Things are going to be different this year, on multiple fronts, and some of these changes are already in motion. For starters, I have dedicated this entire month of January '19 to celebrating my birthday, as I'm about to turn half-a-freakin'-century old! Maybe it's my age, or just who I am, but I need to reflect on things: putting things into words helps me understand my world better, and be appreciative. And I want to acknowledge these things at the start of the year, not the end.
1) I'm about to be kicked off of Disability. Some of you already know, I had hoped my publishing dreams would allow me to work my way off of federal disability, but it had been my intention to keep my Medicare as a safety net until my career was solidly established. Well, the Social Security Administration had other ideas. Though they declared it a "medical termination" they didn't include a single reason (or doctor, or medical report) to support their claim, and I'm highly suspicious that the SSA is just not on board with my self-employed career as a professional novelist. I've been required to report all of my income, work months, publishing contracts, etc. which has resulted in a shit-ton of confusing paperwork, and I think the SSA has just had enough. But you know what? The frustration is mutual.
I've been providing documentation about every aspect of my life for years, and the entire social service system is set up to feel like a punishment. My first reaction to the Cessation of Disability Notice was horror—I got it just before Christmas, and had only days to file an appeal (over Christmas) if I wanted to preserve my benefits. But after the shock wore off and I got more information (like how much I'd pay for a Silver Plan through my current healthcare provider), I started seeing the upside to being truly independent.
I will no longer have to report—multiple times a year—every aspect of my health & finances to an agency that does not actually care about my quality of life. I will no longer have to endure weeks/months of anxious waiting, fearful about my benefits being cut off or screwed up by the documentation I regularly report. The more I thought about it, the freer I felt! I started to wonder if my health might even improve, once free of being forced to focus on my limitations (which is the constant mandate while proving your worth to receive benefits).
Of course there is some risk involved here, especially since I don't currently have a publisher for my next novel. The re-application process for Disability could take years (there's a mandatory 24 month waiting period for Medicare) if I really can't go it alone. But there is hope, and I'm working hard, and maybe the half-century mark is the time for a whole new level of independence?
2) I'm not a debut novelist anymore. Though BABY TEETH has existed in the world for only six months, I feel the imperative to take the things I've learned in this whirlwind education of becoming a professional author and apply them productively—starting now. In basic ways this means I want to be more involved in my career—making active suggestions when I have projects going "on sub," and consciously developing a relationship with an editor like the one I developed with my agent (which I've yet to have the opportunity to do). In the past year I have often felt like I didn't know what I was doing, or had little control over what was going on: the writer is really not the key member of the team, as life-altering decisions can be made without my input. It makes it even more important to focus on what I can do, actively, in addition to the writing itself.
3) The writer's "team" is other writers. As many authors before me have experienced, it can be very isolating to write books for a living, and not just because you work alone with only your imagination for companionship. Very late in the process the contract for my second novel was withdrawn, and I reached a whole new understanding of what it means—beyond the tax implication—to be self-employed. In a lightbulb moment I understood that editors have other projects, and colleagues—and the support of the company for which they work. And in the exact same way agents have other clients, and colleagues—and the support of the agency for which they work. Sure, we were all disappointed about what happened with my book, but I was the only one who both didn't have another revenue source, and took a direct financial hit.
We writers are encouraged to be secretive about the "downs" of the business (though we're free to trumpet about the "ups")—but what aspect of life doesn't have both ups and downs? The secretiveness felt even more isolating… Until I finally reached out to some writers in my social media circle—more experienced writers, whom I really respect—and I gained a new understanding of "normal." It was very therapeutic, and helped me better assess where I stood—because even though some crappy things had happened, there were still a lot of good things going on. So, the lesson here is that "ups and downs" are inevitable, but sometimes an isolated writer can't sort it out by herself. If such secrecy about the "downs" weren't the norm, I might have been more "c'est la vie" about the rollercoaster all along. Secrecy is not a solution that benefits the writer (though yes, I'm all for diplomacy), and this was another step in learning how to survive this business.
Balance, grasshopper. Good and bad. Private and public. Highs and lows. Solitude and community. Balance, balance, balance.
4) I am 100% Jewish—and always have been. How is this new knowledge? And why is it relevant? Well, because I had a revelation.
I have been torn about certain aspects of my identity forever. Was I half Jewish, because of my mother's family? Was "being Jewish" an acknowledgement of a religion, an ethnicity, a heritage…? I felt a strong pull toward "Jewishness" even as a young child, though I wouldn't have been able to explain what that meant, but I always felt like something of an outsider in the Jewish community around me. There was never any question that I was not Christian, but did I know enough—about anything?—to be Jewish? I always felt that one side of the family considered me too Jewish, and the other side not Jewish enough. And then there was the confusion of my own beliefs, my disdain for organized religion, and my fundamental need to be a questioning person.
So I have long felt a lack of belonging anywhere, while wanting to know where I fit in.
Recently I started reading Judaism for Dummies—and are we surprised that a book gave me my answer? There it was, clear as could be: my mother's ancestry gives me an irrevocable claim to my Jewishness (which I knew, but didn't feel), but it was the section about "defining" G-d and Jewish beliefs that made me feel welcome in a way I never had. The Jewish idea of G-d is more expansive than I'd ever understood. It's emphatically not "human," or gendered, and there is no name or word to encompass it. There is room in the Jewish faith for the possibility of G-d being a forest, or the universe, or everyone. There is room for it to be one thing for you on one day, and something else on another. There is room for you to change your mind, or have doubts. G-d is a journey, an endless conversation—if that's what makes you comfortable.
The more important tenet in Judaism is not the specificity of what you believe, but what do you do as a human on this earth? Orthodox Jews want to fulfill the 613 mitzvot during the course of their daily lives, but there are many ways to be a conscious person, intent on "doing good" in the world.
I had not known before that my wandering and uncertain beliefs—in combination with an ethical imperative that I have always felt—made me Jewish even when I didn't have a name for myself.
So here we go, 2019, I'm a 50-year-old Jewish woman trying to make a stable career as a writer! Learning stuff along the way… Always learning.