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Sunday, January 10, 2016

Act III

When I retired a year and a half ago, I called the coming phase of my life "Act III."  The metaphor felt right, but I couldn't explain it well.  All I had to go on was a sense of urgency that wasn't at all threatening or frightening.  Though of course there will be a death in the end, I don't see my life after retirement as a tragedy--everything going downhill from here on.  Quite the opposite:  I've never had so much fun in my life.  But of course because there's a death, these years aren't exactly a comedy either, though because I'm healthy that death doesn't lour over my days.  All I had to go on were behaviours that changed.  

I never thought retirement would make me a better driver, but it has.  I find that civility on the road is declining--not precipitously but appreciably.  And I have the time to add a note of civility from time to time--not to get impatient with someone who is lost, or to let in a driver who is trying to make a right turn into a train of oncoming cars.  I have time when I'm doing Christmas shopping to thank the people--tired people, no doubt--who help me.  I make more bread, kneading it while I watch the birds at the feeder just outside the window.  My house is better organized:  each time Diabetes calls with news of a "Clothes Line" pick up, or each time the Cathedral Neighbourhood Centre has a garage sale to benefit the Arts Festival, I have a useful box of things to give them.  I can say one thing about Act III:  the frantic chaos of being disorganized is so aversive, that you get organized.  Perhaps I finally understand my mother-in-law (thirty years too late, alas)?

Ironically, I think that Twig's illness between October and December of 2015 focused my thinking about Act III, but it didn't have the expected effect of making me fearful about death.  I am afraid I am becoming the typical "cat lady," though I have only one cat just now:  each night I whisper in his ear that I'm grateful to have had one more day with him.  He has learned that this is coming when I turn out the lights downstairs and stretches up, purring and rubbing my face.  I could have learned this lesson about gratitude any number of ways:  the illness of a friend or a loved one would have easily done the job.  But rather than being panicked about time, I'm grateful for it.

Rather than feeling frantic about the time that remains, I find that time without the responsibilities of work stretches in intriguing ways.  Perhaps this is partly because I can finally focus on one, or at most two writing projects at a time.  I have my set hours for being at the computer, and while I'm there, I don't have to think about time.  I think only about what I am doing, with a focus so fierce that it knocks time all to hell.  Perhaps this change is caused by a different relationship to "work."  I'm not having to do the reading for a demanding committee and having to answer emails to students while I also try to think about class preparation and throw in a little marking on the side.  I don't have a "to do" list; I don't judge my time by what I accomplish.  I judge it by what I experience as I sit down at the computer and try to get my words to have an interesting conversation with my fledgling ideas, to see if we can't together create something meaningful and insightful and perhaps beautiful.  In the first instance, it's that experience that matters.  Only when I am happy with what I have made do I consider whether it can be launched across the chasm between me and a reader, and even that thinking and doing remains an experience, not a do-to list.

I do have some "legacy projects."  The list looks full of hubris.  I have finished, for the time being, Visible Cities, the poems inspired by Veronica's photographs; it's on hold now while a publisher looks at it.  I will write the last paragraphs on Woolf's The Waves tomorrow; after that I will start at the beginning and revise each chapter one more time, working on it in the mornings, hoping to finish in the spring.  Then I will turn to Soul Weather, a novel I started in 2011 and which has morphed in amazing ways in my imagination since then.  Time spent not working on it, though with my notebook close by, will make it a better novel, I suspect.  I also have a first-novel-in-a-drawer that has some virtues, but that wants an entirely different structure and a much less indifferent, defeated protagonist.  Poems come dribbling in for my next collection, and perhaps some blog posts would like to become essays.  But my other legacy project, the important one, is to be kind.  I have discovered that kindness takes time, and the freedom that having time gives us--which bodes ill for a society of workaholics.   

I don't know whether this tendency to value experience over accomplishment came from the gratitude I feel for Twig's health or from the freedom to focus and work in an entirely different way, but I can say that I have spent the year and a half since I retired high on mindfulness.  Seeing and walking through Richard Serra's "Wave" in Seattle (see the June 25, 2015 blog), and walking all through the Olympic Park with its many remarkable sculptures was one.  Taking a walk with Nikka in early November and seeing a Great Blue Heron and some startlingly beautiful images while I waited for her to take photographs was another (November 13 blog).  One summer evening, Bill and I drove toward White Butte Trails and caught a sunset along the prairie road.  The light was magical, but so were the smells and the changing sounds as dusk approached.  These occasions are highlights:  my days are full of joyful stop-time moments.  Every night I read outside this summer until it was too dark to see gave me joy.  Standing in the back yard just to listen to the birds at my feeder gives me daily joy.  I think I need to re-read Shakespeare:  is there any thing in the final acts of his plays that anticipates this intense joy I feel almost daily?  Perhaps, if I had to sum up Act III in a single word, it would be "intense."  Joyfully, mindfully, gratefully, and I hope kindly, intense.  Act III sings.