Zen and the Art of Psycho-Oncology

Mindy Greenstein
The House on Crash Corner … And Other Unavoidable Calamities 
(Greenpoint Press, April 15)

Growing up on Flatlands Avenue as the daughter of Holocaust survivors, Mindy Greenstein used to hang out on her Brooklyn stoop on shabbos, hoping to catch one of the collisions that made her traffic light–free intersection famous. “I could often hear the screech of tires, the clash of metal on metal and the shattering glass from inside my bedroom,” she writes. The macabre pastime reinforces Greenstein’s tendency to wait for “bad things” to happen, and sets the stage for her debut autobiographical collection, The House on Crash Corner ... And Other Unavoidable Calamities.

The book, split into four sections, includes interview, poetry and essays, some of which were originally published in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post. Bad things abound: glass-hurling anti-Semites, an incarcerated uncle, savage beatings, and untimely deaths. The book risks the relentlessness of the evening news at times, but we’re relieved by Greenstein’s narration—a refreshing blend of sass and Zen. Her writing is most compelling in section two, in which Greenstein, a clinical psychologist and psycho-oncologist, is transformed by what she calls an “existential reaction to her patients” and her own battle with breast cancer. “Is there another coping option,” she wonders, “if trying to stay optimistic feels as bad as feeling pessimistic does?”

Her bedridden and emaciated patient Tony provides part of the answer. Fifty-three when he succumbs, he passes his last months not forecasting the end, instead reminiscing about time spent with his brothers or listening to his favorite operas, and fantasizing about what the bustling pedestrians beneath his window are up to. His insistence on savoring these moments reminds Greenstein of the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who maintained that our ability to appreciate life is what makes it meaningful. “Even in the bowels of a concentration camp, Frankl could appreciate a luminous sunset over the mountains of Salzburg, and he felt more whole simply for knowing he could,” she writes.

In “Boy Mom,” Greenstein mimics these teachers when she describes coming home from chemotherapy to the clamor of her two sons, Isaac and Max, then five and ten.

“On this particular day, Isaac looked me in the eye very seriously and said, ‘Mom?’
‘Yes, Isaac?’
‘Did you know I like big butts and I cannot lie?’”

Greenstein delights in the incongruous hip-hop lyric, allowing the silliness of the moment to overshadow the ugliness of illness and her fear of the future. “I wondered what other inappropriate songs Max was teaching him but didn’t ask any questions. I also didn’t think about the waves of nausea that were going to hit me…or whether I’d make it into my fifties. I just laughed.” Lingering in the humor is a wise choice, and this sometimes irreverent approach makes The House on Crash Corner a surprisingly funny and uplifting read.

Contributor

Siobhan Devine

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