All posts by Lisa Ray

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From the Marrow

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It feels important to me to revisit the ‘Yellow Diaries’.

I began chronicling my experience of getting membership into the ‘Cancer Club’ with a diagnosis of an incurable blood disease called Multiple Myeloma in the summer of 2009.

I was told initially- whatever you do, DON’T google it.

So of course I did.

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It was terrifying. But I was determined not to be a statistic.

Six years later I’m still here.

Much has changed for patients of MM in the last few years, due to the plethora of new drugs, treatments and unbridled efforts of people like Kathy Giusti of the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation (http://www.themmrf.org) who was diagnosed at 37 like me- ten years before me when she was given just a year to live.

Kathy is still here. And making real change. Both for MM patients and the world at large.

It’s time to gather myself, remember what has come before.

I think sometimes we forget for the sheer delight of remembering.

And listen- there’s no disgrace in not having all the answers. I think there’s great value in not understanding everything.

Because that’s what makes you ask. And seek. And try.

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September 7, 2009

A few months ago my bone marrow started sending me messages.

The signals: I was always exhausted, pale, drained, and completely depleted of red blood cells. The lack of oxygen made me a serial yawner and spacier than a displaced Czarina. Little did I know, but my hemoglobin had fallen to levels where even a dedicated Blood sucker would turn their thoughts to revival. In between work and travel in India this year, I got a routine blood test and the results sent me to the hospital for a blood transfusion.

But not a reason to stop and, like, change my life?

The attempt to communicate probably started earlier. Time when I was ‘busy’. Building a career and impersonating myself. Travelling a lot and stock-piling impressions and drama and super hyped destinations and a life in ‘art’. So I couldn’t hear my marrow gently carbonating. Trying to get my attention. Instead of tuning in to my body, I tuned out like a landlocked pirate tuning out the sounds of the sea.

And then I stopped travelling and returned to Canada. Got myself tested by Dr Susy Lin, landed in emergency and eventually got full membership into the Cancer Club.

That’s how I found out I have Multiple Myeloma.

Cancer Club, Multiple Myeloma Division, June 2009.

aka The Yellow Diaries

LIVESHOCK: the recurring shock of being alive. More on this later.

Don’t get me wrong. Its true the deepest crises are moments of great opportunity. An event that shocks you into seeing with heart. A place from which to combine survival and celebration. Our boy Lance Armstrong called his Cancer survivor story: a Journey Back to Life.

I believe. But right now I’m a Cancer intern, covert social watcher and I’m doing all this against the backdrop of preparing to premiere two films at the Toronto International Film Festival and wondering if I should have cancelled that meeting with that director while bloated up on my ‘roids’ or I should have just come clean. ‘Yes- I have cancer. The meds shift the shape of my body in ways I can’t predict- but I can still perform torridly well and are looks really still that important in showbiz anyways? I have so much more to say now than ever before…’

Should have said it.

Didn’t.

But I’m writing this blog.

I’m not sure why and that’s probably the best beginning.

Many people become members of the cancer club. Loads of actors and artists struggle with a the capricious nature of our business. There’s lots of ‘coming home’ stories out there.

Maybe I’m just finally listening to my marrow.

I asked around if I should speak openly about getting diagnosed recently with Multiple Myeloma. Some advised me to keep my ‘condition’ a secret as it could negatively affect my career. Buh? I’m plumper, redder, more energetic and wily than ever before- Kiss me like I’ve been kidnapped!

Tara Maclean, surrogate sister and super talented singer, talked about how the role of an artist is to use every experience- especially the painful ones- and transform them by sharing.

Laura Simms my NY based professional Story teller/surrogate jewish mother highlighted the ‘pathology of perfection’ which we suffer from in this age. How celebrity culture and media create unrealistic expectations in ourselves and others and how perhaps sharing my experiences in preparing for the Toronto Film Festival juxtaposed with my ongoing chemotherapy and treatments could inform and loosen these expectations.

Ted Grand reminded me of the power of community and interconnectivity. Ted’s the founder/director of Moksha Yoga and introduced me to the concept of Sangha or a community with a common vision or purpose. Like on the days when your ‘yellow’ wattage is low and the chemo makes you feel like a nauseous mound of subcutaneous fat, well, it’s good to know that there are others feeling shitty in ways which only the Sangha can understand.

Then there is no getting around this message from Martha Katherine Smith Macgee:

My husband has Multiple Myeloma. If we had not had Myeloma Awareness and donations in the past, he would not be here after nine years and nine months. Thank you for what you have done and will do for Cancer Awareness.

www.myelomacanada.ca/

Labelling and categorizing have their perils as well as their uses.

Sometimes there’s just stop. Find your corner, your own patch from which to speak. And follow the tug.

The Yellow Diaries. Remission-Transmission. TIFF.

Besides. I like to work from this place right now. It’s easy to find.

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Why I’m here.

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DNA Column January 2015

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‘Why are you here?’

The first time I was asked this question, shortly after landing back in Mumbai this last November, it made me pause.

Was this an invitation to engage in an existential discussion? A moment to fearlessly dip into my bag and proffer my dog eared edition of Tagore’s ‘Sadhana’? Or was this the prelude to being handed a brochure for a Vipassana retreat?

Has Mumbai become more reflective since I left in 2001? Or dare I say it…more spiritual? ‘I mean, why are you back in Mumbai?’
Oh.
‘Work?’

‘Um, yup.’

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‘Where’s your husband?’

I tend to reserve the art of satire for those who deserve my fearless disrespect, as Salman Rushdie put it, and unlike the fallen clowns of Charlie Hebdo, which has been far more generous than I, with tragic consequences. So while I was tempted to retort: ‘He got away. I’m looking for him in fact, have you seen this man?’ I merely stared back blankly.

I was still digesting the first question, and well, my husband and I are inseparable- though we spend lots of time apart. But that just sounds like a zen koan and last time I checked Mumbai and Zen are at opposite ends of whatever spectrum which measures reality.

Why am I here?

The question hasn’t abated in the last few weeks, only the quality of asking varies, from solicitous to confrontational to confused. So many inflections, so many transparently apparent motivations embedded in the line, it’s become a master class in studying human behaviour and by extension, in acting. But I digress…

I’ve been tearing myself apart over a right or wrong answer. So I’ve experimented with responses in various shades and tones.

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‘Because I’m mad.’ (provocative)
‘Because I love India and living here inspires me creatively’ (sincere) ‘Because I need to ventilate my mind’ (philosophical)
‘Because I’m mad.’ (semi-truthful)
‘Because I’m in search of an identity without borders’ (poetic)

‘Because I hate the cold’ (practical)
‘Because living in Mumbai is sooo convenient, don’t you think?’ (sarcastic)

‘Because, life has thrown me a second chance, so I’m doing it differently now, I’m liberated from all the conditions which ruled my life before so I’m free to roam wherever I feel and do whatever captures my imagination…and if you were given a second chance you’d understand as
well…’ (truthful, but earnest and too many words for a casual exchange)

I’ve now settled on ‘Unfinished business’ as the most appropriate response. It has an officious yet mysterious ring, and more importantly, the word, ‘business’, a word which evokes instant high regard in Mumbai.

But the real truth is, I don’t know exactly why.

My most rewarding life decisions have been spontaneous and unplanned. That’s not to imply that I haven’t worked hard, made the most of opportunities, steered the ‘boat’ and been guided by a vision. If I had to emblazon a single word on a tshirt to describe the central theme of my life so far (an interesting Sunday afternoon exercise, highly recommended) mine would say, ‘Serendipity’. And I’m not referring to our island neighbour to the south either.

Serendipity is what hurtled me from Canada at 16 and thrust me into a high profile career in Bombay in the early 90s, Serendipity then led me in turn to London, Paris, New York and to a period of enchanting destinations, roaming and room service. It led to my cancer diagnosis in 2009, to discovering writing, meaning, healing and to meeting my husband a few years later.

Serendipity has also done the work to prevent me from getting jaded and skeptical. There’s no call to manipulate people or situations when you know, deep inside, that your next course will appear before you, once you’ve chewed up and lived through the previous. You have to digest what life presents and be prepared to devour the new.

There seems to be a compelling need for logical reasons for life events- such as moving to a new city- which as I see it, is a rejection of the mystery and serendipity of life. And we’re taught to believe that the main aim in life is to follow a plan- without stopping to ask if the plan was our own, or created by someone else.

And then, quite often, something will happen to derail the ‘plan’- loss, death, a diagnosis of cancer- which forces one to confront the cheery reality that the future is uncertain, and you may as well unburden your critical mind and live with imagination and flourish and as if you are greater than the sum of your parts.

phew.

I guess what I’m trying to share is just over 5 years ago, on Christmas Day, to be exact, I experienced an internal baptism. I was in a hospital bed in Hamilton, the taste of canned corn at the back of my throat as fresh new stem cells streamed into my body to find their way into my marrow, the centre of my bones, and infuse the space between death and life with an

expression of aliveness. It was an instant rebirth, a ctrl-apple-reset and I’m still under its spell. My Bangla friend has named it ‘Lisa’s Borodin’, which is the bengali word for ‘Christmas, but can also mean ‘Big Day’.

Why am I here?

‘To live out my second chance.’

‘Oh yeah, and I travel without a return ticket.’

The truth is I don’t know.

And I’m okay with that.

I still say ‘Unfinished business’ because its also the truth. I’ve toned down the sarcasm to not pay the price for someone not getting my joke.

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Ask the question- just don’t get hung up on the answer. ‘No, but seriously, why ARE you here?’
To which I respond:
‘Do you know why you’re here?’

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More Beautiful for Having Been Broken

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Without any warning, the muse has come back a-visitng into my life.

She’s a demanding bitch.

But I have a more flattering name for her now: Spiritus Mundi. Latin which literally means ‘world spirit’. Yeats believed in one governing, vast universal memory or intelligence that provides inspiration, a universal memory and ‘spirit world’ of symbols available to the individual to tune in, download and participate.

An invisible inspiration highway. Take that techies.

So after a year of stunningly creative procrastination techniques, its time to listen. And return to writing. My first love.

Why?

It’s not always easy to know how to live, even today at 43, so I’m looking for clues.

To understand? I’m not that naive anymore.

But to be curious, to ask, to surrender to Spiritus Mundi…

that’s something I can understand.

 

Here’s a piece I wrote for Femina’s 55th Anniversary Collector’s Edition.

More Beautiful for Having Been Broken

I recently came across the Japanese tradition of Kintusukuroi, which is the art of repairing broken pottery with gold lacquer and understanding that the piece is more beautiful for having been broken. Often, we expect repairs to be seamless and to make the object appear to be ‘new’ again, whereas this art pays homage to the idea that there is a place for ‘better than new’. Not merely observing your cracks, but decorating them with gold is a philosophy which would serve us well in this world. At least, I know its become the theme of my life. It wasn’t always like that however

I was born to be a nomad. As a young girl growing up in Toronto, I celebrated both Christmas and Durga Puja, but never felt fully at home in Canada. Childhood was a series of idyllic moments spent in a middle class Suburban utopia, full of bikes rides, swimming lessons and other pursuits, but my eyes were always focused on the horizon and my mind floated into a dreamscape which captured my attention more than immediate events around me. My Bengali father passed on his love of the arts and philosophy while my Polish mother kept our home running smoothly, and I learned to balance somewhere between these two points: in me, there was a converging of not just two different cultures and bloodlines, but two varying approaches to life, the pragmatic and the poetic. This rich and multilayered identity actually proved problematic when I was growing up. In the late 70s and 80s and pre-globalised world, there were few other people of mixed ethnicities I could identify with. On top of that, India was the only place in the world where I felt at home. As the daughter of immigrants, this proved to be puzzling and ironic, but instinctively I knew destiny would draw me to India. I have always had a deep and abiding faith that the universe is for me and not against me.

That it would provide all I needed. So I prayed for it.

Be careful what you wish for.

I was first approached to model on a trip to Bombay with my mum and dad. I was all of 16 and had graduated from high school a year early in order to see more of the world. As so happens, I found myself in Ashok Salian’s studio, fluidly moving from pose to pose like I was born for the camera, and appearing a full decade older while doing it. Here suddenly was a space where I could shed my introverted behaviour and create a new persona free of confusion and angst. It was creative and freeing and playful. And I didn’t take it seriously. This was the early 90s when modelling and acting were really not a legitimate career option- particularly for a brainy half Bangla girl with an eye on a career in journalism or law. So I returned to Canada to begin University when fate dealt its hand. On a clear, crisp day in late August, we were driving home from a picnic in the country when my father swerved to avoid a car and lost control. Our Honda Civic rolled and came to rest in the grass beside a golf course. As I was removed from the car by the emergency crew, I knew nothing in life would ever be the same. My mother and I had switched seats that afternoon, and because of that she was thrown from the back of the car and seriously damaged her spine. She would never walk again.

I still feel liquid grief pulse through my veins, even as I write this. My mother was my lifeline, the custodian of our comfort and raw, earthy wisdom. There is no deeper trauma than losing your mother twice as I did. Once to this horrifying spinal cord injury. Then many years later, letting her go beyond physical discomfort. My mum passed in 2008 just a few months before I my physical challenges began.

They say you can only understand life by glancing in the rearview mirror. And so, I”ve come to recognise that every major turning point in my life is preceded by pain. Or difficult events. It’s been a strong and important lesson in reframing experiences with an openness to what they teach rather than wallowing in the challenges they produce. But hey- that didn’t happen overnight. It took many years and in the beginning, pain was simply pain. A deep, dark, throb in the core of my being.

So my career in India and entertainment started on the edge of a sword: one side was instant fame and fortune, and the other personal grief and pain. It is because of this I came to understand very early on that fame offers no personal comfort.

And so I began my decade of making memories in Mumbai. The years flew by in a haze of events. I became successful, as the nineties was the era of ‘supermodels’ when a handful of us ‘names’ were more popular than Bollywood stars. I went through all the rites of passage of your twenties: heartbreak, affairs, insecurity, anorexia, false friends, betrayals and, inevitably, joy and forming life long bonds. Slowly I started to find my voice and heal. And gradually, something shifted inside me. In opening to each experience fully- both painful and pleasurably- I was discovering a way not to merely survive my youth, but to thrive even in the darkest experiences. They say the way of an artist is to transform each experience, and so I began to life my life as if it were a giant canvas. As I got more and more in touch with a deeper essence I became more immune to outside criticism, more fearless of challenges and more in touch with the magic and mystery of living beyond the image.

By this time, I had come to be identified a glam girl, a sex symbol which of course was not my whole story. I came to feel trapped by my image in India and while I was offered the most lucrative Bollywood projects of my era, I refused them all until Kasoor. Working with Vikram Bhatt, a director with similar sensibilities and a sensitivity towards actors, opened my perspective on how acting could not be a profession, but a personal mission to both understand myself and human nature, and bring great stories to an audience. I was hooked, but I also felt trapped by my image.

So life called me and I left India, and also left behind a dysfunctional relationship which wasn’t serving me. I crossed the ocean in search of my voice and to grow my personal power. My time spent in London, Paris, Milan and NY was an opportunity to find myself away from the image I had become accustomed to in India.

While I was living and working in Europe (I went to drama school, studied mime and poetry and started a successful career in Indie films culminating with Oscar nominated ‘Water’ which put me on the map internationally) I realised that what bothered me most about the glamour industry was what I term ‘the pathology of perfection’. As a student of drama, I was attracted to human behaviour in all its colours and imperfections. As Leonard Cohen says, ‘its the cracks that let the light in’ and while I love beauty and glamour, I struggled with people’s perceptions of what it means to be a part of this industry. The age of internet and globalisation meant that while kids had access to information, they were also still vulnerable to media messaging of aspirational femininity and these unreal red carpet images, which took a full four hours of hair, makeup and styling to achieve. Instead of celebrating our individuality, we were still worshipping illusionary images. I felt so conflicted about this, especially as a girl who had gone through anorexia in pursuit of perfection. I wanted to desperately find an antidote to this unhealthy trend.

Be careful what you ask for.

I was flying high after Water’s Oscar nomination, commuting between LA and Paris, being courted by studio heads, shooting in South Africa and feeling rather chuffed about the life I had created. I was going on long meditation retreats in Dharamsala and California. Of course I was also world class in ignoring my body’s messages and signals. I’d get extremely fatigued in the afternoon, so I changed my diet. I drank more coffee. I did everything except go to a doctor to get myself checked.

Finally, during a yoga teacher training course in Kerala, I hit a wall. After one class I stayed in savasana or corpse pose for a full hour, unable to get up off the floor. I knew something was wrong, and I couldn’t live in denial any more. A few months later I sat in a hematologist’s office in Toronto while he nervously pronounced my diagnosis: You have Multiple Myeloma. Silence. Gulp. ‘Would you like some water?’ I asked him with a smile.

When I announced my diagnosis from the red carpet at the Toronto International Film Festival, I had put on forty pounds from steroids and developed the classic ‘moonface’. But I felt more at ease than ever before in my body and my soul. I was freeing myself of ‘the pathology of perfection’ by highjacking a very glamourous moment to talk about something more personally meaningful to myself and all humanity: life. The possibility of fighting for your life and chronicling every moment with dignity and respect and thus putting all our other concerns into perspective. What do I care if I’m not a perfect size zero, when I’m grappling with a serious disease. I”m the same person, just more invested in life. Nothing less than the threat of death does that.

And so I chronicled my cancer journey in the Yellow Diaries. Cancer has opened an entirely new chapter in my life. Firstly I care very deeply about demystifying cancer in India and providing an example where not only have I gotten through my treatment, but in fact I’m thriving while LIVING with cancer, because of course Multiple Myeloma is considered incurable. I also have an opportunity to use my profile to promote this cause and others that are meaningful to me.

What do you care about?

What matters?

Pursue that Forget the rest.

Cancer has freed me. And therefore I wear my porth a cath scar proudly in my chest like an honourable pin. I don’t mind that my body will not resemble my ‘Bombay Dyeing’ days silhouette after steroids and chemo-induced menopause. I work and offer my talents as an actor and woman even as I celebrate my forties and finding my voice and the love of my life post a stem cell transplant.

More Beautiful for Having Been Broken

More Beautiful for Having Been Broken

When you quest, you find an accidental power, the best sort of power with which to transform yourself and the world. So today, make a choice. Don’t observe your wounds and cracks with any sort of regret, but instead decorate them with gold. Highlight that I’m ‘better than new’ and understand you’re more beautiful for having been broken.