually had to take a course. I studied the curriculum of what we taught in order to go back into the workforce.

Elizabeth Lesser:
I worked with, for a couple of months, firefighters on the Lower East Side in New York City. It was one of the best experiences of my life, one of the most telling, and, in many ways, one of the sadder experiences, not just because of what they had gone through, but they were great guys and we had such great camaraderie. They were hilarious and they thought I was funny. We got along very well.

Elizabeth Lesser:
Every time I would try to bring them into a space where, instead of fighting or fleeing, they could maybe get in touch with their softer hearts, their tending and befriending instincts, and share with each other what they were going through and what it felt like on that day, or what they couldn't talk to their wives and children and friends about, and what the heck was going on in them. I kept trying to impress upon them with all sorts of statistics of heart disease and divorce, of what happens when you can't do what you were just saying.

Elizabeth Lesser:
Women talk too much, this idea that there's something about talking that is a less than human expression. The strong and silent type, that's courage. I was trying to breakdown that strong and silent type mythology for them for their own sake.

Elizabeth Lesser:
At one point, one of the guys came up to me and said something like, "I know you're right. I know you're right about this, but I'm not going to do it, and none of us are going to do it. I know I'd be happier and I know I'm going to lose my wife if I don't do it, but I can't do it because that's not what men do. That's not what first responders do." I thought, oh, we're not the only one, women, who have been wounded and left out of half of life's experience by these old stories.

Elizabeth Lesser:
Look at what's happened to these beautiful men, these well-meaning men. They're going to die early. They're going to be left by their families because they can't relax into the grief that you were talking about, about your sister and your father. They are consumed by the flight. They are fleeing from their own hearts. It's not a good way to live. It ultimately turns into to battle and war.

Elizabeth Lesser:
And so, that's why it's our job now, women, and men who are in touch with your hearts and aren't afraid to be vulnerable and to ask for help and to admit faults and to ask for directions. It's our time. It is our time.

Annmarie Kelly:
Oh, that's so beautiful. It's so easy to, as a woman, say, "Look, what I've been denied." We forget, look what these men have been denied, too. We used to work a lot with Team Rubicon, a disaster responder and veterans group. They deploy to areas after hurricanes and after earthquakes. It's all former military men and women, lots of men.

Annmarie Kelly:
One of the things I loved about their leadership was that they would talk about, well, let's be overt about mental health challenges. "Listen, we're going to schedule a meeting, but we can't make it at 11:00, because, remember, you've got anger management at 11:00. So let's not do it then," or, "Hey, we're going to circle up and really talk about how that went. Let's debrief. What did it feel like to be responding?"

Annmarie Kelly:
When my husband was overseas in the Philippines, what was that like to tend to people who were in the aftermath of a disaster? What did that bring up for you? Did that remind you at all of your experiences when you were a soldier? Using this work, you're bringing your strength to this, but also flipping it and saying, "What do I need from these disaster responses?" that giving, again, men a place to put voice to their feelings and their grief.

Annmarie Kelly:
Brene Brown wrote the Atlas of the Heart recently, the book that lists ... I don't remember if it's 89 feelings, but I brought it ... I'm a high school teacher, so I brought it into my classroom at the beginning of this semester. I told the students, "All right, pick your feelings."

Annmarie Kelly:
One of my guys is like ... [Jelani 00:42:01] said, "No one has ever asked me to say my feelings before." He wrote one of the most beautiful essays I'd read about how he was feeling on the threshold of his senior year, the expectations from his family and his community, what he had bubbling up in his heart. I gave him the book, gave him permission to put voice to his feelings. What a great gift.

Elizabeth Lesser:
Beautiful work. To me, the best work are teachers who are helping their students, girls and boys, because it's not only boys who feel ashamed to live in their feelings. We feel it too because it's been told to be something we shouldn't rely on. It's untrustworthy. It's going to get us in trouble.

Elizabeth Lesser:
So I feel educators who are helping boys feel proud to have feelings, to know their feelings, to feel empathy, giving girls the capacity, to respect all the parts of them that are like an emotional self. I just think it's probably the most important work that anyone is doing right now.

Annmarie Kelly:
I loved to go to teacher workshops and conferences. I'd get all these big ideas and, oh, these motivational quotes. I would go back to my classroom and I would think, "Okay now. Wait, what? How do I put this in the practice?"

Annmarie Kelly:
And so, I loved that about ... At the end of Cassandra Speaks, you've got, hey, if you want to practice these ideas, here's how you can do it. One of them has to do with take someone to lunch, have a conversation with someone you know that you disagree with and just meet them. Don't try to change their mind, but just listen to them. I know for one we all need that right now. I was grateful that you reminded us of that.

Elizabeth Lesser:
Yeah, I actually give some how-tos in the book, and I did a TED Talk it. You can watch the TED Talk. It's called Take the Other to Lunch.

Annmarie Kelly:
I will link to that for folks in the show notes. One of my favorite things you say in Marrow is actually about how you believe that as you've grown older and wiser, you're actually becoming younger. I'm paraphrasing it there. But this idea that as you grow older, you've actually become younger. I'm wondering if you still think that's true. If so, how can it be?

Elizabeth Lesser:
I do feel ... Let's put it this way. The body ages, and that is no joke and it's not that easy. But on the other hand, my spirit does feel younger because I don't care anymore really what people think about me. I'm not trying to prove myself, which I spent so much of my female life trying to do, because I was running a conference center, I was writing books, I was speaking. I was overcome with the imposter syndrome for most of my professional life, and battling it and was causing a lot of strain and fear.

Elizabeth Lesser:
I don't have the imposter syndrome anymore. What an unbelievable liberation. But it's taken me a long, long time. I'm in my 60s. It's taken me a long time. It does make me feel younger because the soul is ageless and the spirit is ageless. It's the ego and the body that ages. And so, the more I let go of my ego identification and just play in this amazing realm of consciousness, the younger I feel. It's not even younger. I feel ageless. I feel eternal.

Annmarie Kelly:
Oh, "I feel eternal." I love that. I'm taking a Tae Kwon Do class with my son right now. He is nine. I am much more arts than martial. They had like a bring your parent buddy. It was a one-time deal. Bring your parent to class. At first, my husband was going to go. Then he and I talked about it and thought, "You know what? It would be better if I go," have him see moms can be strong. I had no intention of continuing. But, afterwards, my son, my nine-year-old Henry, said, "Hey, mom. Do you want to come back with me some more?"

Elizabeth Lesser:
Oh, who could say no?

Annmarie Kelly:
And you can't say no, right?

Elizabeth Lesser:
No.

Annmarie Kelly:
All I can think about was it's really a class for kids and all the other parents get to sit and play on their phones. A large part of me was, in this moment, concerned about, well, what will the other parents think? Will they think I don't know that it's a class for kids? I thought, "Who cares?" My nine year old said, "Mom, will you come with me and do this thing that I love?"

Annmarie Kelly:
The only answer to give is yes. And I have been surprised by how weirdly meditative it is. I don't want to kick or punch anyone. I don't need a belt of any color. I am there because my son said, "Will you come with me to this thing that I love?" and I said yes.

Annmarie Kelly:
I'm even finding some poetry in the movements of ... For me, it's like tai chi. I know these are different martial arts, but I'm trying to get my body to feel strong. I think as women, the word strong was not always a word that I was raised to aspire to. But I like to feel strong.

Annmarie Kelly:
I could talk to you all day, but I'm told we have time limits. So we always wrap with just a few ... I call them icebreakers. I'm sure you guys have a number of these at the Omega Institute. But these are just quick little questions. So I'm going to give you some multiple choice. Dogs or cats?

Elizabeth Lesser:
Neither.

Annmarie Kelly:
Coffee or tea?

Elizabeth Lesser:
Coffee.

Annmarie Kelly:
Mountains or beach?

Elizabeth Lesser:
Both.

Annmarie Kelly:
Cake or pie?

Elizabeth Lesser:
Pie.

Annmarie Kelly:
Early bird or night owl?

Elizabeth Lesser:
Night owl.

Annmarie Kelly:
Are you a risk taker or the person who always knows where the bandaids are?

Elizabeth Lesser:
Both.

Annmarie Kelly:
And-

Elizabeth Lesser:
See that's-

Annmarie Kelly:
Go ahead.

Elizabeth Lesser:
You've got to drop that question.

Annmarie Kelly:
I think that-

Elizabeth Lesser:
Okay. Really? We're done with that question.

Annmarie Kelly:
Because if you're going to be a risk taker, shouldn't you know where the bandaids are? I mean-

Elizabeth Lesser:
And what does being a risk taker even mean? Maybe it means taking care of people and putting bandaids on them. So we're going to get rid of that question.

Annmarie Kelly:
Well, I love this reframing of it, that I think any binary is a false binary anyway. So anytime I give you two choices, but yeah. The idea that sometimes it's a risk to say I'm sorry. Sometimes it's a risk to say I love you, or even a risk to say no. Yeah, I love that.

Elizabeth Lesser:
Or a risk to say I need a bandaid for my heart.

Annmarie Kelly:
Oh, that's so wonderful. So now I have to keep the question just so I can get answers like that. I don't know. All right. Now these are a couple of short answer. What's something quirky about you, or just something that you like or love or a pet peeve? Just something maybe folks don't know.

Elizabeth Lesser:
Well, I love standup comedy.

Annmarie Kelly:
Really?

Elizabeth Lesser:
I just watch any comedy, even the ones we're not supposed to love, like Louis C.K. and people like that. I love standup. I'd love to be a standup comic, but that's not going to happen. But I love the timing and the risk-taking and the sacred cow blowing up-ing.

Annmarie Kelly:
Oh, I can see ... First off, I never would've guessed that, because so much of standup comedy can be so misogynistic.

Elizabeth Lesser:
True.

Annmarie Kelly:
But it also points to these larger truths, that you laugh because it's true-

Elizabeth Lesser:
Totally.

Annmarie Kelly:
... because it's funny, because, oh, you know it should be different and you haven't figured out ... It's naming it. It's giving voice to that.

Elizabeth Lesser:
It's naming it. If we don't name it, we can't react to it. And so, comedy names stuff. Then, thank goodness, sometimes we shut them down. But I like to laugh.

Annmarie Kelly:
What do you love about where you live?

Elizabeth Lesser:
I love the mountains. I live in the town of Woodstock, New York. So it has a lot of weirdos and artists and also a lot of conservative mountain people. It's a real mashup of a town.

Annmarie Kelly:
That's wonderful. What's one of your go-to songs?

Elizabeth Lesser:
I love the old stuff. Van Morrison is one of my favorite oldies. I love newer stuff like Bon Iver and a lot of alternative rock. I love all music. I use music all the time to help me.

Annmarie Kelly:
What's your favorite book or movie, or both?

Elizabeth Lesser:
Oh, that's really not fair.

Annmarie Kelly:
I know. You could just say one of your favorite books, your movies, or both, because you've got about a hundred books behind you right now.

Elizabeth Lesser:
Oh yeah. I'm just a reader deluxe. I'm rereading a book that set me on my spiritual path. It's called The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton.

Annmarie Kelly:
Thomas Merton.

Elizabeth Lesser:
Thomas Merton. It was the first overtly spiritual book I ever read in my freshman year of college. I decided to check out if it stood up the test of time. Some of it is so great. Some of it I'm like, "How did I tolerate that back then?" So it's great. I love rereading books. I reread Anna Karenina recently, which was so instructive to reread Tolstoy, to see both what I loved about it and what I find now as a feminist untenable.

Annmarie Kelly:
Was there still a train this time when you read it? Was there still a train?

Elizabeth Lesser:
The train was still there.

Annmarie Kelly:
Okay. I'll not reread it if it still had a train. But Thomas Merton, I also read as a freshman in college and I've never revisited. I might have to check it out now that I'm not reading it under duress, if I'm having to write a paper.

Elizabeth Lesser:
It's so interesting.

Annmarie Kelly:
What's your favorite flavor of ice cream?

Elizabeth Lesser:
Coffee, but it keeps me up at night. So if only they made decaf coffee ice cream.

Annmarie Kelly:
Decaf ... All right. For all the listeners in the ice cream business, I second this motion.

Elizabeth Lesser:
Please.

Annmarie Kelly:
I love coffee ice cream. But I'm often getting ice cream at night, and I can't have a scoop. And so, I forego it. Decaf coffee ice cream. You heard it here, folks. You've got two sales. We're listening.

Elizabeth Lesser:
Exactly. Yup.

Annmarie Kelly:
Oh, and the last one, if we were to take a picture of you really happy and doing something you love, what would we see you doing?

Elizabeth Lesser:
Definitely being with my grandchildren, the loves of my life, the most happy-producing beings for me. Yeah.

Annmarie Kelly:
Oh, grandbaby snuggles. That's perfect.

Elizabeth Lesser:
Yeah, just the best.

Annmarie Kelly:
Wow. Well, Elizabeth Lesser, thank you for coming on the show today. For weeks before this conversation, I have these mini moments of panic. I wanted to be ready and reread all your books and show you my post-it notes and impress you with my keen intellect and my knowledge.

Annmarie Kelly:
But instead I kept coming back to this quote that you shared when you yourself were nervous. I think you were giving a TED Talk with Madeleine Albright, who is either in front or behind you. You shared this advice that you got that said they don't need you to perform for them so they know how good you are. They need you to love them so they know how good they are.

Annmarie Kelly:
I have taken that mantra into my classroom. I brought that mantra here. You and I met 45 minutes ago, but I feel like I've known you for years. I love you. I love your work and your infinite capacity to awaken in all of us our own infinite capacities for joy and creation. So thank you for being here.

Elizabeth Lesser:
You're an awesome, awesome interviewer. I have been interviewed by so many people, including Brene Brown, and you rock. You rock it. You're so good.

Annmarie Kelly:
Oh my gosh.

Elizabeth Lesser:
You're so informed and kind and open. Please keep doing what you do. You're great.

Annmarie Kelly:
Oh my goodness. Thank you. That's the nicest compliment ever. Thank you. Folks, our guest today has been Elizabeth Lesser. She's the author of great books, including Marrow, Broken Open, her most recent Cassandra Speaks. Any of these will just blow your mind.

Annmarie Kelly:
Elizabeth, in Cassandra Speaks, you said ... Where you wrote that the past is laced into the present on the needle and the thread of stories. Thank you for lacing your past into our present here. I'm just so grateful for your truth.

Annmarie Kelly:
Folks, be good to yourselves and be good to one another. We'll see you again soon on this wild and precious journey.

Annmarie Kelly:
Wild Precious Life is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Special thanks to executive producers Gerardo Orlando and Michael DeAloia, producer Sarah Willgrube, and audio engineer Ian Douglas. Be sure to subscribe and follow us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.

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