Keep the channel open

“There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action,
and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique.
And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost.
The world will not have it.
It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable it is, nor how it compares with other expressions.
It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.
You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work.
You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate YOU.
Keep the channel open.”

– Martha Graham


(Thursday). It’s the final day of the year-long academic leadership program I’m associate director of today.   We asked the students to do “creative presentations” to tell the stories of what they’d learned.  One of my students uses this Martha Graham quote to talk about her evolving sense of herself.  Then she puts on music, kicks off her boots and invites us all to join her in ecstatic dance.  I join the small group who surround her.


Another learner is a young female surgeon in a niche specialty.  She has a vivid, uber-femmy style, and wears a sparkly tshirt with a big gucci belt buckle today.  She can talk as easily about her need to train her eyebrows to grow up, not down, as she can about removing a tumour from a parotid gland. She shows a photo of herself in her faculty group, the only woman in a dozen grey-suited men, a splotch of colour and femininity.

After she talks about her work, she asks us if we think she needs to change her style to be taken seriously.  My co-director is a big proponent of “don’t let your clothes be a distraction.”  Some in the class agree. Others encourage the sparkly doctor to keep pushing at the edges of “what a surgeon looks like,” but to acknowledge the realities of unconscious bias and be deliberate and strategic about her choices.  I notice that the men in the class listen and watch without weighing in.


A guy in the class — another high profile surgeon, traditional and usually in suits, poised to create a really innovative department in his specialty — shares that his big realization from this program is that he can’t surround himself with people who look and think like him and expect to make any difference in the world.

When he’s speaking, I’m reminded of another former student — a superstar, male, middle-aged clinician scientist changing global guidelines — who told me after a year of working together that I’d helped him “get over his god complex.”

I love my students, and I’m weepy through their presentations.  They are so vulnerable, so open, so raw and hopeful with their desire to truly have an impact on health, health equity, knowledge, medical education, access, the system.  I’m overwhelmed with the privilege of facilitating people who yearn for more than their own personal success, who truly burn to make a better world. Who work so hard to challenge their own assumptions.


In another stream of my work, I’m working with another brilliant young woman, a scientist, to put together a proposal for a giant grant for a new research network that could utterly transform medicine.  I tell Lynn, a senior leader at the university, that I’m working on the project, and she says “it’s so great to help the young people, isn’t it?”

I laugh, and realize I really don’t think of myself as this mid-life person who is Helping the Young People.  My students certainly aren’t technically “young” — they’re practicing health professionals — mostly physicians — and scientists at a stage in their careers when they’re taking on big leadership roles.  But mostly, they are at least a decade younger than I am.  I realize that when I’m the one teaching associate deans or chiefs and chairs of hospital and university departments, I’m officially middle-aged.

I’ve written a ton for this blog about what it means to be in an aging body, what it means to be fully inhabiting the age of 53, incorporating menopause and fatigue and arthritis in my toes and fingers into my identity as an unfettered adventurer riding my bike alone across foreign lands. But I haven’t really explored what it means to be middle-aged in the non-physical part of my self.

When Lynn observed that I was Helping the Young People, something clicked.  Part of it was about something I’ve been paying attention to for a while, which is Erikson’s model of adult psychosocial development, where stage 7 — middle age, roughly 40 – 65 — is “generativity vs. stagnation.”  Generativity in this context roughly corresponds to doing things that will outlast you, creating some legacy that relates to community, relationships and work.  He posited that if you don’t live into this kind of generativity in mid-life, you risk stagnation and emotional despair. Researchers have linked vitality during this time to decreased geriatric depression.

I work hard, and I work a lot — but I thrive on what I get to do at this point in my life.  I’m tired, but this is the time in my life when things are clicking, when I know that I have something to bring to my world that matters, and when the opportunities present themselves.

That’s fitness.  Living into my values in a truly authentic way.

There’s something beyond generativity that started to crystalize today when the students were speaking, when a senior researcher who struggled before this program wept at feeling heard.  It’s in the Martha Graham quote, and it’s in the essence of this blog.

“There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action,
and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique.”

Why should feminists be fit?  So they can translate themselves into action. So we can translate ourselves into action. We need to be healthy and strong and clear-minded and energized to do anything that matters.  What fitness is to you is unique to you — but fit and strong and powerful?  That’s at the essence of doing anything that lasts.

I feel quite despairing at this moment in time about influencing political institutions. This isn’t a moment where I trust in the grace of politicians.  But what I CAN do is work that has the impact of creating deep, long-term change about equity and inclusion in education, and among the people in charge of delivering healthcare.  I can help shift the understanding of middle-aged health leaders about why equity matters.  I can teach people to listen.

And to do all of those things, I need to be calm in my own soul, strong in my body, fully grounded.  That’s why fit is a feminist issue for me.

IMG_3689.jpgFieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who lives and works in Toronto when she’s not wandering the world.  She blogs here on the first Friday and second Saturday of every month, and at other times when she feels provocative.





7 thoughts on “Keep the channel open

  1. This may be the most profound post I have ever read on this blog. Thank you. I am now going to share it with some of the young(er) professionals I mentor.

  2. Thank you for this wonderful, positive and hopeful post. Truly appreciated.

  3. I love this post, Cate. It got me thinking about what I find so satisfying about Dean-ing at this life stage. It’s also puzzling sometimes because I feel the same age as the department chairs and school directors but like you, I’m clearly 10 years older. It’s an interesting time where people see me as older and wiser but I often still feel super young. We’re a lot a like that way!

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