A Commitment to 2017

As I reflect on 2016, I feel vigorously prepared for 2017.

In 2017 I plan to be more selfish and unapologetic than ever. There is power in saying, “I’m taking care of me right now,” and that’s ok!

In 2017 I’ll say “yes” to the things that fill me up and “no” to those seeking to take advantage of me. I intend to be conscious of my capacity.

In 2017 I’m giving myself permission to not be controlled by the power of email correspondence. I refuse to give in to “inbox 0.”

In 2017, I recommit to providing space for stories, storytellers, and storytelling – both personally and within the communities where I am active.

My attention to justice and equity will be stronger than ever in 2017. And my ‘megaphone’ will never be ‘turned off.’

As a PhD student, I recommit to sharing what I am learning; not all benefit from higher education and I will pay closer attention to this privilege in 2017.

Finally in 2017, I will ask questions, be unapologetically curious, and seek consistency across all disciplines in my life – mind, body, soul.

No impostor,

Michael

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*photos are from my Top 9 of Instagram in 2016 (starting school, great moments with my partner, snow, and my ACPA Pecha Kulcha in Montreal)

Sometimes it’s not about you(r finals).

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I’ve been struggling for a few weeks to write this post. While much of my interest in advocating for students around holidays and breaks comes from my belief in equity for every student, it is also very much drenched in my own personal experiences as a student many years ago…and again, as a student today.

Over the next two weeks, campuses will post, “Good Luck,” messages to students, and finals hours will become the new norm across the country.

Anxiety, too, will become a new (or revisited) norm for many.

As final presentations and papers are soon to be due, student anxiety will increase over the next few weeks. I have even found my own anxiety increasing since just before Thanksgiving. There was always something unsettling about the end of a semester for me. After my teenage years, holidays were rarely a pleasant experience. Through college and even after, I spent many Thanksgivings and winter breaks solo, or with friends (and/or their families). Wrapping up the semester, checking boxes for completed assignments, juggling un/wanted feedback, and gearing up for break, the end of the semester can become a nightmare of personal stress.

As I sit to write this post, the message that keeps running through my head is a plea to educators, “Please be patient with your students.”

Please be patient with your students.

The stress and anxiety associated with this time of year are not completely about final projects, tests, papers, and presentations. In addition to gearing up for the semester’s final stretch, some students’ stress comes from anticipating holidays and winter break. Much like Thanksgiving, winter break can be tough on many; some even without a place to go.

A few months ago I had the privilege of keynoting a conference in southern Indiana, and midway through my keynote, I shared with the audience that each semester I take time to use my voice on social media, advocating for those students who might be feeling some type of dissonance around this time of year – dissonance that exists beyond the expectation of “finals.” It wasn’t until recent that I associated these two anxieties with one another: the stress of finals + the stress of anticipating break.

Juggling my own anxiety this time of year (first semester doctoral student, and all of that), this has become much more clear to me

What can we do?
How do we best support students during this time?

First, ask questions and support students who you know aren’t thrilled about the next month of non-school instability. Consider the ones you don’t already know about who might feel this way. Connect your students to resources on campus and in the community, and remind them that they are worthy and loved. For some schools, it’s an on-call counselor, for other schools, it’s the student affairs staff who will take shifts. In some communities, it’s a counselor or social worker, or shelter or youth house.

Next, fight like hell for your students. If a residence hall or cafeteria closes for break on your campus, completely or with no alternative (OR is unreasonably expensive), speak up! If you fear for a student’s safety, speak up! Engage your staff, supervisor, or classmates, and establish a plan to challenge the system that is leaving students behind. Don’t simply send students away assuming, “it’ll all be okay.” Sometimes, it’s not okay. And sometimes, student are left in their cars, bunking up with ten others in a hotel room, spending thousands to get “home” for a few weeks, or heading “home” to a place that is not accepting, embracing, or safe.

Share hotline information (Trevor Project), or campus support numbers (again, the on-call counselor or counseling center staff). Draft a calendar of events with your student/s, help them see the whole break at a glance, giving them things to do or accomplish over the course of their time away from school. Simply listen to them. Some may not feel as pressed as others about going home, yet still remain anxious. A listening space will help them externally process (and anticipate) what might exist ahead.

Finally, instead of a “good job” on completing finals or projects, a simple, “I’m here for you as you go into the break,” could make all the difference. In fact, in some contexts, it might be exactly what they need.

Educators, teachers, faculty/staff, and beyond, as you take on these final weeks of the semester, please consider the students who are carrying much more than the load of your coursework. Trust me, it might not be about you(r finals).

Anxious, as well,

Michael

My queerness is non-negotiable.

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It’s National Coming Out Day.

Eight years ago this month I was living in Los Angeles, and nervously revealed to one of my roommates that I was questioning my sexual orientation. I let others imply and assume, however this was the first time I remember actually understanding the possible reality that I might be gay. While I had mostly always known, this was the first time I remember speaking the words, “I’m gay.”

The past eight years have been filled with incredible moments of celebration, and today I live with my best friend, soul mate, and life partner, Mark, who loves me more than I ever knew I needed and deserved. Despite the reality that a coming out process is never truly over, I now feel more out than ever before – certainly much more out than I did eight years ago.

The past eight years have also been filled with great loss and abandonment. Many friends and family members have chosen to disconnect with me, and some after years of negotiations and attempts to control my process and my being. Eight years later, I recognize that none of that was ok. And as a result, we had to part ways.

I’ve come to describe this unfortunate separation as, a door closed, but never locked.

In my case, when doors needed to be closed (sometimes even unwilling), I found other doors to open. Specifically, I found doors revealing a beautiful community of people who love and support me endlessly and unapologetically. And for those who don’t and won’t support me, I’ve simply allowed that door to remain closed, closing chapters of my life in order to move forward with self-care and self-healing.

But I’ve chosen not to lock those doors.

When others are ready and willing, I’m able and hopeful to let them back in. In all of my anger and frustration and hurt, I still love them enough to let them back in.

But I will never negotiate my queerness, not then, not now, not ever. I am not a business deal, a community prayer request, or a being who can be “fixed.” I am not willing to mute myself in order to accommodate to bias-filled perspectives. I am not willing to be anything but my true self, and even if that exists at the cost of more relationships along the way. I don’t need fixing.

The door is closed, but never locked.

I’ve been thinking a lot about acceptance lately, and what that means as I get older and further solidify a future with my partner – what does my being out mean for a future wedding, future kids, and beyond? What does it mean when I no longer have agency to share my story and it becomes others’ to inherit?

Why is coming out important, again and again?

I chatted with a new friend for an hour and a half last night, and a big part of our conversation was about the idea that coming out is a way to pave a path for others to know and believe they, too, can be out. We both come from communities that reek of homophobia and bias. And we both know many folks, still in those communities, who feel trapped and unable to escape the confines of that rigidity.

To those folks who are wrestling with their identity, and feeling unable to come out, please know that you have a friend in me. I am a phone call, email, text, and chat away – do not hesitate to reach out. The process is scary, and at times feels isolating and lonely. Please know that you are not alone – you are never alone.

Allies, you have a responsibility as well. Identifying as an ally is critical (the action part of being an ally – it’s about what you do). Show people you are a space where they can bravely be their true self. Understand timing and let people tell their own story. This is not about you, and remind your friends that you are open and supportive and present. Sometimes this means waiting. Sometimes this means silently listening. Sometimes this is hard on you too. But at the end of the day, you can be a big part of someone’s coming out experience just merely as a result of affirming and loving them unconditionally.

Friends, I implore you to bravely come out – come out wherever, however, whenever you can. And for those who cannot, we will fight for you, make room for you, and welcome you however your process unfolds. Onward, dear friends. Together.

Unapologetically out,

Michael

Four Elephant Emojis

I turned 31 yesterday.

The excitement of 30 has solidified and I am extra-reflective of last year’s celebration. The Instagramification of 30 guided much my outlook on entering a new decade of life, and as I embarked on a dream of accepting that I am not perfect (and may never be), I discovered that I can be loved even as a result of that/those imperfection(s).

This peace was very raw and real for me.

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Celebrating 30 in DC, accompanied by a new soulmate and giant group of friends was a stark contrast to the celebration of 29, which consisted of me embracing, “almost-thirty,” more than, “actually-29.” Instead of being surrounded by friends and loved ones in the open air on a DC rooftop, I was adventuring in northeast China, alone in a hotel room, journaling and reflecting. A lot can happen in 24 months.

In the spirit of self-disclosure, I spent 31 on the verge of tears.

Ultimately I was okay. In fact, I really was actually great – I felt and received so much love and support from friends near and far; I was treated wonderfully at work and around campus; I have the best partner who provided a fantastic weekend last weekend to honor the big day; and I heard from people who reminded me that I was so worthy and so wonderfully me.

All of this, and yet, the almost-tears-lump still remained (please tell me you know this lump-in-the-throat feeling I am talking about?).

How did I manage to fool all of these folx into writing on my wall, tweeting at me, texting me, and calling me with cheerful and joyous messages? 

Our brain can be a scary thing.

I explained some of these feelings to a dear friend of mine, the friend whose elephant moment I captured in my last post. In our conversation, I shared some of my thoughts around why I was so distracted, and why I didn’t feel good enough in this particular place and time. Here’s a bit from our conversation:

Me:  “I’m seriously standing at a food place getting dinner, crying, and wondering why I feel so unworthy. And why I can’t shake that.”

Friend:  “Because you are human. Flawed. Full. Imperfect. Perfect. And going through a lot of transition.”

This friend then typed out four elephant emojis, and stated, “That’s how many elephants you’re up against right now.”

Of course, I started to cry some more. Good tears.

If I (we) truly believe, “eating an elephant,” requires taking one bite at a time, four metaphorical elephants becomes a new challenge, and a new journey.

I cried not because I was down or sad or upset, I cried because my friend was right. Sometimes we don’t just have just one elephant to get through – sometimes there are many more, some bigger than others, and some to remind you that your worth is subjective, enough, and whatever you need it to be in any particular moment or time. Knowing your worth is about knowing what elephants you have in front of you, and knowing that some may be there that you didn’t even know about (“you don’t know what you don’t know,” and all of that). I didn’t need to have any major wins yesterday. I didn’t need to have a “perfect” birthday. I needed to take care of myself, my heart.

That was enough for me.

And thanks to my friend, four elephant emojis, and a reminder that sometimes the process we’re told to trust isn’t always all that trustworthy, I feel whole again.

I feel 31, deservingly so.

I feel loved, valued, and mostly worthy.

I feel more present than I have in awhile.

I feel ready for a new year of chance, hope, and humanity.

I feel unapologetically open and raw.

I feel.

Another year, another learning lesson, another road ahead.

Brain-battling,

Michael

Mary Prusha Art Up
*Art and photo by Mary Prusha

“You’re going to cry a lot,” they said.

“You’re going to cry a lot,” they said…
Little do they know, I already cry a lot.

“You’re going to be stressed,” they said…
I have had a stress-related eye-twitch for most of my life.

“It’ll break you down,” they said…
Even when broken, I always land on my feet.

“You’re going to cry a lot,” they demanded.
And so, I continue to cry.

In what feels like 1/3-part care and concern, 1/3-part projections of self-doubt, and 1/3-part hazing, the PhD journey has commenced, and I am deep in the waters of my first semester as a doctoral student. In true Michael manner, I jumped in with an Olympic diving attempt that probably looked more like a belly-flop than a gold medal dive. Loosely proud of my belly-flop, I am making new commitments and reevaluating the way in which I maneuver through this journey.

“One day at a time,” they said.
I nod ferociously, leaning into the comfort provided by a one-day-at-a-time mantra.

In addition to being a full-time student, I hold a graduate assistantship and also teach a class for first-year students interested in learning more about leadership (Introduction to Student Leadership). During my first class session, I promised the students we would take one week at a time. Selfishly, a few dozen assignments lurked over me.

I ended the first session and opened the syllabi for my classes, attempting to map out each assignment in my calendar. As I planned ahead for what seemed like a semester of tears, stress, and brokenness (“You’re going to cry a lot,” they said), my inner self-preserver begged, “Resist! Resist! Resist! Slow down!”

I paused, laughed, and whispered aloud, “How do you eat an elephant?”

How do you eat an elephant?

Huh?

Several years ago I had a colleague who completely unraveled during a staff meeting. They were frustrated and overwhelmed. They were grappling with the, “we should be doing more, and with more time and resources,” dilemma that new and para-professionals often unearth in their first few years of working in education.

Following our highly contentious staff meeting, I invited the colleague into my office and engaged the, “what’s going on,” conversation. Through some tears and voice-raising, it was clear the individual was trying to do the best they could with what they had, while making meaning of the politics involved on our campus and in our office.

Drawing on an old adage I used most of my young adulthood, I quickly asked this colleague, “How do you eat an elephant?”

Frustrated, they replied, “I don’t know. I can’t with your metaphorical BS, right now. What’s your point?”

We sat in silence for several minutes, and I gently asked one more time, “How do you eat an elephant?”

Both exasperated and curious, the colleague finally responded, “I don’t know…one bite at a time?”

“One bite at a time.”

One bite at a time. 

Flash forward several years later, my calendar, syllabi, and heart all out on the table (figuratively and literally); I was having my own, “how the heck do you actually eat an elephant,” moment. If I have learned anything one week in, it’s that keeping up is the only option – for better or for worse. One bite at a time.

“You’re going to be stressed,” they said…
“It’ll break you down,” they said…
“You’re going to cry a lot,” they said…

With tears in my eyes, I agree. And in courage, I move forward. A pinned, internal, one-day-at-a-time, banner flies viciously in my brain. And I pause, forced to breathe in a philosophy that has guided much of my work over the past few years.

“They tried to bury us, they didn’t know we were seeds.”
–Mexican Proverb*

Universe, build me up.

A seed to be watered,
Michael

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*”They tried to bury us, they didn’t know we were seeds,” is often attributed to a Mexican Proverb, as well as Dinos Christianopoulos. Either way, powerful and important connection, and one that continues to center me.

“You are about to start something amazing.”

This week I started my graduate assistantship, and soon I will begin my new routine as a full-time doctoral student. Ideally, this is my last degree.

“Terminal,” as many will assert. Terminal.

I will continue on to the Metro, where I will walk to campus and better understand this new personal and professional life journey. And as my partner reminded me a few weeks ago, I am about to start something amazing – something scary and terrifying, but ‘amazing,’ nonetheless. Fortunately, from pre-K kiddos to other doc-dreaming souls, I will not be alone.

“The first day of school,” is a rite of passage for many, and for others, it’s the reminder of a reality of education-based inequities.

“Is the student prepared?”
“Does the student have grit?”
“What will the student bring to our school, our program, our reputation?”
“What baggage accompanies the student?”
“Will the student survive?”

The idea of survival connected to an academic endeavor has always left me somewhat unsettled. At a previous institution where I worked, the reputable business school provided, “I survived…,” shirts to all students who finished their comprehensive exams. Related, my college experience housed a fraternity hazing process that reeked of, “JUST SURVIVE,” sentiments, and it has never been hard to see the connection between this survival-mentality and hazing. It’s surely there.

More than, “Will the student (I) survive,” as I start this new expedition, I am forced to navigate my own self-inflicted processing around worth.

“Am I good enough?”
“Is perfection enough?”
“What if I don’t deserve this?”
“Do I deserve this?”
“Surely, I don’t deserve this.”

I previously posted about this when I made the decision to officially go back to school, and packaged it simply as, “A Dark Place Called, ‘I’m Not Worthy.’”

Knowing all of this, and battling the worth-demons that swim through my brain, I continue to recenter myself by answering the following question:

Why am I going back to school to get a PhD?

For starters, curiosity guides much of my current perspective.

In separating a professional aim from my personal understanding, and perhaps more important than any other reason to press forward, I am training myself to believe and embrace the idea that I am good enough.

I am absolutely good enough.

Brené Brown argues, “Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.” She also posits, “Imperfections are not inadequacies; they are reminders that we’re all in this together.”

“Imperfections are not inadequacies…”

The paralysis of perfection is so real for me.

As scared as I am of my imperfections (impostor syndrome, and all of that), I am more scared that I will lose some sense of myself along the way. This is where I understand the survival component to the academic process (“hazing,” as I previously suggest). And the idea of survival is not always present in the physical context.

Will I lose bits of who I am in this process?
Will I sacrifice my identity?
Will I be vulnerable to the parts of me that do need updating?
Can I truly embrace the imperfection?

This new endeavor is about more than survival, and it is certainly more than a quest for a perfect outcome or journey. This endeavor is about landing on my feet. It’s about understanding who I am, and what role I can and will play in this big world we live in.

For now, that is enough.

For now, landing on my feet is enough.

This is my peace, and I am enough.

Survivalist,

Michael

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“Grab on to some light, every corner that you can.”


I took a stroll through the Madison farmer’s market this morning, and found myself in a bit of a deep reflection. I have a massive amount of life and career transition coming up – finishing one job, starting another, being a student again, and beyond.

Somehow music always seems to appear when I need it most (and even in times when I don’t think I need it). This song found me, and wrapped me in exactly what I needed. I hope it finds you wherever you are today. 

Michelle Willis, It’ll Rain Today

“Grab on to some light, every corner that you can.” You are brave enough, beautiful, and completely and absolutely worthy.

Now, bloom. 

The world thanks you in advance. 

In truth,

Michael