I’m pretty sure that when you look up the word inspiration in the dictionary you will see a picture of this week’s Everyday Hero, Alicia Kachmar, to the right.
I had the pleasure of meeting Alicia when she first moved back to Pittsburgh about 3 years ago. Alicia joined the now-defunct Pittsburgh Craft Collective and was ready to start making waves. She was such a breath of fresh air then, with her willingness to get involved and try anything once.
As the years have passed, I have watched Alicia handle her illness and treatment with such grace and dignity. She always has a smile on her face and is doing what she can to make the most of her life. Which, by the way, is a hell of a lot.
This girl is a published author, a teacher, a crafter, a nursing student…
She also happens to be my hero.
I hope you enjoy learning more about Alicia. I know I did.
Name: Alicia Kachmar
Job/Title: Freelance writer/copywriter/Etsy shop owner/teacher/book editor/nanny/future nurse
Where you call home: Pittsburgh, PA
Where are you from, where are you located now, and what led you there?
I was born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA and then moved to western Massachusetts for college. After graduation, I moved to New York City and lived there for 7 years before returning to Pittsburgh, where I’ve been for about 3 years now.
What led me back to Pittsburgh? That’s a loaded question! Two years into living in NYC, I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease called ulcerative colitis. I went through about five years of numerous drugs, treatments, tests, doctors, hospitals, all with very little long-lasting success or “remission.” When I was living/dying in a hospital in NYC a couple of years ago, having run out of medicine options, I decided to move back home. I knew that I had reached game-over and multiple major surgeries and grueling recoveries were on the horizon. I also knew that my best chance of mental, emotional, and physical survival was going to be in my beloved hometown, near my beloved family.
If we really knew you, what would we know?
Although I am extroverted and social and tend to live my life “publicly”—what with a blog, Etsy shop, teaching jobs, and the attention that goes along with doing magazine and book work, etc.—I am a profoundly private person. I feel like I have a Don Draper complex in that way, internalizing a lot and being a bit self-destructive at times. So, in that sense, I don’t think it’s possible to really know me! If it weren’t for writing, I would explode/implode because I find it hard to talk about what I’m really thinking and feeling to anyone. My not-so-secret dream job is to be a lighthouse keeper in one of those lighthouses far-removed from the “mainland.” I could very easily become a recluse a la J.D. Salinger….
Where do you find your inspiration?
First off, because I decided to go back to school for nursing once I was recovered (enough) from all my abdominal surgeries, when I see the word “inspiration,” my first thought is “the inhalation of air by means of the lungs.” My brain has been overtaken by science! I like this literal definition of “inspiration” because the word really does mean “to breathe in” or “to breathe deeply.” Just as air is ubiquitous, but at the risk of sounding saccharine, I find inspiration everywhere.
I read a lot and definitely derive inspiration from certain books, specifically for becoming “stronger” in my head in regards to my health challenges; the same goes for the people in my life who are dealing with the same diseases I am, or even different diseases but to a similar chronic or life-threatening degree. A lot of my Etsy shop creations are inspired by experiences as a teacher of small children (daycares, preschool, after-school program). I could hang out with little kids all day, every day (and I used to do that for a living!), and just soak up all their imaginative thoughts and stories.
What “rules” do you live by?
There’s a Moroccan proverb that I have repeated to myself almost daily since I happened upon it in 2006, a year or so after I got sick: “The world has not promised anything to anyone.” It is so simple, and yet it helped me immensely to emerge from the “it’s not fair” mentality that comes with a serious and sudden chronic disease diagnosis.
I read something similar, I think in a Camus essay, that asked a question like, where was it ever said or written that life was going to be fair? It’s like, okay, it’s NOT fair…now what?! You can’t just stop there and be stuck in that “it’s not fair” place forever. I feel grateful for all of the positive and exciting experiences I’ve had in life, and as for the bad, I try not to feel punished or wronged. I don’t “deserve” the good, nor do I “deserve” the bad. I don’t have good health but I was never promised it in the first place, so it’s nothing to be permanently bitter about.
What three things, people, or roles have contributed most to your success?
My teachers: especially those in high school and college. I was always a straight-A student, but very passively so; it wasn’t until high school that I actually became interested in and enthusiastic about academics and reading books. I hated reading! When a high school English teacher mentioned an author I had never heard of (Willa Cather), it was like a light bulb went off: I felt stupid for not having heard of her, so I went to the library after class and found her shortest (ha) book. I remember sitting there in the library and thinking, how many other authors have I never heard of? At some point, I transitioned from “I don’t want to feel stupid” to “I want to read everything and learn everything there is to learn.” That pivotal moment set off a domino effect of voracious reading, and eventually led me to pursue a degree in English at Smith College.
My nurses: there have been so many! Every time I was in the hospital, it was an absolutely horrific and pain-ridden experience that sucked the life out of me, but I always left having felt I made new “friends” in the nurses. Not only did they take of me in a critical and medical way, but they talked to me and took an interest in me as a person, not just as a sick person. Those emotional connections made in the hospital were so life-affirming. I was so intensely affected, in mostly good ways, by these nurses, that I started going back to school for nursing 2 months after my last surgery. I don’t love using the word “calling,” but because of my health experiences, I feel drawn to the field of nursing in a really deep way.
“Courage”: I am very interested in all meanings, interpretations, and narratives of courage. I have read many books that try to get at “courage” from different angles: JFK’s Profiles in Courage , a WWI doctor’s The Anatomy of Courage , Rollo May’s The Courage to Create , and Paul Tillich’s The Courage to Be. I could go on and on about these books and others, and I have done A LOT of writing about each of them already, sometimes in my notebooks and sometimes on my blog; I’ll just say that I hope to incorporate their writings and my own into my further graduate studies and research in the field of nursing, down the road. Rollo May writes that “Courage is not the absence of despair; it is rather, the capacity to move ahead in spite of despair.” I want to learn about, in particular, how chronically ill people like myself “get through” it all, over and over and over again with no promise of “cure.” And how can the difficult emotional process of being physically ill be better “handled” and recognized as a hospital patient. I’m not a fan of trite phrases like “be positive” and “keep your chin up” because they oversimplify psychologically complex situations.
What was the worst piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
My stubborn, independent, and free-as-a-bird self makes it difficult to listen to or follow advice in general. My doctors love me but find my “tough cookie” nature challenging. I’m wary of statements that begin with, “If I were you, I would….” Sometimes the worst pieces of advice, however, help you fine-tune what you believe, are thinking, or want to do. My Commencement speaker at Smith College was Madeleine Albright, who used a boat analogy about being a doer, and not a drifter, in life after graduation. That one should chart a course, have a precise plan. Well, I was quietly having a panic attack in my seat when I heard this, because I didn’t have a life plan or a timeline beyond moving to New York City to be a teacher. Over the years, however, I realized that one can be both a doer and a drifter, or a drifter who does, a doer who drifts. Not having a plan does not mean not achieving or making an impact.
What women inspire you ?
Having attended an all-women’s high school AND college, I have encountered A LOT of inspirational women, not to mention all the amazing women in my family. But if I have to get specific, then: Florence Nightingale, the suffragettes, Gloria Steinem, bell hooks, Simone de Beauvoir, and my fellow “sicky-poo” friends, Rose and Steph, who face considerable health challenges but continue to persevere, do so much good in their jobs (unions and social work, respectively), and in general, love life.
What books are sitting on your nightstand or are currently on your must-read list?
The books I read the most these days are textbooks for nursing school, so that would currently be Microbiology, Probability and Statistics, and my GRE book. But as for non-school reading, I’ve got a bunch started: Don Quixote, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, Dangerous Liaisons, Zelda (biography), and Kerouac’s Pic. There are also psychological/sociological illness-related books by Arthur Frank that come with me everywhere I go: The Wounded Storyteller and At The Will of the Body.
If there’s one thing you could change about the world, what would it be?
Just one?? More respect and love, less criticism and judgement.
Famous last words:
“Life’s like a movie. Write your own ending. Keep believing, keep pretending.” Jim Henson
“One must go further, one must go further.” Kierkegaard
“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” Kahlil Gibran