I am Kristin Elisabeth DeArruda Wharton. I am the daughter of Patti-Joy and Michael, Linda and Steven; granddaughter of Nancy, Mille, Alfred, Warren; great-granddaughter of Hannah and Andrew, descendent of midwives, fisherman, farmers, strong women who made a home on this great shore of Lake Superior and on distant shores oceans away; mother of Henry, Mary June, Eli; wife of Nicholas. Woman. Creator. Collector of stories. Treasurer of human experiences and the bodies, the vessels, that hold our souls and our stories. Fierce, fragile, humbled, unrelenting, respectful, inspired. And, along with all of this, I have been a Bush Fellow from 2017 to 2019.
Let me begin by sharing how I felt when this Fellowship began. From a journal entry in June 2017, two months after our fellowship kicked off:
“Inhale and exhale. Let go of the tight knitting over my sternum, lungs, heart. Let go of the pressing up and together shoulders. Let the heart rise like these new green leaves on branches reaching upward. Breathing in: life enters. Breathing out: the pacing gnashing wolves spirit away on waves, clouds of breath, silent and pacified like watercolor dreams.”
When this Fellowship began, I was tired. I had been wound tight for a long time. I felt like my skin was cracking, my edges were shifting. I had begun the pain of growing, but I didn’t know in what directions, toward what end. My pursuits of “doing good things,” important things that were predominantly motivated by service to community, were a bit off the mark. I was moving too fast and it resulted in not being fully present in my body, for myself, for my family.
Looking back, through the lens of 24 months of rest, renewal, refocusing, I could easily weep at the bone-tired feeling I get when I think back on my beginning place. Was the fatigue evident to people around me? It was evident to my husband, though I couldn’t acknowledge it then. I have learned these months to trust his assessment of me. I am practicing a less defensive reaction when he tells me I’m overloaded or distracted. But, at the time, I never slowed down enough to take stock of my own barometer. It was only about whether or not I could keep going. And I could keep going, and I did. I could weep for the fatigue of my spirit and mind back in June 2017. I could weep for the heavy burden I see carried by so many people around me not blessed with the same fellowship time I’ve been gifted. I have stopped trying to make sense of, “Why me?” Now I ask, “How can I, being me, best use these gifts?”
My Fellowship journey has been about homecoming, coming home to myself: my story, my path, my heart, finding my new balance. At first, my logical mind was running circles trying to make sense of how to be a Bush Fellow, how to grow my leadership. There was no roadmap and little direction. Later, I realized there truly was no “right way” to do this thing and I accepted the messy process of figuring it out was the gift (that felt more like a curse at times). Here, I became more careful about how I used my Fellowship time. The emphasis was on TIME.
Many people, including myself at first, see a Bush Fellowship as a check for $100,000- and it certainly is that. But the greatest gift of my Fellowship was time. I used my time to plant seeds for my future as a wise, skillful practitioner and leader for rural families, health, and healing. I trained as a family nurse practitioner at Frontier Nursing University, realizing a dream to carry forward the legacy of Frontier midwives and nurses serving rural families. I began a lifelong study of integrative medicine. I grew my work and impact around rural maternity care, speaking at statewide meetings, creating resources, connecting with regional families, service providers and advocates. I, finally, when the time was perhaps overripe, ended my beloved job of the past 8 years. I created a local radio program, Conversations on Health and Wellbeing on 90.7FM North Shore Community Radio. I did yoga, worked in the garden, spent time outdoors. I held hands with my grandmother and my daughter, read bedtime stories, cheered at bike races, kissed my husband. I enjoyed family time, laughed and cried with friends new and old, and enjoyed life. My daughter and I enjoyed the extraordinary opportunity to share space with people from 149 countries at a conference dedicated to creating equality and opportunity for all genders. I began to dream bigger and have not stopped.
Beyond the activities of Fellowship, this time demanded I sort out who I am, given a blank slate, a calendar only I could fill. I was cut free of employment, cut free of relationships with people, organizations, and places that I had used to define myself. I was allowed to dream and to follow curiosity and joy. And I suppose this is why my Fellowship feels like a homecoming, because at the end of 24 months of questioning, seeking, second guessing, quiet time, time away from home, separation from my greatest loves, when given a blank slate, I find the thing I have most discovered is myself. I have come home to me.
Lessons. There have been many hard-earned lessons. I have written pages of lessons in hopes of not forgetting, not falling back into old ways. I no longer feel the world rests on my shoulders, that I must do it all. I am a member of a vibrant community of leaders and movements addressing head-on the changes of our time. I have grown in learning to live with uncertainty. I have followed my curiosity and passion unapologetically. I have grown in courage and quiet confidence that is rooted in remembering and honoring all the parts of myself. I am learning to both reserve enough time and tend to my energy, to have a margin, so I can show up for myself and my family. I have leaned heavily on and grown in relationship with my husband, children, family, and friends new and old. These hard-won lessons are gifts that far outweigh the losses, although the losses have felt exquisitely painful.
Pain. Do not think for a moment that a Bush Fellowship is all fairy tale. There can be no great change without pain or loss, and this has been true for me. I was not prepared for the deep pains, the questions, the rearrangements of my identity and relationships, the uncertainties and misunderstandings. Central to this pain has been wrestling with my relationship with Cook County. The irony is thick that I’d be awarded a Bush Fellowship to focus on developing as a rural health leader, and I’d spend the bulk of my Fellowship wrestling with my relationship to this rural community and our healthcare system. I’m still wrestling, but less tumultuously these days. The thing is, I moved to rural Cook County at age 20. I was a college drop-out, looking for adventure, for something to fill up the homesickness I felt after my family moved out of state, looking for a different northern town to wipe clean the unpardonable hurts of my youth in Ely. In East Cook County, I grew up from a girl to a woman. I became a mother here. I became a nurse, a wife, a homesteader, a community member, an adult here. And almost 20 years later, I realized I wasn’t fully at peace with my decision. I needed to reconcile the trade-offs that are so different now as an adult, a parent, a professional, compared to the trade-offs of a 20 year-old. On many of the 3-hour drives home from clinical rotations in Duluth last winter, I found myself asking, “Why do I live in Cook County?” For the first time, I felt the trade-offs might not be acceptable, the balance had tipped. It was a heavy question for a woman with a homestead, a deeply invested husband, a farm, three school age children. This spring and summer, my prayer was to fall in love with this place in a new way, to let go of expectations, to let old wounds heal, for a new path to unfold.
During Fellowship my perspective has changed and I’m finding a calmer, quieter, lighter way to move forward. I feel clearer in purpose to create the future of rural health care in my community and beyond. I feel connected and trusting in my relationships and collaborations to create change to support rural families. I feel deeply honored and humbled to learn from and care for people as a healthcare provider. I feel grounded in myself and my family.
It is July now. The forests are lush green and spotted with buttercup, lupine, fireweed. The gardens are big and bountiful. Lake Superior is a mirror of heaven. My children are growing and thriving. My husband and I are poised for the next leap together. The privilege of this Bush Fellowship, the privilege of training as a nurse practitioner, the privilege to live in this community, the privilege of health and wellbeing, they are so great. I have come home to myself, to my family, to a life both transcending and rooted in this North Shore community and landscape. This moment is one point on my journey, a journey extending decades behind and decades ahead. In deep gratitude, with a heart weeping with grace, I’m stepping forward into tomorrow.