To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven.”
Ecclesiastes & the Byrds
Where’s the beef? Wendy’s Restaurant Stunt-Old-Lady
If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when? Rabbi Hillel
Days into my sixty-first year, I fought a second bout with breast cancer. For two weeks before and after mid-March surgery and for three weeks of twice-daily radiation treatment, I encapsulated myself in a bubble of self-care and emotional quiet. Tightly monitoring stress, I allowed others to carry their burdens without me and asked them to help carry mine. The bubble held. It was a successful strategy for me. I wasn’t isolated; contact with current, new and long-ago friendships were top features of those weeks, as were simple pleasures, easy gardening, personal reflection, public journaling, rest from other projects, and a retreat from much global grief.
In May, I resumed the landscaping battle to replace harmful, invasive plants with healthy natives. I sowed a few starter food crops. I celebrated the remarkable achievements of the last of a set of nieces and nephews who’d periodically needed my assistance. Every one of my younger beloveds is on a life-path of wholesome wellbeing, kindness and pragmatic capacity; they’re each developing wisdom I honor.
Learning that my Poet’s Perch Tiny House project was stymied again by contractors unable to do the work, I arranged to write during the day at the Argus Hotel, where I lived through my radiation treatments. It reminds me of a university club and is mostly empty during the day. It’s relaxed, close, inspiring, and has coffee and tea (and an ice machine). I’ve begun a law suit against the tiny house’s previous contractor, who conned me out of a huge-to-me sum. I’m sorting out any further possibilities with the Poet’s Perch, including putting the idea to rest and selling the unfinished shell.
As I recover strength post-radiation, I am dipping my toes toe back into other people’s woes and joys. Experiencing wide, rapid mood and energy swings, I met remotely with the Naturopathic Doctor/therapist who has repeatedly helped me tap into my ability to navigate transitions.
Meanwhile, a woman’s autonomy over her body in the US is threatened as if 50 years of rights were a hiccup. Two more mass murders have shattered American communities, yet will lead to zero change thanks to leaders willing to sacrifice strangers’ lives for their own gain. Fascism is on the rise here and abroad, while courageous, selfless civic duty is at a notable low among elected public servants. Lies and truth have become equal contenders in the marketplace of ideas. As a result, faith in government, too, is at a notable low. A protracted, colonializing war by Russia on Ukraine is felling the global dominos of energy, food, financial stability and health.
All this stands in stark contrast with my life, which is far more economically, emotionally and physically safe and satisfying than ever. (Thanks in large part to my fibromyalgia, a chronic illness that rewards me for every choice to increase joy and zaps me with pain or fatigue when I allow stress to build up.) The dissonance – between my path and the world’s – tells me to look for what I am supposed to be doing now, as a partner with my Maker.
I monitor my alignment with my Maker by listening to an imaginary, cosmic tuning fork; I feel the harmonics in my bones when I’m pitch perfect and I wince when I'm not. I can tune myself up with intention, most effectively with the right help. Dr. Jill Kelner, a doctor of naturopathic medicine in Toronto, has known me since the terrible emotional, physical and marital suffering I experienced over a decade ago. I return for her supportive and dynamically truthful input with each new upheaval, and even when facing (suspiciously) calm periods. After each, I change. Sometimes my trajectory alters: career-choice, geography, relationships, etc. At other times, the primary changes are to my character, understandings, patterns or sense of self.
I asked Dr. Kelner to help me identify the shift that will resonate for me now, at 60 and coming out of my second cancer encounter. We made great headway in discussion, and I continued to ponder the question for another couple of weeks, until I could frame my current purpose: Prioritize progress in my creative projects.
Some context for why this is a well-aligned response to a world going mad, and by mad, I mean spiraling (back) into destructive patterns of scarcity response, tribalism and authoritarianism.
1. Meanness aggrieves and baffles me. I sobbed inconsolably as a three year old when The Sound of Music’s Rolfe betrayed his heartthrob Liesl and her family to the Nazis hunting them down. I was sad and confused about being bullied in 1st-5th grades. I can touch emotional tender points remaining from the tiny number of times friends or relatives were infinitesimally unkind to me. My face still gets hot with shame from laughing when classmates mortified a smelly, unfit middle-school substitute teacher and for being perfectionistically unkind to two graduate-school flat-mates.
I can understand fear and hate; what I cannot fathom is feeling proud of or gleeful about it. Reveling in hatred – overt nastiness, violence and even indifference – is emotionally alien to me. (I understand it intellectually; I do not feel an iota of it.)
2. I believe in a divine entity of some sort, that I’ve taken to calling my Maker, with consciousness and benevolent plans. I believe that my Maker knows me intimately, cares about me exactly as I am, and guides me to where I need to be and what I need to do for my part in those plans. I believe with equal certitude that “my Maker” could be a metaphor for self-guidance shaped by the mores in which I’ve been steeped. I care not one whit whether my Maker is an internal voice or an objective truth. (And I certainly do not care what others believe about it.) I’m comfortable knowing that there are things I do not – some that I cannot ever – know. This relationship with my real or imagined Maker is a tool I use to adjust myself so that my actions promote goodness and wellbeing for others. That’s what matters – answering this question over and over: What am I “supposed to be doing now” to improve life on earth?
I believe that there is probably a divine element in the Torah, and probably in all (or most) religions’ long-lasting foundational tomes. And while I find some purpose, much beauty, and many pleasures in collective acts of religion, I find many problems there, too. Detailed observances – for now, anyway – seem irrelevant to my experience of connectedness with a divine presence in the universe and humanity.
3. Empathy, strength, fragility, imagination, sensuality, intellect, outrage and humor form the connective tissue of my soul, just as bones, muscles, flesh, ligaments, cartilage, tubing and fascia are the connective tissue of my body. Daydreams help me envision my future and night dreams help me explore the concerns and desires from which the daydreams draw. While I’ve suppressed one or the other aspect of myself as inappropriate within this or that relationship and role, I’ve always believed that my Maker factors into the plan all my facets and peculiarities.
4. I enjoyed the stress-reduction bubble I crafted to thrive through cancer planning and treatment. It was liberating not to constantly rotate through the long list of those I love, mentally scanning their well-being. I also appreciated limiting my exposure to news by reading/listening for awareness of events, not immersion. I relished being cared for by friends, family members and acquaintances. So, I had no doubt that this bubble would factor into the shift. My broadcasted journaling felt like a new tool for offering service – counterintuitively, since the content was about me, so I suspected that, too, would play a role.
5. To summarize context: I’m 60. I’ve had breast cancer twice and may have it again (or not). I’ve got at most 20-25 years of sound mind and sufficient energy for accomplishments. Through many examples among loved ones of timely and untimely, instant and drawn-out, painless and excruciating mortality, I’ve become clear: my life could end at noon today or persist a decade too long. Chronic illness has constrained my participation in sustained communal efforts toward change; it’s taught me, instead, to dig deeply where I am, and then to nap. While my body and memory fall short, my imagination and intellect are on fire. I know some deep truths and, thereby, have some prescience. I once was a writer and a student, then an entrepreneur, then a teacher and a student, then an educational leader and a student, then an auntie, then an entrepreneur and a student and now, again, a writer and a student.
My new mission is to prioritize making progress in my creative projects. That means choosing creative work over my cherished roles such as auntie, caregiver, teacher, facilitator, booster or aide. Perhaps simple, this will require a tectonic shift of practice: to serve others by making my ideas widely available, rather than through one-on-one assistance?!?!?!?
I’ll have to admit to a long-held secret suspicion: What I think is of value to others. I feel embarrassed writing that. t I’ve written, then deleted, many mitigating, softening words to downplay the impact. I’m holding back an apology and can hear a sarcastic voice in my head say, “Yeah, Miss Bigshot …?”
Honestly? “What I think is of value to others” feels arrogant, even unbecomingly masculine. But I have two blinks of an eye for all the rest of my accomplishments, and no more time to waste on notions that stifle challenge and imagination.
I’ve already got a long, diverse, to-do list of works-in-progress to keep me busy:
1. A new, rigorous translation of the Torah (Five Books of Moses), through which I investigate new lessons for us to learn now that traditional social constructs are approaching (or have passed) the end of their constructive use. This is the first work I care whether people read (beyond ego satisfaction); what’s divine in our foundational texts is that they can offer insights we need when we need them to move into a virtuous cycle of living well with each other on earth. I’ll publish book by book, but the set could take a decade or more to complete, and that’s as my primary work focus.
2. I may have found a hook for writing a memoir to serve others. I’ve begun the work of framing it and writing life vignettes. No guarantee yet that this will – or should – become a book, but I’ll progress through until I can assess its worth.
3. There must be a way for me to newly write my book, left incomplete in the aughts: Living Courage. (I lost all versions of the manuscript during a divorce.) The message – that courage comprises skill- and mind-sets that can be acquired through practice and reflection – is as relevant as when I began writing it, and possibly more urgent.
4. I have essays and short pieces to write and share – an educational idea that is on target in so many ways; thought pieces on baffling issues, etc.
5. On the wacky side: I‘ve completed the first draft of an erotic humor book entitled, Tongue Twisters for Terrible People. These poke affectionate fun at “every” imaginable combination of consensual sexual match-ups and activities. (They came to me in a three-week period during which I could not stop the poems or the laughter.) Sex should be joyful, satisfying and a wee bit phantasmagoric. For very normative folks, imagining outlandish sex can safely titillate, even sate, their most out-there desires. For people with any “freak” in them, this book will affirm the pleasures of their fantasies. Laughing all the while will help dissipate any squirmy discomfort. (If you wonder how I know certain things: Never judge an author by her internet-search history.) Despite these little gems being among my most entertaining works, the book will be published under the punny pseudonym Bud Rose.
6. I’m about a dozen poems away from a full collection of crime poems for a book titled, Poetry is the Best Revenge. I choose a structured poetic form and chart it out on a page. Then I pour a terse revenge scenario into it. Each poem encapsulates chaos. Some are light hearted; many are deadly serious. Once I chart a form onto a page, its crime poem flows through me into it without additional planning.
7. I’m nearly ready to compile a second chapbook of observational poems. My last one included 28 poems; this next will be longer. No more information than that right now.
8. The term ars poetica means “about poetry,” and now refers to poems about poetry. Well, I’ve been working – albeit in slow motion – with Canadian game critic/developer David Weiss on a card game called “Cards Poetica.” A card game about poetry.
9. I poorly self-published a form-translation of the Book of Jonah into a Sea Shanty a year back. I’ll probably upgrade that to be well-produced, and see what other form-translations I can offer on later books of the Hebrew Bible. Ecclesiastes as rap? Esther in sonnets? Judges as satire? Maybe. Plus, I’ve been looking for the perfect prophet to rewrite in iambic pentameter; like a Shakespearian drama. Haven’t hit on it yet, but I will.
10. Out of my hands until marketing time: Ben Yehuda Press, publisher of my book, Yiddische Yoga: OYsanas for Every Generation (2016) is in production on The Five Books of Limericks. Each limerick summarizes one chapter of Torah. Crazy, yet oddly enlightening. Many are witty, as the form demands, but the book is not silly; it is being published under BYP’s Jewish Poetry Project imprint, not as humor.
11. In the other-than-writing department, I continue battling to save Max’s property from invasive species that are weakening the ecosystem. This will take hundreds of focused hours and thereafter, eternal vigilance. I’m told that there is no such thing as eradicating these aggressors. It’s ferociously hard work that knocks me off my feet every time. Yet I am enthralled. Once I’m out there each day, I cannot stop.
If I weren’t so anxious about this country and our world, I’d feel excited by my new purpose. I’ll say, instead, that it resonates as my right next path. I am nervous about altering mental habits, project completion and the inevitable question: Will it matter?
But hey, change is my friend and stimulates me like nothing else. I’m game to see where this leads. Your thoughts, responses, encouragement and feedback are quite welcome, though as an internally-driven mission, this demands much less social approval than I’ve needed in any other aspect of my life.
All my love, respect and gratitude,