Tag Archives: brain

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.

Compassion Fatigue: A Light Bulb Moment!

For so many with a passion for compassion, there can come a point where we need to reassess our vision. Admit that we have over-extended our scope or perceived list of responsibilities beyond our sphere and have actually gone too far. Moreover, although we not be thinking about compassion fatigue or burnout, we need to pull our heads in before we implode. Otherwise, instead of being able to help and support others, we risk needing help ourselves!

I would suggest that if you are watching ants lugging heavy loads with more than just a casual eye and indeed considering learning ant language so you can help them more effectively: “Hey, can I give you a lift?” Then, perhaps you have taken compassion just that little bit too far.

IMG_0061

There comes a time when especially the most compassionate souls need to re-visit their priorities before it’s too late.

 

I have been putting a lot of thought into compassion since I signed up for the 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion Movement where on this day Friday 20th February over 1000 bloggers worldwide have signed up to write a post about compassion on their blogs.

Here is a link to the project: http://new.inlinkz.com/luwpview.php?id=497564&fb_ref=Default

Today, is the United Nations Day of Social Justice. Thanks to my husband and has his particular way of challenging “stuff”, I would just like to stress that “social justice” has nothing to do with society taking justice into its own hands, mob rule or the formation of such abhorrent organisations as the Klu Klux Klan. Rather, it’s about giving everyone, as we Australians put it: “a fair go” and fighting against all forms of discrimination…even the insidious, invisible ones!!

Bloggers Around the World Unite: 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion.

Bloggers Around the World Unite: 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion.

Writing one post about compassion for me is impossibly difficult. It’s like taking me to the most sumpuous smorgasbord restaurant (all you can eat)  and being told: “You can only eat one thing!”

WHAT THE???!!

My husband would tell you that’s impossible. That I could never, ever go into a smorgasbord restaurant with all those tempting tables of every kind of Chinese, Thai, Italian, Mexican etc etc food each piled up as high as Mt Everest and all those tantilising aromas ticklooing my senses coaxing me to completely pig out: “Eat me! Eat me! I know you want to eat me.” THat’s before we even get to dessert and I can’t even think about chocolate without salivating, even in extreme heat when most mortals find the concept of molten chocolate abhorrent.  They want something cool.

THerefore, you won’t be surprised when I tell you that I’ve never left a smorgasbord restaurant without feeling incredibly ill and being reminded of that infamous restaurant scene where Mr Creosote explodes in Monty Python’s: The Meaning of Life:

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aczPDGC3f8U

Unfortunately, my poor brain just can’t cope with sooo much choice and its default mode is:

“I’ll take the lot, thanks!!”

So with that graphic image of over-eating firmly etched in your brains, you’ll understand just how hard it is for me to write about just one aspect of compassion. There are literally limitless possibilities out there and a bit like Mr Creote, I could spew all those fabulous anecdotes and reflections out in the post, which would just be counter-productive….not to mention messy and very, very smelly, stinky and downright repulsive!!

MY instructor helping me up the magic carpet on my first ski lesson in 2013.

Giving me a helping hand: my ski instructor helping me up the magic carpet on my first ski lesson in 2013.

Just a few of the anecdotes I’ve considered revisiting today include address the love of a stranger and the compassionate support I received from my ski instructors who skied back down the mountain lugging my skis, boots and poles so I could take the chair lift back and conserve my small reserves of energy. Their compassion and using their physical strength for good, enabled me to ski down the best slope for my ability and give me the experience of a life time. It would not have happened otherwise and I would never have left the “magic carpet” or beginner’s area. Moreover, my testimony of skiing down the mountain for a second time after overcoming a flare up of my auto-immune disease, pneumonia and chemotherapy would not have happened.

Skiing down the mountain at Perisher in August 2013.

Skiing down the mountain at Perisher in August 2013.

I also wanted to write about some of the ways people actually treat people with disabilities with anything but compassion. Things like parking in disabled car spaces without a permit, crashing into people using a walking stick and how there is the completely inadequate social support to allow people with disabilities to live with dignity. For example, despite have a muscle-wasting life-threatening disease, it took me five years to get any domestic assistance and that is completely inadequate. There are also no long term supports for parents of young children who might be dying or living with severe, disabling illness and who require ongoing child care but lack the second income to pay for it.

Just to compound this sense of paralysis through analysis and compassion overload, I started looking up inspirational quotes about compassion.

Some were beautifully poetic:

“Grief can be the garden of compassion. If you keep your heart open through everything, your pain can become your greatest ally in your life’s search for love and wisdom.”

Rumi

“The dew of compassion is a tear”.

Lord Byron

However, reading through compassion quotes became quite challenging and rather than concentrating my compassion into some kind of manageable, bite-sized portion, it expanded the scope exponentially:

“Compassion, in which all ethics must take root, can only attain its full breadth and depth if it embraces all living creatures and does not limit itself to mankind.”

Albert Schweitzer

“Let us fill our hearts with our own compassion – towards ourselves and towards all living beings.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

“If we’re destroying our trees and destroying our environment and hurting animals and hurting one another and all that stuff, there’s got to be a very powerful energy to fight that. I think we need more love in the world. We need more kindness, more compassion, more joy, more laughter. I definitely want to contribute to that.”

Ellen DeGeneres

Okay. So after reading all of these quotes, I’m starting to think i should go back to the ant I saw this morning lugging that mighty big crumb and offer it a lift. After all, an ant is one of these living creatures we’re been calling on to assist!!

Ouch! Double ouch!! My brain hurts. Really hurts. This compassion fatigue seems terminal!!

But to add further salt to the wound:

“Throughout history, it has been the inaction of those who could have acted; the indifference of those who should have known better; the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most; that has made it possible for evil to triumph.”

Haile Selassie

That’s why I decided to write about compassion fatigue. Not the clinical version but just the garden variety which anybody with even just the smallest social conscience can experience. After all, each of us only has so many gold coins we can put in the collection tin and some of us, especially those living with any form of severe chronic illness, can feel like we could warrant some charitable donations ourselves. That’s particularly after paying for prescriptions, a medical specialist or about ten or when all our household appliances decide to breakdown at the same time. Moreover, if you have kids, you are the charitable institution. I remember my Dad telling us that: “Money doesn’t grow on trees”. “Kids, I don’t have a money tree, you know.” I don’t know whether we ever believed him. However, I still kind of believe in Santa, the Easter Bunny and the tooth fairy and given their generosity to kids worldwide, there has to be a money tree or at least a magic wishing tree out there somewhere!!

However, all this takes me back to what has almost become a cliche:

Think global: Act Local.

We can not help or save everyone but the chances are that we can help our neighbours in small, little ways that don’t really cost much such as giving people a lift, mowing their lawn and you know what I value the most: a smile and a hug. They are absolutely free and we could keep on passing them on. Well, we would be able to send and smiles and hugs right around the world if Australia, as our national anthem so ridiculously put it, wasn’t “girt by sea”. Gee, that ocean can get in the way at times!!

That’s been my modus operandi for awhile and while blogging and recent world events have extended my scope, I will still focus on the home front. After all, “charity begins at home”.

” I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”

Mother Theresa

I almost forgot to mention this but unlike Atlas,  we  don’t have to carry the weight of the world on our shoulders. The state of the world, the environment and all the people and animals in it are not our responsibiity alone. While as individuals we might be ineffective on our own, when we collaborate we can move mountains. Moreover, through the power of prayer, we can also call on divine intervention. Never under-estimate the power of prayer!! Miracles can and do happen although I must also admit that sometimes for whatever reason God seems to be deaf…just like our kids.

Here are some of the other posts I have written about compassion and tomorrow I will post a selection of posts which were part of 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion.

Brain Plasticity & Saving Two Australians on Indonesia’s Death Row: https://beyondtheflow.wordpress.com/2015/02/19/brain-plasticity-two-australians-on-death-row/

The Aftermath of the MH17 Tragedy: Compassion in Action!! Sowing those precious sunflower seeds: https://beyondtheflow.wordpress.com/?s=sunflower

Emotional versus Physical healing: The Struggle To Heal The Broken Foot & the Sydney Siege: https://beyondtheflow.wordpress.com/2015/02/09/the-struggle-to-heal-the-broken-foot-and-the-sydney-siege/

Love of a Stranger: https://beyondtheflow.wordpress.com/?s=love+of+a+stranger

Skiing: Back to the Mountain Almost: https://beyondtheflow.wordpress.com/2014/08/17/back-to-the-mountain-almost/

Have a wonderful International Day of Social Justice and I’ll start the ball rolling by sending a smile and a hug to you!

If you have participated in 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion, please leave a link and even a brief intro to your post in the comments here for inclusion in a follow-up post.

Love & blessings,

Rowena

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.