Monday, February 28, 2011

An Interesting Approach to Developing Resilience

A few days ago, I received an intriguing offer, one that's quite relevant to this blog's central subject – resilience in its differing forms. It's for a bestselling book by Dr. Judith Orloff called Emotional Freedom.

Resilience comes in many flavors. What helps one person go on to a fulfilling life despite grief or tragedy may not necessarily work for another. One bereaved parent may find solace in religion and spirituality, while another process her loss by creating art, composing music, or writing stories, a novel, or a memoir. One person who’s experienced trauma such as a terror attack or a violent crime may turn to philosophy to try and make meaning from the horror; another may embrace social action. I’ve been examining here what works for me – including writing this blog! and I’m also very interested in what works for others.

In my psychotherapy practice, I treat people who are facing difficulties such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder, using cognitive-behavioral (CBT) and mindfulness-based therapies. The two approaches are quite different, but complement each other. CBT helps people to break unhelpful patterns of thinking and behaving, and to develop more realistic and helpful ones, while mindfulness teaches people to accept their inner experiences – whether these be thoughts, emotions, or physical sensations – in a curious, non-judgmental way. Some of what these approaches have in common is that both teach their adherents not to dwell on negative thinking, and to pay attention to the positive aspects of their lives. I’ve seen the results over and over – and, in fact, both kinds of therapy have been supported by empirical research – as client after client has developed what might be called their “resilience muscles.”

Dr. Orloff, a well-known psychiatrist who teaches at UCLA, has created her own unique method for developing resilience based on a synthesis of conventional medicine, energy medicine, and spirituality. Although its sounds very different from what I practice, some of its elements are quite similar to those of CBT (such as naming and facing what one fears) and of mindfulness (such as learning to be in the moment).

If such an approach interests you, you can get a taste from several videos that have been posted on YouTube. Here are a few:

Overcoming Negativity – Parts 1 and 3 of 3

Four Questions to Transform Fear

What is Your Emotional Type?

How to Stop Absorbing Others’ Energy

Emotional Freedom lays out Dr. Orloff's method in accessible and clear form and language, and has received very positive reviews in magazines such as Publisher’s Weekly. It’s now coming out in paperback; books may be purchased together with the special offer I received, which I’m reproducing verbatim:


UPLIFTING NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER BY Judith Orloff MD (in paperback now!)

Judith Orloff MD, a UCLA psychiatrist, presents her unique approach for viewing emotions as a path to spiritual and intuitive awakening. You'll learn how to stop absorbing other people's negativity and how to stay calm instead of reacting when your buttons get . Synthesizing neuroscience and intuitive/energy medicine, this book liberates you from fear—and the emotional vampires who suck you dry.

Purchase book plus get your "Embrace Joy" gift collection at

Full disclosure: I haven’t yet read the book, but I have seen the videos, and Dr. Orloff’s approach does look very interesting. So I’m sharing with you the opportunity to check it out.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Poems of Disappointed Love, in English Translation

I've noticed that many readers have been interested in my post about the poems Timora wrote in 1997, when she was in remission from leukemia and fell in love for the first and only time. Sadly, her love turned out to be unrequited.

I posted the original Hebrew poems here; these are the poems as I translated them into English in my memoir:

May 31
It’s easy to say: “He’s found another?
It’s nothing, I’ll just move on,
I’ll not think about him any longer,
It’s not really so bad that he’s gone.”
It’s easy to say: “This is truly silly,
There are plenty of others around,
And he and I in any event
Wouldn’t find any real common ground.”
It’s easy to say, it’s easy to speak,
If there’s one thing I have it’s my words.
So why, when it’s time to put them to use,
Do I cry, though I know it’s absurd?

August 24
I don’t push
Don’t stand out
Don’t stand on my rights,
Don’t invent witty comebacks
Only stand
And suffer
And absorb
And miss out
Afraid to be a bother
Afraid to be judged
Self-confidence – about zero
Slowly disappearing
Melding into the wall.
If I only had the courage
Just for a tiny moment
To raise my head
To look straight ahead
And say:
“I’m here”…

October 26
She hasn’t loved him
For some time,
Nothing remains from that old
And the fire has been quenched,
And the flame is dead,
And with it hope,
They’re all gone.
And with them
The glittering, blinding light saved
For the knight on the white horse.
But every time they meet each other
By chance, on the street,
Her heart fills with pain,
As if pierced
By a white-hot arrow.

Resilient as she was, Timora dealt with her disappointment by throwing herself into
a whirl of normal-life pursuits. But she never did get the chance to "find another" and experience the joy of a real, mutual romantic relationship. Somehow, this is one of the most wrenching of my many losses as a bereaved parent.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Love Poems and Life-Force

I’ve been writing a great deal about resilience. So far I’ve reflected on what has contributed toward my own and other peoples’ ability to go on living full and even happy lives in spite of tragedy or overwhelming hardship; I haven’t yet touched here on Timora’s amazing resilience, although there's a great deal about it in my memoir.

As I wrote in my last post, Timora was a true writer, so it’s not surprising that the exuberant life-force that enabled her to bounce back from the extreme hardship she experienced in her young life is reflected in her poetry. These are my translations of the poems she wrote when she fell in love for the first, and only, time in her life, in the spring of 1997. She was in remission from her leukemia after two and a half years of intensive treatment and debilitating side effects – several months of concentrated chemotherapy, her first bone marrow transplant, and the Graft-Versus-Host-Disease that resulted from the transplant. She told me, when she came home from the Scouts trip where she met the boy, “I feel like I’ve gotten a glimpse of how life can be when I’m not sick – of the things I’ve been missing until now. Now I know there’s a whole world waiting for me, if I only decide to go out there and join it." And so she did.

The Hebrew originals can be found here.

April 4
Purity of childhood
Innocence of youth
The truest, the best, the rightest
Thing of all
Won’t fit into a rigid frame
Of rules
Soul touching body
Childish, naïve
And so
Angels’ touch
Bringing together thrilled
And amazed souls
Who discover
The truest thing
The most beautiful thing

April 17
How dark it all was,
Despair, fear, loneliness
Feeling like a third wheel in this world,
How the light came suddenly,
Hand and smile, innocent touch, love-giving
And it all changed,
Can do it all.

April 20
I wake in the morning –
You float into my head.
Go to sleep,
With your name on my lips.
You are everywhere,
Fill me,
Do you also think of me?

Any bereaved parent will tell you that remembering their children through what they left behind is one of the most important - if bittersweet - ways of moving toward healing from their deep grief. I feel especially blessed that by turning her inner life into written words Timora left us so much of herself, and in such a beautiful form.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Writing and Resilience

In one of my first posts since renewing this blog, Grieving and Sharing, I wrote about how reaching out to others who are experiencing (or have experienced) loss or other kinds of hardship has been healing for me. Writing my memoir, of course, is one of the ways I've done this, as is (for that matter) writing this blog.

I find writing to be one of the most effective ways of processing the traumas, surprises, and puzzles life has thrown my way over the years. But writing is more than therapeutic for me - the artistic process of transforming the bare facts of "what happened" into stories that can affect others satisfies a deep creative need. I neglected this need during the long period when I was developing my career(s) and raising my family. But in the past couple of years I've been catching up - participating in writers' workshops as well as one retreat and a year-long course, writing short fiction and creative non-fiction based (so far) on my own life. Part of me is terrified that after And Twice the Marrow of Her Bones there won't be any more - that my creativity has dried up - but I'm determined not to give up. In this, Timora is my role model.

Timora was very gifted in several branches of the arts - notably theater and music - but above all she was a writer. She wrote and wrote, no matter how ill, tired, or discouraged she felt, all the way up to the week before she entered the ICU for the last time. She had an extraordinary ability to take her experience of life and put it down on paper gracefully, beautifully, and movingly. She began to seriously develop her writing - especially her poetry - in ninth grade, when she was still suffering from the side effects of her first bone marrow transplant. The first really serious poem she wrote expressed, passionately but at the same time wistfully, her take on her life at that time:

I might have been now
A tranquil girl, with a smile on her face,
And not perpetually cross.
A serene and confident girl,
Who doesn’t fear every shadow.
I might have been now
A regular schoolgirl,
And a girl who returns home from school
With quick, light steps,
Without arriving panting and in pain.
I might have
Joined all the trips and camps
I missed and will go on missing.
Slept at night, with pleasant dreams,
Made peace with myself – no one’s perfect.
I might have
Had friends
Who come to my home and host me at theirs,
And all could have been self-evident,
And clear, that I truly deserve this.
I might have had something to do with my life,
Accepted love from my sisters
And finally stopped weeping
And have been fourteen and five months.
I might

(The Hebrew original can be found here.)

I'm sure that Timora's ability to give creative expression to her inner life is part of what made her so resilient. If I find myself only half as able as Timora was to transform the stuff of life - whether it be grief, joy, fear, or wisdom - into art, I'll be eternally grateful.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Hebrew Poems: Timora's Last

I've just posted Timora's last two poems, which she wrote just before her second bone marrow transplant, a bit more than a year before she died. It's hard to believe she wrote them only a week apart, they are so radically different. Although translations of both can be found, each in a different place, on my original blog, I'm reproducing them below, together.

They speak for themselves:

You’ve imprisoned me in a cold dark room
And I can neither stand nor sit
And my lying is uneasy
Hard and restless
And I cry –
Let me out
Or let me stand,
Or rest at least, or take away the cold
And if you can’t,
Open up a little crack
So I’ll know –
The world still contains a little light.
(November 5, 1999)

And why.
Why live.
Fight, struggle.
Why pull and pull like a wretched, miserable beast –
For what.
In loneliness, in darkness, in the cold.
How much have I asked, and how much will I ask
And I am not the only one
Not only when sorrow blinds the eyes like a veil of tears.
But within me I know
And sometimes, like a flame
The answer blazes before me –
(November 12, 1999)

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Review and Revision

Today I opened a new page that will contain excerpts from and links to reviews of my memoir. So far there have been two reviews, both very positive, and several more will appear in April, including in Lilith Magazine.

It's interesting to notice which aspects of the book different reviewers pick up on. The Jewish Press review, which appeared today, for example, emphasized themes connected with Judaism, and my struggle with my faith in light of life's cruelties. Perhaps not surprisingly for a publication with an almost exclusively observant readership, it portrays my views and feelings connected with this very difficult subject as more Orthodox than they are - one might say the review "revises" my attitudes just a bit - which only goes to show just how complex and highly charged these questions are.

I invite you to visit the new page, and the reviews it lists.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

R&B and Resilence

I first met Angela Bofill in seventh grade, when we both sang soprano in Hunter College High School’s Junior Chorus. “Both” is actually a funny word to use, because there was never really any comparing us. Angela was a wunderkind of a singer. When the chorus performed a few songs from Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Mikado,” Angela belted out Yum-Yum’s signature solo, “The Sun Whose Rays Are All Ablaze,” in a pure, rich voice it was almost impossible to believe originated in a twelve-year-old body.

I continued to dabble in music throughout high school – singing and playing the flute, doing well in my music classes and at the Third Street Music School – but in fits and starts, never mustering the self-discipline to make of myself anything other than a talented amateur. During those same years, Angela was moving full steam ahead into what was clear to everyone would be a successful singing career. In school, she started and starred in a group she called the “Puerto Rican Supremes;” outside school she became increasingly involved first in semiprofessional, then professional performance.

In twelfth grade, I had a let’s-get-serious-about music period and began bringing my flute to school every day. Angela noticed, and invited me into an instrumental improvisation group she was forming, together with Elaine Yoneoka (guitar) and Jane Levy (recorder). She was the group’s soul, providing both the ideas (I remember best playing a piece by the French impressionist composer Erik Satie that morphed, as we improvised, into jazz) and a solid body for our music as she played her heart out on the piano.

I lost track of Angela right after high school, but the advent of Google enabled me to check out her career trajectory. As we’d all expected, she became a professional singer, and amassed a fiercely loyal following. She recorded several albums, and was one of the first Latina singers to succeed in the Rhythm-and-Blues world; one of her songs made it to the top ten on the R&B charts. Her career peaked in the 1980s, but she continued to perform, record, and tour the United States as well as Europe in multi-artist jazz concerts. She even branched out into theater, appearing in several plays – including the intriguingly titled God Don’t Like Ugly.

Disaster struck in 2006, when Angela suffered a stroke that paralyzed her left side. To make matters worse, she didn’t have health insurance at the time. Her fans, friends, family, and fellow musicians stepped up and contributed, though, and celebrities held benefit concerts to pay her medical bills. She began physical and speech therapy and seemed on her way to recovering when, a year and a half later, a second massive stroke cut her down once again, and she lost whatever ability she’d regained to speak – and, of course, to sing.

When I read this news, I tried to imagine what it would be like to be Angela. To have spent most of my life singing, performing, doing the only thing I’d ever wanted to do, only to have my voice taken from me – and twice, at that. Many times, as I sang in my talented-but-amateur way for my own or others’ pleasure, I thought how hard it would be for me to lose that relatively small source of joy, and suspected that in Angela’s place I’d have sunk into depression and despondency, perhaps even lost my will to live.

I was wrong. Not necessarily about myself – thank God, there’s been no occasion for me to find out how I’d react to that kind of disaster (though Timora’s death has shown me that I can ultimately stand up to devastating loss). But about Angela, who's proved to be almost unbelievably resilient.

As it turns out, she did become seriously depressed after the first stroke hit, and after the second seemed to have given up on music. But with the encouragement of her manager and colleagues, she’s pulled herself out of the depths and begun performing again – without her voice.

She’s now appearing in a series of sold-out shows called the Angela Bofill Experience. The band – including the legendary flutist Dave Valentin – accompanies the young singer Maysa as she performs Angela’s hits. Angela sits on stage and tells stories in the broken speech that she’s once again, with hard work and determination, recovered. Most amazingly, she laughs. Two weeks ago, she told the Washington Post’s DeNeen Brown that in early 2006 her career was faltering. “I asked God: ‘Give me break.’ … That’s when stroke hit. Next time, God, maybe another break.” She joked about her hobbled syntax: “Me, Tarzan. You Jane.” And even about the stroke itself: “Only good thing I lose weight. A stroke diet. It works!” She calls herself a “sitting-down comic.”

I’m in awe of Angela. Not just for her talent, as I was forty years ago when she was already a serious musician and I was just playing at music, but for her courage and fortitude. She's another example of the kind of person I wrote about in my earlier post, Humor and Resilience, and gives me additional reason to believe that these two priceless qualities are inextricably entwined. Add to her playful humor a real passion for her art, and the love and support of those she cares for and who care for her, and you've got a good start on a recipe for resilience. I wish her health, strength, and the continued love of those around her. May she always be able to laugh in the face of potentially devastating loss.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Who are you?

The stats for this blog show me that I have readers in countries where I don't know anyone personally - places like Russia Brazil, Canada, and most of Europe.

I would love to hear from readers I don't know personally. I invite you to leave a comment telling me where you're from and how you came to read my blog.

And, as I've told my readers who are also friends and family, I'd love to read any comment you may have on the blog's content. Part of my reason for writing it is to reach out, so please feel free to stretch your own hand out in return.

(Friends and family, I'd still love to hear from you, of course.)

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Two More Hebrew Poems: Cautious Hope

I've added two more of Timora's poems in the original Hebrew, written a little more than half a year before she died. Each poem, in its own way, is cautiously hopeful. The first describes a night spent praying; the very fact that she was still pouring her heart out to God tells me that she still believed it was possible He would grant her wish. She wrote the second soon after performing in her theater class's last production, when her life seemed to be taking a turn for the better.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Grief and Gratitude

Grief and gratitude? Bereavement and thankfulness? Aren’t those contradictions in terms? I don’t think there’s a simple answer to that question. But I do believe that being able to be grateful for the good in life – even in the face of overwhelming loss – is a great part of what makes a person resilient.

Just about everyone enjoys having a reason to be thankful, whether for some kind of material well-being or for an emotional or spiritual comfort. I am certainly no exception; a difficult childhood taught me that I should never take what I have for granted. And I have so much. A good marriage, wonderful children, the incredible bonus of grandchildren, a close relationship with my sister and her son – it goes without saying that I thank God every day for my family. Friendship, attractive clothes, plentiful and nourishing food, comfortable shelter – even living in a small enough place to be able to enjoy the beauty and quiet of Nature whenever I have the time and the inclination – all these are incredible gifts.

Beyond the things I count as blessings, I’ve always loved the feeling of thankfulness – the visceral warmth that fills me when I reflect on the good in my life. I’ve found it to be an impressive antidote to the frustration, care, and worry. When I was the mother of five young children who populated an age range of just seven years, I sometimes – OK, I’ll admit it, often – felt as if my strength was giving out. Two of the girls, say, would be fighting, while a third was wandering through our three small rooms scattering a mixture of different puzzle pieces, a fourth climbing up the kitchen counter in order to get at the fruit I was saving for after dinner, and the fifth urgently needing to have her diaper changed. At times like this, taking a breath and remembering (for example) that I was lucky to conceive and bear children as easily as I could, would give me strength to go on, at least until the next crisis.

Even while our family was dealing with the myriad challenges posed by Timora’s leukemia, I was able to find reasons to be grateful. Timora’s doctor was outstanding, both professionally and as a human being. We belonged to a community that showered us with concern, emotional support, and any material help we needed. I even appreciated the fact that having a daughter with cancer simplified my priorities – if it was my day to take her to the hospital, it was clear that that was what I was doing that day, whatever other tasks awaited me at home or at work.

So you can imagine what a shock it was when my capacity for thankfulness seemed to disappear after Timora died. I couldn’t say “thank you” for anything. Grief and gratitude simply could not co-exist.

As I moved toward healing, my ability to be grateful returned – and expanded to embrace aspects of my life that I’d never thought of as candidates for conscious appreciation. Having had my existence turned upside down for so many years, I began to savor the small routines that, without thinking about it, I’d taken for granted before Timora became ill, and which were shattered after she died. As I wrote more than six years ago in the journal that makes up the second part of my memoir :

In the past few weeks, I’ve finally started feeling that the rhythm of our family’s life is starting to return to normal, and that I’m in synch with that rhythm. The children are now busy with their own lives – school and friends and after-school activities. Don has his own career and interests. And on a day like today, I can go to work and be fully engaged in what I do there. I can come home and take a nap, and feel good about doing something for myself. I can sit and read and feel that I’m not wasting time – I’m just spending it pleasantly. And I can be with whichever members of my family are at home or on the other end of the phone line, and just enjoy them. Now, that is something to be truly thankful for.”

My capacity for gratitude has continued to grow, and recently has entered a new phase. Now, I spend some time almost every day actively seeking things to appreciate. I do this when some part of my life seems not to be working out as I’d like it to – something hurts, for example, or I feel I’m not making enough progress with a client, or there’s no train service to Tel Aviv just when I wanted to visit my grandchildren – and it gives me a sense of proportion, reminds me what’s really important. But sometimes I spend time cultivating thankfulness for its own sake, just for the fun of it.

If you think about it, there’s no end of things to be grateful for. I sometimes scan my body, going through every one of its limbs and organs – even each bone – and thank God they’re all whole and working properly; and that I have access to excellent health care when they're not. I can sit and savor my relationships with family, friends, and colleagues. I have my mental health – I’m not depressed, bipolar, or psychotic, and I don’t suffer from OCD, panic, or any other anxiety disorder (I count each one separately), or an eating disorder, or anything else in the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual. I have the strength to walk and close friends to walk with regularly. I work at a job I love. I live in a democracy, and enjoy a high degree of personal security. My marriage wasn’t arranged for me, and being a woman has not in the least limited my freedom or opportunities. I can go even further – no one is forcing me to work in a blood-diamond mine, I wasn’t sold into sex slavery at the age of six, or ten, or sixteen….

You get the picture.

In the end, I believe, my grief has actually sharpened my sense of gratitude. Losing Timora has made me intensely aware of life’s fragility – together with that of just about everything that gives it meaning and brings me pleasure. I could easily go through my days fearing further loss. But instead, I deeply appreciate the blessings that remain with me.

And I thank God for that.