Does It Take Five Minutes?

…’cause that’s what I have time for. Anything that takes five minutes or less gets done; everything else has to wait.

Having spent five and a half years getting used to the limited energy that a brain injury leaves you with, I feel ok about this. Although some interpret my attitude as either aloofness or self-importance, it isn’t either. I am used to prioritizing ruthlessly, to cutting things out of my schedule that  I really enjoy–knowing that I won’t really enjoy them anyway if I’m worn out.

A few minutes with my art journal here and there is all I’ve had time for. (I’ve had even less time to upload those pages to flickr or tumblr to share with others.) At least those time constraints have led to some interesting results. What is hastily done doesn’t have time to get precious, and what might seem careless can also seem care-free.

But I hate letting others down. I’ve got some pending blog posts and other updates to share here that I will get to–promise.

As soon as I have more than five minutes. 🙂

Go with It

Yesterday morning I submitted my final project for class, and today I am feeling so relieved that I am almost giddy. (Whee–another class down, just four left to go!)

That–in addition to the images in a jewelry catalog a co-worker showed me yesterday afternoon–has me making collages like crazy. You know the feeling: that burst of energy that carries you to your art desk early in the morning and keeps you there until the household chores (and the children) just can’t be ignored any longer.

For me, such a time is to be prized, since there aren’t many “bursts” of energy since my surgery. I have to go with each one while it  lasts! The laundry can wait.

Come to think of it, I’ve started (and never gotten around to finishing) quite a few books on maintaining creative energy. I am sure those books are full of good ideas for keeping the spark bright. But for me, the answer is always the same: take care of myself. I need sleep, I need rest, I need to pace myself, and I need not to feel down when the urge to make or draw or paint something has temporarily left me despite doing everything right: like getting enough sleep and exercising and resting when I should.

There are just days like that, and it is better to accept them, leaving myself open to enjoy the times when it all works out and I’m having fun making art.

Today, I’ve made a few mini-collages to be necklace pendants, and I like how they came out so much that I might make a few more. After all, the weekend is young and I still have some energy left!

Dreamers, Keep on Dreamin’

Most of you know that my brain surgery was six years ago. And some of you know that before my surgery, I ran about 10 miles a week.

I loved running. It was a chance to be outside and appreciate each season and its own unique beauty. It was a way to be fit. I felt accomplishment when I finished a 5K. And running cleared my head when I needed to turn off my brain for a little while.

So when I was recovering from my surgery and barely able to walk, the question of how soon I could return to running was always on my mind. It was a painful question, but not as painful as the look that would flash across the face of any physical therapist or doctor I put the question to. They would stumble through some non-committal answer, and I would realize that they didn’t want to hurt me with the truth, but didn’t want to lie to me either.

Finally, someone explained to me that my balance might not every be good enough to run again. Asking my body to successfully land on one foot–essential for running!–was asking too much. So, I pretended to drop the subject.

Then, I really did drop it. With work and kids and art, who has time to exercise, let alone run?

But last week I remembered Jill Bolte Taylor saying in her book that she didn’t feel she was completely healed until she could water ski again, 8 years after her stroke. Eight years and she never gave up! (There’s a link to her TED talk on my “More About Brain Injuries” page.)

So since I was out for a walk and no one was looking, I decided to try it. I would see if I could run. If I landed flat on my face, then I’d try again in another few months.

The amazing thing is, I could do it! Now, it’s not a regular run–it’s definitely a brain-surgery-patient run, but it’s more than I have been able to do for six years. My feet leave the ground; I come down on them one at a time. (Yay, me!) And it feels great. Yes, my knees are killing me, but who cares? I ran! Just a couple of yards at a time, but I did it a few times and didn’t fall. Amazing.

Group Hug! (And a humble thank you, too.)

It been about six months, and over a thousand views, since I started this blog. My original goal in writing was to assuage some guilt: many people told me that I should write a book about my brain surgery and recovery–so many and so often that I was afraid that my lack of action was becoming offensive to them. (“Why won’t she listen to us?” I could hear them mutter.)

I didn’t want to seem lazy. And I fully believed (and still do) that if what I learned from my experiences can provide help or comfort to anyone–well, then it was all worthwhile. I was flattered by the suggestions and didn’t want to seem ungrateful. But a whole book? I sense the possibilities, yet with a full-time job and two young kids–do you think I need a new project?

A blog, with brief posts and no deadlines, seemed like the perfect compromise.

So here we are, readers and writer, for my last entry of 2011. And I have to say thank you, because I have learned so much from my readers! You have commented, emailed, and otherwise told me how much a certain post or journal page meant to you. You have shared your own experiences with me. You have given my blog and my artwork your time and attention–two things that always seem in short supply these days! You have given me encouragement and compliments. You have shown me time and again that art and creativity really can connect us all. People seem amazed at my recovery, yet they don’t realize what a large part they have in it. (What, did you think I did this by myself?)

Did I say thank you? Then I need to say it again. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Let’s have a virtual group hug as we head into 2012. I wish great things for all of us!

Five Years Later

Monday, the 19th, will be the five-year anniversary of my brain surgery.

That means it was just a little less than five years ago that I met a man–a friend of a friend–who quietly listened to my husband and I explain my surgery and then shocked us by sharing that he, too, had once been severely affected by a brain injury. In his case, it was a stroke.

It was shocking to me–just two months since my surgery, sitting in a wheelchair, easily fatigued, and struggling even to talk–because this man seemed completely normal. There was nothing about him that hinted at his past physical struggles or any present limitations. “That’s because it happened fifteen years ago; so don’t worry, fifteen years from now no one will ever guess what you’ve been through. I promise.” he told me.

Do you think I believed him? Of course not. I decided that his remarkable recovery was a special case, a miracle, and that I shouldn’t expect the same. I was also filled with skepticism and I wondered how he could so confidently make such a promise. Who did he think he was, anyway? (And then I immediately felt guilty for thinking that, since he was only trying to be nice and offer encouragement.)

I never had a chance to talk to him again, but I’ve often thought of him. Here I am, just five years later, and if I ever divulge my past surgery to an acquaintance, I am met with the same skepticism and disbelief. “I would have never guessed,” people say or, “But there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with you.” Of course I still have my limitations–I can never forget or escape them!–but they aren’t so obvious any more.

So, Mr. Terry, let me say that I was wrong to doubt you. You were right; and I hope that, in another ten years, you are even more so.

Erased Messages

I journal page I worked on recently with some water-soluble graphite pencils. I took it to work yesterday.

Yesterday, I hung up a recent journal page on the bulletin board in my office. I do that sometimes–it gives me a chance to think about a page or technique, and what does or doesn’t work about it, while I eat lunch at my desk. (I gotta get in that art contemplation time whenever I can!)

Both my bulletin boards (there are two) and my white boards (I have three) at work are full. There are to-do reminders, photos of the kids, schedules and calendars, thank you notes, awards and certificates, and the random journal page or two. Until yesterday, there was also the last two notes from co-workers that were left for me when I was out of the office recuperating from my brain surgery.

Those notes–short and simple but generous in spirit–are precious to me. There were so many of them! I will never forget my first day back at work after medical leave when I walked to my office and found that the white board on my door (where I sometimes post my schedule for the day) had been covered with kind messages from friends at work. “We miss you.” “We love you.” “Can’t wait until you’re back.” I left those messages there for years–three years, in fact. They were encouraging reminders that I saw daily, and they helped me get through some difficult days when I felt exhausted and frustrated by my limitations.

And then, I erased them. Three years after I returned to work, I was suddenly tired of being, “the girl who had the brain tumor.” I decided that my co-workers and I would have plenty of ups and downs to share in the times ahead, and I didn’t have to keep those messages as if they were the only kind words that would ever be written to me. (Plus, the were starting to get smudged.) Those messages were written on my heart and mind–I no longer needed to see them to remember them.

There were also notes handwritten on cards or scraps of paper, and these I moved to my bulletin board. Yesterday, however, there was no space left for the journal page I wanted to put up, so I decided it was time to take down the last two messages. I put them in a drawer. Hung up my journal page. Remembered that I needed to be “future-focused.” And tried to have a normal work day until 5.

The Return of My Handwriting

Yes, the extension list of my co-workers that I keep at my desk is rather… haphazard. The pink Post-it has notes that are years old; the blue was written just a few weeks ago.

This week I was cleaning my desk at work and trying to corral the herd of Post-it Notes that had spread all over it. I started to pile the notes together, and that’s when I noticed my handwriting. I was surprised and elated to see that the names and extensions on notes I had written before my surgery looked just like the ones I had written last week!

Normally, cleaning off my desk is a sober chore, since besides notes, I have many folders I use and re-use, most with handwritten labels from either before my surgery, or from right after it, or from the present. The result is that I have many visual reminders of how the handwriting I worked so hard at–tried so hard to make into a reflection of me and my personality–deteriorated after my surgery.

Back during my days at rehab, I told my occupational therapist about my difficulty writing and, as a result, my handwriting despair. She told me not to worry; it would come back. And every month or so she’d ask, “Is is back yet?” with expectation and hope. But it never happened while I worked with her. It took more time than that.

But now–finally! Four and a half years after my brain surgery and my handwriting looks like its old self! Hooray!

Now, if you think it’s silly or strange for me to care about my handwriting returning to its former look, I don’t blame you. After learning to walk, talk, and feed myself again, I should be content and not worry what my writing looks like. Right?

But sometimes it’s the little things that matter a lot, and I’ve chosen to enjoy this small victory for a while. It makes me hopeful. And happy. And it renews my faith in being patient.

Seeing some great examples of street art recently inspired me to work in my "Walls" notebook again.

I took the photograph in this collage about 8 years ago somewhere arond Hoboken or Jersey City.

Art Lessons From My Sons

From a Saturday morning about a year ago: the boys making art at the kitchen table.

Not long after my brain surgery, I wanted to get back to making collages and working in my art journals. In fact, I wanted to start as soon as I got home from the hospital, but that just wasn’t possible. I had lost too much control and coordination in my hands.

Once I started occupational therapy, however, I found ways to work within my limits. Some were simple strategies: like using punches to cut paper into shapes instead of scissors, which I couldn’t hold. Others were more unexpected and a bit child-like.

That child was my son, Antonio. He was just about two years old at the time, and he loved to mark up any paper he got his hands on with pen, or crayon, or marker. And in his scribbles and scrawls, I found a replacement for the painted backgrounds I could no longer create.

It was a wonderful collaboration: he never complained about how I used his pieces, he was always creating more works for me to use, and it was a wonderful way for us to spend time together. (Teamwork between artists should always be so generous!)

That was four years ago, and now I am able to paint backgrounds, draw simple lines, and even use scissors. But I still use Antonio’s artwork in my journals from time to time, and now his younger brother, Adan, also paints and draws on papers that I use. Both of the boys create with a combination of complete abandon of expectations and raw energy, and I love to add their spontaneity to my work. Here are the real abstract expressionists!

When I was beginning to learn to adjust to my “new self” after the surgery, I was hyper-critical of all I did–or could not do. I compared everything to what or how I did things “before.” Sometimes I still do. It is the boys’ lack of self-criticism while working that reminds me that making art doesn’t have to be something you are good or bad at, it’s just something you do. In so many ways, it is my boys who remind me that today is the day that matters most.

Background from this collage by Antonio, thanks to a long wait at the doctor's office.

Victims of Theft

The Swimming Lesson
by Mary Oliver

Feeling the icy kick, with the endless waves
Reaching around my life,
I moved my arms
And coughed
and in the end, saw land.

Somebody, I suppose,
Remembering the medieval maxim,
Had tossed me in,
Had wanted me to learn to swim,

Not knowing that none of us,
that ever came back
From that long lonely fall and frenzied rising,
Ever learned anything at all about swimming,
but only
How to put off,
One by one,
Dreams and pity,
love and grace,
How to survive in any place.

First I’ll tell you about Phyllis. Her stroke dealt her a harsh blow–she cannot walk without assistance and she has lost the use of one hand. She has also lost self-control–she acts petulant, spoiled, and manipulative; she will throw objects in anger at the slightest perceived insult.

She’s one of the patients I meet at rehab whose life has been forever altered by their brain injury–whether it’s a stroke, accident or surgery, like me. Her former self has been stolen.

John was a trial lawyer. I am not why, but after his stoke he has a terrible stutter. I assume he was once articulate; now his primary therapist tells me she hopes to find him an administrative job in a law office. She has him practice by making copies and collating them. When he drops the stack of papers he just sorted, I notice that the long streak of curses he yells is not once interrupted by his stammer.

Kent is sweet, but cannot focus. In the middle of telling me about the college he took his teenage son to visit, he trails off. “What was I saying?” he asks, ashamed.

Larry tells me about the terrible-tasting meatloaf his wife cooked last week. He ate it without complaining–“It’s the least I can do after all she’s done for me.” Like so many rehab patients, Larry may never work again. His vision is now so bad that he cannot read a line of type or calculate a sum of numbers. (“Oh, I didn’t see that 2 there.”)

The second John is an ex-Marine. He was a helicopter pilot who fought in Desert Storm. He once ran his own company, but he had to sell it after the awful elevator accident that caused his brain injury. He isn’t fit for work any longer.

What lives are we suited for now that we have been broken? I ask myself that constantly, or at least I do when I can stop wondering why these things happened to these innocent people.

How does a thief choose his victims? It cannot be because we are weak. These are some of the strongest people I know.

When we are robbed, we feel exposed and violated.

Searching for Shapes

Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.–Michelangelo

"Hope + Expectation = Faith"

Sometimes when I am working in my journal, I see “something” in the inked or painted background I’ve created:  an image that calls out to be traced in pen or pencil. Something simple, uncomplicated, and direct that is suggested by the shapes the background has created.

Yet even though the image leaps out of the background before me with absolute confidence and certainty, it seems like a risk to me to follow that vision. The image I think I see is never what I intended for that background or that journal page, and I wonder if I’m becoming a bit like those little old ladies who see the Virgin Mary in their toast.

Yes, I hesitate; but the urge to follow that call always overcomes me. And in the end I am always satisfied with the results. It’s not because I think that the finished piece is a great work of art or because I feel that I have something in common with Michelangelo–it’s more a feeling of relief, like when you’ve finally had a chance to say what’s been on your mind.

The blue streaks suggested the fingers of a hand to me the day I created this page.