EMBRACE, definition: hold (someone) closely in one’s arms, especially as a sign of affection, especially as in: one’s orphaned parts
Early in life, our egos masterfully and poignantly craft survival strategies in response to the caregiving we receive from our imperfect parents: in that process we abandon some parts of ourselves and come to depend on the rest to handle what life brings. To maintain these strategies – we commonly call our them our “defenses” – we push these young ones away, out of sight, out of mind. They don’t get a chance to grow up along with the rest of our personality, to unfold with our soul.
Ultimately, these abandoned parts can become somewhat unruly in the ways of young children who demand our attention – whiny, hanging onto our knees, “inappropriate,” prone to tantrum or meltdown.
Eventually we may recognize these as behaviors of the younger parts of our adult personality that need growing up. That, in fact, our wholeness lies in embracing what we have been pushing away. And then we may need to do deep and forgiving work to nourish and integrate these orphaned parts of our humanity.
Well into my mature adult years, chronic disappointment and sorrow at the emptiness of not being met, not being understood, extended their shadowy, unacknowledged, and undermining influence into every single relationship.
I found 1001 ways to disengage, clam up or cut out early: anything to avoid that emptiness, to reject or abandon before I could be rejected or abandoned.
I am well-spoken, apparently at ease in the world, and not without professional accomplishments or spiritual “progress.” But my mother had worn black mourning velvet to school for months after her mother died. And I was profoundly shaped by her grief-stricken childhood.
Before I could take in the melancholic and disappointed child in me, embrace her and give her a place, grow her up, I had to sort out my own griefs from my mother’s. And before I could do that, I had to feel the depths of my own.
I am delighted to continue my interview series with healthcare interior designer and fellow herbalist Bethany Ziman. As an herbalist and healer, I know how important it is to hold a space and deep listening for each client’s story. A story constructed from ephemeral sensations, fashioned memories, and enduring emotional patterns, each with its own syntax and language. shaped by our culture and family, our neighborhoods and the physical homes where we grew up.
As we awaken and heal, we often deconstruct or otherwise rewrite our story. And yet we continue to live in our stories, much as we live in our material homes and workplaces. It had never occurred to me before talking with Bethany that designing interior spaces, especially hospitals, also starts with story: not typical at all, she told me, but a method that works for her. As you read on, you’ll also appreciate her “not typical” results.
During uncountable hours I have spent as a family member, friend, and advocate in more than a dozen hospitals over the years, I know how the physical environment itself wears me down. Monitors buzz and beep. Urgent voices page medical staff. Carts clatter. Ever-present fluorescent lights and high-def screens glare. Plastic everything, even the plants. Windows are sealed shut. Air heavy with deodorizing cleaners poorly masking medical odors.
The healing power of nature, vis medicatrix naturae, has been abandoned. Read on and learn how one talented woman harnesses and translates this power into one of the most challenged of modern environments: the twenty-first century hospital.
Bethany is Director of Healthcare Interiors at the Baltimore architectural firm Marshall Craft Associates, and owner, herbalist and health and wellness coach of The Herban Pharm, LLC. She is an LEED accredited professional (aka “green” designer) and a Registered Yoga Teacher. Bethany brings both thoughtfulness and improvisational delight to all of her work.
Finding inspiration in the natural world
Bethany first visited Hamilton’s Pool near her hometown of Austin, Texas as a teen.This natural pool was created when a limestone dome collapsed exposing an underground river. She described to me the wonder, awe and overwhelming sense of connectedness she felt to the landscape and the people who came here before her: “I remember thinking ‘Wow, I am sitting at the very spot where Native Americans sat with their families.’ I imagined them enjoying – just as I was – the beauty and coolness of the cave-like limestone canopy, providing protection from the scorching Texas heat.” That formative experience continues to influence Bethany’s design work and reminds her how vital it is to “tap into people’s sensory and emotional centers when designing places of healing, by incorporating natural textures and materials that we have co-evolved with from the beginning of time.”
An Interview with Bethany Ziman
Sara: It seems as if you begin writing your “story” for a design project with the same kind of empathic imagining you described at Hamilton’s Pool, re-membering within yourself what it was like for travelers of a totally different time, era and culture to enter that space.
Bethany: I do begin with what I call the “energetics” – an understanding of how a design can evoke sensory and emotional responses from different groups who will enter and move through a space.
I consider how to design the interior architecture to uplift their mood; evoke a sense of peace, comfort, and reassurance; encourage collaboration and a sense of community; even initiate a movement toward health and healing.
Patients, their families and friends, medical and maintenance staff – each group enters with a different mindset and agenda. I approach a Physical Therapy/ Occupational Therapy unit differently than a Neonatal unit or a Heart and Vascular unit, yet they all have over-lapping goals. I think through the implications of these different perspectives.
In addition to the energetics, I draw on both art and science. The art is a choreographed play, using various media – color, lighting, texture, noise reduction, line, rhythm, balance, and harmony. Evidence-based design principles also play a key role. Studies have demonstrated, for example, how the presence of a garden or even just images of biodiverse gardens, can lower blood pressure and reduce patients’ anxiety and their use of pain medications
Sara: Recently you completed the design of a new neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) for the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC). A NICU functions as a kind of sophisticated womb, in a sense, where premature infants can come to “full-term” development so that they can go on to thrive in their own family homes. In your story you set out to draw on the healing power of the natural world, what you call “its consistent complexities.”
Bethany: I was working on my Master’s degrees in Herbal Medicine and Health and Wellness Coaching at the same time I was working on the interior architecture and design and “the story” of the NICU.
As I learned more about the world of plants and plant medicines, I understood how we draw comfort from complexities that we don’t necessarily bring to conscious attention.
The UMMC NICU is designed with 52 single family rooms divided into 5 “neighborhoods.” People enter the NICU off an elevator lobby, passing through double doors in a floor-to-ceiling glass wall etched with a field of lavender flowers. I wanted to evoke our memory of grasses naturally swaying in the wind, which is an invisible but real energetic force. Even though the lavender motif is static, people may sense a natural movement that subtly breaks the static box of the built environment.
I was also learning about the energetics of plant medicines, when to incorporate cooling herbs vs warming herbs to create balance in the body. In the NICU I used the medium of colors, which are also cooling and warming, to distinguish different neighborhoods, each entered through it’s own “portal,” an architectural detail that you walk through to transition from one neighborhood to the next.
I strategically placed the orange and yellow neighborhoods on the north side of the unit so the colors would energetically balance and visually warm up the lower-lit northern exposure, and the blue and greenish-blue rooms on the southern side to balance and cool down the brighter southern exposure. Solar shades in the rooms – also with a lavender motif – are programmed to rise and fall with the sun, reinforcing and rebalancing circadian rhythms. I chose photographs of healthy and biodiverse Maryland environments guided by this same color palette – their harmony and balance enhances the identity and sense of place of each neighborhood.
Sara: This design story, you told me, also takes into account the reality that NICU hospitalizations can run to weeks and months, and so the families need both privacy and social support.
Bethany: In my herbal studies I kept coming across patterns in nature that repeat at progressive scales, called fractals. I saw that I could incorporate this type of patterning to transition from spaces supporting refuge, intimacy and family bonding to progressively expansive spaces encouraging opportunities for social and environmental support.
A family can stay in the room with their baby, “huddle” or draw inward, regain strength and bond. When parents want to step away from the room but are not ready to travel too far, they can wander within their neighborhood, which includes a “respite,” a large window seat with a view and an architectural bulkhead overhead – a “protective canopy” inspired by the natural formations like the one at Hamilton’s Pool. Here a family may encounter other immediate neighbors.
And as time goes on, a family may wander through the other neighborhoods and encounter a larger pool of people going through a similar life event.
Community naturally evolves through these casual encounters where parents can teach and learn from other parents and the medical staff.
The unit is laid out like a large rectangular race track. To travel from one neighborhood to another patients and visitors move at their own pace along a wood-look path. Along this inner track, they walk among images of nature, sheltered from the fast-moving medical staff speeding along an outer track.
Practically speaking, “neighborhoods” met the need to conform to fire and building codes and functional “zones.” Together the single family rooms and the neighborhoods provide opportunities for this range of privacy, social and care needs.
I wanted the high-tech critical care to fade into the background so the space would feel more nurturing and less clinical. The consistent complexities found in nature help bring peace and a sense of stability and reassurance to the worried mind. Where better to transplant these potent and viable seeds but in a healthcare setting?
Sara: What would you like readers to take away from your story?
Bethany: To be inspired to observe the world and beauty around them, to feel deeply, compassionately and with overwhelming gratitude. I find importance in investing in the time required to discover your gift – your passion, investing the time to develop it and then taking the time to share it with those around you who may be touched by the enthusiasm. I have learned that it often takes “going against the grain” on the road to self-discovery and being the driver of your own life but it is well worth the stance and I am happy to have been a rebel in this regard for most of my life!
It is a system designed for adaptability, resilience, and self-repair. It is designed for health.
Breathing fast and shallow, brow knitted, nervous system buzzing? Translation:I’m not getting enough oxygen, so how are you going to even think straight? You’ve got me set on overdrive and I can’t switch into recovery mode. Slow down. Take those three items off your to-do list. Take the whole list way less seriously. Take yourself way less seriously. Take a break and walk around the garden. Look, really look at how the flowers are made. How you are made.
Bloating and distended belly? Translation: I’m full. Put the other half of that green drink in the fridge for later. And for Lord’s sake, sit down and relax for a few minutes before you even start – give me a chance to get ready for the food, get some saliva and digestive juices going. When you’re standing at the kitchen sink or riding on the highway, I just can’t even get your digestive system going.
These are two of the messages my body delivered today, and I listened.
Some days I am too busy to listen.
Some days I listen and treat the messages as opinions of absolutely no merit or standing. My will To Do Important Stuff triumphs once again.
Spend too many days in one of those unresponsive modes, and I am headed for trouble: I begin to feel ill, when all my body is trying to do is repair its disturbed balance.
In this respect, I share the view of Hippocrates, the 5th century Greek physician often credited as “the father of western medicine.” He called this faculty the vis medicatrix naturae, usually translated as “the healing power of nature.” Physician and author Victoria Sweet writes in her extraordinary book God’s Hotel that a more accurate translation is “the remedying force of your own nature to be itself, to turn back into itself when it has been wounded.”
When we listen to the body’s speaking, we know when our vitality is strong and when it is depleted.
We can also be frogs in a pot being gradually heated, not noticing until it is too late to jump out of the boiling water: we play down the body’s messages of fatigue, achiness, funky bowel patterns, aches and pains that come and go or move around, fuzzy mind, irritability or lethargy. We hardly notice that patterns are being laid down.
Or, we may be quite aware of changes and seek medical assessment, only to be told that our lab numbers are fine, or handed an Rx for an anti-depressant.
As a vitalist, I would say there are preclinical changes happening that are not optimal – changes for which we do not have lab tests to measure what is going on. What we do have are sensations and observations, clinical evidence the body is trying to restore its balance. We also have stories that help us make sense of all this information: it is very common to have a sense of your health Before and After an accident, an injury, an acute illness, a disruptive life change. All this evidence can be assessed and translated into practical supports, among them herbal supports
As an herbalist in the vitalist tradition, I know there are plant friends from the mildest and food-like to the stronger and therapeutic that can:
aid and enhance our innate body wisdom rather than suppress its messages or burden it with side-effects
nudge our body back towards health
restore our adaptability, enabling us to mobilize a robust response to physical, emotional, and environmental stressors
rebuild our resilience, allowing us to rest, repair, and recover from those stressors
So, listen to your body today.
It is speaking to you, and it speaks the truth.
What is it telling you?
Read more about a restorative approach to health HERE.