Safe Environment

Carson burst into song, “I’ve never been to Alaska!”

I had trouble suppressing my smile. “That was definitely something boring in an interesting way.

Many teachers have a ritual to break the ice with a new group of students. Doug asks them about their favorite flavor of ice cream. Russ hands out index cards asking students to write a significant fact about themselves. Janet asks students to speak of their interest in her course.

And I used to tell the students a bit about myself, that my accent wasn’t fake, that I was a weaver and a dragon boater. I never thought to actively involve the students in the process.

After I came home from the surgeries, I felt compelled to write about my journey with cavernous angiomas, brain injury, and recovery, and as I grew as a writer, so did my awareness of the power of storytelling. I found that as we tell our stories, we set ourselves on a path towards mutual trust and respect. Through our stories, we begin to learn to accept each other as multifaceted, complex, valuable human beings.

I'm not sure why I did not think to immediately implement these new discoveries into my teaching. I'm pretty sure that during my first year back to teaching, I was too afraid to expose my vulnerabilities. My second year, when I decided to open up about the bloody brain, I had no inkling that it would start a dialogue, an exchange of stories between my students and myself. Nor did I have any idea that it would transform the classroom experience, taking it to another level.

But as that second year progressed, I noticed that my lectures had become became more interactive. It eventually clicked: my discoveries about storytelling applied to the classroom. I recognized that by sharing my story, I showed the students that I saw them as people, individuals who have something to offer, not as faceless names on a long roster who sit passively while I lecture.

From that recognition came the realization that I should give the students the opportunity to share their stories, not merely sit and listen to mine. The key, I realized, was having the students play an active part in the conversation.

On the first day of the following semester, I started my new ritual. “Tell me something boring in an interesting way, or something interesting in a boring way.” They responded enthusiastically. As a result, they felt more at ease with me and with each other.

And the classroom became a safe place, for all of us.

Challenge

fireworks_of_rainbow_by_didradidra-d33d06h.jpg

The story of the bloody brain in six words: "Discovering the new me--I am." or "Dull greys burst into bright colors."

In four words: "Broken puppeteer on strings." No. That doesn't work. How about: "Healing the broken puppeteer."

In haiku form?

"I sit at my loom
interweaving warp and weft
living row by row."

But the 5-7-5 syllable rule was set for Japanese, not English. Maybe something else, similar...

Having way too much fun procrastinating.

Weaving Life and Death

As I weave, I breathe life into a textile, and when I free it from the loom a textile is born to take its place in the world. The Berber of the Middle Atlas of Morocco also see weaving as a metaphor for creating an entity with an essence of its own. But to the Berber weavers, at its completion the textile dies.

I didn't understand—how could anyone possibly regard textiles as dead objects, let alone their creators. Each handmade textile I own comes alive with its own stories, the making of it, its previous life, and its place in the world, its ethniticity.  

My Mongolian rug evokes an image of it laying on the floor of a yurt. When I trace the pattern on my Laotian silk scarf, I remember the lovely lady from Laos who told me the mythological stories behind the patterns. And as I look at the wall hanging in my living room, one of the first textiles I wove, I think of my friendship with my weaving teacher, Nancy.

I couldn't accept the Berber belief. Dead was too final, too flat. There had to be more to the story. And indeed, after a good amount of research, I found that there was more to the picture. Much more.

Apparently, to the Berber weavers, weaving represents the life-cycle of a son growing up in a male dominated society. The preparations for the actual weaving embody the male child's years under his mother's supervision. The transition from boyhood to adulthood, marked by circumcision among the Muslim Berber, is represented by the final step in setting up the loom, when the top and bottom beams are affixed to the loom, the warp stretched between them.

A boy is male in gender only until he comes of age, which is when he also acquires a soul, a male identity. Once the weft first crosses the warp, the textile too acquires a soul.

As the weaver starts passing the shuttle to and fro, the young adult sets on his way through life away from his mother's sphere of influence,. No longer subjected to his mother's guidance, his life may go well, or not, as a weaving may or may not go smoothly. A broken warp thread or a delay in the weaving signify difficulties that cross his path.

I like the analogy between the progress in the weaving and the journey through life, the notion that the weaving itself is a story. And I love the idea of breathing life into it, giving it a soul, an essence. Though to me, breathing life into a textile I weave is not a sharp transition, but a process that starts with the first row of weaving and culminates when I cut it off the loom.

I also learned that in Islam, death is not an end, period. Death is merely the end of the beginning, or the beginning of the end, depending on the viewpoint—it is just another transition into another phase in the human existence, into the afterlife.

 Turkish Weaver

Turkish Weaver

As long as I can remember, I've seen textiles as live entities with a story to tell. But I never thought of the act of weaving as a story in itself. When a warp thread snapped, I sighed and fixed it, and when I was unable to progress as quickly as I had hoped, I huffed in frustration.

My weaving enriches my life, but as a contemporary weaver, I have no rich traditions of my own to draw from. Instead I live vicariously through others' traditions. I delight in stories about indigenous weavers, of Bedouin weavers in the Sinai Desert, of backstrap weavers by Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, and of silk weavers in Gujarat, India.

When I sit at the loom, immersed in a rhythm of throwing the shuttle back and forth, I daydream of weavers across time and space, sitting at their own looms, advancing row by row, creating beauty. Now, I'll also daydream of Berber mothers telling their sons' stories through weaving.

Me or Me?

I posted on Facebook: “I lie here in bed contemplating my headache. What should I do for it? (Or should it be against it?) It's definitely a bad one. (Are there good headaches?) Then I wondered about wondering—it's getting to the point where wondering/thinking will aggravate the pain. I should stop.”

My inner voices are active through many of my waking hours, questioning, explaining, advising, arguing. They've always been there to some degree, but after the brain bleeds, they became much more pronounced, especially during times of sensory overload, when my panicked voice argues with a calming voice of reason.

These voices, of course, appear in my memoir writing:

“I need to get out of here. But how? Where? My eyes are pricking with tears. I can't cry, not in front of everyone! It is so crowded, so many bright colors, so much motion. They're too loud, they're too close! I have to get out. I feel raw, in pain.”

I didn't think of them as distinct entities—they were just a part of me, a unit. Until I started working with a speech coach, Natalie, a professor in the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama.

During our first session I explained that I wanted to improve my public speaking skills. I wanted to raise awareness and help remove the stigma about recovery from brain injury, and I wanted to convey my message effectively. I wanted the audience to come away changed. In a positive way. I wanted to make a real difference.

During my second session with her she asked me to read out loud. I read pieces poetry and prose that she provided. We next moved on to excerpts from my book “But My Brain Had Other Ideas.”

“Have you thought of making an audio book out of it?” I hadn't. “You should. And you should do the reading.”

I should do the reading?

“You could have an actor do it. But these are your words. No one knows them as well as you do. And you can do it. It'll take a while, but you should do it.”

I should do it!

We are working on it. It's not easy. Though I hear my voices in my head as I read it, it takes work to speak them out loud. “You have to learn to be an intensified version of yourself. You need to sound real to an audience.”

She explained that I have to sound like the real me, but more so. In order to sound convincing, I needed to increase my breath control so that I could utter long sentences without pausing. I needed to avoid upspeak, the rising inflection at the end of a sentence, which would sound as if I was questioning myself.

“When you introduce yourself, you need to sound as if you mean it. You're declaring that you are Deborah Brandon.” She suggested that in my mind I should add a challenge to the audience, “My name is Deborah Brandon. Do you have a problem with that?” To help me remember to pause at various points, she proposed that I should think, “Do you understand?” I also had to learn to slow down and take a break between the voices to mark their distinguishing characteristics.

We worked on one of the most challenging passages in the book—it includes several voices, all of them mine. I had a lot of trouble transforming the written words into speech that sounded like me, even though I could her the voices in my head.

Natalie told me, “If you can read this, you can read anything.”

A week ago, she made a couple of new recommendations. One was to highlight each voice with a different color, and the other was to write it like a script. And it worked--Natalie feels that I'm ready. In two weeks we'll do a recording of me reading to post on my website.

Reasoning: I need to get out of here.

Panicking: But how? Where?

Narrator: My eyes are pricking with tears.

Panicking: I can't cry, not in front of everyone!

Narrator: It is so crowded, so many bright colors, so much motion.

Panicking: They're too loud, they're too close! I have to get out.

Narrator: I feel raw, in pain.

 

 

Ampersand

There have been several semicolons in my life, pauses, stretches of time when my life was a struggle, when I felt I was merely existing, barely surviving.

One such stretch lasted several months--the time between my brain bleeds and when I made the decision to undergo brain surgeries to give myself a chance to reclaim my life. The others we related to my mood disorder. One such semicolon lasted a few days, another, a couple of weeks, and the worst of the lot, a couple of years.

I suffer from severe depression, a common malady among brain injury survivors. At first, I assumed it was situational. After all, I had been through a lot. But within a few months it became clear that there was a significant biological component to it.

Most of the time my depression is well managed with meds. But life happens and antidepressants need to be adjusted—I found myself spiraling down into the abyss, struggling with suicide ideation. Fortunately, so far, I've managed to catch it in time. Many of us who suffer from depression or other mood disorders, aren't as lucky as I have been, and die of suicide.

After hearing about project semicolon, I decided to join the movement--I recently acquired a semicolon tattoo. Quoting from the project semicolon website (http://www.projectsemicolon.org/): "A semicolon represents a sentence the author could have ended, but chose not to. That author is you and the sentence is your life."

Project semicolon is "...dedicated to presenting hope and love to those who are struggling with depression, suicide, addiction and self-injury. Project Semicolon exists to encourage, love and inspire." Semicolon tattoos act as conversation starters with the goal of raising awareness of issues associated with the mentally ill, including suicide.

I like the symbolism behind the semicolon. Every time there was a pause in my story, I chose to continue. The message is powerful. Not only have I struggled with suicide ideation, but I have also struggled with the stigma involved. I've heard many a reference to suicide as a cowardly act, a sign of weakness, of selfishness. In fact, there are some of us for whom it is an act of bravery, of selflessness--not wanting to die, but convinced that the world would be better off without them, that they are worthless, merely a burden. Others struggle for so long that they give in to a level of exhaustion many of us can't begin to imagine.

I personally know a handful of people who killed themselves. In each case, there were those who responded with anger. “How could she do this to me?” Suicide is one of those taboo subject that makes us feel uncomfortable. Suicide is deemed shameful by those left behind and those who have thought of it.

At one point, I realized I needed help but was reluctant to seek it. At first, I kept my thoughts to myself because I didn't want anyone to stop me. But later, when I somehow managed to crawl out of the abyss, shame prevented me from revealing my state of mind to everyone, including my therapist. Ashamed of my thoughts and of my reluctance to seek help, I kept quiet for years.

If we want to help those of us who contemplate taking their own lives, we have to remove the stigma, we have to overcome our discomfort, our feelings of shame. Discomfort versus a chance to save a life--the choice is clear. Let's talk.

The semicolon tattoo on my calf not only symbolizes my own struggles, but it is also there for those who have undergone similar difficulties. I hope that the semicolon movement will remove the shame associated with suicide, an obstacle on the path towards the help they need, towards life.

But somehow, a semicolon doesn't seem to be quite enough. The path meanders, twisting and turning--life happens. What happens after the pause, after the darkest of times? Perhaps an ellipsis, a symbol of... nothing much, a dreary existence, too often on the verge of yet another semicolon. Maybe a period after all? There are no guarantees.

Perhaps an ampersand should follow the semicolon to add the light we all need to chase away the shadows, to keep the story going. First, there's the pause, and what happened next in her life's story?

An ampersand as a symbol of hope for those who have suffered hopelessness.

A friend of mine, Tonya, warned me after I got the tattoo: "They warned you that tattoos are like potato chips, right? Once you have one, you want a whole bagful."

I laughed. But now I wonder. Perhaps my next potato chip, my next tattoo, will be an ampersand.

Six-Word Story

"Bleak grays transform into shimmering rainbows."

A couple of years ago, during a writing workshop, I was asked to write a six-word memoir. I don't remember how long I was given, certainly no less than fifteen minutes and no more than thirty. I knew I wanted to express the change in my life in terms of color, I often do. I refer to my life before the brain bleeds as living in pastels, and now living in bright or brilliant color. Only six words? Choosing the right ones was not easy.

A few months ago, the founder of the Angioma Alliance asked members to write our stories in six words. My audience consisted of other brain injury survivors, we were all at different places in our recovery. I wanted to express where I was on my journey. I came up with “Discovering the new me—I am.”

Life changes, perspectives change. If I were to write a six word memoir now, it would probably be very different. It might change from day to day, or even from hour to hour, depending on my particular thoughts at the time, or what particular topic appears in recent essays I'm working on.

To gain a better understanding of my present, I looked to my past. I explored memories from my childhood, Saturdays spent on the beach and discoveries and boring visits with my grandparents. I looked to memories of me as a young adult, as a questing teenager, breaking ties with my pothead connections, and as a soldier, hitchhiking home for the weekend.

Recently I found that, the past is catching up with the present. I have renewed ties with friends I remember from school, and as I learn who they have become, I wonder where these connections will go, how they will fit in with my present.

My story right now is “Discovering my self in my past.” or “My past reaching for my present.” On the other hand, after thinking about my most recent essay where I explore my particular form of seizing the day, I write, “Marching with time—life's celebration.” referring to the fact that I don't get stuck for long, that I am ever changing, constantly moving along my path.

The possibilities are endless.

I could always write about this post. “Searching for a six word memoir.”

No Surprise?

Tonya had a migraine, as did Cori. I'd been fighting one for a couple of days now. But I knew that it was inevitable that I'd have to surrender to the bloody brain sometime within the next couple of days. As long as I could hold out through the reading.

 Professor Showcase (Carnegie Mellon University)

Professor Showcase (Carnegie Mellon University)

Another overly busy week had come to an end. In addition to the usual overwhelming work load associated with administering a test, on Friday evening, after finishing my grading, I participated in the Professor's Showcase, run by Emerging Leaders at Carnegie Mellon. The headache started on Thursday evening after the review session, which didn't surprise me. I'd had sufficient experience with headaches to evaluate them and predict their progression quite accurately. I knew I could keep this one from escalating to the point where I lose functionality for another day, possibly two. I was pretty sure I'd be able to keep it under control through Friday evening, but I wasn't as sure about Saturday evening.

The professor showcase was a lot of fun, interesting talks, singing, dancing, and I gave a reading—I read an excerpt from my book “But My Brain Had Other Ideas.” I breathed a sigh of relief the next morning when I found that I was still able to function through the headache.

I knew there was a decent chance I'd make it through the Neurodiversity Open Mic Night organized by ASAN (Autistic Self Advocacy Network), which was to take place that evening. I debated whether to go to yoga in the afternoon—would it be beneficial or detrimental? In the past, yoga actually helped my headaches, but the drive there could be a problem. After Joyce offered me a ride, I decided to chance it.

As I'd hoped, the restorative poses during the yoga class alleviated my headache. It always seemed like magic the way yoga took care of headaches resilient to pain killers. Feeling much better than I had over the last couple of days, I thought there was a good chance I'd make it through the evening with no hint whatsoever of a headache.

Even though I knew that the bloody brain never lets me off the hook completely, I dared to hope that this time, maybe, just maybe I'd get away with it. And I did, until the following morning. No, I was not surprised when the bloody brain hit hard with a headache that reared with every motion and confined me to my bed for the next few hours, at least in theory. But in practice, with my eternal optimism and wishful thinking, I felt a brief twinge of disappointment, with a sprinkle of surprise on top.

Curly Teeth

“If you eat your meat, your teeth will curl.”

I wasn't horrified at Granny's pronouncement, merely perplexed. My confusion wasn't over the possibility that she might be telling the truth, at least as she saw it. I was just having trouble visualizing curly teeth. And I actually liked meat...

When I think of Granny, my paternal grandmother, that is the first scene that comes to mind. Then I think of the twinkle in her eye as she made the pronouncement.

During my years growing up, Granny and Grandpa lived in the British Isles, first in London then in the island of Jersey. When I was three years old, we moved to Switzerland and later to Israel. I only saw Granny once every few years, our opportunities for exchanges few and far between.

 Granny

Granny

I adored her and loved spending time with her. She was a great storyteller.

I remember her telling a story about her being taken to hospital after she broke her hip falling off a horse. All she could think about, through the pain, was the fact that her knickers had a hole in them. According to her, she punched a doctor in the face and gave him a black eye to prevent him from seeing her knickers.

I also remember her showing me a newspaper clipping. It said something about her protesting something about a park. Maybe it was Hyde park. I have a vague recollection of it having something to do with horse trails there. The headline was, “She Rode a Cock-horse.” I wondered whether she'd ridden naked like Lady Godiva. It wouldn't have been completely out of character.

I only remember a few of her stories. My cousin, Chantal, who grew up in London, had many more opportunities than I to spend time with Granny. I asked Chantal whether she remembered any stories, but she didn't. She didn't even remember Granny telling her stories. Perhaps their relationship was completely different. I also asked my father, who was very close with his mother. But though he reminisced about her telling stories, he had none to share.

Perhaps my Uncle Michael, Chantal's father, can help. But people prioritize their memories so differently.