I keep a running list of people I think are Ultimate Badasses. I call them into my mind when I lose touch with my own badassery and I need of a little bit of a reminder of that fire that is in all of us. Yesterday I met a chick so cool that I walked up to her afterward and told her I thought she was the most badass lady I’ve met in years and I kind of wanted to get a tattoo of her. We started cracking up and had an awesome conversation about her latest adventures in badassness, which was raising her two children.
Martha Curtis is a violinist–an unlikely one because she has epilepsy and had such intense seizures that she would be playing the violin on stage one minute, and come to later behind stage with someone asking her if she was alright. She had them since she was a child, and when her mother realized this condition would affect the rest of her life, she did what my dad would call “put some shit in the game.” Rather than build a protective wall around her Martha and see her condition as something that limited her, she introduced her to music, and the violin became the way she experienced herself as limitless.
Here is some 60 minutes footage that tells Martha’s story, if you are interested. http://www.cbsnews.com/videos/martha-curtis-story/
She came to give a talk at my job yesterday (NBME gets cooler and cooler to work at every day), and she wowed us all. The things I took from her story will inspire me for years.
Badass trait number 1: She played through her fear.
The way she knew a seizure was coming was that she would get a sense of fear that something was coming to kill her. Sometimes this would come and she’d play her violin and the feeling would dissipate. Other times the aura would come and would lead to a seizure. Regardless, she played her violin. The location of the lesion causing her seizures was in her amygdala, which is the fear center of the brain. This just amazed me. We all get scared, for reasons real, and sometimes imagined. This woman had a physiologic event putting her into a deep fear state most of the time, and she still chose to do what she loved, to do what she felt she was here to do, in the face of that fear.
Badass trait number 2: She chose to thrive rather than survive.
Yesterday during her talk Martha said something to the effect of, I wanted to have the life that I desired. Then she played some Bach that she said for her represented the intensity of desire. She wanted that life, she wanted to be able to play her violin uninterrupted, so she had a surgery that removed a huge portion of her brain, with no guarantee that she would be able to play music again after the surgery. Ultimately she went through numerous surgeries that were painful and scary. But rather than live a limited life, she stepped into that fire, even giving her doctors pep talks when they were scared to operate on her. She knew what her purpose was, she knew what made her feel alive, and she did what she needed to do to have it, against many odds. As I listened to her, I thought about how easy it would’ve been to just exist, to be happy that the meds let her do some of the things that she wanted, and to just get by. But that pulsation of desire was her guiding force and she followed it until the last surgery, which left her in a state where she could be seizure free with medication.
Badass trait number 3: Once she had what she called “uninterrupted consciousness,” she saw it as just more time for badassery.
To me this was the coolest part, that she once she had “uninterrupted consciousness” she realized people have a lot of time on their hands. It reminded me of Kathlyn Hendricks, who once asked someone in a workshop, after helping her unwind a pattern that had been consuming a lot of her energy, what are you going to do with all your spare time?
Hearing that term “uninterrupted consciousness” made me realize, wow, I take that for granted. The fact that my experience of being conscious is sustained from waking up to going to bed…it never occurred to me that everyone doesn’t have that experience. How am I using my time? I asked Martha, once you had uninterrupted consciousness, how did you use it, and did you ever start to take it for granted like the rest of us? She talked about how she practiced constantly and played as much as she could, and she gave talks, and provided mentoring and feedback to people with epilepsy and their family members, and she mothered her children, and was heavily involved in their education and her own medical care. What a clarion call to use your time wisely.
Badass Trait number 4: Positive relationship with herself
Martha said she would talk to herself in the mirror and let herself know she could do it. She could play in the face of possibly having a seizure, she could play if the aura of fear started, she could get up and play again after the seizure was over. She was her own best friend, her own cheerleading squad, her own motivator. She did have friends, and family, and all were supportive but she also understood that she needed to show up for herself. It was a great reminder that we all stand on the shoulders of giants, that all success is intertwined with the love that we share with friends and family. But without cultivating a positive, supportive, and loving relationship with ourselves, we will be hard pressed to thrive, to create the life we want, to use our time in ways that serve us, and to presence our fear while having the strength to move through it.
I really appreciated Martha’s sharing her story. I’m sure at some point she had a dark night of the soul, as we all do. Her path was not easy. But the level of resiliency she showed was amazing and inspiring. Her violin playing brought tears to my eyes and was a beautiful reminder to practice what you love and then practice it some more.