It's been an entire year since I learned that I was to be a Bush Fellow and I am deeply grateful for the foresight that the Bush Foundation put into creating a program like this for community leaders.
I've had the opportunity to go places and experience the world, externally and internally that I would simply not have had the ability to if it were not for this fellowship. It is both the financial support and the moral support that has made this fellowship so unique and deeply life changing for me this year. The encouragement to take care of myself was the most helpful advice I have ever gotten. Though I had often heard of the importance of self-care, I had not given it the credence necessary to really do it until foundation staff validated that wisdom by being extremely open about promoting it. Unfortunately, self-care in the world today demands some sort of additional expense that community leaders don't often find themselves with the luxury to spend because of finances and time. With financial support I have been able to take steps to care for my body, mind, and spirit in ways that I had only wished in the past that I could. Oddly, the work I had been doing in community almost set me up to not focus on what I need to take care of myself. As a leader whose grass roots are spread so far and sometimes so thin, I’ve forgotten to think about my own well being more times than I am probably even aware of.
When I began to engage in self-care, I started noticing the low continuous hum that rules my life. These are the challenges that act like tinnitus, playing a note in the background blending into what is supposed to be silence. Some patterns are so old they’re barely even noticeable. For me, some of this continuous background noise that was affecting me made which made itself known were related to my body: body image, health, and mental wellness.
Observing as a cis woman, I can’t imagine that there are many women who are not deeply affected by the world’s messages about their value based on the appearance of their bodies. As female leaders we’re supposed to be above that noise, we’re supposed to model self love and acceptance. We’re suppose to model that we’ve magically overcome these issues of warped self worth after years of millions of images that tell us what we are and what we aren’t, what we can aspire to and what we can’t, based on our physical appearance.
For most of my life, I never felt really comfortable in my skin. This discomfort has had effects on how I live in the world, how I engage in my work, and how I form relationships both personal and professional. Many self-defeating thoughts were constructed for me and delivered to my psyche by years of outside voices and images. So many of these images and voices conflict with each other. As a female leader we’re concerned about not only making our work in the community impactful but also how we must be perceived physically in order to succeed. If we shine too bright with feminine radiance may not be taken seriously or we may attract negative attention. If we hide our light and toughen up we may be called the b word, or we may lose vital connection to our generative creative source with which women naturally are gifted. If we ask for help we may be perceived as weak, if we do everything ourselves we may be called control freaks. How do I find a happy and comfortable space to navigate this noise?
Asking myself this I realized that yes, my body image has been secretly at the helm so often in the decisions I made in my personal and leadership life. I needed to look at it and see the covert ways it has been affecting me. As a result, I have allowed my self-care plan to include a program to get me on a healthy eating, exercise, and counseling plan. As I’ve seen my physicality change over the last few months to a healthier weight, nutrient, and exercise level I’ve been relating to the world differently. I would be lying if I didn’t notice my self-esteem raise as a result. That esteem has naturally transferred into my work. I’ve found myself advocating for my work, my theatre, my community, myself in ways I would never have pushed before. My self worth strengthening has meant my work has been strengthening. The connection to my mental wellness and physical health is apparent and it’s allowed me to change some of the old patterns that dictated how I approached personal and work relationships.
Relationship patterns that I thought were strictly tied to my personal life, soon showed to be major patterns that ruled how I interacted with the rest of the world, my work, and my constituents. In December I had written about transitioning out of a three-year relationship that had been my emotional rock. With that major change in my life, though it was sad, I could suddenly see the origin of unidentified relationship patterns. Like a tide going out to sea to reveal a rocky landscape that seemed calm at the surface when the water was present.
Because fellowship funds had allowed me to spend more time in my homeland, New Mexico and the Navajo reservation and my family, I attended ceremonies and heard brand new stories about my lineage, and I got a chance to stayed engaged in the work that was creating peace and understanding with my parents. My relationship with my father stands out to me right now as I think about how my leadership has been evolving over the first year of this fellowship. I could see how the old pattern of relating to him still lived in me and I could see traces of how I then related to my constituents. I often felt like my father, a little boy imprisoned at government Indian boarding school: Unable to ask for help, and if he did, it wasn’t likely he’d get it, he’d probably be punished for not being independent.
I have taken on so much in my role as a leader in the work I make in the theatre that I have erroneously believed that I couldn’t ask for help and if I did it might be taken as a sign of weakness or I could be punished for showing vulnerability. A major step literally has been in this realm this past month as I have officially announced to my board plans for a sabbatical to complete my Bush fellowship travel ad learning. The reaction was so kind and encouraging. We’ve formed an artistic committee that is enthusiastically helping with planning for this sabbatical and in doing so I have learned of the many hidden strengths in this group of artists ready to step into their leadership roles inspired by years of watching me on my feet and happy for the invitation to be of need, which ultimately was the plan with New Native Theatre all along, empowering Native community to be the whole artists they’re meant to be.