The Daily Bread: Women of Courage

ETHEL Pochocki, Peter Marbach’s mother, thumbed her nose at societal expectations all her life. Here she gestures her feelings about medical advice for stroke recovery.

I am often asked who has had the greatest impact on my life. Since most people know me as a photographer, a lot of folks have assumed people like Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, or the adventure photographer Galen Rowell have been models of inspiration.

In looking back over the forces of nature that have shaped my evolving beliefs and aspirations, the greatest influential people have been a collective of strong women of courage. I’m talking about women of all ages, from teenagers to elders, women who have flouted societal expectations, survived incredible challenges, and those who have consciously acted heroically when they could have turned a blind eye to events.

Lately, I have been blessed to have met strong women from First Nations and tribes pushing for the acceptance of aboriginal knowledge into the re-negotiations of the Columbia River Treaty between the U.S. and Canada, especially regarding fish restoration.

But it all started from the women from my family tribe, who provided constant and inspiring examples of leading a courageous life. At the top of this fierce, warrior clan was my mother, followed by five sisters, each uniquely brave and, like my mother, always annoyingly right.

One of the greatest acts of courage and determination of my mother was her decision to divorce my father. Keep in mind this was around 1970, and being Catholic, it was practically unheard of for a woman to do this. My mother did not want her children to grow up in an unsafe environment. She endured the challenges of this action with grit, determination, and a nose-thumbing attitude toward societal expectations that she embraced for the rest of her life.

From my teens through many summers in college, I did yardwork and house painting for retired school teachers. Over long lunch breaks (including cheddar cheese apple pies using lard for crust — the best!), I listened to much kitchen table wisdom about life and matters of the heart. These were brave women, lovers who quietly lived their lives without feeling the need to shout out their lifestyle choice that later movements would embrace.

And then there is the daughter, who came into this world on fire, a natural born leader with a thirst for getting things done. When she was six, she invited a group of girls to meet for a strategy session about raising funds for a local animal shelter. Sofia became upset to the point of tears when some of the girls preferred to play instead of taking the meeting seriously. As I write this, she is sailing across the Atlantic on a tall-masted schooner, braving storm squalls while teaching English and Spanish to Norwegian high school students. Before leaving, she admitted to being afraid, but she climbed aboard. You go, girl.

In July 2015, I traveled to Kumari, Nepal, to deliver aid after the earthquake. It was monsoon season and unbearably hot. On my last day, I was introduced to a young woman named Sumitra Gurung, who aspired to be the first woman leader from her village. Her tearful story of receiving no moral or emotional support for her dream of becoming a teacher touched me deeply. Young women from her world are not encouraged to dream of anything but a life of servitude. Thanks to support of local rotary here, she is starting college and on her way to being a fierce leader and inspiration for other young women.

In May 2014, a 13-year old girl from India, Malavath Poorna, became the youngest person to summit Mount Everest. Raised in poverty as a daughter of farmworkers, she was given this opportunity by a social welfare organization. She comes from India’s lowest caste system, previously known as “untouchables.” She embraced the chance, knew the risks, but wanted to make her village and parents proud. What’s even more impressive is that she did it from the far more challenging north side from Tibet. Upon arriving on the summit, Poorna was overcome with awe.” All around me was beauty ... I could feel God there.”

A little over a decade ago, I met Roberta “Bobbie” Conner, director of Tamastslikt Cultural Institute in Pendleton, and enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation. I was just beginning to get up the courage to do more public speaking. Bobbie gave me simple but powerful advice: “Just tell a story.” Later, when trying to move my Columbia River project forward, and looking to work with tribes, she said, “We do things at a glacial pace. Your time will come.”

And then there is Leah. This four-year-old, known as Leah the Overcomer, set the internet on fire recently with her story of overcoming a serious blood disorder by dancing and singing to a contemporary Gospel song called “Overcomer.” It’s that child-like blind faith and being fully present to the gift of the moment that has touched so many people. Google her — I dare you not to be moved.

I am also grateful to the women I have known who have been less than courageous, those who ended relationships with judgmental, soul crushing language instead of parting with kindness and compassion. From them I was able to put into practice forgiveness, and learned life lessons about only opening your heart to someone who has the capacity to give you the benefit of the doubt.

From women, I have learned to be on more intimate terms with the world — with nature, people, and animals. When I sleep under a star laden sky in the wilderness, I am comforted by a blanket of stars and tucked in by Mother Earth.

I am so inspired by post-election events organized by women, like the March on Washington, or the fight to stop the Dakota pipeline. These are women who have had enough of being told by men how to behave. After all, women who behave rarely make history.

So men, a bit of advice from lessons learned. Shut up. Say yes. Listen. Be fully present. It takes a bit of courage, but the effort is usually appreciated.