by Alice Hoffman
Previously the one who shepherded her loved ones through illness and tough times, Hoffman found that when she herself was ill, certain truths became clear to her that she didn’t want to forget later on. She set out to capture the lessons from her own life that became bright spots during her treatment – from her grandmother’s way of giving advice, to the example of her childhood hero Anne Frank, to the brownie recipe gifted to her by a dear friend.
Now a 15-year cancer survivor, Hoffman devotes significant time to fundraising for breast cancer causes. She spoke to the Daily News about Survival Lessons.
New York Daily News: How did you know you had to write this book?
Alice Hoffman: I have been running a breast cancer event for the past 15 years, and I gave a talk, and I felt like maybe I had more to say — a more personal talk than I usually gave. I started to realize after 15 years I felt like I could better address certain things. It took me a long while, but I felt like the time had come for me to address this part of my life. I kind of omitted it, in a way, publicly. But privately it really affected me.
How did you go about compiling all of the lessons? What was that thought process like?
I think I just thought about the things that I tried to do in the time that I was being treated. Because in a way, when you’re ill you kind of have to stop. You step out of your life and think about what’s really important to you and what you want to do, and as you get well, as we live our everyday lives, it’s very easy to forget these things. And it really is for me, I mean, I really get caught up in everyday living and these minute dramas that seem really big at the moment that they’re happening.
I think I wrote the book because I needed to take a step back and really think about what mattered to me. And part of what mattered was to take time for myself.
And what kinds of things did you discover you were missing out on?
To read whatever I wanted to, especially books I had read in my childhood — that was a really big deal for me. To think about who you really want to spend your time with is a big deal for a lot of people. Everybody has so many things that they have to do, whether it’s with work or with family. And the whole idea that you can choose your family — and by that I mean, you can choose your inner circle — life is short and you want to spend time with people who you love and who you enjoy.
Do you find that you live your life differently now?
I feel like I try to. And I feel like I still need help. That’s why I think I wrote the book. I need help in remembering that I can choose to forgive. That’s a really big one for me, as I think it is for most people. I need to be reminded, and I think that’s why I wrote it down.
Forgiveness is also a big theme in the book.
I think people do find it really difficult. I know I do. I kind of obsess about, you know, who did me wrong 50 years ago, and I think it’s very hard to let go of hurts and wounds. I remember when my sister-in-law had brain cancer and was dying, and we were kind of in denial about it and had to face it, one of the nurses at the hospital suggested that she write down the names of people she still felt badly about and burn the pieces of paper. And she did that, and then let them go. It was really moving to me that even then at that moment when her life was ending she still was able to forgive people.
Do you have a favorite lesson, of all the ones in the book?
They’re all meaningful to me in different ways, but I think for me because it’s so personal, the brownie recipe that was given to me by my very dear friend Maclin as a wedding present. Just the idea that you can heal with very small gifts and very small actions, and be connected to people in that way.
I can’t wait to try out that recipe. It sounds great.
It’s the best. It’s going to look terrible — it’s not going to look good because it kind of falls in on itself. But it is the best brownie recipe ever.
What made those moments — like the brownies, and the hat your cousin taught you to knit — stand out in your experience?
I think when you’re ill, especially, you realize who cares about you and who’s important to you, and who’s going to be there for you. These small gifts and the lessons I learned especially from the women around me — my cousin Lisa, who created the hat pattern, who was very much there for me when I was ill; my grandmother, who was always there for me — I feel like in a way for me it was about the people who cared for you. And sometimes those small gifts really are the most meaningful.
By Tracy Miller
New York Daily News
October 4, 2013
“I was not someone who got cancer,” Alice Hoffman writes in her newest book and nonfiction debut. “In fact, I was the person who sat by bedsides, accompanied friends to doctors’ appointments,” and so forth.
Cancer isn’t so discriminating, of course, and when a lump in Hoffman’s breast turned out to be malignant 15 years ago, the expert soother and hand-holder found herself upended. Worse yet, Hoffman, a prolific author herself, couldn’t find the guidebook she was looking for — “I needed to know how people survive trauma” — which is, in part, how she came to write Survival Lessons.
It’s a slender book broken down into easily digestible bits — a few menu-centered chapters nearly literally so — with titles encouraging action over passivity (“Choose Your Heroes,’’ “Choose to Enjoy Yourself,’’ “Choose to Plan for the Future’’). And it would be easy to dismiss as one of those fluffy daily meditation books.
This would be a mistake, for the most part. Yes, some of the book’s wisdom feels familiar, urging readers to pursue their dreams, cut their losses, heal old grudges, and focus on love. Her enthusiasms — brownies, knit goods, dogs — are hardly cutting-edge. And yet there’s toughness here, and a deliberate, bracing honesty, whether Hoffman is admitting to her own failings or pointing out that cancer rearranges one’s relationship to aging: “Getting old is starting to look good to you now.”
Many of her lessons come entwined with stories of her own life, including a childhood bruised by loss. After her father left the family, Hoffman writes, her mother took to bed, leaving the 8-year-old to clean the house and walk the dog. She found a place of peace and happiness when curled up with a book. “I read because I wanted to escape sadness,” she says, “which was a big theme in my family.”
This landscape — a place where happiness and sadness coexist, or refer to each other — is where most of Hoffman’s “lessons” take place. As she points out, “good fortune and bad luck are always tied together with invisible, unbreakable thread.”
Hoffman writes about the sustaining love of friends during her illness, but she doesn’t omit the wrenching fact that some friends let her down horribly. Still, this too was a lesson: I was hurt. I felt abandoned. Looking back on it, I wish I had let them go more easily.
Hoffman avoids many of the platitudes that cancer patients hear so frequently — she doesn’t mention divine plans or invoke the power of positive thinking. Instead, she counsels a pragmatic kind of mindfulness (one that includes plenty of room for napping, being irritated at loved ones, and veg-ging out to a good movie).
Her advice is always gentle, sometimes surprising. Even (perhaps especially) people who know they are dying should plan for the future as well as take stock of the past.
Most importantly, Hoffman advises, they should also try to do new things — why not tackle those tasks you once avoided, out of fear you would fail? Failure wouldn’t have mattered then, Hoffman implies, and it certainly doesn’t matter now.
As her legion of fans already knows, Hoffman is a writer of deceptive simplicity and unexpected boldness. Readers facing pain, uncertainty, and fear — whether caused by cancer or any other rotten piece of bad luck — deserve nothing less.
By Kate Tuttle
Boston Globe Correspondent
October 14, 2013
Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at [email protected].