From Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, the author of Kitchen Table Wisdom, a collection of moving and inspirational stories about the human spirit, comes more writings that examine the heart, mind, and soul at work. My Grandfather's Blessings is a collection of thoughts, anecdotes, parables, and prayers that Remen has gathered to help those who are facing the crisis of illness, whether in themselves or someone they care about. Such a crisis is often a wake-up call, a push that forces us to reevaluate our lives, our priorities, and our values. It can be a painful and arduous journey, but the homilies in My Grandfather's Blessings will no doubt provide a cushion for many as they navigate those bumps in the road.
As the title implies, My Grandfather's Blessings includes some of the sage advice and bits of wisdom that Remen's grandfather, a Cabalistic rabbi, shared with her. But there are other voices that speak out here as well -- patients, physicians, friends, family, and Remen herself -- each voice unique though united in the common goal of honoring and respecting life and learning to appreciate the many blessings -- both small and large -- we all receive. The collective whole is an inspirational and compassionate glimpse at the incredible fortitude and indomitable nature of the human spirit.
As a counselor to those with chronic, critical, or terminal diseases, as well as to the medical practitioners who treat them, Remen has explored many aspects of the impact of illness. A physician herself, she is also the survivor of a painful and debilitating disease she has had for nearly half a century. As such, she has viewed illness and its effects from both sides of the fence, a position that lends her words a credibility and balance others in her field may lack. This is not a book of medical advice, at least not in the standard sense, though healing is certainly a goal. But Remen's brand of healing is not the physical kind (though that occasionally occurs as an intriguing and serendipitous side effect), it's more a healing of the spirit and soul. The book is not about saving lives so much as it is about celebrating them. It's not a book about dying, it's a book about living.
Remen talks about such matters as the power of forgiveness and the courage of vulnerability. These may seem like lofty subjects until you read the powerfully simple stories of the people Remen has known and how they accomplished these goals. Some of these stories are sad yet inspiring, some are touching and funny. Others, such as Remen's anecdote about how she learned to become an expert in drawing blood, demonstrate the inherent power of humility. There are stories from patients and doctors, from children and from adults. Each one is a gift that demonstrates lives transformed and the ability we all possess to take charge of our lives and find the courage to share our common humanity.
There are lessons here, such as Remen's story about her mother's silk stockings -- several pairs in a rainbow of colors, stashed away in a drawer in their original packaging, never worn because they were too valuable and her mother thought they should be saved for a special occasion. Although the outcome to this tale may be predictable, it's nonetheless a touching story and drives home an important concept. As do all the other tales. There are stories of healing through imagery and meditation. There are stories of incredible courage in the face of overwhelming odds. There are stories of suffering and the myriad ways people deal with it. In fact, finding refuge from suffering is one of Remen's recurring themes throughout the book. Many of her stories and lessons are geared toward helping people in crisis recognize and avoid behaviors such as denial and rationalization, which may temporarily ease suffering but provide no long-term relief.
The stories are compelling enough to make one want to read the whole thing in one sitting, but My Grandfather's Blessings is one of those books best experienced in small bites in order to savor each tidbit and relish the flavor of the underlying theme or concept. It makes for a series of snacks, but in the end, there is much sustenance to be found. The cumulative effect is like a multicourse gourmet meal that provides a high level of satiety and nourishment for the soul.