This learning log is the first quarterly reflection on my journey as a Bush Fellow. The themes of this first quarter are around transition. Transition, as a general state, was expected. But having never previously walked this path, the transitions and my responses to them have been instructive and sometimes raw. What you may note is that very little about what I will write is explicitly describing leadership or rural health or community vitality. My deeper leadership journey is revealing itself, so far, to be about flushing out self-doubt, spending time and energy in the places that feed me and that I love, moving more slowly and intentionally, less reactively, and refreshing, gulping, quenching learning. I’d like to share milestones along the path that jump out in my memory, significant for diverse reasons.
The final interviews challenged my ability to manage my energy effectively and a portal into another world. In February 2017, it was cold, dark, snowy and a time of survival in the north woods. I made the six-hour drive south to St. Paul hoping my car would make it, the traffic speeds and congestion increasing the further south I went. I arrived downtown St. Paul after dark. Landmark Center was lit up with white lights. The doorman was out of a storybook. I rested alone, enjoying the quiet luxury, feeling the stark difference between my daily small town life and the elegance of the evening. It was magical, and a little hollow- incomplete without my family to share the experience.
The interviews went quickly with moments of flow and feeling clumsy and uncertain. The final interview was rough. I felt really off, but having no time to reflect in the moment, I launched into a response to the probing questions about self-care. What would I do if I had 2 months alone in a cabin in Colorado? How would I spend the time? My mind was racing with thoughts like: why would I go to Colorado? I don’t have 2 months to be away? How would my family get by without me for 2 months? I bumbled my way through that final interview and ended the day feeling like a pile of orange jello: exhausted, quivering, and sad. After 9 months of preparation, getting clear on my vision and my path, building up to the interviews, I felt like I had not quite polished my rough red rock into a glistening agate. The letdown was significant. This time, I was grateful for a six-hour drive home during which I turned over the events in my mind until I could find peace with what felt like a disappointing performance on my part. I realized on the drive home, that I am much more introverted that I had realized. The pressure to “be on” for four-hours of interviews had exceeded my resources to manage my energy. This was a key lesson, and one that I continue to explore. I returned home, to my small town life, winter survival, and the limbo of whatever might come next. The question about self-care, about how would I take care of myself, it haunted me.
And then, when I was absolutely prepared to accept rejection, a warm embrace from Anita Patel arrived in my email in-box with my fellowship award. And for the past year since that February 2017 final interview, it has been as it was at the beginning: an exercise in managing my energy, my presence and commitment to family, straddling a fairytale and survival.
The notification in March matched the burgeoning of spring in the northland and a time of fragile newness and possibility. In April, we met as a cohort in Minneapolis and I sat in a circle with fellows from the region. I was incredibly humbled, deeply inspired. I sensed the chance to grow immensely through relationship with my fellows. My heart was so full of gratitude and love driving home from this trip. And there was something else troubling me, a concern below the surface. I was worried about how I could manage the expansive opportunities ahead of me in a way that would allow my husband and family to come along. I was worried that I might grow myself “out of” my small, remote community. I began to approach this fellowship time as a mindset, rather than a plan on paper or a time-limited opportunity. The new fellowship mindset challenge old ways of thinking and assumptions that had been familiar and comfortable.
As summer leaves grew deep green and fat, the work on our farm was everywhere. My transition away from full-time work toward fellowship plan and my new role as a student nurse practitioner fledged. Thanks to supportive and highly competent colleagues at the Sawtooth Mountain Clinic, my transition out of program leadership was natural. With three weeks off work until school kicked into gear, self-determination over my time was intoxicating. I took the recommendation of self-care to heart and began prioritizing physical activity, working with my husband in the gardens, cooking more, yoga, writing, spending more focused time with my children. It felt good. Really good.
I realized, during these few summer weeks of decompression, just how out-of-practice I had become in feeling good. I had nearly entirely lost the ability to identify what feels good, and to let that feeling guide me in my work and entire life. Sure, there was plenty before (and still now) that felt good in self-validating, achievement-oriented, service-to-community way. But there wasn’t much left, except a shadow from my 20’s, of seeking joy as a means in and of itself. I realized how much I was living in my mind and not connecting into my body. Through EMDR, art therapy, guided imagery, and writing I was able to work through some past traumas (some personal and some related to prior work experience in health care settings) that may have severed my mind and body connection. It was all a beginning. I had to start living in my body, finding what feels good, cultivating more joy. It slowly began to change for me. Realization was the first step.
As summer ripened and the smells of fall began to creep into cooler mornings, I found myself struggling with anxiety, transitions in roles and relationships. It became apparent that there would be financial tradeoffs to be made in our household requiring compromise and sacrifice from each of us. While the fellowship was creating a glut of opportunity for me, there were consequences for my husband’s time, our relationship, and our family. How could we rebalance this gift of the fellowship in a way that created positivity for the family, not only me? (TBD. We are still muddling through that.) I began to create more projects and ideas swirled in my mind. I was woozy with possibility and opportunity. Noticing this getting way out of balance quickly, I began a grounding daily yoga practice to slow my mind and be in my body. It helped. And I learned, yet again, that my default is to overwork when faced with anxiety and transition.
Now in the depth of winter, I am focusing on managing opportunity and energy. This means being clear on what is important, strategic in my pursuits, and learning to leave more time and space than I think I need for myself and my family. Looking ahead, I am paring the “doing” and events part of my fellowship plan, and going deeper into the “being” parts of my leadership goals. I am seeking ways to infuse joy into my fellowship plan and our life. I am leaning in on the belief that I have what I need around and within me to grow as a leader and a human. The pursuit is more inward and looking close to home, rather than outwardly focused. It is a balance, of course. There are many times that I reach outward, go away and present or learn, choose to work or study instead of yoga or skiing. Learning to manage and tend to my energy levels is about knowing what drains my energy, what refuels me, how much time I need for my marriage, how I can give without giving it all. With a better understanding and practice with my energy, I aim to bring more to the table as a wife, a mother, a nurse, an advocate, a rural health leader. I hate to admit that the interviewer probing me about self-care was pushing on a button that needed to be pushed, but I think that he was on to something.