I count 18 women in the circle.
I dig through my memory, searching for a time I successfully bonded with a group of females this big.
My mind is blank, and then suddenly, my heart is racing. In the wave of panic I feel my jaw and the back of my neck tighten. I focus my energy on appearing calm and content, but am notoriously incapable of concealing my reactions and especially terrible at maintaining a neutral look on my face.
We introduce ourselves, one by one. Before each of them speak, I make a commitment to clear my judgement.
“Stay open. Be present. You’re exactly where you need to be.”
Everything feels upside down, already. It’s been a week and three days since I walked out of a courtroom and the realness of it is just barely sinking in. I already have deep fears and anxiety about finances and career-pathing, and what-the-hell I’m going to tell my dad. I’m worried about the next three months, but also the next thirty years.
What seemed like the easy part: this new team, this new job, this brand new store with its empty walls and open floors, immediately feels like another layer of challenge I didn’t prepare for.
Relationships with women, my entire life, haven’t come easy.
One night when I was in first grade, a woman, the mother of a kid in my girl scout troop, called my house to talk to my mom about an incident she’d witnessed in the parking lot of my school that day. The details aren’t important. She accused me of treating one of my fellow troop members in a way I wouldn’t have at that age, or ever.
I watched my mom patiently listen, then heard her calmly insist that the behavior “didn’t sound like me,” but after repeating herself more than three times, my mom solemnly handed the phone to me.
I was six.
On the other line, I heard the then-unfamiliar high pitch and loud volume of a woman who doesn’t feel heard. Of desperation and anger and other ugly feelings, dredged up from some distance, dark place, and misdirected at a target that is mostly, or wholly, innocent in creating them. In my adult life, the sound became the theme music of my law practice, an echo in my office, on my voicemail and written between the lines of many a hastily composed email from my clients.
Her accusatory tone shaped the words “bratty” “cliquey” and “exclusive.” I remember saying, over and over, “I’m sorry, but I don’t remember any of that.” When the relentless voice became increasingly more aggravated, I stopped defending myself and started to cry. When my mom finally took the phone back, my tears had become full-blown sobs.
And 24 years later, I remember it like it happened last night.
In fourth grade, two of my close girlfriends trapped me in our classroom during lunchtime so they could tell me all of the things they hated about me. One stood on the outside, blocking the doorway, poking her head through the narrow opening, made too small for even my 40 pounds to escape. The other girl was on the inside, doing most of the talking, her face right up to my face.
A year later, I found a stack of note cards stuffed in an old library book. As I read through them, I realized it was a conversation between two of my classmates, written in distinctly female handwriting. They went back and forth about how I’m not as pretty as I think I am and how they hope I grow up and look like our homely, miserable, angry librarian, Mrs. Cox. This is how young women abused each other before text messages, twitter and snap chat.
I have other, smaller memories, too. Of birthday party invite lists I was deliberately left off and conversations with my mom where she insisted “it’s not about you.” The time when a girl in my seventh grade PE class dragged me into a group of girls and said “look, I found a lost dog” to her friends. Or when a fellow high school senior told me we couldn’t be friends because she still “has beef with me from third grade.”
As I got older, these and other incidents, experiences and feelings came together as a pretty powerful story about my relationship to women: “We just don’t get along.” and “I prefer to hang with the boys.” “Girls are catty, untrustworthy and mean.” “Women are too competitive with each other, jealous and hopelessly insecure.” “Women can’t deal with my confidence, assertiveness or how aggressive I play on the soccer field.”
And, like most things we believe about ourselves, I moved through my life collecting evidence of its truth.
By the time I found my way to the future home of lululemon Roseville, I had a pile of it, deep and broad and full. I could categorize it by “type of woman” and cross-reference it by age-group, occupation and geographic location. I’d become so agile and adept at mentally cataloguing my experiences, I could leave any interaction with a female and immediately lock it into my imaginary vault, forever.
From my seat on the floor that day, a quick analysis of my invisible lady data told me out of these 18 women I’d be lucky if I connected with 2.
Over the next four days, team Roseville, as we quickly became known, spent close to 70 hours together. Early mornings became late dinners, time collapsing in on itself. We built an entire retail store in a day and a half, slicing through more cardboard boxes than I will likely ever see again in my life. We took countless trips to the mall dumpster and heard “Royals” so many times on Itunes shuffle, it took me six months to get it out of my head.
I remember a moment of complete overwhelm, sorting through a pile of running skirts, clear up to my knees.
From the chaos of printed pink, I made my first, real connection. Her name was Lauren, and even now, I think of our conversation as the beginning of my love story with lululemon.
She is tall and beautiful and a decade younger than me but as soon as she tells me that her dad is a lawyer and she wants to be surgeon, I think, “yeah, soul sister. we’re in this together.” Right away we have a pretty intense conversation. She reminds me of my college roommates and through the musk of packing tape and styrofoam, I can almost smell the comfort of the back bedroom in the apartment we all shared together. Lauren could’ve held her own in the feminist dialogue and shared experience of relationship dysfunction in the homes we grew up in. She is strong, and smart and by the time we break for lunch I feel attached to her friendship.
Finally, I feel the angst of the morning subsiding.
In the days, weeks and months that follow I relive that experience over and over again. On the retail floor on a Tuesday morning. After a sweaty yoga class in the slowly emptying parking lot when the conversation makes it impossible for us to part ways. At staff meetings and coffee dates and in the back room on our ten minute breaks. Moment by moment, in different ways with each of eighteen different women, I fall in love.
With their courage and compassion and sense of humor. With the way they love their families, or look out for their friends. I learn about who they are and where they came from and what they want out of life in the next ten years. They are humble, and creative and inspiring. They are all unique.
They make me laugh so hard I can’t believe this is what I do for a living. They listen to me tell my story and ask, almost every day, if I’ve been out on any dates. They stand for my greatness and celebrate my strength and they never once make me feel like I’m too smart or too loud or too intimidating. I feel like they love me not in spite of who, and how, I am, but because of it.
Life is unpredictable and messy and bad shit happens to all of them and they show up for each other with monstrous support and unconditional love. I see them rally behind every goal any one of them declares no matter how grand, or small or strange or inspiring. They are not cliquey and they don’t gossip about each other and when I tell people I work peacefully and functionally on a team of all women they refuse to believe it.
I want to call Bravo about a reality tv show that will re-frame the way the whole world perceives women.
They are that powerful.
And when I think about leaving them my heart hurts in a way it never has.
My team at lululemon Roseville healed so many parts of me, that before them, I didn’t even know were broken. They helped me navigate the unfamiliar, often treacherous, waters of learning who I was without a fancy job and impressive degree. They showed me how to be fearless, and vulnerable, at the same time. They reminded me that my greatest joy in life is to lead a group of exceptional, talented people. They worked their asses off for me. And each other.
They made me a better leader, and a better friend.
They forced, me, so gently, to cut the crap and just go on a date already. And they gave me the biggest hugs and most enthusiastic high-fives when I did.
What I will cherish most is the way they changed my relationship to women. They gave me both hope and confidence that the world, in the future, will be lead by women. And that we will all be better for it. They proved that the story I’ve been dwelling in was nothing more than a collection of experiences I gave meaning to along the way. They shredded a lifetime of evidence, and cleared the space for me to begin my research anew.
This time, with an eye for female collaboration and collective strength. For how we elevate each other, and hold each other up. For what we are capable of when we celebrate our special gifts and individual strengths. When we come together because we know we are better than we could possibly be alone.
We are a sisterhood. All of us.
And I will cherish my team in Roseville, most of all, for both being, and teaching me, that.