Posts Tagged ‘brain’

The Gift

May 7, 2008

“The idea is to write it so that people hear it and it slides through the brain and goes straight to the heart.”

Maya Angelou

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The Post – The Puzzle Pieces I Don’t See

March 20, 2008

I don’t know who wrote the saying at the end of this post. I jotted it down years ago when I saw it somewhere, and it’s been taped to my desk ever since. So just for the record, if the real author sees this, I don’t claim ownership of it, just ignorance of your name.

This saying attracted my attention because it’s one of those things I don’t do well. I think we are often attracted to wisdom we haven’t mastered or to people who are different from us. It’s like those things complement us, like two halves of a broken locket coming together (Can you tell my brain is still on Nancy Drew – The Clue of the Broken Locket ?)

Now even though we are each complete in ourselves – our answers are within and we each possess the best and worst of the Universe in our hearts – I think we rediscover our own truths and talents quicker through our connection to others. It’s like in chemistry. A reaction between two compounds may take place, but if you add a catalyst, it happens a lot faster and more effectively.

Where it might take us years (or centuries) to learn or rediscover something about ourselves, with the shared experiences, joys, and wisdom of friends and the people we encounter in life, we learn our truths so much quicker if we’re open to looking.

I think we are each a puzzle picture whose pieces got splintered and scattered when we showed up here at birth. We spend our life trying to find or rediscover those pieces so we can again be whole. Given enough time, trial and errors, we probably will put it all together, but I think the process is so much richer and effective when shared with the others in our life. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said: “Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.”

When someone else displays a particularly interesting puzzle piece of their own, we have the opportunity to be grateful for that. It may give us a clue to something within ourselves we’d forgotten or just weren’t seeing. It may teach us a path for how to do this journey with more joy, and less pain. It can teach us to appreciate and remember the wondrous variety that is out there in life and within our own hearts.

For me, the following bit of wisdom is a reminder of the power of the “simple.” I often look at things and figure unless you can deliver the whole ball of wax right away or in one fell swoop, or unless you can do the “big” thing, why bother because only doing the small thing is useless. I often fail to see that just one small effort can make such a big difference and can lead to success unimagined. It is the puzzle piece I don’t see in life.

So for today, the wisdom of the puzzle piece of simplicity, and thank you to the author of it, whoever you are:

“The opportunity for success lies in the modest and attainable.”

The Post – Can Surrender = Win?

February 29, 2008

Writers pay attention to words. It’s an occupational hazard, like a carpenter paying attention to what’s the best hammer or a painter finding the best brush. Words are the tools of the trade. So I’m always paying attention to things like “Does that word have the subtlety of meaning I need?” Or :”Does this word have a second meaning that might confuse?” Writers also think about overlooked possibilities with the words they choose. “Is there a meaning you can give this word that no one usually associates with it?”

Surrender. I was thinking about that word a lot lately. You hear that word and immediately thoughts of loss, failure, futility of effort, come up. It’s hard to see it any other way. Harder still is to get your head around the possibility that to surrender, could be to win.

Even as I say the word, the competitive part of me that wants to fight for my rights, get ahead, succeed in life, cringes. I can feel my stomach knot, an uncomfortable churning inside, the hair on the back of my neck raise up. My brain yells, “NO!” The thing about surrender, though, especially in our close relationships, is that if done well, both walk away with something, both end up feeling better.

When things are always viewed in terms of win or lose, there’ s no room for anything else. There’s no “other option” possible. No wiggle room for a place that might leave both parties feeling a bit more empowered and a bit less stomped on. If there is a winner, there’s always a loser. A loser is not going to be happy and when someone in an altercation isn’t happy, it’s going to stay alive and fester. Look at World War I. When Germany lost, the terms dictated to them were so onerous, so harsh, it bred the even worse horror known as World War II. Losers are more apt to pull back, regroup, plot the next battle, seek revenge.

It’s not always possible to seek “surrender.” Some situations just don’t give that option. Then the best option is to be a generous winner. But as much as possible, taking a step back, giving the situation “more room,” might yield a more satisfying result. Take something all knotted up, spread it out on the floor, and you often can spot the tangles. Spread the tangles out more, and you have room to pick them apart, unravel them, possibly even remove them completely.

It’s the law of physics. The more room given to particles in a closed container, the less pressure there is. They spread out evenly. Close things down and pressure builds. Tighten down the valves enough and things might explode.

Surrendering in a relationship to the possibility of a greater good, allows time and room. Spread out the mess, find the knots, pick out the tangles. It might be possible to save the whole ball of string. Even if not, it might be possible to salvage a good bit of it.

So, a new twist on “surrender” – see it as a win? Something for both the writer, and the human being inside the writer, to ponder.

The Post – Pregnant Scarlett O’Hara and the Proud Father

February 21, 2008

I am going to be out of the office today, so a brief, fun posting with pictures of pregnant Scarlett O’Hara carrying her larval fiddler crab babies. Also a shot or two of the proud father, Admiral Byrd, who is STILL waving his claw. I am determined to get a really good shot of him doing that claw wave, but these aren’t too bad.

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Here are some shots of “the babies.” They are the brown mass of egg-looking things tucked in that shelf on her abdomen. They’re not the sharpest shots, but then, Scarlett O’Hara is not the most cooperative super-model. She won’t stand still. Also, it’s hard to get a shot where she’s not moving her claws. She is CONSTANTLY shoving food in her mouth – she is a two-fisted, non-stop eater. I guess though, she is eating for a few thousand? 🙂

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Admiral Byrd spots me and tries to hide in the corner of the tank against the live rock. The grayish streak is the silicone sealant in corner of the tank. I think he likes to hide behind that strip and also the thermometer strip (not seen) because it blocks his vision of me – that whole “if he can’t see me, then I don’t exist and he’s safe,” mentality? What do you want from a creature with a brain the size of a pinpoint?

The other two pictures are classic Admiral Byrd poses. He sometimes spends all day with his large claw in the air, sometime both claws in the air. While I know he’s either trying to scare me off or encourage the ladies, sometimes when he has both claws up, he looks like he’s paying homage to the god of the tank, the aquarium light above. He is also very pragmatic when trying to show off for the ladies. He’ll have his large claw up to get their attention, while using his smaller claw to shove food in his mouth. A guy has to eat, right?

See you tomorrow!

The Post – Another Side Trip – In an Instant, Life Changes – The ER and Patton

February 17, 2008

One minute you are moving through your day, clearing tasks off of your to-do list and anticipating all the things you will still tackle during the rest of the afternoon. The next moment you’re wondering if you will make it through the afternoon, and can you ever get what is choking you, out of your throat? In an instant, life changes.

I talked the other day about “awareness and staying in the present moment” in relation to my racquetball game. Shift to the future and you blow the present shot. The same thing happens in life.

My meditation class talks every week about paying attention to what you are doing, and that anything can be a meditation if you do it mindfully, full of awareness. I never thought about this extending to swallowing pills. I also never thought about how I swallow pills as a possible life-altering moment.

It’s something we do automatically. Grab the pills, toss them back, throw in a mouthful of water, all while in motion through the day’s to-do list. As you tip your head back to swallow, your mind is already on the afternoon’s plans and everything you want to get done. Suddenly there is this sense of something horribly wrong.

It is said that when we are in pain, our world narrows. While that’s usually said about emotional pain and our tendency to pull away and close down our connections to the world, the same is true of physical pain.

In just a second or two, the brain, reacting to that sense of something horribly wrong, starts reeling in the attention and cranking down the focus. It shifts gears from 4 p.m. back to 2 p.m. Within another second or two, it registers panic and pain. It tries to rally its resources to deal with the emergency. Whatever was on your mind before evaporates. It is suddenly incredibly irrelevant. You may never get to it.

Now focused very much in the present the brain is frantically trying to get a clear picture of what the hell is happening. It’s processing emergency signals from several places in your body simultaneously – heart rate, throat, blood pressure, lungs, mouth, cervical nerves. The eyes bulge, hands go up to the throat, and the left brain finally grasps that the pills you swallowed without thinking, tumbled down the wrong way. In a one-in-a-million shot they’ve lodged side by side in your esophagus and are blocking the whole passage.

At the same time you’re looking for a waste basket to throw up in and get those things out of you, additional panic shoots through you. The brain has further grasped that not only can’t you swallow, but that the water you took with the pills has backed up into all of your air passages and is now choking you. Inside your head you hear the liquid close off passages. For an odd moment, like time standing still, you notice that the sounds in your head right now are the same as when you’ve dived underwater and everything is flooding with fluid. Except you’re not in someone’s pool. You’re standing in an office wondering if you’ll ever take another breath.

The breath. All those meditation classes. Come back to the breath. Breathe in your pain and fear, breathe out caring and calm. But even the breath has been taken from you. Panic. Focus. Panic. Focus. The battle in the brain begins because it knows if panic wins, you may lose the battle completely.

Suddenly the water drains out and you can breathe. The breath. Come back to the breath. You’ve been given another shot. Don’t blow it. The brain is in command. Stay in the moment. Just this moment. Breathe – just one breath. Assess. What’s your next move? Think. Take stock. Breathe again. Just one breath.

You determine you can’t swallow except for tiny amounts. Okay. Focus. One swallow at a time. Look around. What are your options? Get help. Someone to be here in case they have to call 911. You remember the pills are large. Hard. Coated. They’re not going to dissolve. You need assistance. Get to the ER.

Someone stays with you. They’re trying to help. It’s a comfort and calms you, even though you can’t really respond. You’re using all your focus and energy on “Breathe – just one breath. Swallow – slowly. You cringe. Intense pain shoots up your throat as the liquid shoves the pills against the esophagus wall and ever so slowly drips around them and down your throat. Breathe. It takes a few seconds to swallow saliva that you normally don’t even notice is there. A few seconds more and the swallow is finished. Take another breath.

The brain starts to race – how long will it take my husband to get here? How long to get down the street? How long to the ER? How long before they can do something to make this better? Panic. The brain takes charge again. Stop. Stay in the present. Breathe. Swallow.

Every shift of the car gears hurts. You want to be sick. Take a breath. Swallow. Another bump. Breathe. Rounding the corner. Still a mile to go. Breathe. Swallow. Traffic backing up. Panic rising. Breathe. Swallow. Close your eyes. The ER doesn’t exist. Just this moment. Breathe, swallow. Breathe, swallow. Lean forward because it doesn’t hurt so much. Breathe. Swallow. You turn into the hospital. The ride to the door might as well be an eternity. Close your eyes. Breathe, swallow.

You struggle through admissions. Whisper name, date of birth, insurance, address. Breathe. Swallow. The nurse typing in your vitals seems to be taking forever. Will you ever get relief? Come back to the moment. Breathe. Just one breath. You spot your blood pressure and heart rate. It scares you. Close your eyes. Breathe. Swallowing is harder. Lean forward. Get ready. Breathe, swallow, tighten your fist to take your mind off the pain in your throat. Breathe. Stay calm.

I know my husband is there. His presence is calming. I can’t respond to him. Can’t even focus on him because I am focused on breathe, swallow. For a second I feel his hand on my back. Its warmth relaxes me, radiates through my muscles. Calms them. But I can’t tell him yet. Just breathe. Swallow.

The doctor is approaching the room. Breathe. Swallow. You stare past the doctor and see a room across the department that looks just like the one your husband almost died in a little over a year ago . . . when he almost choked to death. Breathe. Swallow. The nurse pushes in the needle for the IV line. Breathe. Swallow. Meds are moving through your veins. Breathe. Swallow. Breathe. Swallow. Calm. The meds are calming. The muscles in your throat unlock. Breathe. Swallow. Suddenly, a tiny burp. Air is moving up. Breathe. Swallow. They give you water. Tiny sips. It slides down your throat. Pills shift and hurt. Breathe. Swallow. Ever so slowly, the burps get bigger. The sips of water larger. The medicine slows your heart rate. Your blood pressure has dropped. You can swallow and breathe without total concentration. Will you ever take another pill unawares?

Joan Didion wrote a book, The Year of Magical Thinking, about what it was like the year after her husband died of a massive heart attack. She was with him when it happened. It happened in an instant. In that moment as he fell, dead, everything changed.

Even as Kate Braestrup stared at her husband’s cereal bowl in the sink that morning, he already lay dead in his state police car, killed when another vehicle lost control and crashed into him. Her life changed in that instant as she described in her book, Here If You Need Me. Lee and Bob Woodruff wrote a book, In An Instant. He was covering a story for ABC News in Iraq when an IED exploded near his vehicle. In an instant he nearly died. In an instant everything in her day changed dramatically.

It happens so often. It happens to everyone. Yet we all try to ignore that an end will come. We pretend that reality doesn’t exist even though it does. In an instant we are reminded that though we think we are masters of our fate, we never are. It’s out of our hands.

Friday night, terrified after what had happened to my day, my body, and with the calming effects of the valium wearing off, I scrambled to put myself in a place that brought me back to a time where I felt I had power. I retreated to the movie, Patton, about the controversial, powerful, and legendary World War II general, George S. Patton, Jr. His nickname, given by his men, was “Old Blood and Guts.” He never retreated.

It’s a standing joke in my house, that especially when I was younger, I was Patton. I was the general. I ran the situations. Whatever needed doing, I gave the order or executed the action. Failure or retreat was not in my vocabulary. Back then, my thought was, work hard enough, push hard enough, refuse to be defeated or back off, and you can do, achieve, overcome anything.

In the movie, there is one scene where Patton, played by George C. Scott, speaks and my family looks at me and laughs. Patton, has been reprimanded and his command taken from him. Patton, like him or hate him, was a brilliant field commander. He also put his foot in his mouth constantly, and some of his actions were controversial. Yet he was a power to be reckoned with. He bludgeoned his way through things, though aware of the pecking order, did manage to yield some deference to God. In this scene he is speaking to his aide after being told he might be sent home from the war in disgrace:

“I feel I am destined to achieve some great thing, what I don’t know. But, this last incident is so trivial in it’s nature and so terrible in its effect, it can’t be the result of an accident. It has to be the work of God. The last great opportunity of a lifetime . . . an entire world at war, and I’m left out of it?! God will not permit this to happen!! I am going to be allowed to fulfill my destiny!!!” [LONG PAUSE] “His will be done.”

The last four words are said almost as an afterthought, Patton remembering that God just “might” have some say in things. For some reason, at that time in my life, maybe even now a little bit, my family saw a lot of me in that scene. 🙂

So Friday night, I took comfort from retreating to a place and time in life where I felt powerful and in control of everything. Yet, in truth, even as I watched that movie I knew it was just an illusion, a temporary salve for a traumatic day. None of us are really in command of our destinies, only our responses to life’s questions. Even the powerful General Patton learned that. He preferred to die in battle. Instead, in Dec of 1945 he was paralyzed from the neck down as a result of injuries in a car accident. He died a couple of weeks later from an embolism.

I took temporary sustenance from the movie, even as I am aware that we can only take charge of some things, our choices, but for the rest, there is just the one and only powerful tool we can use: stay aware in the present moment, and breathe.

The Post – In Art: What is Not There, Makes it Useful

February 10, 2008

I had about three other posts in mind for today. Each one flooded my brain though, making it impossible for me to find the “simple thread” at its heart. That means they’re meant for another day when my mind can absorb them and sift through the layers to the simple truth at their cores. Sometimes, what is not there, makes it useful. By clearing something away, you see what is waiting there to be discovered. As soon as I set these other topics aside, my eyes landed on what is meant to surface today.

There is a book from the 6th century B.C. written by Lao Tsu, called the Tao Te Ching. The book is described as the essence of Taoism, contained in 81 chapters, which are more like 81 poems or pages because the entire book is about 5000 words. Don’t let it fool you. The shortest entries are the hardest to decipher. What is not there makes it useful.

Entry Eleven is one I could actually figure out-at least most of it. We won’t discuss those last 2 lines whose meaning in view of the rest I still haven’t figured out.

Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore profit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.

While Lao Tsu probably wrote them as rules to live by, I realized that they also apply to the creative arts:

Michaelangelo said that the sculptures he did were already there, fully formed in the rock. He just released them by cutting away all that was not the sculpture.

In photography, the photo’s essence is all about what to include and what to exclude. Even when you print the photo, it is often cropped first, to remove the things that don’t contribute the the unity of the photo. Leave in too much, and you dilute the power of what remains.

I recently took an oil painting seminar on color theory. The artist, Caroline Jasper, shared her process of creating seascapes. She started with some photographs of boats docked in a small port town. Her next step was to make some quick sketches, deciding which boats and buildings to keep and what to cut. By eliminating the excess, what remained had power. Only then did she proceed to actually painting the scene.

In writing, the same is true. Whether fiction or nonfiction – there is a slant, a premise, a particular viewpoint. By the very nature of selecting a perspective, some things will be excluded because they don’t support the main focus of that piece.

If there is any process in writing where “what is not there makes it useful” it would have to be editing. It is the writing equivalent of cutting away the excess stone, cropping the photograph, deciding what elements stay in the painting and which are removed. If anyone doubts the importance of removing what is not needed, consider the Gettysburg Address experience.

On November 19th, 1863, many dignitaries, including President Lincoln, gathered to dedicate the cemetery for the thousands of soldiers who died during the Civil War battle that took place there in July of that year. The main speaker was the famed orator of the day, Edward Everett. A former US Senator, US Representative, Governor of Massachusetts, and President of Harvard University, Everett was held in high esteem. Lincoln’s invitation to attend was actually an afterthought. Everett delivered a well-crafted masterpiece that was 13,607 words long and took 2 hours to deliver. Lincoln spoke for 2-3 minutes and delivered a speech that ran approximately 10 sentences long and had about 272 words. Lincoln considered his speech a failure, yet that is the speech everyone remembers to this day. Edward Everett, himself acknowledged that reality in a letter to Lincoln the very next day. He told Lincoln:

“I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

To remove the excess is to enhance the power of the creation. When I set the other topics aside, this one came up to be discovered. What was not there, made it useful.

The Post – Caring, is catchy

January 30, 2008

Probably the most interesting thing in the fiddler crab experiment is my family’s reaction to them. My son came home from college at Christmas and initially looked at me like I was crazy because I talked so much about the crabs. In fact, my independent college student complained I was paying more attention to the fiddler crabs. He kept laughing at me as I talked to the crustaceans in that high-pitched mommy voice previously reserved for my toddler son and pet poodles. My husband just kept teasing me about the total amount we were up to on fiddler crab expenditures.

Within of day of being home, my son started watching them, and within a few days he was keeping track of who was doing what and telling me to check on Melanie Hamilton or Rhett Butler. In fact, I think he was the one who first noticed that Rhett Butler was dead.

My husband was the one who spotted Scarlett O’Hara molting and eagerly called me over to see her when I came in from grocery shopping. Last night, he came in from work and before he even said hello to me he stopped, peered in the tank and said with great concern, “There’s something wrong with Admiral Byrd! I think he’s dead!” As it turned out (after I poked Admiral Byrd with my latest acquisition, a 25 cc plastic pipette and bulb from Science Safari that I use to siphon out excess food), I think Admiral Byrd was just sleeping – they kind of hang there, their claws floating above their heads, and don’t react to much. But my husband walked away and said very seriously, “I think you’d better keep an eye on him.”

What I realized is that caring, like a cold, is an occupational hazard of sharing space. When you share space, even with a creature who has a brain the size of a pinpoint, it starts to get personal. When it’s personal, you start to care, even when you didn’t mean to.

I think the same thing happens with people. So often you hear people say, “I don’t like this group or that.” Then they meet someone from that group and find out they really are okay . . . maybe even . . . nice. It’s hard to share space – sit across the table from someone, hear their humanness, see it in their eyes – and not care. That’s the real risk factor I suspect . . . contact . . . sharing space. The minute you share the space, you start to see the real person. Once that happens, it’s personal. And once it’s personal, you’re done for because caring is catchy.