Sunday, October 02, 2011

Understanding Betsy: A Story

I wrote Understanding Betsy about twenty years ago. In 2007, it received Honorable Mention in an online short story contest.

It's about mothers and daughters, fathers and daughters, and mothers and fathers. I hope it will speak to you.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Going with the Flow on the River Jordan

Last week Daniel and I took a three-night mini-vacation in the northern Galilee. The August heat being what it is in the Holy Land, we concentrated our daytime activities around water: On the way up we stopped to swim in the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee); another day we sat first under a waterfall and, later, in a bubbling natural spring surrounded by fig trees.

Best, for me, was
when we spent about an hour and a half kayaking down the Jordan. Besides being extremely fun, our downstream ride reinforced one of life’s most important lessons: Many of our most intense experiences are kindest to us when we let go and let them take us where they will.

In the place we started, very near the Lebanon border, the Jordan is quite lively even in the summer, many months after the last rains. The water splashes its way swiftly down over rocks and, at one point, a mini-waterfall, tossing and literally turning any object it’s carrying along. Daniel and I had our hands full, paddling and trying to keep the kayak facing forward.

I know Daniel is smiling here and I’m not, but my grimace doesn’t really mean anything other than the sun in my eyes – I really was having a great time. But there’s no mistaking the tension in my hands and arms as I grip the paddle (yes, I know, in the wrong place), doing my best to steer.

Even when the water calmed down, it was all we could do to keep our kayak straight and more or less centered. In fact, it was a losing battle. The water continually brought us to one riverbank, then the other, then back again. Every time we bumped into a rock, a tree trunk, or another kayak – or simply when the current felt like playing with us – our vessel spun around and sent us on our way facing backward – or sideways! – and we’d scramble once again to straighten ourselves.

After about a quarter of an hour of constant effort, I had an epiphany. I turned to Daniel and said, “Why don’t we just see what happens if we stop paddling?” He immediately agreed – and the trip took on a completely new quality.

We lay back, put our feet up, and surrendered to the River Jordan:

Sunlight sparkling on water below and on trees above, alternating with rippling shadow.

Cold splashes on our sun-warmed skin.

Water rushing, treetops whispering, birds conversing, children laughing.

A black-and-white-striped kingfisher darting out and hovering very close to us for a few seconds before disappearing back into the thick foliage.

A buoyancy, a rocking, gentle to the point where it seemed I might fall asleep when the water slowed down, and vigorous enough to get my blood flowing as exuberantly as the river itself when it sped up.

Letting my mind drift here and there, in and out of the physical world.

Truly knowing that there was nowhere I needed to be right then except where I was, in that place, in that moment.

Best of all, time stretched. Doing nothing to actively move ourselves forward, we spent as long on the river as its own pace would allow, which – inevitably – felt much too short.

The Jordan is not deep, and it’s far from wide. But it does offer milk and honey – though not “on the other side,” as a place to be attained, a goal to be reached. The river’s sweetness, for me at least, is in its process – its essence, its very flow.

To be embraced, borne, rocked, and gently taught by the River Jordan – now, that is a true privilege.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Chocolate-Flavored Resilience

What has chocolate got to do with resilience? (You may ask.) I invite you to read on, and see if you agree with my take on this crucial issue.

Chocolate is a wonderful example of the tension that all of us in the modern Western world live with every day – that between pleasure and responsibility. When it comes to chocolate, the “pleasure” part of this dialectic is obvious – everyone (well, almost everyone) loves chocolate. Even better: It’s been discovered that chocolate loves us back, or at least pretends to love us by containing various substances that cause our bodies to release chemicals that make us feel happy and loved.

The “responsibility” side of this tension is not immediately obvious, but it’s very real. It’s composed, really, of two kinds of obligations: to ourselves and our families, on the one hand, and to society on the other. On the personal plane, it’s easy to abuse chocolate as one might abuse any substance. For one thing, we might substitute chocolate for “real” food, thus avoiding our duty to keep ourselves and our children healthy by eating and serving nutritious meals. It’s also possible to use chocolate as an easy way of keeping children quiet – much like plunking them down in front of the television – or of getting them to do what we want, thus avoiding some of our educational obligations toward them.

On the societal level, chocolate is often based on “plantation economies” that exploit, abuse, or even enslave their workers. In addition, some of the larger cocoa plantations were carved out of rain forests, thus contributing to the destruction of ecosystems that are vital to their countries’ – and indeed, the world’s – environmental health, perhaps even survival. Finally, in a hungry world, the land, water and financial resources presently used to make cocoa – a plant without nutritional value – might be better devoted to raising that nourishing food which, if we were really good, we’d be eating instead.

Put this way, it would seem pretty clear that we should act in accordance with personal and social responsibility, and shun what has – despite or perhaps because of its sinful qualities – become a kind of icon of Western culture. The Protestant ethic (which, Jewish as I am, I’ve absorbed together with everyone else in the West) would pretty much unconditionally seem to demand no less.

But I wonder if the very opposition of “pleasure versus duty” is as simple as that. We need to nourish not only our bodies, but our souls as well. An emotionally balanced person knows how to enjoy herself. Overly duty-oriented people tend to be rather grim, and can make their own lives miserable – as well as the lives of everyone around them. Moreover, people forced (whether by others or by their own conscience) to spend all their time tending to their responsibilities tend to get exhausted, thus rendering themselves far less efficient. Injecting enjoyment into our lives can give us the strength, and the good humor, to fulfill our obligations with a smile. If we spread the sunshine, others will also enjoy the lightness of heart to do what they need to do – and to pass the sunshine on.

So pleasure greases the world’s wheels, so to speak. Freud, of course, knew this well, as did the composer(s) of the well-known Jewish folktale in which God temporarily suspended the Yetzer HaRa (the “Evil Inclination,” including our most basic drive to pleasure), which caused life itself to stop.

To take the argument further, recharging our batteries regularly with pleasurable “fuel” can strengthen us not only to do what we need to in our personal lives, but to go beyond the call of immediate duty and work for the greater good, for example by volunteering for organizations working for social justice, or for sustainable development, or for any number of good causes.

I know that I personally am much more effective in my own work helping people who are suffering from depression, anxiety, and trauma when I'm making sure to spend time and energy on myself, doing – including eating! – things that make me feel good. As a matter of fact, I would go so far as to say that my ability to enjoy myself without guilt is one of the gifts God has given me to make me resilient. Put more simply, when I do good stuff for myself, I can bounce back that much more easily when the bad stuff happens.

Finally, life doesn’t have to be all or nothing! We don’t need to choose between Spartanism and Hedonism; we can take our pleasure in moderation. And nowadays the choice between social vice and virtue need not be so sharp, either. For example, one can find lists of “slave-free” chocolate brands, and there are several international organizations now advising cocoa-producers how they can make their farms environmentally sustainable.

So go ahead and eat that (Fair Trade!) chocolate every day. It might just be a mitzvah.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Unblocked, and Grateful

Here’s another entry in my Grief and Gratitude series.

Today I’m planning to submit a short story to a literary journal for possible publication, the one I mentioned in my previous post. I’m very excited about this, partly because finishing a story always moves me, but also because this story is palpable proof that I’ve become unblocked – I can indeed go on writing even after publishing my memoir.

I’ve been writing stories, in fits and starts, since I was six. My first was called “Susan the Clown,” and told the story of a clown whose big, awkward feet saved the day by outrunning the bad guys when her circus was robbed. Since then I’ve had long dry periods, but have come back to writing time and again as a way to process my experience and express my creativity.

While I was writing my original blog, and when I started to transform it into And Twice the Marrow of Her Bones, I was afraid I’d never again be able to write about anything unconnected with my daughter’s death. Then a friend told me about a three-day workshop on writing dialogue that was to be given in my area. Thinking it would help me with the book, I signed up.

Well, it did help with the memoir but, equally important, it showed me that I could still make stuff up – and stuff that had nothing to do with illness or death, at that. Since then I’ve participated in several workshops run by the same program, a writing group, and a regular writing course. These allayed my fear that I'd never write again once the book was out.

Then a new fear replaced my original one: Perhaps I could do writing exercises or even start stories, but I’d never be able to finish an entire story. Worse, all I seemed able to write was fictionalized memoir – stories so closely based on my own experience that I felt they didn’t “count” as fiction. True, one if my stories was accepted for publication in Israel Short Stories, an anthology of short fiction written by English-language writers living in Israel, but I’d written it about twenty years ago and only slightly revised it for submission last year. I was afraid the well of my creativity had dried up.

But for the past several weeks I’ve taken a short memoir that I started in the writing group and transformed it into a story with a completely different protagonist and message, as well as a main plot that I invented. And today I’m submitting it.

In my post Writing and Resilience, I related how writing about Timora’s illness and death has helped me process my traumatic experience, and how writing helped Timora deal with hers. I think that moving forward – beyond my trauma – with my writing is integrally bound up with moving forward in my life; that is, with my resilience.

And I’m truly, truly grateful for that.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Virtual Tour: Reiki and Resilience

Wow, I see it's been two full weeks since I last posted. I've been writing a short story to submit for publication; hopefully it will be accepted and I'll be able to let you know when it actually appears.

In the meantime, the final stop on my virtual book tour for my memoir was Moonlight, Lace, and Mayhem, in which I wrote a guest post on Timora's experience with the Japanese healing technique Reiki. Here's the post:

At the age of twelve, my daughter Timora was diagnosed with leukemia. I’d like to share with you how Reiki, a traditional Japanese healing technique, helped her for a good part of her time in this world, until she left it at the age of eighteen. The story is, I believe, a wonderful example of how body and spirit are intertwined, and how attending to our spiritual side can help us even as we face physical hardship.

Reiki, which means “mysterious atmosphere; spiritual power,” channels healing energy from the spiritual world through a practitioner’s hands into the body of a person who is physically or emotionally suffering. When Edna, the Reiki Master to whom we turned, laid hands on Timora, her pain would decrease, the color would return to her face and lips, and she would relax as she could under no other circumstances. She told me it was if a gentle light was radiating from Edna’s hands and spreading throughout her body. Edna taught her to lay hands on herself between sessions, which relieved not only her pain, but also the depression that would grip her from time to time, and helped her sleep on nights when everything seemed just too much to bear.

No less important than the treatments themselves were the five Reiki Principles that Edna taught Timora to recite every day:

Just for today, I’ll let go of anger.

Just for today, I’ll let go of worry.

Just for today, I’ll be grateful for what I have.

Just for today, I’ll work with integrity.

Just for today, I’ll be kind to others and to myself.

Timora, raised in our observant Jewish family, had always had a strong religious sensibility, but Reiki gave her the opportunity to express her spiritual leanings directly and practically. After three treatments, she asked to study Reiki in order to practice it herself.

I’ve written a memoir entitled And Twice the Marrow of Her Bones, which describes my journey with Timora over the six-plus years of her illness, and without her after she died. In it, I describe how she delighted in her ability to relieve other people’s suffering, even when she herself was undergoing the most extreme of treatments:

Timora was a natural healer, a vessel for a life-affirming energy that would pass through her to others when she laid hands on them…. Once, while she was hospitalized for her second bone marrow transplant, Tehila, [a hospital] volunteer… came to visit her feeling nervous and upset about something that was happening in her life at that time. Timora got out of her bed and made Tehila lie down. She then stood by the bedside and gave her a Reiki treatment. Tehila fell asleep almost instantly and woke up a short time later feeling much better, saying she hadn’t had such a refreshing and relaxing rest in a very long time. Timora later told me the healing energy that had passed through her body into Tehila had refreshed and eased her as well – physically as well as spiritually.

Timora’s Reiki journey didn’t end, it seems, even with her death. Edna has told me that sometimes, when she is treating a client, she feels Timora right there alongside her, strengthening the energy that is pouring through her and into the person they’re both helping.

Edna told Timora the day we met her, “Reiki won’t cure you, but it can heal you.” After my daughter’s experience, there is no doubt in my mind that whatever our burdens, if we open ourselves to what the spiritual world has to offer us, it will help us heal – by easing and enriching our path through this unpredictable, and often cruel, material world.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Virtual Tour: Another Very Positive Review for Twice the Marrow

As part of my virtual book tour, Jody Nicholl reviewed my memoir on the blog Susan Heim on Parenting. Susan Heim is editor of the "Chicken Soup for the Soul" series, and author of other parenting books. Here is the review:

I can’t even imagine losing a child, and I pray that I never have to deal with that. My husband lost his sister when he was 10. She got sick with a brain tumor when she was 2 and passed away when she was 12. It was 10 hard years of being in and out of the hospital for them, and I am sure it took a toll on the whole family. She was loved so much and, still to this day, 27 years later, tears are shed at the mention of her name.

Reading And Twice the Marrow of Her Bones made me thankful for my healthy little girl. Susan Petersen Avitzour writes this heartfelt memoir of how she lost her daughter, Timora, to cancer. She talks about the journey she went on with her daughter, which started at the young age of 11, the struggles they had to endure, and the way they had to sculpt their lives to meet the needs of not only Timora, but the other children in the family. All this makes this mom a hero in my eyes. It must have been so hard for her to stay strong and keep positive in the eyes of others. The writing is beautiful, and even though some people try and stay away from a non-cheery read, I really suggest you give it a shot. There is just something about this book that made it hard to put down … something about this mother that made me want to try harder and do better. It’s one of those books you will want to read and recommend to others.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Virtual Tour: How I Learned to Live in the Present

This is a post I wrote for Stephen Tremp's blog, Breakthrough Blogs, as part of the virtual tour for my memoir:

We usually think of a personal breakthrough as a realization, or a new idea, that all at once changes the way we see things. I’d like to tell you about a more gradual kind of breakthrough – a personal process that slowly but dramatically changed the way I experience my life.

Like so many others in the modern world, I spent most of my adult life preparing for the future. But the future I anticipated never really came, because by the time my plans actually worked out I was so busy planning the next stage of my life that I barely had time or energy to appreciate the fruits of my labors.

Then, just after my daughter Timora turned twelve, she was diagnosed with leukemia. Suddenly, there was no way we could predict what would happen the next day, let alone the coming weeks, months, or even years, and so planning became nearly impossible. Daily tasks like cooking and shopping gave way to scheduled and unscheduled visits to the doctor. Weekly schedules became subject to the possibility of sudden hospitalizations. And longer term? Well, with almost no notice I could lose my daughter. How could I possibly prepare for that?

I coped by developing a new skill – I learned to live in the present. I cultivated what I now recognize as mindfulness – attentiveness to whatever was happening in the present moment. I didn’t stop all planning, of course, but I directed most of my thoughts to the here and now. Most of the time I left the future to God, in whose hands it rested anyway.

This new (for me) way of being turned out to be a true blessing. Paradoxically, as I let go of the idea that I actually had the power to determine the course of my future, I also let go of a great deal of anxiety – and found myself better able to experience my life more fully as it unfolded. Also, realizing the extent to which nothing in this world is truly permanent made me stop taking the many good things in my world for granted, and appreciate them more deeply.

Especially people. Although I’d always been happiest spending time with those I love, I began to cherish more than ever my moments with them. I also found myself able to give them more of myself than I had before I understood just how fragile our lives really are.

Having learned to live in the present stood me in good stead when the worst finally happened, and Timora died after a six-year struggle. Losing her brought into the sharpest possible focus just how important my surviving loved ones are to me.

I’ve written a memoir called And Twice the Marrow of Her Bones, which recalls – among other things – my personal, philosophical, and spiritual journey over almost sixteen years, beginning when Timora’s first symptoms appeared. One of the themes I explore there is the one I’m discussing here:

“When I can say, ‘I’ve done whatever I can for now,’ and at the same time manage to acknowledge the limits of my own power and give my fears and anxieties up to God, I come closer to becoming both whole within myself, and wholly with the other people in my life.”

Our family survived the tsunami of Timora’s illness and death not only intact, but closer than ever. And while I will always carry with me the grief of a bereaved mother, I know that my newfound mindfulness significantly contributed to my resilience – and, ultimately, to that of the rest of my family.