The human body is a tough machine. Women's bodies in Victoria Zackheim's straight-up, affable anthology, "For Keeps," are put to the test, experiencing bulimia, breast cancer, a ruptured disc in the cervical spine, suicide attempts, a weird rash, digestive problems, multiple sclerosis and less familiar conditions, such as Sjogren's syndrome (like lupus) and avascular necrosis (a bone disease). In a post-"Vagina Monologues" age, nobody will blink at Abby Frucht's reflection that "except that it costs me my whole deductible, I enjoy my hysterectomy." Menopause and flesh-sucking undergarments are today more the stuff of yawps than of whispered confessions. While not revolutionary, the essays, written by women generally over the half-century mark, will be bracing to women growing older themselves, who may be facing down an illness or other bodily foe: The writers have all survived to tell their stories.Zackheim describes her anthology as "an assemblage of emotions, confidences, and experiences," the naked recounting of personal stories. Each essay is told in the intimate first person (the exception being a narrator who claims the strong upright pronoun only after dumping a no-good boyfriend), and there is value in these honest accounts that could be critically relevant to readers. Two essays in particular, however, stand out for their literary merit: Louisa Ermelino's "Death Becomes Her" and Leora Skolkin-Smith's "The Body Is My Land." Ermelino's husband and mother died within a six-week period, and she writes of how she functioned during that time, noting the details - her husband wanted knishes from Yonah Schimmel; he wore pink socks. Her sentences are short and even, often repeated, like breathing. The words give the impression of an existence pieced together bit by bit, carefully, when the world was out of control. Skolkin-Smith's essay tells how she coped with borderline personality disorder by remembering the adolescent moment, in Israel, when she discovered that the territory that was her body was her own. "The Kabbalah says that we are all points at first, tiny dots isolated from the larger world. We grow into lines and start to connect with other dots, and then we are lines thickening into planes, expanding out, enlarging our form and starting point." Learning to remember her starting point and accept unanswered questions is the beginning of her recovery.Other essays are noteworthy for their unique perspectives. Rochelle Jewel Shapiro, a well-known psychic, writes about her trials with an initially mysterious illness; Sally Terrell, a former Olympic weightlifting competitor, writes about punishing her body for emotional reasons; Masha Hamilton tells an offbeat story about offering bewildered Afghan women shiatsu massage. Whatever the subject, the essays mainly reveal coastal sensibilities, with narrators willing and interested in getting to the bottom of their problems. Think "The View," not "Prairie Home Companion." Partly though, the thoughtfulness of these essays comes from the women's perspective, from aging itself."In aging," writes Ellie McGrath, "you learn the art of compromise." Women, as shown in the essays, are brutally hard on themselves (not to mention what they do to their daughters). Anyone who has ever been bewildered by row upon row of beauty magazines instructing women on how to become thin will become demystified after reading this collection. But the good news is that the calorie-counting, self-loathing, 600-crunches-a-day zealots become older and wiser and can even laugh at the striving fanaticism of their earlier days. Occasionally, the close scrutiny they are willing to give their pasts may not match the reader's appetite - peering into old photo albums and visiting old novels written by an author require the deftest hand. But the excavation of memories is for a constructive end: to show the reader how women have managed to cope under circumstances beyond their control and, especially, under circumstances they have the power to alter.The subtitle of "For Keeps" suggests that the book is ultimately about acceptance. "After years spent tamping down the girl in me," remarks Liza Nelson, "I have let the life-affirming fun lover float free." A sort of illumination occurs for the writers as they grow older. Without acceptance, and the humor it makes space for, this anthology would be too grim, chronicling as it does one body's trial after another. Even with the humor, some will cringe in discomfort at the honesty and self-appraisal. But the women for whom this book was written and assembled will celebrate the sisterhood and fearlessness it promotes. They will embrace essays such as "Making Joy and Love in Seasoned Bodies" without any qualms. Regina Anavy sums up the book's hopeful thesis: "As I get older, I know the future will hold challenges, and I am confident in my strength to face them."
Causes Victoria Zackheim Supports
Delancey Street Foundation Move-on Emily's List Susan G. Komen for the Cure Heifer International