Friday, September 30, 2011

I'm worth it

Of late I have been confronted by the question of what I am worth.

This has been happening at several levels, both literal and metaphorical. On the literal level: I had to call a university office so they could straighten out a mistake with my paycheck. It was easily fixed, thank goodness, but for a few hours it looked like my recent promotion was going to result in a pay decrease. Not a good feeling, to say the least.

Over the past few weeks I've been engaged in the process of being evaluated for a raise (half the faculty is eligible each year; this happens to be my year). And this comes at the end of being up for promotion for four years. It's another process that has definite bearing, in the end, on how much money I bring home every month for doing my job. But there's more to it than that.

Part of the process involves writing a report about myself that updates a university committee and the provost about my recent activities. Perhaps this is crass, but I always feel that when I write this report, I'm answering the committee's question: "what have you done for us lately?"

Writing this report is somewhat excruciating--at least for me, a person who was taught to be modest and humble whenever possible and who suspects that just about the time you start tooting your own horn, you're going to fall on your face. And get a horn imprint on your head.

So it's not a form of expression that comes natural to me. Add to that the various neuroses I've developed over the years (thanks I'm sure to an awkward teenagerhood, a mean pseudo-step-parent, and the horrors of graduate school). Stir all this up, add a publication record with a huge gap in it, and you've got a bit of a mess. It's definitely been an effort for me to develop a writing voice in that report that is simultaneously graceful, informative, and non-defensive while also arguing, in effect, that I am fabulous.

Then there's another thread of worth that I've been thinking about since visiting a pow-wow with some students a couple weekends ago. While there I ran into a couple I know who are Sun Dancers at the ceremony I go to in South Dakota, General and Ute Grant. (They live in North Carolina, so meeting them in Ohio was unexpected!) It turns out that General is a silversmith; one of the precious materials he works with is wampum.

You've probably heard of wampum; it was a bead material, usually white or purple, made from clam shells. Back in the dinosaur days when I was in school, I was taught that it was used among the tribes in New England as money. I have a small pair of earrings that I bought at a pow-wow a couple years ago, and when I wore them I would remind myself that I have worth, I have value, that as a human being I am intrinsically worthy.

(These are the wampum earrings I bought a few years ago.)

But there's more to wampum than that. Belts made of wampum were used to seal treaties, as a kind of text to document the agreement and remind the two parties of their promise to each other. (Here is a discussion of a particular wampum belt that may have been used to seal Penn's treaty with the Delaware--scroll down for the image and the story of what happened to its match, kept by a native chief... Scroll down to pp. 6-7 of this excellent document for more about wampum from a Haudenosaunee point of view.)

Before European contact, wampum seems also to have been used to record significant stories and give the storyteller a physical representation of the event he or she would tell others, something like a Lakota winter count. (Here is a nice account of the various functions of wampum.)

There's a piece of contemporary art I read about in the National Museum of the American Indian magazine a couple years ago whose image and purpose has stayed with me: Alan Michelson's Third Bank of the River. The ginormous glass work--almost six feet tall and forty feet long!--evokes the image and feeling of the two-row wampum belt that was used in the 17th century. Installed at the border between Canada, the U.S., and the Haudenosaunee nation, the piece brings to mind issues of borders, agreements between nations, history, and land; I find it almost haunting. I'd like to see it in person someday. (I wish I could show you a photo of it in my blog, but I don't have permission. So instead I'll say go here and read this excellent article about it by Kate Morris, "Art on the River: Alan Michelson highlights border-crossing issues." There's also a description there of another of his river-centered works, Mespat, which I was lucky enough to see at the NMAI this past summer.)

Michelson's work, I think, is a beautiful example of how contemporary native artists use the forms of the past and adapt them, creating new pieces with new materials to say something important about current events and situations while also bringing the past--history and ancestors--into the conversation.

(My new wampum earrings.)

And in his craft of silversmithing, I think General is doing something similar. He uses shapes and settings that are modern, that you'd see at jewelry shows; but he also uses very old, traditional shapes (as seen above). I've seen a 19th-century photograph (in Women of the West, Luchetti & Olwell) of three generations of Nez Perce women who are all wearing earrings in this shape, made out of shell.

General taught me something new about wampum: that it was used all over the east coast, not just in the northeast. People of the nations in the south, including his ancestors the Cherokees, used it as well. His teaching about wampum is that it is used to signify, in part, the interconnectedness of all life, the idea that all of us in creation are connected with everyone and everything else. It's a kind of embodiment of the Lakota idea of Mitakuye Oyasin--all my relations.

I was so grateful to be reminded of this idea. And how fitting that that reminder came from someone I am connected with in far-away South Dakota, and that I saw him and his wife so unexpectedly. We had a beautiful conversation about the Sun Dance ceremony, and about the concept of worth, and how that feeling of worth has to come from within, never from without, and how that feeling derives from knowing we are a part of the creation, a gift of the Creator.

It was an apt reminder, received just at the right time.

(Bathroom mirror, Sept. 2011. I am worthy, and I am a relative.)

Mitakuye oyasin!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Apropos of nothing

It feels kind of silly to be putting this up after the previous entry. But I also feel like I want to move that entry down--a kind of spatial way of noting that life goes on, as awkward as that feels. (But that's part of mourning, too, right?) So here goes.

The other day I was thinking about chickens. Specifically, about rooster feathers. You see, early this past summer, I saw two young women on campus who had a distinctly non-central-Ohio look to them. They looked like they were from New York: chic, edgy, daring. And they had something in their hair, little wisps of something that looked kind of stripey. I found out through some sleuthing that it was FEATHERS. And immediately I wanted some.

(Apparently the popularity of these things is causing the sport fishing industry a lot of anxiety: they have been used for fly fishing, and now that people are wearing them in their hair, the price has skyrocketed...)

As we traveled east in June, I spotted some of these accessories at the beach, but I kind of hesitated getting them (there was a line of young women in front of me, and I didn't feel like waiting). And then as we traveled west in July and stopped by a big mall in Minneapolis (the big famous one), I looked for these feather things, but didn't find any I liked.

Now they have them in our little town (at the bead shop)! Wonder of wonders. So why am I not down there right now getting some put in my hair?

First of all, I have to figure out how to tell the difference between *real* feathers and the synthetic ones, and the synthetic ones are what I want. (Apparently roosters are killed just to harvest these feathers... This seems silly and wasteful; I'd rather have the cruelty-free option.)

And then there's the other part: I'm feeling a bit self-conscious. You see, some of my students are now sporting the feathers-in-hair fashion. (It has finally made it to central Ohio.) And the LAST thing I want is for my students to think I am trying to be like them, or fool someone into thinking I'm younger than I am, or that I am trying somehow to act like a kid.

I rather enjoy life as an adult. I just want to wear feathers in my hair because I like the way it looks.

Which makes me then think of this woman I see on History Detectives (on PBS), Gwen Wright. She is probably about 60, and an academic in addition to being a tv history detective (of course), and she is SO COOL. She has this punky hairdo, and brightly-colored glasses frames, and she wears knee-length skirts and Doc-Marten-type shoes sometimes, and her jewelry is always interesting, and she never forgets her lipstick. And of course she is smart as heck. She is just so fabulous. (Here's her web site; go check her out!) I hope I can be like her. Instead of worrying about aging gracefully, I want to think about aging fearlessly. Actually, maybe I want to do both.

So then I realized, as I was thinking about this, that I'd gone from chickens to hairdos to aging. Brains are wonderfully strange sometimes, eh?

Hope you have a wonderfully strange day!


P.S. Here's a NYT article in which someone in fashion says he can take seriously a woman at a business meeting wearing feathers (if it's done subtly, not a la Stephen Tyler). Good to know.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


I didn't think I was going to post anything today: I didn't know anyone who died on that day 10 years ago, I was not in harm's way (though I feared such) living just outside of Atlanta. What right do I have to write about September 11th?

And yet there's something I want to note here--maybe so I can help myself believe and hope.

At my house we started the day by watching footage of what happened in New York, much of it filmed by regular people looking out the window of their Manhattan apartment or stopping in the streets on their way to work. I was astounded at how quickly it brought old feelings to the surface.

Last night at dinner we talked to our son, who was too young to remember the day, about what we experienced and thought and worried about, how we walked through that day, and what we felt about what happened afterward.

For part of the day today I was pretty unhappy, thinking about the direction our country seems to have taken of late--so much fear and suspicion and distrust, so many people dismissing others' humanity with a single word or label, so many people not listening to each other, not being gentle or kind.

But then, this evening, Dexter and I went to a memorial service at my school. One of the speakers was a freshman, the daughter of one of the people killed on that day. Lots of students--many more than I thought--showed up to listen and sing and pray, and dedicate a tree in memory of the loved ones lost. The chaplain and the president told of inspiring service projects, some created by students or alumni in memory of those loved ones: houses repaired, a school for girls built in Afghanistan.

And then we all lit candles and walked to the fire station near campus and brought our first responders loaves of bread, made by our students from cultures and faith traditions from all over the world. (There was so much bread that much of it will be taken to the food pantry in town.)

I hugged my kid--in public--and for once he let me, without protest. He even held my arm for part of the time.

And I kept repeating something I fervently believe and want to believe:

Love wins. Love always wins.

May it be so.