Photo via: Yitz Woolf — Ruth and Ibtisam hugging.
A Jewish mom in Jerusalem gets breast cancer and joins an Israeli-Palestinian breast cancer support group. She meets a Muslim breast cancer survivor who lives on the other side of an eight-foot concrete barrier in the West Bank. Compatibility strikes, then deep friendship. Hollywood-inspired hope, right?
I’m that Jewish mom.
Already at that first meeting in 2011, Ibtisam Erekat and I discovered that we had incredibly similar personal biographies. We were both religiously observant. We had both married in our thirties, late in our respective traditional communities. Each of our husbands was a divorcé who was several years our senior and had brought children into the marriage. We both had birthed three children in three years. And the two of us were nursing our babies when we were diagnosed with breast cancer, which was rather uncommon. I had never met anyone who shared so many critical elements of my life story. “Same here,” said Ibtisam, in impressive English she had gleaned off the television. Even more astounding was the match in personality: Ibtisam, like me, was funny, outgoing, fearless. The conversation flowed, and we couldn’t stop laughing.
In 2012, we traveled together to Bosnia as part of an Israeli-Palestinian delegation of breast cancer survivors. There, miles away from the turmoil of our region, our friendship blossomed. In time, we grew to be kin; our children, spouses, and extended families grew close, too.
This was a story begging to be told. So I did. I crafted an essay about our trip to Bosnia and another about our friendship. Penning a memoir was a natural next step.
I rented a charming writing room atop a plant nursery, propped my laptop on a table covered with a flowered tablecloth, and poured a cup of Bengal Spice tea.
And that’s when my fingers got stuck.
Lightly grazing the keys on the keyboard, I couldn’t write a word.
The page on my computer screen stayed blank. Or was that my mind?
Why couldn’t I get down the story? I was a journalist with years of writing experience and I knew what I wanted to say. I envisioned a trajectory of three plot points: illness-friendship–reassessmen
The essays I had written contained the scaffolding of my experience. As such, they had been composed with relative ease. But my memoir demanded diving right into the heart of the matter—the rawness of disease, the fears and complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, embracing “other”, whatever that meant. I had to paint the pictures and settings in which those had happened, and I could not retrieve them with sufficient detail. Some I couldn’t retrieve at all.
There was no question that developing that kind of tell-your-secrets kinship with someone from across the Israeli-Palestinian divide had cracked me open. My knee-jerk inclination to see “other” as psychically miles away from me disappeared. Not only Muslims or Palestinians, but others of all kinds grew to feel familiar. The outer shells of people of different races, religions, nationalities, those with some sort of disability—were, I could now see, just shells. The deep understanding that bonded me to my fellow travelers had prompted me to question the arbitrary divides between us and challenge the utility and logic of conflict. But, somehow, I was unable to put this in writing.
Trying to crack it, I remembered that the most creative and stirring prose I had ever composed emerged from a writing class I had taken with a playwright/director in a yoga studio in Tel Aviv in 2011. We had alternated between stretching at the bar and stretching our minds. Or did those happen at the same time?
So after fumbling for a few weeks, I called Madelyn Kent, who had gone back to New York. She told me about her method, Sense Writing, which drew from the principles of Feldenkrais, a somatic educational system intended to improve quality of movement and general wellbeing. Was I game to try one-on-one coaching across the Atlantic?
Our weekly Thursday night Skype sessions began with body mapping. Lying on my back, sprawled across a turquoise-and-lavender yoga mat in my study in Jerusalem, I listened to Madelyn’s sonorous voice encourage me to notice the contact points where my body touched the cold stone floor: pelvis, shoulder blades, spine, ankles, neck. She explained that these specific movements were intended to quiet down my nervous system.
I was encouraged to float inside a scene I wanted to explore. Notice the source and quality of light. Are the sounds close by or faraway? Distinguish the smells. What’s the taste in my mouth?
In reaching for sensory detail, my shoulders settled. My breathing slowed. The focus on process took away the pressure to “say something deep.” I was too busy trying to listen to the timbre of people’s voices and notice the quality of their skin to worry about being profound. Had they dressed for the weather? Had the light changed since I had first entered that setting?
Crisp, real and textured were the sentences that I wrote. Critical elements of events, pains and hurts, character, desire and plot percolated to the surface. I plucked details like daisies, pieces of my story that I didn’t know were there. Every writing session was a thrill, an adventure. An opportunity to run, and be, naked, footloose, carefree. I could do this! I could write that!
But my confidence faltered when I was alone. Though I dutifully recited the sequences on my own and practiced the writing exercises that emphasized the senses, I failed to replicate the magic.
Serendipitously, Madelyn wanted to encourage sustainable independent practice. One spring afternoon, she called. “I’ve recorded tailored sequences of Sense Writing to be used at home. Would you like to give it a shot?”
The format appeared straightforward: weekly meetings with Madelyn would now be followed by taped sequences of body mapping and writing, like we’d done on Skype. The best part: I could play the recordings whenever I wanted.
The following Thursday, I lugged my yoga mat and furry lime-green blanket to my writing room. I plugged in my laptop, selected a writing sequence and stretched my arms and legs on the mat.
And… there she was!
“When we lie down on the floor, all the habits we’ve accumulated from standing up and dealing with evolution and gravity disappear. What’s left when you lie down?”
Air filled and stretched my lungs. Inhaled through my mouth, exhaled through my nose. The worries of the day washed away.
I placed my palms on my eyes to block out the light and quiet down my optic nerve. Then I cupped my chin in my hand and moved it ever so gently from left to right, left to right.
Break these events down sense by sense, advised Madelyn. Later on, you’ll weave it together.
On that particular morning, I wanted to write about my visit to a Muslim girls’ school in Mostar, Herzegovina, in 2012 with our Israeli-Palestinian delegation. I remembered little from that afternoon; we were not allowed to photograph the students.
I pressed play on a 22-minute recording called “Specificity leads to Vastness.”
The scene started to fill out in my mind like a painting on a canvas. I saw teeth marks in chewed bubble gum stuck under a student’s desk. I heard two giggly hijabi teenagers whisper in incomprehensible Bosnian. I smelled bits of leftover chocolate stashed in a backpack in the back row. I felt, and heard, flip-flops slapping and thwacking-thwacking the floor as I entered the bathroom with the special bidet hose. The students sang me a rousing ‘Happy Birthday’ in accented English. Here was a sensory detail. And another. Where were my Palestinian friends? Oh, they were lined up on the bench to my right. And behind them, rows of green square tiles and a framed Muslim prayer icon.
Wait! There I am! On my legs, pressing creases out of my blue jeans and a royal-blue cowl-neck shirt. I turn to address the Bosnian teenagers from the back of the room.
“When you see me walking down the street, you don’t say, ‘there goes the breast cancer survivor.'”
My words are translated into incomprehensible Bosnian. Forty sets of female eyes framed in head scarves are on me.
“That’s because there’s nothing outwardly that shows that I survived cancer.” Now those eyes stare at me with great intent. Some narrow their eyes on my chest. “Look around the room. The same can be said about all of my friends.”
My words are again translated into Bosnian.
“So don’t be afraid! Let your fingers check your breast for lumps in bed or in the shower.”
Feel your body, I advise them. Get in touch with your senses. Trust them.
Just like my writing!
Somehow, I had forgotten that on my 44th birthday, which I had spent in a Muslim girls’ school in Mostar, I had given my first public speech as a breast cancer survivor—my debut as a health activist.
With the slightest cracking open of a door, that scene just slid right out.
Yes. I could do this.
I could write this memoir.
RUTH EBENSTEIN is an American-Israeli writer, historian and health activist who loves to laugh a lot and heartily. She is the author of the forthcoming memoir, Bosom Buddies: How Breast Cancer Fostered an Unexpected Friendship Across the Israeli-Palestinian Divide. Ruth has published her shorter writing on both sides of the Atlantic and won two first-place Simon Rockower awards, sponsored by the American Jewish Press Association. Her essays have appeared in the Atlantic, TriQuarterly, Washington Post, Tablet, the Forward, Stars and Stripes, Education Week, Quail Bell Magazine, and other publications. She has also written a children’s book entitled All of this Country is Called Jerusalem. Find her online at her website, LaughThroughBreastCancer.com, on Facebook at Laugh Through Breast Cancer – Ruth Ebenstein, and on twitter @ruthebenstein.