First day of official unemployment for the first time since I was 15.
Exciting yet discomforting, I am both happy to have free time to do the things I want, yet unsure about my immediate future plans.
I’ve seen a lot of changes in myself taking place since I’ve actively begun working on daily meditations for my social/emotional well-being. My dad’s illness has almost demanded it. I’m constantly pursuing the “now-ness” of everything so I can delight in the present moment.
I used to think that joy/happiness/satisfaction was somewhere “out there.” That my inner state was contingent on my exterior surroundings. Once I accomplish this, or once I obtain that I’ll be happy, I thought. The opposite, however, has slowly transformed into my truth. I am both happier and sadder than I’ve ever been in my entire life, but changing my mindset has allowed me to find joy in all my sorrow. The world to me is now so different. Tasks that used to feel trivial, and moments once viewed insignificant have all become something special. The simple act of looking at flowers has turned into marveling at the pink hydrangea plants on Allegheny’s campus, blossoms sprinkled with water droplets. Running outside to my car at night has become pausing in my steps to soak in the sky at sunset. Getting a tan at the beach has transformed into feeling the sun kiss my skin as I dig and wiggle my toes deeper into the sand. My dad’s illness has taught me that the “now-ness” of everything is a miracle. And my joy and my happiness manifested once I stopped chasing it.
“Joy is a choice that comes from accepting and living fully each moment of our lives, knowing that each day and each event is important . . . Receive it [the present] now, then pass it on with a smile and a kind word to all who come along your path.” Melody Beattie
I’ve been feeling lost in a state of transition lately, so, for all my fellow brothers and sisters feeling some level of discomfort in your unknowns, I thought I’d put this out into the universe for you. For us.
Cheers to feeling liberated in the depths of our unknowns.
“Sometimes we don’t know what we want, what’s next, or what we think our lives will look like down the road. That’s okay. If the answer is I don’t know, then say it. Say it clearly. And be at peace with not knowing.
Sometimes the reason we don’t know is that what’s coming is going to be very different from anything we’ve experienced before. Even if we knew, we couldn’t relate to it because it’s that new and that different. It’s a surprise.
Sometimes the reason we don’t know is that it would be too difficult, too confusing for us right now. It would take us out of the present moment, cause us to worry and fuss about how we could control it or what we have to do to make it happen. Knowing would make us afraid. Put us on overload. Take us away from now.
Sometimes our souls know, but it’s just not time for our conscious minds to know yet. Sometimes knowing would take us out of the very experience we need to go through to discover the answer we’re looking for. And sometimes the process of learning to trust, the process of going through an experience and coming to trust that we will ultimately discover our own truth, is more important than knowing.”
The process of moving from what we don’t know to what we are to learn is a process that
can be trusted. It’s how we grow and change.
It’s okay to not know. It’s okay to let ourselves move into knowing. The lesson is trusting
that we’ll know when it’s time.
Found in Melody Beattie’s book titled, Journey to the Heart. “It’s Okay to Not Know” (171-172)
On Saturday evening, I received a text from a friend asking if I wanted to travel to Sharpsville, PA with him, his mom, and a girlfriend to watch a mutual friend of ours perform in the play, Noises Off, at the Pierce Opera House the following afternoon. I told him that I was planning on taking a vow of silence for Project ALS and their “Don’t Talk A-Thon” campaign, and wasn’t sure if my silence would put a damper on their plans. With the words, “We support each other no matter what the other is doing,” I hopped on board. And boy, what a day it was.
To start, I’d be completely lying if I said that my day of silence was anything but challenging. That, and mentally exhausting. At first, I felt very peaceful knowing that I was supporting my dad and those that can no longer use their voice due to motor neuron deterioration. Being a rather expressive person, and having experience traveling to various countries where English wasn’t a primary option, I was anxious to see how I’d manage myself in public. At first, I found it easy to communicate with my friends through extreme gestures and facial expressions in the car. I brought along a pen and paper to use when I wanted to scribble something down, and although I felt a little self-conscious, I was thankful to be around supportive friends who encouraged my efforts.
And then we got to the Opera House, a place where people didn’t know me, my dad, or my story. Slight panic set in as I tried to purchase my ticket at the box office, and the gentleman standing before me asked, “Adult or Student?” I looked at my friends. HELP ME my eyes pleaded. They didn’t catch my drift, and understandably so. They’re used to hearing me speak.
“Adult,” I whispered, disappointed I had to use my voice for the first time. “Keep quiet,” said my mom’s friend. “I’ll talk for you.” Easy enough, I thought. I was relieved to know that I wouldn’t have to break my vow again.
It didn’t turn out to be that easy. It’s amazing how many times a day we talk to random people without even noticing. Standing in line for the bathroom during intermission, a man approached me to ask how I was enjoying the performance. I was thankful that he phrased his question in a way that I could just smile, nod, and silently laugh along with his comments. I later found out that he was the director.
After the bathroom line incident, I tried to avoid eye contact with people for the rest of the play. When I went to purchase a bottle of water at the makeshift concession stand, I simply pointed to what I wanted, nodded, smiled, and gave my money to the employee. When the performance ended, and our friend came out to say hello, I distanced myself slightly, letting everyone else give him praise for a job well done. Smiling along, I started to feel a swell of anxiousness growing inside me.
On the way home, we decided to stop at an Italian restaurant right down the street from the Opera House and grab dinner. While we were waiting to be seated, a man approached us. He said he recognized us from the play, and wanted to introduce himself. Apparently he had some connection to the production. As he made his way around the table, I prayed he wouldn’t notice me. But he did.
“Hi, what’s your name?” he said as he extended his hand towards me.
I reached forward to meet his hand. Open mouth, not sure what to do, I remained silent.
“GABBY. Her name’s Gabby,” my friend almost shouted. I was grateful that our host came and got us after I let his hand go.
When we got to our table, I grabbed my pad and pen to write down my order. Last minute, of course, I changed my mind, and re-wrote the new order on another page for my friend to use. When our waiter came, he looked at me first to speak.
So my friend started talking. “She’ll have the gluten free pasta with pink sauce, and . . .”
NO, I expressed, waving my hands wildly. She was reading from the wrong page. I flipped the page for her, and she continued, apologizing. After everyone finished ordering, I couldn’t help but wonder what our waiter thought of me. Being a retired waitress myself, I know what it’s like to just go with the flow no matter what happens at the table. But for some reason, this whole scene made me very self-conscious.
And then I realized what I felt – loss of autonomy. I felt the natural frustration that comes with the inability to do things for yourself. I was relying on other people to help me, talk for me, order for me, to say what I was thinking. During dinner, I felt myself growing more and more impatient. I just wanted to speak. To not have my friends guess what I was trying to say. I was sad that I couldn’t interject with my usual side comments during funny conversations, and writing took so long that I eventually gave up. I was surrounded by amazing and supportive friends who included me in all their conversation, but I still felt like I was losing my identity. Normal, lengthy statements were reduced to simple head nods, or drawn out gestures. To make things more complicated, the cast from the play we had just watched made reservations at our same restaurant, and many performers approached our table, even recognizing us as cast members from Beauty and the Beast. I sat there, smiling and nodding, trying not to draw attention to myself, and avoiding eye contact.
I felt terrible. I couldn’t interact with people in my usual, friendly way. I was quiet, and shy. I started to think how exhausting this must be for my dad. To be part of the conversation, but not really part of the conversing. To be in, but also be out.
My friends must’ve sensed my frustration because they told me how brave I was being.
I never occurred to me before that I was being brave. I thought I was just trying to support my dad. But maybe they were right. Maybe it was brave to go out in public knowing that I could talk, just making the decision not to.
During the car ride home, I thought about my dad and how he does what I did one day, everyday. He doesn’t have the choice between speaking and not speaking. It’s my dad who’s the brave one, not me. I did 16 hours, he does everyday. I was challenged one day, he is challenged everyday.
When I got home, I wrote down a note and took it into my parent’s bedroom for my dad to read.
“Wow. This is challenging,” it read.
He smiled, and wrote back, “I’ll say.” We laughed.
AmeriCorps wasn’t so much a post-graduate option for me as it was a calling. My entire life has always, in one way or another, been devoted to service. From my time spent as a founding member of the Saegertown Pantherian Key Club in Northwestern Pennsylvania, to college, where I participated in service-learning trips abroad, I have always felt an intrinsic pull towards helping others.
After graduating from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in the spring of 2015, I decided to sign up for AmeriCorps. Shortly after applying, I was offered a position with the Literacy Coalition of Palm Beach County; a nonprofit devoted to helping community members in South Florida improve their lives through the promotion and achievement of literacy. Being a recent English graduate, I decided to accept this offer. During my 2015-2016 contract, I served as a Graduation Coach for the School District of Palm Beach County. My role was outlined as this: help “at-risk” junior and senior high school students overcome any barriers that might hinder them from success towards high school graduation.” Little did I know it at the time, but I was in for quite a different experience.
Looking back on it now, I don’t think any other period of my life has been integral as my year with Literacy AmeriCorps. Despite being a native of northwestern Pennsylvania, I wasn’t a stranger to people of different cultures and backgrounds. A born explorer, I spent six months abroad in Sweden my sophomore year of college. During winter break my junior year, I participated in a service learning trip to Brazil where I helped teach English to impoverished community members. But besides my handful of worldly experiences, nothing could have possibly prepared me for the year that I lived and served in South Florida. Serving as a Graduation Coach at Forest Hill High School was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. On paper, I was serving “at-risk” youth that were labeled because of their missing graduation requirements, low GPA’s, consistent suspensions, and alarming lack of attendance. Most of my students came from lower socio-economic households, and were a mix of Haitian, African American, Hispanic and Caribbean backgrounds. My role was to track their grades, their progress, and their commitment; I was an “academic coach” of sorts. What I found, however, is that while I was serving as their coach, they were serving as my teacher.
Through many heartbreaking conversations with students, I soon learned that the term “at-risk” went far beyond what I could calculate on a progress report. As time progressed, and a certain level of trust was established, my students slowly started opening up to me. And I listened. I listened and absorbed their words as they told me stories of childhood abuse, death, friends who had been shot and killed by gang members. Halfway through the year, one of my own students got shot in the leg in downtown West Palm. After he was released from the hospital, I made a point to wheel him out to his grandma’s van every day after school. Maybe it made me feel better to know that he was safe in my care, if only for a couple minutes.
From time to time during the school year, my kids would tell me a story so heart-wrenching that after they left my office, I would sit there and cry. It was so unfair. I loved them all so much, and I hated the pain and suffering they had experienced. But my students were strong, and they reminded me again and again of their fight and their resilience. They taught me what it takes to have hope amongst terror, to love amongst hate, to keep faith amongst fear. Above all else, my students showed me what it takes to have a “willingness to sometimes be in hopeless places and be a witness.”* To pay attention to suffering, to poverty, to exclusion, to injustice.
What I didn’t realize during my year with Literacy AmeriCorps was that I was being molded and shaped into the person I am today – someone who is now committed to staying awake. Someone who can no longer turn a blind eye to injustice. Someone who has been changed by service.
*”When we were in Eastern Europe and dealing with oppression, we wanted all kinds of things, but mostly what we needed was hope, an orientation of the spirit, a willingness to sometimes be in hopeless places and be a witness.” *Vaclav Havel, Czech leader
As I sit here in my office at Forest Hill H.S. the day after graduation, I can’t help but take time to digest and reflect upon the momentous occasion that was yesterday. As a Graduation Coach serving with Literacy AmeriCorps PBC, graduation is not so much what we’ve been waiting for, but rather, what we’ve been working for.
On Thursday, May 26th at 12:00 p.m., I was able to witness my cohort of AmeriCorps students walk across the graduation stage and shake hands with Forest Hill’s Principal and Assistant Principal, the Superintendent of Palm Beach County and various district personnel. Dressed in my cap and gown that signified myself as an IUP alumna, I sat in the final chair of row two inside the South Florida Fairground’s Expo Center and watched.
And then something beautiful happened.
Before I dispel the beauty of the events that occurred yesterday afternoon, let me just preface by saying that being a Graduation Coach has been hard. So freakin hard. I entered this school as a “nobody.” Being only 4-5 years older than most of my learners, I was easily mistaken for a student by Forest Hill faculty members throughout my first few months of service. I took on identities such as “Miss,” “the lady that took over Ms. Parham’s* old office,” “Ms. Cornell’s* look a-like,” and my personal favorite, “the white lady.” As a third party member serving within the School District of PBC, it took me a while to find my identity as a Falcon. But eventually, my role as Miss Bradshaw inside the school became more comfortable, and I not only worked with my selected group of students, but any student that walked into my office. I felt like it was my duty to serve not just my community of learners, but the school as a whole. Eventually, it felt like everyone at “The Hill” knew my name, and as students started to feel safe inside the four walls of my office, I knew I was finally doing the job I was meant to do.
So yesterday, after nine months of worry, tears, heartache, laughter, failures and success, I was given a gift. Because of my position at the end of row two, I was able to watch as every single Forest Hill senior walked passed me and made their way to the stage. As a Graduation Coach, I could not have been given a more perfect opportunity to do what I’ve done all year: love my students. As seniors walked by, I took this final occasion to reach out and squeeze their hands, wink at them, pat them on the arm and leave them with a smile only a proud parent could wear. I was so damn proud of them. My babies had finally made it.
When the ceremony concluded, faculty and students made their way back to the holding room adjacent to the expo center and turned in the graduation gowns that signified our ending together. Once more, I found my students (cohort and non-cohort) and hugged them tight. One student in particular, David (you might remember him from an earlier blog post), said to me as I squeezed him in an embrace “Miss Bradshaw, you’re still gonna be here for me right? I still need your help.”
I closed my eyes and inhaled the conclusive validation of my efforts.
“Of course sweetheart,” I said. “I’m always going to be here for you.”
*names have been changed to protect the identity of faculty members
I find myself sitting on the edge of my bed a lot these days. Doing what, I’m not entirely sure, but the majority of it has to do with sitting and thinking, or maybe just sitting and existing.
And what is it about sitting on the edge of one’s bed that makes it feel like such a universal action? We’ve all seen it: a character on television plops down on the edge of his bed, head in hands, sighing. A pregnant woman holds her belly as she rests on the edge of her bed, thinking.
Being on the edge, I’ve come to notice, is a very noncommittal space. You’re neither taking initiative to stand up or lay down, but rather, are just sitting in a state of limbo in between your decision. And when you think about it, isn’t that kind of symbolic of life in general? Aren’t we always deciding between one thing and another? And when we can’t decide, we just kind of hang there . . . in between . . . waiting.
I’ve found that the most stressful state to be in is that of indecision. And the more indecisive I am, the more I find myself sitting on the edge of my bed.
But maybe it’s comforting to know that there is a physical place where life can still exist in limbo. When I was a senior in college, I happened upon a word for this state of in-between in my capstone English course: Liminality. I remember jotting the word Liminality down in my journal that day, thinking it entirely all too fitting for a senior in college (especially one with major post-graduate life decisions ahead of her).
Week after week, it would come back to me. I started writing this word at the top of my weekly “to-do” list just so I wouldn’t forget it.
Liminality, Liminality, Liminality. I needed more.
So I did some research. Liminality, in its simplest form, is a type of transition period. From an anthropological standpoint, the word was used to describe the disorientation that developed during the middle stages of various ethnic rituals. In the article entitled “What is Liminality?” author Charles La Shure further describes this idea:
“The initiate (that is, the person undergoing the ritual) is first stripped of the social status that he or she possessed before the ritual, inducted into the liminal period of transition, and finally given his or her new status and re-assimilated into society.”
If that doesn’t make sense, think of it as the ambiguous stage that occurs in an initiation ceremony. Someone that becomes the president or leader of an organization no longer holds the same responsibilities they once did as a general member. However, they won’t hold their new title until the ceremony is over. Liminality is that uncomfortable, who am I and what do I do now, feeling.
About two years ago, I met a man at a career-writing workshop that (without even knowing it) encouraged the feeling of Liminality. Relishing in that feeling, he said, is when you grow the most. It means you’re doing something right. Although he was presenting on Grad School applications that day, I think the message can be easily applied to most situations of uncertainty.
Right now, as many of you know, my family and I are dealing with my father’s diagnosis of ALS. The day my mom told me that our worst nightmare had finally come true was December 24th, 2015. That awful day, I stared at myself in the bathroom mirror for what felt like hours, boring holes into myself. I was looking straight ahead, but I didn’t recognize the person staring back. I was stripped of my identity.
At this point, many of you are probably thinking, but Gabby, you’re still yourself. You’re not the one who was diagnosed with ALS; it’s your dad. And you’re right. I was (and am) still a daughter, still a college graduate, and still a person existing on this earth.
But what was my identity as a daughter/college graduate/person existing on this earth whose father was just diagnosed with a fatal disease?
I didn’t have an answer, so I lost myself.
For weeks after my father’s diagnosis I didn’t know which way was up and which way was down. Everything I thought I knew and understood about the world was suddenly gone.
Am I still Gabby, or has someone replaced her? Who am I and where am I going?
Without realizing it, my beginning state of Liminality was also the beginning state of my rebuilding process. I was the initiate La Shure outlined in his article. Literally, started from the bottom now we . . . you know the rest.
In all seriousness though, rebuilding from my initial state of Liminality hasn’t been easy, and my journey has been nothing short of brutally painful.
Here’s kinda what happened:
The worst or “stripping of my identity:”
I found out my dad had ALS in December.
I almost quit my service year with AmeriCorps.
I cried (like falling on the bathroom floor sobbing).
I went back and forth about whether I should stay in Florida or move home.
I closed myself off to my students.
I was frustrated.
I found God.
I lost God.
I contemplated suicide.
I broke up with my boyfriend.
I cried the most.
I felt empty.
I regretted every decision I’d made.
I joined a new gym and quit 2 weeks later.
I lost 10 pounds.
I slept. A lot.
I started counseling and then quit counseling.
I didn’t know if I liked the same music anymore.
I didn’t know how to present myself.
I saw a psychiatrist.
The not-so-bad or “liminal period of transition:”
I started taking anti-anxiety/depression pills.
I went to the Florida Keys and relaxed.
I cried, but a little less.
I started journaling again.
I started reading again.
I went to the beach.
I let myself be vulnerable to people that cared about me.
I cried, but I wasn’t alone this time.
The best or “re-assimilation:”
I put my energies into positive outlets.
I started laughing a little.
I went to yoga.
I went to yoga.
I went to yoga.
I was there for my friends.
I was there for my students.
I opened up to one of my students.
I joined an ALS support group.
I reconnected with my spirituality.
I started cooking again.
I got a new job for next year.
I cried and I laughed, and this time, I felt OK.
I felt hope return.
Look I don’t have all the answers. I’ve been through a lot this past year, but it doesn’t mean I claim to know everything. All I know is that transition periods are hard, and life is hard and Liminality is hard. But if you find yourself in one of these in-between states, and you don’t know where you’re headed, please don’t give up. Giving up is too easy and it is sooo tempting. Trust me, I know. I’ve been in the dark tunnel with no end in sight, but the man at the career workshop was right. It is when we find ourselves in transition (or Liminality) that we grow the most. It’s uncomfortable as hell, but trust that it is overwhelmingly powerful.
So who am I now? Well, it’s only been about five months since my dad’s diagnosis (and a year since he’s started showing symptoms), but I feel stronger everyday. I can’t say I’m the same person I was before this past Christmas Eve because that would be untrue. We can’t expect ourselves to “never change.” Life doesn’t allow it. Evolving is good, and it’s healthy.
Right now, I take it day by day. I listen for intuitive clues to what screams yes and what shouts no for me. I may still be sitting on the edge of my bed during this time of “re-assimilation,” but I know now that I won’t decide to lay down. Laying down would be easy; it would be giving up. No, I know that one day I will stand up from the edge of my bed, and I will walk forward.
La Shure, Charles. “What is Liminality?” Liminality: the space in between. n.p. 18 October