Free Agency: The Moment of Realization

I have a plan and a process in mind for a blog post this week, but it’s a post that will not come together. I wrestle with it. I structure it—it’s a perfect topic for a classic essay. Three main points. I have a good hook, I think, for an opening, and the points lead right to a firm and satisfying conclusion. And this is something I really want to write about.

But the post refuses to gel, and when I try to force it into shape, the writing sounds whiny, and bossy, and petulant.

So on Friday morning, I get up early and run over to the lab to get blood drawn (they are so quick about it, I barely have time to open my book before they hustle me off to greet my day). I’m back before Mark leaves for work, back in time to brew a full pot of decaf, to take the little dog for her frenetic morning walk, to eat my toasted, sprouted, many-seeded, bread, and to conquer the word puzzles in the paper before I take a steaming mug of joe out onto the patio.

I have my notebook and a pen, and I take a deep sip of coffee, and I order myself to figure out why this blog post isn’t forming.

**********

It’s quiet. It stormed last night, and we had to medicate the little dog against the frightening crash of thunder, chemically insulate her from the lightning flashes. The soothing, calming pills seemed to backfire yesterday, and she woke me out of a deep, sound sleep–I had the strong, regretful sense of sliding out of a very, very good dream. I brought her downstairs and let her out.

When we went back up, though, she couldn’t settle. And I wanted so to go back to that wonderful dream place.

Instead, I brought my book downstairs and read while the dog paced and panted. When she finally dragged her dinner bowl out from under the table, brought it over next to me, put one paw inside to hold it down and started licking residue, I realized she might be hungry. I asked her for the dish. She gladly gave it over, and I mixed kibble with wet dog food. She ate it all and licked the bowl clean, and not long after, I got her up to bed and back to sleep.

So she was snoring. Mark was snoring. I sat in the dark of 2:30 a.m., and a bitter taste of resentment biled up: Sure, you guys sleep. I have to be up in four hours to get to the blood lab… and then I had the moment. I realized that the day about to dawn was mine, that no external fists were pummeling my day into shape…that, if I wanted to, I could come home from the lab and stretch out in the comfy reading chair and close my eyes for as long as I wanted.

It was, I think, the first moment that I knew, deep in the embracing-life, truly-knowing part of my mind, that I really, really don’t have to go back to work.

There was a shift, a reckoning, and a joyful acceptance. The shape and space of my days, the structure of my week, changed viscerally.

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A morning after a storm is quieter in some ways. The birdsong is tentative and far away, not raucous and burgeoning. The bugs, though–their chatter is electric, atonal. It kind of buzzes right through my veins.

The air is heavy and wet, but, as I sit and write, freehand scrawling in the soft August morning sun, I feel a breath of real coolness. I think to myself that air conditioning is great–what would we do without it?–but that true coolness is only available out of doors, in the path of a blessed breeze. The trees twiddle their fingers idly at me.

And Sandy and her little dog wave from the yard next door.

“Still feel like you’re playing hooky?” she calls, grinning.

No, I answer. Today, I feel retired.

And I see a new twist to my morning routine. Unless it is blowing, pouring, or snowing, I’ll do my morning pages on the patio, getting to know the new day.

*************

I think about the phrase, playing hooky. As an academic, that’s the feeling vacation always brought to me: there were things I should be doing, but look at me! I’m taking time away from the job, the class, the planning. I’m sipping coffee on the patio when I should be…doing something for someone else.

I wonder idly where the hooky phrase comes from, and then I realize I have the time to find out. So I type it into Safari, and I pull up a long list of results.

I discover the term ‘to hook’ was once vulgar for ‘to steal,’ so playing hooky might mean stealing time from some intended purpose. I discover that if you were said to be ‘on your own hook,’ it meant you were responsible for yourself. Playing hooky may have come from that, too–when you play hooky, you take your time to yourself, not reporting to anyone else.

And I discover that there was a term in 1840’s and 1850’s United States: to hook Jack, which meant playing truant…in that, maybe, somebody hooked poor Jack away from school. Clearly, there’s a rich history to the term playing hooky, and I have time now, to look it up, and to mark it down for later study.

I have time to research playing hooky, but today, this day, I don’t feel like I’m doing it.

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This day is not a broad, empty one. I shake some pork bones into the old black Dutch oven; I clean veggies out of the refrigerator—summer squash and broccoli stems, a fat onion, quartered, and a sturdy carrot, which I peel and slice. I add a bulb of garlic and a sprig of rosemary from the plant that hangs from the corner of the carport. I take dried basil and oregano from our own backyard and crumble it between my hands. I sprinkle salt and grind pepper, and I drizzle olive oil. Then I put the whole mess into a 350 oven so flavors will blend, and components will turn a rich brown color. Later, I pull out the pan, fill the pot with water up to the brim, let it simmer, slow and low, for hours, bubbling up a rich deep broth.

At noon, I drive to my friend and colleague Kris’s, where we sort flyers and surveys and bookmarks and bundle them together with boxes of children’s books to give away to Scout groups and the art museum, to libraries and after-school programs. It is the joyful time of our community read initiative, when books–new books, nice books, hardcover books,–get into the hands of young children who, maybe, never have had a brand new book before.

Kris and I pack them up, and divide the list. We tote boxes out to my car. In the afternoon, Jim helps me deliver, and we end at the library, where he browses films and I browse books.

It’s not that I am not doing any work. It’s just that I am choosing the work I want to do.

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I like what my new friend in the blogosphere, Kimberly Allen, wrote about the fact of retirement. We had been back-and-forthing about the term, ‘retirement,’ about the out-to-pasture sense of it, and how we needed to land upon a better term. Last week, Kim wrote, “The words I am currently using, borrowed from a friend, suit me. Free agent!”

I’m a free agent, I think,–working of course, but in charge of what work I will do. The reality of that seeps into my head and my skin and my bones.

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On the way home from the library, we stop at the store, James and I, and we buy freshly-baked hamburger buns along with the other few groceries we need. I unpack the two light bags; I pull hand-formed burgers from the chest freezer. I put some new potatoes on to simmer and a brown egg on to boil. We’ll have, I think, a little batch of potato salad with grilled burgers…and maybe an ice cold Canadian beer on this muggy August night.  I will chop and stir and mix and season, but I will still have time to read, in the afternoon quiet, a long slow chunk of Shirley Jackson’s Life Among the Savages, another chapter of Braiding Sweetgrass.

I read, these days, in the comfy reading chair before dinner; I read on the patio with a glass of ice water after my evening walk. Words are revelation again; not trying to hurry through, I cannot stop myself from plunging ahead. The words of good writers move and shake me.

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The big moments come in ordinary time, when we are usually dealing with the here and now, the immediate needs. So the transition is only appreciated, digested, internalized, after the passage has taken place. Student. Graduate. Employee. Supervisor. Significant other. Partner. Parent. Grandparent. There are all kinds of transitions, all kinds of new roles. And it takes a while for each to settle in, to become a living breathing part of the way we know ourselves.

Free agency. I have the time, and I have the freedom, the health, and the resources, to choose what I will do. Maybe, next week, that will be to write the blog post that wouldn’t solidify, to explore, effectively, the concept of ceremonies of welcome, and maybe it won’t. I have the opportunity to take my time, to decide on the action, the topic, the project, or the path. The reality of this freedom comes claiming me. I am dizzy with my great good luck, with new lightness, as a heavy cape slips firmly from my shoulders.

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Excuse Me. Where Are The Naps?

On the first day of not having to work anymore, I slept in–sort of. It was a heady feeling, the night before, NOT to set the alarm. I can sleep as late as I want! I thought. Used to bolting out of bed to the IPhone alarm’s cheery burble at 5 AM, this prospect sounded like heaven.

So I slept in, and when Mark’s alarm jangled, and he went into the bathroom to shower, I rolled over, threw an arm over my head, and smiled.

I don’t have to get up, I thought smugly.

But my bladder hadn’t gotten the memo. An organ of habit, it made its needs and wants clearly known, and I squirmed and thrashed uncomfortably until Mark emerged, damp and clean and smiling, thirty minutes later.

So I was up, and I threw on what we might, in another era, have called ‘play clothes,’ applied some minimal make-up, and went downstairs to face the day. I plugged in the coffee and pulled out my notebook to do my morning pages. And the dog needed to go out, and then she needed to be fed, and Mark was interested in the plan for the day. The paper arrived, and the headline was about a controversy with which Mark is very familiar, so we dissected that. His eggs looked so good, and my stomach was growling: I ate my Nutty Nuggets, and by then, of course, the dog was ready for her morning walk. I never did get to morning pages on Monday.

And that night, I set my alarm for 5:30, and now I get to sleep in half an hour later than I did on working days, and I still have an hour of quiet house.

I like getting up in a quiet house. I crossed “Sleep late” off the “Things to Do in Retirement” list.

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But I made another list, that first morning, of “Things to Do on Monday”. It included completing a lesson in the online course I’m taking, writing two essays, formatting and editing a post for our community reading initiative’s blog, cleaning up cluttered email, putting the second coat of white paint on the car port’s interior, and making several phone calls. I needed, too, to sit down with Jim and set up the monthly calendars, and then compare each of our calendars for the week. I had a pile of ironing to catch up on and a knitted monkey to stitch together and stuff. I was looking forward to writing some long overdue letters.

It was a fat list, and the day stretched out before me, full of time that I could wrestle into submission. Ahhh…I thought. This will be good.

And then…imagine what I can accomplish TOMORROW!

I had forgotten, though, about Mark’s car needing to go to the body shop, so we convoyed and conveyed, and by the time I got home, Jim was up. It was 9:00 before I hit the email and 10:00 before I opened my lesson, and by lunchtime, I had not gotten to the essays or the ironing or the letters. But, the weather being fine, I thought I would just slap some paint on the car port walls and finish that up by 5:00 when Mark needed to be picked up.

Mark texted to come get him at 4:30 instead, and, disabused of my ‘I am Wonder Woman’ notions, I finished only half of the car port that afternoon. Ah, well.

It is now the end of the week, and four of my ‘Things to Do on Monday’ list items are not yet done.

Recalibrate, recalibrate, recalibrate.

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I have, in this first week of retirement, had time to share lunch with two friends I haven’t seen in too long. I have taken long stretching morning walks by myself, and long chatty evening walks with Mark. I have made appointments, ironed shirts, roasted pork, and simmered a pot of fragrant red sauce. I have, in my knitting basket, a half-stitched monkey.

I have talked my reluctant haircutter, a skilled colorist, into cutting my hair short and then letting it grow out naturally. Perhaps there really is a long gray braid and a pair of Birkenstocks in my future.

I have borrowed a new book by Gail Godwin–an author I discovered during undergrad days 40 years ago–from the library. I have sat, fresh from an evening walk, on  the patio, with a cold glass of ice water, and read that book.

It has been an exploration week, and the urgency of list items still pushes at me, with the learned sense that I need to hurry up and get them done, because soon, darn it, these halcyon days will be done and I will have to go back to work, still hovers. But I’ll get over that, and I will wrestle with the time demons, and I will learn to get things done in a gray-headed, thoughtful, kind of way. I hope.

Retirement.

There is paperwork, and there is time management; there are physical constraints and obligations that didn’t go away with the job’s demands. My friend Susan says every retired educator she knows says this: How did I ever have time to work?? (This is probably true of many other occupations, too, but educators are what we know.)

But there are also personal choices and time to reconnect and the opportunity to experiment and explore. There are the quiet mornings and the evening walks and the sense, at the end of the day, that a few things, long neglected, have been tended to. I have the opportunity to rediscover, renew, re-create.

Retirement: I like it.

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But, oh: I did think there’d be more naps.

Traveling Without Siri

I hadn’t walked very far this morning when a swoosh of movement caught my eye; that amber flash was a mama and baby deer, scooting up a neighbor’s driveway. The drive is bordered by a hedge, and, as I started down the hill toward it, the baby poked its head up over the bushes to watch me. It was all liquid dark eyes and twitchy black velvet nose and huge, pointy-oval, radar ears.

I cocked my head one way and it cocked its head the other, and we stopped and eyed each other like that for a moment. And then the mama keck-ed, deep in her throat, and the baby deer sprang away. The two of them were grazing side by side in the neighbor’s backyard when I walked by. They raised their heads to look backwards at me, and I waved.

Around the corner, ungainly bumblebees were busy at the wonderful shrubs that border a lush lawn. I call them doll-skirt bushes; the huge blossoms start out tightly fisted and deeply pink, and as they unfurl, their color gets lighter and the petals swirl out like the kind of outrageous pleated outfits trim dancers kicked around in, in 1940’s musicals.  The flowers turn a creamy white. By nightfall, they’ve curled into tubes and fallen off—limp and dirty cigars laying sadly on the gravelly shoulder. Derelicts, fallen to the curb after a splendid day’s showing…

The bees sent one of their comrades my way on reconnaissance. The fat thing burbled menacingly around and around my head; I had to stop and turn slowly along with it until it got bored and went back to nectarizing.

I pushed on to Dresden Road and headed north. I stopped again at the big white house, which has gone from neglected to sparkling. It’s huge–during the long interval it was on sale, I think we read in the listing that it has six bedrooms. It has a newly painted in-the-city farm barn, appropriately bright barn red, and all the accoutrements–the wicker furniture on the sprawling porch, plant stands, outside wall art–pop in that same deep color.

In the front yard, there’s a real, old-fashioned wooden sledge, the kind horses might have drawn in the northern backwoods in 1880. Some days, it’s being pulled by pink flamingos.  Some days, the flamingos are sitting on the wicker on the porch. Today, the flamingos shared the driver’s seat, and one had the reins on its beak.

Satisfied that I knew where the flamingos were, I pressed on until I’d walked about three-fourths of a mile, and then I turned to head back. I like to walk on Friday mornings, just a little bit of a stretch to start the weekend. The weekend, I thought, and felt the heady absence of work in the three days ahead.

And then I had one of those moments. It was just like when I’m using Siri for directions, and I willfully make a wrong turn.  There’s a pause–I always think she’s biting her electronic tongue to keep from barking obscenities at me–and then she snaps, Make a U-turn! Make a U-turn! And then, when I don’t, I imagine Siri’s digitized sigh, and the whole picture shifts, swings around, encapsulates a brand new vista. I was heading back down Dresden, and my horizon just completely morphed. It was almost physical, like picking up my foot and expecting it to touch the ground as usual, and finding it hits the ground someplace else entirely.

Because,–although the weekend is still two days, of course,–I DON’T have to go back to work on Monday. I’m taking Monday off, and then, on Tuesday, I am officially retired.

So, although I will not ever be a lady of leisure–neither by inclination nor by financial reality–it could be true that I never actually ‘go to work’ again.

*********

Whoa. The hard cement wall called Work-On-Monday just burst, and time went flooding over it.

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My father retired in his mid-50’s on disability, and he was lost without the schedule and the sense of being needed work gave him. For the first months, he drove my mother crazy. He followed her around, helped her make the beds. Asked what was next. Then he hit his stride and started doing woodworking and refinishing furniture. But it was a tough transition.

I have other role models, though, who make me think this change won’t be so hard. Take my friend Teri, who wasn’t even 18 when, a skilled high school graduate, she slid into a civil service job. Teri retired at 50 and never looked back. Now she works when she wants to and does amazing things at home. She mothers her still-at-home teen-aged daughter. She travels.  In the last years, she’s become a grandma with all the joy and busyness that entails.  She savors the pension she paid into from the time she was a young girl, and she embraces the after-working life.

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I was picking up some signed certificates in the president’s office this week and talking to my colleagues Brenda and Kathy. Kathy will also officially retire on Tuesday, and Brenda asked the two of us, “What are you going to do with all that time?”

I looked at Kathy and she looked back, and we shared a charged understanding.

“I’m going,” Kathy said to Brenda, “to do all the things I’ve been putting off until this day arrived.”

Amen, Sister! I thought, and I slid my certificates into their manila envelope, waved them merrily, and went off about my way.

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I went walking later than usual this morning because James and I made an early trip to the library. It occurred to me I could stop making excuses and plan a weekday trip to the Clark Gable birthplace museum in Cadiz, Ohio, about an hour and a half from here. So, while Jim was browsing the DVD’s, I found a Gable biography and began reading about his early years in Ohio. I grabbed a copy of the Mutiny on the Bounty DVD too: there’s time now, to do a little research.

Later, I checked the weather on my phone and was pleased to see happy little sunshines–and reasonable temperatures–next to the next five days. This weekend, I’ll finish painting the car port–where the ceiling fan looks so festive and moves, still, so glacially.

I can clear out the weedy old flower beds and put in last minute annuals, schedule the planting of bulbs and seeds and pretty hydrangea bushes.

James and I will sketch out a plan for his bedroom, move him into temporary quarters, and repaint–the ceiling blue, like a limitless sky, the walls a fresh cream.

I will uncover my neglected sewing machine, and it and I will become, again, partners in creative projects.

And in the quiet of the morning, I will write.

Those are the top bullets on a long, long list of things that have been waiting, sighing and patient, for the time to come when there’s time to act.

I’ll start, I keep telling my family, as I mean to go on: with a schedule and a plan.

And then I’ll walk forward into loosely woven days–the only deadlines or restrictions ones I’ve chosen to embrace.

*************

It’s going to be different, retirement. It’s the first time I’ve left a job without another to step into, and I feel daringly untethered, a little bit anxious, a whole lot excited. Time now, to step into the next phase, and to determine the shape of things to come.