And there arose a new Pharaoh in Egypt …
These are the words of a Torah portion that we read just a few weeks ago. Here I am in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and in the three weeks that I’ve been here I don’t think I’ve had a single conversation that didn’t get around to “what the hell is going on and where are we headed?” How can I possibly not write about the shift in the world? Any thoughts that I had about my life in retirement have now entered another realm. I know that Walt Whitman said: “let your soul stand cool and composed before I million universes” but I’m not sure that he meant this in a real-life way.
Okay, I admit that I’m writing about this from a pretty privileged position. I’ve been able to escape some of Toronto winter and so I can sit here at a table in the sunshine at the “biblioteca” sipping an iced Americano, sun in my eyes, laptop in front of me, listening to the sound of the water from the fountain in front of me and snippets of conversations in English and Spanish happening all around me and the music of the two young men having a guitar lesson behind me. Does it get much better than this? Indeed, I was just interrupted by a man from Grosse Point, Michigan, who was walking by and noticed me from the subtlety of the ring on my finger. But I digress.
When I started writing this blog I was worrying about – okay, I’ll admit it, anxious about – what life would be like when I could no longer rely on my professional identity. I thought about a lot of what ifs at the time since I had forgotten to plan what I would do after retiring other than that I wouldn’t be going to my office every day. In preparing for a 15 minute”pitch” with a literary agent today at the San Miguel International Writers Conference I found an interesting piece of research done at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. How to stay “in the loop” was one thing that kept me awake nights; I’d spent so many years not only knowing what the hell was going on but working from within government so I had at least a little say (or a heads up … or so I thought). But now I feel like I’m living in a parallel universe to the one from which I retired just 8 years ago.
When I retired, although there had been a huge drop in the stock market it was still a pre-9/11 world. People felt fairly confident that nothing horrific would happen to them, that their communities and schools were safe, that the air was breathable and the water drinkable. There was still a sense of hope around international issues like the future of Israel and we even thought we might make real inroads on reducing poverty and homelessness. How to use my time to contribute in a positive way was a matter of choosing among a number of options all of which held out a sense of hope for improvement. And so I made choices, walked down a number of different roads, re-adjusted expectations and found that after a few years I had a new “niche” in which to feel comfortable and significant. According to American film maker Ira Sachs “all history is defined by shifting modes of reality and time and how things change.”
But come on. Let’s get a grip. There is a reality and there are facts and there aren’t alternative facts. In the book 1984 by George Orwell (read it now if you haven’t, or re-read it if you have) there is a line that comes to mind. “The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command … and if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed—if all records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth.” Isn’t this just what we’re seeing day after day as the pharaohs of America – and their surrogates – show us pictures of near-empty malls and insist that they are full, or tax returns – which may not be legally mandated but are clearly historically mandated – are not filed and revealed. These aren’t imagined images – they are real photos. The disaster that looms around us is also real!
Well, I’m off to hear Lisa Moore speak shortly (a terrific Canadian author) and then a bit later in the day – after I “pitch” my own book – I’m hearing Billy Collins (a US Poet Laureate) speak. Then it’s a lovely dinner with new friends I’ve met here. I’ll leave you with two thoughts. Rahm Emanual said that “you never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that (I mean) it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” So let”s not just sit around asking about what the hell is going on, let’s each find some way to do something about it, whether it be raising money to give to Planned Parenthood as my sister Fran Elson is doing, or organizing demonstrations and protests. And from the esteemed Dahlai Lama: “Time passes unhindered. When we make mistakes, we cannot turn the clock back and try again. All we can do is use the present well.”
Stay calm. Find the beauty in each day and the love in each heart. Pray. Dance. Dream. Care for one other with compassion. Hasta la vista!