The Season of Becoming

img_4407I’ve always had an affinity for Autumn, as an overt reminder that transformation can be graceful… comforting, even.

All year long, we experience adaptations as each day comes to a close: The brightness of light dulls, fading details into monochromatic gray. The ending of daytime deceives your senses slowly and imperceptibly and then all at once. Suddenly, you blink your eyes and the darkness jolts you to recognize its presence. Nightfall has cunningly crept in. Another day concluded.

The passage of day into night, though consistent in its routine, is too jarring for me to admire. I much prefer the slow, steady progression of Autumn. It allows time for my senses to process reality and make amends with impending change.

Transition periods are necessary for progress, but they also bring a disquietude similar to dusk; a sense that perhaps nothing is changing to bring you closer to the next phase. You are adjusting, but it seems to be happening so slowly that you cannot distinguish between where you once were and where you’re going.

This year especially, I used the leaves as my compass to gently assure me of my bearings, in spite of nightfall’s mundane consistency which betrays the notion of distinctness. I was no longer oblivious to the understated pastels of late August, apparent only to those craving a reminder that each day is in fact discernible from the previous.

Weeks passed and these hues became brighter. They were accompanied by brilliant reds, coinciding with my personal triumphs and alerting me of the tipping point towards novelty, finality, or possibly both.

I climbed a mountain for the last time this year, and met a nurse at the top. She was recently retired and I couldn’t help but admire the serendipity of crossing paths with someone on the opposite end of this journey, yet in the exact same place. She told me we had just missed peak foliage by a week, but I knew that the real beauty still lay ahead.

The leaves loosened from their attachments to the trees just as I was leaving my childhood home. I lay in my back yard and watched them pirouette towards the ground with a playfulness that reminded me to find joy in letting go.

I drove along mountain roads painted by a palette of burnt orange towards my new home. The fiery hues epitomized the incongruity of Autumn’s end: a final flash of warmth before Winter’s ruthless cold. The perfect kindling for my passion to ignite.

The last leaf falls, allowing the trees to bare their most honest, exposed selves, trusting that they will persevere regardless of how unrelenting this new season can be. In their vulnerability, the trees withstand and will always find the means to bloom again. In fact, it is in the days just before Spring, when they have endured for months that they are humbly prepared to achieve their fullest potential.

I, like the trees, am new and raw and exposed. Most days there is a biting wind of apprehension, a silent prayer that I could have remained safe in the steady striving of Autumn rather than face the unpredictability of now. But I also know that the seasons keep moving in succession, one after the next, and that this one is just as necessary as the last.

I blink and my eyes adjust. This time, it is not nightfall that saturates my vision, but rather, the blank canvas of myself.

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Empty Spaces

The first hot, humid day of the year lured me to the basement of my parents’ house, where the cement floor promised to keep me cool with almost the same efficiency as our not-yet-installed air conditioner. I had been planning to sort through the storage bins that held the contents of my life, to purge the items that no longer serve a purpose, in preparation for my inevitable and final move out of my childhood home. Almost three decades of a tangible memoir loomed ominously below my floorboards, a task so daunting that I willfully postponed its undertaking for weeks after the initial idea crossed my mind.

On this particular day, the sticky air was the impetus for me to finally burrow underground and get to cleaning. However, once my feet touched the cold floor, I was immobilized by the man-made towers of belongings that had turned the space into a crowded metropolis of nostalgia and trivialities. My eyes surveyed the scene with a sense of unfamiliarity quickly stifled by shame.

I stood amongst the overwhelming rubble of collapsed memory structures, trapping bodies of our former selves in their wreckage. The entire basement was like an ant farm, with narrow tunnels carved between lofty piles of dusty possessions, weaving in directions that all lead to walls and the stark realization that we are merely prisoners to the confines of our perception. The smaller the cell, the more enclosed we feel. The larger the cell, apparently, the more space we fill with items that time eventually robs of their significance. Irregardless, we end up bound by limitations, restrained by our own will to define our existence by objects rather than the openness available to us.

Herein lies the trouble with expanding your consciousness – your awareness does not selectively focus only on what you are comfortably willing to see or experience. Instead, it is unbiased, unrelenting. If I am constantly changing and evolving, I must accept that so too are the spaces we occupy. The very foundation of our home, of our lives, had become cluttered through disregard for the sanctity of the expanse needed for our roots to take hold.

We have a tendency to find comfort in the material world we create while ignoring the imperceptible breadth of nothingness that allows those things to exist. We keep crypts of photographs and childhood mementos because we fool ourselves into believing these things form our identity. Perhaps we fear that without these corporeal treasures and once our physical form submits to certain dissolution, we cease to be anything. Lack of substance is nothingness, inanity.

The atoms in our bodies are comprised of significantly more empty space than they are matter, and yet they are not devoid of purpose. It is this very emptiness which defines the borders of substance that we regard as the manifestation of our physical selves. By this notion, we should honor the freedom and unfathomable possibility of our empty spaces rather than feeling compelled to fill them with mundane objects of transient importance.

We are not merely abandoned relics covered in cobwebs. We are limitless, undefinable immensity. We are foundations on which we can build ourselves. We are empty spaces. And I choose to leave mine open to opportunity.

The Pulse of Unity

You won’t read this.

You may have read my words before, but they were too exhaustive to hold your attention. The first line doesn’t grab you or it’s a topic you don’t care about. And so you stop reading.

You may have disagreed with me enough times, or even just one time. Still, novel ideas are presumed to diverge from your views and are disregarded as irrelevant or wrong. And so you stop reading.

You may feel frustrated that anyone can believe in anything so dissimilar to your own convictions. This makes you uncomfortable. Or it fuels you to respond with incendiary rhetoric, which inevitably ignites the flame of anger. And so you stop reading.

You may be tired of the platform of social media and the barrage of diverse opinions it contains. You’ve had a long day at work and just need some time to scroll mindlessly. You look for the funny memes and videos. And so you stop reading.

You can’t be bothered to feel the discomfort posed by disagreement and you certainly can’t see any common ground or room for compromise. And so you stop reading.

Five days ago, I stopped reading too. I stopped reading for all of the reasons above.

The Orlando shooting is the first time that my gut reaction to a mass shooting was not fear, sorrow, or anger. It was somber resignation followed by crippling chagrin.

You see, I had to stop reading because I’ve read all of it before. Take away the guns. Protect our right to bear arms. Hate crime. Terrorism. Mental illness. Homophobia. Radicalism. Love. I’m right. You’re wrong. Mourn, blame, argue, defend, politicize. Like posts that we agree with; delete people that differ. It’s our nature to simplify things after a tragedy and we usually do that by categorizing, labeling, and blaming. But by doing so, we strengthen the very divisiveness that underlies all the discord we wish to eradicate. When we stop reading, or choose to read only the views we already agree with, we are doing ourselves and our values a disservice.

So I started reading again. Some members of the LGBT community wrote about their disappointment in the silence from their hetero friends after this tragedy – the same allies that showed support for Paris by changing their profile pictures. My first thought was – we do not have to speak to grieve. We do not have to speak to react. We do not have to speak to support. Everything does not have to become the dichotomy of you do this, you’re with us; you don’t, you’re not. Most importantly, no one has to react the way we want or expect them to – “our” way is not inherently the “right” way.

I believe that something needs to change. I could write about how I don’t understand why it is necessary for civilians to have easy access to assault rifles. I could write about how radicalism is incited by our dissidence. I could write about how our mental health system is not just weak; it is debilitated. I could write about the tragedy of living in a time when we leap forward towards acceptance and love, and then take ten steps back.

Or I could write about how we can practice the tolerance we preach through reading, not reacting. Read the things that make you uncomfortable with an openness to understand. Read to be tolerant of the very diversity you claim to embrace.

Take two fingers and place them gently on the inside of your wrist and feel the rhythmic flow of the blood that courses through your veins. These words exclude no one. Realize we all have a Pulse.

I could write the above as an exercise in humanity.

But if I do, you won’t read it.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Spare

Spare:

  1. (adjective) Additional to what is required for ordinary use.
  2. (adjective) Elegantly simple.
  3. (verb) To refrain from harming.

Version 2

At first glance, sand dunes appear simple. The beach grass provides strength to the sand dunes so the dunes themselves can protect the coastal communities from water intrusion – thus, sparing inland areas from damage. Beach development and the uninformed trampling of beachgoers has led to destruction of 84% of the dunes in the Hampton/Seabrook areas of New Hampshire.

Spare

One Flower at a Time

In 1972, MIT meteorologist Edward Lorenz posed the question: “Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set off a Tornado in Texas?” In chaos theory, this question came to be known as the butterfly effect. In layman’s terms – how much of an impact can a simple, routine activity (such as a butterfly flapping it’s wings) have on a larger scale? And, if it does have an impact, can we predict when and where the outcomes will be seen?

In nursing, we don’t have a radar that shows us the whirlwind influence of our proverbial flapping-of-wings. We see our patient that is right in front of us and though we can romanticize about how we’ve made a difference once they have left our care, it’s hard to imagine that our seemingly mundane daily tasks have any lasting effects because there are so many factors that are immeasurable and intangible.

Realistically, you can’t follow the air pattern from a single butterfly to a typhoon that is millions of miles away, just as you can’t follow your patient home to observe whether they learned from your patient teaching or quantify if their gratitude increased because they were inspired by your compassion.

I spent five years working in mental health. During that time, I saw many patients struggling with the chronicity of their illness through repeated hospitalizations and volatile behavior. I spoke to them with patience and treated them with respect, but they often associated me with the negative experience that they were struggling with. They swore at me. They called me names. They threatened me. Sometimes, they attempted to act on their threats. I don’t blame them. After all, it’s not my place to determine how much value they should place on my efforts.

Many times, I thought: how can I continue doing this when all of my efforts appear to be futile? I try to mentor them on appropriate management of their emotions and symptoms, but so many of them keep requiring this almost-barbaric control of being locked in a building so that they remain safe. What quality of life is that?

It felt like a game of Russian roulette, except there’s only one chamber that is NOT loaded and that’s the lucky patient that gets better and lives a great life. I never see them again and I probably don’t think about them because I’m too busy cleaning up the mess of the next unfortunate person pulling the trigger.

Don’t get me wrong – there were countless moments that were very uplifting. There were people that were genuinely thankful. One patient burst into tears and hugged me for getting her a cake because she said that her family stopped acknowledging her birthday. One time I sang Bohemian Rhapsody with five of my patients because they wanted me to help them cheer up one of their peers. (I’m no Freddie Mercury, but it worked.) I received letters, cards, and drawings from patients thanking me for being present and caring through their moments, days, weeks, or months of tumult. If they did not come back to the hospital, I usually never heard from them again. I had to rely on the hope that they were flourishing, but it still felt like the impression that I made on my patients was both transient and fleeting.

As I sat in the nurse’s station one day, in the throes of an existential crisis, I saw a picture of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs taped to the wall. Someone had highlighted the bottom two categories of the pyramid – physiological needs and safety. That’s when I realized that my efforts were not without merit. Providing the most basic needs can be the catalyst for our patients to progress towards self-actualization.

Scientists did not intend for chaos theory to become an inspirational belief that we can shape history through our actions. In fact, Lorenz sought to deconstruct the notion that there is certain cause-and-effect in nature because he found that the smallest factors are too imprecise to accurately link to one specific result. If one Brazilian butterfly can cause a Texas tornado, who’s to say which butterfly of the millions that inhabit the earth is responsible?

So, what if I turn my focus from the hypothetical tornado across the world to the tangible movement of my own fluttering wings? After all, just because a flower blooms for a limited amount of time does not negate the fact that it needs the butterfly to pollinate it. Through this symbiotic relationship, the butterfly is provided the sustenance that it needs and the flower can reproduce and bloom year after year. Likewise, I have found fulfillment through the resiliency of my patients. And through this notion it became less important to me that I change the world and more important that I positively impact the life of the person that is before me, as they are, in this moment.

Chaos