I am going to do something good for you

After attending a writing festival in Possidi, Halkidiki, I returned to Athens to say some goodbyes, then boarded a flight to London.

Two days into my Watson year, I interviewed a funeral director in Athens. He was in his sixties, soft-spoken, and kept his wireless ear buds in for the entirety of our conversation. Directing funerals was not always how he’d imagined his life, but after the stress and dissatisfaction with his job in journalism proved unbearable, an ostensibly morbid career path suddenly became an attractive one. 

We talked for about two hours, enough time for me to get the full rundown of burial rituals in Greece, to learn why bones are exhumed only a few years after they are buried (often due to lack of space in cemeteries), and to have discovered that he views his job as more consultatory than macabre. His main role, as he explained to me, was to listen to the families and their stories, to help them in the first few moments after a death. I imagined that providing this sort of guidance came naturally to him since earlier in our conversation he fondly recalled his time in college reading horoscopes for extra money.

Grateful to have had such a good first interview when I’d hardly been in the country long enough to overcome jet lag, I asked if he could teach me how to say ‘thank you’ in Greek. “Eυχαριστώ,” he said, and then said three more times as I poorly mimicked, my mouth struggling to make the sounds corresponding with the letter ‘χ’ (a sound with no direct English equivalent). Once I came even remotely close to something that sounded like thank you, he smiled and explained that the translation means “I am going to do something good for you.” 

I’m actually not entirely sure if that translation is accurate—I’ve tried to google it to no avail—but it has nonetheless set the tone for my time in Greece (Greek friends, don’t spoil this for me if it is incorrect). As I was leaving, I asked if there was a place where I could dispose of the plastic water bottle he’d given me. Though the bottle itself was to go in the trash, the cap was to be collected and later given to an organization which, for every few thousand bottle caps that are returned, donates a wheelchair to someone in need. Then and there, I resolved to collect all of my bottle caps, promising to return them to him before I left. 

That’s how I wound up carrying a plastic bag around with me for the rest of the summer, diligently collecting each of my bottle caps and incessantly bugging those with me for theirs. Even mere hours into my time in Greece, I had the feeling that by the time I left I would have the strong urge to do something good for it.  

I write this post from the United Kingdom, where I arrived only two days ago. Coincidently, my first country change coincided with the beginning of the school year in the States and the first peaks of fall in many of London’s pristine parks, two evergreen markers of a summer’s pass. For me, change always catalyzes reflection, awakening a dual desire to hold onto my most fond memories from ‘the past chapter’ and also to write its last few sentences so as to begin the next. 

While in Greece, I conducted interviews with individuals working in all sorts of jobs related to palliative care, witnessed a number of religious celebrations with elements related to health and illness, volunteered with refugees in Lesvos, learned just enough Greek to sheepishly make it through basic exchanges yet confidently express gratitude, felt the magic of the island Amorgos, and filled 1.5 journals recounting my experiences.

There was a period of time where I struggled to synthesize all that I was taking in, often feeling as if the things I was learning lacked a cohesive narrative. In those moments, I questioned if my lack of understanding was a result of not doing a ‘good enough’ job or not ‘doing enough’—two anxieties common to the Watson experience. Ironically, it only occurred to me on the day I walked aimlessness through Mytilene, having purposefully chosen to accept the fact that I had nothing to do that day, did I realize that the seeming lack of cohesion was not a result of my own doing, but rather a reflection of the current palliative care landscape. Greece is in the very preliminary stages of developing a national palliative care strategy, so those involved in the field are grappling with many of the same question that I am: What constitutes effective palliative care provisioning? How does serious illness impact the individual, the family, the state? How do laws and rules (both political and religious) affect medical care? What matters most at the end of life?

Though it was not intentional, beginning Watson in a country at the preliminary stages of implementing a palliative care strategy has taught me many vital lessons about doing a Watson. For one, it’s made me resolve to go low and slow this year—to, as my favorite author Barry Lopez once wrote, “take measure of the bend through experiences.” 

I’ve learned to take measure equally from conversations with clinicians who voluntarily work weekends and nights to provide end of life care as I have from the traditional music that lands so well on my ears accompanied by dances that so graciously forgive my two left feet. From two-hour harborside dinners that couldn’t (and shouldn’t) be hurried by anything as from overcoming the challenges of interviewing with the bounds of a language barrier. From views outside of a train window that literally make my jaw drop. From people and places that I’ve come to love. 

Greece has got my number; it has since the first moment I stepped onto the tarmac after an EasyJet flight, looked out into a sky made pink by a sun lazily disappearing behind mountains and thought, “I’m here. I am really here.” 

There are a million good things I want to do for Greece, but for now I’ll have to settle with my returned bottle caps and an incredible heartfelt ευχαριστώ.

One of the many incredible sunsets I saw in Greece.

I am ‘on vacation’ this week, enjoying time with my grandparents. It is nice, albeit a bit odd, to see people I know again. I’ll be based in the UK through mid-September, attending a conference on the social context of death, dying, and disposal and learning from a hospice organization that does a fantastic job engaging the community where it is based. I leave the UK onward to India in about three weeks. 

Collecting Moments

Since the last post, I’ve returned to Athens from Mytilene, then travelled to two islands in the Cyclades: Amorgos and Tinos.

When I arrived at the airport in Mytilene a few weeks ago for my departure, I was met with an odd question by the ticketing agent. “Athens,” she began, “why would you go there in August?” 

Athens is somewhat of a ghost town these days. Hoping to escape the unrelenting heat, individuals who can afford to take a vacation often do so for most, if not all, of the month. Many go to the islands which are much cooler than the mainland, offer a near constant sea breeze, and demand at least one swim per day. Though I’ve spent my fair share of time on these landmasses in the Aeagan, much to the ticketing agent’s dismay, Athens has been a ‘home-base’ in between stops. 

I was aware that the August holiday would make it difficult to schedule interviews with individuals from the medical community, so I filled the month mostly with cultural and social experiences. One such experience was a trip to Tinos for August 15th. August 15th marks Dekapentavgoustos, or the Dormition of the Virgin Mary, one of the most important Greek Orthodox feast days. The Virgin is believed to have ascended to heaven on that day, and pilgrims come to the island to pay homage to a Holy Icon which represents the main source of connection between individuals and the Virgin Mary. On the 15th, the Holy Icon is led down from the church in a grand procession, with individuals lining up many hours before it begins to guarantee a chance to touch the Icon.

Individuals lining up for the procession on the 15th

Pilgrims pray intensely to the Virgin Mary for compassion, good health, and healing and, in a demonstration of pure devotion, some even crawl from the port of Tinos to the Church about 1 kilometer immediately upon their arrival. I wanted to observe the day to better understand the role that faith plays in the experience of serious illness, particularly in the instances in which individuals believe to have been cured. 

I arrived on Tinos August 14th, giving myself a day to explore prior to observing all that was to come. Earlier in the week, I’d finally visited some of the museums in Athens I’d neglected previously, so it felt natural to spend the day at the Cultural Foundation of Tinos Island. While there, I was captivated by a mirror inlaid within a double-panel window frame with the words ‘Touch here’ written in white letters across the bottom of each side. 

Obliging the command, I placed my hand over the text, an action which resulted in a loud click and the illumination of the mirror in front of me. Startled by the bright blue, idyllic image that overtook the space where my body stood, it took me a second to register what had just happened. I pulled my hand back and, just as quickly as my imaged disappeared, I was met with it once more. 

An image of the mirror captured amid illumination.

The motivation behind the piece was political, though I gleaned a very different meaning. A few days prior while exploring the Benaki Museum of Greek Culture, I was taken by a painting entitled St. Nicholas and scenes from his life. As the title suggests, the painting highlights pivotal scenes from St. Nicholas’ life by positioning depictions of them around a rectangular rendition of the saint himself. I don’t know enough of Christianity nor St. Nicholas to unfurl the narrative those imagines undoubtedly wound, though I do know that when I take stock of the pivotal moments in my life, they manifest in a similar way—a series of moments, seemingly disparate yet at once connected, upon which my own likeness rests.  

My predisposition to thinking of moments was perhaps a result of the recent research I’ve been conducting into the Greek Orthodox view of death and euthanasia (“Prolonging life or hindering death? An Orthodox perspective on death, dying and euthanasia” is great reading on this subject, if interested). In brief, death is seen as the rapture of the psychosomatic unity of body and soul, though the exact moment at which this occurs is unknown. Despite the mystery of that moment, there is little interest in knowing exactly when it occurs so as to not profane its sacred character. The moments surrounding death are seen as the most important in a person’s life because they are when the soul is judged and can repent for its sins. Thus, efforts which may hasten those moments (such as euthanasia when used to ‘cut the life short’) ultimately impede a person’s ability to engage in those all-important final seconds.  

Looking at the artwork in Tinos (whose name I regretfully didn’t write down nor can remember), I couldn’t help but wonder if that was what the final moments according to the Orthodox faith are like. Do they occur in flashes or together like a dream? Is the focus retrospective or prospective? Does life ‘flash before your eyes?’ 

Once the notion of life flashing before your eyes entered my consciousness, I began to quickly tap the display, wondering if this is what it feels like to have that happen—a sequence of bursts so rapid that it’s hard to distinguish the start of one from the end of another. 

Even though I was memorized, a woman who was also viewing the exhibit was less enthused, shooting me an annoyed glance when my tapping bordered on obnoxious. Taking the hint, I removed my hand, allowing my physical life to flash back before my eyes. 

I stared at myself for a moment. 

Since departing for Watson, I’ve sometimes looked into the mirror and felt like I didn’t recognize the face staring back at me. This may be partly attributed to the drastic haircut I received approximately 24 hours prior to my departure—the first diversion from the one-length, blunt cut since I was seven years old— but I think it is more so emblematic of the struggle I’ve felt in synthesizing the moments that make up my life now into the collection of moments that make up my life as I knew it. 

Disjunctive feelings are not uncommon to the experience of illness (or, as I’ve gleaned from my newfound obsession with travel-based literature, when an individual immerses in a new culture), though I’ll omit a thorough discussion. Rather, I believe the first few lines of Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor illustrate the point,

“Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.” 

The understanding provided by our culture, traditions, or religion can help make sense of the moments that we are called to venture into previously unexplored kingdoms. Much of my work throughout the past month has been a whirlwind of witnessing first-hand how individual come to make sense of these forced ‘kingdom crossings.’ In the refugee camps on Lesvos, where so much more than an ocean separates the texture of individuals moments, something such as continuing to work barber may act as the keystone in the arch spanning two seemingly disparate places. A woman that I met in Tinos during the procession of the Holy Icon described her yearly pilgrimage as a way of honoring the good health miraculous granted to her after facing a serious illness thirty years ago—a time full of chaos and disruption in her life render sensical by the grace and compassion of her faith. 

To be entirely honest, I’m not always sure what to make of all the moments I’ve collected over these past two months. With about a week left in Greece, I feel pressured to collect my memories and experiences—to name them, organize them, wrangle them into something that even partially conveys the wonder of my time here—yet, I suspect that doing so may only profane their sacred character. 

This post hardly scratches the surface of all of my thoughts, feelings, and experiences since the last update. For example, glaringly absent is any mention of the few incredible days I spent camping in Amorgos. I depart for the United Kingdom next Tuesday, and plan on using much of the week to reflect on my time here, though I will make one small trip up to Thessaloniki to attend a writing festival where a piece of my fictional prose is being featured.

Dignity, Guilt, and Google Maps

Since the last update, I’ve settled in the town of Mytilene on the island Lesvos to complete some volunteer work.

I purposefully booked my accommodation in Mytilene because it boasted a central location, pristine sea views, and plentiful terrace space. The pictures of the place confirmed that I’d indeed be able to drink a morning coffee while admiring the Turkish coastline; Google Maps confirmed that was a mere two kilometers from the town center. I finalized the reservation without hesitation. 

This is not another post about the existential distress I feel as a result of Airbnb (though an entire post could be dedicated to the complicated, often slum-like housing market that sprouted to accommodate the influx of short-term volunteers on Lesvos), instead this will be a post about dignity, about not checking the elevation change feature on Google Maps, and about guilt.

Where to begin? 

First, with a picture from the beach ~5 minutes from my home. The landmass near the horizon is Turkey.

Since winning the Watson, I knew that I would want to take time in each country for a bit of volunteer work. Growing up in the heyday of the ‘Cleveland Renaissance,’ I was indoctrinated to believe that places change when people change them, for better or for worse. I am not naive (nor arrogant) enough to think that a week or two of volunteering will profoundly alter a place that barely spend fortnight in, but I do see the importance of dedicating time, even if only a little, to a greater good. 

I am spending a little over two weeks volunteering with an organization that coordinates yoga and sport activities for refugees. All yoga takes place in the ‘Yoga Shed,’ a rectangular structure with an exposed frame of cylindrical metal pipes shaded with a tarp roof, while many of the sports take place in an old warehouse retrofitted with mismatched foam play mat tiles and handmade, plywood storage units for the clothes and equipment that are borrowed for each class. My role involves providing support to the long-term teachers here. Some days that means partaking in a women’s yoga class, other days a men’s muy thai, and, every so often, providing babysitting services so mothers may fully enjoy the experience of a class. One of the organization’s main goals is to dignify individuals who live under the indignant conditions of the camps here. Though I certainly prefer assisting with deep breathing to serving as a punching bag in muy thai, in each class I witness this goal being fulfilled as the number one rule (‘Have Fun’) is diligently obeyed. 

Any glance at the front page of a major newspaper will reveal a blindness to the indignity rampant in refugee camps (or detention centers in the US), but our reaction to an ill-fated diagnosis received by a loved one confirms that this blindness is only partial. Throughout my time here, I’ve come to believe that dignity is related to value, and that one of the greatest ways to help dignify another is through showing them that they are valued (certainly, the opinions and actions of others are not needed to cultivate a personal sense of dignity, though I believe they can be quite influential in doing so). Outside of the work done by NGOs, for refugees, the bottom rung of Maslow’s hierarchy is, at best, only sloppily guaranteed—a direct reflection of how little they are valued in the eyes of the state. However, when a loved one is diagnosed with a serious illness, the inclination is often to drop everything and play our part in the epic drama of navigating medical institutions, coordinating treatment, and providing support. We show our belief in the other’s value by happily serving as a personal Uber, DoorDash, or TalkSpace service.   

The relationship between dignity and value helped to resolve a paradox that has emerged in my research. Many individuals in Greece have told me that a good death would be a sudden one, yet many more have also told me that it is important to ‘do everything to delay death.’ If the goal is to die suddenly, I’ve wondered why everything should be done to extend life. When I’ve probed as to why the sudden death is the preferable one, the answer has almost always been so as to avoid suffering. The rigors of treatments involved with ‘doing everything’ are seldom synonymous with alleviating suffering, ergo the paradox continues. After pondering this seeming incongruency, it occurred to me that ‘doing everything’ may be a way of showing someone they are valued. A way of affirming that their longevity should follow lockstep with the impact they’ve had on our hearts, even if it means undergoing treatments or procedures that assure against a sudden, or ‘good,’ death.  

Organizations involved with spreading awareness about palliative care often work to revise the notion that valuing an individual involves bestowing things with a perceived high value upon them (expensive treatments, endless tests, a myriad of consultations with all of the ‘best’ clinicians). Instead, these organizations promote the idea that individuals can also be valued when we do our best to preserve the things that they value. Some individual can, and do, value receiving intensive treatment to delay their illness, though many more place the greatest value on maintain a high quality of life, however that may be defined. 

Altering this perception of value may seem simple, intuitive even, but rewiring cultural thinking about value and dignity is a task rife with Sisyphusian frustration. At the end of the day, I think that most people simply want to believe that they did the best that they could to honor their loved one. For Greeks, I’ve often heard that many feel it is their duty to take care of their parents in old age as repayment for the care they were provided as a child. The dedication with which this duty is approached is truly astonishing—I’ve anecdotally heard of individuals who, for many years, paid meticulous attention to osentibly minute details such as room temperature to prevent the worsening of a parent’s condition.

A surefire recipe for languishing guilt is to agonize over whether you did ‘the best’ that you could to dignify another. To me, it seems natural and somewhat hopeful that this is a source of anxiety. Naturally, we all hope that our best was commensurate with the way we valued the other; hopefully, our agony is a sign of how deeply we wanted to communicate that value. Natural and hopeful as it may be, I recognize that languishing guilt is corrosive if held for too long. During my volunteer orientation, one of the experienced coordinators sternly instructed us ‘not to be guilty.’ Undoubtedly, this advice was a result of his own experience with the aftereffects of corrosive guilt. But, even with that advice in mind, in the face of this too-huge world confronted with the too-huge prospects of death and despair, we flounder, we bargain, and we feel immense amounts of guilt. We, or at least I, have the somewhat obsessive inclination to take measure of the uneven cosmic scale: he got cancer, she was born in a war-torn country, they tragically lost their mother; I am healthy, I was born in the US, I am at peace with those I’ve lost. How can this scale ever possibly near balance? 

It is precisely this sort of weighing that the advice to ‘not be guilty’ was targeted towards. Even still, it’s difficult to stop. Often as I walk home, I can’t help but indulge. Though the trip from the bus stop to my accommodation is indeed the promised two kilometers, what was not obvious at the time of booking (because I neglected to look at the terrain change) was a steep, 120-meter elevation gain during the last 800 meters of the walk. While I make my way up the hill—huffing, puffing, often needing to stop and catch my breath—I sometimes have the urge to run. The neighbors and stray cats watch this scene with great confusion: a young, very obviously not Greek girl, already dirtied from a day of sport, makes a beeline up the street whilst her bag thrashes against her back. They probably wonder what I’m doing and, to be honest, I wonder the same thing. Maybe this is my way of dealing with uneven cosmic scales, of trying to communicate the innate value I see in others, of trying to show that I am striving to do the best I can. Or, maybe, this is my way of grappling with not feeling guilty.

A view from the midway point of the hill, taken during one of my walks home in the evening.

I will be spending about one more week in Mytilene before heading back to Athens for a few weeks. In Athens, I will begin to tie up some of the loose ends of the research I’ve been conducting over the summer before partaking in a few festivals near the end of the month.

Tourists and Travelers; Voyeurs and Witnesses

I spent the first two weeks of my fellowship in Athens, Greece getting a feel for the country and the palliative care landscape. I interviewed at a funerary, was kindly given a tour of a palliative care unit, attended a healing circle, and have made a few friends who have gracious enough to show me the city through their eyes.  

During my interview for the Watson fellowship I was asked a question that stopped me in my tracks. The interviewer leaned back in her chair, then coyly posited, “Don’t you think your project is just a little voyeuristic?”

I remember feeling my face grow red as I thought, ‘Voyeuristic? Well, I am proposing a project that seeks to explore one of life’s most intimate moments… Is that voyeuristic? Oh god…’

She must have seen the panic wash over me, quickly offering that perhaps all of anthropology is just a little voyeuristic. I laughed, agreeing that anthropology may be a little voyeuristic, but clarified that I thought the attitude with which the work is an important indicator of its intrusiveness.

In the months following the interview, I thought often of that question, pondering the ways that I could ensure my actions were not voyeuristic. I posed this question to many people—academics, clinicians, peers—eventually concluding that it is both attitude and intention that decide whether someone is bearing witness or being voyeuristic. The former characterized by authentic, present participation, while the latter by selfish motives and/or being removed from the moment as it occurs. 

This question has been on my mind again as I’ve started to develop a feel for Athens. It’s a place that shouts at you. The graffiti found at every corner is an omnipotent reminder of the city’s pride, pain, and temperamentality. The blazing sun and nearly constant blue skies make no room for subtlety. Though I don’t always understand the graffiti, nor the chatter going on around me, I can often sense the passion with which it is delivered. 

The view from a street in the Plaka neighborhood

If you can’t understand a shout, does that make it a whisper?  An invitation to lean closer and open yourself to what may not be easily comprehended? 

I think it does, so I’ve been trying my best to listen carefully.

There are some messages that need not be deciphered—they shout with the intention of being understood. One such message confronted me from the moment that I went to check into my Airbnb: 

Later that evening I asked some local friends about the message, hoping to better understand the impact that Airbnb has had on their city. They explained to me that in the past few years units in neighborhoods close to the city center have been turned into ‘Airbnb Apartments,’ spaces where no Athenians live, but are instead only rented out to tourists. This, coupled with an increase in tourism to the city, has led to a rapid increase in the price of rentals. An increase so great that citizens are leaving the neighborhood where they may have longed resided or are being forced find new ways of making ends meet. 

After hearing this explanation, I was overtaken by guilt. Just two weeks into the year, I have realized that much of my project will be made possible by the willingness of strangers and places to open themselves to me. Athens and its people have been exceptionally willing, so it feels important to return the favor; important to leave a positive (or at the very least net neutral) mark on the city. Important to not be a voyeur. 

I confessed that I had unknowingly booked an ‘Airbnb apartment’ for my time in Athens. They reassured that it was okay since I was acting as a ‘traveler, not a tourist.’ Though their consolations were appreciated, I ended up switched my accommodation to clear my conscience of the negative contribution.

The distinction made between a traveler and a tourist reminded me of that between a voyeur and a witness. The traveler distinction had been bestowed upon me because, as it was explained, I was making an effort to venture outside of the area immediately surrounding the Acropolis, to engage with the city rather than merely visit the tourist attractions and was attempting to be self-aware in my actions. Crucially, I was making an effort to be here rather than just see all that is here. 

The traveler/tourist distinction also brings to mind something I often heard from the family members of the hospice patients I worked with. They spoke of how they were comforted by the ‘home-like feel’ of the place. Though the hospice certainly had many ‘home-like features,’ at its core it was still a place where care was to be provided to individuals—a purpose more typically attributed to a hospital than a home in contemporary US culture. The palpable difference in energy, in my opinion, was a result of the meticulous attention that was given to ensuring that each individual felt welcomed and care for (beyond just medically) during their stay. Individuals were travelers at the hospice house, not merely tourists in the medical world.  

When I asked a doctor last week what would be considered a ‘good death’ in Greece, she surprised me by answering that every death used to be a good death. She explained that individuals used to die at their homes, surrounding by those important in their life. If they needed to be cared for, it would have also been at their home and again would have involved the people most important to them. No tourism whatsoever. 

This has changed in the last ten years, however, with the decline in village/neighborhood life and flight of young people from the country in search of suitable work. More people are now dying in hospitals or away from their loved ones. Just as I am toeing the line between being a traveler and a tourist or a voyeur and a witness, a similar navigation is being performed by the medical community in defining the emerging field of palliative care.  

When given the choice (in literal or metaphorical journeys), I believe that most people would prefer to be a traveler rather than a tourist. So, I wonder, why is it the case that there so many tourists and so few travelers? 

I think perhaps it is because feeling a place requires an opening, and eventual breaking, of portion of your heart. To be a traveler in a place, to get to know it intimately and allow it to know you, demands that you make yourself susceptible to being changed by it. In my attempts to not be voyeuristic, I’ve been changed by experiences I’ve had shadowing clinicians in the States just as I have in the two short weeks I’ve spent in Greece. Bearing witness, whether it be to an individual suffering in an intensive care unit or to the hum of daily life in the Athens, is often when I feel the strength of our shared humanity most strongly and pain of life’s indiscriminate misfortunes most acutely. 

To borrow (and slightly alter) a quote by Maya Angelou, the price of being a traveler is high, but the reward is great. I’m paying the price in teary, indefinite street corner goodbyes and bouts of existential distress over realizations regarding just how much privilege the eagle on the front of my passport holds. Yet, the reward of being able to fully experience the beauty of this place and its people is immense. 

In the ephemeral spirit of the Watson fellowship, my travel plans have changed slightly. I’ve spent a few days enjoying the natural beauty of Meteora and was supposed to make my way towards the islands for some research. However, an opportunity opened on the mainland to further bolster my understanding of how the country’s palliative care field. Island life can wait a bit longer.  

On the precipice of being vaulted

Last Wednesday I said goodbye to my family in Ohio, then boarded a plane for Boston. Beyond the cost-savings associated with flying internationally out of Boston Logan versus Cleveland Hopkins, it felt right for Massachusetts to be the penultimate step before launching into my Watson Year. 

There is a certain degree of irony in this for me. It was only three years ago that I left my first year of Wellesley College after what felt like months under duress. Though I had made great friends—many of which remain my closest to this day—I spent the year feeling entirely disconnected from the environment around me. This feeling was so profound that there were often visceral pangs of not belonging…the same pangs that I now feel when thinking about the weekend bike rides I took on various paths in the Greater Boston area or the communities here that I’ve come to deeply know and love. 

Each time I’ve felt this way, a quote from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road has come to mind: “What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy adventure beneath the skies.” 

Bittersweet, inevitable, and largely uncertain, this feeling comes with no promise that you will be vaulted into a place where it becomes equally difficult to say goodbye.  

I believe the feeling described by Kerouac is a near opposite of what the social work researcher and author Brené Brown dubs as ‘the lonely feeling.’ (On the Road, Brené Brown’s Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone… There’s clearly been a theme in my recent reading). While I imagine Kerouac’s feeling to be partly a result of the sadness associated with leaving a place where you feel sustained, Brown explains that ‘the lonely feeling’ is one of disconnection to those around you, to the place that you are in, or to yourself.

I’d never thought much about being disconnected to self until I struggled in the aftermath of a torn ACL—often feeling like the body that I was now in was not that one that I had always known. Illness and injury have the ability to make all that was formerly tacit suddenly taxiing, while also altering the range of possibilities that may have perviously informed an individual’s way of life. My experience was not unique, in fact the philosopher Havi Carel has written an entire book entitled Phenomenology of Illness which explores how an individual’s body, values, and world can change in serious illness or injury. Essentially, she explains how our own bodies can come to feel unhomelike. 

Phenomenological thinking has also been used to describe the experience of grief. The beavered individual’s world is made unhomelike by the absence of someone that came to underpin so much of it. Time marches forward while everyday experiences take shape in unfamiliar ways. 

The remedy phenomenologists offer to this disconnection is a remaking of the individual’s world, a refamiliarization so that the taxing may once again become tacit. One of the most powerful ways in which this can occur is through a shifting of personal narrative. Many individuals have written much more eloquently and persuasively about this than I will here (if interested, Arthur Frank’s The Wounded Storyteller is a good starting point), but the crux of most of their arguments is that in telling and revising our stories we can reestablish connection to them, and therefore to ourselves as well.

As I type all of this, I am acutely aware of how my temperament, biases, and culture have made this way of thinking the one I identify with most. I tend to favor things that are analytic and explanative; theories that would receive credit if applied in a blue book examination. This has been challenged to a certain extent this year as I doubled down on my interest in zen meditation, but I’d be remised if I didn’t mention that a large part of my attraction to phenomenology is because, in my estimation, it intellectualizes many Buddhist and contemplative insights. 

In the ‘Getting it Right?’ guide supplied by the Watson Foundation they call on us to ‘find new truths that work for [us]’ through revisiting the assumptions, stories, and voices that guide us and trusting ourselves to ‘build new and resonate narratives.’ Beyond being open to the possibility of a changed perspective, I imagine that part of finding these new truths is accomplished through finding new ways to connect to place, people, and self. 

With the year officially beginning later this evening, I am both excited and apprehensive. I expect that there will be moments intense disconnection as the language I’m used to crafting my stories in is challenged. But I also expect that the process of revisiting and revising my worldview will lead to a depth of emotion, insight, and connection that is impossible to imagine now. 

I’ve said all of my goodbyes; I’m on the precipice of being vaulted. Time to lean forward to this crazy adventure. 

Goodbyes

The past few weeks of my life have been filled with goodbyes. A necessary part of graduation, each farewell serves as a reminder that my time in the place that I’ve come to know as home now exists in the form of memories and monthly checks to a student loans servicer. Many of these goodbyes have come with a gift that has inevitably fallen into one of three categories: (1) mementos of a shared experience, (2) travel-inspired gifts meant to welcome my coming year, or (3) books about death and dying. An interesting amalgam of my past and future, each gift is a reminder that this chapter is closing while the next is beginning and yet, somewhat paradoxically, the two will be linked by what usually characterizes a final chapter: death. 

Perhaps a bit more explanation is needed to justify what may seem like an otherwise macabre connection. As a Thomas J. Watson Fellow, I’ll be spending one calendar year outside of the United States while pursuing my project, “Dispatches from Death: Exploring How We Die.” Broadly, my project is concerned with the concept of ‘dignified death’ and how it comes to be defined by individuals and medical communities. Topics such access to and provisioning of care at the end of life, meaning-making in serious illness, and the influence of culture/religion/ritual in shaping views about death and dignity all fall under the purview of my project (of which you can read more about here).

My year will officially begin on July 1 when I board a one-way flight to Greece. For now, I’m trying to strike the balance between making plans for the year and allowing it to unfold naturally. One of the gifts that I received (which falls under the category of ‘Travel-Inspired’) reminds that finding the delicate equilibrium between the two will likely be an ongoing challenge. A deck of 75 cards that promises to help “discover the unexpected, wherever your journey leads,” it is designed to make you more appreciative of your surroundings through literal reminders to stop and smell the roses. While shuffling through the cards, I thought that perhaps I should try to guide my days by them, using each as a directive to ensure that I appreciate all of my time. I sometimes fear that the lack of normalcy caused by a year of travel will shift my focus towards attaining a sense of familiarity rather than enjoying the present, so the cards promised the perfect antidote. My momentary resolve was quickly dashed by the realization that I only have enough cards to live every 4.867 days by each one and while intentionally getting lost for one day might be nice, wandering aimlessly for 4.867 days is likely overkill. 

I think my compulsion towards the cards runs deeper than a mere desire to appreciate each day, instead embodying the greater desire to create order amid disarray by attaching significance to certain moments. Attaching significance to my days, through even inconsequential means, allows me to achieve some sort of structure over the time that has passed.

I’ve come to notice the ways in which passing time is counted without clocks or calendars. Some hospice organizations mark the time since a patient passes in phone calls to surviving family members. Calls occur at pre-determined monthly intervals, often until about thirteen months after the patient’s death, though I’m not entirely convinced family members have stopped marking the time since their loved one’s death by the final call, if they ever stop at all. A hospice patient that I was particularly fond of marked her moments by the delivery of the daily newspaper, once telling me that she maintained her subscription mostly to “feel normal.” The daily delivery of the paper was one of the only artifacts from her previous years as a passionate advocate to carry forward into her recent years characterized by stagnation and decline. Each new headline marked another day that she was still unabashedly herself despite existing in a profoundly altered way.

With each goodbye, I’m counting my time towards a year that will be spent exploring how we say goodbye. I’ve struggled in deciding whether to keep a blog, fearing that doing so would be akin to assuming a bully pulpit. I ultimately decided to create one after a friend suggested that the site need not be solely populated with my thoughts and experiences, but could also be a means to share and engage with the experiences and opinions of others. That felt right because even in the months leading up to my year I’ve been overwhelmed by the generosity individuals have shown me in lending their advice, connections, and personal stories. I am humbled by the year ahead of me and the experiences that will inevitably challenge my views of humanity, dignity, health, society, and, crucially, how they all intersect. Thank you for sharing in it with me.