Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The C-Word - Love and Cancer

I was at a book reading recently, chatting up a woman about all my book ideas about cancer, being a single Muslim mother in Tribeca (it goes on and on). The woman is an editor so it seemed like an opportunity. Been out of the literary world for so long that I am grasping at any straws I imagine. Now, instead looking for possible third husbands at events, I hunt down anyone who has anything to do with writing. I hope that somehow, my story will seduce them. People who have nothing to do with books seem fascinated, anyway.

She told me about a novel that everyone was talking about, [SIC], written by Joshua Cody. What she found fascinating, she said, was that he was so interested in sex. His book is a raunchy and musical ride through his romantic and occasionally drug-addled adventures whilst undergoing a very difficult treatment.

Reading more about the book – I am sorry to say I haven’t read it entirely yet - I find myself both cowed by the beauty and poetry of his writing and shocked by the sheer nakedness of it. He writes about his experiences vividly.

My own version of cancer seems tame and predictable in his shadow – he sneers at the pastel-covered cancer memoir genre: diagnosis, realization that life is wonderful, and eventually moving to a little cabin in Vermont . I would inspire only disdain. His is a dangerous, vicious, thrilling book. All the things I once thought I was. Now I’ve unwittingly fallen into the standard cancer-memoir-protocol though I’ve never read one. (Albeit with no cabin in Vermont. I am still in my leaky, garage of an apartment in Tribeca).

But I find myself relating to his book in another way. If nothing else, when you are single when you have cancer, you long to have someone chronicle the transformation of your body. In the same way that when you are pregnant, your body bloats and ripens and turns into another beast entirely, your body when you have cancer, morphs and betrays your expectations again.

It is both frightening and beautiful, in the way that a Francis Bacon painting is - a beautiful ode to the human form, even in its most grotesque condition. While having chemo, one’s skin turns pale. At times, blue, at times, mottled with red spots. The flesh seems to fall off the bones. And the bones, those bones, become so sharp and apparent. You lose your hair – and people forget – but that means ALL your hair, on every inch of your body. There is something alien about the body so hairless and pale, I wanted to take pictures to explore the strangeness.

In my case, my fingers and tongue took on a blackish tint as if stained with ink. I had tiny, burning sores on my cheeks and wide swaths of little blisters on my ribs, like stripes. I think about the woman in the cancer support group in Fight Club. Bald and wasting away, she was dying to find a one-night stand before she left the world. When I first attempted the occasional date again, not long after I stopped treatment, a guy told me I reminded him of her. I protested, I was so mild-mannered – but the desperation and loneliness must have been obvious.

My cheeks and eyes were sunken and my lashless eyelids were burning and swollen. My eyes stayed bloodshot for months afterwards. While I didn’t approach anyone, I longed for a warm body in the bed beside me. To be held and kissed by a being still surging with life, still pliant with flesh. I felt like a succubus, yearning to feel someone else’s life force inside me.

Perhaps, though, because I refused the steroids and tried to keep up with Pilates, I never had the adrenaline-fueled energy to roam the streets at night or to go to parties and bars, like the character in [SIC]. I generally was in bed by 9, usually with Rara, who was just 10 years old and frightened, wrapped around me like a scarf and my mother sleeping fitfully on the sofa, a few feet away.

And then of course, there is the movie, 50/50. That very funny Seth Rogan comedy about a young guy (played Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who gets cancer. Since his insane girlfriend cheats on him, he is forced to go to bars with his buddy who uses his friend’s cancer as a pick-up line.

This is where the cancer experience of women and men parts ways. The line, as everyone knows, would bomb. Basically, women (not all, but most) are hardwired to want to take care of people. A woman will sleep with a man because she feels sorry for him. A man? Not often.

The statistics are something like this: three out of four men leave their wives/partners within a year of their cancer diagnosis. A woman is six times more likely to be separated or divorced after a cancer or MS diagnosis.

While the narrator in [SIC] had an encounter with a fellow cancer patient, she was an exmodel. And even then, she didn’t come looking great.

For the most part, if you are a woman, telling a potential suitor you have cancer (or even HAD cancer) is akin to telling him you’re a leper.

Add to that, three very tough and fashion-fascist daughters, very involved parents, complicated exhusbands and the disastrous ruins of my financial life post-cancer and mid-recession; and almost anyone I met would run screaming in the other direction.

I did have one date, not long after the chemo finished. I did my best to ice my eyes and tried to use make-up to make up for the pallor and lack of hair, eyebrows and eyelashes. Upon shaking my boney hand, he looked pale himself. He tried to squirm out so quickly. He had barely received his order before he looked at cellphone and remembered another appointment in Williamsburg that he was already late for.

Perhaps that’s why I watched the first season of “The Big C” with such satisfaction. Laura Linney chose to simply live with her cancer. She chose to enjoy the languid pleasures of summer without disclosing it and live as if every day was her last. Luckily for her, her cancer moved slowly enough to allow her to drag it out.

Perhaps that’s why, only months after I finished treatments, I fell head over heels for a sweet 27 year-old.

Now that I am well, possibly temporarily, but I like to believe, at least long enough to see my daughters out of college. I find myself longing for someone who knows my history. Who can appreciate the transformations of my life and body and appreciate, with satisfaction and understanding, where I am.

The same way in which, you call your old friends after you get run a marathon or lose 10 pounds, you want to someone who can really tell you how far you’ve come. Someone who recognizes the “you” in your new form. Someone who has patience and gentleness with your kids.

No house in Vermont yet. No new love story. Or nothing with legs. Despite that, as it turns out, I am still the cliché. Hopeful and optimistic. Looking at the life surging through the plants and animals and humans around me with awe.

Of course, there are times, when life hits me in the head so hard, I wish I’d had a ticket out of here. The material world can be harsh when you start slipping. People get tired of someone who goes on struggling. I get tired of it myself.

But on a strangely spring day in the middle of February, I am very grateful to be around for just one more.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

little angels and my demons

last week - or maybe the week before, i went to a screening of "little angels," a series of books and dvds for young children. it was created and narrated by roma downey, the irish actress from "touched by an angel." the screening was at the chic, ultramodern four seasons hotel on 57th street, they served us a beautiful buffet lunch on silver platters. the room was filled with "mommy bloggers," children and babies.

i was especially interested in the project for several reasons. the main one being my obsession with the irishwoman lorna byrne, whose book, angels in my hair, is all about her interactions with angels. all of a sudden, i seem to be meeting irishwomen who know the names of all the angels (are they more connected than us?)

while i'd always thought the idea of angels and guardian angels was sweet and pleasant, sort of like flower fairies, i never took it very seriously.

sometime last month, i had a crazy, hallucinogenic, rollercoaster of an experience with a psychic who also spoke to angels, though in a more subtle way. it was shocking and unnerving, so i started to take the idea more seriously.

what interested me most about all these encounters was the number of spiritual traditions that have angels - muslims, christians and jews all talk about the abrahamic angels, gabriel, michael, izrail... hindus and buddhists have apsaras and devas, spiritual beings who behave similarly to angels. and, of course, lorna byrne expressing her message from the angels - that people of different faiths and backgrounds begin to pray together.

from what i understand, the idea of the sweet "little angels" series is passing on moral and emotional guidance to young children and letting them know that they are loved. the stories of the modern-day children are interspersed with bible stories that explain the principles being taught, like perseverance, empathy and cooperation and belief in a higher power.

at the screening, i raised my hand and asked roma how the series dealt with different faith traditions.

roma said, "we don't. this is very christian-based, though of course, kindness and sharing are good lessons for everyone."

then, of course, a number of other parents chimed in and expressed their appreciation that she was passing on christian values and messages. i should add that, though the human children in the story are caucasian, the angels (which look like little children with wings) are multicultural. the show is very cute and watchable. my two year-old nephew, omaid, loved it. and he loves veggie tales, too.

so i sat there transposing the idea into my own muslim-interfaith-centric point-of-view. i asked myself some questions. for instance, if muslim stories (most of which are actually christian and jewish stories, too, because islam comes from the abrahamic tradition) were presented for children with no interfaith perspective, would i be bothered? is the message from the allegories enough?

was my reaction bigotry or prejudice on my part?

i hope not.

my concerns were this. one, there are already a lot of books and tv shows for children, veggie tales, for instance, or davey and goliath or gumby that express a christian or biblical perspective in a friendly, appealing way (LOVED those when i was little). two, there are also good muslim, jewish, christian and hindu versions of character and moral-building stories illustrated by religious texts.

and three, while i don't know of any modern animation specific to angels in our midst, the idea of angels/devas/apsaras, especially guardian angels, is something that is told to young children all over the world.

i value the idea of letting children know that there are spiritual beings that exist and connect them to something greater but somehow, i felt like "little angels" was too small, too limited. it reminded me a little of timmy and his fairy godparents, the fairly odd parents, except that the angels don't grant wishes and the stories are more reverent and Bible-based.

in my mind, i feel like we need to teach our children how the angels are connected to us - but also how we are connected to everyone and everything else. that Divine energy runs through all of us, that there is no separation. that LOVE really is everything.

while a faith tradition is important, we need to remember that it is culture, like clothing, a language, a skin color. it is something that serves a purpose, but while it looks or sounds different, it all has the same value, the same reason.

underneath, we are all the same.

feeling unsatisfied, i approached roma at the end of the screening. i introduced myself and told her what a great project it was.

she said, "thank you so much. you're a muslim? i've met your king."

i must have looked blank (who knew there was a king of all the muslims?) so she added, "king abdullah... and his lovely wife."

i muttered, "king abdullah of jordan, oh..."

she seemed to realize i was lost and said, "what country do you come from?"

i said something about my ethnic origin being indian and she said she had been there and then our conversation collapsed a bit.

i asked her how they might address the interfaith issues and she said, "we don't plan to. we are in wal-mart all over the united states starting today and we feel mainstream christians are a much bigger audience."

she said it kindly, not dismissively. she was clearly trying to be approachable so it didn't seem like a good place to argue my point. but i was disappointed. if the series really reaches young christian children all over the united states - maybe even all over the world - how much more powerful the message could be,

how much more powerful the lasting implications of telling young children that we are all one.

people who've told me they speak to angels always clarify, angels are different than humans. we don't become each other. angels don't become babies and people who've passed into the next world don't turn into angels.

as humans, i am told, we are actually much greater than angels, our light is brighter and more able to impact each other and the physical world.

and as children, as everyone from educators to scientists to psychics will tell you, our creative powers are at their peak.

in my mind, the idea should be to find a way for young children to hold on their innate knowledge without reducing it to a single faith or tradition or culture. without being too cute or cheesy or hokey or predictable. keeping somehow the magical, ethereal nature of what we need to communicate.

is that impossible? or are we just not there yet?

time to walk the dog.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Love, Inshallah

i went to a reading last night for a new anthology called Love, Inshallah.

sadly, i am so broke right now that i can't possibly afford it, but i am SO happy. the response has been positive - and let's be honest - i am also completely thrilled that i am not the only "fallen" muslim woman in the fold.

when was in my late teens, my mother used to say to me, "lots of girls do what you do, of course, they do, but no one else does it so openly, why do you insist on writing about everything so it's all there for everyone to see. people don't like that." when Bombay Talkie came out, i might as well have sewed a scarlet letter on my chest.

so i stood up at the reading and thanked them for taking on the mantle. Alhamdullilah, i am no longer the only muslim woman to write about being divorced.

from what i heard at the reading and on amazon, the anthology cast a wide net from the sacred to the profane and back again. i am so relieved to have all these women on my side. one speaker's statement at the packed reading (at bluestocking books in the lower eastside), paraphrased because i was sitting so far in the back, i couldn't see her (and i don't remember it properly), "my Islam and my God is so loving and compassionate that I know that I am always welcome there... it is a part of me."

exactly how i feel about my relationship with the Divine now. phew. i found my tribe. even though i found them a bit late. they even talked about the woman-led muslim prayer service in nyc that i dragged my daughters to in 2006.

at the end of the reading, where you stand around holding all your stuff as they fold up the chairs, get overheated as you hug your coat and bag in the stuffy room, i was approached by a friendly woman with gorgeous brown eyes and a headscarf. we started talking about divorce. she was divorced, too, with a young son. we shared some stories about how our families and friends reacted to our situations. then she started asking me a lot of questions about my feelings about sexuality post-marriage and as well as the rules i was enforcing for my teenaged daughters. i was a bit taken aback.

i realized that in the exchange, i was the one being judgemental. i was the one assuming that this woman in hijab would be judging my choices so i was hesitant to express them. i felt like she would look at my miniskirt and t-shirt and my daughter and think, "well, this one is going to hell in a handbasket..."

real life's been a series of misunderstandings for me at the moment, so i was tense already and assuming the worst. not the best moment to build bridges. made me think of a conversation i'd had with some friends from the mosque about things that are "haram" (forbidden for muslims). we were at pop burger after a movie screening. it was a playful dinner conversation about what they would like to do if it weren't forbidden. when it came to me, i said, "i already tried everything i wanted to do!" (i meant to add - if i didn't try it, it's because i never wanted to anyway).

i wasn't sure what to tell the lovely woman in hijab in front of me - especially after all my stupid bravado of standing up during the reading and outing myself as a licentious, divorced writer in front of my 13 year-old - so it wasn't like i could play all demure and reticent now.

i tried to wriggle out of the conversation but she held me there and said, "as women, we need to start talking to each other, we need to stop criticizing, stop judging..."

in that instant, i remembered that that was exactly what i'd said all along. she was right. she is right. we need to look past other people's external choices for how they interpret faith. it is about accepting and respecting everyone's practice.

understanding and compassion.

i don't have nearly enough of it. harder still when i am under pressure - but isn't that when it's most important?

and isn't that the reason for the book? reminding us to see our common humanity.

"yes," i told her and gave her my information. "we're all in this together. please call or email me, let's have coffee."