I Used to Read the Dictionary


All I’ve ever wanted in this life is to live, laugh, love like those horrible fucking bathroom decorations say. I honestly believed for the better part of my childhood that working hard and following the rules and being the bigger person would lead to a future filled with expensive cars, fancy degrees, and eternal happiness. My adorable immigrant parents came to America from a tiny fragment of the Eastern Block in hopes of providing their future children with opportunities that simply didn’t seem realistic or possible in a post-Socialist former Yugoslavian nation whose name was only recognizable as a vaguely familiar reference to Alexander the Great. Macedonia. MACEDONIA. Not “Mesopotamia:” that shit disappeared with the days of Babylon. Not “Macadamia:” that’s a fucking nut. Macedonia. Where the people speak Macedonian. And yes, that is a real language. I promise. It’s similar in dialect and alphabet to Dothraki. Anyway, my Macedonian immigrant parents took to living in a basement with two small bags of belongings while working anywhere from deli counters to catering halls to back-alley butcher shops to secure a tiny plot of American soil to someday call their own. Once my sister and I came into the picture a few short years later, mom and dad worked perhaps even harder at learning a language so unfamiliar as that of the English tongue: where tenses often varied from sentence to sentence; the letter K in “knife” was silent while you ate in a “kitchen” and not a “nitchen;” and Big Bird was the end-all/ be-all English instructor for the entire family. My sister and I watched so much Sesame Street as children that we could have predicted Bert and Ernie were “special friends” circa 1988.

As I learned to muddle through the English language while being exposed to Macedonian, I was eagerly fascinated by the structure and function that words served from an extremely young age. My parents tell me that I was still wearing diapers when I started to read, however I assume that’s just the shit parents tell their children to make them feel good about being the hand-me-down baby. After all, I’ve never once found a photograph of myself sitting in a high chair perusing Chaucer or pondering Proust, but I have seen conclusive evidence that my acid-wash Osh-Kosh jeans previously belonged to my sister. Nonetheless, the very first book I distinctly and definitively remember reading is a busted-up, yellow-paged, dog-eared copy of the English dictionary. It must have been poached from a yard sale or something, because the hard cover was missing and the first page was actually page twenty-something featuring a sketch drawing of an aardvark along with the definition of the animal. I sifted through the pages of that dictionary more times than I can count, learning about everything from “computed tomography” to the “golden finch” to “xenophobia.” And it’s not like my parents stuck me in a broom closet and forced me to do it, either! I was genuinely fascinated by the content at hand, and wanted to know every detail about everything. As a child who came home from school and had homework finished before my parents were even back from their shift work, I guess you can say being a total nerd was ingrained in my DNA. DNA – deoxyribonucleic acid (noun): a molecule that…er, sorry. I digress.

My point in disclosing this genuinely baffling and somewhat embarrassing morsel of information is not to prove to you that I am some mystical genius wonder-kid who was admitted to Harvard at age thirteen: in fact, I’m a relatively normal thirty-year-old who followed a typical trajectory into adulthood. The difference is – and I think this is the part that took me three decades to discover – that this innate sense of curiosity is the very thing that has made me very good at very many things, and therefore indecisive to a fault as a result. My indecision isn’t based on the ordinary day-to-day choices that are required of a functioning adult: I can choose an outfit in the morning and select an item at a restaurant without causing a delay or a dilemma. Rather, when it comes to greater matters – such as, for instance, having a goddamn clue about what I’m supposed to be when I grow up – it’s these circumstances that tend to be rather frustrating. And now here I sit, in the irony of all ironies, appearing perhaps too “meta” for my own existence by writing a blog about writing a book, and how my compulsion to do so has permeated every element of my existence since childhood.

Why is it that we starve the artist? Why do we squeeze our brilliant young sponges into believing that stability and security can only be attained through a relatively concrete path? I understand where my parents were coming from: academia was the only method of getting from point A to point B. Sports and recreational activities were fine and dandy, but if and only if they didn’t interfere with our educations. My parents worked their asses off – blood and sweat and tears in the most literal sense – to provide for my sister and me. It was that diligent work ethic, the idea that we wouldn’t have food on the table if even one moment of one day was not planned appropriately, that helped us push our innate “intelligence quotients” to the next level. The difference between my older sister and me is that she always seemed to have a plan: she knew what she wanted to pursue and study and become, and now as a Doctoral-prepared pharmacist, she reaps the benefits of a path built upon science and structure. I, however, am something of a black sheep. My direction has been a winding road: an ebb and flow, some days fixated on the arts while others delving passionately into the sciences. It’s difficult for me to explain to others why I cannot simply “make up my mind” professionally because I cannot distinguish the “starving artist” from the “stoic scientist:” that’s just not how my brain works. When I veer too far off course in either direction, my brain becomes sad; it’s lost; it longs for that missing symbiotic component that has always delighted and confused me at once. When my path feels too stiff; too sterile; too matter-of-fact, something inside of me begins to bang against the walls of my skull, screaming for creative reprieve. When I wax poetic and delve into a dark and dreamy state, I long for the stringent structure that scientific thinking affords me. And herein lies my epic battle: my greatest friend and my own worst enemy has lived within my very thoughts – something that, as many can attest to, is the single-largest roadblock to the inquisitive mind. I have for decades been the cause of my own detriment; I have been the cause of my own insecurities and the murderer of ideas that should, perhaps, have lived a rich and public life. Or should they? Were they even good enough? Did they even matter? Am I simply a neurotic or a narcissist or a fool? (Ahem…case in point.)

And now that you see just how quickly the synapses of my mind can fire and set simple thoughts ablaze, I want to be open about my experiences because I’m certain that I cannot be alone in this struggle. I often ask myself why we are so hyper-focused on careers and titles and letters after our name – it’s not as if we can take any of it to the grave. Culturally; societally; from the first day of Kindergarten through the rest of our academic pursuits we are encouraged to do more and be better and aim higher. Unfortunately, this is less of a mindset and more of a literal pursuit: graduate high school; go to college; maybe even attend graduate school; get a job; work your ass off; advance in said job; rinse; repeat; and wake up one day at age sixty-four without having taken a week’s vacation since your kids were toddlers. We are a society that makes excuses for putting ourselves last. We jump up and down in pursuit of promotions and paychecks, continuing to glorify the act of being busy. We are too busy to go on vacation. We are too busy to visit our families. We are too busy to take a lunch. For fuck’s sake, sometimes we are too busy to go pee. When did this become the gold standard of success? When did this become some crowning personal achievement?

Why are we living to work and not the other way around?

And then I had my meltdown. It was on my first free day in far too long – literally, weeks – and I had a mile-long to-do-list to catch up on. I had gone from working four shifts straight to traveling for work to coming home and working again, only to be bombarded with weddings and birthdays and social obligations. After feeling a guilty conscience about turning down the opportunity to head to the hospital and work an overtime shift, I started folding socks. I went from folding socks to doing laundry, and from running a load of whites to organizing the closet. I hadn’t had a moment of downtime in weeks, yet here I was – standing in a walk-in closet with bathing suits and yoga pants strewn about – apparently more concerned about the state of my unfolded clothes than my mental well being. I took a seat on the floor and just let it rip: all of my pent up emotions started pouring out of me. I grabbed an old t-shirt and wiped away tears that had welled up within and had nowhere to go but out. My mind raced with a million concerns: bills; books; my next dental cleaning; my parents; the prospect of starting a family; what I would eat for lunch. I couldn’t keep up with all of the worries and doubts, minor and major, which swirled around me like an existential spin cycle. How is it possible for us to become so preoccupied by the things that don’t yet exist, or are so far beyond our control? I reminded myself to just breathe. That’s what I tell my patients when I get them out of bed for the first time after heart surgery. That’s what I tell their families when circumstances are much too difficult to bear.

Just. Breathe.

It hurts more if you hold your breath. You become dizzy if you don’t exhale. You might even get so worked up that you pass out! I forced myself to inhale…exhale…inhale…exhale until I could feel the moment finally start to pass. I felt so foolish and weak – everyone else has a crazy life with a billion obligations: what makes me special? Why should I feel so overwhelmed? How come I can’t do it all?

Well…why the hell do we have to?

When did we become so set on doing it all, that we forgot to focus on ourselves? As a nurse, I believe this is one of the greatest downfalls of the profession: we glorify the martyr. We do for everyone else; we give more than we’ve ever received; and we find solace in knowing that we have sacrificed for the good of others. Except that instead of doing this once in a while or only at work or occasionally when circumstances require such deep devotion of us, we do it every fucking day. We dribble a few drops of ourselves at work; another pour at home; we pass around the cup of stuff that keeps us going and leave it bone dry when our own time comes. So we quietly accept the reality that tomorrow is another day; there is always next time; I didn’t want any of it anyway. Yet this is reproducible. It’s repeatable. We fill up and we dump; we load up and we pour; leaving ourselves parched with the thirst that this lifestyle would never allow us to quench. We make busy beautiful. We pick sacrifice over self. And then we wonder why even just one day – one hour – of unadulterated “me time” makes us feel lazy or selfish or stupid.

What do I do when these moments occur? How do I find my balance when I realize that I’ve been allowing everyone else to have a drink while my own well ran dry? I write. I sit on a couch or in a corner of a coffee shop and I lay it all out there. I’ve always done this – for as far back as I can remember, anytime life became too real or serious or scary, I would pull out a blank page and jot my ideas. As of late, I’ve struggled to do just that – to disconnect; to separate myself from my craft or my circumstances or my sea of stressors, feeling in “too-deep” when I desperately need to admire the rolling tides from ashore. I have been working my tail off in the traditional sense recently: physically clocking in and titrating drips and hanging blood and managing devices and helping to maybe save a life before punching out at day’s end. And while I benefit perhaps in the practical sense…the pragmatic one…the dollars in my pocket variety of earning…I feel that something has been lost. I feel that a part of who I am has gone missing since – treading water, no doubt, like a castaway – feeling lifeless and hopeless and anemic due to an inability to reflect and connect with me and me alone.

And so here I sit and I write – both as a mantra for myself, and a reminder to others – a literal note that aims to call ones self out on buying into the bullshit. Today, I will remind myself that the stoic and sterile scientist so desperately needs a wordy and whimsical counterpart to maintain a Yin to the Yang. Today I will challenge myself to see the beauty in every single day, even when – especially if – it seems all-too routine, rut-ridden, and ordinary. Today I will remind myself that artistic expression comes in many different forms. Today I will encourage myself to find that point of intersect between a passion and a purpose. I hope that – whether your pick up the remote control or an extra shift or a dog-eared Webster’s dictionary – perhaps you’ll do the same.

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