Snail Trail

by Helene Louise  


Two years ago on a beach in Maine, I noticed a strange pattern on the rocks, like some sort of free-form labyrinth.  Looking more closely, I saw it was actually winding trails made by tiny snails in a very thin layer of sand as they travelled along on the rocks.  It made me think of that rhetorical question, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” In this case, I thought…As we travel along on our life’s journey, even if we can’t see the trail we’re leaving behind us, does it mean there isn’t one? 

I think as invisible as it may seem to us, we do, in different ways, leave a trail behind us as we travel along through our lives. For some, it’s a significant contribution, having an impact on a great number of people. For most of us though, our trails are much smaller, confined to little rocks somewhere on the edges of the beach. Still, all of our actions, both positive and negative, leave an impression on something or someone, even if we can’t visually see it. As members of a community, for example, we have an effect based on whatever involvement we choose to have. As parents, our choices and actions are later reflected in the attitudes and values our children carry forward. In my case, I like to believe that all of my efforts to rehabilitate my daughter after a childhood stroke have contributed to her having not just a greater physical capacity but also a stronger sense of self than she otherwise would have. 

If we could look back and clearly see the patterns we are leaving behind us, would we be happy with what we saw? I hope that when I am the equivalent of an old, slow-moving snail, that I will look back and be content with what I have left behind. Micha Books is a part of that—an effort on my part to turn what was a very difficult period in my life into something that, hopefully, is helpful to others. This summer, I was very happy to be invited to talk about my book at an event organized by the Canadian Pediatric Stroke Support Association and another one at Marillac Place, an organization in Kitchener, Ontario that provides a safe home for young women who are pregnant or have a young child. There, rather than focussing on pediatric stroke, I talked more generally about the importance of persevering even when you find yourself facing an extremely difficult situation, and even (and especially...) when you find yourself facing these situations on your own. I very much appreciated the opportunity to meet these young women and I admire their extraordinary courage. And, I have great admiration for organizations such as Marillac Place that help young people when they need it the most and in this case, their young children who have barely just begun their lives.

We can't really see the trail we leave behind us, but doing and saying something positive along the way must surely be a good thing, even if we can’t see what the impact is. 

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Does a three-legged dog think he's disabled?

by Helene Louise  

One day, while walking in my neighbourhood, I saw a black dog from across the street. I couldn't help but notice how beautiful he was. His coat was shiny and he was happily wagging his tail back and forth. Still, something struck me as a little different but because I wasn't wearing my glasses, I thought it must just be that my eyes weren’t focusing as they should. But as I crossed the street and got closer, I realized it wasn't that I was having trouble focusing, it was that there was one less leg than usual to focus on—one of the dog's hind legs was missing. 

At first I felt sad for him. But he didn't look sad at all and his tail continued wagging happily back and forth. It made me wonder, does he think of himself as disabled because he has one less leg than other dogs? When he goes to the park, do the other dogs treat him differently? Do they feel sorry for him or exclude him because he is different?

I know that one of my greatest challenges at the beginning of my daughter's rehabilitation was trying to help her understand that her right arm and hand, which mostly stayed curled up at her side, also had a purpose. Babies who have suffered a stroke are years away from learning to speak so you can't explain to them that their "other" limb can also be useful. They're busy being babies and as far as they're concerned, one arm is handy for doing things and one isn't. It's much later, as they become conscious of how they might be different from other people and have their differences pointed out, that they begin to see themselves as different. 

Therefore, I would guess that the happy three-legged dog I saw just thinks he's a dog—not a disabled dog. And, when he goes to the park, the other dogs bark at him, chase and play with him without ever making him feel like he's different. He's a just a regular dog, same as the others.

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Transatlantic Puppetry

by Helene Louise  

We sometimes hear how the growing presence of technology in our lives is eroding the quality of our interactions with one another. For example, a friend of mine once told me that she and her husband used to watch TV in the evenings in separate rooms and would only realize they were watching the same program when they both laughed out loud at the same time. And recently, I saw a family having dinner at a restaurant and all of them, the parents and both children, were busy on their phones/tablets for the entire meal, looking up only when it was time to order.

 On the other hand, a lovely friend of mine told me a heart-warming story of how she keeps in touch with her family overseas—it's not the same as sitting together around the dinner table but linked via their laptops, she manages to participate in family dinners just the same. The food may be prepared thousands of miles apart but the conversation, laughs and sense of belonging are shared in real time. She has even performed puppet shows for her niece from across the ocean. 

 It just goes to show that we can take opportunities that are available to us and challenges that are presented to us and use them in many different ways. In this case, the presence of technology can either completely override a family dynamic, removing almost all interpersonal interaction, or actually foster it. I certainly know that in the case of my daughter's rehabilitation after a childhood stroke, I have had to look at things differently, make the most of every opportunity and find the advantage in the disadvantage. It takes some planning, discipline and hard work, but just like my friend's transatlantic puppetry, definitely worth the trouble.

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A Little More Light for the Seaweed

by Helene Louise  

Montreal has many wonderul attractions and one of them is the Biodome. Opened in 1992, the Biodome recreates four ecosystems found in the Americas. Visitors can walk through the four sections and see otters at play, capybaras resting on the sand and bats flying overhead. For the more curious, there is even a section where you can touch sea urchins, starfish and other creatures that we don’t often get to see up close. 

The Biodome was created in what was originally the velodrome for the 1976 Olympics. Since then, of course, renovations and updates have had to be undertaken, including the replacement of the 58 skylights that serve as a roof.  I read that the original acrylic skylights are slowly being replaced with newer windows made out of polycarbonate, a material used in the aviation industry. These modern skylights are improving the Biodome’s energy-efficiency, which is, of course, important in managing such a large facility in these times of higher energy costs and greater environmental awareness.  But, as it turns out, these new skylights have also had another unanticipated effect.  Apparently, the new skylights let in significantly more light than the original ones and the beneficial effect of this increase has been noticed even in the growth of the seaweed at the bottom of one of the exhibits.  

 As I explained in my book, what I have learned through my daughter’s rehabilitation, is the value of the little things—how an unexpected moment of kindness and compassion can make the difference between desperation and hope, how, over time, a new idea can make the difference between success and failure. And, how sometimes, the slightest change can have an unexpected impact for the better. 

I love the idea that despite the enormity of the Biodome, a change at the very top of the building is enough to unexpectedly make the life of the seaweed way down at the very bottom of the deepest tank just a little bit brighter.

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How do sharks swim?

by Helene Louise  

A couple of years ago, I visited the New England Aquarium with my daughters. It is a magnificent facility that has, as its main feature, a giant ocean aquarium. You can walk along a ramp that runs all the way up to the top of the tank and there, at the surface of the water, you can watch the sea creatures as they are being fed.  At the same time, there is a guide who provides information on the aquarium and answers questions. When I was there, a little girl no more than five years old, asked a simple question, “How do sharks swim?” The answer was something along the lines that sharks swim by propelling themselves with their tail, whereas fish use the muscles on the sides of the body to wriggle from side to side and stingrays, wave the sides of their bodies like wings to get wherever they want to go.

 Many times during my daughter’s rehabilitation, I was told how she should be doing things—the proper way to cut paper and hold a pencil or the only way to solve a problem. I am grateful for the advice that I received and in general, I agree that there are normally good reasons for aiming to do things in a more standardized way. But in retrospect, maybe there is also scope for greater flexibility in how we do things. Maybe, there is room to do the same things differently and not to pressure both the children facing the challenges of physical rehabilitation and their parents, to adapt to a single “mainstream” way of doing things. For example, I type very quickly and I follow the “proper” way of typing that I learned decades ago on a clunky old electric typewriter. But, I have seen people typing very efficiently using only two fingers of each hand. This “improper” way of typing is by no means reflected in the final product.  That is, the final documents look the same—the outcome is equivalent. 

 The same is true with the way that we hold a pencil or a paintbrush. The standard way is probably the most efficient, but the paintings by artists who hold a paintbrush in their mouth or between their toes are certain to be much more beautiful than anything that I could ever create holding the brush between my fingers like you’re supposed to. These artists don’t hold the brush “properly” but what they have is drive and passion which in this case are perhaps even more important than the “right” way of doing things.  

So, in the same way that the sharks, fish, stingrays, turtles and other sea creatures get to the same place using completely different ways of getting around, maybe we too could be more open to different ways of getting the same, or similar, results.

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