Tanya Leach: ‘Do the things you don’t think you can do.’
Walking into the pottery studio where Tanya Leach often seeks refuge, turning lumps of clay into works of art, was like stepping into an alternate reality. The studio, a historic home in the heart of Covington, is filled with painted tiles and stacked shelves of tools, mixing bowls, and artwork, all covered in the fingerprints of a tight-knit community of women. Tanya, accompanied by her sister Tiffany and studio owner Jane, describes the environment as a place where women can show up and express their support and creativity freely with each other – all over good beer and even better conversation.
As the clay rolled underneath Tanya’s stained hands, she spoke of the trials, beauty, and changes that came from the year she uprooted her life and moved her family to Croatia. She discussed what it was like to be married to a man in the military, and shared the unique stories from her career working as a journalist and video producer. In every challenge Tanya faces, she’s learned to stare it down fearlessly, because, she says, “The thing you think is the most horrible thing can turn out to be the greatest thing.”
I want to understand a little of your background – you said you were a journalist, correct?
Yeah, I went to Western Kentucky University and I had a double major in journalism and graphic design. I had newspaper internships and ended up getting hired as an intern at the Cincinnati Enquirer. That was back when there was a prison riot in Lucasville on Easter, and everyone was off work, so I ended up being there for 11 days covering the prison riot and got hired after that.
What was it like covering those riots?
It was an adrenaline rush. There were a lot of boring times; being an intern, they’d be like, “Why don’t you take the night shift and just sit there on the hill and see if anything happens?” [Laughs.] I became a police reporter right before the Cincinnati riots.
After that, you worked for the Enquirer?
I worked for the Enquirer until ’99 and then I went to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. They moved me, my car, and all my stuff to Hawaii. I was there for six years and I met my husband there. He was in the military at the time.
There, I covered [news stories] and saw all the major islands because I was covering all the tragedies. Something horrible would happen and they’d be like, “Why don’t you fly to Maui for this crash?”
That’s such a weird thing: going to all these beautiful places for horrible, tragic events.
One time there was supposed to be a tropical storm that could turn into a hurricane. I was on the island of Molokai. I’m like, “This is beautiful! But also, oh, my God, I’m going to die.”
I got married in Hawaii in 2003. My husband is/was a helicopter pilot and he got deployed to Afghanistan just a few months after we got married. Then we moved to Alabama, and that’s actually where the kids were born.
There was a tornado in Enterprise, Alabama, when I was eight months pregnant. The New York Times called and said, “Can you cover this?”
And I was like, “Sure! It’s the New York Times; of course I can cover this!”
That has been a valuable thing, not only as a working person, but as a woman, to find other women who help you make your case for things.
What was it like moving around from place to place, work-wise?
We moved [to Cincinnati] when my youngest was not even 1 yet, so it’s been a bit more than 12 years. I was freelance writing at the time – mostly media and communications.
[One time], I had two babies, and they were both crying. I was on the phone with an editor (who was a man), and he was like, “Don’t you need to get back?” He never hired me for another story again.
Then I interviewed for [Cincinnati] Children's as a writer. Now I’m the video manager there. I still get to write and tell stories, but it’s for video now. When I was hired it was for all writing and publications, including a publication called Young and Healthy for parents.
Tell me a little bit about travel writing.
I do have a bit of wanderlust; when I moved to Hawaii, I had just had a bad breakup and I wanted to move far away [laughing].
That’s how it always starts.
So I just moved to Hawaii. I did some travel writing for other publications. I also started a book called Hawaii for Heroes about military families. The idea was, “What are the obstacles for families in the military?”
I still want to do more of that type of series. When my husband and I met there was no narrative of all the things you can do as a military spouse. I think it would be great as a platform for those all around the world.
What was it that got you to just pack everything up and move the family to Croatia for a year?
After my husband retired from the army, he went back to school and got a business degree at Xavier. He got a job at Macy’s as a corporate trainer/manager, and he hated it. One day, when I got home, my husband was there. And I was like, “Huh. What are you doing home?” and he was like, “I quit my job.” And I flipped out.
I thought it was such a rash, horrible thing to do. That’s when I learned – later – that the thing you think is the most terrible thing can end up being the best thing, because after that, he ended up doing what he always wanted to do: fly helicopters.
Then he got an offer in Croatia. I was thinking it was going to look war-torn and depressing, and it was totally different than I expected. I mean, there are parts that are war-torn, but we were right on the coast. It was kind of like going back in time.
I didn’t think I would like it; I like fast-paced stuff. It was slow. It taught me kind of a different pace; when people invite you out for coffee, you’re going to sit there and talk to them. I would often be the only one [in cafes] with a laptop. They just don’t do that there.
Did experiencing this kind of lifestyle change your perspective?
It made me appreciate having, just… time. To relax, to think, to communicate with people and appreciate friendship. It made me think differently about what I wanted to do long-term with my life, which is not going to be a corporate environment all the time.
After I went [to Croatia], I realized that I need time to myself every week. You feel guilty as a mom; like now, it’s dinner time, and I’m not making dinner – I’m here doing pottery. So I have to let myself be okay with that.
What’s so important about that downtime to you?
I really value my friendships with women. I’ve gotten busier as a working mom. When I come [to the pottery studio], I can have friendships and have something where I can express my mind and be creative.
You don’t have to be tough all the time to get the job done.
When you were preparing to go to Croatia, what were you nervous about?
I was worried about a lot, especially because of the kids. We were putting them in an international school. I was worried about finding a place to live. I was worried about work because [Children’s] was letting me work remotely. In the back of my mind I’m thinking, “Well, they could let me go…”
But that didn’t happen. I had a really great boss. I’ve had women at work like her who have looked out for me. That has been a valuable thing, not only as a working person, but as a woman, to find other women who help you make your case for things.
Have you ever been in a role where that wasn’t the case or experienced differently?
Oh yeah. I think when I was working at newspapers, it wasn’t always great for women. Even when I was covering the police beat.
I think it was just the attitude. Like I remember one of the jokes was, “All I had to do to get the cops to tell me stuff was to flirt,” and I’m like, “You wouldn’t say that to a guy.” It made me work harder.
That had to be frustrating – feeling like you’re not getting that same level of respect a man would.
I used to think, “I can’t wait until I look older and I have wrinkles – then people will respect me.” I thought it would bring me some sort of credibility, because people don’t always respect women.
Thinking about the audience of people who will read this story and all the young women out there who are interested in pursuing similar paths, what advice would you give them at the beginning of their journey?
Be willing to do things you don’t think you can do. When I was a reporter at the Cincinnati Enquirer, they had this program at USA Today, and they wanted a sportswriter; they wanted me to be a sportswriter. I was not a sportswriter. So – [laughs] – I faked it.
That was probably one of the scariest jobs I ever took. I thought, “This is not in my element.” But then I found out I could do it, and I wasn’t bad at it.
Which of the stories that you brought to life changed you the most, and in what way?
One of my favorite stories was in Hawaii; people with leprosy were sent to live in this community. There were only 42 people left.
Stories that make you look at the world from a different perspective and appreciate the things you have have meant the most to me. Spending a night there, doing a story about Christmas there – it was so beautiful, but so haunting. I think about them a lot.
I think it made me interview people in a different way and be more compassionate and let them take time. It made me kind of vicariously find strength in what they went through.
That’s another important thing: You don’t have to be tough all the time to get the job done.
If you could name the most influential woman in your life, who would it be and why?
I’d have to say my mom. She was an English teacher, my first editor, and my toughest editor. She is a tough cookie. In a lot of ways, I’m not like her at all. But she taught me that a woman can be strong and can get by in a man’s world. I think she was my first inspirational person, not just as a mom, but as a professional.
What are some things you’ve started to pass onto your kids?
To be brave when you don’t feel like it. At the end of the day, everything’s going to be okay.