Tag Archives: neuroplasticity

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.

 

Happiness Through the Wars.

For the last 12 months, I have been in the compassion business and yet, so often I feel like slapping people straight in the face because they refuse to be happy. Instead, they’ve buried themselves in a deep hole and I’m starting to wonder whether they actually prefer it there. You see, all the means of escape are within easy reach, but they completely ignore them.

There are many reasons for this. Perhaps, they don’t feel they can change their circumstances. They have been given a diagnosis, or label, that supposedly renders them helpless. Or, they are just a bit overwhelmed, shocked and befuddled and might need a bit of assistance. After all, when you are going through a hard time, it’s easy to forget that you might only be passing through and this isn’t actually your destination.

If you are currently submerged in a crisis, you probably think it’s easy for me to say and that I just don’t get your situation. That I don’t know how bad it is. However, can you be so sure? What do you know about me? What’s my story?

red shoes

Me in my fancy red dream shoes. I’m usually barefoot, especially in Summer.

I’m not in your shoes. That’s a good thing, too. There are times when we need  that external tough nut who doesn’t give us what we want but what we need. That tough cop you don’t want to meet when you’ve decided everything’s hopeless and you’ve settled for a living death.

You see, as much as you might think you want someone to come along with a blanket, tucking you in and bringing you meals for however long it takes for you to die in a physical sense, that’s not what you need. Instead, you need that really annoying, irrepressible coach who tells you to: “Move it! Move it! Move it!”

You need action and probably even the proverbial boot up the you know where!

So, my question for you is this: “Do you want to stay where you are or do you want things to change…even if it is only those little annoyances you haven’t followed up?”

What we sometimes forget when we’re intensely focused on what’s gone wrong, is that it can always get worse.Somehow, we manage to shoot ourselves in both feet in addition to whatever adversity has come our way. Sadly, this happens way too often and while it’s tempting to play the blame game, we also have to look to ourselves.

What are we doing to actually improve our lot? To give ourselves the best chance?

You see, we are actually so much stronger than we think and have the means within ourselves to improve our lot. Moreover, as we feel more and more empowered, we in effect shrink whatever beast is bringing us down. Through these victories, however small, we also find a sense of happiness which can help us overcome further setbacks. This is what’s called resilience.

Of course, if you’d told me all of this when I was having a “dooner day”, I would’ve promptly slapped you in the face and retreated even further into my bed. I have to admit my Mum was pretty keen to get me moving again after those many colossal teenage break ups and I really thought she didn’t get it. Didn’t understand me. However, at the same time, when you’re older and you see the long-range, bigger picture, how can you let your beautiful daughter go up in smoke over a stupid boy? How could I do it to myself? That old phrase: “there are always plenty more fish in the sea” might seem heartless but it’s true. You just don’t appreciate that when you’re in it.

“When we are helping someone, it is so important to enable them, NOT render them disabled.”

Rowena

When we are helping someone, it is so important that we enable them, and do not disable them. While we can gallop in on our white horse and save the day on their behalf and be the hero, wouldn’t it be better to teach them how to ride so they can experience the thrill of not only overcoming their particular adversity, but also gain the strength and pride of learning a new skill? Having a new experience which gives them a sense of victory and achievement rather than reinforcing: “You can’t do this. Let me do it for you.”

Well, this is all very well unless you’ve taken a direct hit. Sometimes you need intensive, ongoing assistance or you might know that someone who does. No amount of wishful thinking, prayer, medical intervention is going to change what’s happened.

Or, is it?

Rowena Quad bike

Here I am riding the quad bike. Of all the activities, this one took me most out of my comfort zone.

What I would like to suggest is that you try to find a way around the hurdles and see what is possible. A few years ago, I went away on an Adventure Camp with the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Beforehand, I wasn’t very confident about my physical capabilities and was very wary of trying new things. Of course, given my diagnosis, I had every reason to pull back. However, I knew that the staff knew and understood my limitations. This provided a sort of safety net, which allowed me to take on all sorts of unexpected challenges which took me way beyond my comfort zone. Ironically, probably the most challenging activity was going down a waterslide on the boat without my glasses on. I am so short-sighted that I’m literally blind without them and yet I went flying into the water and pulled myself back onboard. Did I feel weak, powerless and useless after that? NO! Of course, not! Rather, I felt triumphant…even after smacking the water nose first and getting water up my nose. That success propelled me onto further physical successes including riding quad bikes and ultimately skiing down a mountain (an Australian mountain so it wasn’t Everest but it was Everest to me).

These were huge monumental changes for me as I’d never been a physical person and was much more comfortable living inside my head and being the writer.

So, being in the compassion business but also being a survivor, the most compassionate thing I can say to you is… NEVER GIVE UP! I’m not talking about reaching dreams like becoming a millionaire or even one that’s very important to me…getting a book published. What I am talking about is never giving up on YOUR SELF and your ability to pull yourself out of the rabbit hole. This is not to deny the power of prayer and God’s strength but God didn’t make us powerless. He didn’t want us to be victims. He said pick up your mat. NOT… I’ll carry it for you and keep carrying it for you. We are so much stronger than we ever thought possible but we need to use and exercise that strength. Not let it go to waste.

While tough love might seemingly fly in the face of compassion, building strength instead of weakness is an incredible gift of love and what ultimate leads to a more enduring form of happiness.

P.S. The Back Story.

Sometimes I wish I had badges or scars which acknowledge the challenges I have overcome and survived. They would give me the credibility to share my story without people thinking: “What would you know? She’s happily married with two kids. She even has two dogs for heavens sake…and a roof over her head.” You probably wouldn’t even notice any physical proof of my struggles at all.

Yet, if you touched the side of my head, well camouflaged underneath my hair of course, you’d find a bump. That’s the shunt which manages a neurological condition, hydrocephalus. When I was around 25, I had brain surgery and it took a good 12 months just to get back to square one again…let alone fly. The doctor had marked my file with “full recovery” at the time and after six months, those words almost seemed cruel. What was he talking about? I still wasn’t back at work and that’s what a full recovery meant to me at the time. AND…it meant now!! This instant. I was stuck in a dreadful state of suspended animation, which is hard enough for anyone to deal with let alone when you’re young. I picked up photography in a very serious way during this time and looking through the lens, you see what you see and somehow become absorbed into it and out of yourself and your problems. I have no doubt that it helped my recovery. It also bridged that gap with the rest of the world who was working. It turned out that when I went to parties, people were much more interested in hearing about photography than work! I was interesting. Moreover, my stories about the flip-top head were also fairly entertaining.

Throwing humour at your bad luck, also turns things around. Prior to my surgery, I was living in a veritable twilight zone straight out of Oliver Sacks: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for A Hat. Even the horizon moved up and down when I walked, so it’s no surprised that I walked like John Wayne with a broad gait just to keep my balance! This wasn’t the kind of poise you wanted as a young woman or teenager! However, once I was on the mend, these stories were quite funny.

However, as much as we like to believe lightening doesn’t strike the same place twice, it can and it does. Just because it only got your head last time, doesn’t mean that it can’t try and claim the rest of you as well.

Following the birth of my daughter, my immune system went haywire, as it usually does. However, instead of returning to normal, my body started attacking itself when I developed an exceptionally rare auto-immune disease, dermatomyositis. It took 18 months to finally diagnose this beast. By then, most of my muscles had wasted away and I couldn’t dress myself, roll over in bed or put my daughter back in her cot. Ironically, she was still being breastfed and due to the nature of the muscle breakdown, I was still able to look after the kids and get them dressed. Because this thing had snuck up on me and we had no idea what it was, I had no appreciation of just how incredibly hard every single move had become. My feet felt like concrete trying to lift them upstairs and my body felt like a bag of rocks trying to lift myself out of the car yet I just kept going. That’s what you do. It wasn’t like I had a choice. I had two kids to look after so I was also fighting with all that I had, to keep them As soon as I was diagnosed, I was put in a wheelchair. Full stop.

Actually, it could well have been a full stop but it wasn’t. I had treatment and while there is no cure, I am better.

chemo sonata bw

This disease has been a determined blighter and I’ve had several close calls. I live with about 60% lung capacity and had chemo two years ago. I am still here. Not just the shell of who I was, but ME. I am very much alive. Life isn’t perfect. I am content but I am also reflective. I am conscious of my journey and how different things would have been but I’m equally conscious of the depth and wisdom I have gained, which I believe can only be gained through adversity. I also know that I am not the only one. That pretty much everyone has their lot, their burden to carry. So, now the question for me is less about the nature of the load and much more about how I’m going to get to the other side.

Rowena skiing downhill Fri

Skiing down the mountain at Perisher in August 2013.

How about you? Can you be happy in the midst of adversity?

xx Rowena

This month, 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion continues to work toward a better world with a focus on Compassion and Happiness. And, our monthly link-up date aligns perfectly with International Day of Happiness. How perfect!

Write your relevant post and add it to the link-up right here by clicking the blue button below.

 

 

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Wrestling With Adversity.

As much as I appreciate inspirational encouragement, it can also be more than a bit annoying and downright depressing when you’re dealing with a situation which isn’t going to change. When no amount of positive thinking is going to turn back the clock and undo what has happened.

“I can do anything? Hello!!!!! Who are you trying to kid? I know I’m never going to Climb Everest and I’d be lucky to climb up those stairs so don’t give me that !@#$!!”

There are some things that no amount of motivational hype are ever going to change. These take you down a very different path where you’re living or more likely, wrestling, with adversity. You’re neither winning nor losing but the two of you are engaged in an incredibly heated battle. It’s such an intense, close fight where it takes everything you’ve got just to stay put. Nobody has any idea how this battle is going to play out. Who is going to win and who is going to lose. It’s neck and neck.

This is what I call wrestling with adversity. While it is possible to overcome your struggles and setbacks, that’s not to say that it’s easy or a one way journey. It’s more a case of wresting back and forwards with your opponent. However, through this process you not only become a stronger and more strategic fighter, you also come to appreciate who or what you’re fighting for. What is most important to you and how to embrace and hang on to that despite your adverse situation.

So, ironically, that thing which all but kills us, also ultimately I believe, helps us appreciate life more in the longer run. Faced with losing our life, we see things so clearly, almost illuminated, and we know what matters. Maybe, I shouldn’t talk in the plural here and only speak for myself but read books like Tuesdays With Morrie, it soon becomes apparent that I’m not the only one who sees things this way.

So, when it comes to adversity, you end up with something of a double-edged sword. The very same thing which cuts you down and almost destroys you, seemingly slices off the dead wood and helps you live life more fully. I wouldn’t go so far as saying we’re better for our struggles because some losses are just too awful but there’s something powerful in it that we don’t always appreciate or understand.

I have been wrestling with my auto-immune disease again this week. Yet again, I was reminded about just how comprehensively this disease has moved in and taken over my body. Quite frankly, I was angry. Pissed off. Wanted to tell it to take a hike, which, of course, I can’t. I could’ve told it a hell of a lot more too. Instead, I poured that angst into my pen and carved my frustrations into the page. Catharsis…It’s such a wonderful thing. You feel so free once you’ve released all that toxic junk.

I wrote  this poem while I was on the train. It’s quite a long trip to my dentist, who is located in Kirribilli in the shadows on the Sydney Harbour Bridge and an ambitious stone’s throw from the Sydney Opera House.

Right from when I was first diagnosed, I viewed this illness as a possessive stalker. However, in this most recent poem, I pushed the analogy right over the edge describing a forced, violent marriage where there is no escape but then just as suddenly as he appears, he is gone without any explanation and no idea if or when he’s coming back.

You see, like other auto-immune diseases, dermatomyositis has flares and goes into remission and isn’t a constant. Indeed, is anything but. It’s like living on a shifting carpet and nothing is predictable.

This is true of so many medical and other issues we face. Just when we think they’re gone and problem solved, they’re back with a vengeance as if to remind us that no matter how far we run or how well we hide, there is no escape. They will be back.

However, no matter what we are going through and how unique our situation might be, we must remember that we are not alone. That while each of us has our own journey and some of us well and truly take the road not travelled, that there are overarching commonalities which bind us together. Once I realised I wasn’t alone, half of the battle was won…especially once I appreciated that just because bad things happen to us which aren’t going away, that we don’t always have to feel bad. Rather, we can still appreciate the good which survives alongside the bad and that it is just as much a matter of where we focus our gaze as what happens to us. It might be a cliche but it’s not just a matter of what happens to us but also how we respond. For one person a set back is perceived as a challenge but for someone else it’s the end of the world.

This has been a difficult place for me to reach.

I know what it’s like to fall straight down. Land in the mud and keep sinking and how hard it is to swim through that same mud, desperately trying to get back to the surface. I also know what it’s like to stop fighting and feel myself drowning but someone has always helped me get back to the top. That might be by physically bailing me out but most of the time, it was their love which saved me. Mostly, that’s been the love of my family and my friends but I’ve also been very deeply touched by the Love of A Stranger.

Perhaps, you’re still floundering around in that mud not knowing if or when you’re ever going to get out. If so, I’ll throw you a life buoy and encourage you to keep fighting. I have been there. Been cynical. Lived with a disease which stubbornly refused to give in to treatment and things weren’t looking good but 9 years since my diagnosis, I am not only still here, I am making the most of a different sort of life. Not what I’d planned but I love and am loved. While I’ve always had my writing and photography which are fantastic outlets for dealing with adversity, I now have this online blogging world I can access from home and I have become a citizen of the world.

Heart Hands red heart

If you are struggling, know that I hold your heart in my hand and wish you well. Please keep putting one foot in front of the other and even if you only change course by a few degrees, as you keep putting one foot in front of the other, you will indeed end up somewhere else. You will be in a different place.

I also encourage you to find out more about neuro-plasticity and how even changing what and how you think actually changes the very structure of your brain. This isn’t wishy-washy hype but actual science. Well-respected Canadian Psychiatrist Dr Norman Doidge addresses it in his two books: The Brain Which Changes Itself and The Brain’s Way of Healing.

Things may not be the same but please never, ever give up! Keep trying to find your way out.

Love & God Bless,

Rowena

 

 

 

 

 

Writing Memoir: Unpacking the Past.

While being November, there’s been a lot of talk in the blogosphere about NaNoWriMo and many have leaped onboard the Nano juggernaut. How many words have been written. How people are progressing towards their target. Or, if things aren’t progressing as hoped, there are tips, words of encouragement and probably even a stiff drink or caffeine hit as well.

Being the sort who’s usually easy lead astray, I almost jumped onboard the NaNoWriMo juggernaut myself. However, thankfully I recognised a distraction for what it was and kept walking. I am quite proud of myself because I usually lap up such distractions and wake up in a different universe before I realise just how far off course I’ve ended up.

However, even though November in Sydney is a lousy time of year to embark on any kind of lengthy writing project, after almost ten years of fiddy faddling around with the Book Project, I am finally making headway. I bought myself a set of multicoloured cards and a file box, a box of black pens and a packet of multi-coloured pens and the research process is well and truly underway. Of course, buying the pre-requisite stationery is an important precursor to writing. However, I’ve also progressed to typing up excerpts from my Paris journal, revisiting Paris through Google Earth and getting in touch with people I met.I’ve even been re-working poems and writing new ones.

The Book Project is on. It’s definitely on!!

However, I always knew writing this story wasn’t going to be easy.

Of course, writing any great story isn’t usually easy. It’s exhilarating but there’s usually at least some kind of hard work involved…or much angst. As much as angst hurts and even destroys, it also does wonders for my creative juices…just like some huge, salivating slobber-dog eyeing off a bone. (Remember Beethoven: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ShFd7rYSTkE)

Writing on the Window Sill at the Hotel Henri IV July, 1992.

Writing on the Window Sill at the Hotel Henri IV July, 1992.

At the moment, I am immersing myself in the Paris part of the story. While in some ways Paris might sound a bit clichéd and what hasn’t been written about Paris? However, I was an Australian in Paris and this story is going to land in Australia and even criss-cross the Nullarbor a few times between Sydney and Perth and even head North up to Geraldton. So, it’s not your classic Paris story at all!!

George and I at Nature's Window, Kalbarri North of Perth in 2002.

George and I at Nature’s Window, Kalbarri North of Perth in 2002.

I know I’m sitting on a great story. That’s not a point of pride or showing off. It is an adventure where the landscape reflects an inner journey searching for all those answers that we look for in our twenties yet through a distorted perspective. I had undiagnosed hydrocephalus, or fluid in the brain, which was an absolute time bomb ticking in my head which ultimately exploded. Yes, it wasn’t pretty either!

However, brain surgery, family friends, my faith and much reading and soul searching brought me to a place of healing. Not perfection but healing…an important distinction!

My husband and I met in the aftermath of that catastrophe and he loved me and accepted me (well, most of the time) for who I was. It was as close to an unconditional love as you could find and we’ve been through immense struggles, argued, almost fallen apart but we’re still together. We’re still walking together…along with our kids and the two dogs.

Our Wedding Day

Our Wedding Day

One of the troubles I’ve had with writing the parts of my story before meeting my husband, is that they do not involve him. That’s awkward in itself because like most of us, I’ve shut the door on all of that and we don’t talk about it. We don’t need to. However, through writing a memoir, it’s inevitable that a lot of this other stuff is going to dug up and even if it didn’t involve sex, there were intimate emotional attachments and these also encroach on what we have. After all, a marriage isn’t just about sexual fidelity. It’s also about sharing yourself, your heart and soul and grey matter.

When writing a memoir, there can potentially be a very broad cast of what might be minor characters in my story yet they’re still the protagonist in their own life. They don’t need to end up being a character at all. They’re just hiding under a rock and no doubt want to stay there in peace.

I need to respect other people’s privacy and also their need to have their integrity left in tact. They need to be able to walk down the street and feel good about themselves no matter what someone might have written about them. That’s even when it’s tempting to wield the pen, when you can’t use a sword. A bit of poetic justice might feel justified but writing a book is a responsibility. I am carrying all these people on my shoulders through what I say and also what I don’t say.

It’s no wonder I haven’t told this story before.

However, it’s a story that needs to be told. Too many of these motivational speakers and writers out there are selling false dreams. That if you want something bad enough, you can make anything happen. That’s just not true and it makes people feel like losers when they can’t pull of such miracles for themselves. Indeed, when they find out they’re only human!

I have had some incredibly dark moments along the road and these happen. People, especially young people, need to be equipped to get through and learn the incredible lessons these moments give us rather than avoiding the struggle or giving up but I also believe they often need a helping hand.

I’ve also got to be honest and say that I want to make it as a successful writer. I want that book published with my name on the spine and I want a bit of credibility. At the moment, I’m a gunna-do and that is even worse than being stuck in a real job.

Hey, Ive just written  1,074 words about getting started. I wonder if that counts towards the word count? Actually, I think it reads like a Mission Statement. A rather long one but something to keep me going.I’m going to need to remember why I am doing this and the hours mount up.

Any thoughts or suggestions? I’d love to hear from you!

xx Rowena

PS: I’m excited!

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

Almost Heaven: Sydney Writers’ Festival 2015

When the Sydney Writers’ Festival comes round each year, I feel like I’ve died and gone to heaven. I’m like a starving dog salivating through a butcher shop window, yearning for that door to open.

Not only am I desperately hanging out to get into my booked sessions but I also want to soak up the incredible ambiance. The weather has been miserabnle before but today the surprisingly warm Autumn sunlight twinkles across the waters of Sydney Harbour as the Bridge seemingly peers over your shoulder. Yet, the view isn’t just about the landscape. It’s also about watching the crowds mill past and watching people deep in thought or discussion and wondering why each and every one of them are there. Are they all like me desperately hoping to hit the big time? Anyway, I soon spy Gleebooks and the four letter word I can never resist: SALE and my Santa’s sack fill to the brim is left behind the desk for later. It’s better than the Royal Easter Show.

Out on the town.

Out on the town.

Yes, indeed, like a scruffy little rabbit-chasing black dog rolling in a fresh cowpat until the stench has well and truly infiltrated the fur follicles (nameless, of course!!), I could roll in the Sydney Writers’ Festival until it was well and truly absorbed by each and every cell. I was definitely in my element.

It is easy to go a bit crazy at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in the same way people literally go mad at the Boxing Day sales. You’ve been waiting so long to get back especially if you, like me, have been counting down the days ever since the last one. Yes, indeed. I live from festival to festival. It is Mummy’s “Great Hurrah” every year when I run away from home and responsibility, flaunting my writer’s cap. Most other years, I’ve stayed in Sydney overnight although this year, I’m here for the day.

This year my programme looked like this:

1.30 Roger Woodward Concert Pianist with his autobiography: Beyond Black & White

3.00 Claire Tomalin: On Charles Dickens the Inimitable

6.30 Norman Doidge: The Brain’s Way of Healing

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Talking with Dr Noman Doidge who has put neuroplasticity on the map.

Although I was looking forward to each of the three sessions for different reasons, my focus was on the session with Norman Doidge. Actually, focus is quite the understatement. I was like a crazed fan trying to invade the Beatles’ hotel during their 1964 Australian Tour. I not only wanted to thank him for how much his books have changed my life but I also wanted to tell him how learning the violin had accidentally rewired my brain and that much of the process of learning the violin mimicked the ideas of Feldenkreis (These are ideas presented in his second book along with case studies)…..as did learning to ski. Indeed, learning the violin has rewired my “noisy brain” and enabled me to enjoy listening to music and even listen to the others in my vilin ensemble to pick my cue. This is a huge improvement.

Although playing the violin and learning to ski might appear very different on the surface, both involved that slow, conscious movement and intense repetition to improve. That is, at least the way I was learning them with my swag of physical disabilities or “issues”. This is what’s required to maximise rewiring the brain.

I managed to listen to Norman Doidge again today on Radio 702 with Richard Fidler and this really helped to cement in the concepts as Filder really probed the depths of his responses.

You see, while it’s all very well to have nitty gritty scientific discussions, what people really want to hear is: “What can this do for me or my loved one who is “blocked” in some way or another? How can you make it better? What can I do?

Meatloaf

 

After all, rewinding back to my darkest hours, I was moping round the house singing Meatloaf’s epic song: Anything For Love http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9X_ViIPA-Gc. I meant it too. I was prepared to do anything at that point to snatch back any time with my kids that I could. I even went off chocolate and cut back sugar for a few months, which was a huge achievement for me!!

However, how does an unknown contact a guru, even when they have a riveting story which shouts their findings from the mountain top?

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Autumn Leaves at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Winter is almost upon us.

Sadly, it just doesn’t happen. Tried reaching him via the festival beforehand and no success. Stood up in the queue with my walking stick and foot in boot to ask a question and I could barely stand up and they ran out of time. I guess I’ll have to get cracking with my own story.

By the way, I didn’t think about this at the time but just think of the neuroplastic implications of perpetual whinging?!! Yikes! It makes me shudder!!

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Portrait of Roger Woodward by portrait by Boris Eldagsen http://www.rogerwoodward.com

 

Anyway, rewinding to my session with Roger Woodward, concert pianist http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_Woodward

You might recall that my grandmother, Eunice Gardiner, was an accomplished International concert pianist who’d not only attended the Royal Academy of Music in London but was appointed one of a handful of Fellows. Eunice taught at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music when Roger Woodward was a student and although I’d never met Roger Woodward, it seemed like he was something like a long lost member of the family. Not our family but my grandmother’s family of pianists. I met quite a few of her protege’s over the years and she had an affinity with them I could never even try to grasp. They were birds of a very exceptional feather and by nature, an exclusive club. The rest of us mere mortals simply didn’t get it. My mother had originally been in that family and had met my father at a soiree at my grandparents Lindfield home featuring pianist Gerard Willems and also attended by Australian authors Ruth Park and husband D’Arcy Niland. I’m not sure if Roger Woodward was there that night but until recently I’d thought he’d played that night and so he was very much enmeshed in my personal history.

While Woodward spoke about his time at the Sydney Conservatorium and took me into my grandmother’s world, what really gripped me from his talk was his belief in social justice and the need to take a stand. That as creatives we can stick our head in the sand and ignore it or stand up and fight. In 1965, he moved to Poland where he became strongly associated with the Solidarność movement. He remarked that while a lot of artists stood on the fence, in Australia, you stood up for your mates. He said: “I don’t feel comfortable sitting back as a human being and saying: “That’s not my business. Stand up for human rights. Australianness is standing up against a bully.”

On a lighter note, I must say that Woodward is the consumate performer. Not just at the piano but also in the way he delivered story after story and you were transported back in time into his shoes. You could sense each and every emotion as you sat riveted on the edge of your seat  I hadn’t expected that. Although I grew up with the classical music scene all around me, I was very much a foreigner….an alien so I was really pleasantly surprised to enjoy his session so much.

By the way, I just have to mention that he was waering these striking maroon and navy striped socks.To be they displayed a character, personality. Not quite sure what else socks say about a person but I was wearing a pair of navy “Happy Socks” with different coloured circles all over them. Yes, they were colourful and quirky, reflecting just a little of who I am too.

Charles Dickens

Next, I was off to Claire Tomalin: On Charles Dickens the Inimitable. At this point, I was joined by my friend Clare, who was my appendage for the afternoon (I have a companion card). Although I’m somewhat interested in Dickins, I must confess that I’ve filed him under “should read” rather than “must read”. While I love performances of his works, I don’t read a lot of novels and prefer shorter and more contemporary works. That said, I have been researching our family history and Dickens writes about that period of history and he does it exceptionally well. This was the carrot enticing me to explore Dickens further.

If you have attended writers’ festivals yourself, you, like me try and organise your sessions around a can’t miss and then sandwich something else in to fill the gaps in between. This was how I ended up at this session exploring Dickens. After booking the tickets, however, a friend had heard Claire Tomalin interviewed about the book on radio and then I was sold. I even bought the book beforehand. Suddenly, crusty old Dickens which I’d struggled through at school, had been metamorphosed into a character himself. A character I was intrigued to explore not just as a writer but as a student of people.

Tomalin, who has written many biographies in her time, said: “the best way to get to know a writer, is to hear their own voice” and she read out a letter Dickens had written to his sister. However, there were two anecdotes which truly appealed to me. Firstly, she mentioned that Dickens wrote with a quill. That somebody could write so prolically with such awkward equipment, is beyond me. Just think was his output would have been if he’d had a computer! He’d have filled a library all by himself!! Secondly, she talked about how Dickens loved walking and by walking we’re not just talking about a stroll to the local shops. Indeed, he walked 20 miles a day. This struck me as a kind of therapy.

However, the Sydney Writers’ Festival isn’t complete with a bit of indulgence. Clare and I ended up dining out at a fabulous restaurant the Ash Street Cellar. It was a thorough great meal and such a thrill to be back  in the city. I felt like a real person again…myself. I used to work and live in the city many lifetimes ago and it’s still in my veins. That said, I do prefer the more relaxed beachside, family lifestyle these days. I prefer to just visit the smog these days.

The Sydney Writers’ festival continues and the Vivid light festival starts tonight , I believe. We saw a few glimpses of it last night but I’ve seemn it in previous years and it is spectacular.

Are you a writers’ festival junkie? Do tell!

xx Rowena

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A Cappucino and chocolate Mouse at the Ash St Cellar after gnocchi for dinner.

 

 

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.