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  • Writer's pictureJaime Pollard-Smith

A Pilgrimage from Pouting to Presence

We have this possibility of doing a pilgrimage every single day. Because a pilgrimage implies in meeting different people, in talking to strangers, in paying attention to the omens, and basically being open to life. And, we leave our home to go to work, to go to school, and we have every single day this possibility, this chance of discovering something new. So, the pilgrimage is [for]... people who are open to life. -Paulo Coelho (in an interview with Krista Tippett for

In his heartbreakingly beautiful memoir, When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi writes, “Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete.” I took numerous trinkets of wisdom from his writing, but this phrase struck a major chord. I know I am such a hodge podge mash up of all the people who have passed through or are still present in my life. It would not be fair to say I’m a melting pot because I can still identify who and where I gathered some of the transformational nuggets of knowledge that shape me. To make Kalanithi’s words ring even more true, he emphasizes that the process of patching ourselves together is “never complete.” We are a work in progress.

Each new person I take time to come in contact with has the potential to leave a lasting brick in the wall of me. Likewise, each place I visit and see can take up residence and shape my perspective. Creating myself involves synthesizing everything I see, hear, touch, taste and feel in this big, beautiful world. How do I continue to construct knowledge and build new understanding? By embracing what a wise Instagram hashtag once taught me - #keeplearning. Keep reading. Keep writing. Keep traveling. Keep talking. Keep listening. Keep watching. Keep moving. Keep living.

But there has to be more. Life is not measured in hashtags (I hope). Kalanithi uses the phrase “relationships we create.” It will not suffice to just keep doing stuff. We must commit to actively create. We need to cultivate relationships with people and places in order to gain and appreciate human knowledge. This concept sends me drifting through the pages and pages of my life; all the people I have known and all the places I have been that left me “schooled” for better or for worse. What if I never embraced my life in NYC? What if I never took the time to find and cling to my “mama tribe” when I first became a mother? What if we never answered the call for open space and adventure and moved to Colorado? What if we never started a CrossFit community in our garage? What if I had not taken the time to cultivate deep friendships within my profession of teaching? I shudder to think of the tremendous void and all the human knowledge that would be missing from my life.

When we left Colorado, I was devastated. I left a piece of my heart there and spent the first couple of years here in Charlotte pouting. I thought that life out West had changed me, which it did. It awakened me to adventure and a passion to explore all that this world has to offer. By failing to practice flexible thinking, a term we use to pry my Type A child from his rigid world view, I blatantly dismiss the fact that my life out West was a new beginning and perspective, not one self-contained experience. Living in Colorado left a lasting impression on me, but I have to leave that behind and become fully present in my new life to reap the rewards of a world of opportunity in a different, slightly more humid home on the East Coast.

In a little less than six years, I have grown more as a person since moving back to North Carolina than I ever have in my entire life. I have found friends who show me genuine honesty and encourage me on an inward journey to discovery of my truest self. Neighbors invite me to step outside my comfort zone and push my physical capabilities. Co-workers introduce me to knowledge and ideas that help challenge and shape my world view. Teachers remind me to listen more and talk less. Colleagues engage me in difficult, soul-searching conversation that rattles me at my core. Each relationship has a vital and unique role in my “chance of discovering something new.” I have to halt the lamenting for what I once had and decide to show up and cultivate human knowledge in a new place and with new people. This shift has literally been life-changing but remains fluid, occasionally slipping from my grasp on days I still mourn for the life we left behind.

Kalanithi was 37 when he lost his battle with cancer. So very young. He was my age with a wife and brand new baby girl. Yet his voice whispers through the pages for us to wake up and take action. Our pilgrimage is never complete. We can’t hold all this life has to offer in one person or one place. We must take the time to cultivate relationships. We can get to know people and have real, life-enriching conversations. Yes, #keeplearning, but that and so much more. Ask questions and really listen to the answers, all the many answers. Then take pause and start building that human knowledge one relationship at a time.

A note about this post…

I wrote this reflection on Kalanithi’s book a couple of months ago. I was saving it for a rainy day because other topics kept popping up. Originally, I had written a blog about my daughter for this week; then, election day happened. I wanted to write about the hurt, sadness and fear engulfing me at the moment, but I am yet to formulate my thoughts and feelings in a communicable way. I am sitting with all of it on my heart and mind, hugging people (weird, I know), and trying to have as many conversations as possible. This reflection on Kalanithi’s book does not reveal my post-election heart; however, it does address one of my goals moving forward. The human knowledge I have built is the very reason I have been so deeply affected emotionally by the events of this week. Presence, awareness and relationships have opened my heart to the painful truths we all face as a nation. As Toni Morrison quite simply states, “Can’t nothing heal without pain, you know.” Thanks for reading.

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