Post Election Blues

 

A cataclysmic shift in my personal life seems to be running parallel to the end of an era. As Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton were battling on, breast cancer knocked me out of my routine. I eventually returned to work, only to wonder if I should seriously think about retiring. Age 54 is early for such musings—though not necessarily for a cancer victim who does not yet know if the cancer is completely gone.

Case in point, I watched my father eagerly move into his retirement when he was in his early sixties. Not long after that, he lost his life to leukemia and pretty much missed out on this passage. If I want a retirement at all, it may need to be now. I’ve got books to write, places to see, and people to spend time with. I’ve also been feeling the need to revamp habits that might be shortening my life—to become disciplined in ways that have often eluded me (yoga, meditation, singing, diet, and exercise). While I’m already feeling pretty good, memories of the weakness I endured during cancer treatment tend to surface and remind me these days are precious. I am now acutely aware of how physical well-being is dear. I may not have a lot of quality time left. Then again, I may defy the odds and live to be a healthy octogenarian.

Breast cancer did prompt me to follow the election more closely. My couch became a second bed, a place to crash when I wasn’t feeling well. Based on what I saw on television, I did not envision the outcome that actually occurred. I’ve been happy with the focus on equal rights and opportunity for all—kindness toward all. I want the country to keep working on that. I want America to become more compassionate and less catty. In my opinion, our country is too self-indulgent over unkind speech. It’s entertaining in a way, but it’s not loving. I do believe we are on this planet to transform our hearts. As a serious Zen student, I try not to participate in left-right, back and forth quipping. I’m not beyond it—I’ve done my share. This election season, however, I decided to make it a practice to refrain from picking on those I don’t agree with. Hand in hand with that aspiration came another centered on trying to note moments of judgement and anger over what others were saying. A judgmental attitude also pulls me away from developing a loving heart.

I have joined a conversation that occurs – not every moment – but here and there. Cancer survivors sometimes need to talk. The increase in breast cancer occurrence – the occurrence of all cancers – has become sobering. I recently finished my first breast cancer walk. I found the ritual whimsical and fun. I reveled in the opportunity to wear a Survivor T-shirt, and to see this word reflected on the backs of others. I enjoyed the spark in the air, the celebration, the happiness I felt around me. Diseases like breast cancer bring people together to express their better selves.

It’s hard not to add up the recent negatives and whine, “Why is this happening to me?” America’s political story is not going the way I’d like it to. Neither is the story of my life. Yet breast cancer has brought on surprising moments of inspiration, insight, and love. It has helped me strip away anything that has begun to seem insubstantial in the face of tougher challenges and limited time. I don’t always have to pack as much into my day. I try to give attention to things that matter. I’ve also been giving myself permission to breathe and take in the scene around me. Sometimes just listening to what is going on is enough. This sense of moving in slow motion may still be a side effect of cancer treatment that will go away as I return to 100% (should I be so lucky). Perhaps I’ll eventually stop finding such meaning in simpler moments and dive back into to crazy-busy mode. Or maybe it really is time to move toward the retiree mentality. Either way, remaining fully alive is my latest goal.

Waiting for More Time

I used to doodle too much. A Pee-Chee folder was my favorite canvas, but I drew plenty of curlicues and diamond patterns in the margins of lined notebook paper (around all of the insightful notes I was supposed to be taking). Let’s just say… when a lecture went into overtime, I found ways to trump the slowly ticking clock. Yes, I took that clock personally. In school I was known to glare at the minute hand as it made its incremental jumps around its very own face. For some reason, certain activities – class periods, swim team practice, chores – were never over fast enough. I was always thinking, if only it were over.

Time isn’t really the problem. It’s the waiting. Right now I’m waiting to hear if my work has been accepted. I’m waiting to find out if I’ve gotten into a workshop. I’m waiting to learn if I I’ll become a grant recipient. There are times when it feels like all I’m doing is waiting. Like waiting for retirement. I have a few years to go, but I’m being encouraged to attend a workshop so that I can enter a bunch of numbers into a calculator in order to figure out how much time I have.

I should know better. I’ve actually spent time trying to learn how to rest in the moment without feeling like I’m waiting for something else. Those are the moments pregnant with meaning, perhaps even joy. Those are the moments that really aren’t moments at all. The rest of the time – when time kicks in – I’m thinking about what will happen when the wait is over.

It’s easy to fight the mundane—another day of slogging through chores, work, exercise, driving to the grocery store. This is going on and on. I hate this. It’s not easy to feel fulfilled during these routine tasks.

I was once asked why I wanted to sing. The suggestion between the lines implied I wanted it for the wrong reason. Perhaps I believed singing would make me happier when there was really something else to address. Self-expression does seem more satisfying than sitting at the reference desk. It certainly feels more dramatic. But is it more really more fulfilling? It can seem that way to the person who feels joy when she sings and boredom when she is waiting for the next question.

It is said Zen masters are fulfilled in their beingness no matter what is going on. Yet most of us have strong preferences. Most of us are drawn to certain activities—repelled by others. And sometimes we have to stick with an undertaking we don’t like, because it is the only way to keep things together. During those times, we may not have the luxury of enjoying what we truly love to do.

On the flip side, it might be important to think about the best use of one’s time. From a Zen point of view it is impossible to waste time (there’s no time to waste); yet most of us are better at some things than others. Most of us have specific gifts to share—unique to our talents and personalities. When we are thwarted from sharing them, then indeed something valuable is wasted.

If we do try to pursue “the best use of our time,” there’s bound to be a wait. Doodling in the margins might get us through the stagnant periods when nothing seems to be happening on the surface. Or there’s my current habit: obsessively checking my cell phone, particularly for rejections. Learning how to live fully in the “not so interesting” becomes a different sort of challenge.