Friday, September 28, 2007

Confusion of the Heart

The Yom Kippur machzar (prayer book) kept asking for repentance for sins that were pretty easy to recognize: e.g. "sessions of vice" and "disrespect for parents and teachers." Other sins were less transparent; in particular, I found myself wondering, again and again, what constitutes the sin of "confusion of the heart."


1.Some divine script instructs the heart to beat adagio, and then the perverse, or perhaps just merely disobedient, heart contracts a bit too slowly - or a bit too fast.
2.An extrasystole manifests itself now and then, causing fear and confusion.
3.Two people get a divorce and then realize that, at best, their hearts were confused.
4.A person of color fights with a white boy in a small Southern town and finds himself locked up for who knows how long.(Whose heart was confused?)
5.A Southern District Attorney stands up in front of a lot of people and says that the people of color behaved well during their protest because of the presence of Jesus Christ. (Who was most confused at that point, the DA, the listeners or Jesus Christ?)
6.My sister is suddenly talking back to people. (Is this confusion of the heart or clarity of the heart?)
7.I was going to leave Nefesh last year at this time because I had too much hair. (How confused was that?)
8.At the blink of the eye, we have gone from Jeff sitting on my lap to the eve of his marriage. (My heart should be glad and not confused at this passage of time.)
9.My friend says that her brother has married her mother; I say that all men marry their mothers and that mothers come in many disguises.
10.An acquaintance misinterprets events and ends up hurting a lot of people.

Any suggestions?

Friday, September 7, 2007


November 2006
I find myself hating my hair in a particularly virulent way. Certainly I have hated my hair many times before, but now I hate my hair because I believe that it signals my religious hypocrisy: I am in fact the only woman at Nefesh, with one exception, who did not give up her hair at the moment of marriage, does not wear a shaytel (wig) and until very recently perceived hats only as clever matching accessories to her yeshiva moror (teacher) outfits.

Let's begin at the beginning: Why do Jewish women cut their hair very short when they are kallahs (brides) and hide what remains under a (beautifully styled) wig? (My Catholic friends might want to take this opportunity to wonder if the covering of a nun's head harkens back to Judaism? If I remember correctly, every depiction even (especially?) of Mary, a Jewess after all, shows her with head modestly covered.)

Explanation #1: G-d said so.
Explanation #2:There should be no knots or snarls in one's hair when one submerges one's total self in the mikveh (ritual bath). One must blend completely with the holy water.
Explanation #3:Once a woman marries and pleases her husband, she understands her sexual powers, symbolized by (or maybe even literally represented by) her hair. (Even if she wears the most beautiful wig in the world, it is still not her real hair.)
Explanation #4, a logical corollary to #3: A man studying Torah or davening (praying) should never be distracted by a woman's actual hair.
(The Skeptic's) Explanation #5: Since it was very sunny and sandy in the desert, it was a common habit (nun pun unintended) to cover one's head.

Anyway, I am so distraught because of my curly, abundant hair that I tell my supervisors that I cannot continue with the hats and therefore must leave Nefesh. Unbenknowest to anyone, I have a big nasty clot growing underneath all that hair; also lurking deep inside is the secret that I long for a kosher marriage to a kosher man, with whom I can practice all the rites and rituals of my religion. One way or the other, I am obsessed with the belief that I am either cheating or being cheated.

February 2007
I open my eyes and find myself in an ICU bed at Lutheran Hospital. I imagine that I have a huge goiterous growth on the side of my neck, (reminiscent of an old Seinfeld episode), but this perception turns out to be untrue. Instead, I soon learn that I have somehow surived an emergency craniotomy. The bandage is removed; I reach back and discover that a large portion of the right side of my head has been shaved. I find a clump of hair - no doubt mine - on the pillow next to my head, which feels as if it might roll off (just like the head of Saddam Hussein has recently detached from his body) if I am not careful. Having bigger fish to fry, I am no longer too worried about my hair.

April 2007
I must make a terrible decision: Either I have whole-head radiation, which would somewhat reduce the odds (maybe) of the recurrence of kidneycancerbecomebraintumor (go figure) and lose all my hair or "just" have focused radiation and lose only some of my hair. The doctors (some kindly, some not so kindly) inform me that there is a 70% chance that some hair, in some form, MIGHT eventually grow back. To confuse me further, I am told that "there is no right or wrong decision - only a decision."

I decide that I should start cutting my losses and choose focused radiation. So far I have lost: part of my brain, my left kidney, my marriage and a peculiar portion of hair near my right ear. I am still much too unworried about what will ultimately become of my hair; I am, unrealistically, as it soon turns out, glad that I am not going to be completely bald and that I actually have so much hair on certain parts of my head, which now seems grotesquely large, like a globe of an unexplored world.

July 2007
Thirty sessions of radiation have gone well. I am still, however, far too flippant about the areas of missing hair that surround the irradiatied parts of my head. With the best intentions, I start taking an immunogenic drug called Nexovar, which will take care of any micrometastases that some doctors (not all) fear are still floating around my body. Upon the first dosage of 400 mgs., I become acutely aware of my Çaesarean scar, which has never, in 27 years, pained me. (I am shortly to learn that chemo drugs arouse pain in any and every wound the victim has ever acquired.)

Soon my body turns brick red from head to toe, and I have no normal-colored flesh left. After some days, the red rash turns black, and I figure, in my delirium, that the drug is doing an excellent job of choking off the blood supply to the cancer, as it should. (I wonder, however, with whatever rationalitiy remains, Do I really have cancer in every inch of my body, inside and out? If so, I am in big trouble.) I am in fact in such big trouble that I think my mother is coming nightly to take me to heaven and find out only later that Mrs. Appelbaum, in her concern, is entering my bedroom well before break of dawn to see if I am still alive. Eventually, my entire body, from forehead to heel, begins to peel, leaving new, ultra-sensitive skin that I am too petrified even to touch.

Then, without even actually realizing what is happening, the most devilish of all devilish nightmares becomes reality - the rest of my hair starts falling out, even though the drug insert says that alpoecia occurs in only 1-2% of all cases. (After eight days of dutifully ingesting the drug and watching my skin and scalp revert to prehuman states, I am told that the drug is inapporpriate and should never have been prescribed in the first place; just as dutifully, I stop taking the pills). BUT - (and here I am purposely violating my own injunction against ever beginning a sentence with the word BUT no matter what the NY Times is doing these days), BUT - my hair continues to fall out in huge enormous clumps, which show up in vastly useless and terrifying places: in my hands, in my mouth, in the bathtub drain, on the floor. My beautiful, thick, curly, bushy, totally unreligious hair is falling out and does not stop until some time in September.

I wail and scream and cry like the wild animal I believe I have become: I am losing my personality; in fact, my entire individuality. My less-than-human outbursts scare everyone around me half to death, and, when I finally calm down a little, I ask each one if he (or she) can ever possibly love a baldy beaner or, in a much more dire and horrific vein, an Anne Frank look-alike (such are my terrible swings of mood and vacillations of thought.) Some people answer affirmatively; some are too scared to answer at all.


A few straggly ugly gray hairs remain. I want to attempt comb-overs but am afraid these hairs will fall out if I dare to take a comb to them.

Then one day it comes to me, perhaps the way the truth came, with soft rays of sunlight, to Joan of Arc: G-d has given me the experience I had rued not having. He has taken my hair. (No explanation point is needed, because the truth comes to me as a gentle, quiet, undramatic revelation.) I now know what it means to lose one' s hair and wear a hat to cover one's unfamiliar head. (Part of the quiet revelation is that the hair will grow back if and when G-d decides it should; it is totally out of my control.)

(My question for the Rabbis: Yes, I am a B'al Tshuva (Returner to my religion; Repenter). Do bad things happen to people like me because of the need to do tshuva? After all, even King David needed to do tshuva in order to understand what it felt like. Or am I wrong? At any rate, as a teacher at school later tells me, I am now "purified and cleansed." I will never be sure what she means, but the need for tshuva was real and remains real: I therefore offer every missing part of my body as tshuva, if this is appropriate; perhaps I will never know if it is. In addition. I offer every strand of the hair that previously defined me.)

Friday, September 7, 2007, 6:31PM
I just reread what I have written. The frequent tone of sarcasm is upsetting, but I know it covers an intensity of emotion that I am not as yet strong enough to feel.

The sabbath is rapidly approaching, the last one of this odd old year. So I will wish everyone a "guten shabbos" and observe as best as I can.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

New Year, 5768

Some random thoughts, as we approach the New Year:

1.In this year I will oficially welcome Sheryl into my heart and life as my daughter.
2.I have already lived 7 months longer than anyone had thought I would!
3.I will not have a relapse.
4.I will navigate through the American Cancer Industry with a little (lot?) more savvy.
5.I will try to understand the importance of Jewish brochas (prayers) for activities I used to take for granted: eatiing, drinking, going to the bathroom, waking up in the morning, etc.
6.I will be happy about every strand of hair (no matter the color or texture) that G-d, through His grace and mercy, is returning to my head.
7.I will be the best teacher I can be without thinking too much about salary issues.
8.I will try not to judge anyone...
9.because we all make big mistakes in the course of our lifetimes...
10.and none of us is G-d; only G-d can judge.

May we all be inscribed for a healthy, peaceful, prosperous, forgiving, loving, compassionate New Year! And MUCH thanks to all my very dear friends and relatives who helped me survive 5767; I would not have been able to do it alone.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

TV, August 31, 2007

Bill Moyers' Journal:

1.Robert Bly: I have heard of this modern American (somewhat minor) poet, but seeing the 80 year-old in action took me aback - a lot. He is quite a formidable man, and the poems he read struck me as quite good. One line in particular, in a poem he had written long ago for his 10 year-old son Noah: "It was a day of undivided tenderness." It made me remember, with acute sadness, the days I used to spend with my own son. What does one do at my age and in my condition to broker "a day of undivided tenderness"?

Bly has studied Indian and Muslim poetry quite extensively. He read from Rami, who has supposedly driven much of modern American poetry; he spoke of the Islam concept of "nafs," which mean one's greedy soul. He read some old Vietnam poems and one Iraq one; they were very touching and true.

2. Grace Lee Boggs

She s a 92 year-old Chinese ├ůmerican activist. She is a graduate of Barnard and Bryn Mawr. Her father had a Chinese restaurant in NYC. She is an amazing woman, apart from one Jewish slur.

Her face is so worn and wise that it appears to be beautiiful. She was married to an African-American activist for 40 years until his death. She was a Marxist and a devout follower of Martin Luther King. She has a lot of hope for the future because of all the local "green projects" that are emerging. She does not despair: simply called Iraq the "quagmire" that it surely is and moved on. Her hope for America triumphed.

3.The Anvil of Fallujah, CNN

An awful, terrible recollection of the Battle of Fallujah. Marines recalled the deaths of their buddies. Film footage showed Marines kicking doors open and shooting and being shot.

There are many green garden projects in Coney Island. Does this really signal hope? Or is Fallujah the reality of America, circa August 2007?