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The University’s new President Pardis Mahdavi was the first speaker in a series of monthly talks titled “What Matters Most to Me and Why” Aug. 31 in the Ludwick Center Sacred Space.
The series is sponsored by the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, Office of Black Services and the Center for Multicultural Services.
“I’ll be honest, I was a little nervous,” Mahdavi said. “But then my daughter reminded me of something I tell her often, ‘The nice thing about going first is no one knows (you’re nervous). So I’m taking her words into my heart.”
When she was invited to explain what matters most to her, she felt she could sum it up into one phrase: “Being present in the space between.”
She proceeded to explain each word separately to the audience. As an author, she said she has a love for words, grammar and orthoepy, which is the correct pronunciation of words.
She said being is not doing; It’s not reminiscing about the past or projecting into the future, but is simply just being.
Present is not dwelling on the past or the future, not worrying about what someone will say about her, not worrying looking backwards or forwards, but just being in the moment.
“All we have is this present moment and the present itself is a space between the past and the future,” Mahdavi said.
Space is orienting, directing and finding. It means finding the space, then holding it.
Between means the bridge, neither here nor there. For her, it meant not being Iranian nor American, neither activist or scholar, athlete or artist, but always both. It meant always striving for peace and stillness.
She admitted that for her it can be hard to be in the space between.
“Growing up, and if I’m being honest even today, the present can be painful, terrifying, frightening, but incredibly exciting,” Mahdavi said. “I find that I actually align when I come into alignment. When I evolve is where I find the greatest peace, most humbling joy and the clearest path to God.”
She talked about how when she was growing up there were a lot of expectations placed on her to fit on one side or the other of what she called the hyphen.
“In America, I was too Iranian,” she said. “In Iran, I was too American.”
Her family, made up of immigrant refugees, was firmly anchored in the past. They spoke of a glorified Iran that does not exist. They referred to themselves as Persian.
She said she had to remind them that Persia does not exist. She said that her family was stuck in the past, of this idea of a cradled civilization that did not exist.
“The danger of living in the past is you miss the present,” Mahdavi said.
She said she felt a simultaneous running narrative of what she should be doing: A tyranny of pressure to succeed and a constant reminder of the sacrifices her ancestors made so she could push forward to maximize her potential.
“All of it served me well,” she said. “‘Push harder, succeed more, make (my family) proud.’ It served until it didn’t. Until I got out of alignment and became lost. It took a horse to teach me this lesson.”
Last fall in Montana, her home at the time while she was provost at the University of Montana, she took in the glow of the mountains against the pink sky and a thought reverberated through her entire body.
“If I don’t get on this Earth, connect with these mountains, be under this sky, my heart will burst into a million pieces,” she said.
She said she felt God the first time she got to Montana.
“Like many people who suffered from the arrival myth or who succumbed to discounting the treasures that you hold once you have them in your grasp, I lost my all and began to lose my way,” Mahdavi said.
It was on that fall day that, rather than taking in the scenery of the glowing mountains and cotton candy sky, she was rushing her daughter to school because they were late and her daughter slipped in the driveway. Mahdavi told her daughter to pick herself back up like Mahdavi picked herself up everyday.
She dropped off her daughter at school and made her way to the office, where she had one meeting after another.
She walked into rooms where not a single person looked like her.
She said she felt her ancestors were in the one ear telling her she belonged there, had earned her spot and to not forget who she was – an Iranian cowgirl.
In her other ear, from the eyes of mostly white people in the room, she said there seemed to be a shift amongst them, as if they were shocked that she could be the provost.
“She’s too young, she’s too dark, she’s a single mom,” she felt them judging her. “She can’t possibly have the time: she was on NPR talking about Iran.”
She said she was struck with imposter syndrome. She wanted to talk about everything she had sacrificed and endured up until that moment. She wanted to prove that she deserved to be there and that she had a plan to do great things.
“I wanted to prove that I was enough and even though they saw me as a walking contradiction, I wasn’t,” Mahdavi said.
Instead she sat through one meeting after the other and listened to people berate her.
By the end of the day, she was so disappointed so she decided to stop at the barn to ride her horse, Caspian.
When she arrived and saw the horses, she was still reflecting on what had happened that day and what she was going to do to prove to everyone she deserved to be in her position instead of taking in the majesty of God and the beauty of the horses running around in the pasture.
Mahdavi said she mounted her horse and started to feel the imposter syndrome creep into her ride. She said when she began her trek with Caspian into the mountains, something was off that day.
The ride started to bring her back to the present. She said she closed her eyes and thought, “I am flying.”
She had to bring Caspian to a sudden halt by a pond. He was starting to drink water when he was startled by two coyotes jumping out of a bush. In fear, he accidentally bucked Mahdavi off and ran away. The fall resulted in Mahdavi blacking out.
She later learned that she had a concussion, three broken ribs and a slipped disc from the fall.
When she came to, her friend, a fellow rider, was standing over her, holding her own horse, Jasmine, and Caspian by the reins.
When her friend asked what had happened, Mahdavi said, “I wasn’t present.”
Mahdavi said her fall was a gift that reminded her of what can happen when she is not present – when she is thinking so much on the past or the future, so determined to fit into one box or the other, to prove she was enough, that she can be provost by day and cowgirl by night – that she missed the space between.
“I’m here to tell you that the bridge is the space between,” Mahdavi said. “The bridge is a place, too, and the view from up here can be scary at times, but is absolutely spectacular.”
Taylor Moore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.