So What About Retirement

By putting emphasis on different words and adding different punctuation, the above title can be read at least four different ways—dismissive, defensive, IMG_3913 - Copy - Copy (2)emotive, or introspective. I think my mind is geared more toward the last—just a statement, a lead-in to thinking about this stage of life that my husband Bill and I find ourselves in right now. Not total retirement, like never-work-again retirement. It’s work maintaining the woodpile for our woodstove, the garden for our own food, the used vehicles, lawnmowers, weed eaters, etc. And then there’s Obi, the puppy. Paying attention to our mixed breed, high energy, just a couple generations away from a wild dingo puppy, doesn’t allow for much sitting on our duffs and reading our books during daylight hours. What were we thinking?!

Bill’s still preaching at least one Sunday a month, and I’m still editing life stories for an elderly friend, not to mention our everyday chores of cooking, doing dishes, sweeping floors, washing clothes, and cleaning the toilet. Is there really any such thing as retirement for those of us who don’t employ gardeners, mechanics, maids, or dog whisperers?

And I can’t leave out the business of being family—that takes up a lot of time. My parents, 89 and 90, still live on their farm in Southeastern Indiana. I try to spend two or three days with them every month, and catch up weekly with their comings and goings and, mostly, their staying at home these days. Our daughter and her family live several miles east of us and we usually see them once a week when we pick up our teenage grandson from school. We share land with our son and his family, so they are in and out of our lives on a daily basis, and this next-door grandson spends one night a week with us. And you know how families are, and friends, too, for that matter. There aren’t any set rules, retired or not, about when we’re needed or wanted or expected. It’s all apt to change at any given moment due to sickness or celebration or spontaneous combustion.

So…what do I not like about retirement? Realizing that we weren’t really prepared for the financial downsizing, considering our utilities, mortgage, phone bills, etc., still have to be paid. Realizing Medicare isn’t free and supplemental insurance is a necessary evil. Accepting the fact that the price of gasoline, groceries, sunflower seeds for the birds, shoes, underwear, and chocolate fluctuates, and that it’s impossible (for us anyway) to stay within our budget.

I also don’t like it that Bill is home, IMG_2672 (2)in our less than 700-square-foot house, most of the time, and that he watches TV—news, sports, documentaries, even commercials, for heaven’s sake! —much of the time, when he’s not on his laptop, or talking to his twin brother on the phone. Yikes! I miss my quiet space. My alone space.

What do I love about retirement? That we actually don’t have to go to work every day, punch a clock, or remortgage our land to be able to squeeze by—even if it is just squeezing by. And I love Medicare! And a low enough deductible with our supplemental that we can actually justify going to the doctor to get an annual exam, not just when it’s a life threatening emergency. I love the fact that we are both skilled at this homesteading business, this ability to take care of most of our own needs. I love it that we have flexible time for our family and friends, and, hopefully, time and patience enough to bring our little dingo up in the way that she should go. (I think that’s one of the Ten Commandments.)

I also love it that Bill is home most of the time. No contradiction here—just the both/and of relationship. And that he enjoys being more involved with the gardening and the everyday business of home and family. I love his political commentary and am more involved in the day-to-day happenings of this presidential election because he’s so plugged in. I couldn’t care less about the unbelievable touchdowns or game-winning basketball shots that he tells me about in great detail, but he probably doesn’t care a lot about the difference in the size and color of the eggs I bring in from the chicken house either.

I especially loved this particular Sunday morning. We didn’t have to be IMG_3917 - Copy - Copy (2)anywhere but here. We ate a late breakfast of homemade biscuits and gravy, let our puppy lick the plates, then took her and ourselves for a long, leisurely walk in the snow-covered woods. The bright winter sun highlighted the glitter and sparkle, the shadows and contrasts, the swirling ice patterns on the creek, the flashing woodpecker wings, and the dozens of wild animal footprints. Obi made us laugh with her hill-climbing, stick-chasing, creek-running, critter-trailing enthusiasm—all at hyper speed. Once, when she was a good distance behind us, we hid behind a couple of trees and waited quietly for her to catch up, run past, then turn around wiggling and wagging at the joy of finding us! We slid around on the ice and made patterns in the snow on our frozen-over lake. And when we came into our warm little cabin, we turned our phones off, took a long nap, and still had half the day before us.

So what about retirement? We seem to be figuring it out without too much wear and tear on our 46 years of marriage. There’s an honesty and easiness about our companionship that just keeps getting refined. We haven’t reached perfection yet but I doubt if either of us will be around to write about that. This stage of life is perfect enough.

Glenda Breeden for The Poplar Grove Muse

Branded

Crow tattooWe humans have a propensity for labeling ourselves, defining ourselves to the world, either with words or by decorating our bodies. This is who I am. This is who I want you to see. Some do it with jewelry, makeup, hairstyles, or clothing. More and more people are decorating their bodies with piercings and tattoos. How we choose and what we choose to adorn ourselves with is deeply personal and significant.

Even though this is a crow, not a raven, I’d like to say never say nevermore. In the past, I’ve said I would never get a tattoo. I’m not sure what changed in me, but something shifted and I now have a crow tattoo. I don’t know how deep this shift goes, that is something I’m still exploring, but at the very least, I wanted to honor Crow. She has been an excellent guide for me over the years.

Crow’s energy has been working in my life for a long time. Crow is the Keeper of Sacred Law. She is an omen of change. I’ve learned to embrace change. Crow keeps me from being stuck.

The process was surprisingly profound in body, mind, and spirit. When Jason Profant, the talented artist who did my tattoo at Time and Tide Tattoo, asked me if this was my first tattoo, I think my answer shocked him. I said it was the first one I had gotten willingly. He looked at me as if I meant that there was a marauding band of tattoo artists who went around tattooing people against their will. I let him hang for a minute…

I have a permanent set of blue dots that outline the calibrations for the block they made to pinpoint the area that would be radiated when I had breast cancer thirteen years ago. I’m told the dots they do today are no longer permanent. So, in actuality, the crow is my second tattoo. Maybe because of my first experience of being permanently marked was linked to cancer, this tattoo had even more significance for me. It was my decision, my symbol, experienced with a friend in my choice of place and time.

My crow tattoo is still healing. I’m always surprised when I look down and see it. It still feels new and I don’t think I’ve assimilated it as a part of me like the blue dots have become; it takes time. I like knowing that Crow will always be with me. Maybe comfort was what I was looking for.

Rebekah Spivey for The Poplar Grove Muse

Tattooing

Winter Nights and Days

number 7We were awakened by the soft sound of snowplow chains, chunking and scraping their way down the road, pushing the snow aside, building perfect venues for snow forts and tunnels. Jumping out of bed to look out of the window into the dark, hoping to see these wonderful monsters who brought us so much enjoyment, looking for their flashing lights, wondering if we knew the drivers, and how brave it was of them to be out in the storm, making life easier for the rest of us. We could hardly wait until morning came, a weekend day, so we could quickly drink our cocoa and eat our sticky oatmeal to head out to play.
It wasn’t easy, getting out that door into the snow. First we girls had to put on long wool stockings, held up by a garter belt around the waist, and then we had to put on long-sleeved undershirts (some crazy kids put the shirts on first and then the stockings). Then we had to put on the blouses and over them the sweaters knit by our grandmothers or mothers, and only then could we start with the garments that would actually touch the snow, getting little pills of ice that would stick to them throughout the day. First were the felted leggings, lined with warm wools, elastic on the inside of the leg bottoms to help prevent snow from sneaking up inside. These were sometimes held up with suspenders, for extra assurance. Next came the mittens, attached to each other like Siamese twins with a long string that went around the back of your neck, and which would travel down the sleeves of the snow jacket, assuring that they wouldn’t be lost by a careless child in the distraction of snow play. Then came the wool jacket (my favorite was a gray one with green felted designs on it), hanging on to the mittens, you would slip each arm into the sleeves, tug and pull to make sure the mittens were pushed out of the ends of the sleeves. The jacket would be zipped or buttoned up, often by some other person whose arms still had some movement available to work the closures. Next came the boots. Sometimes they were slip-on boots, but sometimes they were galoshes…those black boots that had three buckles up the front, buckles which would stubbornly catch more snow and ice and which refused to unbuckle when it was time to take them off. Again, the boots often had to be helped along by a non-wearer…it was hard to bend that far over if you already had your jacket on. After the boots, the scarf, tightened around the jacket neck…tied in a double knot for security. And finally, the hat. Hats usually knit by the same person who had made the mittens, and often matching the mittens. Ear flaps, ties for the earflaps, and maybe a flouncy pom-pom on the top.
At last! Ready to waddle out! And yet, somehow, all those layers of protection didn’t seem to stop us from any of the things we wanted to do outside…we could still make snowballs and throw them, still dig the tunnels in the roadside piles, still make forts and snowmen, still slide and make snow angels with no noticeable impediment.
My favorite activities, though, took place at night. If there was a full moon, whole families would gather on the hillsides behind my house with our toboggans and sleds. Moms and dads and kids…almost the whole village would be there, and we’d make runs down the moonlit hills, swaying and bending to avoid the barren apple trees that made the routes a little dangerous and a little more exciting, trudge back up and then down again until it was time for the adults to go home (always too early, it seemed, for us kids), take off all of the layers, make some cocoa and prepare for the night’s rest. Somehow the quiet of the snow-buffered hills stayed with us as we were home, moving a little more quietly, speaking a little more softly, it always seemed to me.
On other nights, when there hadn’t been much recent snow, two villages of people would gather at the lake, one of the largest in Maine, to ice skate. The same snow plows that had cleared our roads, making it possible for us to navigate the two miles to that lake, had, during the day, cleared snow off a large portion of the area where we would go. There were ice fishing shacks that would serve as warm places to go, there were bonfires for some warming up as well. Once again, whole families would remove those rubber boots, sitting on the ice, or on the running boards of the fleet of cars, or on crates strewn around the lakeside and on the lake, women and girls pulling on their white figure skates (those skates with the ridges on the toes that could scrape 8’s and other numbers and letters on the ice surface, and that could seriously hurt someone if kicked with them), bending over to lace them just right…tight, winding the lace ends double around their ankles before knotting them, for extra ankle support and security. Men and boys did the same, but with their racing skates…no self-respecting male would dare to wear figure skates…the skates black with brown trim, sleek and fat at the same time.
We’d all start skating…not round and round like those poor deprived souls who had only rinks to skate on, but up and down, in and out, smiling and chatting, a slow and fast dance of glides and wiggles. Some would skate backwards, showing off a bit, often chatting with someone skating forwards; some would hold hands and skate side by side. Others would skate alone, slow and fast, making patterns and designs…and if they had on figure skates, trying to make those 8s. There were those who were expert skaters, those who were everyday, pedestrian skaters, and those who were still learning. Everyone was welcome and the more experienced were always willing to help the learners. People would fall down and everyone would laugh, including the person plopped on the ice. The teenage boys would have little races, or practice fancy skating to impress some group of girls, who usually would be more interested in their own skating techniques. After a while, noses red and often running, people would head towards the bonfires for a bit of a warm-up, standing and chatting for a bit, drinking coffee and hot liquids from the thermoses they had brought along, then head back out onto the ice.
We knew, while we were enjoying this annual activity, that it wouldn’t last, because the next day, or maybe in a couple of days, the plowed ice would be harvested. Men would go out on that ice and cut huge chunks of it out, carry it back to the sawdust filled icehouses, and pile it, square upon square, to be kept, frozen, until summer arrived, when it would be used for the homes that still had actual iceboxes, or, in my own family’s case, for making the weekly Sunday ice cream. We’d remember on those summer afternoons, as we took turns churning the ice cream maker, the fun we had had, maybe skating on this very block of ice that was now giving us the possibility of another cold, sweet experience.
Bev Hartford

Optimistic Pessimism

We buried the forest. We sawed the trees into meter-and-a-half pieces and packed them in cellophane and threw them into graves…Many years ago, my grandmother read in the Bible that there will be a time when everything is thriving, everything blossoming and fruitful, and there will be many fish in the rivers and animals in the forest, but man won’t be able to use any of it.
from Sveltana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl

Today I was making breakfast when a man floated past my window. I hadn’t slept well. It was all I could do to feed the people in my home. My brother, who is staying with me because he has no electricity in his house and likely won’t for many more days, said, “They’re doing something to your tree.” …This was very bad news. Since the hurricane took down half our tree last week, the half that remained possibly wasn’t doing well.
Heidi Julavits The Folded Clock; A Diary

Tree Jason Gillman 2958

This is not a book report. Nor is it the spunky, newly–resolved-toward-hope-and-action new years post so many fibers of my being yearn to write. It’s simply what I wake with today; a strange synchronicity of passages from my recent holiday reading that has me thinking — searching for connections to my own state of being. Sometimes the universe hands you little gifts to validate your sense of things and help you see. In this post-holiday haze, I’ve been trying to figure out why I feel raw –stuck in the poignant passage of another segment of time-out-of-time with multi-generations of family in various stages of letting go and moving on.

It’s not just that holidays can be sad times. It’s not about the arrivals and too soon departures. It’s not just the New York Times riveting photos from a year in review, gorgeous pictures of unspeakable natural and human events, readers writing of their lost loved ones in 2015. It’s not about the trees we watched being cut down last year. It’s all of it combined in search of articulation.

Svetlana Alexievich won a Nobel prize for Literature in 2015. Since I didn’t know her work, I ordered Voices From Chernobyl knowing it would stir up horrors I prefer to keep repressed most days in order to keep functioning in my own life.  The voices in her pages awaken and remind me of realities I do not live currently, but could someday.

The Folded Clock; A Diary, is one of my current book group selections, written by someone I’d probably be interested in walking and talking with in the morning. Each short essay in this book begins with “Today I…” and then unfolds, (ok, this is my impression only half-way through) in meditations that follow no chronology, but offer layered, recurring patterns of observation of brokenness, superficiality, loss and surprise, silver- lining insights in and all around her. I observe Julavits losing and finding herself in these pages. And I relate.

What both books have in common is immediate voice and piercingly beautiful, plain, sometimes haunting language. Both are structured in ways that illuminate what is disorderly about what happens in our days and our world(s). Both reveal patterns of thought and human behavior: stoicism, humor, compassion, big love. Alexievich’s oral histories are riveting as they capture unspeakable loss and the fierce resolve to carry on in spite of fear, anger, and anguish after the worst nuclear disaster in history.  Julavits, a successful novelist and another voice of our first world worries, layers her observations backward and forward in time to capture chaos and grace, inner devastation, and resurrection. She’s a woman of  privilege like me, yes, but she delves headlong into deep waters. In doing so, she shows us a journey of self, and reminds me of the possibility that writing the way holds for any journey toward understanding. The gifts of this ripple out. Reading these books side by side gives me courage. Let’s not miss the little observations of our days.  Let’s not forget either, how we’ve weathered the worst and survived.

That’s my point.

I know this about both reading and writing. They inspire courage in us to regard the difficulty and beauty of the world.  And I forget this. Even writing these paragraphs involves an effort I find challenging to pull out of myself in these days of inertia. At the same time, writing this energizes me; enlivens something that felt dull and unsure where I was going when I started.

These books, at this moment in my life, strike me as tiny time capsules that speak to what we humans are capable of plucking out of ruin. Perspective, if you will. And that is a good thing.  Raw and real. If nuclear disaster, war, or exceptional weather does not level us; if our own denials about who we really are and all we’re capable of keeps us blind to our own flawed capacity and wisdom as human beings, it’s all just going to be horrible. But it’s never all one thing or another. I know this seems obvious, but I need reminding. I think we’re all schlumping along doing the best we can with the circumstances we find ourselves in. If we can call it the way we see it, day by day, maybe that kind of truth telling will embolden others. Good, bad, ugly, beautiful. At least it says (again). This is life. And life encompasses all of this.

I’ve lost people dear to me, pets and trees this past year. I’ve also been encircled in love and witness to abiding courage and kindness in my everyday world.

Which leads me to the end of this musing. Is it reasonable to be optimistic about pessimism? The bad news will never go away. Let’s not fool ourselves. There is much to be afraid of and as Heidi Julavits writes in her November 4th diary entry: “The old ladies are walking around making their optimistic pessimistic proclamations…This city’s coming down. ”

In spite of this, I come around to thinking that evidence shows a tenacity of optimism in the face of dubious odds and unstoppable change.  I don’t think it’s just me. Old trees die and new trees take their place. Maybe there’s something haunting and beautiful in how endings and beginnings live side by side to keep the world turning. It’s not easy to hold all of this in its exquisite balance. But today I resolve to try.

Beth Lodge-Rigal for the Poplar Grove Muse

Photo Credit: Jason Gillman