I loved my job as Program Manager of the James C. Hormel Gay & Lesbian Center at the San Francisco Public Library and had no intention of leaving. I met fascinating people, worked with important organizations, planned relevant public programs, curated exciting exhibitions, fielded interesting reference questions, developed collections of books, periodicals, records, archival collections – a plum job that was envied by many colleagues around the country.
In 2007, at the age of 55, health concerns prompted medication and a leave-of-absence which segued into early retirement. Having been responsible for the development of the Hormel Center since 1992 and its institutional “face” after its opening in April 1996, I was concerned that my personal and professional sense of identity might be indistinguishable.
I needn’t have worried. Since my city pension wasn’t enough to support me, I would need another, less stressful, job. I was immediately hired for a part-time paraprofessional position as Book Group Coordinator at the Jewish Community Library. Responsible for the Book Club in a Box program I got paid to read books, evaluate them, develop discussion questions, and facilitate those discussions. Talk about cushy. My boyfriend quipped, “You’ve gone from being a professional homosexual to becoming a professional Jew!”
And it was true, after a mysterious lifelong affinity for Yiddishkeit, I was informed by my mother that both her parents had kept hidden their Jewish heritage. I immediately embraced my newfound identity, joined Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, appeared before the beit din (Rabbinical court), immersed myself at the mikvah (ritual bath), delivered the drash (sermon), and was welcomed into the covenant. My mother’s life-changing revelation motivated me to begin researching my genealogy; presenting an audio-visual lecture about my family story at libraries, synagogues, Jewish Community Centers, senior homes, Jewish Genealogical Society meetings; and writing a memoir entitled “My Grandmother’s Suitcase.” I am now in the process of submitting the 450-page manuscript to acquisition editors and literary agents in the hope of attracting a commercial publisher.
One day a week I have been slowly cataloging the impressive book collection of a local philanthropist and social activist, and am scheduled for two weekly Pilates classes, three yoga classes, a psychotherapy session, and a meditation meeting, not to mention regular acupuncture, bodywork sessions, and my Wii fitness routine. I currently participate in five monthly book groups — two personal, three professional — and a writers’ group. There is not enough time in the day to do all the things I want to do. I eagerly arise before dawn, brew my tea, and look forward to every moment. When asked if I ever regret leaving the public library, I reply that I sometimes miss the stimulation and the collegiality, but am glad that I recognized that — for my own well-being and the benefit of the program — it was time to make a change. I am now happier, healthier, and have more energy than I ever imagined possible. Life is definitely too short and one’s health (physical or psychological) too important to delay in making one’s dreams come true.
What have been your experiences in transition to your 3rd Act?
Jim is co-author of Gay by the Bay and Celluloid San Francisco, and co-editor of Identity Envy and Love, Castro Street. He has recently completed a family memoir entitled My Grandmother’s Suitcase. (http://www.jimvanbuskirk.com/)