IF A TREE FALLS…

 

We go through life asking ourselves extremely existential—if not somewhat depressing—questions. Whether we realize it or not. We each answer them differently as well. For example, I submit the ever-popular inquiry: “If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

The question to this day is pondered the world over by modern day philosophers and scientists alike, and there is no “right” response.

If I were a physics buff, my reply might be “no.” I would say that sound is merely a perception—without a human (or animal) ear to perceive the noise of a fallen tree as sound, it is nothing more than vibration.

If I were a philosopher, I might say that it hardly matters because the fallen tree is simply an imperfect earthly representation of the concept of “treeness” floating through space and time.

I’ve always enjoyed hearing people’s responses to such questions because not only am I nosy (shocker! I am a journalist, after all), but it is fundamental to our wellbeing to hear viewpoints other than our own. However, there occasionally comes a time when one also has to put aside their unrelenting concern for the goings on in other people’s daily lives and focus on their individual wellbeing.

At least, that is what I’m noticing in my quest to find my place on the path unwinding (thank you, Elton John!).

Desperately in need of a salve on my wounded spirit, I returned to my Yoga practice in the last two weeks—for the first time in about a year. The recent wounds inflicted were not so deep; they were the type that comes from the ins and outs of daily living. Yet it hardly matters when one doesn’t take the time to check in with themselves and address those wounds. They just pile up until the essence of who they are becomes ridden with gaping sores oozing with infection.

For me, Yoga has been a reliable safe-guard against such emotional sickness. In fact, I can’t recall ever attending a practice session where my Yogi didn’t use the phrase “check in with yourself (and body).” That’s why it was particularly disheartening when I arrived one morning to the Yoga studio in Chelsea I’d been frequenting of late… and felt what I can only describe as the invalidation of my existence.

Dramatic, I know. Don’t worry—I’ve gotten over myself.

But wait, hmmm. A question of existence, eh? Just like my friend The Tree, though I doubt she spends time questioning the nature of her existence…because she just knows. At least, that’s what I started thinking about after the very first Yoga class I had at the aforementioned location when I struggled to maintain…(you guessed it!)…the “tree pose.”

My fantastic Yogi that evening told us all, “Don’t worry if you fall. I think we all know that saying, if a tree falls, it’s still a tree.

It was that thought that carried me through the class that didn’t start off so well; I was able to check in with myself and think about why I let silly things bother me.

So what if the receptionist seemed more preoccupied with the customer behind me and appeared to be rushing me along? So what if nobody opened the door for me when I arrived—even though they saw me struggling in the rain? Because I AM STILL ME.

No matter what life lessons—harsh or otherwise—come my way,

I am still me, and you are still you.

A Heightened State of Consciousness on the Uptown A

I’ve always found it fascinating that in a city of approximately 1.5 million people, very few individuals are aware of anyone other than themselves. Irritating, actually.

Yes, irritating is a much better way to describe how I felt one evening after work last week when I hopped on a crowded uptown-bound subway (pardon the redundancy) and had to say “excuse me” when a stranger stopped abruptly in the doorway—completely oblivious to the fact that there were other people behind him.

This was a rather mundane occurrence, yet I felt as if someone had taken a pair of scissors and cut at least 70 percent of my nerves to shreds. How hard is it to observe proper subway protocol? There are signs plastered all over each train, AND the conductors remind us to step all the way into the train every five minutes!

Flighty as it sounds, I’m grateful for that moment. Stay with me a moment, because at the risk of sounding too much like a New Age hipster, I realized something paramount to my life as a New Yorker: everybody in this city is just like me!

And who gets on a person’s nerves more than themselves?

It is often said that “we are our own worst critics,” or that what we dislike about others is merely a reflection about what we don’t like about ourselves, and blah, blah, blah. I suppose I shouldn’t take it too lightly. After all, I’m certainly guilty of being irritating on the subway at times… and in public spaces in general. It’s hard not to be on an island where space is limited and personalities are famously abrasive.

One instance that immediately comes to mind happened a few months ago on a rainy winter morning. I planted myself on a South Ferry – bound 1 train, and as much as I dislike riding local, I was just glad to no longer be exposed to the dreariness of outside.

Manhattan winds always seem to tear apart my umbrellas, so I finally put in the extra money to buy one that was larger and sturdy—even if they are a pain to carry around. There I was, sandwiched between two strangers (a novelty, I know!) and an almost unwieldy umbrella sticking out of the purse on my lap.

WHOOSH!

The man standing in front of my whirled around with a panicked look on his face. I in turn, became anxious as I waited to see what was wrong. Then I saw the embarrassing truth: the handle of my obnoxiously long umbrella was stabbing him square in the seat of his pants.

“Oh my goodness, I am so sorry!” I pulled my purse in closer to my body as quickly as I could and prepared myself to receive a punishing string of obscenities as payment for being so careless.

To my surprise, the expression on his face softened into a smile.

“It’s okay, don’t worry about it.”

I let out a deep sigh of relief. Which brings me back to the Uptown A.

The man I initially described was probably like me— hardworking and just leaving his job; utterly exhausted. While it’s certainly true that nobody is harder on ourselves than we are, I want to put a positive spin on it, because the reverse of my earlier statement is also true. The same way a person may get on my nerves because there is a very real possibility I may possess the same undesirable trait, seeing the good in others tells me more about my lovely qualities.

Our views into others are simply reflections of what is deep within ourselves.

That is how I will strive to view others the next time somebody cuts me off, pushes me without apology, or refuses to let me through in a packed subway station. After all, if a complete stranger could forgive me for giving him an unwelcome rectal exam, I can certainly exercise patience with everyone else.

There’s This Little Thing Called “Learning…”

Why is it so natural for me to think that I just OUGHT to have everything figured out?

Since the unexpected death of stepfather last month, I am determined to do everything I’ve always wanted to but put off due to my nerves, idealist dreams of perfection, or sheer laziness. My force-of-nature cousin recently shared a post on her Instagram page—a variation of the Michael Landon quote:

“Whatever you want to do, do it now. There are only so many tomorrows.”

Boy, do I know it.

That’s why at 6:30 on a Wednesday evening, I found myself sweaty and out of breath from sprinting from work —to the subway— to what was to be my first Spanish conversation class in three years. Since childhood I’ve dreamed of travelling around the world…and in that fantasy I always knew at least two other languages besides English.

Sure, I’d taken the recommended language courses in high school and college—Spanish, of course—totally enamored with the mind-expanding richness that comes with learning new forms of communication. However, I rarely tried to strengthen my skills outside of class by conversing with a native speaker.

No, no, no. I was far too embarrassed by my gringa accent (among other things) for that.

Kind of like buying a fabulous new outfit and never taking it out of your closet for fear of how others will perceive you in it. Silly, right? (Heh, but I’m guilty of that too…)

Connecting my thoughts in Spanish once more proved to be difficult, but not as hard as I had figured considering the time gap in my training. Yes, everything was A – OK. Until it wasn’t.

The course instructor handed out a worksheet for us to complete and discuss the answer in roughly ten minutes. I looked down in horror —

“I’m afraid I don’t know any of these words,” I mumbled when it was time for the review.

“There’s this thing called ‘learning,’ you know,” he said gently.

I laughed. My classmates laughed. He laughed too, which only made me laugh harder, until the lightness of the room induced a roaring guffaw in me that arose from deep within my spiritual core.

He was right. And it was such an obvious fact, at that! Actually, he hadn’t expected any of us to know the words on the sheet.

After that life lesson wrapped in an academic one, I pushed the envelope. Two days later, as uncoordinated as I am, I walked into a beginner’s hip hop class.

The me before these experiences last week would have described my performance that night as a disaster. Just as I was about to lose heart in the class, my effervescent teacher fell into a spell of sharing too much information—a trait that she proudly laughs off.

“My therapist told me, and I’ve been seeing a therapist for a quite a number of years, there are three skills every human being should possess…in essence,” she said.

“The ability to (1) love, (2) be productive, and (3) be okay with uncertainty.”

I always count it a blessing when I meet people who are free enough to be so candid about their lives with complete strangers. There is always a tiny gift hidden inside their truth. From that moment, I was able to deal with the inevitable uncertainty of the choreography from lack of dance training while learning to be present in the moment. I now reflect fondly on my first dance-class-turned-therapy-session.

I look forward to the day when my walk to the studio becomes a strut.

Vamos a bailar en la vida!

Birth, Death and the New Spring Cleaning

I’ve only posted three blog entries on the Huffington Post – including this one—and they all seem to be about one thing: human frailty. My birthday was at the end of last month, so it’s only normal that I take a good long look at my mortality, right?

To think about the fact that one day I will no longer be here, what kind of legacy I want to leave, and oh, I’m such a failure for not being where I want to be career wise.

I’m twenty-four.

Riiiiiiiiiiiiing! Riiiiiiiing!

Reluctant to open my eyes on the first morning of April, I braced myself. Something had to be wrong… it would explain my restlessness the night before. I sleepily reached across my bed to answer my cellphone and received the news that my stepfather was dead.

What on earth is happening, anyway? It’s as if suddenly death is all around us—around me. It was always there, I suppose, but I’m only just now receiving the memo. The one’s that I love seem to be dropping like flies. If it’s not organ failure, it’s cancer, if it’s not cancer, it’s something else. Each time, it doesn’t make any sense.

I now go about my days in a near constant state of panic, fearful that fate will soon take my mother away from me. Or worse, that I will be taken away from her. She’s been the pillar of so many; and very few people are able to be there for her.

(Isn’t that the way it goes? Typical. Human nature. Hmph.)

The idea of leaving her on this earth to face darkness is incredibly heartbreaking, yet something I have absolutely no way of preparing for.

My stepfather didn’t.

That’s the thing about death. When it’s over, you haven’t a clue! It’s the people who love you that are left behind to suffer, and such thoughts are largely shaping my current grief process.

There are moments when I find myself so angry I can’t see straight—how dare he leave us! How dare he put this burden on my mother while he somewhere resting comfortably? I want my anger to wake him up on the other side and send him back to live. Other times I’m in complete shock—he’s really not coming back.

Most days, however, I find a single thought replaying itself in my mind: Chris hadn’t a single iota that March 31 would be his last full day on earth. If he had, what would he have done differently?

Perhaps nothing. He went about his final day as usual and spoke to my mom approximately one hour before having a massive heart attack not even his doctors could have predicted.

Meanwhile, life doesn’t simply come to a halt out of convenience. When all was said and done I had to return to the mundane struggles of the average millennial—and what am I dealing with? A job that doesn’t pay enough, crippling anxiety and horrendously low self-esteem that manages to sneak in through the back door of my mind every so often.

For the sake of my own happiness in the finite time I have on this planet, I need to love and let go. Love life and others; let go of any and everything that does not serve me.

When it comes right down to it, do I really want to spend precious time on this earth thinking about the people who aren’t there for me? The random people in life who speak unnecessarily harshly because THEY just don’t get it?

The real question becomes “how can I live today?”…Swiftly followed by “what will make me happy right now and how can I do it?” Like many, I am guilty of putting off things that I could accomplish right now out of fear that it won’t be perfect.

Enough. I’m cleaning house and taking out the trash.

Life is too short, and I just don’t have the time.

 

In Memory of Christopher L. Horton

80 Hours And A Medical Advocate

“If you want something badly enough you will get it. If you don’t, you won’t.”

It was eight o’clock on a Friday evening during the summer of 2014 and Anna Marie Nass had just finished the day after working over 60 hours this week — 80 when accounting for travel time. She has seen somewhere between 30 and 50 patients in the past 12 hours… and that was a “good” day, a “slow” day.

It is that mantra she holds dear to her heart on weeks like this one — the same mantra that got her through ten years of schooling.

What may seem like a lot of work is actually more, because for this Advanced Practicing Nurse, the job doesn’t simply end with the patient. However many people her line of work sends her way, Anna Marie always sees what the average person doesn’t in an ill person: their entire family dynamic.

Just a few hours earlier she felt obligated to educate the parents of three preteen boys on the importance of using antibiotics. Two of the three boys had come to be examined at her place of employment — Riverside Pediatrics in Secaucus — both complaining of throat pains.

A series of tests concluded the two had been suffering from strep throat, but neither of them were thrilled with the idea of taking medicine and their parents were seemingly nonchalant about that. Whether the boys want to take the medicine not, untreated infections can have lasting effects. Anna Marie cautioned them of the potential heart damage that can occur when “infection is just left sitting in someone’s throat.”

“We just hope our middle child doesn’t catch it,” both parents were in agreement.

Anna Marie’s defenses went up.
“You have another son? How is he doing, is he showing similar symptoms?”

“No, but he has lung and thyroid cancer.”

That only enhances the urgency for their other two sons to be on antibiotics. Their infections need to be completely eradicated because bringing that home with them could potentially kill their immuno-compromised brother.

Anna Marie had no scruples about stating that firmly. While coercion has no place in a medical institution, her entire reason for entering the medical profession was to fight for those who can’t fight for themselves. She wouldn’t change a thing about this exchange in her medical room.

The next day, she woke up to do it all over again.

Well respected at Riverside Pediatrics, she has been employed there for less than a year, though she is no novice as a nurse and certainly not as a medical advocate. Anna Marie was offered the job this past November after finally crossing the finish line of ten years of schooling, clinical hours and board certifying exams.

Thank goodness for the support of her family, but had she not had it, that wouldn’t have stopped her.

“Nothing was stopping me,” she said. “Not the birth of my kids, my marriage, nothing.”

As a pediatric nurse practitioner, her days are more fulfilling as she has more freedom to use her medical expertise, something that is not permitted for an RN. Anna Marie is able to give an official diagnosis for ailing children and prescribe medicine.

Driven though she was, achieving this long-term goal was not without sacrifice.

Unlike many who decide to change careers, Anna Marie was unable to work full time and go to school part time — or vice versa. She charged on ahead making the transition from paralegal to nurse, working full time and attending school full time.

Her family relies on her as the sole income provider. Unemployed to a physical disability, Anna Marie’s husband John assumed full parenting responsibilities in their home. For these ten years she barely saw her children. A hug and a kiss n in the morning before school, then she would not see them until the next day.

There is no resentment, only love and admiration.

Her oldest son Chuck, 14 at the time, understands the importance of what his mom does and feels both he and his younger brother — Austin, 10 — appreciate education that much more.

“We both will go to college; we know how necessary it is to be independent,” Chuck says.

All of Austin’s life (Anna Marie went to school directly after he was born), he has witnessed his mother working and attending school nonstop, save for a three week break at Christmas. And, notes Anna Marie, nine out of ten final exams she took over that time period were on Christmas Eve. After January 15, the hectic schedule resumed.

The best piece of advice she ever received in the midst of it all was from one Dr. Joel . “Follow your heart,” he said. “Don’t stop until you get what you want.”

Her family knew they were only benefiting from their mom/wife’s driven personality—a job with an established medical group led to a higher income. For Anna Marie, it was about that and so much more.

While in school for her last set of board exams, Anna Marie worked at as a hospice nurse for the New Jersey Visiting Nurses Association (VNA) and was quick to call her patients’ doctors should anything be amiss.

“She told it like it was,” says Sara Organic, a medical social worker for VNA. Organic regards Anna Marie as a “fireball” who genuinely advocates for her patients.

She knows her patients better than her own family, and Anna Marie is not ashamed to admit that.

“Every day, I learn something from each and every patients and/or family member that I encounter,” she says. “That enables me to become more well-rounded and educated in respect to my nursing career; I hold that near to my heart in turn and use it to help someone else.”

My Valorous Grandmother, the ‘C’ Word, and Me

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Cancer.

It truly is the ugliest, most contemptible word in the English language.

If you don’t agree with me, quickly (within the next 60 seconds) try to think of ten other words synonymous with body-and-mind-devouring-pain. I’ll wait.

In the meantime I can address another ‘C’ word, a good word seldom used when contemplating someone with a life threatening illness: caretaker. Yet there we are. Right by the invalid’s side without complaint, because who are we to gripe about life in the face of someone who may be dying?

It was five in the morning the day when I discovered the cold truth about cancer. My mom, a primary caretaker, had already left for work and I was alone in the apartment with her.

This was unlike other times—whenever I had to be with her (which was all the time, really), there had always been at least one other person there. My uncle was with me the day she needed assistance using the bathroom; feeling a strong sense of urgency coming from the patient we lifted the night shirt over her head.

“Hurry up,” he implored.

I did my best, but the mass of her body (albeit emaciated due to a drastically diminished appetite) was far too much for me to support. After wrestling for several minutes, we were able to get her on the commode at her bedside and my uncle immediately left her for privacy.

For some reason he thought I would be able to get the ailing woman back into bed by myself—despite the fact that the two of us had a hard time getting her out in the first place. Struggling to pull an extra absorbent diaper over her legs, I panicked for fear of being rushed again.

Trying not to lose my composure—but failing—I called my uncle back to the room. I know he (out of respect) did not want to be there to see this woman naked if possible.

He asked why I hadn’t called him sooner. I didn’t know that I could, quite honestly.

Within minutes, she was back in bed. All that was left was to wait for the visiting nurse to arrive. Too tired to even guess what the brown substance was on the bottom of her feet, I reached for the bottle of spray on body wash most commonly used on infants.

Maybe that is exactly how I have to treat her. It would certainly make things easier. The substance was gone, but the scent lingered. That must be the disease. I didn’t say anything.

“What’s that smell?” My mom had returned from work, her nose sensitive as ever.

I looked down. There was poop on the floor.

“JEANINE!”

The sound of my name snapped me out of my flashback. I looked at my iphone; five-fifteen. Though I was lying in bed right next to her, she screamed my name as if I were in the living room. The sadness induced by my reverie had to take a back seat.

I popped up and went to her side. Still, the screaming did not stop.

“I’m right here, don’t worry. What do you need?”

“I need change.”

Checking her clothes to make sure she didn’t need to be changed, she insisted that I give her coins. I decided to play along. What else can you do with someone whose mind is slowly being destroyed by something so awful?

Not herself—as she hadn’t been for a few weeks—she resisted every attempt I made to give her anti-agitation medicine. But she had always been there for me, I wanted to be there for her then. She has been gone a little over two years now.

Even after it’s over, that monstrosity, the ‘C’ word still manages to find you.

If I have one more dream about being diagnosed with cancer, I just might go out of my mind.

At least I know why these dreams keep coming to me at night…it is not so hard to figure out after watching someone you love take their final breaths after an arduous year of battling the cell-consuming illness.

For two years, that someone had been my grandmother, or “Memom,” as I affectionately called her. As the disease ran its course, her final stages of life left her a shadow of the high quality person she truly was. Though her brain cells had been ravaged by the sickness, she never ceased to make it clear how much she loved me.

“I believe you, Jeanine,” She would say after a bout of narcotic-induced uncooperativeness. She would put an arm around me or hold my hand.

That was just the type of woman she was.

 

Our Education Crisis: The Truth about “Blackness” in America

Published and modified on Peacevoice.info 

“Why are you reading so much?” “Why are you speaking so properly?”

On July 27, President Obama reiterated these questions—inquiries he often hears from youth in predominately black neighborhoods where some children are afraid to learn. Yes, afraid.  This fear Obama disclosed is brought on by the taunting many well-educated black individuals receive because their peers believe that being well read and articulate constitutes “acting white.”

Through covertly racist corporate media and hegemonic Caucasian opinion, dangerous implications are made that suggest minorities are both incapable and unwilling to learn. These implications only create innumerable obstacles and widen the achievement gap between whites and people of color in America.  In a perfect society in a perfect world, movies such as Dear White People would not be a primary way of generating understanding about racial divides. Knowledge is power, and our own ignorance of racial characteristics and the ludicrous expectations we make based on them must stop. That is the only way to create a “safe” enough society where everyone has equal access and ability to this nation’s greatest freedom: education.

What does “acting white” look like?  In mainstream America, this is going to a school and actually paying attention—being able to provide a well thought out answer when question by the teacher in class. This is seen as doing the homework assigned to you and holding an intelligent conversation with your peers based on the material outside of class. It is returning home to a family who cares enough to make sure you are on top of your homework and pressure you to get straight A’s.

What does “acting black” look ? On the other end of the spectrum, there is blackness: which is cutting classes whenever possible, looking like a fool when called upon by the teacher and consequently serving—and cutting detention—blowing off all homework assignments, failing and repeating your current grade over.

These low expectations lead not only to the fear of succeeding because it will be going against the “status quo,” but to the misallocation of resources in black communities. For a person of color, “acting white” may forever make you an outcast among your peers (not fitting in with either black or whites), but “acting black” leads to poor education, a minimum wage job, and the contempt of society’s dominant group.

The nature of our educational system and its racial divider has haunted this nation since before the landmark cases of Plessy v. Ferguson, where segregation cemented with the declaration that “separate was equal” and have continued long after Brown v. Board of Education, when it was unanimously decided that the results of Plessy v. Ferguson were baseless.

Well respected author and journalist Jonathan Kozol devoted himself to uncovering such awful truths about our country’s educational system. Kozol’s 2005 book, Shame of the Nation, provides an in-depth examination of the “restoration of apartheid schooling in America” through many heart breaking stories across the United States. His latest book, Fire in the Ashes, published in 2012, is no different. Kozol once again highlights the disadvantages black youth have compared to their white counterparts. “Why is nothing done about this?” is something I always ask when reading his works of nonfiction. It is always answered with the cruel reality: nothing is done because the expectations of achievement for these students is low, therefore they are seen as “inconsequential.”

Is it any wonder now why little “Billy” feels that as a young black boy, he is neither capable of nor supposed to sound intelligent? It is not entirely his fault. He is simply conforming to what American society expects. His parents experienced this, as well. Maybe he has no one to tell him to dream bigger – or maybe no one will—to look beyond what this society is handing out and reach for what his true intelligence and abilities may allow him to achieve. This includes reaching his full potential with access to quality education, encouragement to learn and a belief in the efficacy of doing so.

It is a vicious set of events: while the taunting of this oppression-induced mentality produces may deter many a well-educated black youth from reaching back and helping their fellow “minorities.” (Man, I hate using that word sometimes!) This is not acceptable, and it never will be.

So, how do we interrupt this cycle as well as the pervasive and damaging racial divide in our education system?

As we attempt to resolve this racial schism perpetuated by our own lack of understanding, it is easy to ask the questions, “What does it mean to ‘act black’?” or “What does it mean to ‘act white’?”

However, I encourage us all to cast aside any race-specific ideals that may arise in our answers. Let us discard the notion that “acting black” means one must be more interested in hip hop culture than literature. Let us renounce the misconception that “acting white” means growing up in middle class suburbia and being able to speak in an eloquent manner. By doing so, we are refusing to pander to the discriminatory foundations on which this society has been founded—the society that hated dark skin and ethnic features so much that a person with only “one drop” of African blood was forever labeled as a second-class citizen – or three-fifths of a person – in her own country.

Realizing that “race” really doesn’t exist would help as well. We are all human beings; the ideals of “race” in this country is little more than a socio-political structure to delineate between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ of society. Modern scholars such as Dr. Cornel West will agree that every society needs two groups of people to function—those that have the education and resources to attain more opportunity and those who don’t. The United States’ capitalistic system thrives on that. However, those that dislike certain human being based on features attained through the genetics of their immediate ancestry used the illusions of race to establish these two groups in America. It was simply more convenient. Coming to grips with that truth would certainly relieve our minds of the pressures of an outdated and quite frankly, tyrannical system.

We also must bear in mind that behaviors do not belong to any one race. Certain practices and idiosyncrasies may be more dominant in one particular group of people over all others, but to claim actions to be ours, and ours alone? It’s absurd to see it written down. Like Martin Luther King, jr.—I too, have a dream. My dream is that we as Americans (and as people) will one day move into a post-racial era where content of character is not predicated by “race.” This will in turn propel people of color to not be afraid to strive higher in their educational settings, and highly educated “minorities” will be the norm.

My dream is to see a world in which black youth do not purposely dumb themselves down in an effort to keep pace with what is expected of them. My dream is that white youth do not ostracize an intelligent youth simply because they do not look like them and therefore can’t be as smart as they are. One way this can be achieved is by encouraging young children—whether black, white, Latino, etc—not to self-segregate. Beverly Tatum’s book Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? examines the lack of understanding between ethnic groups based on the need to be with one’s “own kind.” I encourage us all to be inclusive with who we talk to, and we will realize that our similarities outweigh our differences. Who is to say I can’t be well versed in history and literature because of the color of my skin?

I’m really no different than my white classmates who live on the other side of town.

 

Storytelling is a way to capture the fleeting moments on this ever-changing creature we call Earth.