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Jessie Gruman: Poetry in Motion


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"That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse." – Walt Whitman, O Me, O Life

We New Yorkers have been marveling at the beautiful weather bestowed on us this summer, and yet the dark and heavy cloud of Jessie's leave-taking on July 14 has kept me in a months-long swelter. I think Jessie would have dubbed this an "Aftershock," although in her book of this title the heroine returns to offer sage learnings after jousting with the Grim Reaper.

I've found inspiration, if not solace, re-reading her writings in books, the Prepared Patient blog, and various other essays, and have witnessed her grace again in the "Good Behavior!" videos. Not to mention the many eloquent tributes to her legacy at the Center for Advancing Health, where I was honored to serve as a trustee, and at the Journal of Participatory Medicine (JoPM), on which we worked closely in its infancy.

Yet some solace has arrived through the heavy lifting of poetry. What I want to recall here, as two memorial services approach in New York City and Washington, DC, is the soulful side of my friend Jessie – surfacing in full bloom in her college years as an English major and finding expression throughout her life, including recently when she accepted the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship's (NCCS) Excellence in Media award. That talk began: "Prospero in Shakespeare's The Tempest said that the poet gives to airy nothingness a local habitation and a name. Think how beautiful that is..."

Then she repeated the opening, knowing that we must brake for poetry, and proceeded to suggest that her peers at NCCS had given survivorship a place and a name.

I believe it was this poetic reach that energized and centered Jessie's work and personal challenges as a patient and survivor, putting a name to the edge of life we will all inhabit with our loved ones and with our selves.

Our poetry friendship began when Jessie was diagnosed with her fourth cancer in 2010, as she was forced to resign her co-editorship of JoPM. I brought her a book by a favorite poet, former U.S. poet laureate Ted Kooser, Winter Morning Walks: One Hundred Postcards to Jim Harrison, written while he was in recovery from squamous cell carcinoma (hear the Emmy award-winning CD based on these poems, described and sampled on NPR).

Postcard rendering by artist Sally Kuzma, published in Praxis Post web magazine on medicine and culture, 2001.

Jessie responded that she found the postcards a perfect salve, "despite having the attention span of a guppy," and sent me this poem by Kabir (15th c.; translation by Sushil Rao), which spoke to her as she prepared for surgery (Oct 2010):

Hiding in this cage
of visible matter
is the invisible
pay attention
to her
she is singing
your song

From those exchanges four years ago, we often turned to poetry, in email and in person, as an antidote to life's frustrations, hopes and fears. On one occasion, when I was apparently overthinking and overwhelmed with my work in London, she sent the following by Rumi (13th c.), with the advice, "OK, Ms. Brainiac: Slow down. Read the attached."

Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don't open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down the dulcimer.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

We slowed each other down. In our final conversation at lunch in late June, I was dismayed to see Jessie had slowed down considerably, no small matter for this hyper-achieving woman. I'd just returned from a poetry tour of New England and was enamored of the transcendentalists. We discussed a book I discovered, The Tao of Emerson, from which Jessie's spirit leaps on every page – unsurprising, given the revolutionary nature of these personages (another blog post! – her life as rebel in the name of truth and justice). In each chapter or two-page spread of the book, the poetry of Lao Tse, author of the Tao Te Ching, is juxtaposed with the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, assembled as poetry by author Richard Grossman. I had ordered a copy for Jessie and inscribed it with this passage, immediately recognizable as a descriptor of our heroine:

The world rolls, the din of life is never hushed,
The carnival, the masquerade is at its height,
Nobody drops his domino...
But I am only an experimenter;
Do not set the least value on what I do
or the least discredit on what I do not.
As if I pretended to settle anything as true or false;
I unsettle all things.

No facts are to me sacred, none are profane....
I put myself in the attitude of reception,
But from some alien energy, the visions come.

We talked that day about the Zen-ness of her nature – her acceptance of the grim illnesses she has dealt with and her centeredness. While not a Zen practitioner, Jessie had found that center and lived it. Emerson references it in his essay on Plato as "centripetence": the tendency of energy to progress toward the center, or essence, of things: "A multitude of trifles impede the mind's eye from the great search of that fine horizon-line that truth keeps."

Or as Lao Tse instructed: "your inner being guard, and keep it free."

Jessie was my compass, my true-north; more than once she kept me from tripping on those trifles. Her last two transmissions in July kept the flame burning – a copy of Maira Kalman's lovely book, The Pursuit of Happiness, and these words: "The ephemera of life keep getting in the way of progress/brilliance... keep watch."

I will miss her terribly, but her verses will be close at hand.

This post originally appeared on the blog on September 11, 2014.

More Blog Posts by Sarah Greene

author bio

Sarah Greene, a biologist and new media entrepreneur with a track record of disrupting scholarly publishing processes, is the founder and CEO of Rapid Science. She previously served as executive director of Cancer Commons, where she developed online communities content, and apps for researchers and patients. Prior to that she was editor-in-chief of The Scientist magazine and its parent, Faculty of 1000, a post-publication peer review service in London. Over the years Sarah founded three successful startups acquired by Wiley (Current Protocols), Elsevier (HMS Beagle web magazine and BioMedNet), and Thomson Health (Praxis Press; Best Practice of Medicine). She was a co-founder of the Society for Participatory Medicine and managing editor of its Journal of Participatory Medicine. Sarah also developed websites with original features and content for the New York Academy of Sciences and the New York Times-Health, and was chief content officer at Keas, Inc. Follow her on Twitter @sgreene24 and Linkedin.

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Celeste Castillo Lee says
September 17, 2014 at 6:07 PM

A tribute as beautiful as the breathtaking view of a New England fall. Thank you for capturing her essence, and sharing your heart.