curiouser and curiouser

an attempt to define the un-definable

I hate Alice in Wonderland—too trippy—but there’s a scene that’s been replaying in my head these last few weeks. It’s the one where an oversized hookah-smoking caterpillar blows smoke rings around Alice as he asks, “Who…are…you?” 

I see myself staring up at the worm, as unsure as Alice as she responds, “I hardly know, sir!” 

They go in circles and she insists, “I can’t explain myself, sir, because I’m not myself, you know.” The worm is a poor listener, or high, so Alice grows frustrated. She absolutely has no idea who she is, and she cannot possibly come up with an answer to satisfy him. The best she has to offer is vague: “I can’t put it any more clearly, for it isn’t clear to me.” 

Similarly, I am at a loss for labels. So many of the ways I used to define myself have drifted away as quietly as smoke rings: 

Married. 

Republican. 

Believer in post-racial America.

Nurse.

Eye-roller at vegans.

Despiser of feminists.

Knower of life’s timelines. 

Things have changed, and now I am in place where things are less solid, more fluid. More nuanced, complex, and messy.

Status: Divorcée. A one-word title, but there’s nothing in the name that carries the weight of a life’s vocation as nicely as married. It feels a little fuzzier.

Absolutely not a Republican, but maybe not a Democrat? Maybe more of a centrist, or a Libertarian? Don’t come at me, it’s TBD, I just know that I’m not in favor of he-who-shall-not-be-named.

Occasional vegan. Turns out I care about the planet, though I still love cheese.

Feminist, though a pro-life one, though also one that isn’t sure what the most effective way to support mothers/family/society is.

Human trying to become anti-racist after a lifetime of disbelief. V flawed.

Writer? Blogger, casually. Student, definitely. Does that make me “a creative” (I imagine this means I’ll take up wearing berets and snapping in smoky clubs, so maybe not). 

Still a nurse, yes, but not a full-time one, and unsure of how well I love the work. Overall, displeased with the business of healthcare, and burned out from caring so hard in a world built more for money than people. 

Real estate agent—this one is new. In my previous timeline I always imagined I’d quit nursing to raise children and let my fancy husband make ze monies. No children and no husband makes me my own breadwinner, and I realized I should probably be in a career that I wasn’t planning to quit someday. While, in a perfect world, I simply become the next J.K. Rowling and float about writing best sellers, I think this real estate business might be the place where I have the time and space and flexibility to write, the money to eat-pray-love my way around the globe, and the chance to still serve my community. I believe in home, so why not make myself a part of it?

Where does all that leave me now? Dabbling in several careers, with a mishmash of political leanings, no romantic involvements and some kind of half-assed vegan habit?

I’m a little bit of everything and entirely nothing.

My primary concern: I have no idea how I will explain myself at parties. I can see it in my head— 

“What do you do?” 

*brain short circuits*

“NurseRealtorWriterStudent.” 

Nothing neat enough to put cutely. But, then again, why the need to define myself by what I do at all? Sure, it might be the easiest to say, and, yes, you learn something from knowing a person’s job. Like when I say nurse, you might hear caring. You might find me trustworthy, reliable, kind. On the other hand, if I get into my current crossroads, you’re more likely to see a huge mess. You’ll nod your head, bemused, unsure of a girl who can’t commit to any one thing.

I know the gist of what I’m after, of course, but there’s nothing easily knowable from something as simple as a title. What I really want is beauty. Creativity. Rhythm. Abundance. I want peace, and grace. Wholeness, health, and a life where I am content, doing what I was made to do, not on a five-year-plan, but in finding one right thing after the next right thing.

Maybe the whole mess of myself, the possibility and the journey and the flaws, the beauty and the wonder and the hope, what I do or what I don’t do, will be caught up in one phrase after all: a name. My name. Rebecca Joy. Maybe that’s all you’ll ever need to know—maybe I grow so grounded into myself that you can reach the heart of me just from hearing it whispered. If only Alice knew how to say hers.

dear nursing students

what you should know before your heart is on the line

Healthcare is a business. 

It’s best you understood this unfortunate truth now. I didn’t. I was idealistic, hopeful, and optimistic. I went to nursing school believing I was called to be the hands and feet of altruism; subsequently, I sacrificed health, money, time and sleep in its pursuit. 

I am now struggling with the existential friction that comes from following that call directly into the mouth of a business structured not around purpose, but profit. Soon you will struggle too.

When you graduate you’ll be pinned. You’ll get your hands blessed and your boards passed and you will be proud. You will endure a grueling, stressful first year of work and feel like you’re lost in a fog. Eventually your eyes will adjust, you can see through the clouds, and somehow you will no longer be drowning. You will be swimming. It is then you will see what you were blind to before: healthcare is a business. 

You will start to feel it. 

Healthcare is a business, so you will often be short staffed. You will not be paid what you feel is reasonable. You will not have the support or supplies you feel are appropriate. You will also not be able to change it, as businesses aren’t run according to what you feel. You will begin to feel powerless. 

You will be taken advantage of. You are kind, hard working, and compassionate. Your work ethic does not allow you to stop doing your job; your workplace is aware of that. This is why you will continue to work short, get paid less than you deserve, and feel entirely, utterly replaceable. Because, to a business, you are. Nurses come dime a dozen and someone will fill your position as soon as you get frustrated enough to quit. Or you’ll go back to school, where you’ll feel like you have the control- the chance to provide the care you planned on. 

You’ll feel like the business cares more about customer service than anything else; this will start to sting. 

You’ll find patients who consider you waitstaff, hospital stays akin to hotel stays. This will feel wrong too. 

You’ll hear older nurses say it wasn’t always this way. You’ll see younger nurses lining up to take your place. 

You’ll be asked to do more jobs than your job, and jobs you aren’t prepared for, because that’s the way it’s been done. It was the norm, the standard of what was acceptable, and it shouldn’t have been. You’ll be expected to suck it up and keep working anyway.

You’ll get stressed. You’ll get burned out. You’ll be too tired to fix it. 

Your co-workers will become the reason you show up. They will see you through marriage, divorce, birth, death, and life. They will become your family. You will even find colleagues and doctors and managers who listen to you, try to help you, try to help nursing, and you will be grateful. Eventually, though, they too will come up against the impenetrable wall that is business.

You’ll still get to care for your patients; you’ll cry with them, laugh with them, talk with them, heal them. But there will be a day when your heart will get tired and the rest weighs too heavy. Your optimism will be met with a budget; you will be broken. You will want to leave, but you can’t, there will be no where else to go, because the rest of the system is broken too.

The choice, then, will be yours. You can clock in and out, care for your patients, laugh with your friends, and ignore the rest. You can try to fix what you can, wherever you can. You can reduce your hours, change your career, or move hospitals. Either way, as long as healthcare is a business, nurses will filter through as fast as their profit-producing patients. Eventually the business will wonder about their front-line turnover, but there will be no need for a fix; the ones who spoke up will already be gone. There will be another new nurse, another fresh face, and the cycle will continue.

I wish I knew how to break it.