To Wave or Not to Wave

by Helene Louise  

I have been running on and off for more than three decades. (Or jogging, as we used to call it back in the 1980’s when I started…) That’s a really long time to have done any one activity with any kind of consistency. Over all those years, projects, priorities and people have come and gone in my life but my love for putting on my running shoes and going for a run remains unchanged. I like the solitude. I like the rhythm of my feet on the pavement. I like the way it makes me conscious of the changing seasons—from the first leaves on the ground that I wouldn’t otherwise notice, to the first crocuses of spring like I saw this past weekend even though it snowed again later in the week. And, I like the feeling of strength that running gives me, as I push myself through the discomfort of the day to accomplish what I’ve set out to do.

And, although it’s not essential to my running happiness, I really like those brief moments when I pass another runner and we ever-so-briefly acknowledge one another with a quick wave or a little nod. Maybe it’s silly but when that happens, I feel a small surge of extra motivation, a sense of added strength that comes from feeling like at that moment, we share an understanding of how hard we’re both working to keep going, even as we continue off in opposite directions, never to see one another again. That’s especially true on the dark, cloudy days when motivation is harder to come by and even the slightest sense of a shared experience feels like kindness.

Having said that, I don’t know if it’s my neighbourhood or the changing times but I have noticed fewer and fewer people waving back as the years go by. Out of habit, I’m still lifting my hand, ready to acknowledge a fellow runner as I run past them (or even a walker or someone with a stroller…) but almost everyone runs right past me, looking straight ahead as if I simply wasn’t there. Each time that happens, I feel the same waykind of like when you meet someone and you smile and extend your hand to shake theirs but for some reason, they don't take it so you’re just left standing there, awkwardly, with your hand outstretched to no one in particular, feeling rather foolish.

So, I've tried to hold back my impulse to acknowledge fellow runners as we pass one another but it feels strange to run past someone as if they weren’t there, especially when I’ve been aware of them running towards me for some time before we finally pass one another. And now and again, there is actually someone who, in that brief moment, seems so genuinely delighted by my gesture that their momentary look of happiness makes up for all the times my waves go unanswered. Not to mention, how encouraged I feel when, on the now very rarest of occasions, someone waves before me…!

When I think of the darkest periods of my life, like when my daughter was first diagnosed as having suffered a stroke, or the countless times I’ve faced something that requires more effort than I think I have, an unexpected smile from a cashier at the grocery store, a random kind word from a receptionist, or any remotely positive acknowledgement, wave, nod or otherwise, from anyone under any circumstances, can make a world of difference to me in that moment. Just like with running, on the dark, cloudy days, when motivation is so hard to come by, even the slightest sense of a shared experience can feel like kindness.

So, I think I’m going to keep waving. In any case, I’ll still be running around the neighbourhood, enjoying the solitude, the rhythm of my feet on the pavement and the changing seasons, so why not, just in case…?

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What's in the dash?

by Helene Louise  

About a year ago, I had an interesting conversation about life in general with someone who astutely summed up what we were talking about by saying something along the lines of, “...On your tombstone, it will show the year you were born and the year you died. The dash in-between will represent your entire life. So, the question we need to ask ourselves is...What’s in the dash?”  A year later, I still find that interesting to think about.

First of all, it’s jarring to think that for all of us, the entirety of our lives will eventually be represented by a tiny in-between symbol. And, since “dash” can also mean “to destroy” as in dashing someone’s hopes, or “being hasty” as in dashing off to a meeting, there could also be an underlying negative connotation to the whole thing.

In my case, however, consistent with my ongoing focus on the importance of celebrating the tiniest of triumphs in the context of my daughter’s rehabilitation after a childhood stroke (as I’ve written about in my book and throughout these posts), I prefer the idea of “dash” in terms of “a small amount of something”—as in a dash of salt. In that context, I truly believe that it’s been our ongoing recognition and appreciation of the little dashes of hope here, and the little dashes of encouragement there, over many years, that has fuelled much of our perseverance and therefore, much of my daughter’s progress to overcome the effects of the stroke as much as possible.

And more generally, despite the frustrations of everyday life, I think that consciously trying to add dashes of gratitude into the mix of my daily thoughts is a major contributor to my overall wellbeing. There is, actually, always something to be grateful for. I’m grateful my daughters still choose to have dinner with me most evenings and talk to me about their lives as the young adults they are becoming. Over dinner, I can pass the salt and still add a dash of motherly encouragement here and there to the extent that it’s still welcome. I’m grateful for the love and support of my partner, and my family. I’m grateful for every single expression of interest in this project from close to home and far away. I’m grateful for having had the opportunity again this year to be a guest lecturer at McGill University's School of Physical and Occupational Therapy.  I’m grateful for the questions and comments from the students, all of which give me so much hope for the future.

So, a year later, I’m still reflecting on the question of What’s in the dash? But, maybe my answer would be that in my dash so far, there are many little dashes of this and that, all of which absolutely must be appreciated in the here and now.

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Learning and Inspiration from the Simplest of Sources

by Helene Louise  

Learning and Inspiration from the Simplest of Sources

As much as I thrive on having a routine in my life in order to fit in everything that needs to get done on any given day (and maybe get to the things I just want to do…), I recognize that the “learning and inspiration from the simplest of sources” as I recently wrote about, is sometimes facilitated by stepping out of my routine for a time.

This past week for example, I spent a few days in Maine. I know November isn’t exactly prime time for tourism, as evidenced by the fact that many of the tourism-related services like the bike rental shops were closed for the season and that we narrowly missed a major storm the day before we arrived. But, if you don’t need to rent a bike and you don’t mind bundling up, there is beauty and inspiration to be found in so many places. In my case, walking along the wind-swept coastline, a blustery palette of blues and greys, and nothing but ocean as far as you can see, was a chilly but refreshing reminder that there is so much beyond my to-do list and whatever frustrations I might feel as I myopically move from task to task in my usual routine.

And surprisingly, beyond the reminder to look above and beyond my daily list, I was also unexpectedly reminded of my past. In a Scandinavian-themed store, I came across all sorts of products and items that spontaneously brought forward warm memories of a time decades ago. I was born in Sweden but have grown up proudly Canadian. Still, the memories brought forward by objects I hadn’t seen or thought about in years was a heart-warming reminder of the person I was before I became a mother, before I faced the challenges of figuring out how to help my daughter after a childhood stroke, and before my days were defined by the activities that make up my current routine.

In a way, these recent experiences reflect the perspective I am generally trying to bring to the broader discussion about the importance of hope and perseverance in the context of rehabilitation after a childhood stroke. The importance of looking beyond the diagnosis in the short term and maybe drawing on one’s experiences from the past to move forward. Even when she was a baby, I always believed that my daughter could be more than the sum total of the dark limitations placed on her by the first specialist we met. A decade and a half or so later, that had certainly proven to be the case. I continue to appreciate the learning and inspiration I find from the simplest of sources—both at home and away.

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More Lingering Lessons From Grade 4

by Helene Louise  

As I wrote in September, I loved my grade 4 teacher. She didn’t smile much and she was very stern but I thought she was wonderful. Back then, in the late seventies, her stories about “the good old days” included anecdotes about how it had been when she had gone to school in a one-room school house. I was completely fascinated by the idea that the person standing right in front of me could have actually gone to school like a “pioneer girl”.

We all thought it sounded so terribly old-fashioned and that the kids back then, or “children” as she insisted on calling them, couldn’t possibly have learned as much as we were learning in what clearly seemed like such modern times. After all, they hadn’t had all of the fancy stuff that we had—cassette tapes for listening to music, walkie-talkies for talking to a friend, antenna TVs for watching our favourite shows and digital wrist watches for keeping track of time so we didn’t miss our show the only day of the week it was on.

To our surprise, however, our teacher believed that the kids back then might have actually been learning faster than we were. She said that because all the grades had been together in the same room, the younger kids learned the more advanced concepts along with the older ones by just being in the same room with them. Nothing fancy, just looking, listening and being part of what was going on around them.

Sometimes I wonder if with the ubiquitous presence of technology in our lives, we sometimes forget that there are also simple ways of learning and doing things. I’d be absolutely lost without my iPhone. It has replaced almost everything…the cassette tapes for listening to music, the walkie-talkie for staying in touch with a friend, the antenna TV for watching my favourite show and my watch for keeping track of time, even though I can now essentially watch my favourite show any time and place I like, day or night.

However, I still appreciate the inherent value in the “older ways” of doing things. And, I regularly seek out opportunities to hear live music, talk to a friend in person, go for a walk rather than watching yet another episode of something I find entertaining and while out, not worrying too much about the time.  And, looking back on about a decade and a half of helping my daughter with her rehabilitation after a childhood stroke, I’d say that playing with her older sister in the park when she was younger, seeing other kids swimming, skipping or doing anything at all that she hadn’t yet learned, has often been equally effective as anything I’ve tried to do to help her—learning and inspiration can still come from the simplest of sources.

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Back to School - Lingering Lessons From Grade Four

by Helene Louise  

I loved my grade four teacher. It was the late seventies and, at that time, she was already “an old lady”. She was really wrinkly, didn't smile much, she was grumpy most of the time and she ran her classroom in a strict old-fashioned way, but I loved her anyway. She had a great big piano and from time to time she would play "I's the by...", a Canadian folk song from the East Coast as we all sang along, happily but not quite sure what it was all about.

My grade four teacher spent a lot of time lecturing us about "the good old days", like how it had been when she had gone to school in a one-room schoolhouse. That fact alone fascinated me, when the seventies already seemed like such incredibly modern times. One of the things she would tirelessly work into whatever she was teaching us was, "...If you have even just ten minutes of time, then you should make good use of those ten minutes. Ten minutes is enough time to get something done." Whether it was reviewing our times tables one more time or helping our mothers dry the dishes, she insisted that even small ten-minute intervals were to be appreciated and made good use of.

As I wrote in my book, the bulk of my daughter’s rehabilitation after a childhood stroke has actually come from the cumulative effect of many small bursts of effort—ten, fifteen, twenty minutes at a time—over many years. And arguably, this entire project of writing about our experience is also the result of many snippets of time that I’ve made use of while riding the subway, waiting for the bus, sitting at a coffee shop on my lunch hour or wherever else I’ve found a bit of time between other things.

I’m always grateful for the little signs that something good has come of my efforts, modest as they may be. For example, in this back to school season, the Association hémiparesie, a pediatric stroke association in France, has distributed instructions for how to adapt a ruler for those who have limited use of one hand (like children who have suffered a stroke). And in doing so, acknowledged that the idea is based on the adapted protractor instructions that I shared last year (first with an explanation as to how they came about and then as a bilingual version), also developed over many little ten-minute intervals of time. It’s a simple idea, of course, but all of our ten-minute contributions taken together, are making a difference someplace. For those kids who will be helped by these adaptations, the cumulative effect is indeed tangible.

It’s been a really long time since I was in grade four, but since then (along with eventually finding out what that folk song was about…), I have come to appreciate the value of my teacher’s insistence on making good use of even just ten minutes of time. Even if you don’t see the impact up close, somewhere, maybe even far away, in this case a year later across the Atlantic in France, something good can come of it all. (And who knows, maybe even further still—I was thrilled to recently ship the french versions of my books to New Caledonia, located in the southwest Pacific Ocean, about 1, 200 km from Australia!)

So, in this back-to-school season, I am thinking of my grade four teacher whose lessons are still resonating with me today, so many decades later. And maybe in some indirect way, still resonating in a classroom somewhere through the ways in which I have applied her advice. I can’t be sure of course, but I am sure that she was right about making good use of even just ten minutes of time.

“Bonne rentrée scolaire” as they say in French! (i.e. Wishing you a great back-to-school season!)

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