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Dying for Dummies: How Poetry Helps Us Confront Mortality

By Rochelle Lefkowitz
On Sunday, September 18, nearly 100 members of the Ashby Village (AV) communitygathered in the Berkeley City Club’s majestic Drawing Room for world-renowned poet and Ashby Village member Chana Bloch’s Dying for Dummies, a moving and meaningful pre-publication reading of her poems that she said helped her confront the aggressive sarcoma that has brought her face-to-face with her mortality.

The room full of members, volunteers, donors and friends—and the reception at the Ashby Village office that followed—embodied one of our village’s core commitments: that we needn’t face the high-stakes struggles of aging alone.

Earlier this summer, at the memorial service of another Ashby Village member, the late Ben Bagdikian, AV member Peter Sussman and board member Rochelle Lefkowitz heard Bloch express her wish to give back to a community that has stood by her side, offering everything from rides to numerous medical appointments, to encouragement. 

“I hope these new poems are thought-provoking for those who are coping with aging, illness or mortality,” Bloch said.

“The process of writing them, “ she added, “helped me maintain my sanity”.

Unflinching and with a wry sense of humor, Chana Bloch shared her observations, along with 18 new poems for a book she may not live to see published.  
Bloch recalled leaving one medical appointment with an escort who warned her of an oncoming car, to which she replied with characteristic dry wit, “So you want me to die of cancer?!”.  

Bloch is the author of five books of poetry, the most recent Swimming in the Rain (2015) and co-translator of the biblical Song of Songs. Her poems have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the New Yorker and the Best American Poetry 2015.

Chana Bloch was introduced by former San Francisco Chronicle editor and early AV member Peter Sussman.  “Bloch’s poems illuminate her quest to retain her self and soul amidst brutal assaults on her body.” He noted, “A cancer diagnosis, of course, is not a predictor of death,” but it certainly concentrates the attention on issues of mortality.”

His poignant introduction was followed by that of another poet and translator, Chana Kronfeld, Chana Bloch’s longtime friend and collaborator.  Next Chana Bloch read and commented on her poems. She then led a discussion with the audience with such deep and thoughtful questions as whether she felt she’d left anything incomplete.
Sussman concluded, “We hope this reading will further the conversation about aging and dying that Ashby Village has periodically spotlighted, most notably with our showing of the film of Athul Gawande’s Being Mortal and the discussions that followed”. “It is also our hope," Sussman concluded, “that this reading will be a model for future events featuring other internationally-known creative artists and thinkers in Ashby Village”.

The event was videotaped by award-winning documentarian and photojournalist Dr. Lonny Shavelson, known for his contributions to end-of-life issues as co-author of the Bay Area Network of Ethics Committee statement and contributor to amicus briefs for the U.S. Supreme Court.  He is the author of A Chosen Death (1995). To contribute to help turn our footage into a finished film, please contact Peter Sussman through the Ashby Village office.
It takes a village to organize such a memorable event.  Among the organizers were Communications Co-Chair Rochelle Lefkowitz, Speakers Co-Chair Marcia Freedman, Outreach Co-Chair Joan Cole, Events Co-Chair Mary Jo Powell, volunteer Sue Ralston, and AV staff members Andy Gaines and Pat Carvalho. Photo credit: Felix Kramer and Walter Park.