Maria Leonard Olsen is a survivor in every sense of the word.
Having sustained childhood sexual assault and battled alcoholism, Maria is a source of light and inspiration to those she encounters. An attorney, author, (latest title is 50 After 50—Reframing the Next Chapter of Your Life), mentor to recovery and sexual assault survivors, and public speaker at events like the National March to End Rape Culture; Maria’s wisdom and insights provide hope and encouragement to those she encounters. And, now the Kuel Life community can benefit from this woman’s wisdom. Here’s Maria’s story – Week 30 of the Share Your Story; the Women the WSJ Missed series.
KUELLIFE: What are you pursuing now, at this stage of your life, that surprises you or might appear to others as if it comes out of left field?
MARIA: I suppose my owning and riding a motorcycle, beginning at age 50, surprises me a bit, given that, at 4’11” in height, I can barely hold up a Harley. I know it surprises people who knew me as a school/church volunteer and former country club mom that I now ride a motorcycle! I remember seeing a mom from my son’s Tony former school react with shock when I rode by. I used to care so much about what others thought of me. I am grateful to have dropped that rock!
KUELLIFE: What’s a typical day like for you?
MARIA: None of my days are the same! My best start to the day begins with meditation, to center me, then exercise (love classes and getting together with friends). Before and after work, I walk and play with my rescue dog, Harley. I have a busy litigation practice which, by its nature, varies every day. Sometimes the court docket and trial schedules govern my days. I try to fit in writing and other activities, in which I am involved, each day as well. I try to fit in a recovery meeting every day, and to connect with sobriety sisters, friends and family. I enjoy reading before I go to sleep, and I try to end each day with a gratitude list and prayer.
KUELLIFE: With what do you struggle?
MARIA: I still struggle with accepting life on life’s terms. Life continues to throw curveballs and, just when I think I am in a good, serene place, another challenge arises. My goal is to meet life with equanimity and to flow with the river of life instead of resisting it.
KUELLIFE: How do you motivate yourself and stay motivated?
MARIA: The Serenity Prayer helps: God/Higher Power, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
KUELLIFE: What advice would you give fellow women about aging?
MARIA: Embrace the gifts of aging, like feeling more comfortable with who we are. Try to see wrinkles as maps of our beautiful lives. Remember that you, alone, are responsible for your own happiness. No other person or thing can make you happy if you are not happy with yourself. Happiness comes from within. And, as we age, happiness is less about pleasure than about contentment.
KUELLIFE: What does vulnerability mean to you? What has the ability to make you vulnerable?
MARIA: To me, vulnerability means allowing others to see my true self, dropping any masks and being the best version of myself that I can be. I have learned that one of the greatest regrets of the dying is that they did not allow themselves to live a life true to themselves, and instead lived the life others expected of them. Knowing this led me to move my life in another direction and to be more aware of when I was starting to do things solely to please others instead of honoring myself.
KUELLIFE: What are three events that helped to shape your life?
MARIA: Getting sober was one of the biggest. I could no longer anaesthetize my feelings away. Among other things, I learned to surrender to something bigger than myself, work on my character defects, promptly make amends, practice the pause before responding, and perform more service for others who are suffering.
Having been sexually abused unfortunately shaped my life. I became a chronic people-pleaser and over-achiever to mask my self-hatred. It took me a very long time to develop a sense of self-esteem, to maintain healthy boundaries and to believe that I am enough. But now I use my experience to help others heal.
Another event that helped to shape my life was having children. I did not know my heart was capable of such unconditional love!
KUELLIFE: Who influenced you the most in life and why?
MARIA: I have had so many teachers in my life. In fact, I believe that every person and situation has the ability to teach us something if we are open to the lesson. When the student is ready, the teacher will come. My mother taught me resilience and resourcefulness. My best friend, who died last year, taught me how to live and die in grace. Toltec shaman, Don Miguel Ruiz, taught me not to take things personally because the way people behave is an amalgam of their life experiences and usually has nothing to do with me. My recovery sponsor taught me acceptance and to wear life like a loose garment. I have been blessed with so many wonderful teachers, that it is hard for me to choose just one as the most influential.
KUELLIFE: What is the best advice you’ve been given from another woman?
MARIA: We always have a choice of how to respond to anything that happens. We need not react immediately. Allowing time for one’s self to think before expressing a response almost always yields a better result. It may allow you to truly listen to the other person, rather than thinking about how you are going to respond. The acronym W.A.I.T., for me, now stands for Why Am I Talking?
KUELLIFE: What woman inspires you and why?
MARIA: My grandmother was the strongest woman I ever have known. She gave birth to my mother as the hospital in the Philippines was being bombed during World War II. She had to be evacuated hours after the birth and shared with me her stories of survival. She was a resourceful entrepreneur who encouraged me to be my best. Her love for me and my children was abundant and unconditional. I miss her so much and continue to be influenced by her fearless example.
KUELLIFE: Are you grown-up?
MARIA: I am continually growing and learning! I strive to learn something new every day and expand my understanding. So I am not fully grown, if that is what being a grown-up means. If it means I am responsible and supporting myself financially, then I am a grown-up!
KUELLIFE: What do you do for self-care?
MARIA: Meditation; prayer; practicing self-compassion; going on women’s retreats; exercise, yoga; curling up with a good book; walking in nature; journaling; going to recovery meetings; getting massages; and talking to trusted friends.
KUELLIFE: And last but definitely NOT least: What are the top three things on your bucket list?
MARIA: (1) To be able to accept life on life’s terms; (2) to visit as many places I have never been on this beautiful planet as possible (including Egypt, the Canary Islands, Mauritius, the Seychelles, Maldives, Prague, Istanbul, Angor Wat, the beaches of Viet Nam, 13 more states and one continent, Antarctica); and (3) doing a TedTalk or a TedxTalk, because I find others’ TedTalks to be wonderful mental floss and would like to contribute to public discourse and understanding.