Free Agency: The Moment I First Believed

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—a perfect topic for a classic essay format: 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 form, 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 trek 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, though, and Greta 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 arms 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.


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 we do without it?–but that real 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 asks, grinning.

No, I tell her. Today, I feel retired.

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


I think about this 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, pull up a long list of results.

I discover the term ‘to hook’ was once vulgar for ‘to steal,’ and 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, not obligated, 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. 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.


The 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 planter 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 and put the whole mess into a 350 oven to share flavors, and to turn a rich brown color. Later, I pull it out, fill the Dutch oven 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 might never have had a brand new book before.

Kris and I pack the books 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.


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. I am working, of course, but I am in charge of what work I will do. The reality of that seeps into my head and my skin and my bones.


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 now are enticement and revelation; not trying to hurry through, I cannot stop myself from plunging ahead. The words of good writers move and shake me.


There are those moments when transitions become real: when we take on a new mantle. Graduate. Employee. Spouse. Parent. Boss. Sometimes we fill the role for a while before it becomes part of who we are,  part of our being.

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 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, the path. The reality of that comes claiming me. I am dizzy with my great good luck, with the lightness, as a hot and heavy cape slips firmly from my shoulders.