Book Review: Unselfish memoir shares how to live, face mortality

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"Chemo Pilgrim: An 18-Week Journey of Healing and Holiness," by Cricket Cooper, Rector at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Pittsfield, is a deeply searching memoir chronicling Cooper's treatment for cancer, diagnosed three days before her 51st birthday, and her accompanying pilgrimage to four monastic retreats.

What is most gripping about this memoir is its focus on discovering life, how to live freely and easily as possible in the face of terror and disease. What is discovered and passed on in very clear and masterful storytelling prose is the results of her discoveries, sharing the deeper knowledge and wisdom that comes from monastic experience.

Cooper visits Weston Priory, a Benedictine monastic community, New Skete Orthodox monastery, Karma Triyana Dharmachakra Tibetan Buddhist monastery and Zen Mountain Monastery between six rounds of chemotherapy treatments. Every chapter from each retreat leaves the reader with an uncanny sense of what these places are like.

Her years of mindfulness practice and her personal story provide guidance for those who are gravely ill and those who are simply walking the path of life in all its profound challenges. It is a skillfully blended tale of one woman's path to be awake, fully present and courageously demanding of peace and freedom from fear, obsessions and negative emotions that rob us of this precious life. It is a personally instructive memoir about letting go and finding relief in the here and now and the power to make choices about how we respond in our lives.

The story shares with us some of the most detailed aspects of her treatment through six rounds of chemotherapy and then radiation treatment. The examination of her experiences with meditation and monastic sites is astonishingly clear, profoundly helpful and amazing in its extraordinary detail. Her personal revelations of what blessings appear at every juncture are reassuring, enlightening and sometimes very funny.

The "most deeply inexplicable and mystical event of (her) life," at New Skete is as powerful as it gets. So too are moments of revelation to back off and take compassionate care of ourselves. Most profoundly, the message that when perfectly and completely discouraged sometimes, the choice to stay alive is not always our own. When at All Saints' Episcopal Church in South Burlington community labyrinth she discovers, "You enter a maze to lose yourself. You enter a labyrinth to find yourself." — traditional wisdom of the labyrinth. Every chapter is a full view of each pilgrimage site and each return to "real life." It is an unselfish sharing of how to live and face mortality by someone who has gone to the brink and came back to unselfishly and generously tell the tale with a tender heart and a loving compassion.

Colin Harrington is the events manager at The Bookstore & Get Lit Wine Bar in Lenox, Mass. He welcomes reader comments at charrington686@gmail.com


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