Tag Archives: brain

Home Is Where The Heart Is (an extended story)…Friday Fictioneers 7th December, 2022 .

Mum and Dad are still living in the family home. That’s what Dad keeps telling mum. “There’s your tree, Margaret”, he patiently repeats pointing to the towering gum tree in the neighbour’s garden. Or, he reminds her of the huge Steinway grand piano in their loungeroom. They’re anchor points in an otherwise surreal world fueled by vascular dementia, and I make a note to ask her what she sees when she looks out her window next time. Where on earth does she think she is?

At this stage of the dementia journey, I’m more curious than alarmed. She’s still intelligent. Knows who she is and who we are. It’s only Dad who transmogrifies into an incredible cast of characters, including her mother who she mostly knows is dead but keeps turning up then inexplicably disappearing into thin air.

Yet surprisingly, she has new-found serenity. “Darling, I was watching the clouds today and enjoying the sunshine. There are so many beautiful flowers I’d never noticed in our garden before.”

So much doesn’t matter anymore. I’m relieved she’s no longer persecuted by “the Jones’s”, although she keeps asking me if I’ve been practicing my singing. I can’t quite bring myself to tell her that my throat doesn’t work anymore and that’s why I play the violin. Yet, I don’t want to disappoint and I cherish every time she plays “Happy Birthday”, which she still plays with her unique flourish. This is when she’s most herself.

“Strange things are happening around here, darling,” she says. “But don’t worry. We’ll work it all out one day.”

I am not so sure, but I’m borrowing her new-found optimism, praying a miracle will stem the tide.

Goodness knows where those fractured neural pathways are taking her, but this home is where her heart is and she’s happy there. So although we’re no longer looking out through the same window, we’ll keep holding her hand and stay with her for the journey.

….

My apologies for significantly going over the word limit this week. Perhaps, I could plead dyscalculia. However, the photo this week with it’s mirrored reflections reminded me of some of the visual confusion my mother has been experiencing lately and her corresponding diagnosis of dementia. I felt it was more important for this story to be told than to stick to the word limit this week. So many of us have a loved one who is experiencing dementia, Alzheimer’s or has been there. People’s comments can be cruel and disrespectful and going down this path is no reflection of how intelligent or accomplished they might’ve been.

I’ve had two grandparents go through Alzheimer’s and that was very different to mum. My grandparents were always old, and just got older. Forgetting things just seemed par for the course until it took over. On the other hand, our parents ideally have always been our strength physically, emotionally and intellectually and then they’re not and we start trading places, it’s so much harder (at least, for me.)

Anyway, my apologies to Rochelle for exceeding the word limit, but I know she supports a good cause, although she keeps her efforts within the word limit.

Do you have any comments or insights into dementia or Alzheimer’s? Please share in the comments below.

This is another contribution to Friday Fictioneers hosted by Rochelle Wisoff-Fields. PHOTO PROMPT © Rochelle Wisoff-Fields.

Best wishes,

Rowena

Where To From Here?

“It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.” Lewis Carroll

I wonder if there is truly anyone whose life is exactly how it was back on New Year’s Eve 2019 we entered into 2020? I remember that night so well watching the Sydney fireworks on TV at a friend’s party. We had such high hopes for 2020. After all, it was meant to be the year of perfect vision – not the beginnings of a terrifying global pandemic which is still haunting us two years later.

Indeed, that also leads to the next question about whether we have changed. Or, to be more precise how much have we changed both as individuals and communities in all sorts of ways since covid first appeared?

There’s been a lot of talk about how vaccines are changing our DNA. However, I haven’t heard anyone mention how we might be reprogramming our own brains through the various covid or lockdown projects many of us are undertaking, and how the very structure of our brains could well be altered as a result – again in good and bad ways.

My world has been affected more than many because I wasn’t in paid employment when Covid hit due my lingering health issues, but I was more or less at a point where I was considering looking for some part time work. Before lockdown, I’m been beavering away on my blog and had various attempts at writing books, and have been trying to find my thing. With our son booked to go on a six week history tour of Europe and visiting the battlefields of France where his Great Great Uncle paid the ultimate sacrifice just three months before the end of WWI, I started retracing his steps and putting together his story. I also picked up on my Great Great Uncle Jack Quealey who I knew very little about and I had so much trouble nutting his story out, that I had to reach him through the letters and diaries of other soldiers. Before I knew it, researching our family members had expanded into a massive, obsessive research project. I saw no problem in that. Only good. Covid was the enemy, and I was going to have something concrete to show for it. Indeed, as lockdown continued, and it was still unsafe for me to venture out, and lockdown started up again, this project had totally overgrown it’s boundaries and it had become all consuming. While my friends were out there exercising with equal zeal, I was researching, writing, transcribing letters for hours and hours, days, months. Indeed, I didn’t mean this to happen, but along the way, I stopped playing my violin, my keyboard and even writing my blog. I also kept putting off exercise. Well, exercise is hardly my best friend, and it is a bit like swallowing that vile teaspoon of cod liver oil, especially before I get out there and actually see the roses and our stunning local beaches and coast.

Well, if you know anything about neuroplasticity, you know that the wiring in our brains isn’t set in stone. It is fluid – ever-changing. So the more you do something, your brain responds by building bigger fibres…whether these are good, bad, or indifferent habits. It’s part of the reason why practice makes perfect. It’s also the same with emotions. If you keep getting angry, the angry cable in your brain will just keep getting bigger and bigger unless you start bringing your anger in line.

This is all very simplistic. I’m not trying to be a neuroscientist. I’m just trying to give you the general gist.

Anyway, just before Christmas the penny finally dropped. Sydney had just completed an incredible four month lockdown and with my auto-immune disease and acute lung complications, I had to stay low. Moreover, after our fearless Prime Minister and his cohort, our new NSW Premier, decided to “let it rip” to save the economy, I burrowed deeply underground hoping the storm would pass by overhead and leave us alone. However, that hasn’t happened and now to quote a friend “it’s EVERYWHERE!!” Omicron is like the common cold on steriods. I’ve also decided it’s the fulfillment of all my grandmother’s most vivid nightmares of germs…germs on the toilet seat, germs on the public phone. She would’ve been beside herself through this covid crisis and her handbag which always seemed to have a bag of lollies (for herself as much as for us), dainty hankies which were useless when she cried in Church, she’d now be armed with industrial strength Spray & Wipe. The sort of stuff that dissolves the surface of your benchtop, your toilet seat, as well as a layer of skin.

To be perfectly honest I’ve found it much easier to hide than deal with all of that.

However, after two years of hiding, and after two years of fighting for the needs of vulnerable people with disabilities and chronic health conditions to be acknowledged and safeguarded and two years of detailed, obsessive but incredibly fascinating and productive research, I am not who I was before. I know I am seriously out of kilter, and all sense of balance has gone.

The other aspect to all this hiding away is that my social life is all but dead. For the hardcore introvert, that could be a blessed relief. However, as a fairly extroverted extrovert it has fairly major ramifications. I don’t know what it is to go our for dinner with friends anymore, and I’m glad I managed to get out for dinner with Geoff a few times before omicron flared up. I’ve become a prisoner inside my own body let alone the house.

After spending so much of the last two years reading, writing and researching and very little time socialising, exercising, or even doing such basic things as catching the train and using cash, I know I’m nothing like who I was before. I don’t know if I can or choose to go back to sit on the same seat on the bus I was occupying before. Or, if I want to get off. Or, Indeed, in so many ways I know I already have.

Of course, I know I’m far from alone in all of this. That many of you who are in the same boat, and you’re also asking: “Where to from here?”

The honest answer for me, is that I just don’t know.

My daughter goes back to school next week, but of more immediate concern, it seems covid has snuck under the front door and I’m not feeling well. Our son went to youth camp and we pretty much expected him to bring it home. I did try to get him tested before he came back, but that fell through. I tried to usher him straight into his room, but he was full of stories and so full of life. Meanwhile, our daughter’s best friend was also positive and just about everyone we know aside from my mum and dad has it or has been exposed. Dad is waging his own war on covid and he he won’t catch it, and it won’t catch him. A true introvert, he’s determined.

“When I used to read fairy tales, I fancied that kind of thing never happened, and now here I am in the middle of one!”  – Lewis Carroll

So, where to from here? In the immediate sense I’m off to make a cup of decaf tea before heading to bed. Anything more than that, will have to wait until tomorrow.

Meanwhile, I’d love to hear your thoughts about what lies ahead and I should just mention that the first quote from Lewis Carroll comes from a book I’ve just started reading: Tea & Honesty with Jules Sebastian – wife of international singer and musician Guy Sebastian and now an author in her own right.

Best wishes,

Rowena

Our Visit to Charlie & the Chocolate Factory… the Musical.

On Tuesday, my daughter and I ventured into Sydney with a group from her dance school to see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory…the Musical. Being a Roald Dahl tragic and chocolate lover, this musical was a must see.

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My daughter with her dance teacher, Miss Karina Russell, at stage door after the performance.

However this production had an added attraction. Miss Karina Russell, our dance teacher, was playing Veruca Salt. That’s right. She was playing that awful rich brat of rich brats who I remember so clearly demanding: “I want an Oompah Loompah and I want it NOW!!” However, that’s not all. We’d already seen her costume when the cast performed at Carols in the Domain and she’s wearing  what looks like a double-yoker of a tutu, a double-decker tiara, a faux mink jacket and pointe shoes and she actually manages to get some ballet in before she meets her demise. She looks amazing. Indeed, all the costumes were fantastic. However, that’s all I’m going to say about the show other than, you should try and see it.

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Does doing adult dance classes make me the ultimate dance Mum? After years of driving my daughter to classes and concerts, I suddenly wanted to get out of the chair and have a go myself and I loved it. Found them so invigorating and creatively it blew me away.

However, if we go back to the title, you’ll see that this post addresses our visit to the musical, and it is in no way intended to be a review of the show. Rather, this is more of a review of how yours truly can complicate matters and achieve the extraordinary without even leaving her seat. It also looks at my personal connection with Roald Dahl. I know that might sound a bit full of myself and you’re probably wondering what this mad Australian woman has in common with Roald Dahl the literary genius. “Tell ‘er she’s dreaming!” Well, I’ll get to that.

inside the theatre

Inside the theatre.

If you know anything about me at all, you’ll know that when my daughter and I went to see Charlie & the Chocolate Factory- the Musical, that it had to be out of the ordinary. That since we don’t do anything via the road well-travelled, that we’d wind up on our own trajectory.

Firstly, as I explained, OUR dance teacher, Miss Karina Russell, is playing Veruca Salt. Yes, that’s correct. Your eyes aren’t playing tricks on you. She is OUR dance teacher. I know that probably sounds preposterous… Rowena learning dance when I have a debilitating cocktail of significant disabilities/chronic illnesses (hydrocephalus, dermatomyositis and Institital Lung Disease). However, somehow I found a pathway through and around all of that to take adult dance classes at the same studio as my daughter, Dancin Mates, here on the NSW Central Coast. I did some sessions of lyrical and contemporary dance with Miss Karina a few years ago. Moreover, in addition to the steps, she took us on a journey through how contemporary and lyrical dance rose out of the relative straight-jacket of classical ballet and introduced me to a range of choreographers and their philosophies. Naturally, this was of particular interest to me as a writer, and I’d go home and Google them all. Of course, Miss Karina asked me if I watched them dance. Of course not. I was interested in the words.

stage door

Stage Door

Secondly, while we were sitting in our seats waiting for the curtain to rise, we had a drama of our own.  While it’s our role as audience to sit in our seats while the performance is on stage, yours truly took off her glasses for a group photo, and put them on the floor under her seat. Of course, you know what happens next, don’t you?!! They disappeared. In a truly farcical “only you, Rowena” way, my glasses vanished. So, I start blindly groping under my seat probing through the dark like my fingers have eyes. Yet, on the first couple of sweeps, nothing. My daughter is sitting next to me, she gets recruited and switches on the torch on her phone. Tips out all our merchandise and starts going through our backpack (which was packed with the kitchen sink) searching for them. Nothing. Although I lose my glasses almost every morning under my bed and always find them, I’m now starting to panic. Really panic. Here we are on our musical theatre experience of a lifetime, and I’m not going to see anything at all. CATASTROPHE!! Of course, I didn’t want to alert the rest of our group. I didn’t want to be the problem child, especially when I was one of the parents. However, just as mysteriously as my glasses vanished, they returned. They must’ve gone off in the Tardis and returned.

Anyway, as I said, our experience of Charlie & the Chocolate Factory…the Musical was unique and treading down roads few have trod.

This takes me onto Roald Dahl and my incredibly personal connection to the man. While we know his books, Roald Dahl himself is an enigma of his own making. Indeed, when it comes to getting to know Roald Dahl, he’s quite the slippery fish.

I first started researching Roald Dahl a few years ago, when I included him in my blogging series: Letters to Dead Poets Letter to Roald Dahl. What particularly attracted me to Roald Dahl the man was our shared experience of going through a major neurological event and how that impacts on just about every part of your being.

Roald Dahl plane

Roald Dahl with his plane.

You see, during WWII, Roald Dahl was a pilot in the Air Force and he fractured his skull when his plane crashed and experienced personality changes as a result. Indeed, it was after this accident that Roald Dahl started writing and left behind his job working as an engineer for Shell. His biographer, Donald Sturrock, wrote:

“A monumental bash on the head” was how Dahl once described this accident in the Western Desert, claiming that it directly led to his becoming a writer. This was not just because his first published piece of writing was a semi-fictionalised account of the crash, but also because he suspected that the brain injuries which he received there had materially altered his personality and inclined him to creative writing.”

His daughter Ophelia recalled her father’s fascination with tales of people who had experienced dramatic psychological and physiological changes – such as losing or recovering sight – after suffering a blow to the head. He also told her that he was convinced something of this sort had happened to him, as it explained why a budding corporate businessman working for Shell, without any particular artistic ambition, was transformed into someone with a burning need to write and tell stories. This hypothesis was doubtless attractive, too, because it pushed potentially more complex psychological issues about the sources of his desire to write into the background.

Nowadays doctors might well have diagnosed Dahl as suffering from what is called post-concussive syndrome. The initial symptoms of this condition are normally forgetfulness, irritability, an inability to concentrate and severe headaches. Dahl suffered from all of these. In some patients the symptoms disappear, but leave behind longer-lasting behavioural changes, which are usually associated with mood swings and an increased lack of inhibition. In some cases, too, it can also result in a fundamental alteration of the perception of the self.1.”

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Roald Dahl with wife actress Patricia Neal

However, that was not the end of Roald Dahl’s involvement with the neuro ward. 5th December, 1960 Roald Dahl’s son Theo was out walking with his nanny when a taxi veered into his pram and he was thrown into the air and landed head first onto the pavement fracturing his skull. Moreover, Theo also developed hydrocephalus or fluid on the brain and was given emergency brain surgery where they inserted a shunt. However, shunts were particularly unreliable back then and were notorious for getting blocked. This required a surgical fix, and there were serious concerns about how these surguries would affect Theo’s cognitive development. I remember how my Dad rallied when my shunt blocked, and how Dads can be a mighty force fighting to save their child no matter how old they are. So, I wasn’t surprised that Roald Dahl decided to take matters into his own hands. Dahl recruited the guy who made the hydraulic petrol pumps for his model planes and Theo’s paediatirican and togehter they developed a new shunt which saved thousands of lives, before it was superceded.

Then, as if the Dahl family hadn’t already seen enough of the neurology ward, in February 1965 his wife Patricia Neal suffered a severe stroke after an aneurism burst while she was pregnant with their fourth child, Sophie. She spent three weeks in a coma and then Roald Dahl devised a grueling rehabilitation program, which saw her return to the screen.  However, that is a story in itself.

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Who would’ve thought that a secret harbour was inside my head?(Hydrocephalus)

As you may be aware, I was born with hydrocephalus after Mum had a very difficult birth (not unsurprisingly I was facing the wrong way something which hasn’t changed unfortunately). However, for some reason it lay dormant like a volcano until my mid-twenties, when for some strange reason whatever had been compensating for the presence of this harbour in my head stopped and within about a six to twelve month period it blew its stack. Indeed, just about the only symptoms I had growing up was being a bit clumsy, rather extroverted and impulsive and having difficulty finding a hat which fit. It was only when I was 26 and a sense of vertigo I’d had after a bad flu didn’t clear up that I went back to the family GP who’d been treating me since I was 12, and the long and short of that, was that I was diagnosed with Dandy Walker Syndrome, a variation of hydrocephalus. After a grueling six months where I rapidly went down hill, I had brain surgery in July 1997, where they inserted a shunt. I was off to rehab for 6 months as an outpatient and left wondering if I would ever reclaim my life. The impact of all of this was like being struck by a bomb only I could never see or confront my enemy and it took a few years to feel vaguely myself again.

So, rewinding back to 1997 in Perth’s Mount Hospital, you have a young Australian woman who experienced a reversal of Roald Dahl’s big bang. Instead of having all my neurons suddenly switched up at once, mine were all switched down just as suddenly, when the shunt was put in. I very distinctly remember waking up from surgery and feeling like someone had turned down the lights. Not in terms of what I could see or hear, but I guess something along the lines of how I processed everything. I felt very, very quiet. This wasn’t, I believe, something which was apparent to those around me and I am still to this day, an extrovert and I’m sure countless people are still trying to tone me down. This was all about how I felt inside myself. Naturally, when I read about Roald Dahl’s experience, I understood what he went through immediately. Wished I could talk with him about it.

There is so much more which could be said about how personal tragedy shaped Roald Dahl’s writing. However, that will be another post. However, I hope this might encourage people who have experienced an adverse neurological event, that there is hope. That the light can switch back on. Never give up. You might even become a best-selling author, especially if you actually get your book finished!

Best wishes,

Rowena

Here’s a link to my Letter to Roald Dahl from my Letters to Dead Poets series: Roald Dahl: Letters to Dead Poets

And Roald Dahl’s Fictional Reply

Sources

Roald Dahl: The Plane Crash Which Gave Birth to A Writer

Donald Sturrock, Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl.

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Heading Home. This is outside Sydney’s historic Central Railway.

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

 

A Legend in My Own Hair Follicles.

Before the magic of the Royal Wedding and seeing Harry and Meaghan tie the knot in spectacular fashion, I hung up my pink washing up gloves and metamorphosed into a star. I, the greatest unknown violinist, legend in her own hair follicles, performed Minuet by Beethoven with my violin teacher at Gig Night. That’s the modern equivalent of what was known as a “Soiree” back in the day. Indeed, it might have been more like my grandparents’ day, but there we were performing in the studio with real performance lights and sound equipment and our very own stage. It was personal, intimate and my husband and kids were all lined up in a row in the audience…my support crew.

Well, behind every star performer, there’s also their teacher. When it comes to my teacher, however, she had special duties. She was not only accompanying me in our duet in the kind of way that compensates for what I’ll call my “idiosyncrasies”, she had to help me on and off stage. Indeed, we made a decision that I would enter from backstage to prevent me from having a spectacular trip and fall getting up on the stage. I’m pretty good at reconnaissance these days, and I needed to hold onto the wall climbing up the step and was rather concerned that I could fall into the amp. The good thing is that the team at the music school is well versed in my idiosyncrasies and were only too willing to help. Moreover, I’m also one to speak up.

I should also point out that the staff at the music school have experienced these idiosyncracies before. A few years ago when we were performing at the school Christmas Carols, I stepped on the edge of the where the asphalt meets the grass and my ankle flipped over (not uncommon) and then I heard this crunch and fell. The pain was excruciating. Blood was dripping down my knee, but did I pike out? Does a violinist ever give up, even when the ship is sinking? Of course not. I played on and was helped on and off the stage that night too.

My performance tonight wasn’t perfect. I knew it wasn’t going to be. Yet, I was hopeful. Moreover, despite my nerves, I really love performing and being a part of a performance. I like getting out of my cramped quarters in our corridor of a dining room where I usually have to hold my breath as husband, kids, dogs, tennis balls squeeze or fly past and put my feet on that stage, dress up in my blacks and even put on come makeup and lipstick and be a violinist on the outside too. A musician. Knowing I belong here. That this stage is mine, even if it’s only for a few minutes. I own this space (something I picked up from dancing btw).

It’s a space I usually have to grow into, because it’s all too easy to put my playing down. I’m not in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. So, how could I ever consider myself a violinist? I haven’t even tried to learn vibrato, because I really don’t believe in myself. Don’t believe it’s possible. Of course, as I said, I have a decent list of “idiosyncracies”, which let me off the hook. Moreover, be honest, it hasn’t felt that important. It’s been more important to simply be able to play without making mistakes. However, it’s something I come back to once in a while, and learning vibrato is a natural progression for a violinist. Just like my daughter will soon be getting her first pair of pointe shoes for ballet, I should be equally enthusiastic and bursting out of my skin to learn vibrato. Take the next step. I should be wanting to grow, even though it usually means a phase of going backwards as we tackle the new skill.

Anyway, the reason I’m writing about all of this is twofold.

Firstly, I wanted to share my violin world with you. I don’t write about it all that often, but I actually have a lesson each week. I am quite a fan of Suzuki method, although I use the music and don’t play by ear. For those who know Suzuki, I recently moved onto Book Three. I was so proud. It’s been a long journey. I have hydrocephalus and dermatomyositis.  So, I never thought I’d be able to play the violin at all and only took it up again when my daughter insisted on learning, and she needed some assistance. I sat in on her lessons and while she has a rather on and off again relationship with her violin, I’ve stuck with it. She’d probably get to my level after a few weeks’ steady practice, but I’d only be delighted to see her overtake me. Well, she already has. She performed at the Sydney Opera House with her school two years ago at the tender age of 10. Clearly, you’re much better off trying to play at the Opera House as a young beginner than a geriatric.

The other reason I wanted to share my violin journey with you, is to encourage you to consider taking up that instrument you’ve always wanted to play. To go back to the piano you played at a kid, which could well be used for displaying family photos and ornaments than it’s intended purpose. Have a go.

I never considered myself a real music lover or expert of any sort. However, I can sense this is changing. That something new is awakening within. Actually, it’s not something new. It’s like when you’re doing a big clean-up and you find something you haven’t seen for a good 10-20 years and you taken right back to that forgotten time and place and all the emotions come flooding back as there’s that sense of coming home. I have always loved to sing and was good enough, but my voice is rusty and my violin’s become my voice, and to turn to the words of Johnny Farnham’s The Voice I need to

You’re the voice, try and understand it
Make a noise and make it clear

Do you have any musical dreams? If you could be any musician, who would you be? I’ll have to give it some thought.

Best wishes,

Rowena

A Different Perspective – Friday Fictioneers.

“At least, you’re consistent at something,” her husband smiled. “Even when you photographed your shoes, the horizon’s drunk.”

“Huh?” Julie sat up, peering over her book.

“Look at the angle on those books. They’re completely out of kilter and that urn’s about to commit suicide.”

As much as she started to fume, he was right. No matter how much she jiggled the camera, she couldn’t get that damned horizon straight. Still, she posted the photo on eBay. After all, she was selling the shoes, not the books.

That’s when the penny dropped.

“Hey, Dave. I can’t touch my nose…”


This has been another contribution to Friday Fictioneers, hosted by Rochelle Wisoff-Fields and thank you to © Magaly Guerrero  for this week’s photo prompt. I highly recommend you check out the wide diversity of responses to the prompt. It’s more than interesting. It will open your eyes. Here’s the link

My take on this prompt is personal. I was born with a dormant form of hydrocephalus, which was largely asymptomatic until my mid-20’s when it pushed the accelerator to full throttle and I was thrown into a dreadful chaos from within. The horizon bounced up and down as I walked. I fell over a lot and the room used to spin. I also lost my short-term memory. Thinking it was stress, I moved to Western Australia and when I came home for Christmas, I went back to the GP who’d been treating me since I was 11 and I couldn’t touch my nose in what was a basic neurological exam. I had a battery of tests includes a brain scan, which showed what I refer to as “the harbour in my head”. I flew back to Perth and deteriorated very rapidly and had a VP shunt inserted 6 months later. That put an end to me living in Western Australia and I moved back to my parents’ place in Sydney and underwent intensive rehab for six months. It was a long road back with many stop starts. I have largely recovered from it, unless I’m under a lot of stress and I can’t really multitask or manage time well.

Despite being good at photography, I have great trouble getting the horizon straight. I don’t believe it’s related to my hydrocephalus and quite often I like a quirky angle. Yet, my husband always notices the horizon and even in a creative shot, he’ll comment on it saying: “the ocean doesn’t do that”.

On that note, I’d better get back to the real world. I don’t even have a list of what needs to get done today.

xx Rowena

M-Mary Stevenson “Footprints” Replies.

Dear Rowena,

Thank you so much for sharing how my poem has touched your heart and helped you through difficult times. It sounds like our Lord guided you to Heidelberg and gave you the love and community you craved. I don’t know much about hydrocephalus but it must be such a relief that you finally found out what was going on and had the surgery. I can’t imagine what it would have been like being so far away from home with that time bomb ticking and having no idea what was going on. You have great courage.

Our Lord understands us better than we could ever imagine and leads us through dark valleys and into the light, filling us with his strength. I have never understood why bad things happen to good people but I trust that our Lord will carry us through it all.

You have probably read this passage from Isaiah 40 before but I find it so encouraging

The Lord is the everlasting God,
    the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
    and his understanding no one can fathom.
29 He gives strength to the weary
    and increases the power of the weak.
30 Even youths grow tired and weary,
    and young men stumble and fall;
31 but those who hope in the Lord
    will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
    they will run and not grow weary,
    they will walk and not be faint.

Love and God’s richest blessings to you and your family!

Mary Stevenson

D- Roald Dahl’s Reply #atozchallenge.

No sooner had I pulled up in Mum’s Taxi after a bleary night conversing with a certain Dead Poet starting with E, than I found a reply from Roald Dahl.

No, it didn’t arrive in a model aeroplane . I didn’t find it wrapped up in a block of chocolate either. Rather, by some kind of miracle, he’d managed to sneak passed the dogs and into the  house and there in a half-eaten packet of Tim Tams I found this note:

Dear Rowena,

Get on with the You-Know-Exactly-Whatsit!

A big bang on the head, doesn’t have to be the end. Strangely, it can even be the beginning. However, you already know that. You just need to act. Move it!

By the way, I’m impressed with how you crawled inside my head. Quite frankly, I’d never thought of climbing through the ear to pull that off. Being so tall, I never thought I’d fit.

We must chat again.

Warm regards,

Roald Dahl.

PS If I’d ever eaten a Tim Tam, I never would have died!

…….

So, it appears my son is not the only one who can’t stop at one Tim Tam.

Of course, I know exactly what the You-Know-Exactly-Whatsit is. It’s my Book Project. I know it’s been in the pipeline FOREVER and keeps metamorphosing before it even goes into its cocoon.

writing in Paris

Writing on the window sill at the Hotel Henri IV, Paris  July, 1992…a very different version of me.

What’s been stopping me? There I was reading my poetry at the Shakespeare Bookshop in Paris in my early twenties. Since then, the entire river’s passed under the bridge. What’s holding me back?

Well, there was such a thing as having a career and trying to “find the one”, which was so rudely interrupted by a not insignificant neurological meltdown. Of course, this was followed by kids and then another near death experience this time resulting in a physical meltdown with all my muscles wasting away. That’s nothing to sneeze about either. Yet, while I was in rehab, my husband brought in my laptop and I started writing seriously again.

Anyway, when you’ve had so many ups and downs, it’s hard to work out where you are and how to make sense of it all. I’ve persisted but it now seems that there is no perfect sense. Not all chaos but that the answer is out there somewhere sitting on the fence.

Finally, I’m feeling that sticking with the questions is okay. That even if we don’t get answers to particular questions, that we’re still being fueled by the quest. We even wander into other realms we never knew were there.

As John Lennon said:

Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

Mind you, when undertaking such journeys to foreign realms it’s always good to be prepared. To not only take along your map, torch and compass but also some refreshments. A long piece of string never goes astray either. That way, you can always find your way back out of the labyrinth.

Anyway, here I go again waxing lyrically instead of getting on with it.

I need to move it! Move it! Move it!

xx Rowena

PS: How are you going with the A-Z Challenge? I you are participating or have found some great posts, please leave links in the comments.

 

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.