A Tribute to Anita McLeod

In early January we lost a beloved member of the RCWMS community to cancer. Anita McLeod, RN, BSN, was a retired nurse and health educator in Durham, NC, a courageous trailblazer who will be sorely missed. During the twenty years of her association with Resource Center  she led many workshops on women’s spirituality, founded and led the Elder Women’s Project, and chaired the RCWMS Board of Trustees. We are so grateful for the outpouring of support this community has shown in the many donations you have given to RCWMS in her memory. Thank you for helping us carry on her legacy.

Here we want to share with you the remarks delivered by RCWMS director, Jeanette Stokes, at the celebration of Anita’s life, which took place on January 16, 2017.

My job is to explain what Anita was doing when she was not with her family.

The poet Mary Oliver has written:

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world. (“When Death Comes” by Mary Oliver)

Last week, in looking for pictures of Anita—on my phone, on my computer, and in old photo albums at our office—I was overwhelmed by what I found. As we know, Anita was bright, beautiful, and funny. There she was laughing, leading, and loving people, but what surprised me was that she was also ubiquitous. She was always there.

I met Anita 20 years ago in a yearlong class on women and spirituality at Duke Divinity School. Several of you were in that class. In the next few years after that, Anita and I taught a course for Duke Continuing Education on the same topic: women and spirituality. And after that, she began to design and lead circles, classes, and retreats of her own for the Resource Center for Women and Ministry in the South, which I direct.

As I looked at pictures of Anita, I noticed that without calling attention to herself, she was always there. She joined our board of trustees and eventually served as the chair of the board. She came to book readings, lectures, and workshops other people led. She was central to our 25th Anniversary celebration in 2002 and to our exhibition a few years later called “Art and the Feminine Divine.”

Anita’s way of being in the world was a perfect match for the vision of the Resource Center.  We are in the business of empowering women to weave feminism and spirituality into a vision of justice in the world. That is what Anita was about. She supported the Resource Center and the Resource Center supported her. We provided the platform or stage on which she could do what she loved most—teach and lead and empower others. And she did it brilliantly.

She was the group leader I trusted the most. I was confident that she could handle anyone or anything that might come up. After working in the diet program, with surly, hungry clients, a few upset women in a small group were not going to scare Anita McLeod.

When I counted up the number of events Anita had either initiated or led for us over the last 15 years, the list kept getting longer and longer. Fifty events. She led or organized fifty events for us. She was always there.

Anita embodied feminist principles in her leadership style by trusting groups of women to learn from and teach one another without her having to be the teacher who told participants everything they needed to know. She trusted the groups more than the “experts.”

She invented classes, workshops, and ongoing groups on topics she wanted to learn more about. She began with Menopause and moved on to: Mothers and Daughters, Women Over 60, Wise Choices, intergenerational writing workshops, workshops about the natural world such as When Grandmothers Speak the Earth Will Heal, and finally, End of Life Issues and Befriending Death.

The last ones make me wonder. Did she know? Did she have some inkling that the coins left in her purse were numbered? Did she know that she needed to befriend the end of life? We will never know, but what she taught and learned served her well. She approached these last two months with an open heart and with her insatiable curiosity. And she was not afraid.

But now she is gone. Or is she? The poet Kahlil Gibran has written:

Close your eyes and you will see me among you now and always. Go back to your homes and you will find there what death could not take away from you and from me.

In the last months of her life, when reflecting on what she was learning in her dying, she said, “I don’t know how to explain it, but this is not about me! This is for the world. Please don’t let them make this only about me.”

So, if this is not just about Anita but is also about us, what would Anita want for us to do now? I think that with the prophet she would want us to do justice, to love kindness, and to be decent companions for all the creatures of the world.  

In December, she wrote her last email to the RCWMS mailing list. She said:

“The Divine Feminine is with us as lover and warrior. She is calling elder women to stand up for the precious earth and water and creatures. For ourselves. For our children.”

I think Anita would want us to walk in the woods, to keep our friends and loved ones close, to march in Raleigh and in Washington, and to speak up on behalf of vulnerable people, vulnerable creatures, and the earth.

In order to do that, we are going to have to resist some pretty strong forces in this country. I’ve been saying I’ve never been an obstructionist before, but in the current political climate, I think I’m going to enjoy being one. And I’m certain Anita will be right there: resisting, rejoicing, and cheering us on.