Cover image for My grandfather's blessings : stories of strength, refuge, and belonging
My grandfather's blessings : stories of strength, refuge, and belonging
Remen, Rachel Naomi.
Personal Author:
[Large print edition].
Publication Information:
Thorndike, ME : G.K. Hall, 2001.

Physical Description:
462 pages ; 25 cm
General Note:
Originally published: New York : Riverside Books, 2000.
Format :


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Material Type
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BM723 .R46 2000B Adult Large Print - Floating collection Floating Collection - Large Print

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It was Rachel Remen's grandfather, an Orthodox rabbi and scholar of the Kaballah, who enabled her to see that blessing one another is what heals the isolation and loneliness in us all. Now the New York Times bestselling author of Kitchen Table Wisdom uses the power of her wonderful stories to remind us that we can all serve and bless life. My Grandfather's Blessings dispels the common myth of serving others as sacrifice and brings the power to strengthen and celebrate the life around us within reach of us all. And throughout the book, we have the privilege of feeling the profound love of Rachel Remen's extraordinary grandfather.

Author Notes

Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D., has been counseling those with chronic and terminal illness for more than twenty years. She is cofounder and medical director of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program in Bolinas, California, and is currently clinical professor of family and community medicine at the University of California at San Francisco School of Medicine

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Remen, an M.D. and author of the best-selling Kitchen Table Wisdom, once again turns to her family, her tradition, and her medical practice to find everyday inspiration. It is her grandfather, however, a kabbalistic rabbi, whom she credits with first giving her the sensitivity to see inside the human heart. It is from him that Remen first learned about blessings, prayers to say throughout the day. But Remen broadens the idea of blessings, showing that one of the most important ways to express our humanity is through serving each other and loving each other. Remen, who counsels those with chronic and terminal illnesses and who has struggled with serious illness herself, has a life's worth of material to draw on. She divides her short essays into thematically based chapters--receiving your blessings, finding strength, taking refuge--but really, one small story flows easily into the next, and though sometimes the morals are obvious, they are always tender. Here is inspirational reading that feels neither forced nor false. Remen provides an important service of her own with this book. --Ilene Cooper

Publisher's Weekly Review

When she was four years old, Remen's grandfather brought her an unusual present: a paper cup of dirt, which he instructed her to water daily. She did, with increasing boredom, until she was astonished to find that a plant had sprouted. "My grandfather was a scholar of the Kabbalah, the mystical teachings of Judaism," Remen tells us. Through this exercise and others, he taught her that the "spark of God" exists, even in the most unpromising places. Through a series of unpretentious, affecting vignettes, the author of the bestseller Kitchen Table Wisdom encourages readers to recognize and celebrate the unexpected blessings in their own lives. Many of her recollections are linked to her experiences as a medical student and a physician working with cancer patients, but the most memorable ones relate to Remen's deep engagement with her grandfather, who died when she was seven. She gently illustrates her advice through simple yet powerful stories, such as that of a young woman whose husband helped her discover the real meaning of beauty years after her devastating mastectomy; of a widow who learned to cherish her husband's memory with love instead of with "a monument of pain"; and of a little boy who recognized that it's easier to love just a few toys than it is to love many. "Wisdom," Remen writes in this exceptional book, "lies in engaging the life you have been given as fully and courageously as possible and not letting go until you find the unknown blessing that is in everything." Author tour. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One Receiving Your Blessings 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-Hodgkin's 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. --Reprinted from My Grandfather's Blessings by Rachel Naomi Remen by permission of Riverhead, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2001 by Rachel Naomi Remen. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission. Excerpted from My Grandfather's Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge and Belonging by Rachel Naomi Remen All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Introductionp. 1
I. Receiving Your Blessings
Blessingp. 22
Wrestling with the Angelp. 25
The Shell Gamep. 28
The Spice of Lifep. 31
Lot's Wifep. 36
Having What You Havep. 39
Letting Gop. 41
Owningp. 43
Keeping It Togetherp. 46
At the End of the Dayp. 50
Rememberingp. 53
Getting Realp. 56
What Mattersp. 63
Teachers Everywherep. 66
You Have to Be Present to Winp. 68
Knowing the Heartp. 70
Counting Your Chickensp. 74
L'Chiam!p. 77
II. Becoming a Blessing
Getting It Rightp. 86
The Giftp. 88
Being Usedp. 90
Seeing the Buddha Seedp. 93
Simply Naturalp. 96
All in the Familyp. 99
Transmissionp. 101
Bearing Witnessp. 103
The Trajectoryp. 106
Holding On to the Heartp. 109
Lost and Foundp. 112
Finding New Eyesp. 116
Strengthening Lifep. 120
The Friendp. 124
Wisdomp. 127
III. Finding Strength, Taking Refuge
The Meeting Placep. 137
Pearls of Wisdomp. 139
The Way Throughp. 141
Right Protectionp. 144
From the Heartp. 146
Wholenessp. 150
The Linkp. 152
Getting Clearp. 155
Being Fedp. 158
When Somebody Knowsp. 161
A Place of Refugep. 164
Coming Homep. 166
In the Gray Zonep. 168
Finding the Centerp. 170
In the Beginningp. 175
Call Homep. 177
Brokenp. 181
Promises, Promisesp. 188
IV. The Web of Blessings
Belongingp. 197
Lifelinep. 201
Learning to Servep. 205
We Are Enoughp. 209
Finding the Connectionp. 214
Breathing In and Breathing Outp. 216
The Gift of Servicep. 218
Fellow Travelersp. 222
The Laying On of Handsp. 225
Choosing Your Battlesp. 229
Heaven and Hellp. 232
The Wise Manp. 234
How the World Is Madep. 237
One Little Candlep. 239
Greater Than the Sum of Its Partsp. 242
V. Befriending Life
The Gamep. 251
Knowing Lifep. 253
Loving Lifep. 256
Eggsp. 258
Finding the Wayp. 260
When It Worksp. 263
Habitp. 267
The Gift of New Eyesp. 269
Making a Differencep. 272
The Bottom Linep. 276
Crazy Cleanp. 279
Integrityp. 281
The Pathp. 288
A Matter of Life and Deathp. 290
The Mirrorp. 293
Who Serves?p. 297
Beyond the American Wayp. 300
The Emperor's New Clothesp. 303
Forgivenessp. 306
The Gift of the Magip. 310
Completionp. 314
Celebrationp. 317
VI. Restoring the World
Lineagep. 329
Beyond Wordsp. 331
The Final Patientp. 333
Mysteryp. 337
A Question of Stylep. 339
On the Cutting Edgep. 343
Maryp. 346
After Darkp. 349
The Thirty-sixp. 352
Finding Safetyp. 356
The Way It Isp. 359
The Presence of Godp. 363
The Friction in the Systemp. 365
The Rewardp. 368
The Real Storyp. 370
Acknowledgmentsp. 375
Permissionsp. 379