We spent all day at a gathering organized largely by Native American students on indigenous languages and revitalization efforts: the 34th year for Medicine Ways Conference at UCR. In addition to great keynote speakers and breakout sessions, they offered free parking, free admission, and three free meals! My heart was quiet and grateful the whole day, for just being able to be there and listen. It came to me strong that, if people whose peoples have been so assailed can still get up every morning and meet the world with this level of integrity? Then there is no earthly reason why I can ever quit and give up. None. I will be mulling these conversations and teachings and people for a long, long time forward. I may never find adequate words for how much I appreciate them.
Their stories are not mine to tell either, so I may never find good ways to even express what they are beginning to mean to me. But to be able to study and listen to these languages, spoken by the hearts that hold them? That is a true gift.
And now I am mulling something insignificant, but odd. Three people, at three different instances and without my having said much of anything prior to their questions, asked if I was a professor. Two were college students, one turned out to be a professor herself. Every time it was a shock. Oh no, I assured them in turn. Oh no. Just a person, professing nothing, only here to learn.
And then I filed it away to mull on afterward, for I didn’t want to miss a second of the day by dwelling on personal identity quandaries!. But now it is afterward, and I have a couple minutes for this, so Seriously. I have earned a doctorate, but I’ve always assumed that I’d made it out of grad school relatively unsocialized. (I’m pretty sure some of my former colleagues would agree on this point, sans prodding, too!) So what is it about how I now look or walk or engage people that would suggest otherwise? College students always respond well to me—I’m approachable, I genuinely like them, and I exude this even without saying a word—and they often seek me out in situations where I’m a total stranger and there are lots more adults around from whom they might seek conversation or information. One example? The last time I was at UCR, I was waiting in a queue of probably 15 people, square back in the middle of the winding line, and one of the students manning the checkout desk said something off-hand (and funny) which flew over the heads of her co-workers and the student she was helping and every person in the line between her and me, so she looked straight out at me, grinned, and started a conversation with me that continued through her providing service to all five of the students and one professor who were ahead of me in the line. That is normal for me. Totally normal. If it didn’t happen all the time, I’d get worried that something in my genes had transmogrified and made me a little less hannah without me noticing.
But what about me looks professorial? My mussy asymmetrical haircut, no makeup, serviceable shoes, linen shift, hemp bag: do not. (These days nearly all the professors I know are quite stylish, and nobody would ever mistake me for that.) I didn’t use a word of jargon or analysis either, and anyway, for one of these people, I hadn’t actually said anything yet when she posed the question. The more I think about it now, the more flummoxed I get.
Maybe I take on some qualities of where I am (buildings, cities, accents)? In Paris several years ago, my husband and I were repeatedly stopped by French people who were visiting from other cities or regions and wanted to asked us for directions to something local. It got downright comical eventually, because it just kept happening (and me with French that was barely serviceable, and very likely to fall into Spanish without me noticing then, to boot)! We met quite a few people that way, though, and it was fun. In another similar instance, after spending a few months where Afrikaans was a trade language, I was mistaken—on a street corner in NYC—for being a Dutch tourist. From the actual Netherlands. So that kind of thing is fairly common for me. But a professor?
Maybe on a university campus with me obviously not being a Native person or speaker, and also old enough to be done with school (which I should hasten to point out, however, was not all that tall a wall for me personally!), professor is just a default identity for someone new?
Hm. Do not know. Do not plan to mull ages and ages hence. But it’s liable to fester, this sudden notion of not fitting in enough in one milieu to actually fit there, but being taken for being of that milieu in another one by three bright, and obviously observant people—none of whom intended their questions as an insult; they were simply trying to connect with me better, to learn more about me, to make me feel welcome. Ah no. Nothing can fester in the soul that has been made welcome. No thing. It’s a curious matter, and one worth mulling, perhaps, but no cause for worries or feeling undone (my commonest way of being while in academia, to be frank, and likely one of the reasons I remained a misfit).
The up side is that I now see better a path on which to walk, and my guides are sending guides and teachers and friends to walk alongside me on it, and I no longer have to worry about fitting in anywhere. Because I am a child of earth, and while I am here I must only make the contributions I personally can make. What’s ahead, what’s behind: that’s in this now and nowhere else. More and more, the many parts of my life are being woven together in ways I could not have predicted or planned in advance. Things spill out without my having sat down and figured out how to say them, too, which means I also get to attend to them in ways I otherwise might not have done. Recently, to a dear friend having to make big life decisions where the two options appear quite different from one another—and thus having the potential to be Right OR Wrong With Consequences—I wrote, in a ‘fingers to the keyboard, total free association’ mode:
More than ever now, people who are unequally served by this society need chances for educations and livable wages, fulfilling lives, etc. You have to decide what’s important to you personally, yes, but you also have to live in this society, and the insecurities of it are coming after even the most privileged among us now. As a person who’s chosen hard rightly and wrongly many a time in the past, though, here’s what I’d tell you about that: you won’t know the right choice ahead of time by reasoning out all the logics of it. You won’t know the wrong choice ahead of time by reasoning, either. And even when you get way down the road and decide one day that your choice was right or wrong, you’ll be only half accurate in that assessment right then. Because life is. It just IS. There is no right choice. There is only saying, This is who I am. This is what I value. This is what I want to contribute now. This is what I can stand (and this is what I can’t stand), based on what I’ve been through already. This is what I am willing to give up to have a chance to make a little difference in someone else’s life while here. And this is what I wish to be able to look back upon when I’m about to close my eyes on this dear and terrifying world for the very last time and say, with a smile, “I’m so grateful for it all. Every last jot. And I did what I could.”
Reading this now, mulling the friendly, welcoming questions today one more time, I smile, and feel the welcome and curious, questioning soul that is me, and, while I may not be a professor of anything, I have enjoyed the mullings involved. And the festerings, too, for these I have always embraced, as I trust such things to unsteady my feet so I won’t get too cocky and trip over them round the next bend or two. Whatever is behind remains with me now, even the mistakes and misjudgments, and they make me capable of my next breath. That—and having some moments to pause and mull it–is also a gift.