Saturday, August 9, 2008

"For Keeps"

I’ve been exploring a variety of anthologies lately, to get some ideas for mine. There are some really good ones out there. I found “For Keeps” to be particularly salient.

“For Keeps”, edited by Victoria Zackheim, is a collection of stories by and about women on what it means to live in a female body throughout the various stages of the lifecycle.

I guess your body is not supposed to fall apart when you are 23 years old. Oops! I must have missed that day in school.

Okay, so I know what you’re thinking. This is a self-help book for menopausal women who woke up one morning to realize that they are not 2o years old anymore, with sagging skin, facing their own mortality head on. And while it’s true that most, if not all of the stories, are written by women in their 50s and 60s, there is a lot that resonates with the chronically ill, no matter what age.

This book made me laugh and cry. Whether you’re body loathing or body loving, I really think you’ll love this book. And since it isn’t written about chronically ill people, you don’t have to be chronically ill “to get it”. You just have to be a woman who has ever felt uncomfortable in her own skin. And who hasn’t?

Plus, you have to admit, the cover is pretty awesome!


“To believe that I am healthy, to wish that I am healthy, and to live with the expectation that I will be healthy in no way guarantees my good health” (v).

I know this all too well, as I’m sure many of you do, as well. I have tried to will my illnesses away, tried to make them disappear with a thought and a snap of my fingers. But no matter how deep I furrow my brow or how much friction I put between my fingers, my illnesses stay.

“[…] life continues to remind us that the control we have fought so hard to attain can quickly slip away” (vi).

Control has been a big issue for me. And when illness becomes an issue in ones life, control slips away, a necessary component of life one may, unfortunately, never get back.

“But what happens when our bodies let us down and we find ourselves – our spirit and sometimes our will to live – tested? Do we crumble under the weight of the bad news, or do we become stronger, more determined?” (vii).

This is “the” question, isn’t it? It’s similar to a question I ask myself at least once a day.

“My passport has been stamped. In an instant I have emigrated from the land of the healthy to the land of the ill” (18).

I thought that this was a beautiful metaphor for what it means to go from healthy to sick. Sad, but beautiful.

“My car mechanic had a better bedside manner than this poor man, delivering his horror-movie news” (19).

This made me laugh. Doctors can be so hard to deal with sometimes.

“Now I understand. Animals don’t know that they’re dying. They can’t distinguish pain that is inflicted by an external predator and pain that is visited from within. They run to get away from the pain. They are trying to save their lives” (21).

I just really liked this passage.

“Fitness – particularly its false promise of control over our bodies and ourselves – is fickle and illusory” (74).

I think that this sentence was written for some of the people I know. There is so much talk about working out, and sometimes I definitely resent it because I can’t do the same things they can.

“Before I got sick, I had a lot of ideas about what body ‘perfection’ meant” (115).

‘Perfection’ is a funny thing. Before illness, society offers up examples of what it means to have the “perfect” body. Even though those examples aren’t really tangible, we try to make them real anyway. The thing is, once illness hits, that same ‘perfection’ doesn’t seem as important as it once did.

“This mystery woman leaves her car down the block, while putting mileage on her body instead” (131).

When you’re young, you don’t, or at least I didn’t, consider the cumulative effects of activities that I didn’t consider to be destructive to my body. I always pushed myself, but it’s not like I was addicted to drugs or alcohol or taking part in activities normally labeled as “destructive.”

“Health was no more my real goal than cheap tea was the object of the American Revolution” (132).

We do a lot in the name of “health”, when in fact, we’re actually doing it for looks and appearance. We don’t starve ourselves or work out obsessively in the name of health. This is something else entirely, but it wears the mask of health to make us feel better about committing to such acts against our own bodies.

“My body, like a long-suffering wife, was reacting not to any specific assault but to years of abuse” (138).

Again, we do so many things in the name of health. And when our bodies rail against us, we wonder why. And there is no way to pinpoint the exact cause or moment when things went incontrovertibly awry.

“There are days when I picture an invisible queue outside my door, diseases and conditions that have taken a number from a machine and are just waiting in a line to get in and nail me” (181).

Isn’t this the way it is for everyone, although only those of us who are ill really know to be cognizant of it. Once one switch gets flipped, we are always waiting for another light to go out, another system to fail, something else to go wrong.

“Instead of accepting illness gracefully, I turned it against myself as a sign of my weakness and self-pity. I thought my body had betrayed me; by not listening to its messages, I had betrayed it” (221).

Is there really a “graceful” way to accept illness? I don’t like this blame game, but I think, especially when already dealing with illness, it is easy to ignore signs of other systems going awry, but it is even more important to pay attention to our bodies and to fight for a voice when we know something is wrong and no one will listen.

“I’ve faced scarier enemies than the mirror” (241).

It’s easy to pay attention to all the superficial worries – too much fat here, not enough tone and definition there – but in the end, the mirror isn’t the scariest thing that any of us will face in our lives. So maybe rather than seeing it as an enemy, mirrors should be removed from our lives if we can’t consider them to be friends.


I think it’s a hard lesson to learn that rather than loathing what are bodies aren’t or can’t do, we should celebrate what they are and can do.

When I began this whole illness process, I thought, all the little worries will just melt away. But in fact, I think I’ve almost become hyper-vigilant about them. No longer are working out and eating well necessarily going to solve the problem of my prednisone pudge. It’s possible that nothing will.

So many times the discussion resolves around failing bodies, bodies on attack mode. And you know, I’m kind of getting sick of it. I might not have “the” perfect body and I probably never will, but I have to think that my body is all I have. We don’t get to give bodies a test drive to see which one we like best. Like so much in life, we have to deal with the hand, or body, we are dealt.

We make promises to our bodies a lot. Promises that we usually don’t keep. I’ll work out more, I’ll eat less, I’ll eat healthier, etc. But why don’t we make the one promise we can actually keep? No matter what happens, we should love our body, because our body is for keeps.
(Zackheim, Victoria, ed. For Keeps. Berkeley: Seal Press, 2007)


  1. www.victoriazackheim.comAugust 9, 2008 at 11:41 PM

    The Google Alert function sent your blog to me and I want to thank you for the lovely observations based on the essays in this anthology. It was a joy editing it and working with these extraordinary women.

    I wish you good health.

    Victoria Zackheim

  2. Leslie, this book sounds awesome. Thanks for the review - I'm adding it to my reading list!

    Be well,

  3. Thanks, Victoria, for the kind words. It truly was a wonderful book!

  4. MJ, that's great to hear! I'm sure you will appreciate the book as much as I did!