I turned 60 in November so as you can imagine, I’ve compiled a few things that have stood out or stayed with me over the years. One of them is clearly a piece written by Mary Schmich who is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. In 1997 she wrote a piece on advice for youth which I call ‘Wear Sunscreen”. The article starts by saying “inside every adult lurks a graduation speaker dying to get out, some world-weary pundit eager to pontificate on life.” She shares great tidbits and her one piece of advice is “Wear Sunscreen”. I love this and it makes me think that if I were to pick one piece of advice, what would it be?

I look at accomplishing those pieces of advice as victories. We tend to define victories as something huge, but realistically — a victory is a victory! If I were to inject a baseball analogy here: a win is a win. When you look at the baseball standings or summary, you will see a win. The details don’t really come into play. Was it a difficult victory? I often say one of the things I love about baseball is that ‘close’ doesn’t count. There are no ties in baseball. Let’s break things down so we can share many things and enjoy more victories.

Several years ago, we went to visit Matt’s family and one of his aunts had a great art piece in one of her rooms called Life’s Little Instructions. I loved that piece and I looked for a copy that would be mine. It took me a few years, but I found a copy as a print which we framed and I can see it every day. It reminds me of her and I love the things on it.

Here’s another thing about the stroke. I have always been bi-lingual. My Spanish was as good as my English. (I loved it when people would say to me … ‘but you don’t speak with an accent.’ Of course, I don’t know if they were referring to my English or Spanish.) There are many authors whose books I would read in Spanish before I read the English version. Now it takes so much effort to speak, that I only speak English these days. I understand everything I hear in Spanish or read in Spanish, but I don’t speak it! I watch a TV show called Jane The Virgin on the CW network. Jane’s grandmother on the show only speaks Spanish, so they subtitle her conversations. I just listen to what she says. I can’t read fast enough to follow the subtitles anyway! Rather than beat myself up because I don’t speak Spanish, I think it’s phenomenal that I understand it. Occasionally when I need to respond in Spanish, I do so very slowly.

It’s the glass half empty, half full thing. I’ve said that in October there is a World Stroke Day. One of their points is that one in six people will have a stroke in their lifetime. The frequency seems high. On the other hand, one in six seems rare. How special is that? AVMs are bleeding strokes. Statistically they are even more rare. If there was ever any doubt, let me say that I see myself as special! (We should all see ourselves that way.)

I have three things that I would summarize as the most significant learning about the stroke and I’ve shared them before in various ways. The first is my definition of renewal rather than recovery. I still use the word recover when it comes to skills. That’s one of my goals: to recover those skills that I used to do and have before the stroke. But I see recovery as a way of going back — which is something I will never do. For me, no “there” exists as a place to recover! I use the word renewal to define life after stroke. I will do things but in a different way. Each skill is a victory. These notes are a great example of that. People ask me about these. I do one for the first of each month. (Again, because I can remember that date.) I think of a topic based on things I read or see or whatever. Because of the ataxia, I only type with one hand. I do it as a draft in my e-mail so I can save it. It takes me a few days to type each one. Then it sets for a few days for me to think about and reread. Then I send a copy to Matt to check for typos, etc. (That’s important to me.) Then it is the first of the month and ta da! Twelve victories for the year. There are a few people that I send it to as an e-mail and I post a copy into the wordpress site. For those that print out my messages, you’ve noticed that most messages are around one or two pages long. I have an issue with stamina so it’s easier for me to keep things on the short side. I transfer my limitation to others. For those who read the Doerr book (All the Light We Cannot See), the concept of short chapters was awesome! Last year we went to a Ted conference at one of the local universities. It was a day long event and there was a theme for the day. Each speaker was succinct and kept their presentation brief and to the point. I loved it! It reinforced that concept that we can make our point and be brief!

The second is the idea of staying positive. I say, it takes the same amount of effort to be positive as negative. Make no bones about it, it’s all effort. If I have to make any effort at all, it might as well be positive. The third is how important the caregiver is in the journey. So I have three things about the stroke, but you know my saying that it’s easier to get forgiveness rather than permission!

In the early 90’s, there was a book that quickly rose the best seller list. Everybody was raving about it and as a reader I felt like I should enjoy it too. So I picked up a copy. (I’m not going to mention the title.) I started the book and was not into it at all. I found the story line and writing not to my taste. My first reaction was to not finish the book. My guilt conscience set in and I couldn’t imagine not finishing it. It was a big book, so I realized that I needed to change my strategy. Here’s what I did. I would read a few pages and skip the next 50, read a few pages, skip 50! Before I knew it, I was finished with the book. Ta Da! My ta da may not work for you and likewise your ta da may not work for me. I don’t recommend skipping pages to finish a book. We have to find the key for every situation.

Last month we went to a series of plays and readings at the Magic Theater. We saw one play that stood out in my mind. Lots of things were happening and I loved how it all came together in the end. A lot of people say “we all have different stories.” We do, I understand that. I also describe it a little differently. I say there is one story about life, we just have different chapters. That’s how I saw this play. That’s my ta da. I loved it!

I am a big fan of the Dan Ocean movies. I have a difficult time naming my favorite one. I love the stories and all the actors. I think that’s a big deal for me, how they all have a lot of well-known actors and how they work together. One of my favorite lines is from Ocean’s Twelve, where Frank Catton says (it helps if you do this in your best Bernie Mac voice) “let me break it down like a fraction for you.” I don’t think that we have to break everything down like fractions, but then again why not? I do think we should pick one, two or three things to highlight and when that becomes difficult, break it down (like a fraction) and pick. A victory is a victory, no matter the size.

Ta Da!

Stroke recovery and making a life post stroke take a lot of attention. All of a sudden so much is different. Our bodies no longer work the way they did. Our brains are deeply tired and injured. Everything we try to do can feel complicated and take extra effort. We may be confused. In our confusion and exhaustion we might prefer to turn away and not think about what has happened to us or pay attention to it. But turning away doesn’t help. Attention helps.

The sooner we can turn towards ourselves, pay attention and participate as fully in our recovery efforts as we can, the better it is for our brains. That might seem like a lot to ask of ourselves, particularly at first, but the results of paying attention as we work on our recoveries can be remarkable.

We think we know how a great deal about paying attention. We have been told to do it often enough. Chances are we have been asked or required to “pay attention” many times. We may even have heard angry voices saying, “I am talking to you. Pay attention!” We may associate “paying attention” with criticism, competition and judgment.

That critical, judgmental attention is not the kind of attention that supports stroke recovery. That judgmental attention produces a kind of vigilance, a wariness. Vigilance can be very stressful. The attention I am talking about is relaxed, receptive and very much awake. Remember for a moment the feeling of encountering something new and lovely, a beautiful scene perhaps. Remember how alive and awake and curious your attention felt.

Alive, awake, curious attention is a vital tool in stroke recovery, and it can be taught and strengthened through a practice called “mindfulness”. Mindfulness is getting a lot of press these days. Perhaps you have heard about it or read a report of a study on the health benefits of mindfulness. There is a great deal of fine research being done on the subject.

Mindfulness is the practice of bringing relaxed, openhearted, non-judgmental attention to what is happening right now, right here, in this present moment. When we practice mindfulness we come to understand that we can be aware of and cultivate attention to everything we know, feel, experience, think and dream. We don’t have to get lost or distracted by our thoughts or our anger or our fear or our wishing for something else. We can learn to stabilize our attention and gently allow ourselves to open to knowing so much more about our own experience than we might have imagined.

Just a few weeks of practicing mindfulness can have a beneficial impact on our wellbeing. One of the many beneficial impacts is stimulating and encouraging neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the process that helps our brains heal.

How else does mindfulness help stroke recovery? The more we know the more we have to work with. The more we can bring our stabilized attention to what is happening with us, the more we know. Stabilized attention and knowledge encourage, support and help direct the changes that we are trying to make to reclaim function.

I teach stroke recovery skills. I also am one of many people who teach mindfulness. Being a stroke survivor myself, and having used mindfulness to support my own recovery, I know the benefits first hand.

Alison Bonds Shapiro suffered two brain stem strokes twenty-four hours apart in 2002. She is the author of Healing into Possibility: The Transformational Lessons of a Stroke, the co-producer of the film What Now? Sharing Brain Recovery Lessons, and has been teaching recovery skills to survivors, family members, caregivers and professional care providers since 2005. You can find out more about her work at http://www.healingintopossibility.com

“How do you hit a curveball? Don’t miss the fastball!”

I’m making one of Matt’s quotes my motto for the year. It’s listed above. (It’s perfect since I love baseball and it’s a baseball reference.) I love this. We don’t know who originally said this, but it’s great. Actually I think it’s great as a theme for life. Since it’s a baseball reference here’s a baseball primer on pitches for many.

January is typically a long month for many baseball fans. Spring training starts in February (practice and pre-season) so anticipation is a big deal. In the quote, those mentioned are two types of pitches in the game of baseball. In baseball, the pitcher and the catcher determine what type of pitch is going to be thrown. I often say that the catcher is the person or position who sees the whole field. It’s a unique perspective! The current SF Giants manager was a catcher. There are many variables that impact what type of pitch will be thrown. This whole thing is a big reason why strategy is a big part of the game. The style of pitch makes a huge difference. One has to consider what type of hitter is at the plate and what is the count, if there are runners on the bases, what the score is, what pitch was just thrown, what inning it is, as well as the different types of pitches a pitcher has in his arsenal. These all play a part in what pitch will be thrown out. These are some of things that I love the about the pitching strategy involved in baseball. So we see how important skill is but add the whole element of strategy and you see how it can change things. I’m not forgetting the human element! Behind the catcher is an umpire who calls balls and strikes Each umpire has his own interpretation of what constitutes a strike.

In baseball there are various types of pitches that every pitcher has — the slider, changeup, two and four seam fastballs, the cutter, forkball, curveball, screwball, slurve, palmball and circle change up In a baseball game, the pitcher adjusts his fingers to throw the ball (grip the ball) and that changes the trajectory of the pitch. A strike is a hittable pitch, defined as the volume of space above home plate and between the batter’s knees and the midpoint of their torso. The strike zone can be a tuna can, as many say (where it crosses the home plate) and it varies according to hitter’s height. It’s a big part that I’ve learned from the SF Giants announcers about the game of baseball.

Have you heard the joke/story about the three umpires who stand talking at home plate, waiting for the home team to take the field. The topic is calling balls and strikes. “I may be a new umpire,” the first one says, “but it just isn’t that hard. I call them as they are.” The second umpire smiles and shakes his head knowingly, for as a more experienced umpire he knows that isn’t really the case. “I used to think I called them as they were, but now I know better. I call them as I see them.” The third umpire who is the most experienced and wisest of the three, smiles and shakes his head knowingly. “I used to think I called them as they were and then I realized I simply called them the way I saw them, but now I know they ain’t nuthin’ until I call ‘em.” So that human element is a huge part!  That story is a great description of the human aspect.

Because I think this is a great motto to have in life, here’s my baseball story. This is a example of “don’t miss the fastball”! (I actually don’t know if I could hit a curve ball!) This is my interpretation of the saying. Don’t I know … things don’t always turn out like you plan, but we need to always be prepared and make the most of any given situation because we just don’t know what lies ahead! This happened long before I had the stroke but the experience has always stayed with me. Many people know who Willie Mays is. He was one of the players who moved with the Giants baseball team when they were in New York and came to San Francisco. He definitely is one of the greatest all time and best all around players, Baseball is one of the sports which has a tiered farm system. Players can keep playing to hone their skills and hopefully get called up to the majors. One of my favorite baseball movies is Bull Durham. We love that movie. We watch it every year before the baseball season starts. It’s a movie about the farm system. Willie Mays played mostly for the Giants but in his last few years as an active player, he was playing for the New York Mets. He announced his retirement from the sport in 1973 — the year I graduated from high school. Fresno had the AAA (farm) team for the SF Giants. My father was/is a huge Willie Mays fan and it was announced that Willie Mays would be signing autographs on a specific day at John Euless Park (where the Fresno Giants played). My father was scheduled to have eye surgery that day and could’t go to get the autograph. My older sister was living at home and said we could do that for my dad. (Isn’t it great when you can volunteer someone for the task?) On that day we waited in line for hours. Right in front of us, the security guard announced they were going to cut off the line and Willie Mays wasn’t going to sign any more autographs. So I said to the guard, “can you cut off the line behind us? My father is a huge Willie Mays fan and we have a baseball that we were hoping to get Willie’s signature for him. He had eye surgery today and couldn’t be here, so we are doing this for him.” Mr. Mays heard me and said “let the girls through and we won’t sign anymore.” Now isn’t that a great story? There is no better ambassador of the sport. We can all be great ambassadors if we don’t miss the fastball. Here’s another thing that is a huge part of this story. We don’t have to do it alone! When my sister said “we can get Willie’s autograph for dad”, it was a joint thing. Sometimes we need somebody else on the journey to not miss the fastball.

Have a great year (and yes, luck is a strategy)!

“Obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.” Michael Jordan

I’ve always said that my idea of exercising is “jumping through hoops, jumping to conclusions and pushing my luck!” Last month we saw the movie The Martian. I’ll share the part that’s common knowledge about the story. It is based on a book by Andrew Weir. The plot is about a mission to Mars by NASA (U.S.) and a crew of six astronauts. While they are on Mars, the astronauts encounter bad weather and decide to scrub the remainder of the mission. In the process of gathering final samples of Mars to bring back to Earth, an accident occurs and one of the astronauts named Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon in the movie) is presumed dead. So the rest of the crew heads to Earth for the long journey home. But it turns out that Mark Watney is alive and has to figure out to to survive. Somebody at NASA is watching a monitor and realizes that Watney is alive. I got this next concept more from reading the book than watching the movie. (I was in a hurry to read the book before we saw the movie. If there is a book, I like to read it before I see the movie.) The first couple of chapters are Mark Watney’s adventures and I was totally focused on him and what hoops he was jumping through to survive. (Growing food on a planet where nothing grows!) The next chapter in the book focuses on NASA and their feelings when they find out he’s alive. Somebody asks the question about the crew who is on their return and doesn’t know this information … should they be informed that Watney is alive, etc. To be honest with you, I didn’t even think about NASA and the rest of the crew and their perspective as I was reading the book. I am amazed at Watney’s creativity. That is totally like a stroke! I often say that the day I had my stroke, lots of lives changed significantly. As a stroke survivor, I can tell you about creativity and jumping through hoops! I’m also impressed that through it all Mark Watney has a great sense of humor. You totally get that in the book and from Matt Damon in the movie! I think it’s an important part of the whole story. You not only find yourself rooting for him but smiling as you do so. In the movie as in the book, they talk about the whole world is watching. I love that idea.

Many years ago, Matt and I were part of a group that facilitated workshops where the primary learning tool was a software simulation. One of the courses was a project management simulation and they used the concept of teams as defined by Carl Larsen and Frank LaFasto in their book Teamwork. One thing that has really stayed with me is the notion that successful teams have a clear and elevating goal as the authors point out in the book. We used that idea heaps during the course. Do you remember the movie Hoosiers? It’s a sports movie that tells the true story of a small-town Indiana high school basketball team that wants to win the state championship. While that is their goal, each member had a goal that would make that win mean something significant. I have always remembered that idea of a clear and elevating goal. I would say that has been an important part of the whole journey. It’s a concept that we can have as individuals also.

Now here’s an example of that concept as it relates to a stroke. People tell me that a good friend of theirs had a stroke. They want to do something. The stroke survivor may or may not have a caregiver. They then tell me all they can do is bake a casserole. Should they? Yes! It may just be a casserole to the person making it, but think about the gift of time to the stroke survivor or caregiver. Somebody doesn’t have to decide what to fix, or check if they have the ingredients on hand, nor do they have to prepare it. But the most significant thing is that they were in good and loving thoughts.

Here’s another example. I said we went to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in August.  (Here it is December and I’m still talking about the experience.) One evening the Artistic Director of OSF shared with us that they get very good press about the festival and people’s experience. He also went on to say that people have a different mindset when they are there. They acknowledge that they are on vacation. Consequently when they watch the plays, they approach the experience differently than when they see a play at home and thinking about other things in their life. I guess as I think about the idea of jumping through hoops, I think it is about changing our mindset! The whole world is watching — let’s jump through hoops. I would say that qualifies as a clear and elevating goal!



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