Sunday, December 20, 2009

On discomfort

In the last week before Thanksgiving break, I was called on to present something about my work to my department colleagues. It's a new event that we've opened up to students as well, hoping to build community among faculty and students and share our scholarly/research work with each other. I put together a presentation called "Wounspe Lakota" (sorry I can't reproduce the proper diacritical marks there), or "Lakota Lessons," explaining some of what I learned on my sabbatical adventure--what it taught me about Lakota culture (inside and outside the classroom) and how that has changed my work as a teacher and/or scholar.

I had presented much of the same information near the beginning of the semester at a brown bag lunch for faculty from across the university, so I was ready. And the talk for faculty had gone amazingly well. It was great material, and I did a good job of presenting it. In fact, it was one of the few times in my life when I can remember thinking "wow, I'm doing good! I'm hitting this one out of the park!" (That kind of confidence is not my usual m.o., sad to say.)

(Here's the image I used, with "Wounspe Lakota (Lakota Lessons)" plus my name and whatnot printed in the cloudy sky, as my "title page" for the talk...)

So when I was presenting the talk for the 2nd time, in November, to a packed house, and things were NOT going all that well, I was a bit surprised. During that talk, I remember wondering why the same material was really not making a dent in my audience at all. It was awful--no one was smiling or nodding or anything. (Well, two of my colleagues were, but that's it.) It was as if I was presenting the material to a wall. I've since figured out a few key differences:
-- in the earlier presentation, my audience was faculty colleagues--mostly my friends, really--at a lunch; they were all interested in the topic for various reasons (it touched on their research, or they were interested in learning more about Native American issues);
-- in the November presentation, the room was packed, but mostly with students, most of whom I did not know;
-- in the earlier presentation, people were there because they wanted to be;
-- in the November presentation, most people were there to fulfill a requirement (a professor had told them they had to go for part of a class assignment); they had little, if any, real interest in the topic.

And, truth be told, I think I did a better job in the earlier presentation, mostly because I felt like what I was providing was really worth something to my audience; they cared about what I was saying, and so they interacted with me. In November, I felt myself getting nervous, and talking faster, and saying things in a less sophisticated way to try to reach my audience, try to make them show me they were hearing me. I didn't do as good a job, quite frankly. And I knew it.

I also faced some criticism from a faculty colleague whose opinion I respect. She has given me a challenge to re-think my position that I can't publish about this material because I would be intruding on Native American intellectual property... She thought that the way I went about my study was different from what literary scholars typically do, and that I need to think harder about how what I did may offer a chance to re-theorize about how someone like me (a white woman) engages in scholarship on Native American literature. It was a lot to think about, and I'm excited about the possibilities, and I'm thankful to her for pointing out my faulty logic. But it did sting a little.

So I was really uncomfortable with how things went, and unhappy. I felt I had let people down (including my department chair, and the people with whom I studied at Sinte Gleska). I let myself have a good cry about it that night, and reminded myself to try and separate my feelings from my performance so that I could figure out how to do a better job next time. I felt so uncomfortable that I had that "gotta run away" feeling, a taste of the flight part of the fight-or-flight reflex.

As I calmed down, still feeling extremely uncomfortable, I reminded myself, too, that discomfort is what we need in order to make a change. If this thing made me really uncomfortable, that meant that it would help push me toward doing something different.

And then something really weird happened. Over the four days following the November presentation, I got sick. Except I really wasn't all that sick. On the worst day (the 3rd day), I felt run down and had a sore throat, like I was coming down with a virus, and I stayed on the couch all day in my pjs, taking REST as my main job for the day. But the virus (or whatever it was) never blossomed; I got better instead.

(Here's a photo from November, the little creek on the edge of campus reminding me to let it flow...)

I'm really thankful that I didn't have the flu (like many of my students did), and that I never did feel worse than that Saturday, but it also made me intensely curious. Was I just worn out from working too much? Was that fatigue that made me feel sick? Or did it have something to do with that all-over discomfort that I'd had after the presentation? Did my disappointment and discomfort with my performance make me physically sick?

In the end, it may have been a number of things that made me ill. But I can't help but wonder about the links between how we feel emotionally (or spiritually) and how we feel physically. And I can't help but think again about the things I've been learning as part of my spiritual studies for the past few years, including a class called "Lakota Teachings in Health" when I was at Sinte Gleska for a month. Perhaps this incident was another way of helping me learn that our physical well-being can be inextricably linked to our spiritual well-being, that how we feel has everything to do with how we feel, so to speak...

So I'm taking this as a signal to try to take better care of myself on all fronts--emotional, spiritual, and physical. This is not easy to do in the season of hurry-scurry, of course! But it's certainly worthwhile to try, and it's certainly better than ignoring the "information" I got from my body and spirit that week.

I hope you find a moment to take care of yourself this week,

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