I had my post surgery follow up yesterday. It went well, my neurosurgeon said I could now be considered a normal person (haha, I'll take that with a grain of salt) and I can resume all my regular activities. One very important thing we did talk about yesterday was weaning off the medication I've been having to take since late December. I am not going to lie, if there has been one really, really difficult part of this journey, its being on this medication, I have had the occasional really dark day and it has only gotten worse the longer I've been taking it. I can only describe those days as "despondent" in nature. Thankfully I was given the green light to try going off these meds - I'm hoping and praying I will remain seizure free.
Now, entering into this whole health saga and blogging about my creative output, I made a decision pretty early on - I would always have some little job to work on or some prep to keep my hands busy even if my head or heart wasn't in it. I've already been dealing with chronic illness (unrelated and very well managed) for over a decade so I know how recovery ebbs and flows. Some days when you feel good, you can make miles of progress. Bad days can sometimes only be measured in inches. However, inches add up. Many bad days can set the stage for what looks like miles of progress on a semi good day. The secret is chipping away at small pieces of the whole.
My Bad Day Project
Anyone who has followed my story will start to see a pattern is emerging. There has to be some sort of good coming out of all this awfulness. Beauty for ashes so to speak. It honestly is the only goal that I have reliably set my eyes on. It has carried me through some really awful moments. Seeing the good in this season has kept me moving forward.
When I met my neurosurgeon, the biggest thing that made me trust her was that she works with kids. Parents have to trust their kids with her during very scary times. I used to work with kids and it is an absolute privilege and pleasure to be trusted with them. The stakes are that much higher when its life or death. I do not envy her job in the sense of the magnitude of having to deal with kids who have brain tumours, brain cancer or brain surgery. Trust me, any of these things are hard enough to deal with as an adult. I get choked up thinking about what that would be like as a child (or the parents of a child).
So, right after I met with her about my surgery, I asked myself if there was anything I could do that might help some kid going through a situation similar to mine? That is when the idea hit to make health card sized documents that could empower them during their journey.
I did not invent the idea of "playing the brain surgery/tumour/cancer card" concept. I'm sure a hundred or more people have made their own variations over the years as well (I actually have never googled it because that doesn't matter) I first heard about the idea of a "cancer card" a few years ago when a dear friend was fighting her own battle. She and her husband referred to this mysterious card in relation to kids missing a deadline at school because it fell on a hospitalization day. Needing an extra dose of understanding when meds caused awful mood swings. Needing Tim Horton's chili because it's the only thing that appealed for breakfast. The Cancer Card - getting one means you are a part of an awful club. There is for sure a Brain Tumour Club and a Brain Surgery Club (and those are different, not all people with tumours get surgery, not all surgery patients have tumours). Wouldn't it be neat to have an actual card one could show? Especially if extra treats are involved.
Now coming up with the idea and then actually thinking through the steps whilst dealing with a brain tumour/brain surgery is REALLY freaking hard. I am not going to lie. That is equivalent to me asking you to design a skyscraper. Where do you even start? Even if you have built a skyscraper, try doing it hopped up on meds and having had someone drill a hole in your head, yeah, now you get it.
So, since January, this became a constant low level item on my to do list. On good days, I'd think about my next step on bad days I'd just do that step. To say that these cards pictured above were made with love is an understatement. They were some of the most difficult and some of my best moments through this journey. The only reason why I made them was to give them away. Hopefully to give someone a bright moment in an otherwise really awful situation. My deadline was my post surgery follow up so I could give them to my neurosurgeon as a gift. A thank you for all the years she spent honing her skill so that my biggest issue from the whole ordeal was dealing with how bad those medications affect me. This was also my way to fight the meds.
Now, I'm not a saint either, I will probably make more of these to sell at some point but those won't have nearly the same amount of my heart poured into them. I do have to make a living somehow, and these are pretty cool. However the batch above is special. I remember how long it took to figure out the exact measurements for wallet sized identification documents. Cutting the paper to size. Sitting in a dark room rounding the corners with a handheld clipper (that was a hard day), wording and rewording in my head. Printing in two rounds so I could do two ink colours. Trying to set type that is upside down and mirror image, trying to get perfect registration. Hard enough to do on a good day, very challenging during recovery.
Anyways, I've given most of the brain related ones away, I made extra of the Cancer Card ones because I have plans for those too. Too many people I love have to deal with that monster. Brain stuff is a little more esoteric I guess. I know they seem simple and to the expert eye, there are imperfections but I can honestly say it was the best I could do on some pretty bad days. Totally worth it too.
I have two confessions to make. The first is that there is no secret decoder ring to these latest paintings. I figured I should be upfront about that as I've had a few people inquiring about meaning or looking for greater understanding. This is very appreciated - having people looking closely and seeing details means the world to me. Also, while these paintings are not something that gets "unlocked", they definitely do contain meaning and symbols. Its just a little more complicated than "draw item A, add symbol B, unify with meaningful colour C = painting that says this fixed statement about the world we live in/my life and struggles/current political climate" Now all that being said, I could explain what my current work is about, but I'm sure it would sound like a rambling conversation rather than a succinct mission statement.
When I create work, I start with a kernel of an idea and expand on it. Adding personal symbolism is visual shorthand that keeps me moving toward and thinking through that original idea. I'm usually starting out with something that I am trying to process or figure out for myself. These latest pieces are very much about processing - this affects the outcome significantly during the course of the piece. If you want an equation, it looks more like "draw item A, add symbol B, think about why you put those two things together, ask yourself questions about if it is right to hold the preconceived notions of A and B or A plus B, question if that is too obvious. Bury symbol with meaningful colour C, change mind, bring symbol B back to the surface but change the juxtaposed colour to offer insight as to why my position changed on this issue.... and back and forth until the painting you end with looks to be complete" When I paint, I am pretty much talking to myself the whole time. I'm questioning myself. I'm excited by how serendipitous application of paint looks beautiful and I look at ways to replicate that beauty in other parts of the canvas or how to make that little bit of beauty even more beautiful. It's a process in itself.
The second confession is while this style change has been influenced by my current health situation and I prioritize visual decisions a little differently, my brain tumour did not cause me to paint in this style. This change is very deliberate. After reflecting on some conversations I've had in the past few weeks, I want to be clear that I'm not seeing things funny in my brain or with my eyes. This is not like those 50 paintings Bryan Lewis Saunders did while taking a different drug before doing a self portrait. Truth be had, after going through my situation and really taking a hard long look at mortality, I'm ready to paint what I want to paint. Nothing wrong with earlier work, nothing wrong with representational work. I'm in a place right now where I want to change direction. I guess I'm tired of thinking about what other people will like and trying to paint those things. It's an easy trap for artists to fall into.
One thing that has surprised me since returning to painting and trying this new style is how much planning goes into each piece beforehand. This painting was not "intuitive" or a "just go with the flow" piece at all. I thought it through, made a sketch, thought it through some more, made a new sketch and painted from that. This is very heavily revised and edited for clarity and visual presence. This self portrait is a companion piece to It's All Over But the Shouting (That painting incidentally, is on display at cSpace Calgary for the People's Portrait Prize exhibition - you should check it out! More info can be found here). Not totally decided on my next piece but I'm enjoying the journey so far!
I am starting to be ready to wrap up my recovery specific posts from my meningioma surgery. Not that I am 100% recovered, more that each gain comes in smaller and smaller doses. Not so many interesting breakthroughs. Lots of slogging in between each win, Truth be had, I am ready to close this strange chapter in my life because I am tired of talking about it. Yesterday marked 6 weeks post surgery, it feels like it is time.
Today, when I went into the studio I decided to paint something in my pre-seizure style just to ensure that those faculties are in working order. It was a fun exercise this morning and I might continue with these tiny 6" x 6" studies once in a while to keep my eyes sharp. I have pinpointed one area where my brain still goes haywire - colour matching. For some reason, when I try to get the right value mixed up, my brain goes into overdrive. When I painted "It's All Over But the Shouting" it was less noticeable because it wasn't so critical I get the colour correct, so I wasn't doing it as much. Today it did matter and I can feel it now in my fuzzy thinking.
My eyes are still a little different as well. Cannot totally pinpoint what it is, but it seems like trying to LOOK at things after painting a while is too hard for my brain so everything feels a little hazier than it did before I started. Almost like doing the job of focusing and paying attention to detail takes too much work. Still, that is improving each day.
This little painting is of some new to me ceramic orbs that I found at a thrift store. It joins another one that was given to me as a gift. They are sitting out at the moment by my reading chair and I study how the light hits them when I'm taking a break from reading. Every few days I move them around to see what that does to the scenario. This is the life of a woman who doesn't get out much I think. At least I am painting. At last it is warming up.
I am very excited about this piece. For some of you, this might look like a total stylistic departure, but I don't see that at all. Something has changed and this image has a very unique story of it's evolution. I painted it a few days ago and since then it's been on my wall so I could dissect it and find out what part of my brain all the little pieces were retrieved from.
Returning to the world of painting was not a scheduled event. Truth be had, I've been avoiding painting with a fierce determination. The idea of getting out my brushes and thinking through steps was so overwhelming. Those feelings were starting to lead me down some dark paths too. The thing I've been struggling a lot with lately is that all my normal outlets have been gone. This brain tumour is only one story of many, because life goes on even when you get laid up with your own crisis. Long story short, I am processing far more than what I mention on my blog. Other people's stories are intertwined with my own.
Normally when I am overwhelmed, I drive somewhere and listen to music. I might sing along or I might pull over and have a good cry. Same goes for running or painting. Common thread - be by myself, listen to music and let stuff out. The past two months have had a growing frustration of never being by myself, not being able to drive and feeling too overwhelmed to paint. When I hit my low point the other day, wallowing in my self pity I had a moment of clarity. I asked myself what my next step was - stay here wallowing or aim to get somewhere else taking small steps in a way that I could manage.
This changed everything. Everything. I was in control of my life again.
So, I decided quite suddenly that it was time to paint. Now, I knew that just deciding to paint something was too much, so I decided to recycle or finish an old painting. You see, I have a basement full of unfinished experiments where I started something and then turned the canvas against the wall and moved on. I know better than to let a perceived failure trip me up for too long. Better to paint and learn what you don't like then not paint. At least you learned something. That was my starting point.
Truth be had, I am not totally sure when this was painted. Looking around at similar sized canvasses and the subject I was pursuing I believe this is probably from around 2008 due to the acid green and the illustrative style, I know for sure it is no later than 2012 because the Aesop's fable theme finally made it into a linocut then. I do remember that when I painted this, I was grappling with some ego swelling praise as well as some flattery and I was struggling for a way to articulate it. However, when I got a little ways into this piece it felt too flat.
The crazy bright background with a self portrait and two key symbols laid out front and centre just felt a bit too obvious. Too limiting. I wasn't sure how to bury the meaning and bring more nuance to the piece, so I dropped it. When I went to the basement a few days ago and spied it, I saw new potential and was quite excited to use that simple image as a jumping point for something far more complex.
An aside, typically I am a fairly representational painter for most of my commercial work. I enjoy the challenges of translating the world around us with a good deal of realism. However, a lot of my still life subject matter is highly codified and personally symbolic. I don't like to give away all my secrets so I put my thoughts and feelings down in paint. I also have a very private, personal style (like the painting above, Procession) that comes up when I am grappling with something big and just want to express pure emotion.
I also have a totally different art style that comes up more often when I'm doodling. That side is full of repeating shapes, spirals, flowers and dot patterns. Below is a set that I worked on in 2014 for an Easter service. That was totally fun and crazy and illuminated with black lights. Yes that is an actual VW bug hauled in from a junk yard.
The thing is, I have always had a hard time marrying those two styles even though I regularly try to unite them. I look at that bird in the early version of "It's All Over But the Shouting" and I can see it appearing in sketchbooks from the early 90's. What goes around, comes around I guess.
I was trained to do self portraits on a semi regular basis because it is good to struggle with depicting yourself. Everyone will know if you are lying. Success comes with telling the truth. As we look at some of my old work, you will notice that there are some key features to my illustrative work and some key features of my representational work and it seems I keep trying to marry the two in my self portrait work. As I look at my most recent, post brain surgery painting I think I have finally had a measure of success.
I am not going to lie, I am very pround of 1996 Michelle for painting the above image - she was only nineteen years old. Crazy. This self portrait came from a photo taken in 1994 in Austria, a very formative time in my life. You can see the illustrative attempts emerging in the top left hand side with those interlocking shapes that are also present in the sketchbook image above that. That little bit of drawing/brushwork goes all the way back to my early childhood. I am actually surprised it didn't make a full appearance in "It's All Over But the Shouting" it evolved a little there into line work not dissimilar to the amazing striped socks I'm sporting in "Prodigal". I've known for a while that my personal symbols evolve in meaning, it seems they are also evolving in appearance now too.
I can remember painting this unfinished piece but I have no idea when. I'm thinking it is late 1990's possibly early 2000's. I'm still doing the light colours, the interlocking shapes and bazillion wash layers. The canvas has staples on the side, not the back. It could be from Halifax times or New Westminster times. Hard to say. Definitely done before the early version of "It's All Over But the Shouting"
Where this derailed was I could tell right away I didn't get my eyes done right. Nose and lips are okay. Face shape is passable. Again, this is just a likeness on a canvas with some illustrated bits and it didn't leave me with a lot of options. There is no core to this painting and I knew it so I stopped rather than trying to retro fit meaning to it after the fact.
This was definitely painted after the early version of "It's All Over But the Shouting", the green is way toned down and representational imagery was higher on the scale for me at this time. This is meant to be a formal self portrait and I even purchased the gladiolas and posed for the source picture. There is a whole lot of subtext going on in this piece. I started it in 2013 and was unhappy with it because it didn't reach into the illustrative/symbolic world as much as I hoped it would. So I revisited it with a Molotow paint marker in 2014 (around the time of the Crazy Love sets - you will see similarities if you look) and put all the line work in. You can see circles (with the same meaning as my plate paintings) emerging on this piece as well. That was a symbolic step that was harder than it looks for me to take.
While I really like this piece, the thing that has kept me from loving it is there is something not quite right with my eyes, they seem a touch too small. I also don't love that the line work is just a screen placed over top of the representational image. They are visually separate. They are working together here, and I think for the framework of this piece it is a successful partnership, but it is not quite a true marriage of the two styles.
So, what exactly happened with "It's All Over But the Shouting" that is different? Long story short, my brain isn't prioritizing things in the same order. I went with what my brain said felt right and it was different than what it would have been a few months ago. This required new strategies and new work arounds and it was very very exciting. So exciting that the day I painted this it was like my head exploded with visual ideas and directions to take and I could barely eat and didn't go to bed until after 2:00 am (which is super late for me) I could barely contain myself trying to sift through the wealth of ideas.
Instead of placing the line work over top, I anticipated it and wove it into the structure of the piece itself. Instead of highlighting the obvious symbols with outlines and bright colours screaming "look at me, I'm a symbol, symbols are super important" I buried them because those symbols are there for me, not for the viewer. If you find them, you can do what you like with them. I am very aware that a painting is a conversation between the artist and the viewer and you will do with them what you will. That will depend on your own history, your cultural context and whatever these things remind you of - this is the wonderful thing about art. When you look at a piece, it is like we are dancing.
I cannot wait to keep painting. I cannot wait for our next dance.
I actually had to wait a bit before posting this. Partly because I needed to print the lino block I had carved, partly because I needed to crawl out of the pit I was in for a few days. I just wanted to be left alone to work through the natural feelings that come along with massive life change and I didn't want well wishes and offers to go for coffee to talk out my feelings. This was an inner battle. Feeling more optimistic now and moving forward again.
That being said, I have a back log of posting because in the course of my recovery I feel like this story is best told in chronological order. (of course clicking on that link leads you to most recent meningioma blog post first, so you'll just have to back track if you are new to this situation and want to read more about my crazy world).
The above image is actually meant to illustrate a poem that I wrote, so it came second (which is different for me) My husband asked "why did you write a poem?" to which I helpfully responded "I don't know." then there was an awkward pause. Writing poems is also different for me. I am not one to express emotions and personal stuff using words. Or rather, I should say "I WASN'T one to express emotions and personal stuff using words" because everything is different even though everything looks the same. Things I get to grapple with using previously under utilized parts of my brain.
In the interest of getting this posted, I am just going to transcribe what I wrote with minimal editing. If I wasn't in recovery mode, I would knock this poem around for a while, honing it to where I want it to be and then I would set it in lead type and print an accompanying edition to go with the linocut. Or print them together. This all feels too hard so you get the rough copy. Oh yeah, I didn't write this in my sketchbook. I seem to have lost that somewhere in my house. I've had too many words lately and some are too personal for this blog, so I moved that crazy train over to a standard notebook.
I've asked myself many, many times in the past week "why bother?" I have also seriously thought about just wrapping up this part of my journey and unlinking from the sidebar on my blog and going back to making art. I'm refraining at the moment because I'm not posting poetic ruminations for attention (so if it looks that way, stay with me for a moment) I committed to the experiment of "what happens if you take an artist and then perform brain surgery on them?" and I want to see this through. Even though it looks like a pity party sometimes. Or I write poems.
In some ways this has been difficult to process because my physical recovery on the surface has outpaced my processing of the past few months. However, I am not fully recovered physically and the Pandora's Box of "what the heck is my life now" has only just opened. So I have ugly days occasionally. My husband astutely noticed that when I have a breakthrough day (i.e. carving a lino block for the first time, going running a little at the track etc) I very often am a wreck the next day. Physically, mentally and emotionally. Progress comes at a steep price. Now that I know this, I am being more careful on how much progress I let in at once.
To frame my poem, it came from my visualizing exercises that I've been doing. I kept coming back to a weird visual space that was like a storm on a beach. So I put words to the mental image, then I illustrated it. Please note, I am not a poet nor am I looking for poetic critique. Please also note, this is kind of raw and it makes me uncomfortable with sharing it, but maybe it'll help to understand the process of getting better. I'm okay now and I repeat I'm not looking for a chance to get together and talk about our feelings. We can just text each other dumb memes instead. Like we usually do.
One night a small boat washed ashore
The sky purple and flashing
As I went to investigate
Puzzle over its purpose
I noticed beside it
In the shallow crashing waves
Many of my dreams and those of others
Succumbing to the water
Some had expired a long time ago
Their corpses fetid, bloating
I hadn't noticed them before for some reason
I laid them on the sand, rescued
Others were newly deceased
Some so small and full of potential
Some so large they were difficult to pull
From the sea on my own
On the beach I made a
Morbid procession of these ideas
I noticed some weakly floundering, barely alive
I put them in bucket to save them
Turning back to the lost
I found a box to fit each one, provide shelter
Re-purposed for this funeral
Colourful cardboard betrayal
It didn't do them justice
Just hid the awful reality
So I carefully chose thick cream paper
The colour of brides
I covered each box with stiff paper
Making sharp creases
Hiding the truth, giving it honour
Sealing in the decay
Then carefully as if lifting babies
Deep in slumber
I placed each box, acknowledged
Into the awful, tiny boat
At last I pushed the boat
Into deep water, like a pyre
I let it drift away, to the past
Released into the future.
It has snowed an incredible amount over the past few days. The globs of snow are perched on weighed down branches. It is beautiful and yet so terrible for my sensitive eyes. The other day it was so white and bright I avoided being near windows all day because it just jarred my vision so badly. Brain surgery recovery at it's finest, I guess. In this picture I was trying to capture the snow formations as well as how blue the sky is all jutted up against the white of the snow. I wrote: "It has been snowing so much the past few days. Today I braved the intense light of the snow to run some errands and grab coffee with a friend. So glad that I did. I need a different environment more than I realized. I needed a visit with a friend even more. Good day."
Forcing Myself to Picture Things
Now that I've realized the issue I'm having with visualizing things, I've been trying to picture things in my head on a very small scale. For example, taking a moment and thinking "purple teddy" and seeing if I can bring up the recognizable features of a beloved old stuffed animal of my daughter's. Thankfully, I can kind of do this but it takes far more concentration than it used to take, It is encouraging to think that those systems seem to be intact, they just have a really heavy door with rusty hinges keeping me from getting to that part of my brain right away. I have to push hard at the moment.
Certain things I can visualize with zero efforts, for example spatial things. Picturing where I am and where I want to go, no problem. I can call up my internal GPS system to lead me to my destination. Thinking about where I put the scissors. I can visualize what drawer those live in (of course I have three teenagers so the actual probability that those scissors are in the drawer are next to nil, but I'm used to that, scotch tape is worse) I was really nervous about losing this ability because before my surgery I was having a lot of memory issues. One night, we were looking for something in our basement. I looked at a box I had just put stuff into the day before and COMPLETELY drew a blank on what was in that box. Despite knowing I had filled it less than 24 hours beforehand. Chilling, that is an awful feeling.
Plus, true confession time - I have ALWAYS had issues with recalling faces of people. Unless I am really really close to you, I have a hard time picturing what you look like in my head. I am way more likely to remember your laugh or the way you walk than your face. The flip side of that is that I am very, very keen with recognizing faces once I see them. I'll often remember the oddest and smallest encounters with people and know that I've met someone in a very different context. I'll sometimes remember their name too. Of course I will recognize you when I see you if you know me. If I don't, I'll totally fake it until I figure it out, so for all intents and purposes, I'll TOTALLY remember who you are.
The Garden in My Mind
Words are far more important than I realized. My brain seems to have gone into overdrive with this lately too. It is almost as if removing that tumour has allowed that word processing area become this lush, verdant garden of phrasing and onomatopoeia. This garden, to me, is incredibly new. Words almost have a more physical presence right now than reality itself. Prior to this surgery, I never REALLY understood the deeper pleasure of reading poetry. I would rush through it, looking for the point of whatever was being written. Not really understanding the choice and omission of words was the point. I get it now. I understand. One word I secretly say over and over in my head lately is thrilling - what a great word. It starts at the base of your spine and gives you goose bumps and chills travelling upwards as you say it. Thrilling is fingers strumming a guitar for the first time. I understand now.
The idea that I can describe this as a lush garden allows me to visualize that humid warmth and the smells or dirt. The feeling of leaves brushing up against my face. I can see the greenest of greens. Left to my pre-seizure methods I could just think of a garden, only lightly using words as a bridge. Now it's almost like I need to go into my internal dictionary and select the most exotic words and string them all together to bring an imaginary world to life in my mind's eye. It is endlessly fascinating and interesting to me. These pictures in my head engage all my senses which I don't recall being the case beforehand.
Before my surgery, I had a lot of people comment that they were amazed I was writing these huge blog posts, which when I read them now, I'm surprised they make sense. They were my only lifeline keeping me afloat - the amount of brain space they took up during construction cannot be taken for granted. The only reason why they are coherent was because each word was a brick. A physical object. Something that might need to be filed down or broken up. Something with weight and a place to go while making a building. Thick globs of mortar were only smoothed on when I knew the bricks fit together okay. I moved the bricks around in my head over and over till they fit. It was very much a mental yet physical process. I understand making things in a physical way and I think my brain was at a loss for understanding the situation. My brain was spinning it's tires and it just borrowed some other part of my brain to make sense of what was going on. Plus, there was that huge tumour pressing against the word part of my brain, causing swelling and reading issues.
The Life Giving Power of Facebook Status Updates
When I noticed that things had grown even stranger with words was the day I had surgery. I woke up in recovery, felt pretty good, all things considered. Spent the afternoon with my husband and then he needed to go home to tend the household. Laying in that hospital bed that night, I went secretly on Facebook (partly to see if my husband had posted an update, partly to see if I could read still) and I started to think, "how on earth am I going to post a good status update?" (Seriously, even prior to surgery, status updates in my mind are an art form unto themselves. What is the perfect balance of humour and catching people off guard? I will spend hours hand crafting the right combination of seven words before posting.) That evening, I decided that my first message from "the other side" of surgery needed to be particularly memorable. I wanted to strike the perfect balance of "I am alive", "I have all my faculties", "I'm still pretty darn funny" and "it takes more than brain surgery to slow me down" - after considerable thought, I realized nothing says still functioning like an entertaining haiku.
I laid there for hours thinking about how to acknowledge some pleasure of being alive, albeit in a hospital. I laid there and in an almost tactile way, rolled each word around my mouth. The weight, the texture... almost the flavour. Comparing words for my little haiku was similar to putting a large Jaw Breaker candy in my mouth and experiencing it's presence as my tongue took off layers of colour and texture. I would then take a different word and like a piece of Hubba Bubba let the sugar ooze between my teeth as it conformed to each chewing motion. Compared to putting a stalk of celery into my mouth and the bracing crunch and non-candy like flavour invading my taste buds.
Once I settled on the topic, it was a matter of trying to add and subtract the correct amount of syllables (which is super hard when you are heavily medicated and just had brain surgery, you should try it sometime to appreciate my craftsmanship). I wanted words that "felt" good flowing into each other and I wanted someone to read it and laugh. Then feel relief, knowing I must be okay. Hours went into building this tiny poem. It quite possibly is the greatest thing I have ever written. I certainly put more work into it than most of my high school homework assignments. Okay, ALL of my high school homework assignments.
The Four-Story Mistake
One of my Christmas presents this year was unbelievably spooky in hindsight. When I was a little girl, I tended to read books that were just a little too far out of my age range. My comprehension just slightly less than ideal. This didn't matter. I loved words and was okay with reading words that I didn't totally understand, and I was a voracious reader. Even now, I like big words and I don't always know how to pronounce them because I've only read them. I figure, go big or go home and am okay with sounding kind of stupid the first time I say a word out loud, it's worth it. (On a side note, please never make fun someone who mispronounces a word. I know from experience how vulnerable that makes someone feel. Kindly repeat it back correctly but don't do it like some sort of learned scholar either. It's commendable that they trusted you enough to risk looking dumb.)
Anyways, when I was around 8 years old, I found a book at my school library that absolutely captivated me - it was filled with descriptive words that had depth and meaning (many of them I had never read before). I also couldn't finish it before the due date because it was a little too hard to take it all in. I didn't understand how the Dewey Decimal system worked but I was really good at remembering where I found things, so I returned the book before it was overdue. Then we had a school break. Time passed. When our next library visit came, imagine my horror as I realized that during the break, they had completely reorganized the library.
Where, oh where would I find this book? I'm not sure I ever really paid any attention to the title or author. I can, to this day, recall the cover of the book and the colour of the spine. I searched endlessly for this book, I was gripped by this story in a way that a book had never captured me before. Then it was gone. Not long after that, we moved. I never forgot the book though. A couple of months ago, I remembered a particular aspect of the book and so I googled it to see if I could figure out what it was called. In moments, I learned that it was titled "The Four-Story Mistake" written by Elizabeth Enright.
Now, any of you who know my family will know that I am married to an extraordinarily thoughtful man. He is constantly amazing me with the tiniest details that he plans out in advance. Half of which I don't notice or absorb completely to appreciate them fully. Anyways, my sweet husband sat on the couch a few months ago and made a note when I said "Man! I FINALLY figured out what that book was called! Now I can finally let it go and get on with my life". He then quietly ordered the book and it was under the tree on Christmas morning so that I could finally see how it ended. Unbeknownst to us, two days later I would have a seizure and it would make reading very difficult and yet, words would absolutely consume me.
This little gift is thoughtful on a different level too. During the past few years, a brain tumour was growing that we were unaware of, slowly pressing up on the part of my brain responsible for language stuff. One thing we did know (and this particularly concerned my husband) was that I was reading less and less. First to go was reading fiction for pleasure. Next it was reading fiction graphic novels. Then it was reading non-fiction opinions and ideas, Then it was reading non-fiction manuals. Then magazines and printed materials. All that was left was my iPad in small doses. (Even in that I had a small love affair with words. I play a game called Alphabear where you make words to beat levels. I might possibly have been stuck on a level right before surgery, and I might have made my husband promise that if I died or something went horribly wrong, that he would finish that stupid level for me if I was unable. I beat it a few days after I got home, thankfully. Take THAT, Alphabear!)
His Christmas present to me was almost prophetic in trying to find a way to re-engage me in the world of books that I used to love. Even if it was a kids book. Then everything happened. One of the things in my recovery that we have been really excited about is that it appears that reading printed material is no problem at all (in small doses). So, I have started reading The Four-Story Mistake. I am thankful that eight year old Michelle seems to have had great taste in books. Almost as great as fourteen year old Michelle having excellent taste in life partners, but I digress. This book is crazy and wonderful and wakes up my senses. I can hardly wait to finish it.
I need to catch up my sketchbook pictures so I will dot my post with what I've drawn since my last post and write what I've written on the opposite page. This one reads "This little orb was a gift to me. A meaningful gift. A little treasure to mix in with the others, use as a prop for greater compositions. I think my favorite thing about it is the pattern. It is quite jumbled and imperfect. Still beautiful. Seemingly uniform on the surface but upon closer inspection things overstep each other. I relate." Jan 28 2018
Next time you go to a store like Walmart, do me a favour. Go stand near the check out area and just listen. Stop everything, close your eyes if you need to, but just listen. It is insane how noisy a place like that is and before I had my surgery, I never, ever noticed. Now I can't wait to leave places like that. I actually started shopping at stores that are smaller, quieter and more expensive in order to keep my sanity. Fluorescent lighting pushes me over the edge as well. This is one of the new things I've had to account for on the road to recovery.
I am still exceeding expectations on getting back to some semblance of normalcy but I think sometimes the fact that I make a positive post or comment can be misconstrued that I am always that positive or that I've already fully recovered. Most of the times I try to be positive but this is a long road and some reoccurring issues have made me realize that this is not going to constantly be sunshine and roses.
Some days are really good, and I have energy and clear thinking. The day I made this sketch was like that. I wrote "I must be feeling a bit more myself. I felt like doing more than one sketch today. Ivy inspired me to pick up my pen again and she was holding so still until I started to draw. I just changed the drawing when she moved. It feels more fluid this way. From life." Jan 28 2018
My Small Changes
Most of the differences are really subtle. I honestly think that if I wasn't an artist and wasn't trained to look at things closely I would have a very difficult time trying to put a finger on what is different. I am really working on overcoming these things using the "use it or lose it" approach. Time will tell if I've had success. I do find that each week sees improvement. Even over last time where I blogged about things I'm working on, I've made big improvements especially the first three items (napping, leaning on stuff and dog walking) Those are barely issues at all now.
- One thing that keeps surprising me is how easily I am startled (Haha see what I did there? Clever me.), especially in the car. It just feels like things jump out of my peripheral vision. Also I am constantly paying attention to my peripheral vision because I am worried about if it was changed/diminished from surgery (pretty sure it wasn't but that fear remains).
- I am a lot less ticklish for some reason. Traditionally I am one of those highly sensitive people who cringes at side hugs and the like. I actually didn't even notice that I was less ticklish, my husband pointed it out to me the other day. I think I am closer to what normal people are like (ie getting tickled feels ticklish as opposed to touching my arm makes me want to punch you)
- Lights and screens bug me a lot more and a lot sooner. It is hard to describe how they make me feel. Frayed? Like how you feel after listening to a tv that isn't set to a station and is just white noise? Screeching brakes? It isn't so much "feeling burnt out" as opposed to an actual physical limit. Chewing foil might be a good comparison. Too much bright light is like chewing foil. To stay in the bright light is to continue to chew foil. Or you can stop. I am figuring out finally that stopping is far preferable. Hence less blog posts and online stuff.
- I don't think my eyesight was changing due to my age, I think my tumour was causing issues that I do not fully understand. Long story short, before my surgery, reading a medicine bottle was near impossible. 6 pt text impossible. I was starting to rely on reading glasses for fine detail. Yet my eye doctor did tests and determined that I have very sharp vision with glasses/contacts. Since surgery, my eyes have been crazy tuned into fine detail and tiny, tiny text. Effortlessly, with either contacts or glasses in lighting that is less than ideal. I don't understand it, but I'll take it.
- My eyes seem to have a hard time focusing if I am worn out. Not physically focusing... again, this is subtle and I don't understand it, but it seems like a processing issue. I see the information, but my brain doesn't want to deal with all it so it all seems a little hazy. Not all the time, just when I've overdone it for the day or had too many bright lights. This was a lot worse and a lot more noticeable after my seizure but before surgery. I feel like this is improving more each day.
- Being interrupted makes me frustrated. I never used to care and I am terrible for interrupting others. I apologize directly to you if I have interrupted you and it has been frustrating. I get it now. I am learning that I am currently on a very linear plane and to get a thought articulated is a lot of work. When I get interrupted not only do I lose the thought, I have to (like a video game) go back to the last "save point" and start again. If I can remember what the save point was. Ugh. This too is improving so I'm not too worried. I'm sure I'll be back to jumping all over your conversation soon enough.
How appropriate that I lead into the next section of my blog with this particular image. It was originally supposed to lead into a completely different blog post that I never wrote about the big change that I've experienced. I wrote "This little picture has been floating around in my head for days Jan 29 2018" and then I got frustrated. Honestly, I drew this to remind myself I still have an imagination. See more below.
My Biggest Change
I have one glaring difference since I had my seizure and it has taken me a really long time to write about it. Partly because it is really complicated to articulate, partly because I almost feel humiliated to admit it (I said "almost" there, I realize that I cannot control this, but it is massive to admit to this difference due to my line of work. Massive) The biggest struggle I have had is that I am having a very hard time visualizing things. I have recently realized that that part of my brain is there but I have to consciously think about it in order to engage it (and I think this is a new thing in the last few days or so, so I am encouraged)
Before I go further, I want to separate "visualizing" from my "imagination". My imagination is intact. So is my creativity. No problems there (as the above drawing is meant to illustrate, even if it is a simple image, it is not from real life) The thing I am talking about is that internal visualization one has in order to know all the steps required in order to complete a task or to be able to picture what a finished item might look like (or at least a close approximation as any painter will tell you, it never turns out like how you thought it was but the longer you paint, the closer you can achieve that original idea)
The day I was released from the hospital, I was very, very relieved that I could still spatially visualize road routes and maps. I know a little bit about how memory works and I know that if you want to remember people's names and grocery lists, it can really help to tie those things into your spatial memory. I recommend this book, Moonwalking With Einstein if that intrigues you. As an aside, that part of my memory isn't the greatest but I STILL try to memorize my student's names. Names are very important and if you want to make a connection with another human being, try your very best to remember their name. You will not regret that. Well, maybe you would if you tried to remember someone's name by picturing them as a shoe and then accidentally called them "Shoe" when you saw them. That would cause issues.
Something that has really stuck with me is a time before I had my seizure, I remember our family was over at some dear friends of ours house (I'm struggling on where to put the apostrophe on that) playing a drawing game (and if there is one kind of game I love, it's a drawing game) and my friend was saying since she had had chemotherapy, she has had a hard time visualizing what things look like - in her case it was little cartoon drawings of frogs and giraffes. For some reason, at the time, I could not let go of that thought, the idea of not being able to picture something absolutely fascinated and frightened me. Well, I'm speaking from the other side of the coin right now to tell you that it is neither fascinating nor frightening but it does take effort and planning when this affects you.
This is why I titled my blog today "Soaring Above the Trees" because that is my biggest goal right now. I want to figure out how to let my mind take flight again so that I have the big picture perspective that I once had. Instead of being on the ground walking through every idea and conversation in a linear fashion. This goes far deeper than painting pictures or drawing giraffes... this affects a lot of decision making processes.
Pre-seizure my husband would say "where should we go for our dinner date?" and 8 options would spring to mind (I'm gluten free, so I work with those limits, non gluten free people would have 25 choices) . I could visualize simultaneously where each restaurant was in relation to me, the interior, the food options, what they would taste like and the rough cost of the meal. Immediately, I could rule out 5 of those choices based on time of day, location and what I felt like eating. Three choices would remain for my husband and I to decide upon. This is what it is like to soar above the trees.
Post surgery if my husband were to say "where should we go for our dinner date?" I would draw a complete and utter blank. No clue. Add in immediate feelings of being overwhelmed and slightly ashamed at drawing a blank. At that point, I'd have a choice. To avoid looking dumb, just spit out anything that comes to mind regardless or time, location or budget. Usually for me the first thing that comes to mind is the last restaurant I went to. Fancy or food court. Doesn't matter if the goal is to not look dumb. Another choice is to ask him to narrow that down a bit (which once I realized this was a problem, I've been doing) 3 choices seems to be my maximum.
Now, to understand this better I want you to visualize (look, I'm making you work and do the thing I'm having a hard time doing). You are soaring above a park. Below you are three distinct paths that lead to three separate flower gardens. Garden A is snap dragons, Garden B is roses, Garden C is a half dead community garden that suffers from bad management. When you soar above the trees, you can see all three paths branching off from your starting position. As you soar, you can decide which garden suits your current mood and those decisions come quickly. Now, the down side is that you have to make some assumptions in that short time span and you might be disappointed on closer inspection, but overall it is a very efficient way to live. Soaring pretty much rocks and you probably totally take it for granted.
When you are on the ground, you are at that place where all three paths branch out before you. You see three paths winding off in the distance in three directions. You aren't totally sure how long those paths are or what garden is at the end. Someone says what the three gardens are and you are pretty sure two of the choices sound nice. The thing is, when you live on the ground you actually have to walk down each linear path in its' entirety in order to decide how you feel about the garden you arrive at. Walking those paths takes time. Far, far, more time than soaring. However, interestingly enough, you think through more things about each of those options because you spend more time thinking about them. Unless you are interrupted, then you end up, frustrated at the branching point. Living on the ground takes work and feels cumbersome at times. However, this is not thinking less about things or having limited capacity. This is your brain travelling everywhere on foot. It takes a little to get used to and honestly I'm hoping I find a bike soon. As a friend of mine once shared about different cultures that is also applicable here - it is not "wrong" just "different".
I've found that my husband giving me three choices earlier in the day yields better results than three choices given in the car on the way to town while we are already hungry. That is life though, you learn the work around and you make sure you are aware of the risks. I also want to avoid living like that all the time. At some point I will need to step off a cliff and see if I can soar.
This drawing of a flower I find interesting because I'm not approaching this from the ground so to speak. There are implied objects and hints of other things. This was a clue that things are starting to change, even if slightly. I wrote "Things feel like they keep improving. I felt quite down about lots of dreams only a few days ago and yet, the difference a few good days makes cannot be underestimated. I feel like the next few months may be better than originally anticipated. Feb 1 2018
Return to Instructing
Some of you might have noticed that I have an event posted on my main page. I am very excited to see it there, all by itself because it represents something far bigger. The fact that I have a teaching gig means that life goes on. That maybe one day, having brain surgery will be an interesting item of small talk or a way to walk beside someone who is going through a tough time. That maybe what I've experienced the last 6 weeks (Yes, 6 weeks since my seizure. Amazing) might have changed me, refined me and made me stronger but it didn't kill me or keep me down forever. Like I said a million years ago, hope is not to be trifled with. Please note that this gig isn't for another couple months too. Not tomorrow.
So, why do I think I am ready to return to instructing? I'm not totally ready at this very moment, but I'm very, very close. I would not be ready for full time work. Nor am I ready for painting (more on that in a minute). I'll also be limited to instructing occasionally on weekends (when I can be driven) or locally (when it isn't crazy cold and icy and I can travel by foot).
What gives me the confidence is that I don't need to soar in order to teach. In fact, teaching is just walking that linear path and talking someone's ear off while you travel along together. As the teacher, you've been on this path before and are bringing your student along for the first time (they may have been on similar paths but this is new), As the teacher, you point out all the things you've noticed all the other times you traveled that path. The curve of the hill, the rocky slope, the copse of trees and all the special birds and flowers. (of course you never tell them where the Nanking cherry or Saskatoon berry bushes are because you want to hoard them all to yourself and make jam, but then you realize that you like that person so you tell them where those are too.) Linear thinking is an asset in this situation. Not everyone is good at it either.
My husband confirmed I can still do this the past weekend when he asked me to show him how to make his own business cards using the letterpress in my studio. I did pretty good walking through the steps in order and the logic behind everything. It felt so good. So good. On an aside, next time you see my husband, ask him for a business card. Trust me on this.
In fact, something that I would like to try is some informal get togethers in the coming weeks at my house with actual human beings trying some art stuff. Just to shake out the cobwebs on instructing. (there will be no actual cobwebs involved) This is pretty loose in my head at the moment, but as I think about it more I get more excited. Talking to a friend of mine today confirmed that this is definitely a good idea on many levels. Plus I need people telling me about their exciting lives in the outside world. If that grabbed your interest, let me know and I"ll loop you in once I figure it out.
This is another appropriate sketch as I change topics in this never ending blog post. I wrote "My slippers. I'm tired of being home and wearing them all day. I'm feeling restless and a little frustrated. I've been almost totally house bound for 6 weeks now and it feels very stale. My energy levels won't co-operate for longer excursions on foot and I only seem to run errands.
That Thing Where Your Kid is Home From School For a Couple Days and Then That One Magic Day They Start Getting Bored Instead of Sleeping and So You Know it's Time For Them to go Back to School
I'm getting bored but I have limits. I can't be on screens all day, so I need to do stuff. Some of that I've been lightly playing with in my studio. Mostly letterpress and sketchbook. Why? Because both of those are very linear. Letterpress is take an idea do step 1, 2, 3,... 46 = neat thing you made. Sketching is decide what to draw, decide where to start, do your best to get a vague approximation. Add one layer of watercolour if desired.
Painting on the other hand... that is a multi step, multi layer, high soaring process. When I think of painting, I miss it so very much (I'm choked up typing this) but I feel very overwhelmed (please don't message me "just go paint" I'm not ready yet) because when I think of painting, it is very much an on the ground feeling. Plus it is multiple steps that start with "Clean Sta-wet palette", "boil water for new paper for Sta-wet palette", "decide what to paint" *Michelle's brain explodes*, "learn how to use new printer" *Michelle's brain explodes again*, "Put paint on palette" and then I arrive at the start of the path. This is discouraging and exhausting, yet I just articulated those beginning steps which I would not have been able to last week, so I know there is progress. Just slow, on foot progress at the moment.
So back to being bored. I owe a lot of my boredom to the fact that I have diligently kept lists for years and years and years. I track everything. What I eat (clearly I am not on any sort of productive diet, this is just for gluten free stuff), when, where and how far I run, (I can tell you how slow I ran 10 km all the way back about 15 years or so) and I usually write a fresh to do list each day. When I was sick a few years ago, this literally allowed me to work my desk job 2 years longer than I would have otherwise.
This diligence means I am no stranger to dumping things onto a list and then mindlessly checking it, doing a task and moving on to the next thing. I've internalized that skill so much that I had an unwritten (I guess visualized) to do list even in the hospital. (Although that to do list was all about taking painkillers, drinking Coca Cola and walking to the bathroom, the bar is set a little higher these days. Okay, let's face it, not much higher and without the painkillers)
So what does this have to do with lists? Lists keep me on track. All my cognitive functions are here. My memories are intact... I just lack focus and time management (and those are improving). What makes me look like a functioning human right now is that I make lists and I check them constantly to keep moving forward. This is also how I instruct. So I've been making lists of things to do that I actually don't have to do. When I get bored I work on stuff on the list. Today's list includes such gems as "blog", "thank yous", "painting photo" and "sketchbook" (notice the lack of household chores, somehow I never get bored enough to put that down unless we are getting low on socks or public health and safety is called into question) I also made a note about "art group" after talking with my friend. The fact that I've crossed off two on today's list already means that slowly I am climbing up to higher places. Boredom will drive me to good health.
I'm starting to feel restless with just drawing. I might go and tidy up my studio tomorrow. It's been around a month since I spent any significant time in there. My heart is feeling the absence of that space. I wrote "I've noticed this pillow on the chair a lot this week. My dad sits with the pillow for his back. I've been looking at the pattern more because of it's migration from the couch. I seem to be better at constructing images with hard lines and angles today." I also notice my writing is improving, it is closer to my usual scrawl than it was last week. Less spelling errors and repeated words too.
I've been home from the hospital for a week now. It's been an interesting week for me recovery wise. Every day has held a new bit of progress as well as a surprise or two on things that still affect me in subtle ways. At first I was going to write a post on all this little things that keep coming up. However, after reflecting about it, I think I will instead turn that on it's head and write a post of all the things that I am looking forward to improving on. Attitude is everything.
Some of these things sound pretty minor but will change my day dramatically once I master them. Some of these things are also going to be indicators that I am ready to get back to work with instructing and studio work. I find writing little goals like this gives me something to aim for day to day.
Eliminating Mandatory Nap Time
Don't get me wrong, I love a good nap. What I don't love is this newly adopted narcolepsy that came with the surgery. I nap minimum one hour a day, it is not unusual to nap multiple times for up to 4 hours. These are groggy deep naps where I wake up slowly and refreshment washes ashore for about a half an hour before I feel ready to get up. I have zero problem falling asleep at bedtime. I feel like a cranky, exhausted and emotional toddler if nap time is delayed. It won't be long before I get caught at the grocery store having a tantrum.
Being Able to Stand Around Without Leaning on Stuff
My balance is fine, I'm physically fit enough to stand unassisted and I don't get light headed. For some reason standing and talking to someone or waiting in a long line is excruciating. It wipes me out and this mystifies me. I have improved quite a bit in the sense that last week, standing for a few minutes felt impossible. This week I'm okay if I'm leaning on a counter or door frame. Stick me in the middle of a field and I would start getting worried.
Walking My Dog
I have a beautiful husky/greyhound cross. Gentle, kind and even tempered UNTIL you stick a leash on her. Normally I start every morning with a half hour walking her through the trees in search of those elusive local deer she can always smell. This week it is icy on our local paths and she just pulls too hard when she is excited. On Monday my dad and I started going on my usual route but he took the leash so I could focus on not slipping on the slick spots. Next Monday, I will be on my own. Judging from my strength returning each day, I hope that I can handle her on my own. Or all the ice melts. Or both.
Walking is getting old. I'm frustrated that I can't just spring forward into a steady gait. Yet the idea of running is terrifying (and I'm not going to push this until I see the doctor for follow up because I am aware there are risks with impact sports) I feel like if I run, my incision will open up and my brain might fall out. Or my head will fall off. Something rational like that. Today I rushed instinctively to get to a ringing phone and my body said HECK NO, DO NOT DO THAT. So, I'm clearly not rushing this one.
Maintaining My Focus
To be totally honest, I start to fade pretty quickly during involved conversations, long articles, and nagging my kids. I have found myself sheepishly saying "I'm sorry, I just realized I was totally not listening to the last part - what was it you were telling me?" I just start to glaze over and withdraw from the moment. This is particularly noticeable when it is too loud or late in the day. This is not normal for me and I don't notice at all that it is starting to happen until something occurs and I think "I have no idea what they are talking about"
Normally I am slow and steady. In pretty much everything I do, I am very intuitive with saving a little extra for the end and finishing well. Running, making art, and instructing classes. Lately I seem to be overestimating how much energy I'll have and underestimating how long things will take. Which ties into my next goal....
Keeping Track of Time
Being married to a wonderful man of German/Mennonite heritage means I am used to watching the clock and being ready for everything. Not this week. Hours and hours just slip away. Usual things that indicate the passage of time like being hungry, having appointments or working are not really present right now so I find I am constantly surprised at how late it suddenly got. Dinner time and bed time get me every single day. BLAMMO.
The last three points are very intertwined. I might look like I'm totally back to normal but those little struggles make the days just disappear. I know clearly what days all my appointments are and what the date is but I have a hard time stringing all those things together into something that feels like a normal routine or structure. If I have something booked for next Tuesday and I know today is Thursday that feels like it could be weeks away in my head and I have no idea what to do with the time in between. Chores and visits and things that aren't fixed firmly just seem to appear out of nowhere.
In other news, my staples are all loose and jangle around. I can't stop fiddling with them and thinking about them. Everything is healing up nice though. I get the staples out on Monday. I can hardly wait.
Today's floral sketch. My house is overrun with a riot of delightful scents and colours this week. Very, very unusual for January in Alberta. While I'm not a "say it with flowers" girl in general, this has been quite enjoyable. I wrote " I've been too busy to write or draw. My dad is in town and I've spent the past few days being alive. I realized I've pretty much been housebound for almost a month. Now that I'm feeling okay, I just want to move and do things. Not sit and blog or draw"
One week ago I was waking up with a nurse feeding me ice chips. My throat was burning from intubation and I was hooked up to all sorts of beeping machines and monitors. Today, my dad took me to Costco, I will be completely honest, I did NOT expect I would be up for a Costco trip one week post surgery. Yet, here I am and my pantry is filled.
This recovery is nothing short of miraculous (whether you believe in miracles or not). When I put my hair down over my incision, you would have no clue that I had major surgery last week. As far as I can tell, I read as regular old Michelle to the average passer by. I don't think this is one of those situations where people talk to me for a bit and then lean over to their spouse once I've left and say "you know, after that surgery, she just hasn't been her old self". If I was annoying to you before, I'm sure I'll pick up right where I left off next time I see you. No Frankenstein shuffle, no vacant stares as far as I can discern. Either that or everyone has been really, really nice about letting me believe I'm doing good.
This is my paradox.. Last week I did have major surgery. This past Sunday was the first time I left house.since coming home from the hospital. In order to get moving and aid my recovery, I went walking at the track on Monday. It is a big piece of humble pie one needs to eat knowing that only a few weeks earlier, you could effortlessly run 5 km on the same track. I walked around 20 minutes. I kept getting lapped by the senior citizen walking groups who passed me swinging arms with the 1 lb weights strapped to their wrists. At the same time there was one of those boot camp classes in full swing full of fit young mothers. I watched them as I circled remembering all those kinds of classes I've done before, knowing I would literally have a stroke if I did one at the moment. Yet, I was there. Not in the hospital, not at home. I'll take slowest over what I've had for the past few weeks.
Excursions feel so great right now. My mind is clear and I've been cooped up. Excursions also equal a big nap afterwards. It is so funny how I feel totally fine while I'm out but I come home and I'm completely ready to hit the pillow. My dad has been visiting to help and we shifted our focus from him helping around the house to helping me push my limits. I won't be driving for months so we've used our time during the day to get set up around here so I know I can start easing back into my regular routine. We've reduced the level of outside help dramatically too - that is a good problem to have. It's been reassuring to have stuff in place should our family need it, and we are thankful that it looks like we won't need it all either.
Post Surgery Observations
- My scalp is waking up and it is crazy. All tingly and strange. My husband has to put ointment on my incision twice a day and its only been since the weekend that I can actually tell he is touching my skin. My shaved head is starting to grow in and it feels so funny. I just run my fingers up and down the edge of the shave line for entertainment. Staples are so weird to encounter too (I avoid them as much as possible because the idea of them kind of grosses me out). Everything is healing up all clean and fresh though.
- Post surgery fatigue will drop you if you aren't paying attention. The day I walked the track I was going slow, but was totally in command of how I felt. I knew I was done when I rounded a corner and the next nearest chair felt like a thousand miles away. Again, I had a good nap when I got home.
- There are a million post surgery blog posts about how awful and painful my type of recovery is. This post I'm writing is one of the few happy ones out there on the internet. I can honestly say, my pre-surgery symptoms were much worse. I do get a little head pain now but not much. I'm being careful and my head looks gnarly but things are quickly improving.
- I am finding subtle limitations. Last night I discovered that at the moment, I cannot track two conversations going on at once. I literally cannot follow either conversation at all. Not sure if that extends to things like the radio or tv going while people are talking. The amount of selection at Costco was a bit much after a while today. I told my dad that before my surgery, if I didn't have a list, I would go into the store and be absolutely blank on what I needed. Shopping was super overwhelming. Today, I didn't have a list and I stuck to my budget exactly. Impressive for Costco on a regular day.
- Drawing is a little unfocused on where to start and finding the order that is most efficient for building a picture. I am seeing things better than I was pre surgery, so that encourages me. I just need to sit still long enough to actually draw. It does help with the processing part, so I know I will return soon enough.
This is my first post operation sketch. I made it this morning. I had good intentions yesterday but hours just seem to stream away right now and then I am too tired. I've received some very beautiful bouquets and that has been like a balm to my senses. I look forward to drawing them. Structure seems kind of hard right now. I wrote "Tiger Lilies are one of my secret most favorite flowers. I know very little about flowers but I think that's where my love for tiger lilies comes from. It is the Saskatchewan provincial flower (although wiki tells me it is actually a Western Red Lily that represents my home province) I remember learning about this at school at a very young age. Somehow that info combined with a loose sense of patriotism made me feel like an expert. Plus it is beautiful. Bold and bright and sculptural" I'll be honest. This entry was interrupted with background noise and my concentration is shot. My spelling is not perfect and I still have a few repeated words written down. I feel like its all rambling.
It feels strange to be posting the update that I am. All the expectations about brain surgery that I had have been turned into something else. Easier and far more difficult that I really understood before crossing that threshold. It's been a long week so I'm giving myself permission to just put some semi coherent thoughts down to mark the moment. Maybe I can look back on this post in a few years and nod my head sagely and be happy that this time has passed. Then crack a stupid joke to get over the awkward pause. That would very much be my style.
I'm going to use the handy "in no order point form" system yet again. It feels separate and orderly but seems to allow for stuff to be barely interconnected.
- One of my biggest fears coming through this operation was being mentally and physically incapacitated (temporarily or long term) this has not happened, for which I am very, very thankful. Instead, I actually feel like there has been a reset button pressed in my brain. Like the neurosurgeon just pressed the off button for 5 seconds and rebooted me to that moment before my seizure hit. It is weird to me that I feel this much more normal post surgery. Like that shouldn't happen for some reason. I also don't think I am merely imagining my faculties are back to normal, I've asked my husband and he has confirmed that this seems to be the case.
- Those weeks from seizure to surgery were a lot more difficult than I realized. Canadian friends will know what I'm talking about when I mention that commercial with the car driving at night in the city and the empty beer glasses keep getting placed in front of the camera lens to make every thing blurry. That was me for around three weeks. Writing funny blog posts literally consumed my thoughts all day so I could sound loose and informal. They were anything but. It was like writing words and then taking a very fine file and shaving away at how words fit together or looked until it seemed right. Laborious. Time consuming. A welcome distraction.
- I have a few things that are really important to my identity and all those things were seriously tested in the past few weeks. I want to be a genuinely nice person (I'm not perfect) and I was super worried that medications, surgery or complications would bring out bad traits or that I would say unkind things to people I love. My temper was short (and I seem to still get frustrated faster right now). Thankfully, I think I have navigated through those dangerous waters. If I said anything really bad, the nurses were too kind to tell me.
- I did not lose my sense of direction. Another huge worry for me. I have very very strong spatial awareness. It gives me comfort to know what little drawer the little thing I am looking for lives in. When I can't sleep at night, I close my eyes and mentally travel through streets of places I love and that helps me settle down. I usually always know where north is. I still know where north is and the best route to travel to get you through rush hour.
- The weird reading stuff I experienced after the seizure is gone. Just gone. Like an exotic bird that came to rest in my psyche for a few weeks, it came, made it's presence known, opened my eyes to a different way of living and then up and left. Same goes for my sweet tooth and enhanced sense of smell.
- I can think, I'm pretty sure I can draw and do the stuff I did before I had the seizure, and I am starting to want to. This will change things though. I am a slow processor and the blog part is only a tiny part of me being able to wrap my head around this situation. Today I was overwhelmed with a lot of what we've experienced the past few weeks and I needed to express it through drawing and writing.
- Attending a surgery where you are the patient is very similar to attending a party that you don't remember. You hope pictures don't show up on Facebook. Your head hurts. Weird bruises show up for days later. Someone washes and braids your hair before putting a 6" incision into the back of your head. Strangest party I've been to.
- Don't let the post operation photos I posted of my smiling mug fool you. I look really weird right now. 1/3 of my hair is shaved off (and will eventually cover my massive horse shoe shaped scar). My face is weird and puffy from sleeping semi upright and taking steroids for a few days. The post surgery human body is slightly terrifying version of yourself to get to know. Plus you have to get to know it at a time that you would really rather just have a nap.
- Naps are uncomfortable. Bedtime is uncomfortable. Walking is tiring. Talking is tiring. Sitting is tiring. Recovery is demanding and yet, my brain is reset. This frustrates me.
Apologies for just rambling. This is what post surgery looks like for me today. Overall I'm feeling optimistic and know things will improve. I figured it might be of interest to know what a weird experience this is.
One Interesting Thing I Learned:
So, I wasn't sure how much of pre and post surgery I would remember. I remember the anesthesiologist putting the mask on my face and telling me I wouldn't fall asleep for at least a minute. Then nothing. Then I remember a nurse talking to me and asking the usual questions they ask you in the hospital (I'm very good at giving the date).
In the background was an announcement that was repeating over and over, but in the Recovery ward, everyone was too busy with the patients. So then an alarm started going off for a "code purple". All the nurses started scrambling around to figure out what that meant and I piped up and told my nurse that the announcement said it was just a test. They all relaxed.
Then they looked up what code purple was. If you are ever at Foothills Hospital and you hear there is a "code purple" it means its a hostage situation. Or a simulated one. Pay attention. *The more you know*
I came home on Thursday (surgery was Tuesday) the euphoria of good meds and a happy outcome have turned into the reality of needing lots of down time. We are good for meals and cleaning. I have rides and appointments covered for the time being (and a generous list of names to call on for help)
I've read all your messages, I've seen all the kindnesses you have shown my family and I deeply appreciate it. I have also given up trying to go through the back log of messages that stacked up this week. So, this is my official thank you. I love you guys.
My incision has around 40 staples in it, those come out in little over a week. I still don't have any idea of what my long term recovery looks like or what I will need. All the basics are doing great though (walking, talking, cracking jokes). I plan to keep blogging while I figure it out.