New Year’s Reflections: T’shuvah, Change, Transformation and Choice

Posted by: julia

Monday was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year (5777 on the Jewish calendar). I went with my family to services at our synagogue, where we helped greet and hand out prayerbooks to people, sang, prayed and listened to moving poems, personal stories and the amazingly loud “wake-up” blasts of the shofar. I even chanted two verses of Torah in front of the whole congregation (this is more impressive than it sounds, considering I don’t read Hebrew and had to memorize the whole thing, including the intricate up-and-down traditional melodies). After services, we went out to lunch at our favorite bagel store.

I mention this because this is exactly what we were doing last year on Rosh Hashanah when I got the voicemail from the Marin Breast Health Center telling me that the test results from my mammogram re-do were back and they wanted me to call them (it’s never good news when they ask you to call back to hear test results instead of telling you right then and there). If you’ve been reading this blog over the last year, you know the rest of that story (and if you haven’t, well, spoiler alert: it wasn’t good news). In this time of anniversaries (one year since my breast cancer diagnosis, my triumphant return to Burning Man after the Year of Living Cancerously) and of High Holidays-inspired introspection and t’shuvah (re-turning, redemption) I’ve been thinking a lot about how to put this past year in perspective and what I want from the year ahead. This post is an attempt to record and reflect on some of this t’shuvah work.

So now it’s not only a new year, it’s also time for a new stage of my life: post-cancer. It’s the time when I get to switch from being a patient patient to being a survivor. (Not that you ever really are “cured” and of course I’m still in the recurrence danger zone for the next five years, which is why all the chemo and hormone therapy, but the active phase of treatment and recovery is now over.) On the one hand, I am enjoying being able to celebrate surviving all that I had to endure and I am excited to finally be able to put a confident, weighty period at the end of the sentence “I had cancer and went through treatments and now I’m better.” Yet the other hand is busy holding the question: “so what do I do now”? That’s a big and heavy question, and the answer isn’t necessarily obvious.

Do I just flip cancer a jaunty middle finger salute and go right back to where I left off, and try to resume as close to the exact same life I had before this disruption came along? After all, I have spent a lot of the last ten or so years on intelligent life design and identity work around who I want to be and what I want to do with my one wild and precious life, and I was pretty happy with the way things were going and who I was being when this cancer detour came along. Maybe the kind of t’shuvah (returning) I want is exactly this, the relief and reward of getting back to a previous, hard-won equilibrium. There’s a lot to be said for this path, but...I’ve also been here before. The last time I had cancer, when I was in my 20s, and I hit this “survivor” phase, returning to my old life as much as possible was exactly the path I chose. I had just moved to a new city and started grad school when I was diagnosed, and when my active treatment phase was over, I decided that I wanted to go right back to school afterwards (well ok, I had the summer off, but still). I felt like it was important to prove that “cancer can’t stop me!” and honor the choices I had already made. After a long and scary time of not knowing what was going to happen and submitting to whatever medical science said I had to do to survive, I wanted to return to the comfort of the familiar, the chosen. So I did...but even though I was able to use my MA thesis to do some important processing, grad school and the academic life just wasn’t as satisfying as I’d hoped it would be. I had changed, and my priorities and interests had changed. Perhaps some of that was inevitable (after all, I was only in my mid-twenties, and for most people that’s a time of change and exploration), but I think some of it was also that, just like Frodo at the end of the Lord of the Rings books, I discovered that after certain life-changing events, you can’t really go home again. Because even if you do go home, you don’t fit neatly back in place, and that can get uncomfortable after a while. So after struggling with transformation and fear of failure for another few years (!), eventually I took my MA (and my new husband) and returned back home to the Bay Area to figure out what was next. And life has definitely moved in some interesting and unanticipated directions ever since (though I must note that it has also spiraled back to familiar themes and choices as well...because even though you can’t fully go home again, you do sometimes get to go back and visit for a while).

But if I don’t go right back to the way things were—the way *I* was—before all this came down, what other path can I choose? I guess the opposite of wanting to stay the same is embracing and exploring transformation. But there are little and big kinds of transformation, and there are the transformations we choose willingly and the transformations that we are forced into—and there’s the rub. Change just for the sake of change is not especially attractive to me at the moment, but I’d be dishonest if I said that everything was perfect before and that I have no more interest in evolving and growing and finding new meaningful activities, adventures and work. Whether I wanted it or not, things are different now and thus I have inevitably already transformed (and will likely continue to do so) to accommodate. Life isn’t static, even if we choose to re-turn to previous patterns. But how much transformation can I tolerate, let alone enjoy, right now?

I guess what it comes down to is choice. Transformation is desirable *if* it is a chosen transformation. I *chose* to go to grad school, I *chose* to be a wife and then mother, I *chose* to be an entrepreneur, I *chose* to be a writer and an artist and many of the other identities I carry. I did not choose to be a cancer patient or a cancer survivor. I did not choose to lose my hair or my breasts or my menses, except in a “lesser of two evils” kind of way because above all I did choose life as my highest priority. But at least in a life-or-death situation the choices are clear(er), albeit not always palatable.

Now that I am released (however temporarily) from the tyranny of cancer treatments and the cancer patient identity, I have the opportunity to make my own choice about what I want to do with myself and my life, but the pros and cons of my choices are less clear cut. I want to make sure that whatever I choose to do now is truly right for me (or at least right for the me that has arrived here in this moment), and not just another comforting attempt to reset back to an earlier version of me. But surviving existential threats does make one go back to asking the big existential questions like “what is my purpose?” and “why am I here?”—except in my case now it’s “why am I still here?”. And this time of t’shuvah makes me ask “for what was I redeemed? What redemption can I now make?” If there really is some sort of destiny or design to our lives, maybe that means I can find some meaning and context for my life by transforming what I thought (however imperfectly and arrogantly) my purpose was before into something new that I never would have imagined (or had access to) before this latest bout with cancer came along. I can at least keep my eyes and ears open to what that might be, knowing that standing at this crossroads is a gift and that I have at least some limited choice over which direction I pivot.

So what will happen now? What direction will my life go now? I really don’t know. I do know though that the more I feel like I can choose the things I spend my time engaging with the better it feels, at least for now. So I am going to go back to the familiar priorities that so far have given my life meaning: my family, my communities, my art, and making the world a better place. But I’m also going to be open to whatever comes my way and stay alert to the possibilities of transformation. Perhaps transformation will come slowly and calmly, or it will come with another shock and bang. Perhaps it will not come at all, or only be understood in hindsight, once I am way farther along. Regardless, I’m grateful to be here pondering these questions and the shape of my life’s story arc for yet another year, and I’m feeling positive that this coming year will be full of good things. Bring it on, 5777!