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The Journey Within

Paula Laurel Jackson, PhD Transitions-

I started off my career as a concert pianist. For as long as I could remember, my identity was associated with the piano. “Paula, the pianist� was the tag I wore in order to interact with the world. From the time I was a small child I seemed to have exhibited an interest and talent in piano performance and my parents supported this greatly in offering me the best teachers and institutions to foster the gift. My teachers, and mentors equally did the same and I was always told that I would become a great classical pianist. By the time I was 8, I recall feeling the desire to expand my interests and explore other possible talents, say singing, or better yet writing. But, my teachers always said that if I did not focus on the piano, I would be lost. And so, I did what was expected of me and continued along the course, which was lovingly set out for me. I seemed to have forgotten about the initial pangs of interest in other areas, as I became completely dedicated towards the piano, went to an elite boarding school for the Arts, Conservatory and performed around the world for a while. I did enjoy moments of it, but I always felt as if something was missing. I needed something more. I quite my career abruptly and went into music management, managing a successful Chamber Orchestra and working on their educational programs. I felt that I had an interest in education and wanted to follow that somehow, and thought tat such a position would be fulfilling. It was not. And so, I searched further working as a cultural consultant, teaching part-time, doing social entrepreneurial projects, completed a PhD in Education and worked as an educational consultant for a few years. Those years whizzed by and I was constantly keeping myself busy, constantly running project after project, doing and doing and never stopping to really think about what I was doing nor why. I was living my life running after a future, which I was never able to reach. I had become lost, absorbed and obsessed with the little details and intricacies of my daily life while being able to perfectly and successfully ignore the actual process of just living and enjoying the moment. There was just always this "thing" hanging over me, which I needed to attain, and I refused to stop running, and let me tell you: I was fast runner (I literally was a sprinter when I was a kid). Nonetheless, I was on automatic, void of heart and soul. Life always has a wonderful creepy way of tapping at your shoulders (when you least expect it of course) as if to say “look, what the heck are you doing with your life?! Well, life tapped on my shoulders repeatedly. I simply was too busy running to acknowledge it. In fact, as I look back now, I realise that life not only tapped at my shoulders, but life nudged me on several occasions, really elbowed me, slapped my face and yet...I chose to ignore it. 2

As time progressed, I began to feel physically tired of running. I pushed and pushed and kept on pushing, until I physically was unable to run anymore let alone walk. I had become physically debilitated-run down to the core. It began with fainting spells, dizzy spells more and an entire year of chronic bronchitis. This was just the beginning. I was sent to various doctors to ascertain what was going on within my body. My days soon became filled with series upon series of appointments. I was seeing various doctors here and there. The more doctors I saw, the more confusion emerged as to what was wrong with me. My physical symptoms worsened, which naturally played on my emotional state. I began to feel victimised by this-unidentifiable-thing which was corroding my body. I isolated myself from my friends and avoided contact with people as much I could. My doctors had speculated everything from Lupus to MS, from Wilson’s disease to lymphoma. I was told that part of the problem was caused by something referred to as mitochondrial dysfunction. I was on several types of medication and nothing seemed to have worked, other than the not-so-desired side effects. On occasion, I was sent to spend longer periods of time in the hospital to confirm the various speculations. There was much conflict between what the various doctors were suspecting and what should be done. Chemotherapy, cortisone and radiation were all suggested, and I knew somehow that this was not the route, which would serve me. I knew that there must exist another way to heal what was going on. I need to find out what had caused this in the first place. There must be a source, and I was determined to find out. I spent my entire life saving and sold everything and borrowed money to find answers. I was desperate! After nearly two years of still-not-knowing exactly what was going on, my symptoms becoming progressively worse, countless hospital visits, several consumed bottles of numerous types of medications, pints of blood taken form my body and enlarged glands; a mistake from a nurse hospital revealed something quite incredulous.

During a usual blood-check, one of the nurses accidently made an X in front of the box indicating lead. The lab tested exactly what was Xd off and therefore tested for lead. The results revealed that I had extremely elevated lead in my blood. The doctors assumed that this clearly must have been a mistake and only due to the persistence of an assistant, did they decide to run the test again to either confirm or deny the initial results. The results were confirmed again.


My blood was then finally tested for heavy metal poisoning. My mercury levels were over 255 times over the “safe” limit. Lead, aluminium and copper were also in excess, although not as extreme. Where this all came from, we cannot figure out, but it appears that I lacked the capacity to excrete toxic substances from my body. My theory was that the accumulation may have occurred over a long period of time and only now manifesting itself in the form of disease. Due to the complex nature of this situation and one which is not quite the “norm”, and my decision not to take conventional medical procedures, I decided to embark an entirely new world of alternative and integrative medicine and a perspective on life, which would drastically change my body mind and soul forever.

I suppose that my journey truly began when I met Inga. I was sent to an anthropological hospital for an extended visit to determine which alternative therapies may be suitable for my situation. I was put into, what was referred as to as a “double room.” It should have more appropriately been called a tiny closet. Nonetheless, my roommate (I mean, closet-mate) was a 73 year-old lady who had been in for a “check-up”. As I gathered later, she had collapsed the day before. She had been in the room since the day prior to my arrival and had clearly claimed the room as hers. She was very visibly not happy when I entered through the door. I was encroaching her tiny space. As much as I could understand her sentiments, I had no choice. So, from the start, there was indeed a great deal of tension between us. This was clearly compounded by our health situation and all of the uncertainty that accompanied it. I certainly was not happy either. Nonetheless, we managed to deal with the situation by completely avoiding any eye contact or body contact, which of course was near impossible given the little amount of space we were forced to inhabit. On day 3, my roommate discovered that she had cancer, and that it had spread to all of her vital organs. She was told that it “did not look good”. The following day she began chemotherapy. Unfortunately, I could not help but hear the discussion between her and the doctors, as our beds were practically touching head to head. I felt horrible for her tried desperately to hold back my tears. Once the doctors left the room, I felt a great need to break the thick air of tension and finally asked her if there was something I could do. I know, such a stupid question, but I felt as if I had to do or at least say something. She shook her head, and with that, I knew that she just wanted to be left alone.


The following morning, my closet-mate began chemotherapy. A few hours after the procedure, my roommate began vomiting and choking, and all sort of odd noises resounded from within her body. At one point, she nearly fell off her bed in an attempt to go to the bathroom. I don’t know how this happened, but in a split second, I was on her side and managed to catch her in time before hitting the floor. I took her to the bathroom and brought her back into bed. She could not sleep of course and I heard every grunt and moan, twist and turn, gasp for air, and desperate cries. Tears were rolling down my eyes and I was biting my pillow so as not to let her hear anything. My heart was thumping with fear for her, with sympathy for her and with selfish anxiety for me wondering what if something “horrible” happens and the nurses do not come in time. I was the only one there. I just sat there in the dark with my thoughts going wild. I so badly wanted for morning to come and for the doctors to take me away for my own examinations. Finally, in the midst of the loud thumping of my heart, I heard her voice. “Ich habe Hunger! (I am hungry)”. "Wow", she said something, I thought. I asked her if I should call the nurse, and she said “Nein (no)”, an emphatic “no”!!!. “The food here will only kill me further!” And with that, we both broke into laughter. But this laughter was just like a little chuckle, it was a resounding, deep, heartfelt, relieving, emotional laughter from the both of us. I could hardly stop and each attempt I made, another huge bout of uncontrollable laughter would follow. I have no clue as to how long this laughter duet lasted....but it felt as if it had lasted forever. I felt so much lighter after we finally called things to a halt. I turned the lights on, and grabbed my rucksack. I had actually arrived prepared for the bad hospital food and had purchased some healthy snacks for me to get through this week. I pulled out my bag of snacks and gave it to her with a bottle of my coconut water. As I handed it to her she smiled. Her smile. Her smile was larger than life-and for the first time I could see that this, what I initially took for an old-harsh-looking person, was actually a very pretty and delicate lady. In fact, she as more than that. She was stunning and very elegant. She actually looked very young when she smiled and I was truly mesmerised by her beauty. Her smile was rather child-like, and pure. I could not stop smiling back.


And with her first bite of one of the snacks, she commented on how delicious the snacks were. Our first discussion was on food, and out of that exchange-other topics naturally emerged. We munched and we spoke and we shared and we munched. At one point, she began crying, saying that she wanted so badly to live longer. She had been married for 49 years and would be celebrating her 50th anniversary in February. Her great-grand-son was due in a few weeks, and she wanted to be there to experience his birth.

She was feeling somewhat hot and asked for me to open the windows. Then she got up and I assisted her to the sill, where we both gazed into the dark night. There was a fine cool breeze and we could see the dark shadows of the trees in the forest. She told me how much she loved nature, and about the garden she and her husband had at home. what do you most love about nature, she asked? I had really never given much thought to it before, and I told her just that. We spoke and spoke and spoke. And then she turned to look at me and said: you have never really stopped in your life to just be and enjoy have you? She looked at me again in a more serious manner and began telling me how she believed that most illnesses have an emotional basis. She spoke about the things she regretted not ever having done, each time looking into my eyes, to see how I would respond. She then asked me plainly: Paula, do you know who you really are and what you really want?! This question hit me like an arrow and I started to cry incessantly. “You have worked so hard your entire life to be the perfect girlfriend, the perfect daughter, student, the perfect everything-and have neglected to be the real you in the process. You feel as if you always need to be in control huh, but actually were not. This illness is your soul’s way of telling you let go and let be. You need to take the time to listen to your heart, and just be grateful for what you have. Be grateful that we can watch this beautiful nature, and stop running after things you don’t have as it means you do not appreciate what you do have. You will always be dissatisfied. Look at your self in the mirror each morning and love what you see, Paula. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. Love yourself. This is why you are here. Take real control of your life and create a life you love. Silence followed. The crying ceased. 6

What would my life look like if I took control and was “creator”? She asked. The question made me feel awkward, as if I was entering into foreign territory. It came out, albeit reluctantly, that I want to write. I want to write to inspire others. I want to write, and I repeated myself a few times and then continued, I want to write for children, have my own cultural television network, like CNN but by and for children around the globe to inspire people around the world to respect others, enable others to understand the “connectedness” of all peoples, cultures. Empower…I went on and on. I had never shared that desire with anyone before because it seemed absurd and idealistic. Her eyes were watering and big as if she was just as excited as I was. She grabbed my hands and told me that she felt it coming from my heart. Then she told me, as if she heard my doubts, that I need to stop worrying about how. By listening to my heart and turning off my mind, I let go and the answers will come. The morning of my departure, I woke up and played my favourite Brahms Trio from my computer, which I had brought along. My roommate loved this as well and told me that her grandchildren played the viola and cello. As I was began to pack my things, she asked me to sit and have my last breakfast with her. She unfolded the little tables, which were attached to our beds. When unfolded it actually looked like a little table, as they touched each other. She took some blue napkins which she found wrapped around one of her several flower bouquets and put them down to serve as place mats, in a diagonal manner. It looked pretty. Then she took one of the flowers from the bouquet and put it into one of our medical glasses, which were long and slender, and this made for a very pretty oneflower vase. I was excited and I could feel her excitement as well. I took out all of my remaining snacks and placed them onto a plate. One would have thought that we had not eaten in years by the way we spoke. We both spoke about how much we missed various foods and spoke about what we would eat as soon as we returned home. I had told her that I love making my own jams and marmalades, and she asked me what my favourite jam was. I told her blueberry. She looked at my oddly and then said not a word. All of a sudden I saw her reach for something under her bed. What emerged from this rather clever “hiding spot” was some oat cookies, and a jar. The jar was a bottle of her home-made blueberry jam.


She winked at me and said that she made this over the summer. Her husband brought her a care package some days before, but until now she had no appetite for it. The blueberry jam looked amazing, such a deep, intense purple, which instantly made my mouth water. She pressed the button for the nurses to bring us some bread, which really was the only edible thing in the hospital. As they came into the room welcomed by the sound of Brahms and a prettily decorated “table” they looked at each other and then at us, but dared not say anything. Then, just as we wanted to begin our meal, the doctors came in to begin her next chemotherapy session. This moment was awful for me, for now our little breakfast time, would be over before it had even begun. But, to my amazement, my roommate looked at them firmly and stated, “ I am not ready for you. I am having breakfast with Paula and you will come in when I am ready”. She said this in a rather loud, firm and direct voice-one I never knew from her. I wondered where she had suddenly received the energy to speak with such firmness. The doctors at first just stood there, agape and eyes wide-opened. I think that they really did not know what to do nor say. Without saying a word, they quickly exited the room.

My roommate and I looked at each other and laughed yet again, and laughed so heartily so happily so-full-of-life. We shared a fantastic breakfast-and one which I will never ever forget. During our last meal, she made a confession. She called herself “an old German lady”, with not much exposure. She pointed to me and said “your parents are from the Caribbean”, as she had discovered from our discussions. She told me that her initial apprehension towards me was not only due to obvious health situation, but also due to the fact that she had never spoken to a dark-skinned person before. She had assumed that we were “culturally very different” and felt uncomfortable. I listened. She said that “one often fears that which one does not know, and goes through life with closed eyes. Only now that I am at the end, my eyes are forced to open and all I see is beauty”. She went to explain that over the few days, once the ice was eventually broken between us and we got to know each other, she was amazed by our similarities. We had indeed over the days shared our most intimate thoughts and dreams and fears of the unknown, things I would not normally tell anyone and vice versa, at least so she said. She took my hands and told me that I reminded her of herself when she was my age. 8

As I was ready to leave, she hugged me tightly and I choked several times trying to hold back my tears. She handed me a bottle of her homemade blueberry jam. As she let me go, she looked into my eyes and told me not to give up-grab onto life as much as I can. Live in the moment, for only then will I find my path, and the strength to heal my body. "There is a reason we met. focus on feeling happy, cook and bake and please start writing now!" As I left the room the tears poured from my eyes and I could not contain myself. I asked the doctors how bad her situation was and they told me that she would more than likely not make it through the week. I returned home with a magnanimous urge to just write, write and write. I had this great urge to just express all that had experienced over the previous months, weeks, just HAD to come out of me somehow. As I wrote day in and day out for the weeks after my return, it became so clear to me that so many of my thoughts, experiences, had something or other to do with food. With that realisation, I decided to create a blog where I could share my passion for writing and cooking. I often think of Inga´s words and the time we shared will always remain special, however short a time it was. After my return home, on those days when I had more energy, I began baking and cooking more and more in the kitchen. To avoid having to move around, I had ordered 2 shelves from IKEA and had a piece of wood cut to size to be placed across it. It created a very purposeful island to make things easily assessable and it was great! I loved it and began cooking and baking-anything that inspired me and then writing about it. The time would simply fly by. I was in such flow and truly at peace within myself and I could not recall the last time I had this feeling. It was during these moment that I completely let go of everything and was able to actually forgot about the illness.

Cooking and baking and writing also assited me re-connected me to my community. I began producing large amounts of baked goods, at a rate that my household of two people could not possibly manage to consume. I would leave my flat with trayes of baked goods and gave them away-to the various taxi drivers who drove me, to the nurses and doctors who treated me-and well, just about to anyone whom I met. It was a wonderful experience!


I must admit, that when giving out all of the baked goods, some people initially looked at me wearingly, wondering, what on earth is this lady doing, giving me a cake. But 99 percent of the time, the giving of baked goods was met with utmost warmth. I will forever cherish the kind emails I get from people describing to me how my cakes accompanied them through a difficult weekend, and made it all the more bearable, or how they can taste the love and passion within the bread, the wonderful honest pure smiles I got. These votes of thanks and gratitude really warmed my heart tremendously.

My culinary journey, as I like to refer to it, has provided me with great strength and unprecedented peace to get through what was, and I hope will be, the most difficult time in my life. I really began to ascertain how much better I was becoming by the outcome of what was produced within the kitchen. As time progressed, I was producing cookies, cakes, tarts, pies, scones, anything in such massive amounts that I feel that nearly all of Berlin got some piece of it somehow. At least, I would have loved it if they did! The act of “creating� in the kitchen and through the written word, had become it itself a form of healing for me. Equally, the act of giving and receiving smiles, hugs, votes of thanks, looks that just touched my all gave me such immense strength to get through this daunting period. It has taken me to a place that is peaceful, safe and warm. I had finally reached a place where I felt nouished in mind, body and soul.


The Journey Within, Dr. Paula Laurel Jackson

The Journey Within  

An essay about transition

The Journey Within  

An essay about transition