“So let this winter
for the new life
I must call my own.”
(David Whyte. Find the entire poem here)
My last day of full time work was December 31, 2018; and my first day of retirement was January 1, 2019. In retrospect, this was brilliant timing. The whole world was with me that night, cheering and toasting about one thing or another. And when it was over, I was ready for it to be over. Done celebrating. But I didn’t yet know what would come next.
I wasn’t all thrilled about retirement. I love my work and didn’t quite know how to stop. I had tried once before, after 32 years at Heartland Family Service — but moved directly into another full time position at Project Harmony. Our agreement was for 3 to 4 years, time enough to help start a new Children’s Mental Health Program called “Connections”. I was term limited from the start, in this incremental process that seems to be my way of retirement. But even that did not make the next step easier. In six months of planning my departure, what I felt most acutely were the impending losses. I thought of the threads of connection that would be lost; the projects that would not fully materialize with me as part of them; the relationships formed. Some will continue, and some will not. One of the surprises for me was that retirement is not just about leaving. It’s about being left. It’s seeing that world without me in it — while I am still in it, a ghost. I knew that I needed an interlude in which to reflect and discern what the next stage would be like. What would fill the empty space of losses?
A few days into the New Year, I met a young colleague for coffee. I had a half formed idea about a practice of consultation and training, but her questions went tothe kind of detail I didn’t have yet. What am I interested in doing? What continues to fuel the passion I have had for children and families for most of my life? What evokes my curiosity? What can I just not stand to put down? We concluded our onversation, but I stayed on in the coffee house for another hour, starting to outline what would become Fontenelle House, the name for my new stage of work.
During those months of preparation, I read Parker Palmer’s book On the Brink of Everything: Gravity, Grace, and Getting Old. He reframes aging as “a passage of discovery and engagement”. And in his unique style, he names and explores the questions implicit in this stage of life, giving me the opportunity to explore my own questions. It paved the way for me to move into the positive space of retirement, and introduced me to his work with Carrie Newcomer, poet and musician, with whom he founded “The Growing Edge”.
“Life forever invites us to grow into new challenges, new adventures, new opportunities to learn and to serve. What’s your growing edge? Maybe it’s a quest for meaning or purpose. Or for a vocation where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need. Or for ways to join others in working for the common good”. Carrie Newcomer and Parker Palmer
It took about three months to perfect that document. I sensed its completion — almost to the day on which the first tiny little purple crocus appeared in the garden. It turns out it was a perfect winter for hibernation — the longest and coldest in memory. More snow, more cold, then more snow, a glimpse of warmer weather; then winds and blizzards and ice. In these three months, I set everything down. As the opportunity presented itself to pick something up again, these questions formed a barometer. Yes or no? And heading into spring, I am pleasantly busy with a variety of projects. Some are familiar and expected — others come from literally out of the blue and land with a satisfying impact: “This will be interesting!” I don’t yet have a website for Fontenelle House but if you are interested, please let me know and I’ll send you the description.
I learned some things being home. First of all — how much I love being in this house. Over the last nine years we’ve renovated almost every room, and now I feel the cumulative effect. It is a warm and safe place against the cold and sometimes hostile world out there. I learned that the thermostat had not been informed of my life changes. It thought I left at 8, and turned itself down to about 60 degrees. So I’d start the day by cranking it up a bit. I was accustomed to leaving early in the morning, and arriving home early evening, so I know how the light comes in from the south side both early and late. Now I have seen it move through the day, marked by the snoring beagle who periodically repositions herself for maximum warmth. We suspected that Zoey snoozed all the time we were gone, and it’s true. After her epic walkabout last summer, when she was missing for two days, we got her a “Whistle” tracker. If she escapes, we can hunt her down — kind of like you “find friends” on your IPhone. (which is how I find Tim). It is kind of like a fitbit for dogs. So I now know for sure (because I wear a fitbit too) that Zoey sleeps about 3 times as much as I do, and gets about 3 times more activity a day.
The new days have their own rhythm. I still set an alarm but not so frightfully early. I have time for a latte and I read the morning news in silence. I read (at least) one poem a day. That’s a long standing habit going back to “The Writer’s Almanac”, which disappeared in the crash of Garrison Keillor. But now I have found “Echos of Panhala” — which offers a daily poem, most in a mystic tradition. I save the ones that provoke a particular thought, often the beginning of a writing idea, as was David Whyte’s poem at the beginning of this post.
Spurred by a mild sense of competition with Zoey, I too have fitness goals, and most days begin with a workout at Engage Center for Wellness (No other way to say it: Geriatric Gym). While working out on cardio and weight machines, I listen to podcasts and audiobooks. After the 2016 election, when I went on a news fast, I began listening to true crime podcasts — BECAUSE THEY WERE UPBEAT compared with the news. Gradually I branched out to include other podcasts, like “The Moth”, “This American Life”, and “On Being”; and audiobooks — Good and Mad, by Rebecca Traister, and Becoming by Michelle Obama. I sometimes have to stop the treadmill (real one, not metaphorical) to jot down a note or a thought.
By the time I get back home, I am energized, mind and body. I am ready for the work of the afternoon. I have a long list of writing ideas and projects. One of those is in response to a Karen Hogan challenge: Write letters by hand, on paper, with a pen, and send them to friends. We also have a box of postcards, collected over the years on vacations but never mailed, and these now go out with a message of “greetings from somewhere we aren’t at right now”. With time dedicated on a regular basis, my intention is that I’ll move more of my projects to completion and eventual publication. Starting now, as the Winter of Listening shifts into spring.