I admire these women, these accomplished artists who struggled against the shackles society placed on them. In order to achieve success, many felt the need to work within those restrictions, ignoring a yen to be treated as their male counterparts during the period of impressionism. Some struggled against those bonds, defying societal norms, forging a path for the less assertive and for the female artists to come.

I was aware of similar struggles facing female scientists and authors. James D. Watson and Francis Crick took credit of Nobel Prize worthy discoveries make by the English chemist Rosalind Elsie Franklin, and famed author Mary Ann Evans, whose work would have been considered unladylike, published under the pseudonym George Eliot. But until I attended the exhibit Her Paris, though I wasn’t surprised, it didn’t occur to me that women artists contended with similar prejudices.

I wove my way through the exhibit halls, marveling at the artwork. Some of the artists worked within the confines society placed on them, focusing on ladylike subjects such as motherhood or women’s fashion. But others were defiant, like Rosa Bonheur who visited slaughterhouses to understand the musculoskeletal system of cattle in order to depict them in accurately in her paintings.

Fascinated by the work of these women, I advanced deeper into the exhibit, perusing the paintings. At first, I was confused when I found myself skirting some of them. I wanted to continue exploring, moving from one picture to the next. But my brain wouldn’t let me go there. Through wisps of fog, I noticed I was avoiding herds of fellow attendees. I started making the connections after I flinched away from the sight of a woman wearing garishly colored attire, and kept my distance from a particularly boisterous group.

I was suffering from my usual difficulties processing too much sensory input. I realized through my thickening inner fog that I needed to make my escape. But by then it was too late—as often occurs in such situations, my ability make my own choices was waning. Vaguely aware I was heading towards the exit, incapable of proactively heading there, I followed the crowd.

Still able to maintain some semblance of control, I managed to skip paintings that attracted more than two or three viewers. But in my usual reluctance to give in to the bloody brain, I occasionally paused to my neck to catch a glimpse of works of art that caught my eye and drew me in.

One painting in particular spoke to me. The colors, neutral, drab even, browns and grays, weren’t the focus of my interest, neither was the skill of the artist. The main reason I felt a connection between us was the subject—the naked trees reflected in a lake lent a serenity to the painting, a much needed break from my surroundings.

I stood behind a couple admirers who were discussing the artist’s technique, allowing peace to blanket me. Finally, with the quiet grounding me in a less than ideal situation, keeping the rest of the world at bay, I could relax. As the two art critics moved on, an object that they had blocked appeared—a sharply defined paddler-bearing canoe in the left hand corner of the painting. It was directed inward. In my mind’s eye, I saw it moving forward, towards the center of the painting.

The thought of it disrupting the stillness and advancing into the lake was unbearable.

I turned away. About to continue on my way, I paused. Why did I turn away? Why did the canoe and its paddler disturb me?

I turned back and contemplated the painting for a long moment.

Though the canoe added to the composition of the painting, it detracted from the sense of serenity. But why?

Since my surgeries, I have become overly sensitive to sensory input. While my kids still lived at home, I closed myself off in my room when the sound of the television was too much for me or when they had friends over. To this day, when overwhelmed by crowds or noise, I crave peace and quiet.

On the other hand, since the surgeries, I am better able to connect with my fellow human beings. Where before the bleeds I was very much a loner, now I enjoy human contact. I love interacting with my students (though they can be a tad rambunctious at times) and I appreciate time spent time with friends.

by Gabriel Pollard

by Gabriel Pollard

Perhaps in the past, less comfortable with the world around me, I didn’t feel the need for a balance between the noise and the quiet. Or maybe, less aware at the time, I didn’t see that I lived in an imbalance.

Now, I clearly need both the human interaction and my alone time. While unbalanced, I feel damaged, wrong. balanced, I am more me, more human.

Was this the source of my unease? The canoe, the one human being in the picture? Could it be that it formed an imbalance? I was certainly already out of balance because of the crowds around me.

Suddenly,  it clicked. The serenity in the painting guided me out of the chaos. The ripples caused by paddler in his canoe disrupted the peace, tipping me back over the edge, towards the chaos.

In that moment of clarity, I knew I had to make my escape, before I was caught once more in the mayhem. I headed towards the exit, towards the quiet.

I needed to find my balance once more.

Apples and Pears

I hesitate before I bite into it—it doesn’t look very appetizing—the skin is lackluster and brown. But it’s a pear. And pears are okay.

I sink my teeth into it. I jerk back—

It is like pear, but not. Almost like an apple but not quite.

I chew experimentally—it is okay, better than okay; the best of both worlds. It is as wonderfully juicy with the same perfect balance between sweetness and tartness. And best of all, it had enough of a crunch to satisfy the sensory experience, a sound I didn’t realize I missed.

What’s the difference? The thinner skin? The fact that the crunch has a tad less of an edge to it?

Does this mean I am now okay with apples— my mind recoils. No! Definitely not.

The last time I ate an apple was a few years back.

As my teeth punctured the skin, my senses assaulted me, wreaking havoc on my nervous system. The flesh scoured teeth and gums, scraping them raw. The juice, freed from its confines, erupted, its acidity burning my lips. The clamor of the crunch invaded my entire being, striking at every fiber, every cell, flaying them to shreds.

I jerked the apple away from my mouth and stared at the teeth marks. What just happened? Frowning, I shook my head and licked my lips—and puckered and sucked air in with a hiss, cringing at the flavor. The tartness burned, and the sweetness was cloying.

But it was a Honey Crisp. I loved Honey Crisp apples; they were my absolute favorites. I loved them for the crunch, for the sweetness and the tartness. I loved the ceremony of choosing the apple, washing it, then drying it, rubbing it with a tea-towel until it shone. I always looked forward to sinking my teeth into it, anticipating the sharp crunch and the burst of flavor.

I shook my head and berated myself: this was ridiculous. I raised the apple to my mouth once more. I bared my teeth and touched them to the apple. I applied pressure to break the skin. But as soon as the surface was about to give, I recoiled and shuddered.

After I recovered from the onslaught on my nervous system, I mustered up my courage. I was not going to surrender to the capriciousness of the bloody brain.

But when I moved to pick up the apple, those teeth marks leered at me.

No. I couldn't do it.

I wondered whether this assault on my senses was yet another manifestation of my difficulties processing sensory input. But why now? It had been seven plus years since the surgeries.

I decided to give in, for now.


In the meantime, I continued to enjoy eating other fruit—cherries, pomegranates, mangos, kiwis.

I especially loved pears. My favorites were Bartletts that were just on the brink of ripeness, juicy without being too grainy. I always anticipated that first bite into a pear as I reached for it, looking forward to the burst of sweetness as my teeth pierced the skin and released the juices.

Recently I discovered Asian pears. Not much to look at—apple-shaped with dirty brown skin. Expecting the usual mouth watering experience I loved, I took a bite and stopped mid chew. It sounded like biting into an apple, but somehow, I was okay with it.

My mind roamed as I chewed. This could be a life changer. Perhaps this was yet another another leap forward on my path to recovery. Was I becoming desensitized, my issues with processing high volumes of incoming data on the wane? What about my difficulties with apples?

The next day, I walked past colleague who was about to bite down on an apple, I shuddered and retreated. I tried to get away quickly, but I wasn’t fast enough. I was still within earshot when the sound of the crunch reached me. Shrinking into myself I sped up.

No. I wasn’t yet ready to try an apple. But Asian Pears were still okay.

Over the next few weeks, I indulged in this mouth watering new fruit—a cross between apples and pears. I ate one or two a day, slurping up the juice as I crunched through every bite.

A few days ago I walked into the kitchen looking for a post-exercise snack. My eyes lit up at the sight of anAsian Pear that sat on the counter. I washed and dried it. And without pause raised it to my mouth, anticipating the burst of flavor—

I jerked away. My entire body, inside and out, shuddered. That crunch and the flavor— I recoiled.

I spat out the mouthful into the garbage and quickly rinsed my mouth out with water.

Back to cherries and kiwis.

Dare I experiment with a Bartlett?

Laughing Away the Maw

As I crossed the threshold into the hospital my inner voice chanted, “Dead man walking.”

Did I actually say it out loud?

During the early days after the bleeds and surgeries, I relied on my sense of humor to keep me sane.

Right after I set dates for the first two surgeries, I phoned Cindy. I was shaking, my heartbeat deafening. Through a thick fog, I heard a quavering voice telling her the news. And the world came to a standstill. The silence was suffocating.

A lifetime later I heard myself whisper, “I’m freaking out.”

I could hear the terror in her response, “Me too.”

But once we got over that initial shock, we got to work, addressing our fear with humor. We initiated a list of things you don’t want to hear your neurosurgeon say. They ranged from “Oops!” to “Do you remember how they did it on Grey’s Anatomy?”

As Dr. Gina Barreca wrote in a Psychology Today article, “We can use humor to put our fears into perspective. Humor addresses the same issues as fear, not to dismiss them, but to strengthen our ability to confront them and then laugh them away from the door.”

laughing author.JPG

Much of the time, jokes and laughter were within reach, to manage my struggles with grief and despair, anxiety and fear. When I my balance and vertigo were so bad that I had to retire, stumbling, to my bedroom, I told Cindy that the waaves were getting higher and this ship was going down. And when an acquaintance told me, “You look good.” I chuckled. “You don’t look so bad yourself.”

Most laughed with me. Some smiled weakly and others weren’t sure how to react.

But sometimes the jokes dried up.

At times, depression or terror invaded my entire being. And there was no inner laughter to be found. But every time that happened, with a little help from my friends, I rediscovered it, usually within minutes or hours. In the absolute worst case, it took a fortnight.

The first two brain surgeries, to remove the angiomas that had bled, were planned, and I had plenty of time to sure up my defenses. But the third surgery, an emergency, was different. The numbness from the shock lasted longer and my sense humor failed me—I was no longer the one who initiated the jokes. This time, I had to rely on my support team to come to my rescue. At first, I responded with a weak smile, but as they persevered, the chuckles and then laughter became more genuine, and I emerged from the numbness.

To this day, I occasionally contend with depression and fear, and the norm is that within minutes, the laughter returns. Humor has helped me immeasurably through my life with brain injury.

Just a few days ago, I was on the phone to a fellow survivor who recently underwent brain surgery. We were discussing our various deficits, the serious parts interspersed with jokes. Talking to him, I realized—he’s not a victim. In fact, I expect him do more than survive—he’ll thrive. Within the foreseeable future.

Living a full life with a brain injury, or any other scary condition, has to come with laughter. Ultimately it’s about thriving, not only surviving.

Scars Revisited


“I was particularly riveted by the chapter on your scars. You suddenly went through this period when you had to see them.” Kit surmised that my journey was not only of healing, but also of acceptance. “Would you talk about that a little bit?”

As Kit spoke, as if on its own accord, my hand went up to the scar from my brain stem surgery. And as I started responding, I found myself running my index finger up and down the tail end of it, the part that lies below the hair line. And I realized that I still need to know that they’re there, I still need that validation.

Like many brain injury survivors, my disability is invisible. Many of us, if not all, at some point in our recovery encounter outsiders who suspect that we are over dramatizing, malingering, that in fact, we are back to “normal” but have embraced victimhood. Like many brain injury survivors, self-doubt is a constant companion. Perhaps I am an attention seeker, perhaps my symptoms aren’t quite as bad as I make them out to be. Am I just needy, whining, lowlife?

I’m one of the “lucky” ones, I have tangible evidence of my injury—the scars from my surgeries. Most brain injury survivors, many of them due to concussion, have no such evidence, no such validation. What do they do?

We were in the Boulder Book Store at a book signing for my book, But My Brain Had Other Ideas. It was during the Q&A session. I got a lot of questions and comments. Some of the comments caused me a bit of a twinge as I recalled the early days of recovery, the daily struggles, the darkness. All of the questions made me think.

Wendy, whose daughter had also undergone brain surgery, commented that brain injury survivors often do function like neuro-typicals, but what outsiders don’t see is what it takes out of survivors—after brain injury, the brain has to work harder to achieve what most people do without any side effects.

Her words resonated with me. By the end of a day at work, having functioned at a “normal” level, I’m completely drained—there’s a price to be paid. Recovering from the book event is still ongoing—exhaustion, rip roaring headaches, vertigo. Earlier today, I told a friend that I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.

As I write this, I run my  finger up and down the tail end of my scar.

Kit was right. My journey was not only of healing, but also of acceptance.

The journey is ongoing.

Memories of Memories

What prompted me to look up the messages people sent me while I was in hospital for the brain surgeries?

I sit here, tears streaming down my cheeks. I’ve read these messages several times already. And each time, I’ve become emotional, inconsolable. I always remain fraginle for the rest of the day. Sometimes it lasts into the next. I’m not sure why.


PTSD? The outpouring of love and caring from friends and family? My father’s messages, written in the form of poetry, are always the trigger. And my family’s memories of my childhood form a catalyst.

Dad wrote on the day of the first surgery:

Was it anger or pain? We never did really know,
The roll of fat at the back of your neck bright red with rage (or misery).
Today, we would probably be warned of 'lactose intolerance',
But then, we were just told to 'let her cry', and eventually you slept.

As a toddler, you hung on to your 'clobber bag'.
I don't think I ever really knew what was in it, but the bag was always there:
A large plastic bag of toys, treats, bits of paper, pulled along from room to room.
At night, it stayed at the foot of the bed and in the morning
You sometimes found a second bag of treats, so we could sleep

We relied too much on 'big brother' to take charge, forgetting how small he was.
But he really didn't seem to mind: "cummon Deb", he said,
And off the two of you went, up the ladder of life

Simon, my younger brother, sat his office at work at the Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology, waiting for news. He too reminisced.

I am sitting at work staring blankly at the stuff I need to do while thinking of you. Looking at Dad's message set me off with my own memories from our childhood. The first to come up has to do with solid as well as vocal objects being projected from my room to yours over the top of the wardrobe. Next is the scene with the glass door. Hopper throwing you comes after this. More follow.

Jonathan who was with me during the my times in surgery also recalled scenes from our childhood: I have this fond memory of holding your hand and walking around with you during recess at school in Geneva, talk about a lifetime ago.


The surgeries took place a decade ago. I am thriving, living a full life. I am a more authentic version of me than I ever was, more comfortable in my own skin, happier than I used to be in my past life. Yet their words still move me. Even now, as I write, the tears continue to flow.

Why? Shouldn’t I be over it by now?


I reread the poem for the umpteenth time, and like the first time, shortly after my second brain surgery, I teared up.

Mum came to be with me in Phoenix during the surgeries. Dad had to stay at home, across the ocean.

Throughout my hospitalization, he expressed his fears, anguish, and love through poetry. He sent me a poem a day. Each one touched me as poetry never had, bringing him closer to me.

August 10, 2007

"Life's funny". "Compared to what?"
The problem is we just don't know.
What 'selfish gene' caused your angiomas
(Or mine, for that matter)?
Can medical miracles can protect the kids?

Months of worry and now, sun through the cloud.
But still no way to put the clock back.
What happens next? What happened then?
Wanting for it all to be over,
But knowing it really can't be,
Still, some respite from the roller-coaster,
These endless waves of hope and fear.

Time never does march on
But only staggers from side to side,
Dragging us from one 'event'
To the next. But what a ride!
"It's good to be alive, as long as you survive."


A friend suggested that I give a talk at a conference entitled “Women Of Resilience.” I wasn’t sure why she would think I would be an appropriate choice for a speaker. I wasn’t even sure about the meaning of the word—I had a vague notion that resilience had something to do with strength, which seemed odd.

She said, Look what you endured, how far you’ve come. you’re resilient.”


I was skeptical. I looked up the definition

According to the, it means, “recovering readily from illness, depression, adversity, or the like; buoyant” and Merriam-Webster defines the term as “tending to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.” Synonyms for the word include strong, sturdy, bouyant, irrepressible, adaptable.

I would agree that the bloody brain counts as adversity or misfortune. But I wouldn’t say that my recovery was quick or easy. It’s been more than ten years now, and I’m not fully recovered. In fact, there is no full recovery from severe brain injury. I’ll never be the person I was in my past life, which actually suits me fine. Life is certainly harder than it used to be, but the bad patches are tolerable. Also, I like myself much better now—I would describe myself as more human. And I’m without a doubt more comfortable in my own skin. Nope—I would not want to revert to the old Deb.

I don’t believe I was bouyant, but to be sure, I looked that up as well. Wordsmyth’s definition was “marked by lightheartedness or cheer,” which made my hackles rise—when you feel like crap, you are not cheerful. Yes, I joked about it at times as a way of coping—one can’t be miserable the whole time. In fact, there were plenty of times when I was actually happy. But the word cheerful implies I was jumping up and down for joy. Nope, I definitely wasn’t joyful.

Was I strong? Did it require strength to make it through to where I am now? Possibly, in some sense of the word. But I’m a tad uncomfortable with that term. In the early days, most of the time, I felt as if I was merely existing, barely managing to put one foot in front of the other.

Nope, I don’t feel resilient. I’m just me, a survivor. But I couldn’t deny that some aspects of the word did apply to me. I thought I might as well send in a proposal to speak at the conference—the organizers could judge whether I fit their notion of resilience or not. It certainly couldn’t hurt.

Not only did they deem me a good fit, but they seemed excited about the prospect of me giving a presentation.

I spoke of my journey through the frustrations and the tears, the obstacles and the triumphs, the grief and the joy. I told them of the gains as well as the losses.

And I got a standing ovation.

Perhaps I am resilient.

Testing Testing

It was my son’s idea to add bonus problems to my tests. “Have them draw an octopus. That’s what one of my professors had us do.”


I loved the idea—the students, many of whom are subject to math anxiety, could use some comic relief during the test. I added a problem: “Draw a picture of an octopus with a fake mustache and a top hat.”

Students have different test-taking strategies. Some read through all the problems before they start tackling them, others start at the beginning and keep going, skipping over harder problems and come back to them later, as time permits. Occasionally, a student gets stuck on a problem but for some reason has difficulty moving on.

The bonus problem was the last one on the test. I didn’t mention it to the students—I wanted to see their reactions when they reached it.

After I gave the okay, all nervous chatter and laughter ceased as heads bent over the papers. Only a couple of students (out of fifty some) chuckled within the first few minutes—were they the only ones to skim through the entire test before starting to tackle the problems? As time wore on, every so often I’d hear a chuckle or I’d see a students raise their head to catch my eye and smile.

At one point I announced to the class that if they do get stuck on a problem, they should skip over it and riffle through the pages and work on a problem they feel more confident solving. For a while after my suggestion, the frequency of the smiles increased.

When my teaching assistant and I sat down to grade the tests, the drawings provided comic relief from the onerous task.

All but one student surpassed me in their artistic talent—have you ever seen a stick-figure-octopus?

Another student drew a shapeless blob on the octopus’s head. “I guess he didn’t know what a top hat was.”

Several students drew less than eight tentacles. The teaching assistant laughed out loud. “Should I take off one point or two?”

Since then, I’ve added a bonus problem on every test and final exam I’ve administered. Some more creative than others, from listing names beginning with the latter s to writing their favorite number and explaining their answer.

Every so often, we have theme days, with a photo op after class. We’ve held Sock Day, Hat Day, Crazy Hair Day and many more. The favorites seem to be Fake Mustache Day and Balloon Day. One of the bonus problems was to come up with idea for theme days.

Another source of ideas for bonus problems is my grand-dog, Gus. All of my students have met him, and they all seem to enjoy him. On one test I asked them to describe Gus’s personality. And on another I asked, “What is Gus’s role in the course?”

It’s time to put together the first test of the semester. I’m set for a bonus problem, but I can’t compromise the integrity of the test—I won’t divulge any additional information.

Omar's Shop

This was my first time striding purposefully through the alleyways in the Old City of Jerusalem. During previous visits, I’d always strolled along taking in the sights and smells of the bustling market surrounding me, peeking into a pottery shop here, stopping into a textile shop there, pausing to breathe in the aroma of herbs and spices.

But this time was different—we were headed to Omar’s shop.

Jonathan, my older brother, knew it wouldn’t take much to convince me. “He has fabulous textiles, traditional ones, not like the newer shops—you’ll love it.”


As an ethnic textile aficionado and collector, it wasn’t a question of going or not going, it was a matter of timing—how soon could we go?

It took a couple of years, but we finally made it to Jerusalem, to Omar’s shop. I waited impatiently at the entrance to the shop as Omar and his brothers greeted Jonathan enthusiastically. Finally, it was time to cross the threshold.

As soon as we entered, my eyes popped out. Piles of pillow covers saturated with Palestinian embroidery, Druze designed place mats in earth tones. And what was this, suzanis? Pillow covers, wall hangings, embellished with the chain stitch embroidery in the Uzbek tradition. What were they doing in the region, in the Old City of Jerusalem? How did they get here?

After Jonathan told Omar of my interest in ethnic textiles, he pulled me away from the entrance to his shop, to guide me into a well lit interior. I forgot to breathe—wherever I turned, I saw stunning textiles. Even more spectacular suzanis, lively block-printed wall hangings from Persia, Indian mirror-work, and so much more.

Mouth agape, my gaze swept back and forth, not knowing where to start, until a pile of suzani pillow covers caught my eyes and held them. Unlike those in the entrance to the shop, these were silk on silk, the embroidery even, the yarns variegated in color… natural dyes? I was mesmerized.

I turned to Omar. “I don’t understand—these aren’t locally made.”

He smiled and nodded. “Suzani, from Uzbekistan.” then added, “You know textiles. Sit down and I will bring to you.”

And boy, did he. He disappeared into yet another room in the back and came back, laden with a pile of folded suzanis. He spread one gorgeous textile after the other at my feet. I gasped at each one. The colors… the designs…

The bigger ones, the most exquisite ones, cost more than a thousand dollars. Perhaps one of the smaller ones. But no, though less expensive, the prices were in the hundreds. Perhaps… No. I couldn’t. I’d set myself a one hundred dollar limit when we set out on our trip. I tried to rationalize—I could justify two hundred if I promised myself not to buy anything else. But I’d originally come here for Palestinian embroidery… Perhaps... No. There was no way I was walking out of here without a piece of Palestinian embroidery.

Omar saw my struggle. “I have some pillow covers you might like.”

He trotted out to the back room, and returned with his arms laden with beautiful suzani embroidered pillow covers. I breathed a sigh of relief—I’d be happy with a couple of those.

After choosing two of them, Omar unrolled a rug out on the floor. “You know textiles. Where is this from?”

I took a close look. “It looks like a Berber rug from the Atlas mountains in Morocco, but the design is not traditional.”

Omar beamed. “That’s right. It’s a modern design.”

I could see Jonathan beaming too. With pride?

I wandered around the shop, admiring the ikat woven coats from Uzbekistan. I looked at the prices and turned away. Maybe on my next visit.

I noticed a pile of the Palestinian embroidered pillow covers in the front room. I pawed through them but couldn’t find what I wanted. I approached one of Omar’s brothers and pointed to them. “Do you have better quality ones?”

Like Omar, he went into the back room. He approved of my choices. “You have good eye.”

I came away with four stunning pillow cases, a Persian wall hanging, a book about Palestinian embroidery written by Omar’s father, a goofy smile on my face, and the conviction that I’ll be stopping by on my next visit to Israel.

Guided by the Fugawi

Sometimes a title for a book or essay smacks you in the face as you write it, or shortly after you complete it. But more often than not, you agonize over it for days, weeks, months, sometimes more.

I was writing a piece about how and why I started writing my memoir about recovery from brain injury: “But My Brain Had Other Ideas: A Memoir of Recovery from Brain Injury.”

Coming out of my third brain surgery, I was lost—nothing made sense. About to take my first step on a journey to recovery, I had no idea which way to go. I was an alien in a strange land, without a map or compass.

flickr--Ronni Macdolnald

flickr--Ronni Macdolnald

I searched high and low, through books and on the internet. I found plenty about brain injury, from crisis to short term recovery. Most were written by caregivers or medical professionals. Only a few mentioned long-term recovery, and that only in passing. I needed a guide from an insider, a survivor, for the years to come.

I decided to create my own compass—I decided to write a memoir.

And that’s what the piece was about—how I came to write my book.

My writing title for the piece was “Compass,” but it wouldn’t do for a final title. It was too… too boring? It just didn’t work. A friend suggested “Maps and Compasses,” which I didn’t like. But it did suggest a whole slew of other ideas, such as “Cartography 101,” “Navigating Without a Compass,” and “Mapping Without Landmarks.” But they all felt wrong.

At that point, my thoughts veered off path. Perhaps a pun: “Misguided.”

Finally, losing patience with myself, it came to me, “Guided by the Fugawi.”

I knew it wouldn’t work for the piece I’d written, but it was too good to waste.

So here it is.

Note: I case you’re curious about the name Fugawi, check out