Tuesday, December 4, 2012

the c-word: the immaterial girl & zach vella

see the tiny building on the right, that's where i live. the big glass one on the left is imaginary but its already causing havoc.
typical nyc story - an ordinary person versus a real estate mogul. a developer (zach vella, who also ended becoming my next door neighbor), in the process of building a new property, damages a nearby property. i met zach because his little boy, with regal air, was telling all the other little kids on the sidewalk that HIS dad owned the whole building.

zach looks so nice, doesn't he?
zach apologized for his son and walked over and looked at my apartment. we even had a conversation about his possibly renting it as a sales office or buying the whole thing and attaching it to the new building.

it's difficult, on our cramped little island, to build. but when you are building apartments that sell for $6 million on the low end, you might be careful of your neighbors (especially single mothers recovering from cancer with already stretched incomes and tiny apartments).

on november 8, i came home to MY kids' room 6 inches' deep in muddy water, so i pulled on my big yellow boots and ran screaming into the building site next door.

the site supervisor and a bunch of guys came in and apologized and promised to pay for everything they destroyed.

they also promised to come and help clean up. i didn't realize how often this happens. (like the story of this photographer in chelsea), i believed them and i was still being nice.

rara's bedroom entrance and my famous yellow rubber boots

needless to say, two days' later, i was on my hands and knees with a bucket of hot water and some mold killing product, scraping the mud off the floor.  i basically spent an entire weekend, with some help from the housekeeper and the amazons, without seeing daylight. two laptops were totally submerged, one filled with college applications in-process.

this whole floor was replaced last january.

no one showed up.

a few days' later, i had a pleasant conversation with jim longson, at zach vella's company. he was kind, friendly and reassuring. he told me they would "make me whole." he suggested i hire mold remediators immediately and told me simply to send them all the bills.

i did. but after that, jim longson didn't take my calls. two weeks' later, he sent me an email suggesting i call my home owner's insurance. i called good old state farm. the adjuster came over and spoke to the site supervisor who told him he thought the water came in through the sidewalk. fortunately for me, my condo policy specifically says they do not cover water that comes in through the sidewalk. or the foundation of my building. the contractor, saif sumaida, whose company, foundations group, is doing the work had someone tell me that they had informed their insurance. charles iulo, a guy who worked for him, reiterated that they would do nothing, but he did say, "i urge you to contact your insurance."

here's family man, saif, who doesn't return my calls either.

in the meantime, the water shortcircuited the electricity downstairs which meant the pump died and the toilet waste emptied into the shower turning the entire downstairs into a giant, reeking cesspool.

in staten island, days after sandy, i walked past one home after the other with the mudsoaked contents spilling out on to the sidewalk, enormous piles of the stuff of 21st-century lives. wet clothes, plastic toys, dishwashers, washing machines, refrigerators, books, artwork. it slid down into the mud and channels of water mixed with sewage that filled the roads.

i was so grateful that i had escaped the storm, that i went to staten island to rip out drywall turned to putty by water, empty out bathrooms, pull off baseboard and wallpaper. the stench and the pervading damp seemed to permeate my body for days afterwards. and the mud seemed impossible to remove from my coat and boots.

helping people in staten island, coney island and rockaway made the transience of objects and the fragility of our lives so much clearer. i wanted to get rid of everything i owned.

so, of course, i was given an easy way to do that. three days after my electricity and internet was restored, my most precious things were destroyed.

all the beautiful indian clothes - the old brocades that my grandmother had bought back when my grandfather was indian ambassador to japan, that had made my wedding gharara, the lehngas and saris and ghararas that had been stored in a steamer trunk for safekeeping - were drenched and soaked in mud. the stuffed toys and mementos that i had saved from their infancy (you know, the baby clothes sasha came home from the hospital in, the leopard that zarina gave rara when her head was cracked) not to mention their current clothes and homework and shoes, and the floor was buckled.

all these clothes were destroyed. i can't afford to pick up the rest from the drycleaner.
what is worse, of course, is the mold. which makes the girls cough all night unless the air purifier is blasting into their bedrooms and the dehumidifier along with the allergen killing blue light is on 24-hours' a day.

even my doctor at memorial sloan kettering says i need to get out of there. mold is especially bad for people who've had chemotherapy.

i've called the department of buildings repeatedly, i've spoken to community board one, to the new state attorney general's office, julie menin who is running for manhattan borough president, and no one seems to be able to do anything.

i went to see a very impressive and reassuring lawyer, adam leitman bailey, who said, "it's an open-and-shut case. they admitted liability. they realize they don't have to do anything. you just need to show them, they can't ignore the little guy." he was happy to take on the case. unfortunately, he required a $10,000 retainer. gulp.

one kid in college, another one starting in september and two years' worth of bills a mile high.

i tried to hit up a client who hadn't paid me for a couple of years, no luck.

AUGH. in the meantime, in what seems like an anachronistic paradigm, the new york city real estate industry celebrates its moneymaking heroes, like zach vella. isn't conscious capitalism the new buzz word?

so here's what happened next: amazons of nyc: 11 N Moore St - Zach Vella and Saif Sumaida Update

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The C-Word: Laura Kepshire and Brennan Healing Science

if you are facing cancer, you know that it affects so much more than your physical body. (and, if you're coming along with me on this ride, you're realizing that it probably started, like so many other illnesses, in the tensions and anxieties and emotional states you've been through recently).

cancer, as it progresses, shakes your sense of self, uproots your belief system and your character and makes you question the people around you. that's why brennan and other energetic healing methods were so interesting to me, though i only experienced the brennan method personally after my cancer was "cured" or at least in remission.

in my case, i'd spent months focused internally. eating, drinking, thinking my body and spirit well. one good thing about having cancer (there's not a lot) is that you get an all-access pass. as horrid as you feel, you work it (though i can say from experience it does not work when a policeman is writing you a parking ticket).

when the cancer's gone, you have to open your eyes and face the devastation - the piles of unpaid bills and taxes, health insurance, things that are lost and broken including your career and/or your love life, your emotionally-drained kids and family members - and your support group tends to move on.

people who weren't around much when things were all crazy don't get that you are still in shock and wandering around in a daze. so all those people expect you to act like the same old person you were. when you are still so fragile, that can break you.

it was in the midst of this time that the anxiety got so overwhelming, i was scared i would get sick again. that was when a friend mentioned a brennan healer to me. she told me how great it made her feel and suggested i try it.

barbara brennan was a NASA physicist who, along with a UCLA-trained engineer turned healer and psychic, rosalyn bruyere, started exploring the energy fields surrounding the human body.

what brennan found was that it was possible to manipulate those energy fields, using light touch, and another person's own energy. the brennan practitioners use the language of ayurveda and buddhism when speaking about energies - referring to your chakras and auras. they manipulate these energy fields to "unblock" and release old issues that may be keeping your body and spirit from moving forwards.

laura kepshire is an incredible and very beautiful Brennan healer. she has worked wonders on many people i know, amongst them, me.

brennan healing is an especially good CAM, as they refer to it in the memorial sloan kettering literature. because you do it fully dressed, lying on a massage table, and the practitioner barely touches you, it needn't interfere with your chemo or radiation or recovery from surgery.

and because it activates your own immune system, it can help traditional cancer treatments work harder. it can also help mitigate the unpleasant side effects of chemo and radiation.

last of all, because it unblocks "stuck" energy or releases past trauma, there are those who say it can - along with diet, exercise and your arsenal of healers - cure you from illnesses all together.

one brilliant thing that a brennan healing session does is make you think about the message in your cancer. basically, any time you get sick, it's a message from your body and your spirit. for example, if you run yourself ragged, you get a flu. clearly, your body is telling you - stop, take a rest, sleep all day and get some more vitamin C and D. if you lose your temper, your blood pressure goes up. if you lose your temper too often or too easily, the inflammation from the constant surge of blood and heat in your body will cause other issues. the message is, breathe, calm down. focus on the important things.

since cancer is such a major systemic illness, there is probably a big message in there. think about it.

what struck me most about laura is that she walked in drinking a coffee (gasp) with milk (swallow) and most shocking - eating a muffin!

first of all, if you are a hardcore health fanatic like me, you rarely touch coffee - caffeine causes inflammation and can irritate the stomach lining - or dairy products - more inflammation, plus the mucus-causing issues - and, when it comes to wheat or sugar, never!

in laura's case, it was even more shocking as she had suffered from rheumatoid arthritis that was once so debilitating she couldn't walk. here she was breezily sipping her coffee and eating her muffin.

when i asked her about it, she laughed and told me that once she had unblocked the anger in her body, much of the inflammation disappeared, along with the arthritis. she said she no longer had to worry about dealing with the symptoms.

in the brennan healing science approach, the root of the illness is the energy blockage and the illness itself is the symptom.

when i experienced the treatment, i felt brilliant colored waves of energy rushing through my body like water. i came out relaxed and relieved. the tension that hummed through my body had gone quiet.

since i was not in the throes of an illness, i could only afford two treatments - along with my organic vegetables, juices, supplements, acupuncture, massages, nutritionists and other healers - it was all getting expensive. and i still had to feed the amazons!

i wasn't able to experience its effects on a long-term basis. however, i have spoken to people who've had great success with it.

there are brennan healers all over the country. if it seems like an approach that would work for you, call one. they will usually give you a free consultation.

here is laura's information:

For more information on Brennan Healing Science and pricing contact me at: +1.646.283.3265, or by email at lkepshire@gmail.com

just remember, if you really want to get well, you will. you just have to find the best way to get yourself there. 

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The C-Word: Energy, Acupuncture & Mona Chopra

here's the point: acupuncture works.

even the national institutes of health, memorial sloan kettering and the american cancer society recognize it in the fight against cancer.

people are always asking me about combining alternative and natural healing with chemotherapy, surgery, radiation and other allopathic (or western) healing methods.

i believe it can - and should be done - but with this caveat:

most other modalities - i.e., more natural healing methods - are about dealing with the bigger picture. they are about looking at each person's personality, habits, character traits, life choices. so when they help you heal, they are less focused on the symptoms of your body's imbalance - it's often called "dis-ease" - and more on helping you return to a state of balance.

i apologize for being simplistic here. please skip over all these explanations if you've read them a thousand times.

in western medicine, one takes a pill or has a treatment, and one sees immediate results. a simple example - you take an advil and within an hour or so, your headache is gone. it is symptomatic problem-solving. the symptom is gone, but often we don't address what the underlying issue, i.e., the stress, lack of sleep, allergies or whatever, that caused the headache in the first place. however, even mainstream (western, allopathic) medicine has begun to realize that with more serious symptoms, one needs to make a commitment to healing them.

this means a lifestyle change - managing your tension or anxiety, changing your diet, re-thinking the way you exercise, taking supplements and making sure you get sufficient sleep and rest to recharge the system.*

alternative healing works by activating your body's own immune system. the goal is to stimulate all your organs and defenses to get your body back to normal. it's based on the idea that your body is designed to heal and regenerate itself.

the self-restoring ability is obvious for minor things - you cut your nails or hair and they grow back, you cut your skin and it forms a scab and then heals itself. you get the flu or a cold or pimples or an upset stomach. more often then not - you rest, wash, hydrate, eat well and give your body the tools it needs to resolve the issues on its own - and you restore yourself.

the reason many alternative healers struggle with traditional chemotherapy and/or radiation is that they work on the opposite principle. they rush in and kill the cancer cells, but they also weaken or suppress your body's innate healing systems. with too much outside force, your body gives up the effort.

the processes in your body that are designed to fight become too weak to do anything. it's sort of like wearing spanx instead of strengthening your core muscles. it's an instant fix, but as soon as you pop yourself out of it, you're even more lumpy than before. if you wear it everyday, your stomach muscles just give up the ghost and flab all over the place. (this is why i do pilates).

there is also some concern that while chemotherapy and radiation may stop the cancer outbreak, it leaves the cancer stem cells which may regenerate and cause a proliferation of new tumors. (they are supposedly working on a vaccine for this, but in the meantime, women need to think of alternatives).

i see this often in people who had chemotherapy and/or radiation for breast cancer. within a few years develop, my friends have developed metastasis in their bones or more virulent cancers in their lymph nodes.

mona chopra is an amazing acupuncturist and intuitive healer. she was one of the first people who thought i might have something more serious than early menopause (which was what my tribeca ob-gyn, austin chen, insisted) and also helped me through meningitis, stress and a rare liver virus. in every case, i recovered almost "miraculously" - fast and completely.

if i had anything at all wrong with me, mona chopra would be one of the first people i would call, not least because she appears to be the calmest person i know. just being around her calm aura has a soothing effect.

mona explains what happens in an acupuncture treatment.

ideally, you come into the acupuncturist's office, after you've had something to eat or drink because it is key that you are hydrated. mona looks at your tongue. she writes down what she notices about the surface of your tongue. apparently, your tongue has a lot of information about the way your body is processing things.

next, she takes your pulse. in chinese medicine, they take one's pulse from several different places. again, these pulse rates give her information on the strength of the energy meridiens.

as in the intake process of many natural health practitioners, while you wait, you fill out a long, detailed questionnaire.  the answers show, amongst other things, how you deal with stress. not surprisingly, stress and tension cause a lot of imbalance. you are also asked about your diet, your exercise routine, your sleep patterns, allergies, your temper and a lot of other things that could affect your health.

then you lie down on a massage table-type of thing. if the energy points to be stimulated are on your torso or higher up your arms and legs, you might undress - the same way you would for a massage.

if your points are only on your hands and feet, you might just roll up your cuffs and sleeves. personally, since one lies on the table for 40 minutes, i find it is more comfortable to undress and lie under a blanket. i always get so relaxed i fall asleep during acupuncture.

next, come the much-dreaded needles. as gigantic and scary as the acupuncture needles appear on the tray, they are so incredibly thin that most people can't even feel them as they are inserted.

my own experience has been one of a minute electrical shock as my nerves register the needle. then i feel sensation of tingling warmth as the needle stimulates my energy and circulation. in my case, i have never felt any pain from an acupuncture needle.

once the needles are in place, mona covers the patient with a weightless space blanket or a sheet. then the patient lies quietly on the table for 30 to 40 minutes while the needles do their work.

another acupuncturist i went to see, ming jin, is also extremely talented and subtle and has helped a number of my friends successfully. she has her patients given a 30-minute massage before the acupuncture. in that way, one is melted into pliable bliss even before the treatment.

gynecological cancers, especially in their early stages, seem to be effectively helped by acupuncture and chinese medicine. even if you have not been diagnosed with cancer, acupuncture - along with lifestyle and diet changes - can prevent the energy blocks that lower your resistence. releasing these blocks can help your body stay balanced even in times of crisis or stress.

the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation, including nausea, fatigue and neuropathy can often be alleviated with regular acupuncture. an acupuncturist might also prescribe chinese herbs or supplements to energize and protect the immune system or "good" cells. the acupuncture can also help strengthen the immune system so that it is not as depleted by the chemotherapy or radiation. in my case, regular acupuncture post-chemotherapy was extremely effective in ending the chemo hot flashes, as well as returning sensation to my hands and feet.

if you can find the funds, and a good referral, acupuncture is a solid investment in your ongoing health and recovery. many acupuncture schools offer low-cost treatment options. if you and your acupuncturist decide you should see each once a week or more, quite often he or she may help you come to a more affordable rate.

as you put together your team of healers, an acupuncturist is powerful presence.

*my mother is always arguing that we have been eating and living the same way for centuries and that's what her mother did so why flit around with every new trend?

my answer is multifold. one, our lives are so more stressful and we all know what stress does to one's body so we need to be gentler.

two, the world has changed. we grow and process food differently and that has affected the chemicals in the food which affects our bodies differently. (we've all seen what happened to the rats fed GMO corn for two years).

three, we are now subjected to magnetic fields as never before: cell phones, wireless devices, computer screens all give off rays that we have yet to understand, but we do know they are speeding up the ageing process.

and four, as we get older, our machinery becomes less efficient. what we could process easily at the age of 8, we can't always at 16 and by the time we get to be 35 or 45, we need to work harder to operate at optimum levels. it's like a great vintage car. it might look and run like new, but we need to put the work in to keep it like that.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The C-Word: The Power of the Mind, Trudy Beers

today, i interviewed a well-known hypnotist called trudy beers. (i apologize, i will edit it, i swear - but i was excited to share it, i thought i'd go back and edit it later. )

trudy beers is in her mid-50s and lives an old school sun-filled loft in tribeca. there are no crystal balls or taxidermed alligators, just lots of certificates that prove she's the real thing. she's been practicing hypnosis, reiki and the power of suggestion for about 40 years. when i was in the midst of my chemotherapy, another friend of mine who had recovered from breast cancer recommended i go to her.

my friend, who had radiation for her cancer, gave me these words of wisdom:

"you have to stay positive and you MUST believe in your complete recovery."

hypnosis operates on the theory that your mind controls your body. if you commit yourself, mind-body-soul, to your recovery and wellbeing, you will get there. it's similar to the way athletes prepare themselves for strenuous events, sort of like psyching yourself up.

everyone - including allopathic doctors and nurses - has experienced the way in which an emotional crisis of some kind precipitates an illness. so why can't the opposite - meaning, a resolution of that crisis - start one's body on the process of healing.

one drawback with mind healing, like most kinds of faith, is that if you get lazy or tired or let doubts creep in, you begin to slide. you need to convince yourself that you are well and then your subconscious mind will convince your body. hypnosis works on your subconscious to help you stay focused (and stubbornly attached) to your goal of returning to a balanced state. hypnotists should give you a tape or cd or mp3 to listen to as you fall asleep at night so that you can program your subconscious to keep you on track.

keep in mind is that every kind of healing process requires a multi-pronged approach. as trudy says, "it takes a village..." the more serious and more entrenched the illness, the more ways in which one needs to support one's body and mind in the process. so you still need to be conscious about eating clean, organic, healthy foods, you need to find ways in which to exercise - or maybe get regular massages - to stimulate your circulation and your organs. you still need to drink fresh vegetable juices.

honestly, it seems there is no easy way out. if you want to recover from cancer or any other serious illness - if you really want to - you can, but you will have to work like crazy.

like any other practitioner, she will tell you what i keep saying (not that i am always successful at this myself), you have to give up sugar. this means ALL sugar. cane sugar, white flour, white potatoes, alcohol... depending on how bad your cancer is, you might have to give up fructose as well, which means fruit and potatoes, all types of grains, and absolutely anything your body could turn into sugar to feed those hungry cancer cells. personally, i felt that while my cancer was active, i should give up caffeine as well, because there was no need to speed anything up.

hypnosis does work in tandem with standard western treatment for cancer. the idea is that your mind can help you steel your body against the destructive nature of the therapies.

i've tried various mind-body games myself. like, while getting my blood pressure taken at the doctor's office, i imagine i am on the beach. i zone out and feel the sun on my forehead, turn the office noise into the sound of the waves. i can bring my blood pressure and my pulse down really fast.

i've also gotten my blood pressure taken when i am still fuming over some argument or frustration and watched it shoot up, so i know it's possible.

try it yourself. walk on to the subway platform on a really hot day and keep thinking about being cold. imagine icy places. keep telling yourself you are chilled and - if you focus - you can really keep yourself cool for ten minutes or so. i haven't been able to do it for longer than that, but maybe with practice.

the goal of hypnosis or suggestion is to help you release psychological blocks - the emotional remains of unhappy incidents in your life - and return calmer to your day-to-day life. according to chinese medicine - and a lot of spiritual healers - breast cancer is connected to women's romantic relationships and lung cancer to grief and sadness - so these cancers might be an especially receptive to emotional unblocking.

in a lot of ways, it's similar to prayer. the idea is to separate, to forgive and to lift your spirit to a higher level.

the way trudy works is this: you contact her and do a phone consultation. then she sends potential patients a 12-page questionnaire she calls her "intake form."

the questionnaire goes into great detail about your personality, your tastes, your styles, your character traits. are you patient? are you easily distracted? you list what disappoints you, what irritates you and what pleases you. i found it very similar to what acupuncturists, homeopaths and naturopaths ask you to fill out. the idea being that your personality or habits tend to affect the way your body gets ill and also the way it gets well.

a good hypnotist reads your intake form and spends some time processing the information so that, by the time you get to your appointment, she feels like she knows your starting point.

in trudy's case, an appointment takes about three hours. after going through your challenges and your intake form together, you eventually end up on a cozy chaise longue with your eyes closed. a trance state is like a deep meditation. you feel like you are almost asleep - you know that feeling - you are just drifting off, the world is starting to recede. you can hear the voices in the background, but you are not quite listening because you float in and out of dream states.

for me, i feel like this at the end of the yoga class, when i am lying on the mat in shavasena, totally relaxed and listening to the teacher. (personally, i often fall completely asleep here as well, but i am a tired, stressed-out single mum.)

trudy leads your subconscious mind to release what she identifies as the four negative or blocking emotions - fear, shame, guilt and anger. in the relaxed trance-state, apparently, one is happy to give them up. one leaves feeling lighter and freer.

then she gives you a recording of the session to listen to every night as you go to sleep. eventually, your subconscious starts to act on the suggestion that is programmed into your mind.

according to trudy, you will just need a single session to get the process started. then your own mind and body takes over.

is it worth the $400-500 fee? as trudy says, "it's worth ALL your money to stay well. you won't need the money if you go." i haven't tried it myself but, as i said, i know that trudy has had a lot of success, especially with breast cancer.

on the other hand, if you, like me, had children to feed and shelter no matter what your physical state, you can't think only of your immediate needs.

clearly, there are a lot of scam artists out there - pseudo psychics and tarot card readers - so make sure you do your research. there is an organization called the national guild of hypnotists that certifies practitioners and seems to have a database. ideally, ask friends and people you trust for real life references. if you ,or a friend you delegate the responsibility to, is looking online, make sure you can cross-reference their testimonials (because there are lots of people who write them for themselves).

if you really can't afford it, sometimes it's worth it to talk to the practitioner and see if you can trade or barter. or try a payment plan.

and if all that still doesn't work, maybe hypnosis isn't the thing for you. maybe there's a way to do a D.I.Y version? if you do some research into the french dr. coue, perhaps you could have a friend with a voice you really trust, record some affirmations for you. then listen to them as you fall asleep. just to reassure you, the power of suggestion or reprogramming the subconscious is a scientifically-proven method that many doctors use with their patients today.

the advantage of going to trudy - and she does practice on skype as well, so distance needn't be an issue - is that you get a personalized set of affirmations that integrate your larger issues.

just remember there are lots of alternatives out there. but nothing works alone. it took a lot of people and events (think back, you'll remember) to get you sick. it takes a team of people to get you well.

focus. believe. you will get there.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The C-Word: Exploring the Alternatives

people are always asking me about alternative or complementary healing methods and how to figure out what works and what's a scam.

so i decided to put together a list of alternative - or non-traditional - practitioners who i know and who have helped friends and interview them on this blog.

watch this space.

in the meantime, my first piece of advice when you are looking at any kind of non-traditional healing or "miracle cure," always cross-reference!

for instance, if someone says he cured his cancer using blackstrap molasses and baking soda, don't drop everything and rush out for those products.

remember that while he may be telling the truth, it may only have worked for him because of his body type, his genetic make-up and his personality - i.e., the way he handles stress or tension.

next, spend some time online and see what those particular products can do to one's body. many alternative practitioners recommend "alkalizing" one's body - and as such, baking soda in small quantities can do that. but look around, what kind of baking soda? how much and how often? could this be dangerous? and what other changes will you need to make?

be cautious of websites that make you enter your email address before they give you any information. there are thousands of ways to make money online and one way is to make someone pay to get information that is available elsewhere for nothing.

personally, i recommend an immediate cross reference on www.cancertutor.com

also, nothing - whether it's chemo, radiation, surgery or alternatives - works very well in isolation. you will need to combine and you will need to make changes in your lifestyle (that's how you got here, remember?) so that you can give your body the energy it needs to get well.

so my second piece of advice - before you try anything - is be skeptical. no matter what your doctor or a practitioner tells you, look it up. ask around. ask questions.

when i started at memorial sloan kettering, the doctors told me i was so lucky because my cancer had a 70% cure rate. "isn't that great?" said the chemo nurse.

i said, "well, what about the other 30%?" i mean, if something had a 30% chance of killing you, that was still pretty high.

my doctor said, "those are mostly women without health insurance..."

more to come.

Saturday, September 1, 2012


ever look into a broken mirror?

when you stand one way, you see the image one way. then take a half-step to the right or the left and everything breaks apart. you see different aspects of the same thing. the side of your nose that you've never seen before. the bottom of your chin, let's say.

i've been working on a novel about the past five years - the journey, the there and back again - it seems like forever. maybe it's lucky because things keep unfolding and i haven't yet reached a conclusion.

every time i start writing, i find myself entering the story a different way. or seeing the details differently. the pivotal moments change. the points that led me there are not what they were the last time.

and, of course, when you stand at the end and look back, what you see changes depending on where you are standing.

if you wonder what i am trying to make sense of - the financial, physical and emotional rollercoaster of the past few years, cancer and recovery, destructive and vindictive relationships and their effects on the angst of my teenagers, the constant difficulty of keeping a home  - even now i look around, surprised that i am still standing.

surprised even more that i am still smiling.

sometimes, i blame the devastation on the economy. it's surprising how fear and uncertainity makes people behave. money, like alcohol, brings out the worst in some people.

sometimes, i blame it on my bad judgement. i haven't made the best choices. i can be impulsive. i don't think things through. i am a terrible judge of character.

other times, i blame fate and the series of events that led me to where i am.

but then again, i find myself back at the beginning again. where am i? and which series of events were the unfortunate ones?

and which ones were fortunate?

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The C-Word: What You Deserve

do you remember that games "chutes and ladders"? it originated in india as "snakes and ladders." a metaphysical exercise. with each toss of the dice, you either climbed upward to nirvana or slid downward to constant rebirth.

the british turned into an educational tool for self-improvement. in america, it was a 50s puritan morality play. you plant seeds and you get a fruit tree. you break a window and you empty out your savings.

the real thing one learns in all the games, one doesn't actually have a choice.

you throw dice. you land somewhere randomly. maybe on the square that says that you eat way too many apples. or worst of all on the square where you are sitting on someone's shoulders to reach the cookie jar (indulgence, greed, gluttony all at once). then you slide all the way down the longest chute to an impending trip to the emergency room.

there's a new anti-cancer campaign out that uses the shock effect to draw attention to lung cancer.

the headline is "cat owners deserve to die" or "hipsters deserve to die" or any other group. the tagline is "no one deserves to die."

with lung cancer, people assume that the person who got the cancer was a smoker and, therefore, cancer was the inevitable end. the punishment for their vice.

grandmothers can pull the children close and whisper, "you SEE! that's what happens if you smoke."

interestingly, i know several people who've had lung cancer and have never smoked.

i've also known people who are long-term smokers who never developed cancer or any other lung-related disease. does it "serve them right"? are they better people?

on that same chute, cervical cancer is the punishment for promiscuous women, ovarian cancer for women who've tried to have babies when their bodies said no. breast cancer, according to some right-to-lifers, is the result of abortions or not breast-feeding. they slid down into treatment. or death. the red letter C attached to their hospital gowns.

there is an increasing sense of protestant morality in the world today. poor people are poor because they are lazy. people who can't get jobs don't deserve them. people who are financially successful are treated better than people who are struggling. 

i hired a freelancer recently. someone i've known for 3 years who has done beautiful work in the past. has a great eye, creates simple, elegant presentations and usually available on a moment's notice.

unfortunately, she was travelling this time. despite intentions, work suffers when one does it on holiday. of course. sometimes, we need to shift our focus to real life and the people we love. needless to say, we had to hire someone else to fix the project. and then someone else again to make revisions. we lost the project.

when i tried to address my issues with her, she simply said she disagreed and sent her invoice. i sent her a check with a 20% reduction and a letter explaining that i was splitting the cost difference with her but that, if the project resurfaced, we could revisit it.

in answer, i got a vitriolic email that i was a liar and a cheat and a fraud thus all my "bad karma" (her reference to the cancer) was likely to get worse.

from what i understand about the buddhist laws of karma, there is no "good" and "bad" - those are purely our human perception. there is action and reaction. i do believe that i developed cancer (partly) in response to a particularly difficult moment in my life.

i am responsible for my life and my choices. rather, i am responsible for how i perceive it.

i don't believe that i or anyone "deserves" to get cancer or any other disease. i do believe we can choose how we deal with it, if we have the time and the peace to think. i believe we can think about changes in our lives that can make us healthier.

there is a new genetic test for an ocular cancer that allows a patient to see if he/she is likely to go into remission after surgery or likely to have the cancer become fatal. personally, i would take the test. it would allow me to seek alternative methods to heal myself. or to decide if i wouldn't want to just spend the next five years enjoying my life to the fullest, rather than letting chemo take me away from my family and friends.

though the truth is, i could learn why i should do that and still not do it.

we need to step away from our "chutes-and-ladders" thinking.

reactions are that. plain and simple. and there is good and bad in every experience. you gain pleasure or new skills or greater compassion for others. you learn to be more self-reliant or less so. more loving towards others or less self-sacrificing. even in fatal illness, you discover your inner self as your outer one fades. (please, no intention to be pollyanna here, i know cancer treatments are horrid and drawn-out and painful).

the choices one makes in life are so much a part of one's past, one's immediate situation, the way one deals with stress and fear. it takes a serious level of self-knowledge and evolution to rise above our conditioning and our triggers. and sometimes, even with that, we lose our footing on the path.

transcendence can feel impossible sometimes.

but let me tell you this. cancer is not Divine retribution. you are loved.

in the meantime, we roll the dice.

Friday, July 6, 2012

curtains: why i don't wear hijab

on one of these shimmering hot summer afternoons, i was standing outside the israeli coffee shop on the end of west broadway and franklin talking to a guy who was trying to get some shade under the scaffolding.

he said to me, "if you're a muslim, why are you wearing regular clothes?"

i said, "because i'm an american muslim."

he was just making conversation. wondering. not trying to be provocative or offensive. but it made me think.

i am a practicing american muslim woman.

i don't cover my hair (or face) nor do i feel the need to.

one disclaimer:

lots of bright, educated, independent women i know personally do cover. they do it, not because anyone is forcing them to, but because they believe it is important. since - from what i've read - the practice of headcovering comes from byzantine christian and early jewish practice, my friends who cover include muslims and jews of various stripes. 

as a muslim, what is forbidden is getting in the way anyone else's practice or connection with the Divine - unless, of course, it involves harming or oppressing others - so i only speak for myself here.

let me explain further. the word "hijab" in arabic means a "screen or curtain." in current usage, it refers to the veil or scarf that covers the head. in the vernacular, women who cover are called, "hijabis." (if they cover their heads while working their lashes, lips and hips to advantage, one of my favorite muslim stand-up comics, maysoon zayid, calls them "hojabis.")

most muslim women wear a ritual headcover in while performing their prayers, as a sign of reverence or respect for the sacred space or conversation. however, the majority of muslim women in the world do not wear a hair covering on a day-to-day basis. 

certainly, no one should be forced or feel pressured to cover, just as no one should be forced not to. for my sisters who are recent converts or reverts, wearing a headcover can make you feel like part of your new group, but it can also isolate you from your old friends. 

i agree that there's political and social value in the headcover as a statement of solidarity. as a child and a teenager, i wore a black armband when john lennon died and then an interview magazine t-shirt to mark the death of andy warhol. (yes, my causes were lightweight then but so was i).

in the years after september 11, when so many american muslims were frightened of identifying themselves, i proudly walked the streets wearing my "one more muslim for peace" t-shirt. i gave them to friends, i sold them online.

in my world of lower manhattan, wearing a scarf over one's head sets one apart. it's not a red flag, but a clear identifier, nonetheless. walking through soho the other day, i passed two singers: m.i.a. in a kuffiyeh and courtney love in her regular blond hair. everyone (even people who clearly didn't know who she was) was looking at m.i.a. while courtney walked by without turning any heads. (admittedly, m.i.a's very pretty, no matter what's on her hair but the headcover really made her stand out.)

the two Quranic verses most often used to describe the required dress for muslims of all genders suggest that we attempt to be modest. the goal is not to distract your fellow humans from their path or disconnect them from their relationship with Source. the verses come sura an-nur (chapter 24 in a traditional quran).* i'm using three translations here so that i am clear:

30: Tell the believing men to lower their eyes and guard their private parts. There is for them goodness in this. God is aware of what they do.

31: Tell the believing women to lower their eyes, guard their private parts and not display their charms except what is outwardly apparent and cover their bosoms with their veils not to show their finery…

30: Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and to be mindful of their chastity: this will be most conducive to their purity – [and] verily God is aware of all that they do.

31: And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and to be mindful of their chastity, and not to display their charms [in public] beyond what may [decently] be apparent thereof, hence let them draw their head coverings over their bosoms.

translation by Muhammed Asad

30: Tell the ones who believe to lower their sight and keep their private parts safe. That is purer for them, truly God is aware of what they craft.

31: Say to ones who are female believers to lower their sight, and keep their private parts safe, and not show their adornment, except what is manifest of it; and let them draw their head covering over their bosoms, and not show their adornments.

in recent times, the suggestion is that the Quranic "man" or "believer" refers to all muslims male and female. thus Laleh Bakhtiar's translation updates those references. hers is the first official translation by a woman.

in Muhammed Asad's brilliant footnotes he says that the code of dress is deliberately left vague so as to encompass all the cultural changes to come. if the Quran is to be seen as guide throughout the ages, then it must remain relevant and we shouldn't confuse cultural mores for religious duties.

clearly, flashing the breasts in public is not allowed for muslim women ever (apparently, it was common for women to go barechested in those times). but there is no suggestion that one should cover one's hair or face. 

instead, it's possible that women are being told to take that veil off their heads and put it over their chests. 

BOTH men and women are admonished not to look lustfully at their fellow humans. 

we are told to "lower our gaze" to avoid seeing anything that we shouldn't. in my understanding, that also means we are not meant to judge each other - for good or bad. our gaze carries our criticism and disapproval as well as our desire. perhaps the eyes are not the mirrors to the soul, but one of the ways the soul slips out to the dangers of the physical world.

if the headcover is cultural tradition, then it carries no moral weight. i'm not a better person or muslim for wearing a hijab, nor am i worse. (and there are those who would say that no hijab could have saved me from my wayward self. it's just a strip of cloth, after all.)

the great thing about living in today's layered, connected world is that we can choose the part or parts of the world's cultures that best fit our identities. we can all get hennaed hands or feet, or wear saris or skirts or t-shirts. we can choose what our tattoos mean and wear cowboy hats even to walk dogs in manhattan.

for me, i am a new yorker and that means dressing like one. which means sometimes a dress and sometimes a shalwar or a sari or jeans.

one morning at school drop-off, i told a muslim friend that, when my days got really busy, i prayed while i did my early morning laps. she was shocked.

"in your bathing suit? how do you cover your head?" 

i swim in a public pool so i am required to wear a swimming cap, but i answered, "God's seen the top of my head before." the respect comes from inside, from my focus and my remembrance, not from my scarf.

from my understanding of Islam, the goal is not to draw attention to myself, which i would do if i was the only person doing the crawl in a burkini in the college pool. i can only imagine how much attention i would draw on a crowded summer beach in a coat and hat. out in the world, as opposed to a house of worship, one is dressing for utility, not ritual. 

and what about the heat?

i was on a webchat discussing women and fitness and "modesty" recently. amongst the other participants was a jewish woman who had started a "modest" bathing suit company. one woman complained about all the stares she got on the beach when she tried to dress "modestly." 

i said something about "modesty" being a relative term and about making a statement and then wondering why people respond. the bathing suit woman disagreed, "[when you cover] you are dressing the way God wants you to. you aren't dressing for anyone else. so who cares if they stare?"

i disagree. in my understanding of Divine Love, you are adored in totality (including every inch of skin and flesh with or without adornment). all you have to do is love back - as well as loving and respecting your fellow creatures. on the other hand, what you do with this flesh is about your relationship with the material planet. how you help and inspire other beings in the world.

these verses have a clear historical context, thus they are less relevant in the life of a muslim woman today.

in verse 53, the new muslims are asked to address the wives of the Prophet (pbuh) from behind a curtain or screen, i.e., the "hijab," to maintain a degree of propriety. in other words, we should be especially respectful of the wives of the Prophet (p.b.u.h.) and keep a distance - to allow them their space and safety.

and in verse 59, muslim women are told to "draw your wraps about you so you will be recognized" and protected when out in the street. again, at that time, women of the new and burgeoning were often harrassed when abroad. thus, wearing a covering allowed them a degree of safety. 

however, in both verses, whether it was a screen or a wrap, it was a kindness, an intercession for the women's comfort and ease. it was not an obligation or a duty for them. 

i saw a video on youtube where a young woman experiences her headcover as liberating her from the oppression of fashion and men's glances. her righteous self explains that fashion is just fitting into men's ideals. she's going to stop worrying about her appearance and start focusing on her soul. with a hijab on her head, she belongs to no one but herself. 

the flaw for me was that i do think one's appearance is important. partly out of respect for one's fellow human beings and partly for the pleasure of adornment. it is fun to get dressed up. and the people you get dressed up for are usually happy you made the effort. 

so let's get rid of that theory about fashion existing just to please men. if that were the case, we wouldn't be wearing balenciaga and dior. most fashion designers are gay men who turn us into pretty, elegant shapes but not man-magnets.  your girlfriends appreciate your chanel boots a million times more than the guys. when you hobble along in painfully tall alexander wang shoes, your self-inflicted punishment only pleases you and the men doing the books at the shoe company.

fashion is also blamed for causing anorexia and bulimia, and it is clear that those sharp pointy collar bones and ribs do nothing for the stimulation of most men.

on the other hand, i do believe there is an oversexualization of children. like this onesie printed with a bikini, i don't believe adult expectations should be imposed on children. if children are (correctly) not seen as sexual beings by adults, then why do we see two and three year-old girls with tiny head and body wraps? what do they have to hide or reveal?

i don't force my teenaged daughters to wear hijab (actually, i can't seem to force them to do much of anything these days). i have tried to instill a sense of respect for their bodies and the people around. i've tried to teach them to love and look after their bodies. that includes being conscious of the message your appearance projects. 

we can't pretend that appearance isn't important.

in the veil experiment, florida college students tried wearing a headcover on the street and found that they were ignored in shops and unrecognized by their friends and family. i am not sure that being treated as someone even less than human is the goal either. though that was an exercise in experiencing bigotry.

the nature of being a writer means one is an exhibitionist. whether or not your work is autobiographical, you cannot write - especially not fiction - without exposing the mechanisms of your emotions and a bit of your soul. the details may be made up, but the spirit that embodies them, the breath that makes the story come to life is your own.

thus, perhaps, my choice not to wear a hijab is the thing that makes me quieter, makes my devotion intensely personal. it also makes my cultural choice (in this instance) closer to that of an everyday american. watching the posturing and absurd mudslinging in the current election, that's something that i don't always feel like i am.

re-reading this - here's one of the BEST discussions of hijab I have ever heard online. Thank you also to Samina Ali. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_J5bDhMP9lQ

*thank you to my mother, bibi meer, and my aunt, alia hogben (of the canadian muslim women's council) for their help in my research and support in my writing. i am so grateful for the powerful women around me who don't always (or often) agree with my stands but back me up nonetheless.

Friday, June 1, 2012

The C-Word: How to Say No

I am always asked this question.

When faced with the enormous weight of the medical establishment and the cancer industry, along with the battalions of family members and friends who told me I was a selfish, unrealistic, irresponsible mother with a death wish, how did I say no?

How do you make a decision based on the quiet voice of your intuition when you're scared out of your skin? And when almost every person of repute is telling you that your intuition might be deadly wrong.

How do you do what you feel in your gut is right for you and your body?

This is critical.

Toddlers say, "No" often and with conviction. "No green beans!" "No shoes!" It's simple.

Teenagers do it by rolling over and going back to sleep. Or ignoring their parents' text messages. It's all about creating a separate identity and learning to make your own boundaries. It's a crucial developmental step.

Eventually, though, as we grow up, we all learn the value of saying, "Yes." Or at least, "Oh, all right," most of the time. It's a necessary part of living in society. We get to work when we are told to be there, we do the laundry for the whole family, make dinner when we're exhausted.

The problem is that we - especially women - often forget that we need to assert our independence sometimes. Not just for the brief rush of power (and ensuing guilt) of doing what we want, but as a sort of self-protection. There is only so much you can do and if you don't learn to protect yourself, the world will eat you up.

I am not suggesting that the world is malicious, just that the people who love you most, who care most about you, sometimes don't realize that you are a human yourself who also has a responsibility to herself. That sometimes you need to tell them, "No."

When you are sick, this can get even harder.

If you feel like your illness might respond better to a certain diet, let's say your own version of Unger's Clean or Gerson therapy or any of the variations and options out there, you need to protect yourself from the people who love you and may have stayed up all night baking your favorite brownies or frying samosas. If you are weak and tired and you don't even really like brussel sprouts, but you somehow know that's what you need, you need to say, "No, thank you," to the person who brought cupcakes and the doctor who says, "What you eat doesn't really matter anyway."

For the hospital, here is your first bit of ammunition. In the land of the invalids, the squeaky wheel gets gets the oil. Statistically, patients who complain and demand attention get better care - and recover faster. The more active you are in the process, the better your care will be - mainly because you've lived in your body and you know it better than any doctor ever could. I'm not suggesting you be nasty and mean to anyone - and especially not the nurses because they really work hard - but that you stick to what you believe.  Even doctors and nurses, when they stop to think, believe this.

The uncomplaining patient who quietly does what she's told tends to be forgotten in the rush. If you have unpleasant symptoms or side-effects and you don't demand that your doctor address them in some way, you run the risk of hurting yourself in the long run. The human body reacts differently to different drugs as well as different illnesses. It's possible that something that seems unimportant may turn out to be something serious.

That's why I suggest you listen to yourself and your body. Trust your intuition.

When you are sick, vulnerable, frightened or even just intimidated, that is the time to say, "No," and take your power back. No, I don't want cortisteroids. No, I don't want a medical student to give me spinal tap, I'd rather have someone with years of experience. No, I can't walk there, I want a wheelchair. No, I don't want a wheelchair, I'd rather walk myself.

Even if every single person tells you that acupuncture or prayer or avoiding surgery or chemotherapy or radiation is a stupid thing to do, if you feel like something is not working for you, if you get a sinking feeling as you start do it, say, "No." (Interestingly, my daughters never question my convictions).

Remember that you can. There is a patient's bill of rights that allows you to refuse any treatment that you don't feel is benefitting you. It means that your doctors need to explain what they are doing and why. Just because something has "always been done that way" or because something is the "standard protocol" doesn't mean it always works or it can't be improved upon.

In my case, I knew too many people who had suffered from the side-effects of chemotherapy and radiation. The cancer was defeated, but with many of my friends, it came roaring back in four or five years because the person's natural immune system was so decimated by the chemo. I've known people who were killed by the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation but I never met anyone who was killed by natural medicine.

While I am a big proponent of natural healing methods, there is a lot to be said for your own state of mind. If you really have faith in whatever method you are using to get well, it is likely to work. If you have your doubts, don't do it.

For me, I tried psychic healers, massage and cranial-sacro therapists, acupuncturists, integrative oncologists, reiki healers, brennan method healers, nutritionists, and hypnotists. I chose them based on positive recommendations from others. If something felt good - and I found research supporting it - I kept doing it. If it didn't feel like it was doing me good or I didn't respond to the energy of the person, I stopped. I really worked on not being intimidated by either the New Age machinery or the medical industry.

Cancer and other life-threatening ailments are big business and too many people are scared or intimidated into spending a lot of money on treatments that don't work for them. Say, "No."

Not to be too trite but in Legally Blonde Two, Elle Woods uses a disappointing haircolor as a metaphor:

Sometimes you realize that part of the reason you got sick was that you didn't learn how to say, "No" enough. No, I can't drive you there. No, I can't keep the kids this weekend so you and your girlfriend can go to a bed and breakfast. No, I can't cover that bill. No, you can't come have your lunch at my house just because you're in the neighborhood. 

Years ago, my mother taught me the beginnings of saying no to authorities. "Well, the recipe calls for three cans of chicken broth, but I made some chicken stock myself so I will use that." Or "The doctor told me to take this, but it's making me feel sick, so I'm going to throw them away and call him."

Start small. But work on it. 

It's not always nice to say no to the people who care about you. But it's better to be nice to yourself some time.

When I finally told my oncologist I would not do any more chemotherapy despite her recommendations, she said, "You'll be dead in 12 weeks."

When I told the psychiatrists who were sent to counsel me that there were other ways to cure cancer, they laughed and said, "Those are fairy stories."

That was two years' ago. (That doesn't mean I might not have a relapse anyway because five years is the mark, but I've enjoyed the last two years at full steam).

Be brave.

Say No.

It could save your life.

Monday, May 7, 2012

the stuff you hate

why is it that so often the stuff you hate doing - like getting out of bed to jump into a freezing cold pool, or eating a bowl of broccoli instead of banana bread, or dropping off the kids at school in the morning (or picking them up in the afternoon) - ends up making you feel so good? quite often, as soon as you've won the battle against inertia and gotten warmed up enough that the water starts to feel comfortable, you actually ENJOY it.

i swear i am eating broccoli right now. in my bathing suit, just about to go to the pool. see?

for years, my exhusband picked up the amazons in the morning and dropped them off at school. then, for reasons he will explain, somehow related to boundaries or something, he told them he would not.

so i took over. after i drag myself out of bed, rush them through breakfast and then grouchily get them into the minivan, i discover that i love the anticipation humming through the car. i sometimes ask them about their classes. we take stock of what was forgotten at home and how to deal with it. i hear about the plans for the afternoon. if we pick up a couple of their friends along the way, i eavesdrop on their gossip and get a sense of the temperature of the moment. there are good reasons why they should be more responsible and get there themselves - and some days i force them to.  90% of the time, i take them.

then when we get to school, if i can get a parking spot, i walk them in. mainly for one reason: so i can walk out into the stream of kids coming in.

the best thing about the united nations international school in nyc - apart from it being a vast range of cultures and races - is that it goes from kindergarten to twelfth-grade. i get to see the kindergarten's wide-open faces as they skip into school under their enormous, colorful backpacks. i love that so often, they still want to hold a parent's hand. i get to see the toddler siblings running and tripping, looking adoringly at their big brothers or sisters. the junior schoolers on their scooters or dressed in costumes for a class event. the middle-schoolers proudly balancing projects, dioramas and posters and boxes of cupcakes, as they march in with a sense of purpose. they feel so grown-up, they own the school now and they know where they are going.

and then those bleary-eyed teenagers, the girls still awkward in occasional heels and those tiny tiny shorts and skirts, dripping with make-up (they have to start somewhere!) the boys, still just boys, their faces sometimes red and smarting from the occasional shave, and in their big men's bodies that they don't know what to do with. even if it's spring, there's a bit of chill in the morning air, because the day is just beginning.

sometimes, i just start laughing to myself because i was once a kindergartener, a fourth-grader, a thirteen year-old and a high school senior. i can see myself and the amazons in every one of them.

don't you remember holding the hand of your first-grader and looking with terror at those enormous, threatening adolescents and wondering how yours would ever make it? and now, looking at those upper schoolers and realizing that they are just as vulnerable and fragile as the little kids.

because it's u.n.i.s., they are often speaking different languages and wearing vastly different clothes (until they turn into teenagers). sarah kay, the brilliant young performance poet, was a u.n.i.s. student. so was ishmael beah, the child soldier who wrote "a long way home," and sarah jones, the actor who can be 15 different nationalities consecutively in her one-woman show and john zorn, the experimental musician.

because it's u.n.i.s, the school guards and teachers have seen the kids go from bright-eyed five year-olds to defiant adolescents and they don't let them get away with anything. the authorities watch them walk in with a sense of care and discipline as well as affection. one guard i've known for 14 years said to me almost bursting with pride, "look at those kids, they are all happy to be here!" because it's u.n.i.s., the kids seem to walk in smiling - even the upper schoolers with their intense academic pressures and clear lack of sleep - and the excitement of the day to come is almost palpable.

when i get back into my car, i'm smiling too. i'm exhilarated by the optimism. i have perspective - that irritating job is just a job, the traffic and the weather will be different tomorrow.

 like finishing the broccoli and moving on to kale (i REALLY am right now), i'm energized and almost euphoric. it's a meditation in itself. how can anyone feel bad with all those smiling kids promising you a better world?

in my mind, the best way to stay healthy and happy is to stay engaged. to revel in the spirit of others and stay buoyant and purposeful.

you're here because they need you here. WE need you here. you need their energy and positivity as much as they need yours.

muslims are constantly told to be generous, that anything you give away, God will repay ten-fold. i believe that includes your energy. it's an effort but it pays off in a big way. every faith tells us that.

we're all in this together, that's what dropping the amazons off at school makes me remember. we're all on the same path.

that's why the stuff we hate to do is quite often the most crucial.

off to immerse myself in cold water! (lap swimming when i really would rather have another cup of tea, remember?)