Random Thoughts of Crows, Butterflies and Transformation

Crow, Magnolia, and Moon by Julianna Paradisi 2019 pastel on tea-stained paper

Last Fall I watched a murder of crows scavenge through a city park, mingling with a flock of pigeons. One crow ambled closely behind a singular pigeon, comically mimicking its head-jiving gait.

It was molting season for the crows. Their normally sleek, iridescent black chests were marred by bare patches evoking the image of clowns dressed in rags. The indignity of their molting got me thinking about enduring molting as a process of transformation. Birds molt their feathers. Snakes shed their skins. These are transformations of self- renewal.

Some creatures undergo complete metamorphosis, however. Water-bound Tadpoles transform into amphibians, growing legs while their tails wear away to nothing along their journey towards becoming frogs.

Then the metamorphosis of caterpillars into butterflies came to mind, and it occurred to me I had no idea how a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly within its shroud of chrysalis.

When I was going through cancer treatment, the image of a butterfly was often suggested to me by others as something to consider. In fact, butterfly imagery is popular among survivors for its message of transformation from lowly caterpillar into a beautiful winged creature with the ability to fly.

While I liked this imagery, the truth is, with my bald head and surgery scars, I identified more with the imagery of an egg: something smooth, round, and hairless holding within it the dramatic creation of a transformed life.

After watching the crows for some time, I went home and looked up on the Internet the process of how a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly. It was startling to learn it isn’t like some quick-change artist act on America’s Got Talent.

It’s a pretty gruesome process. Caterpillars don’t spin a cocoon around themselves like silkworms do. They molt their outer skins and the chrysalis bursts forth containing their innards. Until recently, scientists believed the caterpillar was then digested by enzymes within the chrysalis into a soup-like yolk, with cells programmed to become the legs, eyes, wings, etc developing into their assigned organs.

Chrysalis (sketch book) by Julianna Paradisi 2018 Ink on paper

It was difficult for scientists to accurately study the metamorphosis of caterpillars into butterflies because they had to cut open a chrysalis or x-ray it to see what was happening inside, thereby killing the embryonic butterfly and preempting further development.

The advent of micro-CT enables scientists to see inside a chrysalis without killing the caterpillar/butterfly, and study the metamorphosis without destroying it. It turns out the caterpillar does not actually self-digest into a soupy yolk, but its parts shift in size and form within the chrysalis, molding into a butterfly. At maturation, the butterfly takes breaths into its thorax, until its wings swell with air and the chrysalis bursts open, releasing it.

Last Fall, I began drawing and painting crows, attracted to the idea of transformation and how it applies to my life. I’ve completed a twenty-year cycle, a mini-lifetime within my lifetime since cancer treatment. It’s time to begin something new. I’m not quite sure what. I sense a shedding of old ideas and roles like the molted feathers of a raven, and an internal metamorphosis like the shape-shifting of a butterfly. I’m developing a stronger sense of self, a lighter heart, and healthier boundaries.

There is evidence butterflies retain the same aversions to noxious stimuli they were exposed to as caterpillars right before the metamorphosis, implying sentient awareness. I wonder if caterpillars have awareness of the end of life they as they knew it while molting their final skin, and the chrysalis envelops them like a grave?  Do caterpillars understand what’s happening to them, or do they “die” like we humans do, without concrete evidence of what happens when we no longer inhabit our bodies?

Does a caterpillar in its chrysalis dream of an afterlife with wings?

Happy National Bird Day: The Hummingbird

On my walk to work I looked up, which is somewhat unusual in that most of the time I am scanning the streets and sidewalks to avoid being hit by a car or bicycle, or colliding with another pedestrian, or stepping into an errant pile of dog poop.

But this particular morning I looked up. Above hovered a tiny hummingbird floating beside the very tip-top of a leafless tree silhouetted against the background of the cool gray winter morning sky.

After several seconds the hummingbird settled at the top of the tree. I took a picture of it, and then I made a drawing of the picture. It looks like this:

Hummingbird in Tree Drawing Julianna Paradisi 2019

2019: Days of Miracle and Wonder

These are the days of miracle and wonder 

-Paul Simon

 

 New Year’s Eve 2018 marked the twentieth anniversary of discovering a lump in my breast that proved to be cancer. So began the days of miracle and wonder that shaped the next year and a half of my life, transforming it in ways I could not have imagined at the time.

The Star collage by Julianna Paradisi 2018

2019 marks the ten year anniversary of publishing my first short stories in an anthology, followed by creating and writing this blog, JParadisiRN.

2019 follows a year of internal transformation. Thankfully, none are as dramatic or terrifying as a cancer diagnosis, surgery, and losing my hair, but they are significant enough to have opened my senses to new perceptions and possibilities as I completed the last year of a twenty-year cycle of personal and professional growth.

A former pediatric intensive nurse who’s transitioned into adult oncology nursing, I’m humbled by my survival. I know all too well some people are born to live only a few hours, days or a handful of years, and that cancer kills without remorse or discrimination the young, the bright, the kind. Others go on to live with chronic illness or metastatic disease. To survive an average lifetime is a miracle and wonder. It comes with a burden, or more rightly, responsibility.

I’ve written before I don’t believe in living a balanced life if balance is defined as To keep or put (something) in a steady position so that it does not fall. I still believe this. However, perceptions gained in 2018 have led me to expand my definition of balance to something more like a glass of world-class Pinot Noir: a thoughtfully crafted, satisfying blend of many parts chosen to complement the whole, and not elements distributed equally as though they are the wedges of a pie.

I don’t have a complete grasp of the concept yet, but I’m working on it.

At the end of cancer treatment, my transformation included selling or giving away much of what I owned, including my car. I sold my house and moved to Portland. I changed jobs. I took art school classes.

A couple of years later, I married my husband David.

I am very happy and comfortable in the life I’ve built during the past twenty years since finding the lump. Cancer turned into a catalyst for extraordinary personal growth. In 2018 it became clear to me that it is time to build on the foundation of that growth, moving beyond my comfort zone into whatever is next in my quest for growth and individuation. This time, the transformation is more of an internal thing, although there’s already been a couple of external changes reflecting the internal ones.

This blog post reflects an internal change too. I’ve written before that I write “To the So-What?” meaning in the past I began a post with a clear idea of how I would end it, and why I wrote it in the first place. Now I’m not sure I still believe the So-What is So Important. I am becoming enamored of process without attachment to outcome.

Let me repeat that last sentence: I am becoming enamored of process without attachment to outcome.

If you are a nurse reading this, you have an inkling of the size the internal changes. After all, what are nurses or health care providers without focus on outcomes?

Artists.

The Two Hands of Mindfulness

The little dish of crystals I keep on my desk. I made the little dish from clay. Photo: jparadisi 2018

Late on a Friday afternoon I sat on the floor of a shared office space in semi-lotus position, dismantling the fax machine to clear a paper jam. I needed to fax a copy of one more cancer survivorship care plan to a primary care physician’s office to meet my weekly quota before going home. If you work for an accredited cancer institute, and particularly if you’re an oncology nurse navigator like me, the phrase “survivorship care plan” is enough to cause heart palpitations, and maybe make your palms sweat. If the phrase doesn’t hold meaning for you, count your blessings.

Sitting before the fax machine in semi-lotus position, trying very hard not to break its plastic drawer while reaching for the piece of paper stuck in its maw, I considered the difficulty of practicing mindfulness in the controlled chaos that is health care. At that moment, I felt more akin to George’s father on Seinfeld, Frank Constanza, screaming “Serenity now!” than to the Dali Llama.

How is it I have the nursing skills to manage a patient’s airway on a ventilator, but am defeated by a piece of office equipment?

The stress is worse for nurses working at the bedside: For instance, how many times does the ED call to admit a patient to a nursing unit only to be told the unit doesn’t have a bed? I don’t mean a room, I mean literally, a physical bed? The admission is delayed while some poor night shift nurse traipse through hallways into the bowels of the hospital in search of a bed.

There are medication shortages to contend with, including the lowly bag of saline, diphenhydramine, and flu shots. These scenarios are not new to nurses. They are common occurrences we problem solve during the course of a shift, while managing the health and safety of our patients, documenting for compliance standards, and meeting accreditation mandates such as survivorship care plans.

Some days I’m more successful maintaining mindfulness at work than other days.  That’s why mindfulness is a practice. Practicing mindfulness requires compassion not only for others, but for ourselves. In fact, it’s my opinion that a lack of self-compassion and self-care contributes to a general lack of compassion towards others, fueling a hostile work environment. I keep a small dish of crystals on my desk at work to remind myself to stay in the moment.

As I sat on the floor in front of the fax machine, late on that Friday afternoon, a coworker returned to our office. She asked what I was doing, and I vented my frustration. She got down on her knees, and took a turn at dismantling the fax machine to get it working. She was successful. I faxed the care plan to the physician’s office, meeting my quota for the week. I got out on time to take my barre class, where we practice breathing and mindfulness.

Gratitude and compassion are the two hands of mindfulness.

 

 

Down The Rabbit Hole Part II

Down the Rabbit Hole, collage, 2017 by Julianna Paradisi

Just over a year ago I had the opportunity to show some of my paintings and speak to a live audience about the challenges of being an artist, healer, and breast cancer survivor. Artists, Healers, and Breast Cancer Survivors: A Window into Their World was also the name of the show.

My talk took listeners through the primary events of my diagnosis, treatment, and  transitioning from cancer survivor to artist and writer. When I completed treatment I was told there was a 32% chance I wouldn’t survive the next ten years. I considered then, if these were the last ten years of my life What was it I wanted to do?

I came up with three things:

  • I wanted to love deeply, and be deeply loved by the same person
  • I wanted to be an artist
  • I wanted people to say nice things about me when I die (this one is the hardest 😀)

And then a funny thing happened on my way home from the medical oncologist’s office: I lived.

In March 2019 I celebrate twenty years since my diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer.

As I heard myself speak to the roomful of other cancer survivors and colleagues, I experienced the sudden realization I have reached my goals. Although all three need continual care and practice, the time has come for me to think about what comes next. What new goals should I set?  How do I become a better version of myself?

After all I’ve been through in my life I should have been better prepared. When you decide to ask the questions, you need to be ready for the answers. Asking life challenging questions with intention is Going Down the Rabbit Hole, Part II. 2018 has been a year of renewed discovery, self-reflection, and a little bit of rocking the boat. It’s been a year of fabulous highs and a few painful lows. Just like surviving cancer, I am stronger for it.

As 2018 comes to an end, I face 2019 with renewed intention and focus.

I’ll be writing more about the process.

 

SirenNation Art Show Opening

On the right: Quickened Toward All Celestial Things, by Jparadisirn, 2018 on display through November

Imagine my surprise to find my painting Quickened Toward All Celestial Things has been given a street view exhibition space at Portland 5! Thank you @SirenNation for an awesome opening reception tonight.

On exhibit through November as part of the Siren Nation Visual Art Show Portland 5 Centers for the Arts Antoinette Hatfield Hall, 1111 SW Broadway, Portland, OR 97205

Crows have mythological meaning in many cultures. They are messengers from another dimension, shape shifters, and symbols of transformation. The title is adapted from a line Emily Dickinson wrote in a letter to a friend:

“Dear Friend,
…Quickened toward all celestial things by crows I heard this morning-accept a loving caw from a nameless friend.”

 

Quickened Towards All Celestial Things
graphite, acrylic, oil on wood 20″ x 20″ 2018 by Julianna Paradisi

SirenNation Visual Art Show, Portland Oregon, November 2018

Quickened Towards All Celestial Things
graphite, acrylic, oil on wood 20″ x 20″ 2018

Quickened Towards All Celestial Things, graphite, acrylic, oil on wood, 20″ x 20″ by Julianna Paradisi 2018 https://jparadisirn.com/gallery/
On exhibit in November as part of the Siren Nation Visual Art Show Portland 5 Centers for the Arts Antoinette Hatfield Hall, 1111 SW Broadway, Portland, OR 97205
Save the Date! Opening Reception: Thursday, November 1, 2018 from 5:00 to 8:00 pm.
Beverages and complimentary snacks available. All ages!

Book Review: Sky the Oar, Poems by Stacy R. Nigliazzo

Sky the Oar by Stacy R. Nigliazzo, Press 53, 2018

Sky The Oar

poems by Stacy R. Nigliazz

Publisher: Press 53, 2018

Stacy R. Nigliazzo is a poet living in Houston, Texas. She is also an emergency department nurse. Her second published collection of poetry, Sky the Oar, like its predecessor Scissored Moon is informed by her experiences as an ER nurse.

I once had a painting instructor who read a poem to his class before each lesson. He said, You need poetry to be a painter. I would add, You need poetry to be a nurse. Nigliazzo creates poetry from the struggles of the human condition nurses witness daily.

Unlike medical surgery or ICU nurses, ER nurses treat and care for their patients for short spans of time. The poems of Sky the Oar reflect these brief, intense encounters. They are fleeting thoughts and images occurring in the internal dialogue of a poet too busy caring for the person beneath her hands to attach judgement to their plight.

Nigliazzo’s words are crisp and precise, things of beauty without sentimentalism or euphemism. The words are like shards of glass glittering in our hands, their edges sharp enough to pierce the skin. Her poems elevate these crystalline splinters of humanity for our understanding and compassion. In I Am and Nocturne, I found myself at the bedside with her. In the poem Frequently Asked Questions By My Patients, Nigliazzo captures a patient’s experience in a mere nine words.

Sky The Oar is poetry for all readers. For nurses, the slim volume is salve for the soul.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

AJN Best of The Blog Features Post by JparadisiRN

Manicure by Julianna Paradisi 2014

It’s an honor to have my post and illustration,  A Brief Meditation on Love, Loss, and Nursing, originally published on Off the Chartsthe blog of the American Journal of Nursing, featured in the February issue of AJN

Click on the link above to read the issue online, and find look for Best of the Blog, A Brief Meditation on Love, Loss, and Nursing, in the table of contents.