I think you have a crazy life. You meet yourself coming and going all of the time, wrote my neighbor to me in an email.
My neighbors have been front and center this past month watching me come and go after my return from Rwanda. My life has been a mixture of activities in which one engages after being away for a year, such as filing my taxes and getting my teeth cleaned, blended with the things that one does to prepare to leave for a year, such as buying luggage and supplies, washing and packing clothing, arranging for things to be cared for in my absence. I explained that, as crazy as my life might appear to be to them, it was nothing compared to what it had been like to manage a patient-centered medical home and be ready to respond to people who didn’t feel very well 24/7. Filing my taxes while doing laundry was a piece of cake compared to the responsibilities associated with being a physician. Furthermore, I had no one to worry about but myself. I was enjoying myself.
Despite having spent several months planning a detailed itinerary of travel and appointments, so that I could get everything done in the time that I had, the month did hold a few surprises for me, however. The wooden chest that I had sent to myself from Zanzibar did not arrive in the four days promised. In fact, it was sitting in Addis Ababa awaiting a connecting flight to the U.S. I needed to get a Japanese encephalitic vaccine which, upon arrival at the travel clinic an hour away from my home, I was informed was the first of three, each of which cost $400. My labs showed that my cholesterol, which had previously been well within normal limits now exceeded them with my LDL, the “bad cholesterol”, nearly three times what it had been two years earlier. My Lyme specialist informed me when we had our scheduled phone appointment that his office staff had been mistaken and, if I wanted my prescriptions for my Lyme protocol renewed I would have to come see him in person. He was in NY, a mere two hours from Vermont where I had just been the week before and from where I could have easily traveled by car to see him if I had not been told that I did not need to see him in person this year. I was now in Florida.
Each time my reality shifted, I shifted with it until I reached a point where nothing surprised me. Again, arranging a last minute flight was simple compared to figuring out how to get a patient newly diagnosed with cancer into a Cancer Treatment Center of America as quickly as possible. Nothing of any significance was really at stake. And I love to multitask. I flew to NY for 24 hours. I ordered a huge box of nutritional supplements and repacked all my baggage to accommodate it. With each new expense, I adjusted my budget. When informed that my chest had finally arrived in Miami the day before I was to leave for Nepal, I set out for what was to be a twelve hour round trip to Miami to retrieve it. When I discovered it was damaged, I found out how to submit a claim to the airlines. By the time I headed to Orlando International Airport to go to Nepal, I realized that I had let go of any need to control how my life unfolded.
The most remarkable thing that happened during my month in the U.S. occurred when I finally had someone help me hang the artwork that I had collected over the past 47 years from my travels around the world, most of which took place in my youth. My house in Vermont was breath-takingly beautiful in-and-of itself. The hand-hewn explosed wooden beams and cathedral ceilings were what one noticed upon entering the house. My artwork certainly complemented it but it was not necessary. The house was a visual delight with empty walls, as I re-discovered when I emptied it of all contents before putting it up for sale the previous year.
My house in Florida is completely different, although it also has an open floor plan and cathedral ceiling. Everywhere are wide open white walls, like a blank canvas waiting to be painted with the colors of one’s life. After living in a house of wood, nestled in a forest in Vermont, I knew that I needed to be surrounded by wood, so my furniture, a mixture of Japanese and Scandanavian antique wood pieces circa 1950’s. I thought that all the indigenous artwork would complement it well, and had a general idea of where I would put things. What I did not anticipate was how each piece would “pop” visually when placed on an expanse of white. By the time we finished decorating, I found myself living in a museum whose pieces reflected the work of many different hands from around the world. Each wall had something new to offer the eye, and each wall reflected a part of my life. Just as I had been, my neighbors, as well as the handyman who helped me hang the art, were stunned by the transformation. There was a lot of stuff and yet, somehow, it had all found a place in the mosaic in which I now lived.
Some people collect pictures to remind them of their experiences. I collect artifacts. My house had become a three-dimensional representation of my life. Every time I look at a wall, I meet myself coming and going at different points in my life. Every time I look at a wall, I am surprised by what I see, bedazzled at how the juxtaposition of different pieces brings each piece to life in an entirely new way. When I designed the house, and eliminated all the alcoves that were in the original house plans to create an open space where I could display the artwork that I had collected over the years, I had no idea how truly liberating it would be for the pieces of art themselves. They now have a life of their own they could not have in the shadows of a traditional post-and-beam house. They now have room to express themselves more fully. Their flaws, many due to accidents over the years, become invisible when hung eight feet in the air. And I am now able to visually experience my many selves, and the many different homes around the world where I have studied and worked over the years, as one integrated and completely unique whole each time I walk into my house.