Navigating the Valley

Since arriving in the UK, I’ve spent time in London, Bath, and Dorset County.  

My time in the United Kingdom can be best described as a whirlwind. Before I’d even stepped off of my flight at London Heathrow three weeks ago, I knew a shifting of gears would be necessary. Rather than arriving and immediately navigating to an unknown place to be greet by strangers, I headed directly to a house rented by my grandparents who would be visiting for about a week. No scrounging for dinner or awkward small talk upon this arrival—just the pile of clothes from home and known faces. 

Transitioning to the UK also marked a significant change for my project. Unlike Greece which is in the preliminary stages of palliative care development, the UK is the birthplace of many of the ideas integral to palliative care as commonly understood. If my project in Greece was a matter of trying to locate disparate puzzle pieces to put together a cohesive image, my project in the UK is a matter of looking at a mostly completed puzzle and trying to understand how it was pieced together. 

Ostensibly, this makes my work here ‘easier.’ In reality, I’ve struggled to navigate as I’ve felt pulled in many directions.

To put it into perspective just how many ways I could have taken my project in the UK, here is a list of all that I have done while here: 

  • Attended…
    • A Death Café 
    • The garden of a hospice for its open afternoon 
    • A poetry event put on by a public health commission 
    • Two conferences
  • Spoken with…
    • A poet who works with individuals with dementia and their caregivers 
    • Academics who work at the intersection of death and either art, humanities, philosophy, or education 
    • More than a handful of clinicians—doctors, social workers, etc. 
    • The fundraising and marketing team of a hospice 
    • Many more who I am forgetting to include 
  • Participated in…
    • A one-day conference on broadening the LGBT Health Care agenda 
    • A four-day conference on the social context of death, dying, and disposal 
    • A poetry workshop 
    • The Summer Fete of a hospice organization—both as a volunteer and attendee 
  • Plan to (in the few days before I leave)…
    • Interview individuals about the foundations of the Death Café movement 
    • Spend an afternoon with an author who is writing a book about death festivals 
    • Be given a tour and a chance to interview folks at the oldest hospice in the UK 
    • Enjoy the last bits of cooler weather that I’ll feel until I return to Europe in March 
  • Been struck by…
    • A cold! My first this year which kept me in bed for two full days
    • The first ‘valley’ of this experience 

Things have been… crazy. Though the list above may make it hard to believe, I’ve regretfully had to turn down a number of opportunities. I’ve struggled to write this due to the sheer amount of learning that has taken place in such a short amount of time. I could write an entire blog about all of my experiences over the past three weeks, but instead I am going to take this one in a different, more personal direction: the first ‘valley.’ 

Before that, here’s a touristy photo I took outside of Windsor Castle while with my grandparents

In the time leading up to the Watson, when people would ask me how I felt about the impending journey, I would overconfidently assure that it would be a series of ‘peaks and valleys.’ If I could keep sight of that, I would be okay. 

I’d been keeping sight of it, but now I’ve also lived it. 

Greece was an extended peak. The country is gorgeous, organizations were very willing to accommodate my work, I quickly made friends. It was the perfect place to start this trip—just different enough to force me to stretch, yet similar enough that I could relish in familiarity when needed. My time there bolstered my confidence in a big way. 

Then came London. 

You wouldn’t expect London—with American creatures comforts and its resemblance to Boston—to be the place where I first floundered. Oh, but floundered I did. 

I really can’t explain how it all unraveled. Maybe it was seeing my family for the first since I started the trip, maybe I was a bit too ambitious scheduling six straight days of conferences immediately after five straight days of ‘vacation’ immediately after making my first country change, maybe I should have been more deliberate in choosing a direction to take my project beforehand rather than figuring it out upon arrival. It was likely a mix of all of those things, but all I really know is that I spent a few days walking around with two main thoughts: (1) how can I sustain this for nine more months?; (2) what would happen if, on July 1, 2020, I returned to the Boston Logan International Airport, laid on the ground, and never got up? 

My two thoughts were irrational (though imagining the second often made me laugh), and I recognized in the moment that they were an indication that I was in one of the inevitable lows that this year would bring. There are so many ‘maybes’ that may have contributed, though instead here I am going to focus on what got me out of the low.  

I had previously scheduled myself to spend the week down in Dorset county, a coastal region of country renowned for its natural beauty. In Dorset, I would learn from a poet who hosts workshops for individuals with dementia and their caregivers, and then spend two days with individuals at the Weldmar Hospicecare Trust—one interviewing with people from their marketing, fundraising, and operations teams, the other volunteering at their annual Summer Fete. 

Since poetry, marketing, and fundraising are not worlds that I typically spend much time in, I was excited to see how they may enrich my project. Admittedly, I was also anxious to leave London. The city, while endlessly fascinating and always buzzing, enervated me.

Dorset, however, was the perfect antidote. Looking down different project-related avenues awoke a sense of curiosity whilst my understanding of my project and its boundaries expanded. I was also inspired by the sense of purpose and community palpable in Dorset County surrounding Weldmar. 

As I’ve come to learn, many hospices in the UK are funded dually by state and charitable contributions. Both are important sources of funding, though money from the charitable contributions is more versatile, allowing the hospice to provide services such as art therapy or day centers with social activities. The more funding that is brought in through charitable contributions, the more ‘value-added’ type activities the hospice can provide. Hospices also serve a particular area, only admitting patients who live in that region or have a GP that practices within in it. This puts the hospices in an interesting position: in order to provide all of the ‘value-added’ services (which can and do make a big difference), they need to be well-supported by the community; in order for the community to support the hospice, they must know about it, believe it its mission, and not just see it as a ‘death house;’ in order for community members to believe in the hospice, the hospice must be highly visible and rely on word of mouth praise regarding its service.

If that seems confusing, it’s because it is. I’ve interviewed many people that work in the field and still feel like my understanding is shaky. Put simply (and over generally) it means that hospices often need to put on events that make them visible to the public and raise money. One such event is Weldmar’s annual Summer Fete, where I was set to volunteer. Held at Weldmar’s hospice house, this traditional English Summer Fete comes complete with carnival-like games, music, and a grassy yard full of stalls selling various items. The atmosphere was completely jovial, my time there even more so. I spent the day chasing after balls from the Coconut Shy game where I was stationed with a new thought populating my consciousness, “This is the exact sort of atmosphere you’d want surrounding a hospice, and exactly where I needed to be.”

It’s difficult for me to put into words what exactly about my time in Dorset and with Weldmar changed my perspective. Certainly it was important for me to give time to time to get through the low. The closest I can come to explaining it is through acknowledging how special it is to be a part of something that is not only believed in by the community, but also believes in the community.

Upon returning to London from Dorset, I felt reinvigorated. I am grateful for this short amount of time in the UK; for all it has afforded me, personally and intellectually. It’s because of experiences like mine here that I am learning to look in the unexpected places. To trust the voice inside me that nudges, “open yourself and this will open to you.” 

The sky literally did open to me during one of the walks I took along the coast in Dorset county. It was a profound moment for me.

On Thursday I fly to India where I will be based through late November. Amazingly, I am about a quarter of the way through this year.  

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.