Tag Archives: brain surgery

Sins of the Father…Friday Fictioneers.

Nobody believed me. Not even my own mother. It was 1941. Yet, the Kennedys  were already an institution, inscrutable, and you could sense the Camelot legend peculating in the wings.

Of course, I could never say they’d made a mistake or got it wrong, especially when it came to one of their own. Yet, I’d nursed Rosemary Kennedy before and after the procedure, and knew her as she was. Such a beauty. I’d heard the rumours, but there was no justification. It was a crime.

Every week, I took her flowers, but her father never came. He didn’t make mistakes.

100 Words

….

Please don’t ask me how a photo of an asylum reminded of the tragic story of Rose Mary Kennedy, who was given a lobotomy in 1941 at her father’s request and spent the rest of her life in one. To read more about her story, you can click HERE.

This has been another contribution to Friday Fictioneers hosted by Rochelle Wishoff-Fields, where we write up to 100 words to a provided photo prompt. PHOTO PROMPT © J Hardy Carroll.

Just to account for my absence last week, I stumbled across yet another extraordinary family story and I’ve had to fully immerse myself in the details before I could even begin to understand or explain what happened.

In my last post, I wrote about my grandmother, concert pianist  Eunice Gardiner. Well, I’ve always known that her father was a Merchant Mariner with the Adelaide Steamship Company. However, I’ve known almost nothing about where he went and which ships he served on. So, I was quite excited to find a random newspaper reference online which placed him on a collier called the Dilkera which crashed into a small steamer, the Wyrallah in The Rip off Port Melbourne in 1924. He was Second Mate and a witness at the inquiry. Six men tragically lost their lives when the Wyrallah sank and many of them were married with young kids, so these deaths hit particularly hard. Daddy wasn’t coming home. It’s been quite interesting reading the inquiry reports in the newspapers and realizing just how fine a line there was between those who lived and those who died and even the fact that the accident happened at all. Indeed, if you only tweaked a few details, they would have remained two ships passing in the night.

Meanwhile, I’ve had a crash course on shipping protocols, geography, technology. While Melbourne’s one of Australia’s largest cities, I’ve only been there a couple of times and if I had to describe the city, I would’ve mentioned the trams, the Yarra River, fine dining, art exhibitions and the rag trade. I’d never thought of the sea port, even though we sailed out of Port Phillip two years ago when we caught the Spirit of Tasmania across Bass Strait and through this very same Rip which has claimed quite a few lives over the years.

Now, I’m trying to assemble all of the pieces and write the story.

Best wishes,

Rowena

A Journey Without Steps…Friday Fictioneers.

All this motivational quackery was rubbish. My journey of a thousand miles was never going to begin with this step, and it wasn’t going to head straight up a flight of stairs either. Surely, there was a lift? Yet, I couldn’t bring myself to ask. Twenty-five years young with the rusty joints of an eighty year old, I was done explaining. I’d shut shop. It was much easier to stay home. Yet, that wasn’t a luxury I could afford. Lingering between the lines of disability and wellness, I had to work. If only I had the wings to soar….

….

For those of you who’ve known me for awhile, I live with some chronic health and disability issues. When I was 25, I was diagnosed with hydrocephalus and had brain surgery to insert a shunt. My road to recovery felt like it was straight up the side of Everest without any safety equipment or assistance whatsoever, even though I was not alone. I really had comprehensive and loving support from my family friends and particularly my OT at Mt Wilga, who really helped me get through this incredibly hellish experience. Yet, I was the only one who could walk in my shoes. I was the only one who truly knew what it was like to put one foot after the other. I still had a job when I was going through that and yet my return to work date kept getting put back and their were complications. The valve of the shunt malfunctioned and I needed further surgery, which I really didn’t expect to survive. By this stage, returning to work seemed hopeless. My relationship had all but ended and it was a bloody hard slog. Yet, through all of that I always saw myself as a career woman. Work was very important to me. I ended up getting a part-time job and then landed what seemed to be my dream job in an advertising agency but the hours were very long and it was very stressful and one night I collapsed at Central Station from sheer exhaustion. I had to slow things down. Find a new path. One that wasn’t quite so steep and allowed me to heal. This was a huge life lesson for me and I clearly remember being told that I was a “human being and not a human doing”. I have a lot of adjustment to do and that is ongoing.

I would like to take this opportunity to raise awareness of the kinds of barriers people face when it comes to returning to work or finding a job when they have a disability, health issue or are just battling with life. How can we make their path a little bit easier? How can we reduce the load? What are we doing as a community to make their battle worse? Indeed, the finger of blame falls too quickly on the survivor instead of a helping hand.

Lecture over.

This has been another contribution to Friday Fictioneers hosted by Rochelle Wishoff-Fields. PHOTO PROMPT © Jilly Funell

Best wishes,

Rowena

 

The Journey Home…A Personal Quest.

“Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.”

– Matsuo Basho

For those of you who have been following my blog for awhile, you’ve probably sensed that I’ve been grappling with something. Something like a whole lot of random puzzle pieces, and wondering why they won’t all fit together. Arranging and rearranging them and then darting down another wombat tunnel (these are rather long and extensive by the way) searching for another missing piece, hoping that this time, I’ll finally be able to see the entire picture. Or, at the very least, have all four corners and the edge pieces in place.

Fueling this quest has been a sense that something isn’t quite right, which might’ve been blown off as anxiety or misplaced perfectionism if the story had been a little different.

Scan10098

The Good Little Girl.

Of course, the general recommendation was “to go with the flow”. The only trouble being, that I was beyond the flow. Moreover, nobody ever presented me with a map or gave me any directions whatsoever to try to find the flow, let alone a lift. Indeed, since whenever, I’ve never gone with the flow or even known what it was.  Hence, why I’ve called my blog “Beyond the Flow”.

Rowena 1981

Here I am in Year 6 aged 12. The Serious Student.

Lately, this sense of not going with the flow re-positioned itself, and I felt more like I was living in between the lines where I perhaps don’t belong to either group but see something in between that other people miss. This perspective is also rather interesting when you look at it from a visual perspective, as you’re inhabiting that white space between two sentences. Not that I can actually read either sentence, as I’m up too close. It’s all a blur. I’m just there. Indeed, I could well be fast asleep, and quite at peace in what actually seems an uncomfortable, or even isolating position.

Rowena Dressing up

I used to love dressing up and performing. My brother and I put on little shows at home.

By the way, I didn’t say that I was alone. I’m not. Indeed, I’m actually starting to wonder just how many of us hover in between worlds not really knowing where we belong and yearning to find our home. Or, perhaps we/they have reached a point of acceptance, or even giving up, and have pitched a tent where they are and set up camp.

For many of us, there’s a complicating factor which heightens this sense of living in between the lines. Of not going with the flow. Even, grappling to know who we are within our own skin, before we can even attempt to work out how we can find our place in the outside world.

Scan10439

The Irrepressible University Student. You can see I’ve jumped right out of my box by now.

Personally, my struggle to know and understand myself raised up into something of a tsunami wave, after I was diagnosed with hydrocephalus or fluid on the brain when I was 26. Apparently, it had been there since birth, but randomly became symptomatic in my mid-20s. Suddenly, thanks to my diagnosis, I had an explanation for being quirky, uncoordinated, and not fitting in. Better still, I had a cure. A magic fix. I had brain surgery and was given a shunt, which not only reduced the pressure in my brain and improved my coordination, it also felt for a time like the lights had gone out. Indeed, I started to believe that the theatrical, extroverted independent woman I had always been, was largely the fabrication of this disease. That all this pressure in my head, had made me disinhibited. That at least some percentage of who I thought was me, was in actual fact the disease stepping into my shoes and even inside my very skin and taking over.

Poetry Reading

Performing My Poetry in Paris in 1992.

This, of course, left the door open for way too many questions, and they not only moved in, but also made themselves at home.

Indeed, it left many doors and pathways open as I grappled to find some rock solid sense of myself. That core at the very centre of my being. The bit that is left, when you remove and take off all the layers and external forces and just is.

“To know yourself as the Being underneath the thinker, the stillness underneath the mental noise, the love and joy underneath the pain, is freedom, salvation, enlightenment.”

Eckhart Tolle

Much of this exploration has either been unconscious, or going on in the background while I’m getting on with the realities of life. If you’ve lived with this , you’ll know what I mean when I say the front screen is running but there’s another screen running behind closed doors, behind the curtain, or even somewhere at the back of your eyeballs (the eyes being the window of your soul). I never intended to live and operate like this, and I must admit it’s been very frustrating. I’ve really struggled to know quite who I am, and then to confound it further, I developed a debilitating auto-immune disease, which side-swiped me like a massive monster truck. Of course, it didn’t stop to see if I’m okay, or to even help me get my bearings. It just kept going.

“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.”

Aristotle

Anyway, as I said, I’ve been niggling with this in the background and moving very much by feel. I feel comfortable, belong and really thrive in some settings, but in others, I shrivel up and am almost screaming in my skin to escape. I feel awful. There doesn’t need to be an explanation. Indeed, there often isn’t one.

Performance Queanbeyan 1886

 

I am coming to wonder whether it’s been this struggle within myself, which has taken me so deeply inside my family history. Indeed, now that I’ve found the missing piece of the puzzle, it feels like this is what I’ve been searching for my entire life. It wasn’t a coincidence that I wanted to swing from the chandelier. Or, that I wanted the be an actress right through high school (in addition to being a journalist). There was this pull from somewhere deep within my DNA, which didn’t connect with Mum and Dad or anybody in the near vicinity. However, deep within the lines of historic newspaper text, there it was. My grandmother’s grandmother performed in an amateur Minstrel Show in Queanbeyan, near Canberra. While it wasn’t New York, the programme was printed in the newspaper, and she wasn’t only the pianist. She was also acting. Indeed, Lizzie Johnston was playing Louisa in a romantic farce: The Rival Lovers. Finally, I had permission and acknowledgement of who I’ve always been. A constant beyond the ups and downs of life and collisions with life-threatening illnesses. An extrovert who doesn’t need a stage to perform, and can even perform in words upon the page, just like my kids sing and dance across the stage. Indeed, I don’t need a drink to perform a on stage either. Rather, I need someone to tie me to my seat in the audience.

Of course, that is not to say we’re pre-determined by our genes. However, personally I found it very encouraging that someone else in my family has been down this road, and I’m not crazy. That it wasn’t the result of too much pressure on the brain. It’s simply me. Moreover, there are quite a few performers on both sides of my extended family tree.

Aunty Rose & Kookaburra.JPG

My Great Great Aunt, Rose Bruhn, owned an elite hair and beauty salon in Brisbane but could also make kookaburras laugh on command, had a budgie who recited reams of Shakespeare. She appeared with them at charity fundraisers where she also performed poetry and she played the violin.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

– Robert Frost.

Rowena Lizottes

The humble violinist. I was actually a rank beginner when this photo was taken, but I have an in-built sense of theatre.

However, I’m not sure that this discovery is going to change a hell of a lot. These days, I’m pretty content with what I’ll call “my lot”. I’ve been doing some performances on my violin, which isn’t quite the same as jumping out of a cake or swinging from a chandelier, but I now understand a little better why I wanted to perform, and wasn’t content to only play alone at home.

While this journey is incredibly personal, and having problems with your brain isn’t something to brag about, it was a story that needed to be shared. While it’s been a catharsis for myself, I wanted to reach out to people grappling with similar issues, and hold your hand. We are not alone.

The Missing Piece

Lastly, I wanted to share an animation of a favourite book of mine by Shel Silverstein: The Missing Piece . It might be simple, but it’s very profound.

If this post connects with you in any way, I would love to hear from you via the comments.

Best wishes,

Rowena

I Isabel Bishop…Letters to Dead Artists, A-Z Challenge.

Welcome to the Letter I! As you may be aware, my theme for the 2018 Blogging A-Z Challenge is Writing Letters to Dead Artists.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t come up with an artist starting with “I”. So, I had to hit the pavement. Go out on the prowl and pick one up. Since no one was throwing a party, I was back to my old friend Google, who never fails to deliver “something”.

Initially, I was going to write to Australian artist,  Jean Isherwood, who painted a series honouring Dorothea McKellar’s iconic poem My Country. However, since most of my readers are from overseas, I decided to look further afield. Finally, I stumbled across American artist, Isabel Bishop, and let’s just say there was a spark across a crowded room. She’ll be accompanied by Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5

What initially attracted me to Isabel Bishop’s works, was her paintings of young office women in New York’s Union Square. Although they’re clearly from a different era, they reminded me of myself as a young woman working as a marketing professional in Sydney’s CBD. When I look at her Young Woman 1937, there’s real determination in her eyes. She’s heading somewhere. I also felt myself drawn into Tidying Up and could well imagine myself looking in a mirror and touching up my lipstick on my way to a meeting, or heading out for Friday night drinks. Yes, these people were very familiar.

Isobel Bishop Tidying Up Indianapolis Museum of Art

Isabel Bishop, Tidying Up, Indianapolis Museum of Art Collection

Moreover, I’ve also walked through crowded city streets. Squeezed onto over-crowded trains. While I’ve never been to New York, in so many ways, these scenes are even more familiar to me and my world than scenes of the Australian outback. I know what it is to be caught up in the rush of a thousand feet. Indeed, when I was in Sydney with my daughter the other day, I was taking photos as we walked through Central Station Tunnel. It’s a very long pedestrian tunnel and like Union Square, hosts such a menagerie of life…buskers, beggars, the homeless, vendors selling The Big Issue… There’s also that same sense of movement, which preoccupied her work. It’s a movement which I find a little scary, because it seemingly has a life of its own. You’re being pulled along or sucked through this tunnel, and there’s this suction you can’t escape. That if you fell, which for me is quite a possibility and indeed, I was using my walking stick, I’d be trampled underfoot and  disappear…a modern casualty.

Not that Isobel Bishop, portrays the subway in this way. That’s just the horrors of my own over-anxious, catastrophizing imagination and I won’t even blame the movies.

Anyway, I wasn’t satisfied with a fleeting superficial introduction. I had to delve deeper. Find out what made her tick…and tock. What was she thinking? What was important to her?

I read a few bios, but there were no quotes and no real sense of the woman behind the canvas. Then, I fortunately stumbled across an aural history interview from 1959. Yet, although this interview spanned 25 pages, there was only one anecdote which stood out:

ISABEL BISHOP: Well, for an anecdote — this is a silly thing that happened a long time ago. It hasn’t great significance, but it was rather shocking to me. I had gone to Union Square where I had been for years of making little pen drawings because I found them so refreshing to me, and I was doing this and a drunk who was next to me said something which I didn’t answer. I simply went on drawing, whereupon he got up and collected a mob, and this was a most appalling thing because I had been drawing over there and he went and got this man and others and they surrounded me like this and he said, “What do you mean by drawing my picture?” And I and he pulled my book, and his hostile crowd gathered around me, and he said, “She sells them to ‘Life’ magazine.” And I told them no, and there was no use arguing with them. They really were very hostile. So I tore the page out and gave it to him and rescued the book just simply for the sake of my own sense of things and progressed slowly toward the edge of the park. I posted myself by the side of a bench where a neat-looking man was sitting, and I began sketching again because I felt that this is my square, and if I simply shrivel — I mean I’d be routed and it would be no longer my square. This is an issue of the greatest importance. So I drew again with these people hovering around and saying , . Whereupon this man I was counting on, you know, to stand by me, got up and joined them, and “What does she mean? Let’s run her out of the square. What is she? Is she the capitalist or something equally obnoxious?” So I did leave the square and approached a policeman nearby and said, “These people have prevented me from drawing in the square.” And he said, “Do you have to draw in the square?” And he wouldn’t come back with me or do anything about it. So I felt deeply hurt and, though I still live there, I don’t draw as much in the square for it just simply hurt my feelings.

HENRIETTA MOORE: That’s why you went underground?

ISABEL BISHOP: That’s right. I was driven underground. I find no one watches me at all. I draw down there and nobody notices me. 1″

I’m not sure how much this reveals about Isobel Bishop the person, but it was a good story. It provides something of her, the artist behind, or perhaps I should say, in front of the canvas.

One last thing I wanted to mention, is that Isabel Bishop was married to a neurologist. That was quite a red flag to me. If you’ve been reading through this series or following Beyond the Flow, you might recall that I live with the neurological condition, hydrocephalus, or fluid on the brain. It was only diagnosed when I was around 27 and despite having an Honours degree from the University of Sydney, my mental capacity plummeted on just about every front…memory, movement, personality the works. The ambitious, career-focused young woman was dead in the water and I never really came back. Sure, I had surgery and they put in a shunt to drain away the fluid and reduce the pressure (my head must’ve been something of a pressure cooker with stew spitting out my ears beforehand.) However, I was different. As soon as I woke up, I knew someone had turned down the volume. I don’t think about this very often. The wound is still so raw, that if I even touched it with my pinky, I’m know there’d be a never-ending scream. Yet, life goes on. I became someone else. Paradoxically, in many ways, I was allowed to become myself. After all,  I really am more of a writer and creative than a business soul. Pursuing that almighty career, had cut me off from all of that.

Anyway, without any further ado, here’s my letter to Isabel Bishop…

Letter to Isabel Bishop

Dear Isabel,

A few nights ago, I stumbled across your work online, and was touched by your portrayals of young office girls and how you brought them to life. Indeed, you took women out of the home and opened their horizons back at time when the world was just opening up.

Thanks to these trailblazers, women like myself could launch themselves into the business world without a second thought. Well, as it turned out, there was a second thought further down the track, as we tried to launch through that invisible glass ceiling. Important principles of gender equality, like Equal Pay are still a dream.

What is wrong with the place? How can what’s between your legs determine your pay packet and your trajectory up the corporate ladder, instead of what’s between your ears and how hard you work? You don’t hear much about this anymore but occasionally the ripples rise up into a wave, and actually make it onto the news.

However, this is not my battle anymore. I’m just trying to make it out the front door. Have a coffee with a friend. Actually, seeing my friends has also become something of a pipe dream. We bump into each other somewhere for a passing chat, but who has time? Who can find a mutually vacant hole in the uber-busy schedule? How I’d love to stand around and chat to my friends like the young women in your paintings, especially without someone telling me to hurry up and putting me down for talking too much. Is it asking too much to borrow ten minutes from “mother time” to be myself?

Humph. I had no idea I was going to share all that with you. It just came out…an impromptu rant. I’m sorry, but I won’t delete it. Cover up my longings like you might paint over a mistake. I wrote it. It’s out. Let those thoughts have their own life, and see what comes back. Not everything is meant to be covered up or painted over.

By the way, I’d love to spend a week sitting with you in Union Square. I’ve never been there, or even to America but I’d love to see it through your eyes and hear more stories. Not just about what it was to paint, but also to be there. Absorb it all like breathing…in through your eyes, and out through your pen and brush. How incredible!

Warm regards,

Rowena

PS Thought you might like to hear this again: Frank Sinatra: New York!

Letter From Isabel Bishop

Dear Rowena,

Each person has their own patch of ground…their own road to walk. Not that I’m suggesting that we’re islands, but you can only ever be yourself. That’s like a symphony with so many different notes and instruments coming together, that often it becomes a cacophony, and not a song. That’s okay. We often make noise, before we find our song.

Don’t be so hard on yourself! It just takes some of us longer than others. You’ve had some pretty monstrous challenges, and yet you minimise how far you’ve come. Try to be the violinist or the dancer who has conquered the odds. Yet your capacity to write and express the challenges of the human soul, didn’t pop out of a box of Cornflakes. You made that happen. No one else.

Just because you haven’t finished that book yet, don’t put yourself down. You’re still finding your words, and getting closer every day. Your time is just around the corner. I can sense it. Indeed, you should go and get one of your notebooks and etch your name on the spine. Feel what it is to have your very own book. Feel it in your gut, your soul, in every part of your being. Only then, will you have enough faith to make it happen.

Good luck.

Best wishes,

Isabel.

PS Stick this photo montage up on your wall. Have faith!

Sources

1 https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-isabel-bishop-12431

http://www.phillipscollection.org/research/american_art/bios/bishop-bio.htm

 

Poet in Paris 1992: Maestro

I wasn’t allowed to touch you.

Yet, you played my heartstrings

like a maestro making love

to his cherished violin.

Mesmerised by your song,

I swooped deep into your soul,

forgetting even how to fly

because we were one.

You and I connected through

a love far deeper than touch

our spirits knitting together,

stitch by stitch, into one.

You spoke my language.

Sang my song.

How could I ever grasp

why our love was so wrong?

That when spirits knit,

man and woman always risk

flying into the flame.

A flame which can burn!

That two should never

blur into one.

We each need to walk

in our own pair of shoes.

I was but young

but you…

you were not.

You should have known!

After playing on my heartstrings,

finding my song,

you cut me off with a knife.

Threw me back in the pond.

Alone, late at night

on the banks of the Seine,

La Belle Dame Sans Merci,

I am haunting this city of pain.

Yet, soft in the distance,

a violinist plays Vivaldi’s Spring.

A bud of hope in the darkness,

I now hear the baby birds sing.

Rowena Curtin Written 8th November, 2015 reflecting back on Paris July-August, 1992.

I know most poems are meant to stand alone and not come with some sort of dictionary or encyclopaedia attached but since when have I followed convention and why should I start now.

Here’s a bit of a backstory to Maestro.

It is very exceptional for me to write a poem and put it out there in any way, shape or form, on the day I wrote it. I am a great believer in stewing the words and making sure there’s a well-developed sense of flavour and complexity expressed as simply as possible. My Dad would say that I treat my writing like a fine wine. It needs to mature.

However, this is an old story so it’s been stewing long enough. Although, I could probably tweak it a little more here or there, this poem also tells a story and I don’t want to change that story just to produce a perfectly structured poem with perfect rhythm. It’s a very intense poem and intense emotions are jerky, uncooperative and don’t just flow. They’re awkward.

In this instance I am writing about a terrible heartache I experienced as a naive 21 year old in Paris when I was backpacking through Europe. I spent much of the trip actually living in Heidelberg, Germany and through Church I made an incredible soul mate who was never going to be more than a friend and yet I guess it’s almost inevitable that one of both of us was going to get burned. Not in the usual sense of a romantic involvement but while I still believe men and women can be friends without things crossing the line, there’s a difference between being friends and sharing each others’ intimate thoughts and feelings. Perhaps, you are made of tougher stuff than I. HOwever, in my experience, somebody usually gets burnt to an absolute charcoaled crisp.

At 21, I didn’t understand all of this and just bounded in where angels feared to tread.

I haven’t thought very much about this situation for a very long time. Now, happily married with two kids and two dogs, it’s a very long time ago. It’s only because I’ve been researching my time in Paris that I’ve been revisiting this very closed book.

Poets have a reputation for being a bit “emotional”, “intense”. I was all this and more in Paris. Leaving our hotel very late at night and writing beside the Seine til something like two in morning as orange reflections danced along the river near Pont Neuf, I was so out of my mind with grief that I perceived the dangers but was somehow detached from my self, almost an observer. Fortunately, I was staying with friends, who helped patch me up a bit but also realised I wasn’t good. They put me on the train back to Heidelberg. It was either that or go home. I was fortunate and very blessed to be welcomed into quite an expansive Church community there and lived with a German family I had stayed with before. All these people really were angels in disguise.They took me in as a stranger and brought me back from the brink.

It took quite awhile to find my feet and over time, I came to understand that another force was at work. That my desperate need to be understood and connect were borne out of an undiagnosed medical condition. That I actually had a harbour in my head, which was placing pressure on all sorts of areas of my brain, with, in many ways, quite intriguing results.

This harbour is known medically as hydrocephalus or fluid in the brain and was possibly caused by my very difficult birth. When I was 25 and had moved to Geraldton in Western Australia thinking I was “stressed” and once again was pursuing “love”. I was having trouble with this spinning sensation. Feeling dizzy. When I flew home for Christmas and visited my GP, I couldn’t touch my nose and this was just the beginning of my rapid descent into neurological chaos. I ended up having brain surgery where they inserted a shunt to drain away the fluid and to manage the pressure. It took over a year to recover but the surgery made an incredible improvement.

When I look back on this brain of mine, it really was a ticking bomb and I had no idea what was going on in between my ears. I know I often say that about my kids but in my case, it was incredibly true.

I have wondered how different my life would have been if I’d been diagnosed when I was younger. While it might have made many things easier, I have no doubt that my parents would NOT have given me that ticket to Europe for my 21st. That I would have been wrapped in cotton wool and been considered “special”. Potentially too special to really live. I am really glad that I was able to experience independence and stretch my wings, even though I had a few more crashes than most but at least I saw the world.

By the way, just a point on the violin references, I have been learning the violin for the last 3 years and I’m currently learning to play Vivaldi’s Spring. There are a few tricky bits and my teacher beautifully explained how Vivaldi was trying to mimic the sound of the baby birds…the sounds of Spring. So, not unsurprisingly, these images have entered my verse.

I don’t always like a happy ending and perhaps prefer something more realistic. However, considering the anguish in these Paris poems (yes, there are a few), I also like to offer a bit of hope because I didn’t stay stuck in that very bleak pit of despair. Although it took awhile and a lot of support, I did get through.

I am hoping that by sharing this experience, that perhaps I can encourage people to hang in there through the valley and hope and pray that the light will return. That things will improve.

Anyway, if I don’t get to bed soon, a different light will be appearing…the sun.

Thank you so much for sharing this journey with me. It means the world.

xx Rowena

N is for Neuroplasticity: Changing Your Life.

Welcome to N for neuroplasticity on the Blogging A-Z April Challenge. My theme for the challenge is: A Few of My Favourite Things and while neuroplasticity might seem left-field, I really want you to follow me on this journey because the power of neuroplasticity has radically changed my life and understanding how it works, can help you as well. You can read an overview of my journey in my About page here: https://beyondtheflow.wordpress.com/about/.

While I can appreciate that neurplasticity might sound intimidating and be a trigger to flick to another blog, it is not as complex or mentally challenging as you might think. Nor is it some wafty, unproven fad. It’s a proven, scientific process, which has been championed by Canadian psychiatrist, Dr Norman Doidge through his two books: The Brain which Changes Itself and The Brain’s way of Healing.

In other words, it’s not a fairy story.

Neuroplasticity is really quite a simple concept when you explain it properly and when you harness its strength, you like me, will experience absolutely miraculous change. Unfortunately, you will still experience those “stubborn mules” which prove stubbornly resistant. However, at least, you know you’ve done your best to try and move them!

From what I’ve learned about neuroplasticity, we shouldn’t just be teaching kids the 3Rs but also how we learn. Some basics on how the brain works such as “use it or lose it” and how “practice perfects”. That our success or failure is based less on innate talent than hard work and that it takes a lot of hours…at least 10,000 to be precise, to even have a chance of making it to the top of our field. That success just doesn’t arrive on a silver platter.

Of course, some people have been blessed with bigger, faster engines but if they leave them in the shed, they’ll soon be overtaken by apparent snail power and left behind.

If you and your kids can get a grasp on how this works, you’ll never look back. You’ll still have ups and downs but you will be more empowered and skilled-up to tackle them more effectively. There’s little doubt you’ll be working harder but I guarantee you that whatever you apply yourself to, will see results. It’s as simple as:

1+1 = 2

It’s not rocket science.

Perhaps, the simplicity of it all is what stops people from having a go. We’d much rather put our faith in a much more complicated, mystical route than sticking to potentially tedious, repetitious practice and hard work…going over and over and over our mistakes until we have overcome them and “got it”.

Diagram showing brain activation while playing the violin.

Diagram showing brain activation while playing the violin.

As a musician, I’ve experienced this first hand. Instead of playing my favourite sections of a piece over and over again, my teacher gets me reworking the rough bits and playing them over and over again. She doesn’t say: “Play it again, Sam”. Being somewhat of a slavedriver, albeit a very nice one, she says: “I want you to play that section 10-20 times a day to get it right”. This sort of detailed practice is quite foreign to me as I just want to get up there and play, especially to an audience but you can’t do that straight away. It might be a year’s worth of practice on that one piece of music to bring it to the level of perfection where it can be performed. That’s a lot of hard work behind the scenes. However, once I have reached that long-awaited moment of victory, it’s like nothing else. A real eureka moment and I’m running down the street naked like Archemedes carrying my violin. Well, not quite but you get my drift!

What is Neuroplasticity?

Neuroplasticity, also known as brain plasticity “refers to changes in neural pathways and synapses due to changes in behaviour, environment, neural processes, thinking, emotions, as well as changes resulting from bodily injury.[1] Neuroplasticity has replaced the formerly-held position that the brain is a physiologically static organ, and explores how – and in which ways – the brain changes throughout life.[1]

In The Brain Which Changes Itself, Norman Doidge M.D. a psychiatrist and researcher set out to investigate neuroplasticity. He writes “that the brain can change itself. It is a plastic, living organ that can actually change its own structure and function, even into old age. Arguably the most important breakthrough in neuroscience since scientists first sketched out the brain’s basic anatomy, this revolutionary discovery, called neuroplasticity, promises to overthrow the centuries-old notion that the brain is fixed and unchanging. The brain is not, as was thought, like a machine, or “hardwired” like a computer. Neuroplasticity not only gives hope to those with mental limitations, or what was thought to be incurable brain damage, but expands our understanding of the healthy brain and the resilience of human nature”. http://www.normandoidge.com/?page_id=1259

This brain plasticity isn’t just something for the laboratory or people experiencing chronic medical conditions or disability. It affects us all and is a more “scientific” explanation for what we have always known: “Use it or lose it!!” Indeed, our brain is constantly remoulding and fine-tuning itself.

To get an idea of how brain plasticity works, picture an old fashioned telephone exchange with all those cables plugged in. Our brain is built of these cables. So for example if we keep getting angry, those anger pathways will keep getting bigger and bigger just like exercising a muscle. Moreover, the bigger these pathways become, the angrier we will become unless we take action.

Conversely, each and every time we appease our anger and breathe deep, count to three whatever it takes, those neuropathways shrink and actually disappear. These are actual, physical changes in the structure of our brains. The brain map is different.

I have experienced these changes myself after undergoing brain surgery to treat hydrocephalus. I have experienced many changes but probably the most surprising is that I can actually play the violin and I now play in an ensemble. That takes some pretty complex brain and physical developments, which I never thought possible. I only took the violin up to help my daughter.

Neuroplasticity and Acceptance.

At the start of 2012 after a serious health scare, I set a personal challenge. I applied neuroplasticity to the serenity prayer:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The courage to change the things I can,

And the wisdom to know the difference.”

-Reinhold Niebuhr

You see, since forever, people have been telling me to accept things and quoted that prayer. Yet,  the trouble was that I simply didn’t know what I could change and what I had to accept and that’s what I decided to put to the test. I didn’t really set out with any clear cut goals but I was needing to lose some weight, which is a tough call when you’re taking prednisone AKA the “fat drug”.

It was during this time that I heard about brain plasticity and also the 10,000 hour rule and so what I was starting to appreciate was that I wasn’t set in stone. That all these words I used to describe myself, both the good and the bad, weren’t indeed words tattoed on my forehead which couldn’t be changed. They were more like stepping stones or train stops on a journey. I didn’t have to stay there. I could apply a bit of elbow grease and I could move on. Indeed, I was now in the driver’s seat and with the accelerator pushed to the floor, I was flying.

That was until I drove straight into pneumonia followed by a flare up of my auto-immune disease, which really was attacking my lungs this time and threatening my very existence.

Yes, neuroplasticity couldn’t fix everything.

However, my lungs have also responded to the same kind of repetitive practice and hard work which I’d applied to practicing my violin, except in this case I focused on building up my healthy lung cells instead of focusing on the damage and limitations. My lung volumes have since increased from a recorded low of 43% to 62% and are currently stable. In a sense it was a miracle and also the result of medical intervention but it also takes ongoing hard work.

Speaking of which, it’s time for me to start walking before that all important tide comes in and puts me out of business.

Living in a tidal zone really reinforces the need to carpe diem seize the day because “the tide waits for no (hu)man.”

Xx Rowena

PS When school goes back next week, I’ll be having to reacquaint myself with my violin. It has been rather neglected of late and I don’t want to lose the progress I’ve made!!

Sources

http://www.normandoidge.com/

[1] · Pascual-Leone A., Amedi A., Fregni F., Merabet L. B. (2005). “The plastic human brain cortex”. Annual Review of Neuroscience 28: 377–401. doi:10.1146/annurev.neuro.27.070203.144216.

A Lifesaving Journey with Anne Frank!

In the opening lines of The Diary of Anne Frank, Anne shared the excitement of unwrapping her diary: “Dear Kitty” …a gift for her 13th birthday. Likewise, on my 13th birthday, I had a similar rush of excitement when I unwrapped Anne’s diary, which was a gift from my mother, along with an empty journal to get me started.

Anne Frank writing in 1941.

Anne Frank writing in April, 1941.

Mum was forever trying to get me interested in reading but she also encouraged and nurtured my writing. When I was around 11 years old, she’d taught me how to spell “enthusiastic” and I was as proud as punch with my new word and liberally started adding it to my compositions at school to receive that all-important red tick and VG in the margin. That same year, Mum also gave me a thesaurus. Although it took me a few years to really master it, that precious book opened my mind to the real possibility of words and engendered a real love of words themselves. Words…not just as part of a sentence, or telling a story but words as individuals. All of a sudden, I could appreciate their unique sound and imagery in the same way you can appreciate the beauty in a single, musical note.

Anyway, having connected so strongly with Anne Frank, not unsurprisingly, I wrote my journal entries to: “Dear Anne”…the perfect friend and confidant. That said, to be honest, writing to her was a bit like staring in a pond at my own reflection. She knew, understood and accepted me in a way I didn’t even accept myself.

Of course, I wasn’t conscious of any of this at the time. I just wrote and wrote, pouring out my very troubled heart to Anne Frank in a way that I couldn’t with anyone “real” at the time. After all, who can? As we traversed the years, Anne became drawn into and even a very part of my heart of hearts.On reflecton, I suspect these outpourings to “Dear Anne” were like writing to a much older, wiser part of myself. An inner dialogue with and to that essential, spiritual part of my being, which The Bible describes as having God living within us.That God was somehow speaking to me through her words…or was that my words or even His words??? Ouch! I’m so confused!!

There were so many, many times when writing in my diary saved me from that swirling vortex of pubescence, which really can engulf a teenager and certainly wasn’t unique or peculiar to me…just part of growing up.

After all, being a teenager can be a very perplexing and challenging time. As if simply growing up wasn’t hard enough, when you add all those surging hormones and mind, body and spirit all get thrown into the mix, you have one very explosive pressure cooker. As parents often lament, it doesn’t take much for the lot to explode! Writing to Anne Frank via my diary, was a kind of pressure valve, letting out the steam before the pressure cooker exploded leaving splat all over the ceiling.

“I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”
― Anne Frank

Although I related intimately to Anne Frank, well you might question that connection. After all, we were two complete strangers living in such different worlds at different  times. What could we possibly have in common?

An snapshot of Anne's original diary.

An snapshot of Anne’s original diary.

“I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”
― Anne Frank

Anne Frank was born in Germany in 1929 on the eve of the Great Depression and was actually the same age as my Great Aunt. Indeed, they were born only months apart, which has come to intrigue me. With the rising tide of anti-Semitism, the Franks fled to Amsterdam and ultimately went into hiding in the Secret Annexe where she was not only in hiding from the Nazis but was also living under the microscope in impossibly close quarters with her parents, sister and other residents. Indeed, she had to share her bedroom with an old, cranky male dentist, which seems highly inappropriate through modern eyes!! That would be a living hell for any teenager!!! Anyone!!!

Frank Family Photo May 1941

Frank Family Photo May 1941

What did I, a girl born in the late 1960s in sunny, suburban Sydney on the other side of the world during a time of peace and economic prosperity, have in common with Anne Frank?  The casual observer would say that a bad day was having to walk to school or fighting with my brother for control of the TV… such trivial concerns in the overall scheme of things!!

However, underneath the surface, my situation wasn’t quite that straight-forward, which was no doubt an another reason I connected with Anne Frank. We didn’t know it at the time but I was living in a weird sort of prison all of my own.

Anyway, beyond her circumstances, Anne Frank also expressed so much of the frustration, angst and confusion of being a teenager and she did so in such a way that millions have found solace in her words. Just like me writing away at my desk in suburban Sydney, millions of young women have also addressed their journals: “Dear Anne”.

Anne wrote about her strained relationship with her mother and living in the shadow of her perfect sister, Margot. She also felt that she was being constantly criticized by the other adults in the annexe who simply didn’t get her. These are experiences most of us can relate to and so through her words, we found a mirror of our own struggle as well as a much loved and needed friend and confidante.

I also related to Anne Frank as a person as well. We are both extroverts, wanted to be journalists and have inquiring minds. Both of us were obsessed with asking “why?”. We were both fascinated and intrigued by people and what makes them tick. We also struggled with our relationships with our mothers. These commonalities bridged the many, many gaps which lay between us. She was my friend, my confidante and at times, it seemed like the only person on this planet, who had ever walked in my shoes because we both felt a sense of being different, misunderstood and outcast.

“People can tell you to keep your mouth shut, but that doesn’t stop you from having your own opinion.”
― Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl

Anne Frank also became the perfect soul mate for any teen, or anyone at all for that matter, who grapples with being different for whatever reason. Anne Frank’s sense of difference not only involved being a young Jewish girl being persecuted by the Nazis. Once living with her family in the annexe, her sense of difference stemmed more from everyone else in the annexe and it certainly wasn’t easy for her being the youngest and feeling like she was being treated as a child, even though she had become a young woman. At times, Anne feels persecuted by everybody in the annexe and feels she can’t do anything right. Haven’t we all been there?

“Although I’m only fourteen, I know quite well what I want, I know who is right and who is wrong. I have my opinions, my own ideas and principles, and although it may sound pretty mad from an adolescent, I feel more of a person than a child, I feel quite independent of anyone.”
― Anne Frank, The Diary of Anne Frank

However, as my journey continued beyond the turbulent teens, I outgrew calling my journal Anne, although I’ve never outgrown my love for her. Once I’d left school and started university, I discovered that people come in all sorts of packages and that diversity is a blessing, not a curse.When I was backpacking through Europe back in 1992, I visited Anne Frank’s House in Amsterdam, which was certainly an incredibly special, deeply,deeply personal experience. I have never forgotten what she meant to me and how writing to her saved a drowning soul so many times all those years ago.

It was only as my journey continued that I came to realise just how much Anne Frank had helped me. All my life, I’d felt different but didn’t know why. I had this deep sense and knowledge that something was wrong but couldn’t work out what or put a name to it. There was something deep and unfathomable going on and I searched, really ploughing the depths it all but it still remained a mystery. Once I reached university, I found out I wasn’t so alone and there were indeed thousands like me but still that nagging doubt persisted. Something was wrong.I developed an intense interest in psychology, philosophy, literature, prayed and wrote angst-ridden poems in an almighty quest to try and unravel my own inner mystery and somehow understand myself.

Meanwhile, I was diagnosed with serious anxiety.

It was only when I was around 27 when these seemingly vague symptoms stepped out of the closet and spiraled out of control, that the mystery was revealed. After feeling like the room was spinning round, I went to the GP who asked me to put my finger on my nose, a classic neurological test and I missed. He referred me to the neurologist and I was diagnosed with Dandy-Walker Syndrome, a variation of hydrocephalus. Suddenly, a myriad of weird symptoms fell into place and the unexplained started to make sense. Apparently, I’d had this all my life and it was probably caused my my very difficult birth. Although the symptoms had always been bubbling quietly under the surface, six months after diagnosis, I descended into a neurological hell, which was right out of Oliver Sack’s: The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat.  I went on to have brain surgery and was given a shunt, which managed the pressure in my head. It was a long road back to anything approaching “normal” and I went through six months of intensive rehab where I learned to walk again (this time without staggering around with the broad gait of a sailor on a shaky skiff) and well as overcoming serious short-term memory issues and having virtually no ability to organise myself.

Unwittingly, Anne Frank helped me survive those torturous teenage years where the symptoms of the hydrocephalus were there but written off simply as “Rowena”. Since re-adjusting the settings, it’s been quite a journey…incredibly frustrating and slow moving at first but intriguing in retrospect. While I am still me, there are definitely traits that weren’t “me” at all and were symptoms which have since faded, if not gone altogether. Even now, almost 20 years after surgery, I am still noticing improvements but still have some lingering struggles.  I can now play the violin, ski but more importantly, I met and married my husband and have largely been able to look after our two children and the dogs. I also returned to work as a Marketing Manager, although chemo two years ago has put work on hold for the time being.

I am still an extrovert and full of all the contradictions I shared with Anne Frank and I hope, have a deeper sense of compassion for people who don’t fit the norm and maybe don’t have a “Dear Anne” they can call their own.

These days, I am also a parent and next year, our son will dip his toe into that swirling vortex of pubescence when he starts high school. Somehow, I can’t see him writing to “Dear Anne” but he does Scouts and plays the guitar and I hope these outlets will bridge the gaps for him.

Meanwhile, our 9 year old daughter dabbles with writing in her diary and also loves drawing in there as well. I’m looking forward to giving her a copy of The Diary of Anne Frank when she turns 13 so she can also perhaps experience that same connection I found so many, many years ago.

Last year, I stumbled across this interview with Anne Frank’s father, Otto, who spoke dare I say frankly about reading her diary. This is an absolute must!!! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AWRBinP7ans

Did you ever write a journal growing up and any suggestions on helping boys get through the teenage years would be appreciated!!

xx Rowena

PS: I think you’ll all agree that Anne frank achieved this goal:

“I don’t want to have lived in vain like most people. I want to be useful or bring enjoyment to all people, even those I’ve never met. I want to go on living even after my death!”
― Anne Frank

Why Stay Calm, When You Can Really Panic???!!!

Keep Calm and Carry On might work well if you’re a rock or the proverbial brick. However, if your passions are somewhat more easily aroused and your blood starts to boil and explode despite going to your happy place or bathing in the Pool of Siloam, welcome to the club. Feeling rather aroused, agitated and more of an Incredible Hulk than a Bruce Banner, I have tried going to my happy place of calm. Indeed, I’ve tried locking myself inside and throwing away the key. However, I keep returning to turbulent seas, which are much better depicted by  Munch’s The Scream. Indeed, if only I could scream, I’d feel better.

The reason I’m feeling all wound up and tense is that our daughter will be having tests next week to investigate some issues with reflux and being underweight. She will be having a barium meal and endoscopy to check things out. These tests aren’t difficult, traumatic or life-threatening and neither are the potential issues we’re investigating. Miss is largely well and energetic but she barely eats and is about half the size of many of her average-sized peers. If this is who she’s meant to be, that’s great. I would love to be almost that lean and she can be the real fashionista. However, there are a few ripples that concern me…as well as my gut intuition.

Dr Suess

All the same, I’m still wound up and agitated about it all and feel like something sinister is running after me and I just want to whack it on the head and destroy it completely…a bit like Basil the Rat in the final episode of Fawlty Towers.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mv0onXhyLlE

I'd love to put an ad in paper and get rid of my health issues.

I’d love to put an ad in paper and get rid of my health issues.

Where is a good cannon when you need it?

Of course, it didn’t help when the doctor’s secretary called out of the blue offering me an appointment “tomorrow” and then the doctor telling me he can do the endoscopy next week. I know I said it was urgent before Christmas but after being in the deep freeze for so long and not thinking about it, suddenly it’s all systems go and I’m struggling to defrost. Despite my best efforts to self-calm, I am well and truly freaking out!!

You would probably imagine that after all my medical issues and treatments, that our daughter’s tests would be a walk in the park. I’ve had brain surgery twice, chemo, an arterial blood test. I have lung function tests where they even block off my breathing for a second or two. Hey, I’ve even given birth to two children, albeit via the zip. I also had blood transfusions every 3 weeks for 5 years where they probed around through dry river beds and often had a few jabs before they found a decent vein…ouch! I also had my teeth cleaned at the dentist lately, which was probably more painful than any of this. My teeth, like the rest of me, are over-sensitive.

Oh yes! When it comes to medical trials, I’ve definitely earned my stripes. I am very, very resilient!!

However, there’s a huge difference between being the patient and being the patient’s Mum.

No parent likes seeing their child experience any kind of discomfort or pain but for me, there’s also this sense of responsibility. An awful, sinking feeling that I’m leading my precious, baby lamb to the slaughterhouse, especially as we’re not even 100% sure that there’s a problem. Of course, that would be the ideal outcome. We don’t want them to find anything. However, that also raises the question of whether the tests were needed in the first place and whether I’m putting her through all of this for nothing.

If only I could add this to the barium meal, Miss might drink it.

If only I could add this to the barium meal, Miss might drink it.

I mean getting a child to swallow the barium meal when she’s been known to refuse to chocolate cake is going to be no mean feat. Indeed, Dad will be coming with us for moral support. It reminds me of an old ad for Quik we had as a child: “Drink it Freddy! Drink it!” www.youtube.com/watch?v=-P-OFW3ZDB4

Am I just being an overstressed, over-anxious Mum? Am I so used to being overweight that seeing ribs on someone else seems odd and verging on starvation just because I’m so well padded?

Moreover, while we’re on the subject of overly anxious parents, Munchausen by proxy syndrome (MBPS) comes to mind. MBPS, which is also known as “medical child abuse,” involves the exaggeration or fabrication of illnesses or symptoms by a primary caretaker. It was named after Baron von Munchausen, an 18th-century German dignitary known for making up stories about his travels and experiences in order to get attention. “By proxy” indicates that a parent or other adult is fabricating or exaggerating symptoms in a child, not in himself or herself.

However, when it comes to attracting medical attention, I don’t need anymore.

I don't think hospital was on Dr Suess's list.

I don’t think hospital was on Dr Suess’s list.

Moroever, I’m with Dr Suess. When he wrote: “Oh the places we can go!”, he wasn’t talking about hospitals or doctors’ waiting rooms!

All these things aside, our daughter’s refusal to eat does put quite a lot of added strain on family meals. Under duress, she’ll eat a Weetbix for breakfast. For years, her sandwiches have come home from school untouched, day after day, year after year. She eats an amount of food the equivalent to two match boxes for dinner and often complains about feeling full or sick. Even as a baby, she refused to eat and her weight has hovered around the bottom 5-10% most of her life. The fact that she has remained on the same trajectory and is relatively healthy and active are very encouraging but there’s still this nagging doubt.

I just need to make sure. Know I have covered the bases but not put her through exhaustive, unnecessary testing. Despite my uncertainty, I do think that when you have concerns as a parent and that uneasy feeling in your gut, you need to put some trust in your own judgement and intuition. Investigate. Ask questions. My daughter’s doctor also thought there was enough evidence to take the next step and refer us on. After all, these symptoms are concrete, measurable and aren’t the product of my over-active imagination…the stuff of a medical, fantasy novel published by Hypochondriacs Anonymous. To be honest with you, I’d much rather be a hypochondriac than really be sick.

To some extent my approach, has been informed by my own experience. When I was around 25, I was diagnosed with Dandy Walker Syndrome (DWS), a variation of hydrocephalus or fluid on the brain and had brain surgery to insert a shunt to treat it. Our best guess explanation for DWS was my difficult birth. There were times where I’d had various tests and we came close to working things out but we always missed the next definitive step, which would have given us the answers.

I have often wondered how different my life would have been had the Dandy Walker been diagnosed as a child. Growing up, I always felt “different” and I think I always knew there was something and I really did try to work out what was going on. I turned to psychology to try to unravel these inner mysteries when in fact, the problem was organic, structural and all in the plumbing. I was teased and bullied and all but destroyed at times and it would have been helpful to have understood what was going on. Since I had the surgery, my coordination also improved and I could have been spared a lot of heartache.

On he other hand, I was very independent and  I traveled quite a lot with that harbour in my head. I traveled quite a lot within Australia, usually travelling on my own but meeting up with others on the road. All this travel culminated in a trip to Europe in 1992, after my parents gave me a 12 month open ticket for my 21st birthday. I stayed in Europe for 9 months, mostly living and working with a family in Heidelberg in Germany. To be quite frank, I doubt my parents would have funded that if they’d known about my head.

No! No! No! That would never have happened. I would have been way too precious. Wrapped in more layers of bubble wrap than a fragile porcelain doll, I would have been protected, sheltered and to be honest…as stunted as a bonsai. Not that all parents of children with disabilities closet their kids and when they do, perhaps not without due cause but having a shunt in your brain is a fairly major thing for a kid and they are renowned for blocking and being temperamental…particularly in years gone by. We’re not talking about having a broken toe. Brain stuff is at least potentially major.

I know my life would have been very different.

Perhaps, it is this awareness that even serious medical conditions can bubble along seemingly under the surface for many many years while only causing intermittent trouble, that has caused me to be vigilant with my kids’ health. That’s not to say that intuition is always right and that your worst fears will turn into reality but it is a reminder. Serious health complications can have relatively subtle symptoms (at least at the start) and prevention and early diagnosis can be life-saving.

That said, as I head towards our daughter’s medical tests, I am hoping that it’s all nothing or just something simple and easy to accommodate. I’d much rather be an anxious mother than having a sick child. Wouldn’t you?!!

By the way, thank you so much for listening and I would welcome your thoughts.

xx Rowena

PS I’d like to share Ronovan’s post on boosting your positivity. I need to revisit this myself: https://ronovanwrites.wordpress.com/2015/02/18/positivity-negativity-be-gone/

 

 

 

 

Brain Plasticity & Saving Two Australians on Indonesia’s Death Row

Frankly my dear, I do give a damn!!

When it comes to fighting for justice, I will personally stand up and be counted, even when the case is rather controversial. After all. it’s easy to have compassion for someone you love. It’s much more challenging when someone has a few prickles…or a past. Yet, sometimes our journey takes us down that road and we are forced to argue the points backwards and forwards inside our heads until we can make sense of it all and hopefully judgement turns to love.

I don’t know if the imminent execution of two convicted Australian drug smugglers in Indonesia has made International news. However, as citizens of the world, this case affects each and every one of us who believe in the sanctity and importance of justice and the capacity for humanity to change and redeem itself.

We are all called to stand up and fight.

The case I am referring to is the imminent execution of two convicted Australian drug smugglers in Indonesia: Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan, who were part of the notorious Bali Nine. Since their conviction, these men have completely turned their lives around and deserve a second chance. I’m not saying that they shouldn’t be punished. Just that they don’t deserve to die.

Portrait of Andrew Chan by Myuran Sukumaran.

 

My justification for clemency lies in the science of brain plasticity or neuroplasticity. If you know anything at all about brain plasticity, you will know and understand that these men have changed the very physical structures of their brains through rehabilitation and are no longer who they were. That they are, indeed, very different men. After all, if you have a different brain, how can you possibly be the same?

Victorian Supreme Court Justice Lex Lasry , summed  this up well when he addressed the Melbourne vigil held on 18th February, 2014. Lasry had been involved in the case of Van Nguyen, the Melbourne man who was executed for drug trafficking in Singapore in 2005. Lasry said that he has visited Chan and Sukumaran in jail in Bali several times and was in no doubt the pair had redeemed themselves.

“The reality is that if Indonesia go ahead and execute these two men, they’ll be killing an artist and a church pastor,” he said.

“The drug traffickers have gone. The drug traffickers left in 2005. “4.

About Brain Plasticity

Neuroplasticity, also known as brain plasticity “refers to changes in neural pathways and synapses due to changes in behaviour, environment, neural processes, thinking, emotions, as well as changes resulting from bodily injury.[1] Neuroplasticity has replaced the formerly-held position that the brain is a physiologically static organ, and explores how – and in which ways – the brain changes throughout life.[1]

In The Brain Which Changes Itself, Norman Doidge M.D. a psychiatrist and researcher set out to investigate neuroplasticity. “He writes that the brain can change itself. It is a plastic, living organ that can actually change its own structure and function, even into old age. Arguably the most important breakthrough in neuroscience since scientists first sketched out the brain’s basic anatomy, this revolutionary discovery, called neuroplasticity, promises to overthrow the centuries-old notion that the brain is fixed and unchanging. The brain is not, as was thought, like a machine, or “hardwired” like a computer. Neuroplasticity not only gives hope to those with mental limitations, or what was thought to be incurable brain damage, but expands our understanding of the healthy brain and the resilience of human nature”. http://www.normandoidge.com/?page_id=1259

This brain plasticity isn’t just something for the laboratory or people experiencing chronic medical conditions or disability. It affects us all and is a more “scientific” explanation for what we have always known: “Use it or lose it!!”

To get an idea of how brain plasticity works, picture an old fashioned telephone exchange with all those cables plugged in. Our brain is built of these cables. So for example if we keep getting angry, those anger pathways will keep getting bigger and bigger just like exercising a muscle. Moreover, the bigger these pathways become, the angrier we will become unless we take action.

Conversely, each and every time we appease our anger and breathe deep, count to three whatever it takes, those neuropathways shrink and actually disappear. These are actual, physical changes in the structure of our brains. The brain map is different.

I have experienced these changes myself after undergoing brain surgery to treat hydrocephalus. I have experienced many changes but probably the most surprising is that I can actually play the violin and I now play in an ensemble. That takes some pretty complex brain and physical developments, which I never thought possible. I only took the violin up to help my daughter.

My argument is that through rehabilitation, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran have demonstrated that through such brain plasticity, they are no longer the men they were.

Therefore, as an exceptional case and while not dismissing the severity of their crime, these new men deserve a compassionate response…jail not execution!

This quote from US President John F. Kennedy sums it up well:

“The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were.”

Background to the Bali Nine

Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan were the ring leaders of a group of Australian drug traffickers known as “The Bali Nine”. On 17 April 2005, the Bali Nine were arrested for planning to smuggle 8.3 kg (18 lb) of heroin valued at about A$4 million from Indonesia to Australia. These men were no angels and heroin, as we know, is a hard core drug which destroys lives. Authorities must do whatever it takes to get heroin off the streets. While people do dispute the death penalty, they are not advocating a more relaxed after to stopping the trade of heroin.

Going back to the time of their arrest, I didn’t have any sympathy for the Bali 9. Due to the very publicised case of alleged drug trafficker, Australian Shapelle Corby, the severity of Indonesia’s drug laws had been front page news for some time. I might not agree with the death penalty but Indonesia’s tough anti-drug laws most definitely weren’t a secret.

Australian Shapelle Corby had been arrested in Indonesia on 8 October 2004 when she was found to have 4.2 kg (9.3 lb) of cannabis in a double plastic vacuum-sealed bag in her unlocked bodyboard bag. Corby was convicted on 27 May 2005 and sentenced to 20 years in prison by the Denpasar District Court and imprisoned in Kerobokan Prison. To this day, Shapelle maintains her innocence and there have been numerous theories about how the cannabis got into her body board bag. Her case became a “cause celeb” and during that media frenzy, the severity of Indonesia’s drug laws was made very, very clear.

From where I was sitting in front of the TV, you’d have to be a complete idiot or have a serious death wish to even consider smuggling drugs in or out of Indonesia. I know people talked about making their luggage more secure after Shapelle’s arrest. Indeed, I’d even be checking the paperwork on my prescriptions before heading to Indonesia…especially given the amount of pills I take in a week. They could easily be perceived as trafficking quantities!

Those were the sorts of precautions your average Australian traveler was taking when the Bali 9 were arrested. Nobody wanted to be another Shapelle Corby and we were leaving absolutely nothing to chance. The consequences were just too great.

Given the historical context, the Bali 9 did come across as a bunch of idiots who had earned themselves what’s known as the Darwin Award: http://www.darwinawards.com/ After all, they didn’t need to be Einstein or have some kind of mystical crystal ball to know what they were getting themselves into. They just needed to turn on their TV. Shapelle Corby’s face was everywhere. Remember: Shapelle Corby was arrested on the 8th October 2004 and on the 27 May 2005 she was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison. The Bali Nine was arrested On 17 April 2005, the Bali Nine were arrested right in the middle of Shapelle’s trial. You do have to wonder what they were thinking and if they were even thinking at all and certainly you would never expect these men to amount to anything much at all!!

That was then. This is now.

Self-Portrait by Myuran Sukumaran

Self-Portrait by Myuran Sukumaran

Fast-forwarding nine years, Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan are changed men and are inspiring other prisoners and leading exemplary lives. These are not the same men who were convicted back in 2006. Their names might be the same and they are older versions of themselves but in terms of their soul, spirit, character and no doubt even the neurofibres in their brains, they are not who they were. Therefore, executing these men would be a great travesty of justice.

Victorian Supreme Court Justice Lex Lasry has long campaigned against the death penalty and was involved in the case of Van Nguyen, the Melbourne man who was executed for drug trafficking in Singapore in 2005.

 

Julie Bishop, Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs  outlined how much the men had changed when she addressed Federal Parliament on 12th February, 2014:

“Both men are deeply, sincerely remorseful for their actions. Both men have made extraordinary efforts to rehabilitate.

Andrew and Myuran are the model of what penal systems the world over long to achieve.

Successive Governors of Kerobokan Prison in Bali – whose prison has given Andrew and Myuran the opportunity to reflect and change – have testified to their remarkable transformation.

A decade on from their crimes, Andrew and Myuran are changed men. They are deeply committed to a new path.

Both men are paying their debt to society. With dedication and unwavering commitment, they are improving and enriching the lives of their fellow prisoners.

Andrew has completed a theology degree in prison. As a pastor, he now provides religious counselling and guidance to fellow inmates. On the day he received the President’s rejection of his clemency application, Andrew’s Australian lawyer Julian McMahon said he was nowhere to be found, for even at this moment of undeniable personal anguish, Andrew had taken time out to comfort a fellow inmate who was seriously ill.

Myuran – referred to by many as the ‘gentle giant’ – has nearly completed a fine arts degree in jail. He has had the opportunity to become an accomplished artist; his raw talent recognised and fostered by his friend and mentor, renowned artist Ben Quilty.

In prison, Andrew and Myuran sought permission from prison authorities and began an array of courses to benefit fellow inmates, and to prepare them for their return to society.

They have led extensive and varied arts, cultural and vocational courses. Some of their courses are aimed directly at drug addicts, equipping them with the skills to beat their addiction, saving their lives and giving them real prospects in the future.

Andrew and Myuran have raised money for fellow inmates’ medical procedures; for victims of Typhoon Haiyan; for Indonesia National Day festivities.

Indeed, such is the profound effect of Andrew and Myuran’s inspiring humility and service, their fellow prisoners have come forward to lend support, even offering to take their place in execution to President Widodo…

Their remarkable rehabilitation, and the circumstances of their arrest, has prompted five successive Australian Prime Ministers to make representations in their name. [2]

What Brain Plasticity Means For Chan & Sukumaran. Why Spare These Men?

If somebody completely turns their life around and becomes an entirely new and different person on the inside, should they still be judged and sentenced to death because of crimes they committed in the past? Although they have the same name and DNA, they are a different person and things become very problematic.

Would justice truly be served and can we as a global community just stand back in good conscience and do nothing to spare these men? Or, do we both as a society and as individuals need to do whatever it takes to prevent such a tragic and unjust loss of life?

The answer is a resounding “yes”!! After all, two wrongs have never made a right!!

Although I have never met these men and I certainly don’t support the use or sale of such drugs, there is such resounding evidence that these men have significantly and are now dramatically improving the lives of those around them as well, rehabilitating and educating other prisoners much more effectively than other methods.

“Power is of two kinds. One is obtained by the fear of punishment and the other by acts of love. Power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent then the one derived from fear of punishment.”

-Mahatma Gandhi

Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek, whose husband was charged and convicted of a similar crime to Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, spoke out in Parliament saying: “criminals can be redeemed – my husband is proof.”

She adds that the laws which underpin the executing these men is the basic “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” law that has influenced the Old Testament and earlier legal codes in countries around the world. But that’s 3,700 years ago. We’ve moved on a great deal from an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth”. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-02-12/plibersek-these-men-deserve-restorative-justice-not-execution/6088334.

I also thought it was interesting that at last night’s vigil, emotional statements were read from the pair, which acknowledged their original stupidity,  saying that  the “compassion and kindness from people forgiving our stupidity” has made them feel “truly blessed” 4″

Their Last Words

Andrew Chan: “Thoughts from the Edge

“Thank you Jesus that you give me the strength and courage that I need to stand strong and to trust in you when the waters arise.”

“I thank you Jesus that you never give up on me and that your faithfulness is what helps me striving forward. I thank you for all the family and friends you surround me with in life and how your love pours out from them.”

“The Lord is revealing to me through this scripture is about how he’ll fight the battles for us and that we won’t be defeated if he goes ahead of us… The truth is God is remind us that when all seems helpless and you feel as though the enemies army surrounds you, God is telling us to stand still, take up our battle stance but do not move.[3]

Myuran Sukumaran – Thoughts from the edge

“When you are young you think money is the only way to get happiness … after being here for eight years you realize it is not.”

“After being in prison for eight years I only realized when it comes when it comes to drugs nobody gets rich – there are a few people – most get caught and end up in places like this and that’s the lesson.”

“I want to become a better person and I want to help everybody else become a better person as well. It is like a vehicle for everybody to travel in to better themselves.”

Last Words or a New Beginning…

Time is running out and I don’t know what any of us can do at this late hour. I understand that over 30,000 Australians have written to the Indonesian Attorney General pleading for mercy and many many people have spoken publically. Last night, a vigil was being held in Sydney to pray for the men and their families and this was just one of many. I can sense a collective heartache if these efforts fail and these two young men are put to death.

Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran are in my heartfelt prayers.

And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus”.

*Please reblog this post and spread the word. It now looks like the lives of these men rest on divine intervention and people power.

As the saying goes: “Never give up”!!!

Love & Blessings,

Rowena

[1] · Pascual-Leone A., Amedi A., Fregni F., Merabet L. B. (2005). “The plastic human brain cortex”. Annual Review of Neuroscience 28: 377–401. doi:10.1146/annurev.neuro.27.070203.144216.

[2] Parliamentary motion: Chan and Sukumaran, Address to House of Representatives Speech, E&OE, Parliament House, Canberra,12 February 2015.

[3] http://www.news.com.au/national/six-living-former-prime-ministers-make-united-final-plea-for-doomed-bali-nine-duo/story-fncynjr2-1227222259664

4) www.abc.net.au/news/2015-02-18/vigils-held-for-bali-nine-pair-facing-execution/6143978

Paintings: http://www.news.com.au/world/asia/bali-nine-member-myuran-sukumaran-paintings-in-melbourne/story-fnh81fz8-1227049488225

I apologise  for any breaches of copyright regarding the images used in this post. I am merely trying to support their cause.

Crime in the Quiet Carriage.

Breathe! Keep breathing! Remain calm!

But I can’t. I’m wound up. Seriously agitated and my brain is rapidly heating up, about to reach boiling point. No amount of relaxation, mindfulness or psycho-babbling positive self-talk is working. A rapidly ticking bomb, I’m about to go off. No small explosion either. This is definitely way beyond a small or even a medium-sized bang and rapidly accelerating passed a big one too. We’re talking a nuclear explosion… right here right now at this very precise tick of the clock.

Stop talking! This is a quiet carriage!!!

Stop talking! This is a quiet carriage!!!

There must be worse crimes against humanity than talking in the quiet carriage but right now, nothing comes to mind.

Before you start thinking I’m the psychopath, just let me just tell you that I’m on my way down to Royal North Shore Hospital to have a long awaited MRI of my brain. My neurologist hasn’t ordered this test for fun or as some kind of high-tech photo shoot. No, you seriously don’t have an MRI of your brain for fun and there’s definitely not going to be any smiling for the camera either. As if being covered in a white sheet and shut inside a white plastic tunnel being bombarded with weird electronic noises isn’t bad enough, they’re jabbing me somewhere with a needle.

Having a brain MRI. Covered in a white, sheet you disappear inside a white tunnel. Get bombarded by all sorts of jalting, beeping electronic noises. jabbed and then you're free to go home...you hope!

Having a brain MRI. Covered in a white, sheet you disappear inside a white tunnel. Get bombarded by all sorts of jalting, beeping electronic noises. jabbed and then you’re free to go home…you hope!

They’ve jabbed me with THAT needle before. They jabbed me right in the head, injecting radioactive isotopes straight into my shunt. I tell you, I’m a veteran of jabs and I’ve survived brain surgery and chemo but that jab in the head has no equal. It involved absolute and utterly excruciating pain. I can assure you, there’s some now graduated medical student out there who still bears the scars of near crucifixion in their hands. I dug holes in his soft, polished flesh with my unkept but piercing fingernails.

So here I am getting on the train thinking about the pain, the possible outcomes and how I’m even going to make it to the hospital as I’ve spent the best part of the last month in bed and traveling for almost 2 hours is a huge undertaking in itself. I don’t know what’s going on with me. Either I’m dying, or I’ve finally succumbed to the dark side of the force. I addressed this in a previous post: https://beyondtheflow.wordpress.com/2014/10/27/terminal-cyberchondria-yes-please/

Maybe after this monster test is over, the sun will come out again and this will all seem like a distance dream. A black cloud mysteriously scudding across an azure sky which suddenly disappears like magic…a miracle! I’ll go back to my life of champagne and…My goodness! Who am I kidding? We all know real life is no commercial break!

Being such a long train trip, I’m expecting to makes serious inroads on Booker Prize Winner  Richard Flannegan’s Death of A River Guide. Given the intensity and chaos of the MRI plus trying to juggle the kids and all their activities, this train trip is bordering on a sacred journey. I so desperately need peace and quiet and a lot of thought went into choosing the right book for the trip as well. I’ve been flicking through a couple of books over the last couple of days trying to work out where to head next. I’ve read two other Richard Flannegan’s lately and decided he was a pretty safe bet and I was seriously looking forward to both losing and finding myself in a good book. A want which had transcended into something of a desperate need. A cry of the soul.

However, instead of finding myself inside the much anticipated and heavily sign posted quiet carriage, this place is  more like a crowded pub during Happy Hour or even a flipping circus with clowns…wild clowns. There is raucous chatter everywhere..even laughter. How dare they?!! Harlots!

Welcome to the Quiet Carriage!!

Welcome to the Quiet Carriage!!

Alright, so I exaggerate a little. While there was some loud chatter down the other end of the carriage, there was one particular loud mouthed foreignor talking four times as loud as your average Joe talking with his friends…a group of seniors in case you’re about to blame the insensitive youth of today. Unfortunately, I was sitting right behind them. I soon started thinking about asking them to be quiet and pointing out the quite carriage signs which were clearly signposted throughout the carriage. I also thought about talking to the guard.

However, a few of my friends have mentioned the maniacs in the quiet carriages. The so-called “Noise-Nazis” who have a nervous breakdown over the sound of even the slightest pinhead of a pin being dropped. I like to be classified as the “nice woman” and not one of THEM…even by these totally rude, self-centred strangers I’m never, ever going to see again. Instead of being the bad guy, I chose the stoic high road…to suffer in silence. Of course, I could’ve alerted the guard if I’d been more nimble on my feet. They have a special announcement recorded for the socially inept. It goes something along the lines of: “This is a quiet carriage…If you want to talk, move to another carriage.”

I did consider moving to another seat or even try the standard carriage but it was all too hard. There wasn’t another seat and I’m not that steady on my feet. I couldn’t risk trying to change carriages while the train was in motion, even with my walking stick in hand. So instead, I sat as still and as silent as a marble statue…fuming. Fuming some more. I could feel the flames burning in my head. Smoke bellowing out my ears. I was mad. Irate. Furious. This was pure, unadulterated train rage.

Grannies show an umbrella can also come in handy!

Grannies show an umbrella can also come in handy!

In retrospect, I should’ve just taken a leaf out of my grandmother’s book. She would have bopped the lot of them on the head with her walking stick and told them in no uncertain terms that they were in the quiet carriage. “Are you blind? Can’t you read the signs?!!” My grandmother was pretty handy with her stick. What’s more, if she’d bopped them, she would have gotten away it.  After all, she was just a sweet, little old lady. There would have been no court appearances and not even the shout of “guard”! They would have taken their punishment and zipped it. Shown a bit of respect.

Me, on the other hand? One strike of my walking stick and I knew I’d be dragged off the train by armed guards and loaded into a paddywagon bound for greener pastures.

However, in the end someone else stepped in and played bad cop. Yet, this lot of seniors proved themselves a real bunch of reprobates.  They might have zipped it for about 2 seconds, which for this lot even felt like a very pregnant pause, and then continued bellowing through their inbuilt megaphones. You wouldn’t believe it. One of their phones even started to ring and of course another loud voice starts booming throughout the entire carriage. It wasn’t just a case of hello and goodbye either…more of a conversation and as far as I was concerned, quite the life story.

As I said, I know there have been worse crimes against humanity than talking in the quiet carriage but at this point in time nothing came to mind.

After reading and re-reading the same line of my book a hundred times over, I gave up on my book and surrendered to the noise.

Finally, we all alighted at Hornsby Station.

However, as the saying goes, it could always be worse. Aside from country trains passing through, there are no quiet carriages on Sydney trains. You just had to put up and shut up and if you don’t have the luxury of a seat, you also enjoy the thrill of having your nose jammed in a stranger’s armpit as well.

Anyway, after changing trains at Hornsby, I’m now heading down the North Shore Line on my home turf.

By now, I think we’d already established that lady luck wasn’t on my side. Of course, I had timed my train trip to perfection. Yes, it was home time for the hundreds and thousands of noisy, smelly, sweaty school kids who all piled onto my train as it stop started down the line. By this stage, all hope of reading my book was gone. Instead, I became the observer. I must say teenagers intrigue me. Potentially much more fun than the seniors yapping on about their super on the last trip.

I occasionally used to catch trains like this when I was at school…an all girls school. I must have been a bit older than this crowd because we were always conscious of the boys on the train and this lot seemed rather oblivious or perhaps it’s just that they didn’t have Hugh Jackman on their train. We did.

There were no looks, glances or giggles. Each group was its own island surrounded by their own impenetrable shark-infested sea. Ironically, the groups were arranged boys, girls, boys, girls throughout the carriage in their different uniforms. It all looked very strange to me and I felt like I’d landed in some weird, foreign universe. Why weren’t these teenagers all talking with each other? Did all these same kids catch the same train every afternoon sitting in the same “reserved” seats never giving each other more than a sideways glance?

The only thing standing in between them all was different uniforms and yet aren’t we all one human race? You wouldn’t think so. That said, we all know men are from Mars and women are from Venus…even my 8 year old daughter. She and her friends have been “at war” with the boys at school a fair bit lately.

If I could’ve had my way, I would’ve introduced all these kids to each other and tried to build some common ground. Not to play cupid or to nurture teenage romance helping some self-conscious souls find true love, but rather to begin a diologue and cross a divide that starts with different uniforms and extends to gender, skin tone, class, disability and results in war.

If only the problems of the world could all be solved on a simple train ride to Sydney, the world would be a much better place!!

PS As soon as we arrived at the hospital, we heard the dreadful, tragic news that Australian cricketer Phillip Hughes had passed away after a bouncer hit him in the neck, stopping blood flow to his brain. Being a brain surgery survivor myself and being in this really intense state prior to my brain MRI, the news hit me seriously hard. Hughes and his family and friends were no longer strangers but part of our neuro community and I loved them all with my entire heart..especially Sean Abbott who just happened to bowl the devastating ball. I send you love from the  very bottom of my heart!!