Love, Listen, Learn and Lead

The leaves rustle gently through Mary's hair as she waits in the sunlight. Anticipating.

Wondering who or what will wander into her frame. A bird? A rodent mindlessly running and trampling through the foliage beneath its tiny feet? Mary Danz, wildlife photographer and founder of Brave Her Diaries, lives 45-minutes outside of Dallas, Texas. 

Growing up, she recalls watching The Beverly Hillbillies and thinking how she would never be like Jane. She never wanted to wear coveralls and watch birds because, as Mary states, "How nerdy is that?" Yet here she is dressed casually, waiting for that perfect picture of a bird. 

Speaking with Mary is as comforting and effortless as sipping a cold glass of iced tea on a hot afternoon. Mary joined me in talking about her passion for wildlife photography, the work of her hands, Ambitious Mothering and her thoughts on her attendance at the I A.M. Summit and everything else that flowed from her heart.

Here is what Mary had to say.

On Wildlife Photography

Sitting, waiting expectantly to capture one photograph is a meditative experience. Wildlife photography causes you to be present and grounded simultaneously. It's experiential. Unlike taking pictures of people where your subject can pose for you how you want, you can’t control or manipulate nature in that same way. All you can do is sit and wait.

I call wildlife photography and the art of capturing that one photograph a three-scoop experience. Scoop one, you wait. Scoop two, sit in anticipation; that's the meditative scoop. Scoop three, your subject—a bird, an animal enters the frame, you see the perfect shot, and you start snapping. This process can take a few moments or a few hours. No matter how long it takes when I capture that picture, the experience touches my soul.

Brave HER

Perhaps there was always an underlying feeling of not feeling as though I fit in anywhere which led to my previous belief that I did not need community. I could do it all on my own, and many times throughout my life, I have been my own champion. When you're the youngest of five, you learn to sit back and listen. I don’t necessarily talk a lot, but I did a lot of listening. 

My observant nature helped me realize two things. First, you must be concise when you speak because what I had to say had to matter. I also developed a deep empathy and respect for people. I learned to read body language and connect with people at their core.

Ambitiously Pursuing–Brave Her Diaries

Brave Her Diaries is absolutely the work of my hands, but also the work of my heart.

Brave Her Diaries is a space that allows women to find a connection amongst other women's stories in the hope that they will find a moment of relatability that enables them not to feel alone or feel shame in this human lifestyle we are living. We are all human, and sometimes we forget that.

I chose a butterfly as the theme or emblem for Brave Her Diaries because, like a butterfly, we all morph and grow, and I wanted to document the evolution of women as they navigated through life. 

I found myself increasingly curious about other women. I wanted to discover how and if women felt safe with one another. I wanted a place where we could come together and let down our guard and just be. Shedding light on each woman’s biggest fear became the focus initially. I feel that fear is a driving force in many women’s lives. We either do things or don’t do things from a limiting fear-based mentality. I wanted to bring that fear—their fears—into the light and expose them. I believe that when you shine a light on something, it disappears. Like in photography, when you add too much light to something, it becomes overexposed and disappears from the shot. 

Am I inspiring change in the world?

I am trying. I want to change how we relate to one another. I want women to feel like they can be themselves and where we can begin to enjoy every variety of our humanness and our human experiences. In its simplicity, people are like flowers. Every flower has so much beauty. While one flower might be red or blue or a different shape or have different petals, they are all so beautiful and unique in their own right. That’s the part that I want to expose and want everyone to relate to.

I have photographed Diana Nyad in Los Angeles, Donna Gates in Denali, Alaska, and my daughter-in-law Tiffany, in Nicaragua. When I find someone I want to get to know, I reach out to them, send them questions, do a photoshoot, and sit and talk. They talk, and I listen.

I have also found a way to incorporate food into our discussions. When you start talking about food right out of the gate, it hooks people.

The concept of the Brave Her Diaries started as a book and grew into a community. As the community has grown, the main goal now is to get a book completed. When you read a story and relate to that story, it makes a person feel validated and more in touch with their soul.

On the I AM (Ambitious Mother) Summit

The I A.M. Summit was embracing. I felt welcomed, heard, lifted up, listened to, and I listened. I never really felt like I had women I could call on, but all these women knew that if I were dealing with a problem, they would drop everything they were doing to help. They have your back.

For example, while I was there, my son Zach got a job. I asked these ladies if they would be open to recording a congratulatory message. They soared with this. 

Each woman took my phone, and they sent him heartfelt messages. Here we were all, we did not know one another, and these women recorded the most heartfelt messages. They made these videos because they cared about us as people.

The I A.M. Summit was a transformative experience. I changed for the better. The biggest lesson that I learned from attending the summit was loving, learning, listening, and leading.

I could not leave the Thursday morning after the summit because a storm was approaching, and my flight had been grounded. This extra time allowed me to reflect and process my experience. Those moments of reflection lead to the reaffirming belief that I am a powerful child of God and that there is so much courage in simply being myself and showing up. 

I was initially introduced to the I A.M. Summit through my friend, Andrea. We had been out for a meal together, and she was registering for and talking about this Summit. I was curious and thought that it sounded like a great experience. I wanted to go and asked if it was something I could attend. The answer was yes, so I signed up, not knowing what to expect other than feeling like this experience would be amazing.

There was a meet and greet component before the I A.M. Summit over Zoom. The first time all the cameras were on, I realized that I was the only white woman attending. The amazing thing was that I never felt the other ladies viewed me as the “White girl in the room," and I never considered them as anything other than amazing women. We connected soul-to-soul. This summit was that flower moment that I described earlier—we were all uniquely different.

At the summit, we sat and listened. I listened to their powerful stories. Listening is the key to understanding. I can honestly say that I have never been surrounded by so many women without feeling a sense of judgment. There was space created where there was no judgment. There was no competition. It was a welcoming environment where I didn’t have to feel guarded. We all met one another just as we were and developed strong connections.

On Motherhood

For most of my children's early years, I was a stay-at-home mom. Then I divorced and had to get a job to support my kids. I had no college degree, had been a mother for years and was rejected by numerous temp agencies. When a temp agency does not even want to take a chance on you, it becomes a very humbling experience.

I thought that I had a lot to give. I had organized my children's schedules for years, participated in various school events, organized soccer tournaments, and shuttled my kids to their various activities. I felt that I could organize anyone, but I keep receiving rejection after rejection. 

Luckily though sheer persistence and perseverance, I managed to find one agency that was brave enough to take a chance on me. My first job was as an executive assistant for the Perot family. I could not believe it, and I made $100,000 that year out of the gate.

Being a single mom and working full-time was challenging, but I was truly blessed with my boys. They were both involved in theatre, so they stayed busy. They would not be home between working and rehearsing most days until late. Their dad also didn’t live far away, and we had a good relationship. Luckily there was no drama as a result of our divorce. He filled in whenever needed, but it was me doing it all most of the time. 

Motherhood Lessons

Motherhood can be very overwhelming. I believe that the most important lesson and wisdom to hold onto while you mother your children is simply to love your child(ren). Respect them as they are. They are not meant for us to control. We need to love them, teach them, educate them and lead by example. Admit when you have been short-tempered and may not have shown up as your best self.

Motherhood is simply loving, laughing and sharing moments. 

There is too much noise in the mothering industry. All the information out there can make you feel like a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. Not all mothers are great cooks, excellent seamstresses, or work outside the home. Yet, sometimes, in the mothering industry, you can become overstimulated with all the "should dos.” It’s okay to listen to and take the advice, but I also believe that as a mother, you need to listen to your instincts and observe your children's needs. You are unique. The way you choose to mother is unique and even unique between your children.

I remember hearing from another mother, "My children have been making their lunches since they were 7." In the back of my mind, I thought, “That's great for you, but I enjoy making my children’s lunches because this is how I show love and express it for my children.” My point in this is take what applies to you and leave the rest. As a result, I never allowed the noise on the outside to affect the way I mothered my children.

When you can make time for your children to listen to them, you realize that your children have as much to teach you as you have to teach them.

On being an Ambitious Mother

Ambition and motherhood can absolutely exist in the same sphere. I believe it is healthy for children to see their mother pursuing their passions. The only way ambition and motherhood cannot co-exist are when it causes stress on the family. If your ambition outweighs the importance of your family, your children will pick up on that stress. 

Building, creating, and molding your children should outweigh everything else.

An Ambitious Mother in my life

My mom–hands down. 

She was adopted, and she was not close to her mother. While I never met my grandparents, my mother described her mother as very task-focused. She had a “get things done” mentality. Motherhood to my grandmother came across as the doing of tasks—making dinner, packing snacks, having breakfast on the table, and sewing clothes.

As I understand it, there was no real relationship between my grandfather and grandmother. He had been engaged to another woman before serving in the war. His fiancé’s mother did not like him and did not want them to marry, so to discourage marriage between them, she placed a fake ad in the local newspaper announcing her daughter’s engagement to another man.

My grandmother had been engaged previously, but her fiancé died of a disease. My grandparents were two devastated, broken-hearted people who were married to one another. They never fought, but it seemed like it was a marriage of convenience. My mother was their only child. My grandmother was afraid of childbirth because her sister died in childbirth, so they chose to adopt.

My mother raised five children, and she is a big kid herself. She is in the early stages of dementia which is challenging, but she still has so much fun inside her.

Food that nourishes my soul

Fried chicken and mashed potatoes (especially my mom’s). Mom made hands down the best-fried chicken in the whole world. She does not make it anymore.

Every year for our birthdays when we were growing up, she always cooked our favorite meals. Fried chicken and mashed potatoes that food truly feeds my soul.

On Handling Disappointment:

I tend to journal my challenges. It allows me to ask myself what the lesson I am to take from the situation may be.

Every person will experience disappointment from every person in our life. We are human. When you know that, you give grace to yourself and others. You learn a lot about yourself when you are faced with disappointment. You also recognize how that situation made you feel. You decide not to allow the same disappointment to befall someone else because of your actions. 

Three things you may not know about me:

  1. I’m a certified yoga instructor. I taught my first class in a homeless shelter. Out of all the teaching spaces I have taught in, I enjoyed this the most.
  2. My husband and I have been filming a documentary for the last five years on Kip Keino, an Olympic medalist from Kenya.
  3. I’m a lifelong learner. I will never stop being a student of life. I’m always curious. 

My one message to give to the world

Smile. A smile is so powerful and can change the trajectory of someone’s day. Sometimes a smile is more powerful than a hug. 

Be authentic and enjoy who YOU are.

Spending an hour, an afternoon, or a weekend with Mary is a mixture of calm, adventure, and ambition. There is something brave about Mary. 

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