My Grandfather's Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging

My Grandfather's Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging

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by Rachel Naomi Remen

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In My Grandfather's Blessings, Rachel Naomi Remen, a cancer physician and master storyteller, uses her luminous stories to remind us of the power of our kindness and the joy of being alive.

Dr. Remen's grandfather, an orthodox rabbi and scholar of the Kabbalah, saw life as a web of connection and knew that everyone belonged to him, and that he belonged

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In My Grandfather's Blessings, Rachel Naomi Remen, a cancer physician and master storyteller, uses her luminous stories to remind us of the power of our kindness and the joy of being alive.

Dr. Remen's grandfather, an orthodox rabbi and scholar of the Kabbalah, saw life as a web of connection and knew that everyone belonged to him, and that he belonged to everyone. He taught her that blessing one another is what fills our emptiness, heals our loneliness, and connects us more deeply to life.

Life has given us many more blessings than we have allowed ourselves to receive. My Grandfather's Blessings is about how we can recognize and receive our blessings and bless the life in others. Serving others heals us. Through our service we will discover our own wholeness—and the way to restore hidden wholeness in the world.

Editorial Reviews
Our Review
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.

--Beth Amos

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Penguin Publishing Group
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Chapter One

Most of us have been given many more blessings than we have received. We do not take time to be blessed or make the space for it. We may have filled our lives so full of other things that we have no room to receive our blessings. One of my patients once told me that she has an image of us all being circled by our blessings, sometimes for years, like airplanes in a holding pattern at an airport, stacked up with no place to land. Waiting for a moment of our time, our attention.

    People with serious illness have often let go of a great deal; their illness has created an opening in their lives for the first time. They may discover ways to receive all the blessings they are given, even those that were given long ago. Such people have shown me how to receive my blessings.

    Many years ago I cared for a woman called Mae Thomas. Mae had grown up in Georgia and while she had lived in Oakland, California, for many years, she had in some profound way never left the holy ground of her childhood. She had worked hard all her life, cleaning houses in order to raise seven children and more than a few grandchildren. By the time I met her, she had grown old and was riddled with cancer.

    Mae celebrated life. Her laugh was a pure joy. It made you remember how to laugh yourself. All these years later, just thinking of her makes me smile. As she became sicker, I began to call her every few days to check in on her. She would always answer the phone in the same way. I would say "Mae, how ya doin'?" and she would chuckle and reply, "I'm blessed, Sister. I am blessed."

    The night before she died, I called, and her family had brought the phone to her. "Mae," I said. "It's Rachel." I could hear her coughing and clearing her throat, looking to find breath enough to speak in a lung filled with cancer, willing herself past a fog of morphine to connect to my voice. Tears stung my eyes. "Mae," I said. "It's Rachel. How ya doin'?" There was a sound I could not identify, which slowly unwrapped itself into a deep chuckle. "I'm blessed, Rachel. I am blessed," she told me. Mae was one of those people. And so, perhaps, are we all.

    Martin Buber reminds us that just to live is holy. Just to be is a blessing. If Buber is right, what keeps us from receiving life's blessings? It is not always so simple a thing as a lack of time. Often we may not recognize a blessing when it is given, or we may have ideas about life that keep us from experiencing what we already have. Sometimes we become frozen in the past or unaware of the potential in the present. We may even come to feel entitled to what has been given us by grace. Or we may become so caught up in what is missing in the world that we allow our hearts to break. There are many ways to feel empty in the midst of our blessings.

    We can bless others only when we feel blessed ourselves. Blessing life may be more about learning how to celebrate life than learning how to fix life. It may require an appreciation of life as it is and an acceptance of much in life that we cannot understand. It may mean developing an eye for joy. It is not necessary to sit in judgment in order to move things forward, and our anger may not be the most potent tool for change. Most important, it requires the humility to know that we are not in this task of restoring the world alone.

Larry knew none of these things. He and his wife had been coming to see me as a couple for a few months. His wife came to their final appointment alone. "Where is Larry?" I asked her. "He got a call from Washington," she told me. "He was still on the phone when I left." "But didn't he promise to take Wednesdays off?" I asked. She looked at me and just smiled. "I'm leaving," she told me. "I thought if I could get him here, he might focus on me and the kids long enough for me to tell him."

    My heart sank. I had met Larry ten years before when he was first diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. He was twenty-nine at the time, a young stockbroker with a promising future. Two words from a doctor had taken all that away. Larry and his wife had fought back. Deeply in love, they had supported each other through a year of brutal chemotherapy. Their children were small, and there was much to live for. But eight months after his chemotherapy was complete, the cancer returned. This time Larry had a bone marrow transplant. Back then one out of two people who underwent this procedure died. Larry took this chance because he loved life fiercely. And he was one of the lucky ones.

    He emerged from this treatment a changed man. "There is more to life than making money," he had told me back then. Convinced that his life had been spared for a reason, he felt he had to use his time to make a difference. He left the world of business and began working in the new field of conservation.

    Over the next ten years, conservation became a nationwide movement, and Larry became a man possessed. He began working a fifty-hour week. And then a sixty-hour week. Now he traveled almost constantly and, when he was at home, worked far into the night by fax and e-mail. He ate and slept irregularly. Months went by without his having a talk with his children, an evening with his wife, or any time for himself. He lived on the edge of burnout. But there was always something more to be done, another project, another cause. His wife and children had been lonely at first, but gradually they had built a life without him.

    "Tell him that I would like to see him," I told his wife.

    She nodded. "I'll tell him after I give him the news," she said.

    Larry came in a few days later. He sat down wearily in the chair opposite. I was shocked at his appearance. "Carol said you wanted to talk with me."

    "Yes," I said. "She told me she was leaving."

    "Yes," he replied. "She told me, too."

    He began to cry. "Ten years ago, I was losing my life," he told me. "I didn't lose it then, but I've lost it now."

    "What was it like for you back then?" I asked him.

    "Desperate," he said. "Life was slipping through my fingers. I felt that I was running out of time." He paused. "I still feel that way," he told me. "The world is dying. We may not have another chance."

    We sat looking at each other in silence. My heart ached for this good man. "When was the last time that you ate with your family?" I asked him.

    He shook his head. "I don't remember."

    "Or the last time you went to sleep without setting an alarm clock?" He shook his head again. "Do you remember the last time that you played a game or read a story to your children?"

    "I don't remember," he said softly.

    "Larry, would you treat a spotted owl in this way?" He looked down at the floor and shook his head. I saw that he had begun to cry again.

    "I don't think I can go on," he said.

    I told him that I understood how important his work was. Silently he nodded. "Has serving life made you happy?"

    He looked at me, confused. "How can serving life make you happy?" he asked me. "Service requires sacrifice."

    But perhaps not. One of the fundamental principles of real service is taught many times a day aboard every airplane in the United States. Larry, who flies more than a million miles every year, had heard it hundreds of times without recognizing its relevance to him. It is the part just before takeoff when the stewardess says, "If the cabin loses pressure, the oxygen masks will fall from above. Put your own mask on first before you try to help the person next to you." Service is based on the premise that all life is worthy of our support and commitment. For Larry, this was true of every life except his own.

    If I wished to defeat those who wanted to use their lives to make a difference, this is exactly the way in which I would go about it. Few such people would be tempted from their purpose by fame, or power, or even by wealth. But I could confuse them and stop them in just the same way Larry found himself stopped. I could use their own dedication against them, driving them to work until they became so depleted and empty that they could no longer go on. I would make certain that they never discovered that blessing life is about filling yourself up so that your blessings overflow onto others.


On Friday afternoons when I would arrive at my grandfather's house after school, the tea would already be set on the kitchen table. My grandfather had his own way of serving tea. There were no teacups and saucers or bowls of granulated sugar or honey. Instead, he would pour the tea directly from the silver samovar into a drinking glass. There had to be a teaspoon in the glass first, otherwise the glass, being thin, might break.

    My grandfather did not drink his tea in the same way that the parents of my friends did either. He would put a cube of sugar between his teeth and then drink the hot tea straight from his glass. So would I. I much preferred drinking tea this way to the way I had to drink tea at home.

    After we had finished our tea my grandfather would set two candles on the table and light them. Then he would have a word with God in Hebrew. Sometimes he would speak out loud, but often he would close his eyes and be quiet. I knew then that he was talking to God in his heart. I would sit and wait patiently because the best part of the week was coming.

    When Grandpa finished talking to God, he would turn to me and say, "Come, Neshume-le." Then I would stand in front of him and he would rest his hands lightly on the top of my head. He would begin by thanking God for me and for making him my grandpa. He would specifically mention my struggles during that week and tell God something about me that was true. Each week I would wait to find out what that was. If I had made mistakes during the week, he would mention my honesty in telling the truth. If I had failed, he would appreciate how hard I had tried. If I had taken even a short nap without my nightlight, he would celebrate my bravery in sleeping in the dark. Then he would give me his blessing and ask the long-ago women I knew from his many stories—Sarah, Rachel, Rebekah, and Leah—to watch over me.

    These few moments were the only time in my week when I felt completely safe and at rest. My family of physicians and health professionals were always struggling to learn more and to be more. It seemed there was always more to know. It was never enough. If I brought home a 98 on a test from school, my father would ask, "And what happened to the other two points?" I pursued those two points relentlessly throughout my childhood. But my grandfather did not care about such things. For him, I was already enough. And somehow when I was with him, I knew with absolute certainty that this was so.

    My grandfather died when I was seven years old. I had never lived in a world without him in it before, and it was hard for me. He had looked at me as no one else had and called me by a special name, "Neshume-le," which means "beloved little soul." There was no one left to call me this anymore. At first I was afraid that without him to see me and tell God who I was, I might disappear. But slowly over time I came to understand that in some mysterious way, I had learned to see myself through his eyes. And that once blessed, we are blessed forever.

    Many years later when, in her extreme old age, my mother surprisingly began to light candles and talk to God herself, I told her about these blessings and what they had meant to me. She had smiled at me sadly. "I have blessed you every day of your life, Rachel," she told me. "I just never had the wisdom to do it out loud."

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What People are saying about this

Christiane Northrup
This book is a wonder and a gift to the world - which it is sure to bless. My Grandfather's Blessings is so full of wisdom, light, and life-changing insight that I found myself reading it slowly, savoring each story, and taking notes so that I could remember that each of us can bless life and thus repair the world just by being ourselves. Let Rachel Remen's stories show you how.
Sam Keen
A book of great charm and rare wisdom. I felt blessed by these stories.
Harold Kushner
This lovely book, like its author, is itself a blessing. Where some doctors treat symptoms, Dr. Remen heals souls.
Caroline Myss
My Grandfather's Blessings is a lovely, warm, inspiring book for the soul. From the moment you begin reading the first story, you know that once again, Rachel has succeeded in transmitting truths that bring tranquility to the human spirit.
Marianne Williamson
Rachel Naomi Remen has done it again. My Grandfather's Blessings is a massage to the heart. It is a wonderful book.
Daniel Goleman
Rachel Naomi Remen is nature's gift to us, a genius of that elusive and crucial capacity, the human heart. She has much to teach us about healing, loving, and living.
Dean Ornish
Rachel is a true genius of the heart, mind, and soul. This is one of the most extraordinarily moving books I have ever read, one of the few books that really can transform your life. I am a better person for having read it.

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My Grandfather's Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge and Belonging 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book touched my soul very deeply. It reminded me to see Blessings in ordinary events and people and to not take my loved ones for granted. It reminded me to find joy and blessing in a simple cup of coffee or just looking at a friends face. This is an excellent book for the person who is experiencing an illness or knows someone who is, or just experiencing burnout in the rat race of life. Don't let the fact that it's written by a medical doctor deter you from reading it. The wording is simple but powerful.
JoAllison More than 1 year ago
Wonderful, beautiful healing book. I re-read it whenever life jumps on me. Science, medicine, religion and spirituality exquisitely merge together in the pages of this book. It is made up of short chapters, each made up of individual stories that help you grow. One of my all-time favorite books.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
One of the best books I've read in a long time.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is great for anyone in a career where you are helping or dealing with people on a daily basis. It gives young people entering a helping profession a sense of belonging and reaffirms their reasons for getting into the field. For veterans in the various fields, it gives a sense of rejuvenation and reminds you why you got into your career in the first place.
campcat More than 1 year ago
If I were limited to only five books, this would be one I would choose. Rachel Remen's simple but powerful stories present lessons in loving, walking with people through their pain, and real relationship. They provide wonderful lessons -- without being preachy.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago