I write this blog post from San Antonio, where I am attending a Social Work Research conference. This conference is always a reunion for me, a time when my own cohort from my doctoral program shares our stories, and catches up on current happenings in our lives. People who “knew me when” ask how my baby is doing (since my daughter was born while I was working on my dissertation) and when I reveal she just started middle school, we become keenly aware of the passage of time, and realize we are shifting into new phases of life and career. I also am grateful for reunions with my close, soul-friends I have been so fortunate to encounter along the way. These moments occur in the midst of presentations of research which strive for rigor and relevance, while there is an undertow perpetuating the status quo of the academic life where formulaic and measurable procedures rule over intuitive serendipity. Head over heart, so to speak. This is a conference full of academics, so a lot of ego and upward momentum of the career ladder is also floating around these walls with us: stories of tenure expectations, funding challenges and successes, and changing University policies and demands intermingling with our life chatter.
I find that I am seeing all this with renewed clarity this year. Maybe its that I am solidly mid-career, post-tenure. I have enough of a reputation to no longer have to prove myself, but I still see myself as one fish in a big pond. I can float through the waters as myself, sometimes being unknown and other times getting to interface with people who know me, and others who are passionately studying some of the same things I am and whose work builds on mine, or mine on theirs. These academic waters are still my world, but my vision has expanded so that I can see the flowing currents moving toward a wider sea. This small point of light emerges in the confluence of these streams in my own vocational life.
Last night, the conference’s opening plenary featured two respected researchers whose work I know well. They, like me, choose to research in community and embrace the messiness of addressing issues of health and wellness from a cultural and community perspective. I could go on about their talks, but my point isn’t just the academic resonance and respect I hold for them. My point is to illuminate a small point of light that emerged for me in the midst of the research presentation given by Karina Walters, whose work is promoting health and wellness with Indigenous peoples. At one point in her presentation, she went off her slides a bit to tell the story of how she came to her most recent research. She had worked with her community to design all the “right” interventions, the community was embracing them, they had received funding; they had all the pieces together that should have produced success…and yet, it didn’t work. She described going to the tribal elders and talking about this, wrestling with why change was not happening when all the right pieces were in place suggesting that it should. Then, she said an incredibly brave thing on that academic plenary platform. She said, “I didn’t know what to do, so I decided to pray. I went away, I did some ceremony, and I waited.” What came to her in that time was that the pieces cannot work together if the soul is not connected to the person and the process. The amazing work which resulted from her soulful approach brings the soul of historical trauma experienced by indigenous people into the realm of health promotion. Karina and her community are literally walking the trail of tears together, reclaiming a traumatic history as a new opportunity to embody health into future generations.
I had the opportunity to thank her both publicly at the plenary, and to talk in more depth afterwards at a reception. Several of us gathered there, speaking about the soul of our work, but also the authenticity of acknowledging that we don’t have all the answers methodically occurring in logically ordered ways. Sometimes we pray, we engage in ritual, we meditate, we move into stillness because we need to align our spiritual with our rational, just like the people and communities with whom we work. Without that alignment and authenticity, we may have all the right pieces, but the results can still fall flat. It was the first time I have spoken of “soul” and “research” in such a public forum, and I was grateful to her for opening that door.
Before Karina Walters closed her talk earlier that evening, she also turned the tables on a colloquial micro-aggression: “being low on the totem pole.” This, she explained, is one of those culturally laden expressions that makes her and others cringe. But, she reminded all of us, traditionally the frog is the lowest on that totem post. But the frog is also the communicator, the translator, and the one most filled with potential for transformation.
So, I have been thinking today about fish and frogs, these seemingly low creatures that so beautifully illustrate my days. I decided to write a blessing for those of us who swim or take our courageous, forward leaps into new places. We may feel smallness, but I am reminded today of the brilliance and greatness of being exactly who we are, where we are. We experience wholeness when we align our souls with the positions in which we find ourselves. Living authentically in that space allows amazing changes to unfold in our lives, and the world around us.
May those of us who leap as frogs find our voices for change. May we swim with the currents and emerge in new waters, carrying our soul with us always. May those of us who work in our heads always align our hearts with what we do, and encourage others to do the same. And may all who walk through life on paths of authenticity allow our stories to reveal ourselves, and our selves become the change we wish to see in the world.