Nina Gaby

Essays, art, and healthcare


4 Comments

When the life force unravels

In a 2017 interview, Anthony Bourdain told the reporter that in conversation with Warren Zevon as he was dying, Zevon advised him to “enjoy the sandwiches.”

Bird nest

A rather ugly robin built her messy nest right in the crook against our back door, the twigs falling on the step every time I open the door to go over to my studio, its poorly knit jumble sticking in the screen, threatening to tumble off the crossbar. Ugly bird, ugly nest, although I have become very fond of both of them. The robin’s head is asymmetrical, her eyes not quite placed right, and she has a white blotch on one tail feather that looks like bird shit. That’s how I know it’s her. For weeks she has screamed at me, tracked me around the building, watching me through the windows, cackling and cajoling me for intruding on her vigilant nesting. I’ve seen no sign of life from inside the nest and I perseverate. The mama robin is fierce and I wonder what will happen to her if the egg doesn’t hatch. I think about my own post-partum depression, I think about Kate Spade’s daughter.

My robin drags worms around in her beak but I don’t see who she feeds them to. Lately she has grown less timid and sits closer to me on the stone wall, along with another robin, maybe the father. They rush me, screeching and swooping. Sometimes I worry they’ll poke my eyes out.

I talk to them. “It was your choice to build your nest there,” I say. “Sorry but not sorry.” But I am sorry. This whole thing has me consumed. My husband gets daily updates. Sometimes I avoid even opening the door.

Early this morning I ventured outside. Both the adults dashed out of the nest, dislodging twigs and toppling a fledgling onto the rocks of my herb garden in their haste. My first panicked response was to try to get the fledgling back in the sloppy nest but wisely decided to just give the family some space. I locked our cats away from the window and did not go to the studio. Checking back in a half hour the fledgling was gone from the rocks. I will wait, I decide, to see if all goes back to normal. The sheer parental will of survival in these robins has astounded me, frightened me.

Back inside, drinking my coffee, I read about Anthony Bourdain from friends on Facebook.

In the studio I usually listen to NPR. Suicide bombers. Kate Spade. Anthony Bourdain. The overdoses in the area, names that sound familiar. “Death by cop” scenarios on the local news. Names I know from the work I do when I’m not in the studio–my day job in psychiatry and addictions. The job I do to counterbalance the often exhilarating narcissism of being an artist and writer.

In my office I listen to people whose life force is beginning to unravel, and it is my responsibility to try to knit it together, hold it tight. Make the right decision.

And then there are the robins. A life force that is simple. Instinctual. No intellectualizing, no existential crises. No shame. They don’t have to think about being alive. Just about staying alive.

The fledgling is gone from the rocks. I search for tiny feathers, did the ground hog get him? Were the parents able to help him fly away? The nest is empty. The yard is still.

So I go back to work where I’ve collected broken shells and an abandoned blue egg and tiny porcelain bowls and shards, beginning a three dimensional collage that I’m thinking of calling “Origins,” and thinking about how life is so full of coincidences. It is at that point that my husband comes in to surprise me with a sandwich.

origins

 

 

 

Advertisements


4 Comments

For National Nurses Week, 2018: “On Legacy and Ego Integrity vs. Despair”

 

(2015 submission rejected by the American Journal of Nursing)

 

  1. Nursing school

It was May, 2015. I’d been trying to percolate some sort of blog entry that would bring my author’s platform up to date and also commemorate National Nurses Week, Mothers Day, and my upcoming 65th birthday. Is there a quatrofecta that lets me write a four for one?

 

In an essay a couple years ago, published in I Wasn’t Always Strong Like This: True Stories of Becoming a Nurse, I write about when I said goodbye to the relative freedoms of an artistic life and became a nurse: “At 34, I was the third oldest person in my Bachelor’s program, several of us ‘non-traditionals’ in a group of otherwise very bright and age appropriate young women. I was the wildest, with the most energy, and I looked nothing like a nursing student, whatever they were supposed to look like.

She’s an artist,” people would whisper. “She’s old.”1

 

My new friend Fran was ten days older.

 

We met the first day of nursing school in 1984. We were both the same age, with careers, entering nursing in our thirties as a means of achieving goals we otherwise might not. We were both interested in a myriad of health and social issues. Fran was to focus on patient education, and I switched gears from wanting to be a nurse midwife to settling on psychiatry and eventually becoming a specialist in addictions and a psychiatric nurse practitioner.  That very first day Fran told me Florence Nightingale wrote about nursing as an art.

 

Along the way I had a baby and Fran moved to Arizona.  Then I moved to Vermont.

 

We established a ritual to keep us connected. Every May, between our birthdays, we would exchange “Flo.” Flo is a little plastic nurse doll we named after Florence Nightingale,  the cake topper my mother put on our graduation cake in 1986. I made a special foam-lined box, “the official Flo transport system,”so she could travel safely between Arizona and Vermont.  This year, I would be getting her around Mothers’ Day. I miss my mother, and the ritual, of which I have very few, helps me feel connected to the best parts of her as well as to my friend.

 

2. Legacy

Fran planned. She had a year planner, a five year planner. I was lucky if I could plan the next five minutes. She gets to retire this year at age 65. I made impulsive life changes along the way; I will never be able to afford to retire.  Fran wins awards.

In the morning, when I called to congratulate her on her three newest awards, she tried to brush them off but I wouldn’t let her get away with it. “You got a freakin’ legacyaward,” I insisted. At our age the word legacy is fraught with meaning.

We overdosed on Erik Erikson in nursing school, feverishly memorizing his Stages of Psychosocial Development along with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for exams. But who thought it would ever be us we were talking about?

 So here we are, leaving Generativity vs. Stagnation, the stage of middle adulthood, for our last phase: Ego integrity vs. Despair. Late adulthood. Age 65 through death.2

Cheery.

We are those people now wondering what our legacy will be.  At least I am. Fran got an award to define it.

What I didn’t tell her on the phone was that when I read the news of her awards I had been sitting at my desk for twelve hours trying to master a new electronic medical record system. Everyone else in the clinic had gone home. I put my exhausted head in my hands and sobbed.  No one’s going to give me a legacy award for spending my life feeding a hospital computer system, I cried. I can admit stuff like this now, old enough to know it is a universal thing, this is jealousy and despair. This is human messiness, and we nurses know about all that.

 

3. Mothers Day

What she did remind me was that I had had a child. She did not have, nor were having children ever in her plan. She reminded me that I was not factoring in the 25 years of pregnancy, bed rest, postpartum depression, motherhood. Would I have gotten a doctorate if I’d not had my daughter? Probably not. Written more essays? Made more money? Would my legacy feel any different? No. I’m a direct-care clinician, on the front lines. I help people. And now my daughter, in graduate school to become an end-of–life specialist will as well, help people. I am proud of her, I am proud of my friend. And yes, I am grieving my youth and worrying about the continued integrity of my ego. I will probably sob again before the month is over.

My Mothers Day card reads:

 “No one is useless in the world who lightens the burden for another.”

Charles Dickens3

1  Gaby, N. (2013). Careening Towards Reunion. In Lee Gutkind (Ed), I Wasn’t Strong Like This When I Started Out: True Stories of Becoming a Nurse   Pittsburgh, P.A. : In Fact Books.

2 “Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development” Wikipedia.

3Dickens, C. (originally published in 1865, 2013).  Dr. Marigold.  On line publisher at OverDrive: A Word To The Wise.

 

 Addendum 2018: Fran got yet another award for which I congratulated her on yesterday, and I’ve quit and started several jobs since the original writing of this, and have finally settled in a medical clinic as their psychiatric provider and feel as though I’ve come home. As I sent the box with Flo carefully tucked inside to Arizona, I told the story to the postman and started to cry. He had a similar story of his own.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Leave a comment

More than the Sum of its Parts

collage 2

Book collage in process

Composite/collage. Synchronicity in text and image, transparency, translucency, opacity. How do we make it work?

In order to write in any sort of intimate way about mental health and addiction, I essentially make a hybrid of characteristics of an individual, spanning time, place, gender, symptoms. The point is to paint an accurate image of what without focusing on the who, on the why without the where. For obvious reasons, this allows me to shine a light on an issue without breaking confidentiality, and allows me to honor without alarm. I want the reader to understand what goes on for people in this world of addiction and psychiatric disturbance, within that understanding we might see impact or at least volition for change.

It’s a dilemma. CNF (creative non-fiction writers) will often say, if you can’t tell the whole truth than don’t bother writing about it. Others will find it good enough just to blur the lines. Others use permission contracts and footnotes. At conferences I’ve listened carefully to experts such as Lee Gutkind and Susan William Silverman, Dinty Moore and Jacquelyn Mitchard. My work has been picked apart by editors and lawyers. I don’t have an answer except that there are narratives that need to be told and images that need to be made.

I collage 3-D memoir from mixed media and think about whether transparency can truly exist. I work in porcelain and encaustic as well as words, all radiant in their translucency. I think about politics and the opacity that crushes us. I am proud of these stories I write about people I have been honored to know.

Here is my latest, a Monthly Muse contest winner from New Millennium Writings, “The Sum of its Parts.”

https://newmillenniumwritings.org/nina-gaby-sum-of-its-parts-musepaper-2018/


Leave a comment

Original title: I’ll Give You Something to Cry About

https://roarfeminist.org/2017/05/11/still-training-for-the-end-of-the-world/

In honor of Hillary Clinton’s book which comes out today, which I prefer to call “What the Fuck Happened,” which has already garnered tons of hysterical misogyny and controversy (even though it’s just out)…I am reposting a piece I published on ‘ROAR: Literature and Revolution by Feminist People’ last May.

We changed the title to “Still Training for the End of the World.” Although in retrospect, the original title feels so right, you know when you look back and think, wow, what was I bitching about then?????

Sometimes I like to stand in the very spot where I conceived of this piece back in 2016. And while the husband still sits in his same comfy chair, the TV has a very different message. And I am pissed. I am pissed that Bernie Sanders did not shut up and pivot quickly enough to help avert this disaster. I am disgusted with the so-called “Green” and “Libertarian” party egos who did not have enough sense, among other things, to step down and say, hey lets get behind her before something awful happens. 

Something awful happened. And I’m still screaming.

roarfeminist.org   (donate!)


3 Comments

Telling, Breathing

 

 

“Show Don’t Tell” is the favorite meme of writing advice. Though, in guru Philip Lopate’s nodal book on writing the essay, I seem to recall that he does dispute this. His is a large book, one that I don’t carry around. Especially not on an overseas trip as now, to Ireland, to a writer’s conference. While at said conference, my most recent creative non-fiction piece is published back home, and I’m feeling quite “all that” until I look at it with a newly critical eye.

 

I have committed the sin: I told. I barreled ahead and wrote it all down thinking, well, it might help someone else– this exposition of clumsy forgiveness. It certainly helped me to write it and measure how far I have come. And here I am, telling you again. And I should just let you read it if you wish, in this amazing and loving journal Manifest-Station, while I breathe this cleansing sea air and stop apologizing.

http://themanifeststation.net/2017/07/21/not-quite-forgiveness-yoga-story/

So imagine what it is like to be in Ireland, 2819 miles from work, from the honorable but vicarious trauma saturation of my profession. It is as if I am slowly being wrung tight and stretched across the green field, lain across the stone fences, in the sun, drying out. Here on the Dingle Peninsula, once again forty years later. Long walks in the early morning and long days surrounded by like minded souls. Young Madelaine who reads her poetry with the cadence of a classically trained jazz singer as she dances us through her words. Beautiful Leanna and Suzanne, steel and the voices of angels. Elinor, so, so on point. Kathy and Tommy and Ann and Charles who layer their words with transparency of emotion that makes us all quietly gasp. Then laugh. Then gasp again. Judith who doesn’t do her homework the first day (there are tears) and then wows us beyond belief in the second class. Dinty who slices it up with kindness and precision. All of us so holy in our efforts. (I’m the only one judging me, of course.) And then we gather and sing and laugh and eat a lot of cheese. This cheese is very different from the cheese I ate on Dingle forty years ago. Many more choices today. And I am very different. Another story, another type of drying out. And here’s the newest essay, I can only say, I told you.


2 Comments

Non omnis moriar

 

Non omnis moriar, not all of me will die. A tribute. 

“Autonomy” from Poems New and Collected by Wislawa SzymborskaNon Omnis Moriar - Gaby

Mixed media, porcelain, paper, wood, text by Nina Gaby

In danger, the holothurian cuts itself in two/ It abandons one self to a hungry world and with the other self it flees/ It violently divides into doom and salvation, retribution and reward, what has been and what will be/ An abyss appears in the middle of its body between what instantly become two foreign shores/ Life on one shore, death on the other/ Here hope and there despair/If there are scales, the pans don’t move /If there is justice, this is it/ To die just as required, without excess/ To grow back just what’s needed from what’s left/ We, too, can divide ourselves, it’s true/ But only into flesh and a broken whisper/ Into flesh and poetry/ The throat on one side, laughter on the other, quiet, quickly dying out/ Here the heavy heart, there non omnis moriar—just three little words, like a flight’s three feathers/

The abyss doesn’t divide us/

The abyss surrounds us.

Wislawa Szymborska

Artist’s note: I had chosen a portion of Szymborska’s “Autonomy” as the epithet for my anthology “Dumped: Stories of Women Unfriending Women” published in 2015. The idea that we separate and we go on, we persevere, had become an important theme in my writing. The recognizable connections in this piece have to do with the recent death of the poet, the idea that we leave something behind– “not all of me will die” (non omnis moriar) and the encasement, the box, with its obvious reference to a casket. What is most interesting to me is the fact that I do not recognize these connections myself until the piece is done. Nina Gaby

 Another artist note: Every summer I submit work to two regional exhibits. UNBOUND is a book arts show outside of Woodstock, Vermont and where, a year before I made my first artist book, I was aquainted with the work of Szymborska. Her poem “A Contibution to Statistics” was made into an art book exhibited at the show. I made a deal with myself to get into the show the following year. I made good on that goal. Last year this piece, and another were not selected for the show, but my rambling, dissociative piece on a disintegrating ego did make it in, and I admit the whole thing surpised me. I tend to fall in love with my own work, be it written or visual or even the work I do with patients as a psychiatric nurse practitioner. The creative process has saved me every time, starting when I was four or five, and rejection is a fundamental and inevitable blow. It was not my disintegrating ego, at least on a concious level, but could have been. I have not heard back as to whether my submissions for this year have been accepted. My work is small, fragile, full of esoteric and crowded fragments of memoir. I don’t know if the fact that the judges have all been male has made a difference, or if my tiny, strange statements are too easily disregarded. I remind myself that I should focus on the process.

The second show is the Vermont Book Arts Guild members annual exhibit. It will run this year from July 6-August 25 at SEABA Gallery on Pine Street in Burlington, Vermont. There is an artist talk on Tuesday July 11. This group is a great resource. I will post more on this show after we set it up tomorrow.

http://www.bookartsguildvt.com

 detail Szymborska  Continue reading