April 27, 2006
Invitation to a Ritual
My hair is starting to go. I sent out a notice to the friends who have banded together to support me since I received my cancer diagnosis:
To: All recipients
Peter, who has been cutting my hair since 1981, will be coming over at 7 p.m. this Sunday night to give me a buzz cut. Since strands of hair have been lingering in my brush and on my sweaters and tickling my face, the time has come to celebrate the fact that the elixirs are doing their job.
An upfsherin is traditionally a ceremony for 3-year-old boys getting their first haircut, but I will be renewing this tradition to mark the progress of my healing journey. You are invited to join me and be a witness for this rite-of-passage. Please bring goodies or musical instruments. I will be providing the hair.
Over the last weeks, I have received gifts of head coverings. A friend, who is both a rabbi and a cancer survivor, brought the beautifully embroidered crown kippah that graced her shining dome during her treatment. A student sent three hand-knit "comfort caps" made by women in her synagogue to cover cancer-tender heads like mine. Several friends have suggested sheitl (wig) shopping.
I don't think I'm the sheitl type. While I am tempted to see what I would look like with perfect hair and make no judgments about those who choose to cover chemo-induced baldness with manufactured manes, I'm not sure it's for me. I fidget a lot. My fingers fiddle and scratch at irregularities in fabric and skin. I can't see me keeping my hands off the hairpiece or wearing it with grace. Also there is a tendency for things around me to be askew -- paintings, mirrors, papers. My eyeglasses are always lopsided. I suspect that my wig would reflect this cockeyed balance. I'm not sure I could pull the wig thing off.
Moreover, I'm not sure I want to wear a wig. I don't want to sugar coat the fact of my cancer. While there is no telling what caused my disease, I think that the fact of cancer --so much cancer -- is something we need to look in the face. Cancer, like the devastation that I witnessed in the post-Katrina Gulf South, reveals the diseased infrastructure that riddles our ailing planet. Cover-up and denial exacerbate deterioration.
I don't feel like an individual singled out to get this rare and nasty cancer. I feel like an envoy sent on behalf of planet earth.
"Look at me," I want to say. "I am the face of the planet we share. I am your face. Look at me and take healing action. I am not going away. I become more toxic with every gallon of gas, every paper plate, and every soda bottle not recycled You have a choice. You can cover me over with a veneer and deny the future or you can meet my gaze and enlist to save the earth."
I have spent my career making visible things that are often carried silently inside. To wear a wig, so that the world would not know that I have cancer and to protect those who see me from the reality of my illness, would betray my work and my values.
I am the ribbon lady. I give out rainbows of ribbons to mark what's really happening with people. My ribbons mark mourning (black) and other life changes (blue), such as divorce, ending a relationship, relocation, loss or change of job, illness or becoming a caretaker for someone else who is ill. I have ribbons for yahrzeits (green) and ribbons for those who have dealt with any of these challenges in the past and have found them to be their teachers (purple). These categories actually reflect the Talmud's description of those who walked the mourners' path in the Temple: "mourners, those with someone sick at home, those who have lost a significant object, and excommunicants." Inevitably, when I offer ribbons, most everyone takes one or more. It appears that just about everyone is in the midst of some sort of personal challenge. The assumption that "normal" means "good" is shattered.
Being marked with the ribbons makes it easier for people to feel more authentic. Visibility brings relief from the incongruity felt when inner experience is masked by the persona they felt obliged to present to a community unaware of their challenges or committed to the myth of normalcy.
When those who suffer do not have to mask, their energy is diverted from hiding to healing. Without the burden of covering up brokenness, people are able to attend to their deeper needs. Without veneers, people are given the comfort of authenticity. When we encounter them, we look honestly into the face of human experience. We surrender the illusions about what normal looks like. Hopefully with eyes opened, we will not avert our gaze and respond with compassion.
The season of masking is past. Both Mardi Gras and Purim are behind us. It's time for being visible. I guess it is no wig for me.
Anne Brener is an L.A.-based psychotherapist. She is the author of "Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourner's Path" (Jewish Lights, 1993 and 2001), a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a faculty member of the Academy for Jewish Religion.