It’s been more years than I care to admit since I received my breast cancer diagnosis. I’ll also admit that I don’t much like to think about things like Breast Cancer Awareness Month, or read articles about breast cancer science, or even think about this subject. I’ve done my time there.
And yet, as October–which is awareness month–closes out, my thoughts are on my own experience. I’d had an annual physical, with the doctor’s routine breast exam. Nothing detected. I had a mammogram. Nothing detected. And then, a month later: self-detection. There was a little lump, barely palpable, but real. I caught it very early, and here I am. No one knows your body like you do.
Ladies, feel yourselves!
And now, on to the second part of this Public Service Announcement. After my diagnosis and treatment, I took up fishing. And then I wrote an article about that for Discovery.com. I don’t think it lives online anymore, but I have my manuscript of the piece, and I’d like to share it here.
A few years ago, around my thirty-ninth birthday, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It wasn’t a terrible case, as these things go, but it undeniably introduced a new dimension of stress into my life. Judging from the notices for support groups and yoga and meditation classes posted in the waiting room where I went for treatments, I was not alone in my newfound disquietude.
I didn’t enroll in any groups or classes. I did, however, take up fishing.
As I’ve since learned, my compulsion to fish in the face of adversity was not as strange as it might first appear.
“The definition of fishing,” says Richie Gaines, who leads guided trips on the Chesapeake Bay, “is a perpetual series of opportunities for hope.” Which would be exactly what a freshly minted cancer patient—as well as pretty much anybody—is after on any given day of the week.
If you think Gaines’ definition sounds awfully high-minded for a blood sport, you are correct, I suppose. But something about this ancient activity moves people to wax philosophical, and to embrace it to satisfy a deep, unnamable yearning.
Many have described fishing as a way to reach for a world beyond our own. As Michael Checchio put it in A Clean, Well-Lighted Stream (Soho $23), having a fish hit your line feels “like taking the pulse of the planet.” Scores of writers have explained that fishing touches, calms, and even heals the human soul. “When the going gets rough,” Ted Kerasote advised in his 1997 book, Heart of Home (Villard $23), “you can take Prozac or buy a fly rod.”
You may think this is all just so much hooey. As a former non-fisherman, I counsel you: Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.
“There’s something about fishing,” muses Louisiana-bayou-bred Gary Marx, now of Chevy Chase, Maryland, “that has inspired so many books comparing it to great art. So when [NBA basketball coach] Phil Jackson talks about Zen and basketball, people laugh at him, and maybe there’s a reason for that, but with fishing—there really is a Zen to it. You’re not meditating, because you’re doing something, but to me there is a rhythm to it that connects you to nature in a very special way.”
Perhaps not all 47 million Americans who fish have a Zen experience when they throw a line in the water, but many come close. According to the American Sportfishing Association, the most common reason people fish is to relax. Thirty-five percent of anglers cite this explanation, compared to only three percent who say they fish “to catch many fish.”
Dr. Peggy Stock, president of Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah, goes fishing to relax, spend time with her husband, and have fun. But there is something more.
“Fishing is like life,” Stock suggests. “You never know what you’re going to catch. I think it teaches you lessons in persistence and tenaciousness. You’re not always going to get what you want when you want it, in fishing or in life.”
Wise words—but if, like me, you’re after the fishing as much as the fish, you’ll triumph nearly every time. When I go fishing on my home waters—the Wye River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore—I am likely to see blue crabs swimming by in their comical, side-stepping way; spy a great blue heron patiently stalking its underwater prey; or bask in the sun alongside mallards, the male ducks gorgeous with their iridescent green heads, the females beautiful in their practical brown way.
I’ve also seen sea turtles locked in a vise-like mating grasp, female carp lying exhausted in the mud from the effort of expelling eggs, snowy egrets snatching snacks of tiny fish—perhaps the carp’s babies? The cycle of life and death captivates me every time, reminding me how small and insignificant I am in the greater scheme of this Earth. The feeling is oddly comforting. It renders my own mortality much more natural and necessary, and less scary, than I ever could have imagined.
And the fish? Oh, yes, them. Sometimes I’ll keep a fish, bring it home and clean it, and my family will enjoy an incomparable meal. More often, I’ll carefully remove the hook from the critter’s mouth and set it free. “You’re okay now,” I’ll whisper, not putting too fine a point on whether I’m talking to the fish, or to myself.
Today is publication day! The Year of Goodbyes is about my mother’s experience in 1938 Nazi Germany. It’s about what that year was like for my mom, then a tween with the usual concerns about friends, gymnastics, and the latest American movies–but also a girl who saw her friends and their families inexplicably disappear; who heard whispers about mysterious places called “concentration camps”; who saw her father’s increasingly desperate efforts to navigate the less-than-welcoming U.S. immigration and visa system. (Click here for more information about the book.)
This is a re-issue of The Year of Goodbyes, which originally came out in 2010. It has a new cover, which I love; newly designed interior pages, which I love; and a spot-on foreword by kids’ author extraordinaire Tom Angleberger, which I love. I’m grateful to my publisher, Disney-Hyperion, for giving this book a new lease on life. I’ll be talking about The Year of Goodbyes at events this fall, starting tomorrow at a forum focused on the impact of immigration on children coming into the United States, convened by the Tikkun Olam Women’s Foundation of Greater Washington, DC.
With four books released between August and November–this will never happen again in my writing life!–I don’t have a launch event planned specifically for The Year of Goodbyes. So this post is my book party, complete with a couple of photos from our very celebratory 2010 launch. The Year of Goodbyes is a Parents’ Choice Award winner, a Sydney Taylor Notable Book, a Kirkus Reviews Best Children’s Book, a VOYA (Voice of Youth Advocates) Nonfiction Honor book–and it’s so close to my heart. Please help me spread the word, and put my mother’s story, as relevant today as it was a decade ago, in the hands of readers everywhere.
(The book’s cover photo, by the way, is Mom on the deck of the RMS Queen Mary in November 1938, on her way to New York City. Coincidentally, a few days ago The Washington Post ran an article about the ship’s role in bringing Jews to the United States. Some great photos and a video there, too.)
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Today is publication day for my two newest picture books! I’ll let a couple of the reviews introduce these stories to you:
The Key from Spain, from Kar-Ben Publishing. “Levy’s captivating picture book biography tells the story of Flory Jagoda, known today as the ‘Keeper of the Flame’ of Sephardic culture and music. . . . Levy’s writing and Wimmer’s mixed-media illustrations strike the perfect synergy, working together to celebrate music, heritage, and family histories. The writing is poetic and lyrical, effortlessly weaving centuries of history into the story while maintaining a strikingly intimate tone. Wimmer’s illustrations are nuanced, and readers will enjoy discovering new details upon each rereading of the book.” (School Library Journal, starred review.)
Yiddish Saves the Day! from Apples & Honey Press. “Levy’s story is built on the specific and delightful premise that Yiddish is a language with superpowers. . . The Yiddish once spoken broadly among Ashkenazic Jews, from secular to observant, and the cornerstone of an incredible body of literature, has faded from daily life. Readers can kvell that Yiddish Saves the Day brings this world back to life for readers too young to have known it was gone.” (Jewish Book Council review.)
Did I set out to have two books of Jewish interest published on the same day by different publishers? I did not. We authors don’t have that kind of control! But I’m delighted on this August 1st to bring stories of two different Jewish cultures–Sephardic and Ashkenazic–to young readers and their families.
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