The Sky Begins At Your Feet: A Memoir on Cancer, Community and Coming Home to the Body
Ice Cube Books, ISBN-13: 978-1888160437
Links to Reviews and Press: Library Journal (starred review), Publisher’s Weekly, Oncolinks review by Alysa Cummings, Iowa Source, The Pitch, Story Circle Books, Redefining Beauty Through Cancer. Chosen by the Midwest Booksellers as a Best Pick.
I tend to not read memoirs centered around cancer or illness, because I tend not to be a terribly compassionate person, and my thinking is usually that people who write such books are probably drowning in vats of self-pity. And yet, with that type of thinking, I could have easily missed out on this gem of a book. I am so glad that I didn’t. Even though I am 40, I have never known anyone with breast cancer, so I was very surprised how much this book resonated with me. I cried from the beginning to the end. I don’t think that was Goldberg’s intention, as most of the book strikes an upbeat note, but I found myself incessantly sobbing nonetheless. I don’t know why I was crying, or who, exactly, I was crying for. I think that the author has a way of opening herself up and presenting her vulnerabilities in such a way that the reader feels exposed as well. The book reads like a personal journal, but it’s introspective without becoming mired in existential naval-gazing. It is clear that Goldberg isn’t interested in having a pity-party for one, and she reacts to her breast cancer in much the same way that she reacts to anything unpleasant in her life. She is going to deal with “it”, and then maybe she’ll take a nap, and then she’ll deal with the rest of “it” if need be. She relies heavily on her friends and family, but they seem to be both willing and able to be there for her. We should all be so lucky. The Sky Begins At Your Feet is a book about cancer, yes, but it is also a book about family, and friends, and a job that inspires you, and a political cause that motivates you, and kids who keep you grounded, and happenstances that fall into your lap and teach you things. It is about the mundane and the miraculous, the minutiae and the profound. It is about living your messy life, and drowning in chaos, and then the scent of lilac smacks you in the face, and says, “Snap out of it! You are making it harder than it has to be.” I really loved this book. I think that I love this book for reasons that won’t come to me until later. I will be sending my copy on to an old friend who will enjoy it as much as I did, and then she will pass it on to someone else. I hope that the word gets out and those who have the means will buy this book in droves–it is that good. — Alicia Webster, goodreads.com
A marvelous storyteller, a wise woman, and a teacher in the true sense of the word, Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg takes us on a challenging yet ultimately joyful journey that leaves us fundamentally changed. Anyone who reads this memoir (and you must!) will never forget it. – Harriet Lerner, Ph.D, author of The Dance of Anger
Looking in and looking out, poet Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg makes connections between cancer and our world-out-of-balance, between language and healing. Written with honesty, compassion and surprising humor, The Sky Begins at Your Feet reports Goldberg’s journey as she navigates through the landscapes of illnesss, and in the process reveals much about the healing potential of writing ourselves whole. – J. Ruth Gendler, author, Notes on the Need for Beauty and The Book of Qualities
The Sky Begins At Your Feet is as personal as a missing bosom and as expansive as the holy earth. In this sensuous, trenchant memoir, the poet Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg shares the life she lived and the truths she found as she, enfolded in family and community, confronted breast cancer and carried on. Real, wise, and wry, it’s a treasure. – Stephanie Mills, author of Tough Little Beauties and Epicurean Simplicity
Embraced by the wide expanse of the Kansas prairie, Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg recounts the seasons of her cancer diagnosis and recovery with a finely honed blend of honesty, poignancy and wry humor. She reminds us that serious illness can re-awaken us to life’s beauty, deepen our respect for the fragile balance between our lives and the earth’s, and find our salvation in love of a supportive community. This is a book which will surely inspire anyone whose life has been touched by cancer. – Sharon Bray, Ed.D., author of When Words Heal: Writing Through Cancer
The Sky Begins At Your Feet is a powerfully honest and inspiring story about facing our ultimate fears and surviving. Mirriam-Goldberg’s account of her personal journey – and of the unique community that gathered around her – will stay with you after you close the pages of this book. – Katherine Towler, author of the novels Snow Island and Evening Ferry
Given the way illness can dull our capacity to attend to even our most basic needs, The Sky Begins at Your Feet gives a reader, with startling clarity, what Buddhists call a kalyan-metta, a spiritual friend for that journey. Mirriam-Goldberg, with a poet’s attention to detail and a reporter’s determination to get to the real story, offers us a deep consideration of the way illness and her response to it, awakens her — and could awaken us — to a whole range of connections: community, family, the natural world, body and the mysterious inner landscape of being human on this earth. – John Fox, author of Poetic Medicine: The Healing Art of Poem-making
Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg contributes to the invention of a new genre of medical non-fiction – narrative medicine. The narrative is well written, rich, poignant, entertaining, tragic at times, uplifting, sad, and triumphant – all that we want in a great story. I recommend it for anyone, but especially for health professionals who need to experience the other side of breast cancer. For the medical audience, it’s definitely a must read. – Lewis Mehl-Madrona, M.D., author, Coyote Medicine and Narrative Medicine
Preface: Singing the Body Electric
I cannot figure out who I am as a body these days. I look in the mirror each morning, each night. I look right into the scars, trying to read them like the dreams I have at night of driving around lost for hours, or not being able to make a call on a pay phone without punching in the wrong numbers. There is always an emergency in those dreams.
Right before the sleep that might take me back to such dreams, I touch my chest – feel the lines and the numbness too, try to measure with my fingers where feeling begins and where the zone of only feeling the pressure of the touch is. Sometimes I use my husband’s hand to show me where the nerve endings are and aren’t anymore. Fortunately, his hands, and the rest of him, don’t seem at all distracted by the absence of these parts of me. On very hot nights, I lie under the swooshing ceiling fan naked, feeling a little like an extraterrestrial woman, shaped differently but generally looking the same as most women from a distance. The bed is large, a soft boat under the circular winds of the changing world.
I get up in the morning and always put my glasses on first, then strap on my fake breasts, which have spent the night hanging out in the nifty pockets of my special bra. There is little difference between the glasses and the boobs to me, just things I wear when I’m awake, each an item to bridge the world between my dreams and waking time, between whoever I am and the rest of the living world. Each is a prop, something that fills out space, contributes to how I see or am seen, my prosthesis something between person and garment.
Each day I walk among the other bodies, lately not so concerned with glancing at women’s breasts, the ones not cut away and replaced by impostors. I find myself immediately thinking, in some kind of reptile brain way, that their breasts must be fake, rebuilt, or real but soon to be taken away. I pause and remind myself that I’m simply projecting my thoughts, from the dark and dry place I usually can’t reach in my mind, onto others. Sometimes I remember to remember that everyone has their own scars and numbness, most of these wounds not even physical.
Yet at the same time, I find myself often extremely confused about what it is to live in a woman’s body without breasts. Of course, I know that breasts are just a body part, not a gender identity, but there’s something about losing this part of me, this part I would hold gently on cold nights as I slept to keep them warm. This part round and lovely, traveling effortlessly with me, quiet mourning doves sleeping soundly on my chest. It’s inconceivable that such a part could be gone, that I would have chosen to give it up, that there’s so little evidence of their existence in my memory.
That’s part of the problem: in my memory, below the surface of words and rational understanding, breasts are part of being erotic. The breasts are a playground of great sensation and lushness. Without them, what does it mean to make love? What does it mean to love my own body?
So I am trying to love my body for what it is right now. Let the love I feel for it – the tenderness for my moving fingers on the keyboard, the appreciation for the strength of my legs to carry me for miles on an early spring day, the wonder at the softness of my skin, the shapes I leave in the blankets. Let this love be enough.
Let this love show me the way to sing the body electric, to write the body erotic.
Let me learn this way of loving what’s imperfect from the land and sky around me, the best mirror to show us that what we do to our environment, we also do to ourselves. As well, the earth where I live is the best teacher when it comes to persevering through the seasons with the kind of grace that celebrates life, however it comes – in the icy wind mid-winter that makes the windows tremble, the explosion of lilac one particularly slow spring, the reddening grasses late fall, the black sheen of the crow mid-day when he shoots across the sky to examine the latest addition to our compost pile. Life just wants to live, so the old saying goes, and this desire makes for tremendous innovation.
There is little script in this culture for such innovation when it comes to women’s breasts. There is only the narrative everywhere I look of women made of curves and sleekness, women in clothing cut to highlight the roundness of breasts. Meanwhile, I feel like a 12-year-old with my bare chest cut so close to the bone. Meanwhile, the rest of my body blossoms so much older than the child I was. Meanwhile, the breasts in between past and present sleep on an invisible shelf.
So I open the door to the back deck, and stand outside in the middle of the night, watching the clouds travel past the waning moon, collapsed on one side because of the sun’s particular slant of light at this moment. I step outside again in the morning, the overgrown grass of early spring pouring over itself around the tilted cottonwood tree. The hills and wind around this home carrying their own losses and scars, and yet lit with a green both pale and fierce, quiet and shining, fully here at this moment and on the verge of changing completely. I return to earth and sky, continually coming home.