Interview with author Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg by Jerry Waxler
When Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg was diagnosed with breast cancer, she and her friends were busy organizing a conference to protect the environment. So her journey through doctor’s offices, chemotherapy, and surgery takes place against a rich back drop of family, spirituality, and rivers of community support. (“I have cancer, but I also have friends.”) She skillfully and generously shares her experience in the memoir “The Sky Begins at your Feet,” offering insights that expand my horizons about life as well as about life writing.
Caryn is also a poet, a writing teacher, and the founder of Goddard College’s Master’s Degree Program in Transforming Language Arts. In the following two-part interview she offers observations about writing this memoir, and suggestions that may help any memoir writer overcome difficulties on their quest to share their own stories.
In Part 1 below, Caryn offers observations about how she conveys spirituality, religion, and grieving. In Part 2, (click here to read Part 2) she talks about style, privacy, and some of the ways her memoir has touched the public.
Jerry Waxler: For many people, the two words “religion” and “spirituality” seem so different as to almost be opposite to each other. And yet in your view, you straddle the fence nicely between them. This is a powerful addition to the memoir literature I have read, because I know of many people who wish they could convey their spirituality but don’t know how to find the language. You are so eminently comfortable with the most intimate details of your own search for transcendence I wonder if you could explain how you came to be so comfortable sharing these intimate details of your life.
Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: As a seeker and a writer, I find the two yearnings — to create and to connect with the sacred — to come from the same impulse: to feel as fully alive as possible. How to write about religion and spirituality wasn’t really something I thought much about; it simply happened because both spirituality and religion are vital parts of my life. I guess I see religion as one part of spirituality that’s institutionalized, and added to the institutional mix is community, group dynamics, group governance, etc., which can be messy but also beautiful. Last week when I went to Yom Kippur services, I had a moment of looking around and thinking how odd and amazing it was that I knew so many of the people around me from various parts of my life, but here — at our services — we entered collectively into the somewhat tribal, confusing and challenging practices of Judaism. I also found it wild that I shared some of the most intimate communal prayers with people, some of whom I didn’t share anything else intimate with ever. That’s the magic of collective spirituality: you can share profound moments with people who drive you crazy, people you hardly know, people you know from other contexts too. I’ve also always been Jewish plus. What I mean by that is that I’ve explored other traditions from Sufi dancing in my 20s through Buddhism in my 30s and 40s to Yoga today.
JW: You use a substantial amount of Jewish lore and practice in the memoir. Of course, not all readers have a background in these references, so it seems that the memoir takes a step into an interesting territory for any memoir writer who might ask, “How much of my unique background will be interesting to readers?” When you wrote the references to Judaism, did you worry that non-Jews would not understand it?
CMG: Some of my own spiritual journey through cancer has included Jewish traditions, myths and practices because integral to my story. At the same time, I tried to contextualize and explain references so that non-Jews would better understand them. Because I live in Kansas, where there is a very small Jewish population, I’ve also done readings from this book, and I find that people tend to understand the Jewish context. Some things, such as the story of Jacob, are well-known to many people, as is the tradition of a Bar Mitzvah. Other aspects I found that people could understand with a bit of reference. I wasn’t worried about this issue just as I don’t think Christian or Buddhist or Moslem authors would need to filter their spiritual experience when telling a story with spiritual aspects.
JW: Can you offer any advice to other memoir writers who wish they could authentically describe their own transcendent beliefs.
CMG: It’s like writing anything: you have to find your own truest words, dive into it, and surrender to what wants to be said instead of what you think you should say. At the same time, I think it’s far more effective to describe the big stuff of life — spiritual struggles, traumas and wounds, giant yearnings or losses — by entering through the backdoor. By that, I mean you can convey the depth of what you’re writing by aiming toward specific detail and specific moments instead of making pronouncements about what it all means. In fact, I think it’s dangerous to try to say what it all means too fast or sometimes at all. For example, I described the moment of my father’s death as surprisingly ordinary, and I told readers how I paced back and forth on the deck, what the sky was like, how my voice sounded when describing the moment I found out I would need chemo. Our sensory experiences — what we see, smell, hear, taste, and touch — are powerful tools for bringing readers to the vital and living emotions and realizations we find, which never happen in a vacuum, but always somewhere at some time, such as sitting in a lawn chair in early autumn and suddenly seeing a crow land on a dying tree, and knowing something new at that moment.
JW: I love the way you use the concept of “grieving” in the book. At one point you say you were grieving your loss of strength. Another time you say, “another part of me I sloughed off.” In popular use, the word “grieving” tends to be used for coping with the death of a loved one. You are using it in a broader sense here. Please say more about how the process of grieving has been extended to help you adjust to life through its various stages and changes.
CMG: There are all kinds of causes for grief in this life, and luckily, all kinds of causes for joy too, sometimes even joy and grief simultaneously. For me, it was important to name what I was losing, whether it was my breasts, my strength, my sense of humor, my father, etc. as a way to tell my true story. I needed to look at the loss and feel the grief because my life as continually illuminated how the only way out is through. I also realize that as I age — just as all of us — I will be losing things all along the way, such as the capacity to run down the street, or sleep eight hours straight (well, I already lost that one!), or get through a day without discomfort or pain, and certainly the speed at which I live my life and how much I can get done in an hour. That great poem by Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art,” states, “The art of losing isn’t hard to master/ so many things are filled with the intent/ to be lost that their loss is no disaster.” I also heard a novelist, Julia Glass, on the radio the other day say that all novels are really about how to go on with life in spite of whatever happens. I hope my memoir also points toward how to go on with life, and to find greater life in learning from whatever life gives us.
Click here to visit the Amazon page for The Sky Begins at Your Feet: A Memoir on Cancer, Community, and Coming Home to the Body by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg
This interview is part of the blog tour hosted by Women on Writing. To see Caryn’s Blogtour page, click here.