One of my author friends introduced Elizabeth and me, suggesting she would be a terrific guest on the Scribbler. I agree.
Elizabeth Peirce is an award-winning author, editor and teacher living in Halifax, NS. Her book Grow Organic: A Simple Guide to Nova Scotia Vegetable Gardening (Nimbus Publishing) won the Best Atlantic Published Book award in 2011. She has also written books about canning and preserving (You Can Too!, 2013), Maritime pirates (Saladin, 2006 and The Pirate Rebel, 2007) and a children’s book (The Big Flush, 2017). She is sharing with the Scribbler an excerpt from her latest book, Lost and Found: Recovering Your Spirit After a Concussion—a book she describes as a toolkit of strategies to help concussion survivors access their innate healing potential. Based on her own experience of healing from a concussion in 2013, Lost and Found is available at select Chapters/ Coles/ Indigo bookstores, on amazon.com (in both print and audio formats, for those with auditory processing issues), and via Elizabeth’s author website, elizabethpeirce.ca
She is really happy to be Allan’s guest on the Scribbler!
4Q: Gardening is a delightful hobby where you can see the beautiful results for your efforts. Tell us about your award-winning book – Grow Organic. Can it help me be a better gardener?
EP: I hope so! That book had its beginnings in 2008 when an editor friend at Nimbus Publishing in Halifax who often called me with her garden questions finally said, “It would be easier if you just wrote me a book!” We both found it frustrating that so many How-To books on gardening seemed to come from sunny places like California, where the climate is pretty much perfect for growing anything. I wanted to write a beginning gardener’s guide for people living in tougher climates—lots of rain, cold spells, weird frost dates… that’s pretty much the Maritimes in a nutshell! Since you live in New Brunswick, I think the same issues apply. The book takes you through the whole process, from building/ buying good soil to choosing local, non-GMO seed, to finding the best location for your garden, and deciding what vegetable varieties are a good fit for our climate.
4Q: How long have you been writing and why did you decide on gardening and kitchen self-help books you published?
EP: I have been writing since I was seven years old. I was interested in all aspects of making books, from writing and illustration to bookbinding, and would often write and illustrate my own small storybooks. I learned to sew mostly so I could sew my books together! When I got older, I became a freelance editor and was working at a publishing company in Halifax, helping bring books to publication. That company eventually asked me if I wanted to write books for them… and I said yes! I’ve told you the story of how my gardening book came to be. When that book was published in 2010 and sold well, the publisher asked me to write a sequel: basically, what to do with all the vegetables and fruit you just grew! I’ve been a gardener since I was a child, and my grandmother taught me a lot about canning and preserving, so these subjects were ones I was (and am) very passionate about. I believe that growing and preserving our own food is an important survival skill, and one that is sadly lacking in many people’s life experience.
4Q: Please share a childhood memory or anecdote.
|Photo credit: Amanda White|
4Q: Your website is totally cool. It mentions that you are a speaker. What’s this about?
EP: Well, thank you. After I published Grow Organic, I started getting asked to speak at gardening clubs, schools and community groups—really, anyone with an interest in growing their own food. Since I am a teacher and enjoy public speaking, it was a natural fit for me. For the last couple of years, I’ve also been a member of WITS (Writers in the Schools), a program affiliated with the Writers’ Federation of NS which sends authors to schools around the province so we can share our love of writing with students of all ages. It’s been a great experience for me!
4Q: Please tell us about your other books.
EP: My first two books with Nimbus Publishing were in the historical fiction genre; there was some interest in local pirate lore—and Nova Scotia has had quite a storied history of pirates visiting our shores. The first of these books was co-authored with William Crooker and was called Saladin: Piracy, Mutiny and Murder on the High Seas. It tells the infamous tale of the British barque Saladin which was stranded at Country Harbour, NS in May of 1844 under suspicious circumstances. The Saladin men were tried for piracy and murdering their captain in one of the last major piracy trials in Canada.
My second book about pirates was called The Pirate Rebel. It tells the story of the Irish pirate Ned Jordan and the incredible story of his attempted murder of a Halifax sea captain by throwing him overboard—the captain survived this ordeal and eventually testified against Jordan in a Halifax courtroom in 1809.
These two books are more than ten years old now—my more recent writing efforts have been a children’s book that was inspired by my then-four-year-old son’s intense dislike of loudly flushing public toilets. It’s called The Big Flush, and it’s the one I take with me on WITS visits to elementary schools when I speak to young writers about telling their own stories.
And then there’s my newest book, Lost and Found: Recovering Your Spirit After a Concussion, which I wrote after experiencing a concussion myself in 2013 and having a really rough time getting better. I vowed if I made it through that experience, I would write a book about what I learned. I had many teachers, inside the health professions and outside, and I met many folks with similar experiences who were facing prolonged recovery times. When I have a problem I need to solve, I sometimes write a book about it!
I’m including an excerpt from this book, as it’s the one I found the most challenging to write, and also the one I’m proudest of. You should know that I received my concussion when I fell headfirst to the floor during a pole fitness class.
An Excerpt from Lost and Found: Recovering Your Spirit After A Concussion
(Copyright is held by the Author. Used with permission)
Will I ever fully recover? Will my life be this way forever? These were the questions that circled around and around inside my head for months, demanding a response. Unfortunately, I had none.
The term “recovery” is a loaded one for concussion survivors. We count the months since the event with the attentiveness of a prisoner marking time on the walls of their cell; we look to survivors further along their healing paths with anxious, hopeful eyes, pleading with them to tell us they’re fully recovered and what their magic cure was. We live in dread that we will not recover the parts of ourselves that were lost when we were injured. We crave certainty when nothing in life is truly certain.
There will come a day perhaps when we lose count of the months passing, when we stop comparing ourselves to others. Maybe we will begin to feel a subtle shift in our attitude towards our injury that doesn’t focus exclusively on “full recovery” but instead on “healing”. Like life, healing is a journey rather than a destination, a process rather than a result.
Maybe we can slowly begin to back away from that big hole at the centre of our lives, the concussion that has taken so much away from us and has become our chronic preoccupation: resenting it, fearing it, identifying with it. We can allow the good things in our lives to continue to have importance and not get swallowed up by the pain we feel.
Does switching out of “full recovery” thinking mean we are giving up on ever being recovered? No. Accepting that we are on a healing journey with others who can help will remove pressure from the brain, which creates the most favourable conditions for recovery.
What do we do in between appointments with members of our health team, those skilled healers who bring relief for our painful symptoms and reassurance for our troubled minds?
I know I often leaned heavily on them, gobbling up every word and piece of advice, desperate for good news about my condition. I also wanted to experience the same feeling of knowledgeable comfort outside of office visits, when doubts crept in.
I explored the idea of being my own therapist, of re-imagining the pleasurable or meaningful activities of my daily living as actually therapeutic. An hour in the garden, a walk around the neighbourhood, peeling carrots for supper—I visualized each task as just as important to my healing as ninety minutes with a physiotherapist, doing dizzying balance exercises.
A learned skill, self-healing is one that can transform our lives, even if we are not injured. It removes the pressure of deadlines and accommodates the slower pace the brain needs to heal. When we are not in a rush, we notice amazing things and make true progress in our learning and healing.
The movement practice of NIA (short for neuro-integrative muscular activity) introduced me to the concept of self-healing through acts of kindness to the self and especially to the body, which may be feeling left out with all the attention typically given to the brain after a concussion. In the NIA philosophy, “Learning to perform acts of self-kindness comes from tracking ‘feel good’ sensations. When you foster self-healing through acts of kindness you naturally become more proactive and in control of outcomes. You replace the attitude of, ‘My shoulder is hurting,’ to one of, ‘I am healing my shoulder.’” (Debbie Rosas, co-founder of NIA)
This shift in how we speak and think about our injury and its effect on our lives does not deny the presence of pain and sadness, but it can help to empower us when we feel powerless. During my healing, I reframed my most persistent complaint from “I’m having a bad day with lots of concussion symptoms” to “This is a good day to focus on self-healing.” I also began to redefine my relationship to fear when I changed “I am feeling anxiety” to “I’m learning to be a calm person.” This language shift helped me see my task as part of a process, one that might take a long time.
Like learning, healing can be a lengthy process, and one whose timeline is not usually knowable. A nurse acquaintance of mine points to the dangers of “prescribed” recovery times for major illness. Telling a patient who’s had major abdominal surgery that they’ll be fine in six weeks, when in many people’s experience, the healing can actually take up to a year, can itself be a major setback when the patient still feels lousy after six months. “There needs to be more truth-telling about recovery times,” says my wise friend.
I felt intense relief when an acquaintance confided in me that it was fully five years before she felt well after her two concussions; it felt like I was finally hearing the truth after months of uncertainty. Giving myself permission to contemplate a longer recovery time relieved the pressure I had been putting on myself to heal quickly. It was a great gift.
The value of a cognitive function test:
If you’re not sure which part(s) of your brain was affected by your injury, it is worth taking a test that measures your cognitive efficiency in several areas—these may include visual, verbal, motor speed, reaction time, and impulse control. Sports medicine doctors are usually well-versed in administering this computerized test which, while it shouldn’t be used as the only source of information about someone’s level of brain function, can certainly help to pinpoint which parts of the brain need help.
The doctor who gave me this test, one I had never met before, wisely didn’t ask me ahead of time what my profession was; in looking at my results, she noticed a particularly low score in the verbal and visual processing areas (I am a highly visual learner and comfortable in several languages). She then asked me what I did for a living—when I answered “I’m an English professor,” she laughed, and said “Now we know which parts of your brain need work!” This information about the part of my brain that had been affected by concussion was a huge relief and ended months of struggling to understand why I didn’t feel at all like myself.
What we see when we slow down
Since I was too dizzy to drive or ride my bicycle in the weeks after my concussion, I began walking. Just around my own neighbourhood at first—even small trips to the drugstore or post office seemed like epic outings when my brain was crowded with symptoms.
You see a whole lot more when you’re walking than via any other mode of transportation. It invites you to experience your five senses in ways not usually available in our regular lives.
On my walks, I noticed how the lavender plant in my neighbour’s front garden bloomed beautifully all summer long. With her permission, I would stop and pluck a couple of strands from its large bushy cushion and rub them between my fingers every time I passed by. The scent on my fingers was like medicine for my nerves (I learned later that lavender oil is used as a sleep aid and general calming agent).
Returning from walks, and not wanting to go back inside just yet, I would visit the garden, a sanctuary of calm which provided me with many delightful flavours to collect by hand all summer long, especially berries.
The slow, unhurried action of berry picking gave my brain a simple and undemanding task that became a pleasure in its productive repetition: the same hand motion, finger grasping berry, container slowly filling with fruit. Just enough stimulation of the visual centre not to overwhelm, but satisfy.
It was astonishing to me how pleasurable such small manual tasks became in my shrunk-down, post-concussion world.
Being, not doing
One of the changes I noticed in myself after my accident was how intensely I experienced emotions and how exaggerated they often seemed: seeing a bumblebee land on a flower could send me into a state of blissful happiness while hearing a mother speak harshly to her child in the grocery store threw me into tearful despair. My nervous system felt as tightly strung as a violin; one strong pluck would snap the instrument in half. I felt the need to sequester myself from sources of emotional stimulation—no radio or television news, no newspapers, limited interactions with people. It was a pretty monastic existence, and one that felt strangely detached from time, as I had little contact with goings-on in the outside world.
Here’s a hard thing about concussion: when you can’t think, you’re left with only feeling. Raw, unfiltered emotion comes pouring down on you in waves, and you have to learn to roll with those waves or get knocked over with each fresh assault.
Because you don’t get to do much while you’re healing from a concussion, you become by default a master of just being. Abiding, would be a good word. Through this process, many of us learn that full acceptance of the awfulness of our situation, rather than resistance to it, may be the key to recovery.
We learn by repeated experience that our emotions are impermanent, but our spirit is not. I remember standing in my backyard, sick with vertigo, exhausted from lack of sleep, with my feet immersed in the cool water of my two-year-old’s wading pool, unable to move and weighed down with despair.
|Photo Credit: Zsilenty|
The Power of Gratitude
How often in my life have I wished that I were a different sort of person, a person who “lives in the moment”, someone not in the habit of overthinking. During my healing, I became that person for a while when I lost my ability to think. In some ways, it was incredibly freeing: life pared down to its essentials. Getting up in the morning, having a shower, and making breakfast without feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, being able to navigate the grocery store with its noise and bright lights and crowded aisles…I counted all these moments as small triumphs when they finally came.
As I was able to let more and more of the world back into my life, I knew my brain was healing. I learned to trust its pace, though of course I wished it might be faster, and imagined all the complicated rewiring it was busily doing to allow me to complete more and more complex tasks. I thanked it for knowing all about synapses and neurons, and for its technical expertise in getting me back online. I couldn’t imagine working on such a complicated computer myself, and yet I was indeed doing so by giving my brain time and space and encouragement to complete the work on my behalf. I learned to stop judging it and began to cherish it as I would a loved one struggling under incredible difficulties.
Treating our wonderful brains with respect, gratitude, even a touch of awe is a healing practice. Though it’s hard to believe when we feel broken, we are always complete, whole, and enough.
You’ve likely heard it said that it is very hard to feel angry, resentful and bitter when we feel grateful. Focusing on the things that are going right in our lives will train our brains to notice good things even when we feel overwhelmed with negatives. Keep a gratitude journal or find a friend who texts, and send each other your gratitudes each morning for three months. Notice any shifts in your outlook after a few weeks of this practice. Gratitudes can be as simple as “I am grateful for warmer weather,” or “I am grateful for leftovers in the fridge so I don’t have to cook today.”
When I was healing from my concussion, I also began a daily “What Ifs?” practice: before getting out of bed each morning, I would allow myself to envision three positive scenarios for the day ahead, things like “What if I don’t have as many concussion symptoms today?” “What if I have more energy?” “What if my kid gets out the door to school without a struggle?” This practice allowed my brain to consider the possibility that my life circumstances could in fact change for the better over time, allowing it to relax its habitual negativity bias.
Healing from a concussion takes a huge amount of energy; we feel exhausted most of the time, and what little energy we have usually goes to survival-level tasks such as feeding and clothing ourselves and our families, going to work (if we’re back), and basic coping skills. Many of us give up the things we used to do that brought fun and meaning to our lives, that brought us into contact with our higher selves. And yet, it is critically important not to lose sight of the spiritual dimension of our lives while we are healing. The spirit allows us to see the big picture—life is good—in the minutiae of details and scheduling that make up our post-injury lives, all the restrictions and planning that we need to do to get through the day.
Reading bedtime stories to my little boy, I sometimes noticed “I’m not here” as I felt myself drifting away on the river of self-preoccupation that often comes with health challenges. To change the focus and remain present with him and the activity that we both loved, I began to concentrate on the beautiful illustrations in his books, picking out one whimsical detail on each page, or noticing the colours and textures of the pictures that the artist had carefully created.
I did the same thing when I was in the garden, and yet not really in the garden. Focusing on minute details: picking a slug off a lettuce leaf, reaching through brambles for that one ravishingly ripe raspberry, helped me focus my mind on small joys and attainable victories.
Rediscovering the wonder in small things was one of the gifts of my healing journey. I invite you to begin noticing your own small wonders, too.
Thank you for being our guest this week, Elizabeth. Best of luck in your writing journey!
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