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Staff Spotlight: Mary Esselman

While’s no great surprise that our Iris editor, Mary Esselman, has not one but four “favorite” fictional heroines, there’s one real-life feminist she loves to sing along with that you’ll have to read to believe.
1. Tell us about your path to UVA, to where you are now and the work you’re currently doing for the Women’s Center.
I worked as a teacher and writer for a long time in DC, where I went to college. I still love DC, and miss it a lot. Since moving to Charlottesville in 2003, I’ve continued to write, and I’ve worked in the Transition Program and the Center for Undergraduate Excellence at UVA, where I loved supporting students and gained some personal heroes like Marva Barnett and Dorothe Bach of the Teaching Resource Center. I always find my way back to writing and editing, including pitching and selling my fourth book last year. Lucky, lucky, lucky for me, in 2016 I began working part-time with Leigh Ann Carver and Alison Kuhn of the Women’s Center communications team, as the editor of Iris, a student intern-run women’s magazine. I have the honor of “mentoring” gifted young writers who guide me right back, with their fresh, fierce perspectives on issues political and personal. I’m grateful to have found the supportive, stimulating community of the Women’s Center (and I cannot believe they put up with me).
2. What is one of the best pieces of advice you ever received?
My friend Julie is a Buddhist and a therapist who has a little hand-made sign stuck up on her fridge, which reads: Keep calmly knowing change. I love that, and it’s helped me through some turbulent flights and tense parenting moments. Julie and I used to walk our dogs together a lot when she lived across the street and she has this kind of mantra for taking a walk. She says, “Heart forward,” meaning, chest up, shoulders back and down – a posture kind of thing – but also meet the world with an open heart. I love that on both levels. So not advice exactly, but just little things that help ground and guide me.
3. What’s your guiltiest pleasure?
Oh boy, the love that dare not speak its name: Phil Collins. That’s right, Phil’s sappiest saddest love/heartbreak songs from his first solo albums. Also, belting out “Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls” (please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you’re used to) when I’m driving with the windows down. And ummmm, oh dear…uh, Yentl. Dammit, Babs has bona fide feminist cred. And I know all the words to Yentl.
4. What single thing would improve the quality of your life?
Prior to August 12, 2017, I might have said “a personal chef.” We’re privileged to have wonderful farm-fresh ingredients in this town but I am a terrible, resentful cook, seasoning most meals with bitterness and doleful sighs. Due to my celiac disease and my son’s celiac plus allergies to peanut, tree nuts, sesame, most legumes, most seeds, we have to eat most every meal from scratch. Now, I can barely see “my life” as separate from the lives of everyone suffering the madness of our current moment. If I could find our way out of this, bend the arc of the moral universe towards justice here and now—that single thing would do it for me. 
5. Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine?
Toss-up. Dorothea from Middlemarch, Levin from Anna Karenina, Janie (and Tea Cake) from Their Eyes Were Watching God, Jo from Little Women (up until she gets married), Meg Murray from A Wrinkle in Time
6. What is your most unappealing habit?
I have to pick just one? I apologize habitually. I am also prone to self-righteousness, procrastination, and messing up teeny-tiny important details from time to time.
7. What’s your favorite thing about Charlottesville?
The farmer’s markets, Barbie’s Burrito Barn, and the train to DC, when it’s on time.
See more of what we love about Mary over on Iris where she guides her students' efforts to tell it like they see it. 


Submitted by Kimia (not verified) on

Mary is an inspiration and the hardest working mentor for young women I have been lucky enough to know. Thank you!

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