When Elizabeth Lesser learned that she was the only person who could offer life-saving bone marrow to her sister Maggie, she didn’t hesitate. The decision to go through the transplant process was immediate. It had to be; in preparation for the surgery, Maggie needed to undergo intensive chemotherapy right away to wipe out any existing cancer cells before Lesser’s healthy blood cells could be transferred to her body.
But despite Lesser being confirmed a perfect match as a bone marrow donor, Maggie’s body was still statistically likely to reject the transplant. And Lesser wanted to up the odds of her sister’s survival. As a person who has made it her life’s practice to dig deeply into the soulful matters of life – she is the co-founder of the Omega Institute, after all – Lesser conceived a plan to heighten Maggie’s chances for a successful bone marrow transplant by having the two of them first undergo what she called a “soul marrow transplant.”
Like many siblings – and perhaps especially sisters – they had a long history together that encompassed good memories of feeling close and other times where they felt misunderstood by each other and rejected. Lesser proposed the idea to Maggie that they undergo therapy together before the surgery, formally with the help of a therapist and informally through long walks and difficult talks, to which Maggie agreed. After all, they both reasoned, if Lesser’s bone marrow was going to become literally a part of Maggie’s body from that point forward, wouldn’t the removal of old assumptions and miscommunications between them clear the way for the best possible blending of their physical selves?
The story of their experience is chronicled in Elizabeth Lesser’s latest memoir, Marrow: A Love Story. In beautifully clear and concise prose, she details with warmth and humor a story that is both deeply personal and universal. The reader knows from the first pages that it won’t end well, with Maggie ultimately losing her battle with cancer; but just as in real life, the memoir is about the journey, joyful as well as heartbreaking, and the ways in which our losses teach us hard lessons about how to live better and love better going forward.
Elizabeth Lesser will read from Marrow at the Kleinert/James Center for Performing Arts in Woodstock on Monday, October 10 at 7 p.m. The event is sponsored by the Golden Notebook in Woodstock. There will be time for book-signings and questions and answers. Lesser will also appear at Oblong Books in Rhinebeck on Thursday, October 13 at 6 p.m. for a reading from Marrow as well as book-signings and a question-and-answer session. Both events are free and open to the public.
Marrow: A Love Story book talks with Elizabeth Lesser, Monday, October 10, 7 p.m. free, Kleinert/James Center for Performing Arts, 34 Tinker Street, Woodstock, (845) 679-8000, www.goldennotebook.com; Thursday, October 13, 6 p.m., free, Oblong Books, 6422 Montgomery Street, Rhinebeck; (845) 876-0500, www.oblongbooks.com.
Almanac Weekly’s Sharyn Flanagan recently spoke with Lesser about Marrow: A Love Story.
In reading the book, I was fascinated by the truth-telling that you and your sister did to prepare for the bone marrow transplant. That’s really hard for me to contemplate doing with my own sisters. You write, “We had never unpacked those bags before until we had to.” Do you think it’s possible to have those conversations without the life-and-death situation the two of you were facing?
Well, I can tell you that when I write books, I don’t write them from the stance of an expert. I write them from the stance of someone who is trying things out. So as I was writing this book, and especially afterwards, I challenged myself to do what I was saying, with varying degrees of astonishing success to miserable failure.
And I’ve learned so much from trying it. One size doesn’t fit all, so radical honesty may work really well with someone who is not particularly defensive and is ready to play with you at that level, but with someone else it’s really not a good idea. You could open yourself up to be taken advantage of or you can be misunderstood and actually hurt a relationship that isn’t ready to be tinkered with on that level.
I have definitely learned that every relationship I have is at its own particular level. And I hope I make it clear in the book that, while I am sort of challenging people to have more honest and open relationships with each other, I’m not saying, “Go in there with all your arsenal and bust everything up!” I really do believe there’s a way to do it that invites a light conversation that could lead toward more. I encourage it, but of course everyone knows their family best. And you don’t have to do it. Some people don’t want that kind of relationship with their sister; they’d rather just leave it the way it is.
The reason I feel so strongly about it is that I think repression is a huge problem between humans. What we don’t say, what we don’t even let ourselves know, leaks out in passive-aggressive ways in all our relationships, or in ourselves. Like in the example of my sister, years of repression in her life really made her sick. She was the one who said that. Not saying what she needed, what she felt, not attending to relationships, in the end made her sick.
So we do it not only to clean up things between people, but in our own heart: to free the backlog of emotional stuff that, if not attended to, kind of turns into other things. In the body, in our families…there has been all this research done on family secrets held for many generations actually being felt in current generations, even if they don’t know what the story is. The inherited trauma of repressed stories…you can see it in its most extreme form in children of the Holocaust. Families that were able to talk about it and allowed people to feel it and express it moved through that grief and trauma much faster than the people who put it in a box in the closet and never talked about it.
It’s clear that the person has to be willing to meet you at the point of wanting to explore the relationship.
Yes, but I do say that I prefer to err in the direction of connection. The worst that can happen is, you can look like a fool or somebody can reject you. But if done delicately, as a questioning, sort of like, “I feel there’s some stuff between us; do you want to talk about it? Because I don’t want you to have to if you don’t want to. We’re fine if we don’t. But I think our friendship could be deeper, and I’m ready to try. Are you?” And maybe they say no, and that’s fine.
I love the idea you present in this book that “We are enough” for the people we care about – that just being there for someone who is hurting and being who we are is enough.
And actually, it’s really the only thing there is. When you’re sick, not much helps; food doesn’t help, and you certainly don’t want someone to offer you the latest and greatest healing technique. You just want to be with someone who is open and calm and present. I learned that over and over again being with my sister. It was the people who were always trying to do something that, as time went on, she just couldn’t have around anymore; it made her nervous.
In the book you described Maggie as having a hummingbirdlike energy. What would she have described your energy as?
Maybe more like a lion! She experienced me as very powerful and strong – way more so than I experience myself. But that was a lot of what we went through in our therapy sessions before the transplants: that because she always experienced me as being so strong, she never could understand how anything she was doing could hurt me. She saw me as invulnerable, and all the while, her rejecting of me was very painful for me.
We assume so much about each other…
Exactly! That was really what I learned the most in our sessions together: all the assuming we had done, as opposed to just the simple, crazily simple, asking! Just saying something to each other. The years of assumptions that could have been interrupted 30 years previously with one question.
Another concept you write about that intrigued me is that of amor fati: the love of fate. How is it beneficial to people to learn to love their fate, to be okay with whatever happens?
There are so many ways of explaining that concept, and they all have different feeling shades. There’s the level of accepting fate as “Life’s a bitch and then you die,” and then there’s the middle ground, which is to just learn how to accept life and flow with it. But amor fati, love of fate, is a whole other way of looking at it. When I first heard that term used, it was kind of shocking, like, “You actually can love it?” Not just tolerate what happens or learn to accept it, but to have the kind of faith that loves what happens. But the leap of faith to amor fati is the sense that everything, even the hardest things, has meaning and can be used and is actually evolving you toward something. So why wouldn’t you love that?
You would love something that was going to make your life better, that was going to feed you and nourish you; and most people will say, after going through a really hard time, that it was horrible, but they wouldn’t be who they are today without it – that it taught them what they needed to know. So if we’re in the midst of the fire and we can hold out that it’s for something, then you can love it. And it takes away a lot of the tendency to blame and to lash out. It brings it into a field of warmth, as opposed to bitterness.
And it’s hard, amor fati; it’s really hard. It’s a practice, something that you choose to do. It’s certainly not my knee-jerk response, which is more like the dinosaur brain: lash out or run away, fight or flight.
How interesting to hear you describe yourself like that! I look at someone like you – well, at you – as being very evolved. You co-founded Omega, and I see videos online of you chatting with Oprah and giving TED talks, and in the book I learned that when you have a question yourself, you send an e-mail to Deepak Chopra!
I just have a good email contact list [laughs].
I feel like I’m struggling along at this lower level, and I wonder if you think there’s ever a point where any of us can think, “Okay, I’ve got it now,” or do you think until the very end it’s always going to remain a search for that next thing to figure out?
I think it’s the latter. I don’t think we are equipped with the right hard drive in the human brain to really fully understand what the heck is going on here. You know, you say I’m evolved, and I’ve been around so many people who I consider evolved, or at least evolving at a faster pace; and I measure that in myself and in others as a capacity to relax into ambiguity.
It’s not that anyone has it figured out. You know, if they did, we’d all buy it: “I’ll take what he’s having!” But it’s an understanding and – with a sense of humor and an excitement about it – a making-peace with the knowledge that we are dwelling in mystery and ambiguity, and it’s okay, I’m going to dance in it. I’m not going to figure it out; I don’t have to figure it out; who said I had to figure it out? Just remaining engaged with the wackiness of the world, whether you’re political or psychological or whether you’re a farmer – whatever you feel your calling is – doing it with passion, but lightly, you know? Not with this sort of drive that “I have to solve it, fix it, figure it out.” No, I just don’t think it’s possible.
It’s a freedom. And I don’t think it would feel like a freedom if it wasn’t true. It feels like a releasing of your shoulders: “Good, whew, because I haven’t made that much progress!”
Speaking of spiritual practices, how does one go about developing that mindset to just “dance in it”? Is meditation the best way?
Meditation has been really, really effective for me; it’s been my primary spiritual practice forever. But it’s not a one-size-fits-all. Some people find meditation just not their cup of tea, and that doesn’t mean they’re failing at something. For some people, sitting still is not a very palatable spiritual practice. They prefer something that involves more activity or community, being with other people.
The reason meditation works well for me is that when you sit in meditation, all sorts of things inevitably, immediately come up, whether it’s pain in your knee or boredom or emotions that you’ve repressed by being active all the time. But when you sit still, it’s an opportunity to let things arise, greet them, not hate them or reject them or beat yourself up over them, but love them. And that is a practice for amor fati, because you love what comes up and you love your crazy brain into some form of submission, as opposed to a punishing kind of practice.
Omega will celebrate its 40th anniversary next year. Is it different from what you envisioned back then? It must be; 40 years is a long time.
Yeah, when we started it I was 22 years old, and we were just a bunch of young kids with an idea. We didn’t think, “Oh, let’s eventually buy a large campus and have 30,000 people show up every year.” We just weren’t thinking like that. We just had an idea. And we didn’t have any money or the skills or much of anything, except interests and ideas. People will often say to me, “You must be so proud of what you envisioned and built.” But it’s more like, we threw a pebble in a pond and it started rippling out, and we just started running after it. It really took on a life of its own very quickly after we started it. Omega was one of those “right time, right place, right people” things and it has grown way beyond my early imaginings.
You’re still on the board at Omega and are an advisor there. Do you think it will continue on for many more years?
I have no idea! But the people who are running Omega now are awesome; I love their vision. They’re interested in how these personal growth…technologies, let’s call it, that we’ve honed over 40 years, can actually address some of the real problems in our society. They call it the movement from “Me” to “We.” They’ve started initiatives in environmental sustainability, women’s leadership, veterans with PTSD – all sorts of more service-oriented wings of Omega. And I really love that. I think it will continue on as long as the culture is hungry for it, and at the moment it’s in a really thriving place.
Your previous books were also memoirs [The Seeker’s Guide and Broken Open]. Is it too soon to ask what your next book will be about?
I usually go through a cycle of writing a book, spending a little time getting it out into the world, and then I go into two years of confusion, thinking, “I don’t know what to write, I’ll never write again.” And then life serves up my next challenge and fascination, and I just follow that.