A Different Sort of Spring

Promoting my work at the Tucson Festival of Books

Promoting my work at the Tucson Festival of Books

I wrote my chapbook, Breast Cancer: A Poem in Five Acts, to document what it feels like to go through breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. The act of writing the poem actually illuminated aspects I could not fully see until I grappled with them on the page. For example, there is a convoluted magnitude to what it takes to knock out this disease. I didn’t understand how complicated the process was, until I was the one sitting in the infusion chair, where I occasionally tinkered with the verses that would become this chapbook. It felt like I was moving toward loss, if not death. In the poem, I wanted to suggest renewal is also possible:

It is said Persephone
climbed out of the land of the dead
to give us spring.
I’ve returned to autumn,
to Santa Ana winds;
to regular screens—
annual mammograms
to see where I am.
Soon I’ll be eligible
for 55 and up housing,
some senior discounts.

For me renewal has meant retirement, semi-retirement really. Yesterday, I found myself one of the youngest people in a theater full of seniors. We were there for a morning (two dollar) screening of Sometimes a Great Notion, recently digitized. Last month, I toured Sicily with a group of Rick Steves sightseers—most were retired. Again, I was one of the youngest participants, as it is the off-season and retirees are more likely to travel this time of year. While I had a wonderful time, I’m still finding it difficult to see myself as one of them. This phase of life came upon me too fast, with breast cancer breathing down my neck. I could have kept working, but I wanted to rethink the precious time I have left—be that 5 years or 45.

I recently read an inspiring report in the January/February issue of AARP Bulletin, “Great Second Careers — 16 People who Found Success, Security and Happiness after 50 with a New Job.” These 16 folks have earned some jaw-dropping awe from me. The AARP Bulletin profiled workers who are relishing new careers—tough ones, too. The rag even featured a physician, who graduated from medical school at the age of 48 and began applying for fellowships at 58.

I don’t need to be a doctor, but I suspect I may decide to let go of that “retired” label at some point. Working on the chapbook has certainly played into my push toward renewal. Maybe I can finally begin to say I have a writing career. Breast Cancer: A Poem in Five Acts is a good first step. Finishing Line Press has helped with the publicity, sending out 100 postcards to plug my new book. I’ve come in behind them, learning the art of promotion as I go. While I’m not sure what approach will actually bring the best attention to the book, I have been taking stabs at email, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. I’ve got a media kit on my website. I’ve sent out postcards, too.

I don’t expect to make money on this project. In fact, I probably won’t. According to the terms of the deal, Finishing Line pays in copies, not royalties—unless my sales shoot above the 1000 mark. It appears I’m in good company on the money issue. I recently listened to Ron Hogan give a talk on the writing life. A lot of what he said, I’d heard before. Yet I was happy to be reminded writing is a labor of love for most people, even many I’ve come to admire. In the end, the act of writing has to matter more than possible reward. While I’ve always taken my writing seriously, I’ve hedged my bets on feeling successful by also contributing to the library field. Now I have no excuse for not facing what I can do as a writer.

I’m feeling pretty normal these days, even with daily doses of Anastrozole, which can have upsetting, if not debilitating, side-effects. My energy level is strong. I managed to bounce back from this season’s nasty set of bugs (I did catch something on that airplane ride to Palermo, but it didn’t ruin my trip). I don’t take this vibrant sensibility for granted. I can still remember feeling like I was losing spark as Taxotere/Cytoxan flowed through my veins. Now I’m wondering if my doctors have succeeded in saving my life.

Eclipse!

IMG_2264It’s a clear morning on the central Oregon Coast, the first one in a while. We’re hoping for a similar weather pattern a week from now, when the solar eclipse moves to barrel across the country (in actuality, the planet will turn, like it always does, beneath the eclipse). The spectacle will hit the Oregon Coast first, crossing a section that spans from Waldport to a stretch of coastline above Pacific City.

People around here have been bracing themselves. Roads, parks, and area establishments are already overrun with extra tourists. Nightmare traffic is being predicted for next weekend (these tales are mildly reminiscent of predictions I once heeded when Y2K was looming). I’m hoping to avoid a traffic jam on Highway 101 by making it into the area of totality the night before the moon blocks our morning light. On the Oregon Coast, lots of people have been fretting about fog or low clouds getting in the way of the whole show. Today, however, the weather forecast for Newport on August 21 reveals a happy sun. Let’s hope this icon remains nice and yellow.

On Sunday night, I’ll be attending a slumber party consisting of three women who don’t want to drive on the day of the eclipse. In the morning, we plan to have breakfast with friends of the hostess of this said party, so we can all view the eclipse from their eastward facing back deck. Sounds like as good a plan as any.

Normally, I would be back at work by now, kicking off the new semester at Cuyamaca College, in El Cajon, California. I’ve just become a full-time writer (a.k.a. retiree). It’s strange to consider my former coworkers, the ones still living in my old routine. It’s even stranger to think about my own schedule, the unknowns before me. Writing is one of my reasons for this recent passage. And I have been writing most days. I’m particularly happy with two submissions that were born of intensity only a significant amount of time could have brought about.

I’ve also got a number of short stories going, some poems, plus the first draft of a novel that should keep me grappling a while. Yet my works-in-progress pretty much recount worlds I encountered as a working woman. Indeed, my work life has proven to be fodder for much of what I have to say, in my fiction, anyway. Now that I have so much free time, I’m wondering where new material will come from. While my surroundings are gorgeous, the pace of life here is slow. Certainly, my imagination will continue to reach back to earlier times for nuggets that will help me round out this story or that poem. But what about current vicissitudes? Yes, I will spend time with a tribe of people who volunteer, work on their health, travel, and natter in coffee houses. I’ve already joined the Central Coast Chorale. I’m not suggesting there won’t be stories in these dimensions, but I’ve just released a big chunk of me.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how my days in higher education kept my self-esteem whole. I had my place on a fine team—we were accomplishing something. I was continually learning new technologies. I worked at developing my teaching style. I enjoyed the college culture—the camaraderie I experienced with passionate educators. I don’t regret my decision to retire, but I do feel the need to remake the fabric of my life so that I actually have something to say.

I will note, the solar eclipse has already made its way into one of my short stories. While my character has decided to walk some eight miles along the beach to Waldport, in order to get into the area of totality, she still doesn’t know what this event will mean for her life. Hopefully her creator will come up with something after she experiences the little gathering on the back deck of the home of these folks she hasn’t yet met, the ones living in Newport.

Update (8/21/17) Newport, Oregon, comes through!

Sneaker Wave

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I’ve been spending most of my winter break on the Oregon Coast, mentally preparing for my retirement. On New Year’s Day, I sharpened this resolve by submitting a Service Retirement Application to CalSTRS. I feel too young to be heading through such a passage, though when I was in my 30s, I watched several coworkers (in their 50s) come to this same decision. At that time, early retirement did not seem unreasonable—my coworkers did not seem too young. Now it feels like I’m getting away with something.

Tomorrow, I’ll begin driving south to face my final semester and tie up loose ends in the San Diego region, before beginning my next chapter, which will probably play out on the Oregon Coast. I woke up to several inches of snow, snow that even fell on the beach. This pristine surface made the world more beautiful and unsafe at the same time. Hazardous conditions already seem to be easing, though I have dropped my earlier plan to drive over the Siskiyou Summit—where chains are no doubt required—in favor of a trip along the Coastal Highway.

I do need to learn how to become more spontaneous, to view change as an adventure. Snow brought joy to my morning. I ended up meandering to breakfast through the white stuff, enjoying gorgeous winter tableaus along the way. In the restaurant, I found myself the only diner, with the exception of a couple of retirees who were discussing upcoming trips to Hawaii and Cabo San Lucas. I’m not upset I’m taking scenic route back to San Diego, though it will eat up more time. I’m already becoming less ambitious about driving for hours on end to get somewhere.

Though I’ll be a young retiree, I have been in the workforce since I was eighteen. When I was an undergraduate at the University of Oregon, I took a work study job, shelving books at the Eugene Public Library. Three months later, my grant ran out, and the library put me on the city payroll. I ended up staying with the Eugene Public Library for almost eight years. This early work experience eventually prompted me to begin a fulfilling career in library science, one that has taken me into two large metropolitan areas and one small town. Needless to say, the role of working woman is pretty much intertwined with my identity, if not my self-esteem.

I doubt I’m done working. Tentatively, I’m scheduled to do some part-time work at my college in two and a half years. CalSTRS even allows one to come out of retirement, should another appealing job offer surface. But my recent health scare has prompted me to move in some new directions for a while. I’d like to break down psychological patterns that may have had a hand in tripping up my physical health. I’m keeping an eye on my aging mother. Perhaps not knowing exactly where I’m going will be edifying.

Not knowing isn’t easy for me. I like to plan everything. I read about people who fly by the seat of their pants, people who revel in it, and I wonder why I’m not like that unless I’m knocked upside the head. When something hits one like a sneaker wave, one is forced to do what is often suggested by sages, “Go with the flow.” During my chemo treatments, I spent a lot of time trying to remember what it was like to feel healthy—to live normally. A sense of well-being can be wiped out in a flash. Now that I have it back, I want to cherish everything. I hope this feeling lasts.

In a few weeks, I’ll be pitching a novel to three agents at the San Diego State University Writers’ Conference. It is the second novel I have finished, though it’s the first one I started. Both books are set in Oregon. I’m not planning to spend more time in Oregon because of these novels, though it will probably good for me to be up here, should either be accepted. Maybe I’ll eventually become a rainbird. That way I can head down to the desert after too many inches have fallen. Alas, I’m already starting to make new plans.