Sunday, March 2, 2014

On Slow Cookers and Sabbaticals: Reflections at the End of the First Month of "Retirement"

So already, it's been a full month since my last day at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School (CRLS). While I really miss daily encounters with colleague-friends and students, I don't miss early mornings standing on the Wollaston Station subway platform or late nights grading at my dining room table. I love that I have time to read. My period of adjustment continues. I am having to push myself not to push myself. You see the paradox.

Wednesday morning, after a long, uninterrupted sleep, I woke up to a day with no plans and appointments -- and to an attack of the "shoulds."  They often accost me when unstructured, unclaimed time rolls out in front of me:  I should go for a walk. I should go to the grocery store. I should mail the hat. I should write my next blog post. I should vacuum.  I should . . ..

My bed was deliciously warm; the wan gray daylight edging my window blinds reminded me that snow flurries were forecast for this unseasonably cold morning. Bed was the perfect place to be. But the shoulds weren't having it: Should I walk now, or walk later? Should I go to Stop & Shop or Hannaford? Should I mail the hat from the post office or the UPS store? What order for all of this? Should I do it all today?

Somehow, this last question pierced my brain-frenzy and essentially slapped me upside the head. None of the shoulds had to happen that day. And so I pushed them away. Just like that. I breathed in. I exhaled. I made coffee. I read the newspaper. 

It's funny how easily "should" metamorphoses into "want to" when the pressure of expectations--my own? other people's?--is removed.  Liberated from the claims of productivity, enlightened purpose, and duty, I decided I wanted to begin my day with a trip to the UPS Store to mail the hat, to be followed by a visit to the Stop & Shop to buy the ingredients for the slow-cooker dish that was going to be Friday's dinner.

As I was driving to the UPS Store, I was filled with thoughts of how easy it was, now that I was no longer going to CRLS every day, to mail back to a friend the favorite hat that he'd left it in the trunk of my car several days earlier.  Had I still been working, finding the time during the work week when I could actually get to the UPS Store or the post office when it was open would have been its own feat of balancing, juggling, and re-organizing time and obligation:  such is the lot of school-based educators whose lunch less-than-hours, generally a combination of eating and dashing, seldom involve leaving the school building. Suddenly, as I weaving my way around Adams Street's ugly pothole obstacle course,* I felt so happy and so free that I wondered if there was a beracha I could say, some blessing to sanctify this moment, to give thanks for being able to take care of something that needed doing so, so easily.

Early retirement is so much about adjusting to the non-regimentation and general increase in time and choice. But because there's so much time, the most elusive commodity in a teacher's life, it's so easy to feel guilty about squandering it. The word "squandering" probably needs a connotation transformation for new retirees. Rather than signifying a lack of responsibility and a disrespect for what is precious and fleeting, it might signal a permission to experience time not as a commodity dedicated to this or that, but as a thing in of itself:  to wallow in it when it lags; to marvel at it when it races unstoppably; to note when it has vanished discreetly, surreptitiously, completely.

For me, it's about wanting to be in slow-cooker mode for a while.  My slow cooker, which does most of the work when it and I cook together, continually reminds me of the generative power of long hours and sustained low heat. Through my slow cooker's glass cover, I get to observe the visible but still mysterious process of discrete ingredients' melding over time to become a "dish." I have lots of time to spend looking, wondering, . . . and looking forward: since I generally set my crock pot on the low-temperature setting, there's an 8-10-hour period during which I can check in periodically on what's happening, and also do plenty of other things, always with the satisfying, centering knowledge that a nutritious, aromatic transformation is in process.

So what's stopping me from embracing slow-cooker mode? The answer: a highly active sense of duty that's easily stimulated.

Beyond my kitchen are many who believe that new retirees, especially those under the age of sixty-five or even seventy, should not--must not--step back, rest up, and recalculate before embarking on "whatever's next." They argue that the world is so broken and needy that those who can help to heal it must not exit the struggle, even temporarily. While I agree that skillful, committed people must respond when the world cries out in need, I also believe that there are many more and less effective ways to do so.  So, there are important, thoughtful decisions to be made. Personally, I don't want to make such decisions without taking some time to rest, recharge, reflect, and re-envision. But how to balance these simultaneous inclinations toward social and personal need? Is the solution to keep my slow-cooker aspirations, but to adopt the high- rather than low-temperature setting?

But then I confront another complication: slow cookers generally live in kitchens, the historical female domain; and since I have retired, I have read four books about uncommon women who always saw beyond the kitchen for themselves, other women, and people in general. Of the two uncommon nineteenth-century women, both of whom lacked the extended formal educations bestowed on their male relatives, only one managed to become a voice -- a public intellect and reformer. The non-fictional twenty-first-century uncommon woman, from a background that did not mark her as predestined for future national prominence, parlayed her first-rate education and exceptional personal qualities into a position of judicial leadership. Finally, the fictional twenty-first-century uncommon woman, though seemingly on the brink of self-destruction as the novel about her begins, created something magnificent and praiseworthy at an earlier point in her life. It's hard to stop laboring in a profession when having a profession was not an option for most American women not that long ago. When I contemplate what others have done to ensure women's right to participate fully in American political, economic, professional, and civic life, stepping back and slowing down even temporarily can seem like acts of ingratitude and lost possibility.

But even Margaret Fuller periodically recognized her personal need to slow down, rest, and re-evaluate. There's a fifth book that I've been reading: Rabbi Chaim Stern's Day by Day: Reflections on the Themes of the Torah from Literature, Philosophy, and Religious Thought.  Organized around the Jewish liturgical year's cycle of Torah readings, each chapter focuses on a significant theme drawn from that week's Torah portion. During the recent week of Vayakhel (Exodus 35:1-38:20), the daily meditations were on the theme of "Work and Rest" because in the Sidra, God commands the Israelites to "have a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the LORD" (35:2)** after six days of laboring to build the Tabernacle. God decrees rest. 

Rest is important, especially after a period of intense labor. In the Torah, and often in our lives, it creates the circumstances under which work can be undertaken for its highest purposes.  Stern provides a quotation from Claude G. Montefiore for contemplation: "The Sabbath is one of the glories of our humanity. For if to labour is noble, of our own free will to pause in that labour may be nobler still"(151).*** A minister friend put it to me a different way yesterday morning: "Sometimes the work is to rest." And only one day earlier, another old friend, to whom I had described my chronic attacks of the shoulds, had said something similar: "'I should rest' would be a good kind of 'should' to have right now."

It's very comforting to me to see my own struggles with the work-and-rest relationship echoed in comments and observations from many wise persons and traditions--but especially comforting to see them echoed and explored in the sacred texts and teachings of my own religion. I am so grateful for the experience of feeling and being supported by something large, deep, wise, and deeply caring during this time of transition.  I also give thanks for finally understanding that this time that I am taking at the beginning my retirement to rest, reflect, and rejoice is a "sabbatical." As such, it promises that "There will be time," as the lines from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" say, for contemplating "all the works and days of hands /That lift and drop a question on your plate." There are lots of questions and answers, lots of possibilities and plans, to entertain in the months ahead, and plenty of time to wonder about them, set them aside, and wonder about them again. There are also lots of slow-cooker recipes I've thought about trying but never had the time to actually make. Slow-cooker mode, here I come!

* Screen shot of image from the following blog - and it's a good blog post, too:
**Plaut, W. Gunther. The Torah: A Modern Commentary. New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981. Print.
***Stern, Chaim. Day by Day: Reflections on the Themes of the Torah from Literature, Philosophy, and Religious Thought. Boston: Beacon, 1998. Print. 


  1. Margaret DrickamerMarch 3, 2014 at 7:16 AM

    I am a little behind you, Joan. I finally listened to "You should take a vacation." I am on Sanibel Island, it is 7:15 in the morning and I am going to watch American hustle.

  2. You may be a little behind me, Margaret, but you were always a role model! Sanibel at 7:15?? Sounds good. I must be relaxing, finally -- and even began doing it as I finished writing this blog post: only now am I detecting the split infinitive near the end of my last paragraph. Enjoy vacation: a good "should" to have heeded!!

  3. stewed 1977-84, simmering since