The Fat Woman breaking point

I got feedback from the article I wrote about my Fat Women study. In the study’s opening I wrote the following:
The current discourse around fat bodies is a simple one: it needs to change. While body-positive and fat-positive popular culture movements are beginning to gain momentum, much of the change is focused around shifting from “thin” as a goal to “healthy” as a goal often underestimating the fact that in our society the two are commonly synonymous.” To which my professor wrote “Any citations here?” To which I thought, “Um yeah ‘America, two-thousand and always'”. I understood what she meant but it irked me none the less.

Later on in the evening I’d find myself capitalizing on a living social deal for two months of free Audible book rentals. I’d recently purchased Andy Cohen’s audiobook and loved it so I wondered what other ear candy I might find. Wondering if I could capitalize on lazy learning I searched the word “fat” to see if perhaps any books I came across might help me in my research. Of course, diet book after diet book. How to lose weight. “French women don’t get fat.” “Japanese women don’t get fat.” “But just in case you’re French or Japanese and accidentally get fat, here’s how to fix it!” Almost 200 books of bullshit propaganda on how to surely feel worse about yourself and look at your body as infected with some disease in need of curing.

Also, for the personal memoirs I encountered many mentioned this a-ha moment of knowing they had to lose weight for their health. With my tongue pressed firmly against my cheek, I roll my eyes. Not because health concerns relating to weight are mythical or to be taken lightly, but because far too often people (fat and non-fat) use health as a guise for discrimination and prejudice against the fat body. It feels much like the good Christian praying for my damned homosexual soul, if you follow. A little too, “Bless your [fat] heart.”

If I continue with the parallel between fat and non-heterosexual ((because in my American life if you’re not straight up Hetero, no cherry Chapstick fantasies then during any given week you’re likely on the chopping block)) then it feels a bit like diets are conversion therapy. As if the only way we know how to react to fat (LGBTQ) body/being is to change it to what we DO know and accept, thin (Hetero). Far too often we dangle health (straightness/cis-gendered) in front of fat (LGBT) people as if it is the key to happiness and a get out of jail free card from discrimination and pain. WRONG! I’m tired of that discourse. I’m tired of the unquestioned associations between healthy and thin and happy. As if the only way to obtain one is to have the other two.

And I’m perhaps most upset because for so long I bought into it. And I buy into it. I have to consciously undo the associations in my head daily, multiple times daily, so that I do not continue to punish myself mistreat myself or deny myself access to joy because my thighs touch. It becomes particularly troublesome when it comes to dating. I turn from a strong capable fiercely independent woman into an unsure insecure frightened girl in desperate need of validation. I’ve gotten better, but the messages that men like a certain type of woman who does NOT look like me, they are there. And here, in Southern California, they are blatant. And repeated. Over. And over. And over again.

And I try to remind myself of who I am. Who I really am, beyond just my jeans size. What I have accomplished what I am destined for and what I have to offer. I also affirm myself. I take photos of myself looking my best. I dress well. I carry myself in a way that is the woman I want to be, not always the woman I am. I’m not ashamed to say much of it is armor. But I am proudest because I can take it all off too. The mascara the gloss the filters the heels and slimming jeans. I can sit with myself naked in all the ways and still I can find light in my smile.

I just wish it wasn’t so damned hard for the world to do the same. To look at a me and see all the things I know I am without wanting to change me. Without seeing me as a problem to be fixed or an enigma to be prayed over for health and healing. Stop worrying about my damn blood pressure and just See me! Stop averting your eyes or stealing uncomfortable glances. Don’t qualify my beauty with “…for a fat girl.” I am worthy simply because I am. Do not wonder the secrets behind my laughter, and companionship as if I’ve stolen them from you. Love is not in limited supply.

My wish is that one day all the fat girls (and boys) women and men feel safe enough to show up. Make them see us. Make them see themselves. And for us to stop retelling the story of body hatred and body wrong-ness. Stop building the fortress around ourselves and believe that we are more resilient than the pain of other people’s insecurities being hurled in our direction. That we are stronger than the pain that reverberates in the cavern of our own being. I want us to know that we matter, we are not mistakes, and we deserve every happiness available in this life. Just the way we are.

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1500 words of reflection

Odd though it may seem, I am just realizing that this is my last semester of being in a classroom taking classes ever (ever ((ever(((ever))) echoes into the infinite hollow). I have been in school in some shape of form for the past 27 years. That is a significant amount of time and now that I’ve come to the end, I genuinely can’t believe it. True to form, all I can think is, “What happens next?”

Technically I know. I mean next semester I enter dissertation stage and I’ll be in seminar, then I’ll propose and transition from Doctoral Student to Doctoral Candidate (Jessica Williams, ABD!) and then…it begins. I am very fortunate that Annie, my work-wife and writing partner, is a speed racer and I am a slow turtle because it means we are now on the same pace and will be going through this together.  I keep reminding myself ‘one bite at a time’  that’s how you eat an elephant and that’s how I’ll finish this dissertation. Come what may, Lord willing and the creek don’t rise.

As I take a moment to reflect on all the tiny moments that got me here a few stick out that I think serve as lessons I can always return to.

  1. If it is meant to be, IT WILL BE.  This is the greatest lesson.  My journey to physically get to San Diego was crazy, dramatic, unbelievable and so humbling. It really taught me the lesson that the universe really is conspiring on my behalf and I was supposed to be here. In fact, I was never not going to be here. I am so happy I went with my gut.  USD was the only PhD application I completed. My Stanford and Vanderbilt applications went unfinished because I just did not get the same feeling from those universities that I did from USD.  All of the things in the checkboxes matter: Cost, Program, Faculty, Location, etc. But at the end of the day you have to feel it. At the end of the day your doctoral program, or really anything has to FEEL right. It has to be somewhat organic.  Fit is by far the most important decision making factor for me when it comes to things I align myself with or commit to and I learned that from this process.
  2. If its costing too much energy to keep it together, let it fall apart. It is kind of the antithesis of #1. There were many things I tried to force into fruition. My timeline, my topics, certain projects and even certain friendships or relationships throughout my program. But, what I’ve learned is that it is not working for a reason, pay attention to the signs! There has been nothing I’ve lost that was not for the better (in the long run).  So if you are falling out of love with your topic that you have so much research on it is okay. Do not cling to it fearful of what you might lose, open your arms in anticipation of all you may gain. You might find yourself returning with renewed perspective or you might find yourself somewhere entirely new, but do not deny yourself that journey.
  3. This is YOUR education, own it.  I am not exactly what one would call a rule follower. Sometimes I do things my own way and in my own time and the beautiful thing about a terminal degree is that you are charged with the task of being original. Take that up! There have been assignments that I’ve completed in a different way than asked by the professor. I explain my process, and then I do it in a way that is more suited for me and my learning. It is tricky because you want to make sure you are challenging yourself, but at the same time you have to be true to your vision.  I am fortunate that my professors and my program support innovation and creativity (see why fit matters?), and I have really been able to step into my own as a professional as a result of their blessing.  Your professors are your future colleagues, collaborate with them in that way.
  4. Year 1–meet everybody Year 2–say yes to everything Year 3–tighten your circle and your interests.  It was important to me to leave my university, and every university I have attended, with relationships as rich as knowledge I acquired. In many cases those relationships have opened more doors than the knowledge. I have found at the doctoral level, the situation is no different in fact in education, who you know is kind of everything.  My first year I was a sponge, and I absorbed everything. I met everyone that I possibly could and kept in touch with them too (that’s important). Those relationships led to opportunities that I was offered my second year when I had a bit more experience under my belt and had my bearings. My third year I had discerned which opportunities were great for the experience and which ones I really wanted to invest more of my energy into. I could not have done this if I hadn’t experienced so many things the previous year. For example, I got my job teaching in the counseling program (2nd year) because of a relationship that began and I nurtured from my 1st semester. When offered the chance to TA a class, I took it even though I could technically teach my own. That lead to me being able to teach abroad in Jamaica that summer.  Which leads me to the next lesson…
  5. You are never “too smart” “too experienced” “too successful” to take a back seat.  One of the first assignments I had to complete as a doctoral student was shredding for our teaching department.  I hated it, who wouldn’t? But I did it and showed up everyday in business casual attire to lift heavy boxes and shred paper. The professors who were around would notice me shredding and eventually they started to talk to me. I told them I didn’t mind the work even though I hated it, and seeing my work ethic I got two more assignments. One was a research project with a professor in that department.  I have experienced so many doctoral students who are “full cups” and who are unwilling to really listen and take in feedback or humble themselves and do menial tasks; but people notice that. It is unattractive to say the very least, and in the field of leadership? And yes we are working towards terminal degrees so that we never have to make copies and shred papers again, but that does not make you better than the work. It does not make you above the work.
  6. Don’t be afraid to be wrong, and don’t be afraid to be right. Some of my greatest learning lessons have come from conflicts, arguments.  When I disagree with someone or something that was said about me and I have to sit back and engage in critical self inquiry.  Not only was the comment or observation true, but why was it bothering me? What did I believe about myself?  It resulted in the greatest growth.  Similarly, learning when to stop hoarding insights was key.  Why was I holding onto it and not speaking up? Whatever the reason it was not a good one and I finally started speaking up and coming forth with my opinions. Sometimes people agreed, sometimes people didn’t respond at all but it was out there.  The most rewarding byproduct of this degree has been access to really really intelligent and opinionated people. Take advantage of that audience, dialogue really helps to sharpen the saw.
  7. Have Fun. Seriously, if this work doesn’t fill you up with all the good stuff at least some of the time, why are you doing it?  It is a question worthy of consideration. I’ve had people who just want the title of Doctor. I’ve had people who just “love school” I’ve had people who feel its the “next step” and having been through3/4 of a PhD I can say with some authority that that’s ridiculously stupid. Yes stupid. It is far too difficult a process to go through not to love it and quite frankly what joy will you have at the outset if you’re killing yourself in the meantime? I may complain (often) about my program, my being a professional student, my debt (!), my work, but I sincerely love what I do.  Otherwise I would have walked away a long time ago.  Marching too long in the wrong direction just means more work for me in the long run.  There were certainly times when I thought maybe I’d gotten what I needed from the experience and could quit, but then I would learn something new. I would have another opportunity, I would gain another new insight and I would be reminded that I am supposed to be here.

What a blessing this has been.  What an absolute blessing.

The Curious Case of Salt and Elle

Screen Shot 2014-08-27 at 12.42.24 PMI tried to imagine what it would be like to be popular on a massive scale like Alex Elle or Nayyirah Waheed.  Are they even massive? I mean I suppose its relative. They have considerable social media followers but would Jay-Z know who they are? Probably not. I was in the process of asking for something, last week the intention was opportunity. It woke me up at 5 am and beat down my door until I found resolution, and eventual resolve with it. Then came the talks of writing a book again. Again. How many times do I have to hear it? It is starting to be clear to me that the book may precede the work (and the next book).  

Okay, so maybe I knew that. In my office there is a sign which sits right in front of me. It reads “Follow your heart”. I hate it.  It mocks me daily. Mostly every time I stop working and pause, my mind almost immediately wanders to the place where I’m happiest. It is not within four white walls or a beautiful marble-floored building, or even an ivory sanctuary atop a mesa with an ocean view.  Metaphorically speaking. 

Kanye West said he remembers walking through a mall and feeling as though it was the last time he would walk through the mall and do so anonymously. He said he could feel himself about to be thrown into the spotlight.  I actively work against that. Or, I should say I have actively worked against that.  For a while now I have been apathetic to it, indifferent and not caring either way whether people read, shared, commented, engaged, etc. And now, I feel as though I’m about to leap into recognition and I’m asking myself, “Are you ready?”   

Do you ever really get ready? Or does there just come a point where the tables turn and staying put, sustaining becomes less comfortable than the unknown? Anything could happen, how absolutely true.  This song, Ellie Goulding just came on my radio. Coincidence? Never much believed in those.

So here is the truth. And I’m wincing as I write this… I will take the next few days and write the prologue. What has gotten me to here. Blog posts. Coupling them. Using them to tell the story. Then..as I’m researching, piecing together the patchwork quilt which will begin the foundation for my work. As I write this our research librarian emails me and says the following:   

Dear Jessica,
I did NOT find anything under Women AND Leadership AND (Obese OR Obesity OR Physical Characteristics OR health).
What I heard her say was that the lane, my lane, is open.  And that everything I have done up until this point has uniquely prepared me to tell this story in a way that only I can tell it.  Wait, no…not tell the story but begin the conversation. The post-conventional conversation about body, weight, authenticity, connection and capacity.  tumblr_lo06h95mlo1qiaf2xo1_500I don’t know if I’m ready but I’m leaping and I am no longer apathetic or indifferent. I openly solicit the recognition, too.  A lump in my throat appeared as I typed that. I openly solicit the recognition.  AND I lean heavily on my support system because this is not about me personally, I am just the vessle, but I understand that being themedium, the conductor is what makes the energy constructive.  I own my importance in the process. That’s the piece I’ve been uncomfortable with and that’s the piece I’ve been running from. Well, no more running. No more hiding. I will not die wondering. 

Barefoot at the defense or Call of the Torchbearer

If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.
~Audre Lorde

I was reading a book I’d checked out from the library about women of color in academe. I could tell it was one of those books I wanted to read immediately and without interruption, and I could also tell that it was a book I would need to constantly stop reading and make notes about. I was ready to dive. On the introductory page written in italicized letters was the word “Fuck”. I knew then that I’d been very right about this book.

I interrupt myself to add a bit of context. Today I went to the dissertation defense of one of my classmates and pseudo-cohort members. I internally and externally–as evidenced by my lack of critical questioning–cheered for her successful defense and all the while deeply considered the pending arrival of my own.  I studied her body language, her notes, her slides, would my slides be the university standard Torero blue? I made a mental note that prior to my defenses I would need to buy a wireless clicker to maneuver my slides. I wondered what type of suit I would wear and I got down to her heels and I asked myself what type of shoes would I wear? It was then that the words that first began my initial doctoral class rang deafeningly though my head, “How would you like to begin?” Before I  could think about it I answered myself and said, “By telling people exactly how I felt, acknowledging whatever emotion was there and I would like to be barefoot.”

As a read the second story of From Oppression to Grace I came across a metaphor introduced by Menthia Clark but derived from work by Smith ((sidebar, I tried desperately to find the whole name of this author but unfortunately the citation only lists Smith, D. and the internet isn’t too fond of ambiguity.  I see this as a major flaw in the system, APA….major flaw)).  Smith states that, “I work hard at staying in my mind and not allowing spirit to visit me as I speak about critical education theory, womanist/feminist theory and pedagogy or qualitative/ethnographic research.  It is the dis-dancing with myself that creates a kind of distancing from the southern Black girl/woman who enjoys spirit-filled conversations that push the boundaries of a different kind of intellectual life.”  When I read it my breath left me, temporarily.  I felt this way. About spirit and particularly about art.

Much of my research is about connection, authenticity, feelings of belonging, vulnerability and all of that for purposes of facilitating innovation. AND much of my degree has been running through mud trying to make space for both my artist and my academic selves. I’d long sense surrendered a battle I foresaw with my department over doing a non-traditional defense. Partly because I was not sure the fight would create more heart-ache than hedge-way and partly because I conceded to do both the traditional defense and a nontraditional option.  However, in completing research on facilitating innovation, everything in me scoffs at the traditional defense with black words on white backgrounds and an hour of intellectual hazing.

Get me get me out of this box I feel so claustrophobic in here...

Get me get me out of this box I feel so claustrophobic in here…

How far can I push the boundaries, I wondered? Again, I answered myself lamenting that if I were going to dare to buck against tradition, I better damn well know my shit.  How is it that the sole purpose of the doctoral degree of philosophy is to promote new ways of thinking, and being and yet the process by which we go about it is, to some extent, archaic and riddled with binding rigidity?

Clark recalled a story where she asked a classmate what she, a Black woman, should wear to assert power. He laughingly responded “a power suit.”  She pointed out the illustration of westernized patriarchy in the subliminal suggestion that a woman must wear a “power” suit in order to assert power as if she could not any other way.  And the very fact that for women it is called such supports the social construction (and thus, to some–large–extent the consciousness) of such a remark.

I struggle with idea that I am working within the confines of a system that was not designed with me in mind.  And for as much creativity, forward-thinking, innovation, and imagination that we (the academy) claim to foster, there is only but so much the system can handle before it begins to reject it entirely.  It is kind of like what I’m studying.  In explaining my research earlier to a colleague I wrote to her the following: If the leader’s vision is not in alignment with the values of the group the leader will quite literally be destroyed like a parasite or a virus.  The group acts like a body and each individual is a white blood cell working for systemic stasis.  If a host upsets that stasis then it is attacked. However, my understanding is that what they call the leader I also see as this intermediary.  It does not make the leader a person, but a role, literally then the one exercising leadership in the moment and the person who is holding both the “human community of individuals” and the “greater collective system” at the same time. However because of the danger of any such group requiring this of one person, and repeatedly, that model is not sustainable over time.  In this sense, sustainable leadership requires individuals to each hold a piece of the leadership responsibility.

Herein lies both the problem and the solution.  If I chose to throw out too much of the tradition, the process, the standard way of going about my dissertation I would be treated like a parasite, a virus and the body of academia would destroy me.  However, if I am able to work within the system.  Both sharing the responsibility of creation and connecting with others who are working towards the same end, the perhaps I might survive.  In either case, it just won’t sit will enough with me to go along to get along. That has never really been my style. Fitting as such, my current facebook cover photo is from a professor in my program that perfectly summarizes exactly how anyone willing to fight against convention must do so…

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Such is the task of a torchbearer.  “Jessica.” I think, almost daily, “You have to just do it your way and forget how hard its going to be or how much longer it will take.  You have to go with your gut.”  It is a gift and a curse  to have such a vocal and ardent inner voice. But she has gotten me this far and we have many more miles to go.

Sharing the Madness or “How to Eat an Elephant, Part 1”

I decided to post the following exchange between an invaluable member of my dissertation committee, Zachary. I’ve made reference to my committee before and they know I often publicize my process. In fact, my chair, “The Chair” will often say to me, “Okay now I guess you’re going to go blog about it…” when I have drawn a conclusion about something. I have not, yet, written about Christopher but his time is coming. I try to spare him as much as possible from my mess until it has taken more of a shape. I warned him about my “how” though, and he still signed on.  In any case. I fully intend to document my process both for sanity, the sake of sharing, and reference. I openly welcome feedback, dialogue, and sharing with anyone who might have thoughts…that being said, here goes part I of “How to eat an elephant”
As a small aside, I named my dissertation process How to Eat an Elephant because of that old joke, ‘how to do you eat an elephant? one bite at a time’.  The idea actually came from Christopher when he said to me to stop thinking about the whole dissertation and just think about writing one day at a time. Sage wisdom.  Okay and now… 

Zachary,

To preface, I have not thought any of this through, as a result I already made the mental boundary to send this to your personal email versus your professional one as I am very much asking for much more than I am likely offering in terms of creative thought.

I am in the process of creating a literature review, and have found myself down many rabbit holes; some good and some not so good. I must say, the business/organizational literature and reading is much more exciting than the education literature and that in and of itself is cause for questioning. However, I’ve stumbled upon the book Tribal Leadership  and I love it if only because I feel so validated in the way I look at organizations and systems.  On the front cover it says, “Leveraging natural groups to build a thriving organization” and that is the crux of so much for me in terms of leadership. George and I had a conversation about leadership for what?  Does leadership always have to be about change? We both agreed that it does not and that leadership can sometimes be for stasis, much like a human organism, or a biological system which does not need excess or continuously dies and births, and cyclically owning each as part of the process.  So yes, we change but we also work very hard for stability and elements of predictability. It is a delicate balance.

The piece that struck me most keenly was this:

Tribes emerge from the languages people use to describe themselves, their jobs, and others.  For most people, language is something they just live with and don’t think about. Tribal Leaders know how to nudge language in a way that makes it morph…Change the language in the tribe, and you have changed the tribe itself.   Hold that piece and then sift in the following:

(President of Griffin Hospital in Connecticut, Peter Charmel says the following when asked about the success of the hospital) Looking back, it’s clear that we never could have accomplished this without engaging our employees and getting them involved in the process.  I think that’s what distinguishes the approach.

  This idea that somehow a leader is both responsible and in deference to the power of the group is fascinating and is at the center of my research and where it has lead me is to the work of Vygotsky around thought and language. His ideas that consciousness preceded language make sense and we can grasp that, but add to it the idea that a leader fits in between that.  A transformational leader or a tribal leader…a leader both in front of and embedded in a group…that somehow a leader is able to articulate the consciousness of a system and then the leader is both|and at the same time the symbol and the meaning.  Is that not what grabs us and holds us???  When someone can bring life, not just life but detailed, articulate, emotive, affective life to our lived experience?  We rally behind that because it validates us, and it makes us feel as though we are seen and heard and we matter.  Ironically, or really no…not so, but this correlates to your thought from this summer about connection across space and time. The cloud atlas effect. I can think of examples of when leaders have preceded consciousness, perhaps in the universal design, intentionally, like Galileo.  Where sometimes the leader becomes a martyr for consciousness, dying in the system like a cancer. Yet, if what Senge says about the indivisible whole is true, then you cannot ever kill a thought, or a leader with a thought because you cannot unthink it and if it exists in one part of a system then it exists in the entirety of the system.  Typically what we look for are those to affirm the perceptions we believe (Kegan Imperial, Erikson Industry v. Inferiority) but this is only sufficient for a time…we are called to be stable and growing simultaneously.

Now, in this book it is also stated that, if a groups leverage points are applied incorrectly then it results in tribal mediocrity…I reframed that as status quo; and if I am still to use Scharmer’s U as the backbone this would move to support the left side of the U in that maladaptive  or ineffective leveraging connect to voices of fear, judgment, and cynicism. This would keep us stable, this would keep us healthy enough, but as we work to balance change and stasis, too much deference to one severely cripples the other.  I have not gotten so far into the book to see how it lays with the rest of the theory, but I needed to write to think straight.

In my pilot study there was so much with the groups…group affiliation dictated behavior, rules of engagement or disengagement, connection, and authorship.  Which, theoretically speaking makes sense…but my question is about creating connection, how do we do it? And I just feel really close to something right now with this work.

Sincerely, 

Jessica Williams

**I thought I should ask prior to posting Zachary’s response, await with bated breath and until then, if you have thoughts, comment!!

The Arrival

I have struggled for a while with the idea of my dissertation. At the same time, I’ve been salivating at the idea of having to produce this major body of written work. I consider myself a writer–actually I consider myself an artist with the written word being my favorite medium of creating. So, for “a writer” someone who literally wakes up everyday drafting, someone who writes everyday be it in journals, on notepads, on a blog, or even just in her mind, the idea of a dissertation is something that I can totally do. It is not a question of can, or even will, for me it is a question of how…the process.

Words just flow through me. I do not sit down with an intention or a plan, no outline no map. I flow in and with words at the same time. I’ve been working on cognitively not creating such a dichotomy between my joyous writing and my academic writing. I believe that it is in large part due to my own paranoia have I found there to be such a difference between the two. I have also realized that there is no way I am going to be happy writing a dissertation that is not both academically rigorous and yet poetic and meaningful. So, I decided the route I am going to take.

Earlier this week, I said to myself, “On Friday, you are going to begin. You are going to start to pull all the inside to the outside and you are going to get naked in this thing.” Risk. I guess the best way to explain my decision is that I decided to be vulnerable in my work. That is what I believe separates my joyous from my work. I learned really early how to “do” school, I figured out what teachers valued and I played to that strength, however when I began my PhD program I decided this degree would be for me. So, I’ve taken opportunities that have scared me. I’ve pushed myself and sometimes failed but learned in the process. I’ve whole-heartedly believed in every piece of work I’ve produced in this program and I want the end to be an illustration of not just research but of my journey through my work.

It started with mentorship. Safe. Then spirituality, but it was too big and I got lost in that. So I pulled back out. Then decision making, but I realized it wasn’t the decision it was the process. Then I read. And I found that the decision making process is different depending on where people are developmentally. So it became about development. Then, there was a question of but who? First I looked at different types of individuals. The student. The professional. But I realized something, that at the same time I am me, I am also we. So I couldn’t just study the individual. It has to be both the individual, the system, at the same time.

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Artwork by Nychole Owens

It was a question to Brené and it is a question that I think is coming for my own research, and that is how does one encourage and promote vulnerability systemically? There are some things that happen, people open up with you or those that cannot or will not almost resent the vulnerability and act out in different ways. But how does that shape the organization? And what does the individual who was first “open” do? Do they experience shame ? Or are they shame resilient? And because I am looking at student affairs practitioners, how does this then affect the students that he or she advises?

It is still taking shape. But it’s my place. It is where I fit and it involves all the other pieces. I had to leave it so that I could arrive in this place, and I am excited to share it with my advisor who will soon get a new name, My Chair. It is a tricky thing, time. It moves so quickly and even before you can catch your breath, sometimes the seasons have changed and time has marched on.

So it’s Friday. I’m ready to write. I set my intention, I’ve taken off my armor and I’ve got my pen. I am right here right now and it’s the only place I want to be.

50 years of dreams, and Oprah and Brene

I have written three journal entries about meeting Oprah and Brene Brown Monday. What I realized was that I needed to get out of the way of the post and let it come.  The words were ready but per usual when things go awry, I could not let go.  I was blessed enough to have the opportunity to attend a taping of not one but two Lifeclass shows.  The first Brene talked about her book Daring Greatly and the 4 myths about vulnerability, and the second show she talked about shame and becoming shame resilient.

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I thought my arm looked HUGE in this photo on the top and I remember looking at the photo and saying, “Dear arm, you will not be allowed one ounce of the joy of this day.” And I posted it on every social media site I am on. When I see the photo even now, I think of the moment and then of my declaration, and I feel immensely proud of myself.

Who is Brene Brown? I suppose that is easily google-able but I can tell you who she is to me.  She is someone who put her heart into her work. She is someone who defies antiquated mindsets in “The Academy” which do not always prioritize the accessibility of research to the non-academic. She is one of my professional heroines. The thing that I can appreciate most about her is that she is relatable. I know she is a PhD but she does not lead with her degree, she leads with her heart and it is that which allows so many people to be touched and changed by her work. When I think of the kind of impact I want to make both professionally and as a person, she is someone that I can look to and say, She did it and did it well. I have shared my apprehension about being too “academic” or too “poetic” and wondering how the two could possibly exist within the living breathing dynamic creation that will be my dissertation.  What I came to understand is that if it is coming from me then it will have both because both are of and in me.  I am a poet, and I am an academic not always in equal measure, but certainly always both simultaneously, and what I can now acknowledge is that: We cannot help but to be ourselves, even if we do not wish to be.

Everyone knows Oprah, except for that one salesperson in Switzerland, and ever since I first told people that I was going to get to attend the taping I have been getting all sorts of requests of how to let her know just how much she means to people. In reality, I probably said 5 words to Oprah and none of them were life-changing, I’m sure. What I can take from the experience is this: you cannot chase Oprah.  When you look at Nate Burkus, or Dr. Phil, or Suze Orman, or even Brene Brown these are people who allowed themselves to be naked, or on fire, or whatever metaphor suits your minds eye illustration of “in it”; passionate in their own fields and surrendered in their work.  These are not people who wake up saying, how can I be a celebrity? How can I be successful? How can I get Oprah to notice me? That is chasing, and Liz Gilbert bless her beautiful soul has haunted me with the idea that the things we chase like thieves run like thieves.  So why “Chase Oprah?” I think…when I look even at myself and my own goals it is not so much that I want to meet Oprah, it is that I want to be recognized as being a passionate and dedicated educator and leader. What I believe Oprah has come to symbolize in our country and arguably in the world, is the definitive arrival at such a place. If you are meeting Oprah, as a guest in the capacity that Brene is meeting her, then Brene has “arrived”. And, don’t kill me but…Oprah is just a person. I have written before about this, but the things we feel about ourselves, the things we know about ourselves when we see her is what makes her who she is.  The thing I wish we really acknowledged is that we are JUST AS SPECIAL as she is, she just already knows it.

And while I absolutely am thrilled for Brene and her successes that have come and are sure to continue, for myself I see, there is work yet to be done.  When I got home from the taping that night I wrote thoughts of how to make small changes in my classroom as both student and teacher to be more present and apparent in my work.

dreamI am a person who believes whole-heartedly in the power of dreams, and it is no wonder that this post did not show up in me fully until today, the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s I have a dream speech. I believe that dreams are blueprints for the type of world that we are capable of creating. I believe that anything that comes to me (or anyone) in a dream is not only possible but that it has come to us in particular because we have everything that it takes to bring said dream into fruition.  I believe that more often than not we get caught up in our own self doubt, shame, and then the projections that other people place on us of their insecurities.  Somehow it has become far easier to believe the awesomely negative rather than the awesomely awesome. I am a person who anticipates extraordinary.  I wait for it like I wait for the sun to set, and I am person who does not think small of tiny miracles.

When I announced the Brene/Oprah opportunity, I had many people asking how this “stuff” always happens to me.  Honestly? I wait for it to.  But not without work, faith without works is DEAD! I practice gratitude daily, all day beginning with my first morning thoughts, and I pull goodness to me with absolute intention. I foolishly believe that I am deserving of amazing things and experiences and the universe conspires on my behalf.  It is a simple and as complicated as that.  How can we dare to expect extraordinary if we cannot find the beauty, the joy, the grace in the so-called ordinary?

I think Dr. King had to have been one of those people as well, who despite all the negative that other people may have seen in his struggle was so fixed on the end goal, The Dream, that the other things did not mar his spirit.  Did he say to himself, I am in jail but Thank you God, I am not hurt, my family is safe, and my purpose is not lost? I think he must have been because he persisted. Not only that, but it did not tarnish the spirit of the movement. This summer, during the conference one of my group members said, “Sometimes I’m grateful for anger, because it makes people get honest. People get angry and they really show up.” Non-violence did not mean that people were not angry or that they numbed themselves to the human experience of feeling humiliated, angry, frustrated, worn, or deflated. But the absolute belief in this dream of equality, of being Seen, of being Heard…it refocused the energy of an entire generation.

That is where I can draw a parallel in what was happening 50 years ago and what is happening right now on Sunday mornings on OWN across the world.  There is this…space where acknowledgement for the full human experience is not only present but encouraged.  We are invited to be in community with one another as our whole selves, and what Brene’s work speaks to is the challenges we have in doing that and how we can overcome it for this dream…the same one Dr. King had, where people–all people– felt worthy enough to show up and the collective was accepting enough to say, I See You, I hear you, you exist.

It is a beautiful thing…and I see my own place in it all as well. I know that my own work in concurrent individual and systemic development has a lot to do with how people “show up” in groups. It has a lot to do with authenticity, with values, with vulnerability, with shame, with doubt, with trauma, with fear and with judgment.  At the end of the day I want my research to show that, I could not get there myself, but damn it, we got there together.

I wish this for everyone; for everyone to find something that gives them absolute peace and fire at the same time.  Something that keeps you up at night thinking, something that you want to share with your spouse, your neighbor, your children, something that makes you want to live a better life and help others to do the same.  I wish for everyone to find the thing that gives them purpose and to DO THAT THING. Take the time to find what fills you, it is absolutely worth it.  Ask yourself the hard questions, co-conspire with your imagination, indulge your wildest dreams because we are SO worthy to create a beautiful world.

Lastly, and these two I got from Brene explicitly, the first is to give yourself permission to be uncool.  It is why I had to take a step back from social media a few weeks ago, because I found myself becoming increasingly more concerned with other people’s lives, and not only that but I was beginning to define my own life by the standards set by others. My outfit was only as cute as the number of ‘double-clicks’ I received on instagram.  I had to take a pause and say wait, “Does this matter? How does this matter to your life? How does this feed you? How does this nourish others?” It didn’t. And while I did get caught up in it, I also caught myself, and really that is all I can hope for, is to stay aware enough to catch it and to reset.

Second, was that the world needs to hear what YOU have to say and in YOUR voice. Brene said this to an 8-year PhD student who had lost her voice and was deferring to the voice of her faculty members around her.  It is not easy to be yourself, and so many people don’t want you to be.  It makes other people uncomfortable when you are too honest, because it gives them guilt for all the lies they tell daily. The thing is, you cannot carry that with you. I cannot. I cannot write for my advisor or my committee. I cannot teach for the one student who loves me or the one that hates me. And I cannot build my career around trying to meet Oprah.  What I can do, is to follow my heart. I can listen to my inner voice and create a life full of intention, purpose, love, and connection.  I can do my best and forgive myself when I give any less.  That is all I can do.  I think of the quote Donald Miller said of his future wife, “I will give you this, my love, and I will not bargain or barter any longer.  I will love you, as sure as [God] has loved me.  I will discover what I can discover and though you remain a mystery, save God’s own knowledge, what I disclose of you I will keep in the warmest chamber of my heart, the very chamber where God has stowed Himself in me…” and that is what I feel in large part of my work. I will give my voice to it, in language only I have been equipped to offer but it will still remain vastly unexplored yet I will keep it in all in my heart as mine and as me.

It is a bizarre thing when you realize that even when you’re pretending to be someone or something else, you are only–at best– a very good imitation.  I do not want to live my life in costume. I do not want to exist in elaborate baroque garments of society convenience, couture fabrications and designer illusions.  I want to be one-hundred percent me at all times in all spaces. How can I expect or want someone to see me, to acknowledge me, if I am not willing to step out and be who I am?  I have to be willing. We have to be willing because I cannot do it by myself. You’re scared? I am too, but I’m ready.

I prayed this prayer to the night after, I said:

God,

Your will terrifies me. But I trust you, completely. I hear you. I’m ready. Let’s go.

Sincerely,
Jess

Because for as much as this opportunity was about Brene and her work, it was also about me and mine–and everyone else as well. We were chosen to awaken to our own potential and to be in community with one another. We were shown what is possible and because I know of the absolute connection between us all I know that if greatness is possible in one of us it is possible in all of us.  Yes, it may look different for me than it does for LeBron James, but believe me greatness is greatness.  So I said to God, lets go. I say the same to you.

The Lifeclass featuring Dr. Brene Brown will air on Oprah’s OWN on September 22nd, and September 29th, for more information check out Oprah.com. 

Reflections after Day One

After one of those weeks where I feel blessed beyond measure to be one within this community of people who encourage questions uncertainty and growth in the now…there was more.

It has been a long day and at the end of it, all I wanted was quiet. I wanted to close my eyes with my keyboard in my lap, as I am doing right now, and let all the words that had bubbled to the surface of my consciousness flow out of my fingertips. I write from the purest space when my eyes are closed. It’s like I can hear better then. I suppose it makes sense…because when vision is taken away then the other senses are heightened. Also, it is curious that I rarely make typing mistakes when my eyes are closed, or if I do I can correct them easily, however when my eyes are open I stumble all over the place. Curious and yet not curious at all.

Anyway, so I spent my day at an Action Research Conference at my university. Ever since I really understood what it was, I’ve been fascinated by it, mainly because the rsearcher has a place in the work and reflection is welcomed. I seems like a type of research that fits with me…I can imagine that throughout my dissertation process if I did not do action research, I would have jornals upon journals filled with thoughts and reflections. Why not make the apart of the process? Anyway so I had so many memorable quotes and reflections (to see them check out the hashtag #SOLESar2013) but among them, was this:

2. Willingness of practitioner to self-disclose, telling his or her own story and how that relates to that of the students they advise. Vulnerability begets vulnerability, are we, in student affairs practitioner training programs, setting an expectation of discomfort/uncertainty/vulnerability? <>Torbert
–>>idea of self disclosure opening one up to judgment and questions of the safety of space as excuse to avoid the work of vulnerability. Work avoidance.
–>>action research on dynamics course?

I find myself, throughout the refinement of my research area of interest, constantly trying to balance my love of self-work and the practitioner, and how said work then affections our actions, and the self-work itself. At first I wanted to look at how practitioners rejuvenate, spiritually. Then I wanted to look at how spiritual practice affected decision making. That turned into how identity (en totale) affects decision making. Which evolved into how decision making processes are different for those with different identities. That, then, became looking at how identity negotiation and salience affected decision making. And now we have arrived at how the development of the practitioner affects the development of the practitioner. And perhaps it is not yet done evolving because it still has to get smaller, more focused. The obvious choice, after hearing today would be to explore story-telling and how transparency/authenticity/vulnerability of the practitioner affected their students. But…when I step back from it all and think about what all these things have in common I see, self work, and how that somehow informs professional practice. In what ways do we bring our true self to our professions? And how does that influence our product/output?

I think that this absolutely comes from self-inquiry. I HAVE to feel at home in work in order for me to do it. I cannot just put my head down and bear through things, I have to make a bed in work. Swim in it. Live in it. I have to be intimately connected to my work. I think that is why I a really good at jobs I love and really horrible at jobs I do not love. In those instances…I bail. In reflecting on a situation where I was being asked (silently) to connect and to share in a time and space where I felt I shouldn’t have it, I bailed. In looking back I wish I would have realized in that moment or in those series of moments that I was being solicited for intimacy and withstood the discomfort…my OWN discomfort for the growth of something bigger than myself and more resilient/functional/useful than my shadow. Once upon a time it may have served me to retreat? Maybe? But I guess I now want to call attention to it and stand firm in the eye of it…and I want to know how other people are coming to those conclusions as well.

Long day…still processing, but lost in thought isn’t the worst place to wander.

Depart to Arrive–A letter to Zachary

Zachary,
Lost in what could certainly be described as a quarter life crisis, I sent my work wife, Annie, a message and asked her if she had time to talk; “I need to think out loud,” she called and this was the result of our conversation.
I explained to her how nothing has ‘stuck’ when it comes to work surrounding my dissertation and I felt as though I was missing something. There must be a thread between each of my abandoned topics, but I cannot figure out what the commonality is, so I’ve begun to think about what I know for certain.
1. I know for certain that I want to look at the leader, in this case my leader will be a higher education professional who is <3 out of a college student personnel/higher education program and working in student affairs.
2. I know for certain that I want to look at decision making processes of these leaders.
Annie asks why, through a series of thorough questions, and I discern that the process of these SA Pros likely affects how they advise their students in their decision making. How can you teach intentional decision making if you are not able to model it or make sense of it? Annie asks what types of decisions…I am stumped because Cheryl has been asking me this question for a year.
I resolve the following: I know I don’t want to look at high-stakes decisions because I think that is a different sort of process, but I want to look at meaningful decisions or rather significant decisions.  She asks for an example, and I tell her about my own decision to drop a class last semester in favor of teaching a class.  Brilliantly she deduces, “So you want to look at decisions with long term implications.”  Yes! That it is exactly.
3. Innocently enough, Annie asks me in a sidebar what my hope was in this program in regards to my own decision making. I told her that my greatest wish was to be able to hear and appreciate others’ decision making processes but be able to remain true to what is right for me. Relating back to my SA Pros I said, “…because when you have what your boss thinks you should do, what your peers think you should do, what your students want you to do, its hard to remember what is right for you and what works for you.” I gasped. Here enters my Adult Development final exam in full blazing glory: Winnecott. True and False self. I wrote this down, “Authenticity…how do you make decisions anchored to true self (vulnerable, innovative) vs. false self (pleasing, anxiety reducing)…” Annie added, “…and how do you recognize [the true self] in your decisions?”
And this is my thread. This is what ties together everything I’ve considered to date. Spirituality and feeling “at peace” with decision making=decision making from the true self. Looking at multiple identities and their salience in decision making=which self (true or false) is more salient when considering a decision. It fits, and who knew that I would have to fall apart, quite literally, for this to fall together?
So now, it is with renewed energy that I prepare to dive back into the adult development literature and consider this and other theories from a new space. A space of presence, and a space of my own truth. When I was working solely to dissipate the anxiety over my future I relied on what worked for others and lost sight of what works for me, my slow methodical somatic and intuitive knowing. I had to depart to arrive. And I knew this photo was meant for you when I saw it.  Hindsight is always 20/20. I cannot wait for this summer.
Sincerely,
Renewed.   Image

Wine is quicker than therapy

Sometimes shit hits the fan. Sometimes its emotional. Tonight was sometimes. Sitting in class I felt my anxiety hit its peak, I’d been feeling this…yuckiness this stress and I’d notice as it took a slow chokehold on my life. I noticed as I worried constantly about my day to day processes, do I have my keys? Did I check the mail? Did I close the refrigerator door all the way? And I’d become a bit of a check-er. I had to be sure I was doing it right. Doing it at all. It was tightening and binding and tonight I stopped breathing.

Sitting in class listening to a colleague discuss his dissertation process, I felt like I couldn’t breathe. And being the usual light heart that I am my classmates laughed my behavior off not knowing that internally I was counting. Counting to ten, repeatedly just to steady my breath. I was choking. It, the anxiety, was squeezing me and in this moment I knew two things: 1) that this feeling was mental/emotional 2) that something was really really wrong, and I needed to call attention to it immediately. So I went to find my advisor. Sane right?

I knew she was somewhere in the building so I just hung out for a while til she appeared. And I told her everything. And she listened, in her way. And told me the same thing my work wife said: one day at a time, one step at a time. And while that offered some solace, I couldn’t help but still feel very unresolved. I called my Person.

I told her about the panic attack. I told her everything, as I always do and I told her how foreign this felt because I am just not anxious (at all)…she laughed and agreed, because usually that is her role in our relationship. I told her something was wrong. She asked, innocently enough, why I couldn’t just focus on right now and I told her because I felt like working towards faculty meant I needed to do certain things like publish articles, present at conferences and…in the midst of telling her this I realized here was my anxiety. It was performance anxiety. Since I made this decision to pursue faculty, I’ve felt extremely inadequate. Like I need to do more, be more, like I needed to do things that feel so god-awful to me.

My Person asked if I had to “choose” like officially, if there was some track. I said no, but that the preparation for the admin versus faculty tracks was different. And what I realized in explaining to her was that I’ve been putting immense amounts of pressure on myself lately to be what I think “faculty” is. That, in and of itself is not me. I somehow got sucked into the house of should and was suffocating under the weight of expectation.

She shared her personal opinion that she saw me as more of a practitioner, as an administrator. And maybe I am. I don’t know. There are things about both that I like and enjoy. I think what I want to try to do right now, though, is just be where I am. In my 2nd year doing research and not thinking about what it could/might/should lead to…just the right here right now. That’s what I can handle.

In the moments after I felt extremely grateful for my advisor, and for my work wife, and for my Person. For people in my life that ground me and offer far more clarity than a glass of Pinot. I don’t have to stress about what’s coming. I don’t have to BE 5 years from now, it will come. I just have to be right now, over and over again. And for the first time in many weeks, maybe even months, I felt the noose loosen and I could breathe.