Environment. Atmosphere. Ambiance. Wherever I exist at any given moment, the feel of a space matters to me. I feel like I’ve always been very sensitive to moods…my own mood, others’ moods, and the mood of the space I’m in and the day I’m living. For years now I’ve become very intentional about finding “inspired” spaces that will fit my mood and my mental energy needs for the day (my favorite thing to do in college was find as many different study spots around campus as I could). I’ve found that I depend heavily on my surrounding environment to nurture those feelings of inspiration, motivation, focus, and overall well-being. If I’m not in a good physical space, I won’t be in a good headspace to learn, work, and create.
The composition of a space, or my ideal environment for the day has always fascinated me. My late great-grandmother was a cook and even into her late years, she believed in the proper composition of a plate of food and flavors: warm, cold, crunchy, savory, sweet, sour (I can attest I am turning into this person as well). Much like how a chef creates a perfectly balanced meal, I believe there needs to be balance to the elements of my environment and space.
I worked night shift for about 2.5 years and I’ll be honest, I struggled. When switching myself back to “normal life” on my days off, I was so grateful for how natural light reset my mind and re-centered my soul. I’d force myself out of my dark sleeping cave and into the light: I opened the blinds, stepped outside, took a walk, or headed to an airy coffee shop filled with an abundance of natural light. This strategy did WONDERS for my mood, energy level, and for recalibrating my circadian rhythm. I transformed from a sluggish, groggy, unmotivated empty silhouette to feeling more “human” and “whole”. There is a calming, serene sense of healing and gentle warmth as I exist in the light.
Even though I no longer deal with “night shift hangovers”, I am still perpetually drawn towards the light and spaces with lots of windows. Some of my notable favorites include EPIC Software Headquarters in Madison (the campus was open to the public and I would walk around there for HOURS taking in all the light and scenery), the Milwaukee Art Museum, and the array of airy downtown cafes I frequent on my days off. The direct access to natural light is a truly transformative quality in these spaces, instantly bringing a sense of freedom, openness, and a breath of fresh air indoors. They melt away the sense of confinement naturally imposed by any walls, and allow one to be as close to the outdoors as possible, even if one desires or is required to stay indoors. In Rogier van der Heide’s 2011 TED Talk “Why Light Needs Darkness”, the lighting design architect expresses that light is essential to improving the quality of a space within the built environment, and that actually seeing the sun gives us a better life within this built environment. Similarly, Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier gives a nod to this notion as well, “Light creates [the] ambiance and feel of a place, as well as the expression of a structure”.
Heliotherapy, or the therapeutic use of sunlight is nothing new and radical; it’s actually a foundational concept in nursing, dating back to the days of Florence Nightingale, who advocated strongly that fresh air and sunlight were seemingly small, but essential components to promote healing. She believed not only in the scientific advances for a cure, but also in creating an environment in which to heal. This is a consideration that I feel has a tendency to get pushed aside when considering patients’ lives or our own, even though we are taught as nurses that one’s environment plays a major role in influencing health. I think of the way light enriches my own life, and my mind drifts to the incredible ways we could enhance our patients’ lives with more direct access to natural light, even in the hospital setting.
Some of you know this, some of you may not, but I was very heavily involved in music and the performing arts from a young age through most of college. In some way or another, music has been a part of my daily life and I’d go so far as to say it is a requirement in my day. I’ve never really known how to describe my taste in music…but I can tell I’m quite sensitive to different instrumental sounds, keys, styles of voice, and interesting or strong rhythm or beats (I attribute that to my inner percussionist…I live for a good beat). In comparison to others, I’m just more sensitive overall to how a particular song makes me feel, and I have a much more visceral, definitive reaction to whether I like or dislike certain music. To me, different sounds and beats fit different moods, and it’s very important to me to listen to the specific style of music that will fit my mood in the moment.
The inner physical reaction to music is REAL; in my current job at Children’s Wisconsin, we have a Music Therapist who sees patients all over the hospital and uses different instruments (including her own voice) to help them cope with the physical and emotional stress response to hospitalization. She pays close attention to vital signs and explained to me how she coordinates her tempo and rhythm of a song to the patient’s physical reaction to the music…there is truly amazing science behind this form of therapy that perhaps one day I’ll explore more, but for now I will hold on to my favorite memory of the role that music played in creating an ideal environment. The Physical Therapist, Music Therapist, and myself all tag-teamed a particularly distraught toddler while the patient’s parents were gone for several hours. We ended up walking the patient off the unit and around the hospital, me pushing the IV pole, the PT holding the patient in her arms, all while the Music Therapist quietly strummed her guitar and sang lullabies to the patient. For over an hour, we existed in this healing environment we created, despite less-than-ideal circumstances. It will always be one of my favorite memories as a nurse, where the power that music has in creating an ideal space was manifested.
I’ve just recently had the realization of how important this element of a space can be. Looking back, I remember my friends and I would rub peppermint oil on our wrists and neck before every single exam we took in nursing school…the scent was vibrant and refreshing, and it became an important part of creating our environment of focus. I think my first “game-changing” exposure though to the power that aroma has in a space was when I worked in Madison as a Transplant Nurse. In addition to our usual transplant patients, we also cared for a very specific patient population who all underwent a rather cutting-edge atypical “transplant” surgery. These patients were often younger (in their 20’s-30’s) and had dealt with debilitating pain that took over their lives before their surgical repair. I loved caring for these patients for many reasons, but one of them being that they all had the “healing environment” nailed down. Most rooms I would walk in, it was very obvious you were in a hospital, but I just loved the feeling these patients’ rooms had…I’d walk in and immediately be greeted by dim lights, the patient with headphones on listening to their favorite music, a bed full of their favorite blankets and pillows from home, and I swear almost all of them had an essential oil diffuser. The healing aromas of citrus and lavender and peppermint filled the air and I remember forgetting I was even in a hospital room. Once again, these people were creating the environment they needed, even in less-than-ideal circumstances.
I won’t lie, I’ve been having difficulty finding beauty around me lately and finding an inspired space. We’re coming out of a less-than-ideal time of year in Wisconsin. Late winter is just that time when daylight is short, the snow isn’t magical anymore and is just a nuisance to drive in, cars are covered in a thick layer of wintery grime, not even a poppin’ outfit can make me feel good, I feel a sickly translucent shade of pale, it’s too bitter cold to spend any time outside and the world just seems gray, lifeless, dull, and in desperate need of a deep exfoliation/moisturizing treatment overall. This isn’t new, this phenomenon happens every year, but I think it’s been particularly tough in the era of a pandemic. But if I’ve learned anything from my anecdotes here, it’s that in less-than-ideal circumstances you can still find that inspired, healing, refreshing space that will fit your mood and mental needs…you just need to put in some extra effort to create it.
So let’s get to work, my fellow creators! Let’s create our spaces, our environments, with attention to ambiance and mood. Find yourself some direct access to natural light for some heliotherapy, breathe in your favorite aroma (I am officially on the essential oil diffuser train and I LOVE IT), think about how you want your playlist to make you feel while you get ready in the morning, work out, cook, answer emails, etc., get yourself some greenery (fake plants low key changed my life and my living room), think about what you want to accomplish in your space at the moment, do you want to be alone in a crowd where you could (safely) perch yourself in a café, or do you want to steal away to a hidden nook for pure solitude? There are options aplenty!
I am hopeful, the feeling is stirring…there is something beautiful coming. But never forget your own power to create, to make each day, each space you exist in, your masterpiece.