I wrote this personal statement for the Lloyd Symington Foundation, as part of my application for a grant for my band, Iraqis in Pajamas, to produce the song, “Cancer Is My Engine.” It puts my Cancer Healing Adventure in the context of a lifetime of choices I made in how to approach trauma and healing.
My passion for self-healing and the mind-body connection began at a very young age, decades before the thyroid cancer diagnosis that rocked my world in 2010. My natural interest was nurtured by my flute teacher, at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where I studied in the preparatory department, from ages 11-17. Her own teaching lineage descended from monks who discovered that when they prayed in different positions, the quality and timbre of their sound changed. Over the generations, their discovery evolved into a comprehensive approach to music performance that had three essential components: rooting in and emanating all music from the center of one’s brain; “singing” from different body parts, to create sounds ranging from soft and soothing to powerful and raging; and expanding the small of one’s back, to instantaneously receive deep breath, then invite it to fill and spread throughout the body, carrying the sound on its wings.
Weak backs were part of my father’s lineage, and when I was 14, my back went out, just like his. Unlike my father, however, who hobbled around in pain and used all kinds of contraptions to function while suffering, I simply breathed into my back and eliminated the pain. It’s not surprising that, after graduating Barnard College in 1991, I was drawn to studying with a cutting-edge yoga teacher who founded a style emphasizing ujjayi breathing and precision in postures – enabling me to continue the rigorous mind-body training I had received from my flute teacher. Not only did this practice draw from the traditions of Hatha, Ashtanga, and Iyengar, but it added a particular intensity designed to leave nowhere to run and hide emotionally – holding deep postures for ten drawn-out breaths. The teacher was a survivor of various forms of domestic violence, as was I, and she used yoga to release all the gunk and rage that had coalesced in her as a result. Students were encouraged to express the primal sounds that naturally wanted to release, and it was common for classes to be very loud, with a number of students yelling. I was typically one of them.
Meanwhile I developed my own methods of healing that challenged and transcended social conditioning, such as smashing bottles in my backyard, while hollering at the top of my lungs, whenever I felt anger – whether that anger was caused by a situation in the present or demons from the past. Within two minutes of releasing that anger, I would collapse in giggles, feeling absolute freedom, ecstasy, and the delight of a child. I additionally sought out and engaged in healing through the spectrum of activities – writing articles and books that questioned foundational belief systems and social mores; studying and teaching self-defense; engaging in social activism; writing poetry and music; going to therapy; hiking and cycling in nature; eating nutritious foods; reading inspirational and self-help books; intervening in domestic and street violence, whether I suspected or witnessed it; running nonprofit educational organizations; performing traditional and original music; journaling; receiving bodywork; painting; attending personal growth workshops; and more. Meanwhile, I challenged myself on every level in my daily life – among other things, speaking out about and standing up for my truth, whatever the risks involved.
I had grown up in an orthodox Iraqi Jewish home, and throughout my life, had experienced both racial and religious discrimination. Passionate about healing on the individual and collective levels, I channeled this experience into ground-breaking work as a Jewish multicultural educator, teaching about the history, culture, religious traditions, and scholarly works of Jews from Africa, the Middle East, Southern Europe, Central/East Asia, and Central/South America – those overlooked, through ignorance or design, by the mainstream and Jewish worlds. Among other considerations, the communities I taught about stand at the borders of “them” and “us,” showcasing the complexity and nuance of identity, and in doing so, effectively challenging false divisions within humanity.
I myself was a living, breathing model of intersectionality, well before it became a buzz word: On one side, I am the daughter of an Iraqi Jewish refugee father, with ancestors who originated in Mesopotamia (the land of modern Iraq), then migrated to ancient Israel, then were exiled to Babylon (again the land of modern Iraq), then were exiled by modern Iraq and absorbed by modern Israel. On the other side, I am the daughter of a Jew-by-choice mother, with a Catholic great-grandmother who migrated to the USA from Ireland, a Protestant great-grandfather who migrated to the USA from Denmark, and a Quaker grandfather whose ancestors arrived in the USA from Wales in the mid-17th century. My mother not only whole-heartedly embraced Iraqi Jewish heritage but also came to identify as an Iraqi Jew herself – further contributing to my ideas about the fluidity of identity, and therefore, belonging.
Growing up as a headstrong Iraqi Jew myself, I knew I wanted to do something in response to the Eurocentrism and racial schism I experienced in the Jewish world. At age 20, I launched my first organization with this purpose. Over the next two decades, I continued founding and directing nonprofit organizations, through which I helped people recognize and question racist ideology, and through which I exposed Jews and non-Jews alike to global Jewish heritage – including the Jewish Multicultural Curriculum Project, through which I developed and implemented the first-ever curriculum about Jews across the world. Over the years, I became a sought-after expert on Jewish multiculturalism – interviewed for films, television, radio, and print media, as well as by graduate students working on their dissertations; I routinely facilitated programs at prestigious venues, including Harvard University on the East Coast and the Simon Wiesenthal Center on the West Coast; I frequently published Jewish multicultural articles in Jewish and mainstream media, ranging from Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Tikkun to BBC News and Rolling Stone; I published Jewish multicultural essays in numerous anthologies, including Best Jewish Writing and Yentl’s Revenge; I led Middle Eastern/North African Jewish prayer services at synagogues internationally – including the very first worldwide to be led by a woman; I was voted one of the who’s who in the Jewish community, by Lilith and Heeb magazines; and I published The Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Heritage – which was endorsed by professors at Barnard-Columbia, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and other prestigious universities, which received positive reviews in Jewish and mainstream media, ranging from The Jerusalem Post to The San Francisco Chronicle, and which since has been taught throughout the Ivy League and at universities nationwide.
Meanwhile, fed up with street harassment that passed as compliments and intimate violence that passed as sexuality in the 1980s-1990s, I became an activist and educator on the topics of gender, sexuality, violence, and self-defense – offering workshops at local venues in the SF Bay Area and at Ladyfest festivals internationally; publishing essays in anthologies including Body Outlaws and That Takes Ovaries!; publishing articles in numerous independent magazines and newspapers; and publishing my book, Consequence: Beyond Resisting Rape, which received positive reviews in independent and mainstream media, ranging from Bitch to SF Weekly.
Amidst this expansive personal growth and professional success, I was in a hit-and-run, head-on car collision in my late 20s, catapulting me into the underbelly of the healthcare system. I was misdiagnosed, refused tests, dismissed as a hypochondriac, physically injured, emotionally traumatized, and financially drained by the very practitioners who were supposed to help me heal. Meanwhile, none of my go-to methods worked to resolve the pain or extract me from it, though some methods did provide temporary relief or distraction. For the better part of a decade, I was bedridden, housebound, or wheelchair bound for stretches of months at a time, leaving me in a state of despair. By my mid-30s, I had sunk so low that contemplating suicide became as much a part of my morning routine as drinking a cup of coffee. To make matters worse, those in the holistic health circles declared that I had bad luck or bad karma, that I had created my reality, and that I subconsciously did not want to heal – adding insult to injury and making me self-isolate, in a spiral downward.
That year, following a series of serendipitous events, I discovered that by reconceptualizing dance as more than leaps, twirls, and fancy footwork, I could use it to heal myself. I subsequently developed the Dancing with Pain™ method, through which I not only healed myself – going to far as to bike 30 miles without pain – but also began helping other people heal, discovering the method had a 96% rate of efficacy. Individuals with a spectrum of pain-related conditions came to my classes and, in as little as one hour, were suddenly pain-free and able to move their bodies in ways they had not been able to do in years. Most notably, a woman scheduled for hip surgery canceled that surgery, after discovering she was pain-free, following her first dance class with me. She began coming regularly to my weekly YMCA classes instead.
As I continued teaching, Dancing with Pain™ was featured in top media including The New York Times, ABC News, Fox News, PBS’s “American Health Journal,” and even the Johnson & Johnson health channel – in the latter case, despite the seeming conflict of interest to promote dance instead of pills. I had been working as a freelance writer for years by then, publishing articles in top media including The Washington Post, CNN, Marie Claire, Yoga Journal, and The Boston Globe; so I additionally put my journalism skills to use, interviewing top doctors and healers about why the Dancing with Pain™ method worked. As I developed articles – including a cover story on natural pain relief, for AARP magazine – doctors informed me that the Dancing with Pain™ method effectively rewired the brain, putting the “pain train track” into disrepair and replacing it with a “pleasure train track.” Through these conversations over time, top doctors joined the Dancing with Pain™ advisory team – including pain specialists, guided imagery specialists, and integrative medicine pioneers like Martin Rossman MD, Kenneth R. Pelletier PhD MD, James Dillard MD, Mark Young MD, and John Kennedy MD.
Even recently, in August 2019 – nine years after putting Dancing with Pain™ on hold, following the cancer diagnosis – I got a call informing me that the National Endowment for the Arts had selected Dancing with Pain™ as one of a handful of methods to be researched, in a quest to explore how the arts can help manage pain. It was perfect timing, actually, as I am just now re-emerging with teaching this method, at a local community center.
Meanwhile, back in 2008, my mother had a traumatic brain injury and subsequent series of life-threatening medical emergencies, culminating in dementia in 2018. I was her caregiver for 11 years, applying everything I had learned in my own journey healing from debilitating pain and navigating through the medical system. I was her fierce ally and staunch advocate, pouring my Life Force into her like a raging firehose and protecting her like a mother bear. My mother and I operated as a team, with me working from the outside and her working from the inside, bringing her back to life repeatedly. She in fact healed completely and went on to live independently for the better part of a decade. Not only that, but as I channeled my healing energies into my mother, her own healing energies reactivated. As a child, she could move objects with her mind. When she realized that was not normal – in particular, in the 1930s Midwest – she became frightened and shut down her extraordinary talent. Following her recovery from the traumatic brain injury, however, she suddenly was able to heal others from a distance – in particular, me, whenever I had a pain flair: I would call her and tell her what was hurting; she would say “OK” and hang up; I would soon feel a warmth in that area; and suddenly the pain would disappear.
So when I was diagnosed with cancer in 2010, I was ready, with a wealth of knowledge about and experience in the extraordinary healing capacities of the body, mind, and spirit. As I intensively researched and considered the options before me, both conventional and holistic, I knew that I had gone from bad to worse in the medical system, to the point that my very life had been put in danger. I also knew that when I had relied on my intuition, energy, creativity, and intelligence, and that when I had created my own methodology, I had healed both myself and my mother.
While I consulted with surgeons and came very close to booking an appointment for surgery, I ultimately made the informed decision to reject that option and instead dive head-first into radically transforming my life and my Being. Literally overnight, I switched to a diet that was all-organic and vegan, with no gluten, no soy, no fried foods, and no sweeteners of any kind. Over the years, I switched to a primarily raw food diet and incorporated daily juicing – including two month-long juice fasts. I also began working with leading integrative oncologists and incorporating supplements. And I continued to dance and practice the various mind-body-spirit methods of healing in which I had engaged over the years.
I simultaneously decided to launch a public relations management company, in which I would support cutting-edge wellness practitioners. Doing so would provide me ongoing and high-level education in holistic therapies and would directly align my personal and professional lives. In addition, doing so would continue to expand the network I had established for Dancing with Pain™, enabling me to return to it after healing from cancer. And so, over the years, I managed public relations campaigns for the likes of Martin Rossman MD, Kenneth R. Pelletier PhD MD, and Michael Finkelstein MD; I placed clients in top media outlets including Dr. Oz, Fortune, and The Huffington Post; I secured clients speaking engagements at prestigious venues including Stanford University, Omega Institute, and Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine; I arranged for clients to collaborate with A list medical celebrities including Mehmet Oz MD, Deepak Chopra MD, and Andrew Weil MD; and as my work transitioned from straight-up medicine to sound healing, I researched and became well-versed in the plethora of scientific studies proving the power of music to heal the body – enabling me to repeatedly secure television and radio interviews for my sound healing clients, on ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS, Fox, and NPR, among other media.
Meanwhile, back in 2010, I cold-stopped the growth of the nodules, as a direct result of all the changes I had made. The nodules remained stable over the years, as I tinkered with my diet and lifestyle, until 2013, when I had a vision during a meditation: I had sat down at a piano but could not remember how to play it. “Put your fingers on the keys, and they will know what to do,” a voice told me. And so, in that vision, I began to play piano again, after decades of not having touched the instrument. Uncannily, a couple weeks later, at a “Nature + Nurture” retreat for women, I walked in to discover a grand piano squarely in the center of the living room, in the house where the retreat was being hosted. When the exact script from my vision played out in real life, and Bach concertos – which I had not played since my teenage years – flowed from my fingertips, I knew it was time to return to my music.
I had been a musician since birth, singing before speaking: My mother told me that when I was three months old, she nearly had an accident looking in the rear-view mirror in disbelief, when I began humming the shebahoth – the Iraqi Jewish songs and prayers – while swaying in the back seat of the family car. Though music was my first love, I had put it on hold in the early 2000s, for a number of reasons. Shortly after experiencing the vision, however, I moved from Sacramento to Seattle and started a band, Iraqis in Pajamas, which integrates ancient Iraqi Jewish prayers with original punk rock. And for the first time in five years, the nodules on my thyroid began shrinking.
My goal is to travel the country, sharing my message of healing and wholeness, through the vehicle of music and storytelling, and in collaboration with wellness practitioners, organizational leaders, artists, and educators who share my message. Among other considerations, I want to leverage my experience of healing from personal and communal trauma, to offer an alternate vision for responding to the brokenness of the world. Regardless of our particular issue – cancer, war, child abuse, whatever – how can we express our rage, our pain, our despair, without getting stuck in it? Better yet, how can we use those energies, channeling them for our own personal transformation and that of the world around us? As noted throughout this personal statement, I bring to the table a wealth of knowledge and experience, as well as skill and sass, that uniquely position me to do this work effectively and at a high level, positively impacting tens of millions of people nationwide.
On July 16, 2019, my beloved mother transitioned to the next life, as I held her tightly in my arms. My world was shattered by the loss, which in turn led to an opening: Following the two weeks I took off to grieve and heal, I realized that public relations management had served me well during the time I needed to go behind the scenes and do intensive personal healing. But I am ready now to return to the spotlight, jump off the proverbial cliff, spread my wings, and fly. As my mother said, shortly before leaving her body, “When you are your greatest self, shining at your brightest, I will be there.” With the Symington Foundation’s support of my springboard musical project, I can now meet my mother in that place.