When I tried telling friends about the event I attended last night, I found it hard to explain. Kind of like a live podcast recording…without the podcast? A live event, but not a performance at all. Storytelling and truth-telling, but not preachy by any means. And depending on who I was talking to, I led with a different name: to the pop-culture fiend, it was Reese Witherspoon; to the sports fanatic, Abby Wambach; to the fellow warriors, the name Glennon Doyle instantly explains it all.
I’m still not entirely sure what to call it, honestly. But whatever name you give it, my night at Hello Sunshine x TogetherLive was wonderful. A partnership event between Witherspoon’s lifestyle/media brand and Doyle’s activism and philanthropy collective, it’s been touring around the country putting some of the most engaging, dynamic, diverse women in one room to talk and connect and inspire. In Chicago, that line-up included host Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, Witherspoon, Doyle, and Wambach, plus comedian Cameron Esposito; actor and activist Sophia Bush; author and speaker Luvvie Ajayi; singer/songwriter MILCK; and author and facilitator Priya Parker.
On a simple set built out to look like one big living room (complete with eclectic armchair, throw pillows and candles), Walsh emceed us through a simple but effective show: a few Q&A sessions, some solo stories and even a comedy set that slayed from Esposito. Everyone got a their moment in center stage, from MILCK’s stirring performance of “Ooh, Child” to open the program to Doyle’s powerful, captivating keynote on bravery. In between, Wolf asked each woman a series of questions to get to the heart of their perspective on the world.
Make no mistake, the whole endeavor is a commercial one. At each stop on the tour, they sell thousands of tickets to a program sponsored by the likes of Always, Secret and Walmart, with fully-stocked merch booths in the lobby at every venue. To the cynical, it can all come off as an opportunistic cash grab to bilk a few bucks out of the vulnerable. Which is, of course, missing the whole point. Doyle, Witherspoon and their sisterhood have built empires of influence, inspiring women around the country (the world) to love fully and live honestly. That these efforts can’t (or shouldn’t) also be a revenue stream is at best short-sighted and naive, at worst oppressive.
Once you set that cynicism aside (isn’t it heavy? isn’t it exhausting??), you’ll find yourself in just the right head- and heart-space to let these enlightened, imperfect women speak to your soul. And speak, do they ever. With humor and candor, each segment of the program was packed with so many gems of wisdom and encouragement that it was impossible to jot them all down.
Wolf set the stage for the evening, inviting us all to listen with open hearts and minds, to apply what we heard to our own lives and to face with courage the truths we might uncover. Parker took us through a series of simple questions to help us understand where we each see ourselves today and where we’d like to be—are you a troublemaker, or a smoother-over? Have you had a conversation with someone of different beliefs lately? If not, why not? Have you witnessed injustice and prejudice and called it out, or stayed silent?
After each woman shared their mantras (gems that included: Do it even if you don’t think you can; Hold the door open; Go off the beaten path; It’s hard to hate up close; We can do hard things; Put down the glass…), Luvvie gave us a lesson in speaking truth to power. With an approachable authority, she reminded us that no one has ever died of discomfort, and that change comes from being willing to make the room uncomfortable, if only temporarily. (And don’t I know it…) Afterwards, Wolf brought Witherspoon up to center stage for a few friendly questions about her career, her motivation, her lessons learned over the years.
One of the most thoughtful themes in each of the conversations emerged early on, that of an awareness of privilege and the platform with with to use it. Witherspoon acknowledged it, and every other woman noted it at one point or another as well; it’s a refreshing wokeness that, perhaps by definition, is all too often lacking (in my experience) among male counterparts. There in that wildly inclusive space, women of means and privilege connected with women of marginalized communities and limited influence, and it was beautiful. Even as Esposito had us (well, me) crying with laughter during her set about growing up ultra-Catholic in the Chicago suburbs (and one riotous example of understanding diverse perspectives), it all carried a welcome message of celebrating, not discounting, differences.
After a healthy intermission (plenty of time to hit up that merch booth), the program picked back up again with Doyle and Bush chatting one-on-one about boundaries and self-care. Bush, who’s really come into her own as a voice for empowerment and activism since walking away from her full-time gig on Chicago P.D., talked about the negative ways we speak to ourselves and the damage it can do. She suggested we all think of a five-year-old child: would we treat her that way? Would we let others treat her that way? What if we considered ourselves that child and committed to taking the best damn care of her we could. Doyle mentioned she actually keeps a photo of herself as a child on her desk for just this reason, to remind herself just how far she’s come, and if you’ll excuse me, I need to go find a photo of myself from the mid-’80s…
Wambach swapped spots with Bush, and she and Doyle (who are clearly still very much in their adorable honeymoon phase) shifted the conversation to bravery: what it means to be brave, how we can show up and be brave every day, what changed in our worlds when we are centered in our bravery. The #GOAT that she is, Wambach shared the story of receiving the Espy’s prestigious Icon Award in 2016, being humbled and grateful for her stellar career and all she’d accomplished…and then wondering what it was all for? Where did it all put her, and what sort of impact could she have in “retirement”? Doyle listened attentively, but it seemed like even she knew what we were all waiting for: her moment in the spotlight to impart her wisdom, her lessons, her truths.
And though brief (the final keynote in a three-hour program that zipped by!), Doyle’s portion of the evening alone was worth the cost of admission. She commands a stage, instantly making every person in the room feel as though she is speaking directly to them. Her animated delivery, her conviction, her way with words; there is a reason this woman has a following to rival Oprah’s, and it was on full display last night. As she used examples from her own life (how her two daughters took very differently to the idea of getting their ears pierced) to help explain her definition of being brave (knowing one’s truth and being willing to articulate it), I found myself entirely captivated by her sheer presence, the spark inside of her that makes her the flame all of us moths are attracted to.
As the night came to a close, each woman shared a story they used to tell themselves that they now realize isn’t true, and like the mantras that started the evening, each was an insightful treasure worth remembering. The one that stuck with me came from Bush, as she talked about the chronic “You can’t” messaging that women are inundated with, constantly being told to be less, be smaller, be quieter, to never be “too much” for anyone. In a perhaps the most effecting moment of the whole program, Bush reminded us that those who find us “too much”—too loud, too ambitious, too intimidating, too successful, too smart, too anything—that these people are not our people. Talk about flipping the script! Rather than try to be what “they” say we can or should be, what if we are who we are, unapologetically, and we find a community that not only supports it but thrives within it.
As I left the theater, I listened in to the chatter around me as friends, sisters, colleagues shared the moments that stuck out to them. The lobby buzzed with energy as these newly-motivated women (and a handful of men!) stepped back out into the world, ready to face it with truth, love and courage. Though I wasn’t exactly floating away from all the positive energy in the room, I was just as jazzed as the women around me, though perhaps in a slightly different way.
Riding the train home, I had a bit of an epiphany myself, one that actually caught me a bit off guard. I’ve been following the likes of Doyle and her sisters for years (Elizabeth Gilbert, Brene Brown, etc., etc.); I’ve processed a lot in therapy; I’ve read the books and listened to the podcasts. So while I evening served as a welcome reminder of what I know to be true but all too often let myself lose track of, it wasn’t as life-changing or soul-stirring as, say, the first time I read Eat, Pray, Love. (Literally. Life changing.) Instead, the realization I had as I watched these women on stage imparting their wise words and life lessons was this: that every woman I admire is a creator.
Every woman I look up to has achieved some level of success, influence and exposure because where there was once nothing, she created something: a business, a book, a film, a podcast, a community. In the moments I struggle with what I’m doing with my life, how I’m spending my time and what I’m going to have to show for it, I need to return to my own life’s mantra (stolen, unabashedly, from Gilbert): What did I come here to do? If I take one thing from these women—the ones on stage last night, the ones in my own life, heck, the ones I follow on Instagram—it is their commitment to, their ambition for creation.
If last night’s program has any lasting impact (and I’m sure it will), it will be this: it’s time to get creative.