Friday, January 15, 2016

Leila Abu-Saba, 1962-2009

Leila Abu-Saba aka The Dove, was among my most treasured links when I started blogging in 2004. It was a couple of years before I came across her posts and she was taken by cancer soon afterward, but her gentleness and insights never faded. I was honored to be included among her "blog buddies."
Here is how she described herself:
The Dove's father is a Lebanese Christian immigrant, with relatives spread out from Lebanon to Australia. Her mother is a Southern WASP whose family lives in Virginia, Texas and other parts. The Dove's father's Christian Lebanese village is right next door to a Muslim Palestinian refugee camp, built on what was once our family farmland. The Dove is married to a wonderful man who does bear a Scottish surname but is halachically Jewish, via his lovely mother, who has a large and supportive family. The Dove herself grew up in the Midwest and South, but spent many long summers and one school year in Lebanon as a child; also lived in Cairo, Egypt for a junior year in college. Full disclosure: a 4 year marriage to a Muslim Egyptian in her 20s gave her an inside view into upper class Cairene families, and an appreciation for secular modern Muslims and their relationship to Islam.
The following two essays are especially good.


Hello Kind World

I just wrote a post at Daily Kos in response to somebody else's "Goodbye Cruel World" Diary. The diarist was facing loss of job and house, and said she might not be able to go online any longer; hence "goodbye cruel world" of Daily Kos. I called my response Hello Kind World.

There's always hope. Let me tell you that I am living with metastatic breast cancer. When they found it last year, it had spread throughout my liver, a 1/2 inch tumor in my lung, and onto rib and spine. I am now 46 with two young sons and a loving husband.

I just finished eleven months of chemotherapy in which I got infusion every week, three weeks on, one week off. 33 infusions. Took the starch out of me (as well as all my hair down to the eyelashes). Pet CT Scan shows the lung nodule is gone - no trace of it; the bone lesions are sclerotic i.e. healing, not spreading; and the liver lesions are inert, back to scar tissue. Nothing "lights up", i.e. nothing is active and cancerous. My blood counts are now "stone cold normal" according to my oncologist. So I am off chemo and I get to go on about my life, under close supervision and taking oral medication.

Today I listened to my friend's feedback on the 260-page draft of my first novel, which I had finished writing during chemo. I'm ready to get to work on the next draft! Then I picked up my kids from daycare, fed them, checked homework, read to them and put them to bed, all by myself. (Hubby was at a work-related dinner). First time I've had them on my own in over a year. I handled it! I even enjoyed it, which means my energy level is good. This is a blessing and a reprieve.

Now let me back up and tell you about a family tragedy. 23 years ago my uncles and cousins in Lebanon were chased from their homes during a bad patch of the civil war. They all fled with what they could put in their cars. My 83-year-old grandmother refused to leave her house - hit my uncle with her stick when he tried to evacuate her. She was killed during a mob attack on the houses of our village. A Muslim friend (we're Christians) went in and found her the next day and buried her for us. Meanwhile my two uncles, their wives and three teenaged kids per couple were living out of their automobiles in South Lebanon. They got plane tickets and visas to the USA and arrived with suitcases and $3,000 cash per family.

My Lebanese-American father and American mother, state employees in NC, took out a lien on their house to help stake my uncles to small businesses. My uncles and their families shared a tiny rental home that belonged to another uncle. Ten people lived in a 3 BR house with one bathroom, after living all their lives in big spacious houses with gardens. My dad gave them $500 a month cash for groceries, and in 1985 that was serious money; he was still putting my brother through private college at the time.

My uncles lost everything. They had to start over in America where people saw them as foreign, alien. They had prestige in their traditional society but in America they were middle-aged refugees, nobodies. All of them - uncles and wives - buckled down to work.

In ten years they built successful businesses - a grocery store and a gas station - bought beautiful homes, and of course repaid all loans from my dad and others. All of them had to do manual labor: flip burgers, pump gas, sweep floors, make change for customers. They had been middle class, teachers and bank managers in Lebanon. They had to work hard with their hands and they did so. Their kids got educated and moved into the world as Americans, most of them with professional degrees and positions.

The sadness of my grandmother's violent death hung over us for long years, and yet I always feel she chose how she wanted to die. I think she understood what she was facing. She preferred to die on her farm than be an elderly refugee.

Friend, you are facing great loss, but you have so much. You have your health (I hope). You have your daughter. You have parents with the resources to take you in.

Last month I flew to Lebanon, not for the first time since the end of the civil war. I visited with those same uncles and aunts, now returned to their homes. They made plenty of money pumping gas and selling Wonder Bread in the USA, and have turned the wrecked shells of their war-scarred houses into mini-palaces. Their quality of life is fabulous. They miss their kids who all live in the States, but they are survivors. They enjoy the olive harvest and the friendship and community of our ancestral village. I saw people I had not seen in thirty years of war, dislocation, disease, family tragedy and more. I was so grateful that I got to make this trip - that I survived advanced cancer well enough to fly half way around the world to see my family.

This spring when my fingernails were oozing and I couldn't get out of bed from chemo side effects, when the liver counts stayed elevated and I fended off all talk of survival rates for metastatic patients, I held on to hope. I just knew I was going to get better. I can't worry about whether I'll live 20 years... I am living today, and for today there is always hope.

So please, friend, bless what you have and let go of fear for the future. Today is the only day you have got. You are breathing. Enjoy your breath. You are alive. Enjoy your life. You have a daughter and parents. Love them. Bless everybody who comes across your path. And the work? Whatever. Bless your work, too. Bless your town, your bills, your possessions. You are lucky to be here for all of it. If some of it gets taken away, well fine, something else will take its place. You are an amazing confluence of billions of variables and nobody else is having your life right this minute.

Enjoy! And don't worry about hope. Just breathe and appreciate your breath. Everything arises from that.


How do you forgive a wrong? and why bother? someone asked in the previous post. Herewith an essay, an attempt, at describing why and how I go about practicing forgiveness.

1. To excuse for a fault or an offense; pardon.
2. To renounce anger or resentment against.
3. To absolve from payment of (a debt, for example).

If someone has done something you think is absolutely wrong, and you harbor anger and resentment, your feelings will cause you harm. Does repressed resentment cause illness? I don't have scientific data for it, but resentment causes all kinds of emotional problems, and those can cause illness. People in physical crisis are often asked to practice forgiving old angers and resentments as part of gaining peace of mind, which contributes to healing.

You could try to forgive your enemies out of a sense of duty or moral righteousness: "to be a good person, I must forgive this criminal." But many of us might question why? Why bother with this charade?

If you only forgive in order to feel that you are doing the right thing, you won't get the benefit of forgiveness. It will be a kind of performance, a fake, an act in the sense of doing something that is not felt sincerely, in order to please or entertain others.

In forgiving, you renounce anger or resentment against someone else. The act of forgiveness, genuine forgiveness, causes a change in the forgiver. Try it. Personally, I have felt a physical release from practicing forgiveness. I also feel emotional relief.

Judy in comments below asks how are we to forgive (for instance) Israelis who cause such suffering to Palestinians in Gaza today? Perhaps an Israeli suffering from the aftereffects of a bombing may ask the same - how to forgive Palestinians who cause his neighbors pain?

This question matters a great deal to me, because I am struggling with metastatic cancer to my liver, and believe that forgiving my enemies will help me heal. My father died in September of 2006, just after the Israeli attack on Lebanon. This war seemed to accelerate his final illness, which proceeded with terrifying rapidity.

The barrage of cluster bombs Israel left upon the fields and mountainsides of South Lebanon has felt like an unforgivable sin to me. Somehow the seeding of the land of Lebanon with a million pellets of death has appeared the most insurmountable obstacle to forgiving and moving on. I associate it with the whole horror of that war and my father's sudden decline and death. The land of Lebanon was poisoned, my father died of poison/cancer, and now here I am fighting innumerable tiny lesions in my liver, like mirrors of the cluster bombs embedded into my organs. Some things feel unforgivable; for me, this is one.

Here is how I can forgive. First of all, it's not me alone. My ego wants to be right. I will not truly forgive of my own unaided will, so I ask that some larger force - whatever you want to call it - help me forgive.

Second, I consider that the persons who ordered and carried out the attacks on Lebanon act out of fear and error. They possess a constellation of ideas about conflict, and about Lebanon and its people, that are simply in error. Those erroneous ideas lead them to harbor fears for their own destruction and that of their people (the Israelis). So, driven by fear and error, these military and political leaders ordered this action which I find so terrible.

Have I ever acted rashly, driven by my own fear and mistaken ideas? Yes. I have never caused so much harm (I hope). I have never killed anyone or caused such destruction. But it's only a matter of degree. I have harbored terrible fears, terrible prejudices, enormous mistakes in judgment or perception that have driven me to irrational behavior. I can forgive myself for such errors (with difficulty). I know I am only human.

Next, I observe people around me, some of whom I love dearly, who also harbor fears that lead them to say or condone actions I cannot accept. Let's give the example of a hypothetical relative (nobody in real life, I assure you), who harbors fears and resentments left over from a terrible mugging on a city street. That person may say things against ethnic or social groups that I cannot accept. I do not accept that person's words or ideas; however I can see how their ideas are shaped by their fears and their history. So I let it go. I forgive them their mistakes. (This example is entirely fictional by the way)

It is not too far to move from forgiving a beloved relative or friend for her/his failings, to forgiving a stranger. If I think I cannot do it, then I imagine my small child. If he is seized with a terrifying fear of some teacher, and expresses hatred for that teacher, and the desire to spear her with his Star Wars light saber, I don't reject my child for this. I try to understand what is driving his fears; at the same time I attempt not to cater to the emotional storm. Let it pass. I can forgive my child for his unskillful reaction to his fear of a teacher.

In forgiving the stranger who has caused so much harm, I also have to stop arguing with myself: but they SHOULD know better. They SHOULD NOT be so fearful, violent, willing to kill for retribution, and so forth.

My job is to give up anger and resentment. I can only do this when I can see the other for the flawed, frightened human being he is - my alter ego.

My enemy is my mirror. "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." I trespass against others and need forgiveness. So must I forgive others for their trespasses. It all goes around and around. The cycle of forgiveness is the only way to break the cycle of violence.

And by the way, it never helps me to say "but he needs to say he's sorry first." Or, "he has to change before I can forgive him." This makes my power to forgive conditional upon somebody else's behavior. I always have the power to forgive. The other party has no power to keep me from forgiveness.

Now if I am trying to forgive somebody who continues to do things that harm me, I don't continue to put myself in the way of that harm. I take what measures I can to protect myself, or remove myself from that person's orbit. Forgiveness does not mean allowing myself to be beaten if I can help it.

"Resist not evil" is a kind of Zen concept. Make yourself like water and flow around and away. Fighting evil directly just gives it power. It doesn't really have power. Let it dissolve in your indifference, move around and away from the appearance of evil as if you are a running stream flowing around a rock and down to the sea. The rock will wear away one day; meanwhile you can keep flowing.

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