Living in the Fish Bowl

“RA’s live in a fishbowl,” people tell you over and over. We…live in a fishbowl? Are RA’s aquatic, wriggling, gooberfish with round flat eyes, propelling ourselves around with our ancient paddle mechanisms, sucking tiny flora and fauna off of our closest friends and family? Do we nibble pellets that drift lazily, like feathers, through enclosure water, do we live in the dentist’s office?

fishbowl

RA’s are like fish in a fishbowl if the fishbowl were to be in the ocean, and the other fish look up to the bowl-fish as a moral example. And the fish in the fishbowl just CHOOSES not to leave the fishbowl because there are SOME things a fish can only accomplish from inside her fishbowl. 

I think I’ve made my point.

What I’ve been thinking about lately is how performative my personality has become. I am always looking at myself from the outside, representing myself in my mind with an image of myself from the outside, and not a mental map of my internal space (as I used to).  You’ve probably heard the saying, “fake it ’till you make it.” I used to think it was a soulless way to approach life, but I have come to see it as a powerful statement about the malleability of reality and self perception. Act differently, see yourself differently, and you will actually become a different person. Change your image, you can change your reality.  I have a real sense that I am constantly determining who I am. Everyday, I have the chance to decide who I want to be, and what could be better than that?

This kind of ultra-intentional self-image design does not exactly facilitate ‘living in the moment.’  I find sometimes that, even when I am alone, I feel like I am performing. I’m always in the company of a theoretical audience.

There is a sense in which being an RA punishes introverts. Being in a fishbowl strips introverts of their most important time. But more than that, being in a fishbowl robs us of the benefit of time spent unintentionally (for a community that thinks a lot about intentionality, we don’t spend a lot of time recognizing the importance of time spent unintentionally).

For me, being in the fishbowl has stripped me of some of my carefree sense of self.  I no longer give myself permission to simply experience my life–no, I must always be actively creating. I miss not caring about what other people think. I miss doing whatever I want when I wanted to. I miss thinking mostly about my own impulses instead of the ideal way to act in a given situation. I miss seeing myself from the inside instead of the outside. I miss the days when my identity was defined only by my idea of myself that day and not by my impact on a community outside of myself.

It doesn’t have to be this way. I’m trying to rethink what it means to be an RA. I love waking up everyday and trying to BE the person I want to be. But I also want to change the world with who I am.

So the lesson is, be an awesome fish. Show all of the other fish how to be a really awesome fish. But maybe sometimes, you can leave the fishbowl for a while, and bask for a spell in the sheer vastness of the ocean.

Advertisements

The Ghost of Campus Living Past


Every year at Lewis and Clark, 50 or so RAs get together and form new staff teams, and begin the work of the year anew.

Or so the story goes.

In reality, there is always a ghost of last year haunting behind the wings. Returning RAs see it everywhere they go. New RAs walk around getting an eerie feeling that there is something someone is not telling them. Who knows what ADs see anymore.

I remember being a little frustrated as a new RA. I couldn’t understand the divide between myself and the returning RAs.  Some of them seemed bored during training, or just a little ‘over it.’ I felt a little patronized by their reassurances; ‘don’t worry about it, you’ll be fine.’ Weren’t they about to undertake new things themselves? Who would REALLY claim to have mastered community building, crisis management, personal development, and peer counseling as a twenty-something? Why didn’t they seem to be treating me as an equal? And most of all, why didn’t they seem to want to get to know me?

Later on, I remember having frustrations with teammates who were really hard to get to know because they were clearly not over their last staff team.

Now I’m a third year RA, and I’m struggling myself. Training starts in two weeks, and I can see these same tendencies I resisted as a new RA in myself.  It’s not that I’ve learned it all, but I’ve spent so much time thinking about these issues, that a two hour power-point might not be what I need to grow the way it was when I first began. More than that, I have to admit; I have a staff team I’m not over.

277349_500344059995829_501796320_o

Those 10 people on my staff team taught me so much–I trust them more than almost anyone in the universe. I can’t find a way to describe what they mean to me without using the word family. It’s hard not to see training as a time when we can all be ‘back together again.’ I know that when I’m in that room with many of my favorite people it will be difficult to give my new teammates the attention and the presence that they deserve.

New RAs, you deserve to be taken seriously and to be received with emotionally open arms. But, just in case you aren’t, please, don’t take it personally. I know I’ll be trying my hardest, but I also know that I have had amazing experiences this last year; I had a year full of team love, adventure, and growth, and it is taking a little time for me to accept that a change has occurred. Sometimes we need to grieve the small things too.

But my team stands as living proof that sometimes, the journey has incredible things in store for us that we cannot anticipate. Right now, life-changing possibilities are open to me, if only I can remain open to them.  My former team is no longer together, but we are still a family. We’re just a growing family.

YOU are the Goddamn Batman

You are a superhero waiting to happen. All you need is the right excuse, and a good mask.

herozzzzz

The Resident Adviser job can be that excuse. At least, it was for me. I am often floored by the thought that my job is essentially to be a really awesome person doing good things. But the catch is, being a superhero isn’t really a job–it’s an identity. You don’t stop being a superhero–when everyone else goes home and relaxes, when everyone else ceases to think about their job, the superhero continues to live their work. The sheer expansiveness of superhero work makes doing it both deeply rewarding and overwhelming.

Every superhero needs a mask, and RAs are no exception. In fact, it is the same mask; an ambiguous job description and nonchalant public persona hide the simple secret that most superheros are actually ordinary people. Community facilitators are Batman style superheros–we aren’t born with laser vision or super regeneration. We bleed just as much as other people. Meanwhile, in the public’s eyes, the identity of the individual melds into the identity of the superhero, until the two are synonymous. In some ways, the melding of identities is a way of becoming who we already were–I have always had the potential to lead a community, to make a difference in people’s lives, to handle tough situations with grace. On the other hand, it is an obliteration of identity, because I never get to be just ME again. I am “Me the RA.”

Perhaps this wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the impossible expectations facing a community figure. We sort of assume that superheroes are able to fix ALL of the problems, to address every crime, that Batman never sleeps through the bat signal. The reality for RAs is that we cannot do it all, and people will be disappointed sometimes. The reality is, we will never entirely live up to the mask, because the mask is always bigger than any person can be. I might positively impact the lives of some of the people living around me, but others who live on my hall will never connect to me and maybe even resent that I don’t interact with them in the way they’d like best. Perhaps I’m too peppy, or maybe not assertive enough, or who knows what.

And the successes are also hard to celebrate. I know a lot of impressive people–they volunteer, they have internships, they get A’s in the hardest classes. Much of the time, I can’t even talk about what I do, for confidentiality reasons. People don’t even realize I’m working sometimes; I have to work really hard to keep my door open. Even if I kept my door open 100% of the time, people would just assume that I am doing what I do naturally. But when my door is closed, no matter how much I have kept it open in the past, then I feel like I am concretely failing (in my own mind, if no one else’s). As a superhero, you will fail. If only yourself.

As is so often the case with creative work, when you really do it right, it seems effortless. Your residents, sometimes even your RA peers and supervisors, often have no idea how much work you’re doing. The blurred line between identity and work prevents people from seeing the struggle, the exhaustion, the growth.  What’s worse is that often it is hard  yourself to seethe impact you have. When the community thrives, I am often unsure if it is the result of my work or just an organic effect that would occur without me.

I found a quote this summer: “The strongest people are not those who show strength in front of us but those who win battles we know nothing about.” Being a community facilitator is an act of faith. You will work and work, and then you will trust that because you worked with love, the love was received. The bruises that were already in your heart will hurt a bit. If you felt softness, or in awe, or in love, with those around you, you will feel it more acutely.  Over time, you will learn how to be more authentic to yourself while still playing the role you need to play. There is no Joker, and no Two Face. The enemy is losing faith. The easy option is not to destroy the cape but to avoid vulnerability. These are the challenges of an every day superhero. But on the deepest level, this is who we are. We are all capable of a quiet, and ever moving, greatness if we are naive enough to act a bit foolishly, and a bit bravely.

Facing the Existential Crisis Posed by Life After College

Lately, I have been coming to terms with a lot of feelings I didn’t know I had.

change

Coming into my senior year, I feel an odd mix of excitement–I have spent three years to get where I am–and sadness, a kind of preemptive grief. This is it;  I am going to graduate after this year. The thought of leaving my school, and this job, makes me feel a little lost. What if I’m not done with this experience? I’m afraid that I won’t be able to move on from this time in my life, but the school, campus living, my friends, will. Will I find other things to do that are this meaningful? Will I have the willpower or the ability to spend my life on noble things?

Most of the time, I doubt the value of the things I’m doing. Let’s face it, I am a privileged white kid, getting an education that will give me possibilities other people will never have, and to what end?  While I love many of my classes, I’m not sure if being educated is meaningful in its own right. I have all this debt that will force me to revolve my life around the acquisition of money–I can’t just decide to go travel, or live off of a very small salary. Is it worth it?

Worst of all, part of me does not feel it is meaningful to just to be me; a 20 year old who likes to have philosophical conversations and to partake of all things whimsical or weird. Part of me feels that this 20 year old persona is not really me;  “Tyler the RA” is me. Unlike almost everything I do, I absolutely feel that watching out for the well-being of 30 young adults is meaningful. I never regret time spent as an RA.“Tyler the RA” is the person I have decided I want to be; a public persona, the person who does everything with premeditation, who has trained herself how to react to every social situation so that she can be most helpful to those around her.  That person is valuable to the world.  In a real sense, I feel that I am losing myself when I lose this job.

I have been anticipating a great void entering my life after I graduate, and I have started to resent this job because of it. I have given so much of myself to this job–how could it let me go careening off into the emptiness? …Of course, this is all in my head. If I’m reasonable, I know that I need to keep growing and changing too, and the people around me are not simply throwing me away. They genuinely love me.

As Mary Oliver says, I have to be “determined to save the only life [I] can save.” I need to trust that I will find ways to live a meaningful life. Perhaps I’ll realize that it is meaningful to simply live and enjoy living. Or perhaps, I simply need to decide that when I graduate, I will find a way to serve the world in ways that are just as interesting, just as powerful, as the ways I am helping out now. I have to believe that any love lost out of my life will make space for it to re-enter my life in a new form. Most of all, I need to stop thinking of myself as expendable, and I’ll realize that no one else around me sees me that way.

No one ever said self care was easy. But, at times, it is the most important part of the job

I have performed the miracle of turning wine bottles into water glasses

photo

This is a creation of–almost–biblical proportions.

In all sincerity, I can’t even tell you how excited I am about this project. I have been fantasizing about trying it for months.

These glasses are beautiful. They are sturdy, strong, well made, safe. They are everything I want them to be and more. They are quirky, charming, they have character, they are ecological. They are magic. And I hope, I just hope, that if someone walked into a warm, spice laden kitchen with a set of these beautiful glasses on display, they just might want that place to be their home.

Your ass is glass

Maybe I’m taking it too far. But maybe not. These glasses have good vibes.

It’s kind of stupid, please don’t laugh, but I spend time dreaming that these glasses will change my college campus. There is an inexhaustibly supply of wine bottles on a college campus, sitting quietly in the bottle of recycling boxes. The only supplies required are a wine bottle cutter ($20 to $30 on amazon), sandpaper or an emery cloth ($5).  I don’t know how many bottles you could cut with those, but I think the answer is a lot.

They don’t take much time–each step takes a minute or a few, depending on how slowly you go (though it requires a bit of practice). It’s educational, it is an empowering community builder, they could be souvenirs. With glass etching liquid and a stencil, you could either decorate these, or, as I plan to do, mark them with the name of my hall so that they announce their own place and cannot be mixed up or lost. Although, with such distinctive glasses, it is harder for them to get misplaced anyways. In my ideal world, every single kitchen would have glasses like these, made by residents. Each hall would have their own symbol–maybe an embellished letter, a short word–made into a stencil, which they would use to mark every glass. Eventually, people could make glasses just for fun, just for gifts, just for hall souvenirs.

I am getting away from myself. But isn’t that the point? Isn’t the whole point that sometimes, we are able to do incredible things with stupid little objects and a sense of transfixion? Isn’t that where a bit of magic enters the picture–when we care about things more than we should? And it’s dumb, and you might feel dumb when you go to your supervisor and the only thing you want to talk to them about is some project you read about on the internet, and your residents might not understand your enthusiasm at first, but something odd will linger and people will remember years later that there was something special about those odd green glasses.

It takes a little bit of practice to figure out how to cut a perfect straight line. Expect to experiment on a few. Out of the first 7 bottles, I had 2 successes (I think my success rate will be much higher now though). Apparently the glasses will break more evenly the shallower the cut you make (you only want to score it lightly once), but I found that my cutter sometimes didn’t leave a mark at all if I didn’t press pretty hard, and then the glass didn’t break evenly at all.

Here is an excellent video on the process. 

Practically goes without saying, but be careful around the bottle cutter and the bottles. I forgot to watch myself around a severed bottle and accidentally brushed my finger against a raw edge and cut my finger.

I hardly noticed the cut though. I was too busy performing miracles.

The cool thing about being an RA is that you can accidentally affect someone’s life at any time.

.

This job will wear you down sometimes. There is a constant sense of responsibility for the well being of the people around you that you can never really let go of, not even when you are with your best friends–but at some point, random moments will remind you that it’s worth it. There will be times when that very vigilance, and the constant effort you put in to reach out to every person, may pay off in odd and profound ways.

My first year as an RA, I became good friends with one of my quads of my first year boys. All four of them are great guys–and I’m still somewhat in touch with each of them. But what I didn’t know was that one of the biggest impacts I would have would result from meeting their friends.

One of their very good friends was a guy I’d originally thought was a concert attending, drug-taking rebel who would hate authority figures such as myself. I was right on all account but the last. He became a huge supporter of me, specifically chose to live in my hall the next year, and became a good friend of mine, as did his roommate, who I would also never have met otherwise. As an RA, you become a visible figure in the community. Sometimes, random people will find out about you, and decide that they want to be in your life. It is amazing.

We have a facebook page where people anonymously post scandalous things. Originally lighthearted, things had started to become more serious. I responded carefully and with feeling to a recent post confessing that the poster was struggling with depression, and even worse, suicidal ideation. I asked in a later comment if the poster could keep us updated on how they were doing, and offered to take them to coffee at the school cafe.

To my absolute shock, I got a message a few days later. “You might be shocked to hear this, but I was poster XXX,” the message read, “and I’d love to go out to coffee with you.” It was from a guy I vaguely knew, a close friend of those first year boys from the year before. He had attended one of my community builders, which we had bonded over, but other than that, we’d hardly talked.

We went out for coffee and talked for three hours. It was an amazing conversation. When we first met, he seemed shaky and on the verge of tears. When we left, he was almost chipper, laughing. There was relief in the air. I don’t want to pretend our conversation eliminated his problems–his suicidal ideation continued, even got dangerously worse at points–but I developed an amazing connection with someone who was struggling to connect. He still sends me messages asking me what’s up and inviting me to coffee.

And that is why I do this job.

Get grounded before training starts

Dear incoming RAs,

In this time just before training starts, I find myself buzzing with energy, but also feeling a little ungrounded. I’m looking back on this time two years ago, right before my first training, and wondering, “what do I wish I could have said to myself back then?” Funnily enough, all the things I would say are things I find I still want and need to do today. Here are 5 ways to get a little extra grounded before training:

1. Watch or re-watch this:

http://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_how_great_leaders_inspire_action.html`

Spending time finding your own ‘why’ is one of the beautiful things about being an RA.

I don’t know if this will help get you started, but this photo, which is the banner of this website, has my all time favorite answer for why I do what I do: photo (17)

2. Filling my google calender with my first month of community builders and notes to myself (lists of things I need, tasks to accomplish). The first month is an important time, and also a crazy time, and having that first month planned out a bit helps me feel like I have a little more control.

3. Making a facebook group for my staff team (someone else beat me to it this year!) This is an idea one of my wonderful staff team mates had last year, and it was wonderful. It is great for little communications, like when you want to know when a staff meeting is, or a duty swap question, but more importantly, it is a beautiful place for all sorts of silliness. And silliness is the lifeblood of a staff team.

4. Writing. I need all the emotional bandwidth I got for the start of the year, and writing, whether it is about being an RA or not, opens my brain and my heart up like nothing else.

5. List writing. I am going to draft a list ideas for door decs, hall themes, and random things I want to do. Often I will write a few few values at the top of the paper to keep me grounded in my mission, or I’ll just start with the values and free write about ways to accomplish my goals.

Other thoughts you may want to toss around:

  • Become friends with your staff team and your AD if it is in any way possible. These people can change your life if you throw yourself into the process. I have found that returning RAs have a lot of power when it comes to setting the staff dynamic. So, new RAs, if you are finding you don’t love your staff dynamic, maybe see if you can befriend a couple of the returning RAs and ask how they feel about it. By planting it in their minds, they may realize they want change too, and realize how they can positively use whatever authority their seniority gives them.
  • Plan programs and events selfishly. If you throw an event that makes you happy, you are already winning and other people will probably love it too. So, think; what experiences do you wish you could have?
  • Personally, I like to keep track of the positive feedback I get. If you want to do the same, get a small book, or a stack of post it notes, or something, and write down all the nice things people say about you and the moments of powerful connection you have with RA’s, AD’s, and your residents, especially of the first month or so. Write anything that inspires you. Return to this book when you’re feeling low. I found it helped me on many a low day.
  • Use being an RA as an excuse to do the things you want to do anyways. Change your school, meet with whomever, be ridiculous in public. As an RA, people will not be surprised when you stick your nose around. Take advantage of it.

Have faith that indeed, YOU ARE HERE FOR A REASON. Here is to you, and the journey you’re about to begin!

–love, me