Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Elegy for Lenore

Open closed open. Before we are born, everything is open
in the universe without us. For as long as we live, everything is closed
within us. And when we die, everything is open again.
Open closed open. That’s all we are.
                        —Yehuda Amichai

I love this piece of poetry and I think about it all the time—the way before our existence we are part of the limitless pulse of energy, and how we are returned to it after the short parenthesis that is our individual bounded life. In this vision, death is like a new breath, a universal exhale, a release back into the all.

Lenore Lefer taught me how to die. Which is to say, she taught me and twelve other young women with cancer how to live while dying—which is what we’re all doing, by the way, cancer or no. I met her at a weekend retreat at Commonweal, an extraordinary organization right here in Bolinas, that runs Cancer Support Retreats, which integrate the best comprehensive knowledge on healing, from cutting-edge medical research to supportive nutrition and techniques for stress reduction. The center does advocacy work on the links to carcinogens in the environment. But when one is there for a retreat, their work is utterly different: to coax you out of your shell of grief and shock, to appeal to what you most want your life to be about, and by helping you envision it, to bring it in to being, for whatever time you have.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Lilith, the Uncanny

When I was asked to contribute an essay to the SFMOMA blog, Open Space, in conjunction with the exhibition Beyond Belief (which is being shown at the Contemporary Jewish Museum through October 27), they told me I could focus on any single artwork of my choosing. The exhibition includes iconic works by Mark Rothko, Wassily Kandinsky, Alberto Giacometti, and many other celebrated modern and contemporary artists, any of which would be compelling to linger on in detail. But for me, the choice was immediate. Around the corner of the very first gallery, you encounter a startling presence: you come eye to eye with a woman hanging upside-down. The uncanny presence of Lilith.

Uncanny is the right word for her: from the German unheimliche, uncanny means the opposite of what is familiar, the flipside of home. We use the term to describe something that is supernatural or eerie, but the root of it contains a duality--it connotes an object or experience that is both foreign and intimately recognizable at the same time. Dej√† vu can be an uncanny experience; we think "I've never been here before" but "somehow, I've been here before."

Lilith is like that, since she is not named in the biblical text of Genesis, but haunts our tradition nonetheless. Absent more than present, she is a great instance of how what is not said in the text can generate as many meanings as what is said.

She is also intrinsically Jewish--a combined product of scholarly exegesis and folkloric superstition. As Aviva Cantor Zuckoff put it in a seminal 1976 article reclaiming Lilith: "No non-Jewish source tells of a female struggle for equality or gives it as a reason for the vengeful behavior of a female demon. This is especially important to us in exploring how the Lilith myth connects with our unique history."

This coming Shabbat, the day after Simhat Torah, when we roll the Torah scroll back to the beginning, to begin the beginning again, we'll read Genesis 1, from which Lilith derives. All through Genesis, we are presented with alternate branches of the family tree--Lot, Ishmael, Esau--the other side of the family that is related to us, but is not us. As Adam's co-creation, woman before Eve, Lilith is the first instance of this concept of the road not taken, the shadowy counterpart, the unspoken alternative. 

Reading "In the beginning..." and "Let there be..." and "it was good..." all for the umpteenth time, can we not be lulled by the familiarity of the passage, but rather look at it from the perspective of the uncanny? Where is the shock of the strange? How can it be a signpost of forgotten possibilities? 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Shiva: Being Present With Loss

I was twenty-eight years old when I attended my first shiva. I pulled up outside the house, a typical suburban house in Encino, now transformed, as though a giant neon arrow were blazing forth “House of Mourning!” or as if the figure of Death, in full noir regalia and holding a sickle, were poised on the roof like a Halloween decoration. I sat in my car a long time, trying to work up the nerve to go in. I couldn’t do it alone. Wasn’t I intruding on the intimate life of a family in their most vulnerable moment of loss? How should I behave? What could I possibly say?

The house belonged to the parents of my friend, Joel. His brother, Jordan, a shy, funny, recent graduate of dental school, with whom Joel had waged the most intense Scrabble showdowns I have ever seen—replete with chess timer and multiple 7-letter words—was the person who had died. He had committed suicide.

While the home was indeed a scene of unimaginable grief—Joel’s mother crying “my baby! my baby!”—the experience of shiva, both that night and for the several following that I persisted in attending, was nothing less than life changing. The house was full to overflowing with people. Platters of food balanced precariously on every available surface. The family, their eyes hollowed out by pain, were not expected in any way to host or to do anything to receive their guests. Joel seemed buoyed by the crowd, but when I hugged him, he was shaking with tears inside. Friends sat together for hours, talking and remembering Jordan, regretting his suffering as he struggled with depression, and laughing through tears at funny memories. It was transformative because it taught me that being present with people in their pain is not some caricature of utter darkness, it opens you to extremes of tenderness, love, rage—an all-embracing panorama of emotions. The whole cosmos in a tear.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Why I Hike (aka Thinking Before Pinking)

One of the major paradoxes of the public discourse around breast cancer is that there are so many awareness campaigns and precious little actual awareness. I will admit that did not know before being diagnosed that chemo renders young women infertile—a devastating dimension of loss for many—or that hormone treatments that deprive the body of estrogen go on for five or ten years. Or that breast cancer that spreads beyond the breast is not curable.

When we see taxis, frying pans, cosmetics, even NFL players’ cleats swathed in bubble-gum tones, one could be forgiven for thinking that breast cancer is “no big deal” anymore. That we’ve got it all solved. A pink ribbon like a badge of honor over your lumpectomy scar, some sisterhood cheers and we’re all good. I’ve heard a few people say, “No one dies from breast cancer anymore.”

But there you’d be wrong. Forty thousand women in the U.S. die from breast cancer every year. That’s more than the entire population of the town I grew up in. That’s more than the undergraduate enrollment at the very large UC campuses I attended. That’s many thousands more than total automobile fatalities or gun deaths each year (both statistics hover around 33,000). It’s more than the 38,000 suicides that constitute a major public health crisis. And this 40,000 represents almost entirely women. From where I sit, it feels like a plague.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

L'Dor V'Dor

This week was Nathan’s ninth birthday, and what he wanted to do on that Tuesday morning, the last day before the start of school, was to go to open a bank account. He’s been saving his allowance, afikoman prize money, and birthday-card dollar bills since kindergarten and now he was excited to start a real bank account with an even $100. He broke open his froggy bank (froggy, not piggy, in our house), I relieved him of about $20 worth of parking-meter coins, and we set off on foot to the Wells Fargo a few blocks away on Geary.

As we walked, I had an intense memory of the first time I opened my own bank account, at a similar age, with all my savings. I was with my mother in a large-windowed, midcentury bank in Palm Springs, looking down at the brown, lattice-print carpet as I waited impatiently in line with my change and crumpled bills. I loved watching the teller count it all and meticulously enter the numbers in my savings book. She asked me what I was saving for, and I very earnestly said, “college.” I didn’t understand why she laughed hard when I said that; it was perfectly true.

Nathan was just as full of anticipation and giddy while handing over his “own” money to the teller. I thought it was great that the thing he wanted most for his birthday was not a gift, but this experience of relishing a new sense of maturity. But the most poignant thing about it for me was this perception of the two dimensions of time: watching your child do things that you did yourself at their age, that you can remember with every scent and tactile detail, must be counted as one of the greatest pleasures of being a parent.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Two Realities

Birkat Ha-Gomel, pronounced at the time of an aliyah to the Torah, is a blessing that one may recite after recovering from childbirth or from a serious illness, or upon returning from a long journey. After both my children were born, it was significant to me to come to synagogue and “bench gomel” to acknowledge the intense joy of bearing a healthy infant and not having had any complications. The way that the blessing links recovery from illness and returning from a long trip (while I don’t think jet lag quite rises to the same level of challenge as giving birth) is perceptive in that any process of healing is a journey, one in which each person hopes to “cross over” back into the realm of health.

If someone is undergoing heart surgery, once they are “in the clear” it might be time to take them off the Misheberach list, and a chance to bench gomel, but what happens with cancer? There is rarely a definable end-point. The sense of being “in the clear” is both elusive and deceptive.

Just as I haven’t known how to answer the question, sometimes explicitly or implicitly posed to me or to Micah, of when one should stop saying the Misheberach for me, I have not been able to come to shul to bench gomel. The disease is not “over,” and it is hard to know when it might be possible to acknowledge a return to wellness.

Likewise, I let my blog go silent for a long time. After chemo ended in September of last year, I had a strong desire to regain some normalcy. I really, really wanted to stop talking about cancer. I also didn’t know how public I wanted to be about my continuing treatment; I hadn’t come to terms with it myself. But ultimately, I think that silence can do more to raise anxiety than to settle it. You can only stifle the truth for so long.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013


“The limitless darkness of the body.” This is what sculptor Antony Gormley talks about when he describes the focus of his work—not form, but space. The space our bodies occupy; the space within us. He recounts the experience as a child of being forced to take a post-lunch “rest” in a tiny, stifling room. He hated it: the heat, the restriction, the oppressive immobility. But he found over time, closing his eyes, sinking into his inner world, a sense of freedom and expansiveness. His external circumstances fell away and he plummeted into the boundless dark of the space behind his eyes.

This is a miraculous description of the power of meditation—not just calm, not just stillness, not even “awareness,” but spaciousness, expansion. Turning within, I am on new terms with my body. A truce of sorts, perhaps.

For we have been on bad terms for some time now—a year and a half of dislocation and distrust. I thought I was doing a good job at treating my body right; instead, all along it was plotting mutiny.

A year and a half of not recognizing oneself—alienating experiences of lost taste and appetite, disrupted sleep patterns, pain of needles, crushing fatigue. The racing heart of anxiety. Disturbing sensations of hot flashes, numb extremities, dulled memory.

Now I am surfacing, washed up on a new shore. For so long I had to remind myself that I was more than a body, that there was yearning and transcendence beyond the dull carapace of sensation. Now I settle back in, reacquainting myself with the new corporeal landscape. With my sit bones on the pillow, light cascading through the east-facing windows of my living room, I close my eyes and plummet down.

I follow the path of my breath as it comes into my nostrils cool, swirls into my belly, then exits warmer and moister. I relax my jaw, slide my shoulder blades downward, try to open my chest. I’m aware of my uneven hips—one starting to limber, the other still clenched.

It is not silent: I hear passing cars, a bird in the plum tree, a voice on a cell phone passing on the sidewalk. But I still sense the resonant quiet that buoys me up, holds me aloft, reminds me that within this damaged terrain there is also peace, light, spaciousness.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Embracing Aging

"I'm trying to make it to one hundred—I really want the party." This from Micah's Grandpa Herb, who informs me when I ask that he is now 95 "and a half." I love that he adds that, sounding more like Theo, a kindergartener, informing me of that extra half year. His family—that is, three kids and their spouses, eight grandkids, and twelve great-grandchildren, among others—threw him a bash for his ninetieth, complete with DJ, and another for his 95th (this one more a brunch) but it's the thought of the festivities in store that Herb says is motivating staying well for the next few years. And there's no reason to think he won't get there. My own grandfather just turned 99; in the summer of 2011 he had a retrospective showing seven decades of his painting, yet he maintained he still had more in store, more conundrums of the canvas to figure out. 

Since then, my mother-in-law Sheila, and my father, Erik, both celebrated their 70th birthdays, while I celebrated my 40th. Each of us tussled with the existential birthday demons that loom largest around those decade markers, like shadowy stalkers hiding behind a street sign. "It's all downhill from here," says my dad, even though that's hardly true; "I've got maybe ten or fifteen good years left, tops, and I want to use them," says Sheila, who's determined to travel, soak up her grandchildren, shop, see things, do it all.

"God, can I really be 40?" I asked, "how is that possible?" We are tentative, we resist moving forward, we bemoan the things we used to do, and the tauter versions of ourselves that used to be.

Then I got breast cancer and I wished like anything that I could just go back to being nervous about my crow's feet. To just be able to walk through the door of my fourth decade, without feeling as if I were being pushed down a chute to a rapidly and radically different body, and an insecure hold on that longevity that, truth be told, I had subconsciously assumed was part of my birthright. Chemotherapy has the headlining side-effects, but long after it's over, the changes associated with all that’s involved in cancer treatment can feel like you've taken the fast train to crones-ville. "It's hard to grow old gracefully," I muttered bitterly, "when it's happening at warp speed."