Character: Build It Here
“Able to withstand or recover quickly from difficulty.”
Here is a story that defines the word ‘resilience’ with much more power than a one-line entry in a dictionary could ever attain. It’s a story that I found while browsing T.E.D. A story that gives meaning to the words that we so often struggle to define: Love. Poetry. Courage.
A young woman takes the stage and begins with words of beauty:
"I know a man who soars above the city every night. In his dreams, he twirls and swirls with his toes kissing the Earth. Everything has motion, he claims, even a body as paralyzed as his own. This man is my father."
This woman who speaks so tenderly of her father is Kitra Cahana, a photojournalist. Her father is Rabbi Ronnie Cahana. The stroke her father had took her to a place deep within her father’s spirit where she walked with him in his dreams at a time when all he could do to communicate was blink an eye. The thoughts he shared with her about his experience of being suddenly locked inside a body unable to move at the relatively young age of 57, these thoughts, that the two of them so painstakingly extracted from his innermost being, these thoughts, revealed the true essence of what it means to love, and the courage it takes to live, and love your life, no matter what, knowing that your life has a value unlike any other, a gift to be shared. Here’s a little more of her experience as told on T.E.D.:
As a rabbi and spiritual man dangling between mind and body, life and death, the paralysis opened up a new awareness for him. He realized he no longer needed to look beyond the corporeal world in order to find the divine. "Paradise is in this body. It's in this world," he said.
I slept by my father's side for the first four months, tending as much as I could to his every discomfort, understanding the deep human psychological fear of not being able to call out for help. My mother, sisters, brother and I, we surrounded him in a cocoon of healing. We became his mouthpiece, spending hours each day reciting the alphabet as he whispered back sermons and poetry with blinks of his eye. His room, it became our temple of healing. His bedside became a site for those seeking advice and spiritual counsel, and through us, my father was able to speak and uplift, letter by letter, blink by blink. Everything in our world became slow and tender as the din, drama and death of the hospital ward faded into the background. I want to read to you one of the first things that we transcribed in the week following the stroke. He composed a letter, addressing his synagogue congregation, and ended it with the following lines: "When my nape exploded, I entered another dimension: inchoate, sub-planetary, protozoan. Universes are opened and closed continually. There are many when low, who stop growing. Last week, I was brought so low, but I felt the hand of my father around me, and my father brought me back."
When we weren't his voice, we were his legs and arms. I moved them like I know I would have wanted my own arms and legs to be moved were they still for all the hours of the day. I remember I'd hold his fingers near my face, bending each joint to keep it soft and limber. I'd ask him again and again to visualize the motion, to watch from within as the finger curled and extended, and to move along with it in his mind.
Then, one day, from the corner of my eye, I saw his body slither like a snake, an involuntary spasm passing through the course of his limbs. At first, I thought it was my own hallucination, having spent so much time tending to this one body, so desperate to see anything react on its own. But he told me he felt tingles, sparks of electricity flickering on and off just beneath the surface of the skin. The following week, he began ever so slightly to show muscle resistance. Connections were being made. Body was slowly and gently reawakening, limb by limb, muscle by muscle, twitch by twitch.
As a documentary photographer, I felt the need to photograph each of his first movements like a mother with her newborn. I photographed him taking his first unaided breath, the celebratory moment after he showed muscle resistance for the very first time, the new adapted technologies that allowed him to gain more and more independence. I photographed the care and the love that surrounded him.
But my photographs only told the outside story of a man lying in a hospital bed attached to a breathing machine. I wasn't able to portray his story from within, and so I began to search for a new visual language, one which strived to express the ephemeral quality of his spiritual experience.
“You have to believe you're paralyzed to play the part of a quadriplegic. I don't. In my mind, and in my dreams every night I Chagall-man float over the city twirl and swirl with my toes kissing the floor. I know nothing about the statement of man without motion. Everything has motion. The heart pumps. The body heaves. The mouth moves. We never stagnate. Life triumphs up and down.”
Rabbi Ronnie Cahana
Ms. Cahana put together a collage depicting the art of her father’s recovery. You can hear her talk at T.E.D. and see her photographs here.
Here’s a little about Kitra Cahana and her first talk on ted.com: As a young girl, photojournalist and TED Fellow Kitra Cahana dreamed about running away from home to live freely on the road. Now as an adult and self-proclaimed vagabond, she follows modern nomads into their homes — boxcars, bus stops, parking lots, rest stop bathrooms — giving a glimpse into a culture on the margins.
You can see the stunning portfolio of her work here.