Review of My Grandfather’s Blessings by Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D. Riverhead Books, 2000, 382 pages, $24.95 in hardback. Originally published in Alternative Therapies, Vol. 6, No. 6, 2000.
Read ‘em and weep. And laugh. And ponder. And be inspired. Rachel Remen has done it again. Like her earlier Kitchen Table Wisdom, her new book, My Grandfather’s Blessings, is a clinical, emotional and spiritual knockout. It is essentially a collection of short teaching stories, each with some metaphysical wisdom or truth for a punch line. To get the most out of this book I would recommend reading it in a setting in which you feel free to laugh or cry out loud. Mostly cry. Occasionally swoon.
Rachel Remen has many credentials. A scholar and clinician, she was Associate Director of the Pediatric Clinics at Stanford Medical School and is presently Professor of Clinical Medicine at University of California San Francisco School of Medicine as well as the recipient of numerous honorary degrees. She is one of the pioneers in mind/body medicine, Co-Founder and Medical Director of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program, and Founder and Director of the Institute for the Study of Health and Illness at Commonweal, a professional development program for physicians and medical students who wish to reclaim the soul of medicine. She has been in private practice, counseling people with cancer, their loved ones, and the health professionals for more than 20 years. All this represents an an amazing store of professional experience. She also has 47 years of personal experience with Crohn’s disease, having had more major abdominal surgeries than many of us have had tooth fillings.
However, it is not just the credentials and experience that make Rachel,* and her writings, so profound. It is what she does with her experience. She is someone who pays attention at a very deep level to the nature of the life force as it moves in her, her patients, and her students. It appears that some of what she learned about paying attention in this way is a result of her relationship with her grandfather, whose final 7 years of a long life as a Kabbalist and an Orthodox rabbi from Russia overlapped with the first 7 of Rachel’s as the only child of committed socialists in Manhattan. From these two generations before her Rachel was exposed to the belief that everyone can make a difference and contribute to the healing of the world. Her adoring grandfather approached life as a mystic who saw God in everything/everyone and gave/received blessings each and every day of his life. His children, Rachel’s parents, aunts, and uncles, were hardworking health professionals who dismissed religion as mere superstition and believed that science was all that was needed to heal the suffering of the world. In her personal life, her work, and in this book, Rachel manages to integrate both approaches quite seamlessly.
Near the end of My Grandfather’s Blessings Rachel describes how she has experienced her work with people with cancer:
The view from the edge of life is different and often much clearer than the way that most of us see things. Life-threatening illness may cause people to question what they have accepted as unchanging. Values that have been passed down in a family for generations may be recognized as inadequate; lifelong beliefs about personal capacities or what is important may prove to be mistaken. When life is stripped down to its very essentials, it is surprising how simple things become. Fewer and fewer things matter and those that matter, matter a great deal more. As a doctor to people with cancer, I have walked the beach at the edge of life picking up this wisdom like shells.
My Grandfather’s Blessings is a magnificent display of the shells Rachel has gathered throughout her life, and as such is a blessing to all of us--just as her grandfather would have wished and expected. It will be particularly valuable to anyone who is seeking healing or seeking to provide healing.
* I can’t refer to Rachel as “the author,” or “Dr. Remen,” or even “Rachel Remen” beyond this point. I feel great affection for her as a result of reading both of her books, hearing her speak in public once, and reflecting on how I have been impacted by her. Without being exhibitionistic, she shares so much of herself as she speaks and writes that it would be hard to imagine not having such feelings toward her.