Monday, September 30, 2013

Burk's Story: My Father-in-Law Blogs About Retirement

My father-in-law, Burk Ketcham, has responded to my blog in an e-mail that he's given me permission to post here. So enjoy.  As I did in Meg Anderson's case, I'm italicizing his post so you know it's from a contributor other than myself. Thanks, Burk!
On the 31st [of August] I had some free time (bags packed) before going to the airport and read your latest blog. I started a response to your question but somehow it was erased.  So here I am flying to JFK on Sept. 1st writing in the white spaces of The New York Times Magazine.  Hopefully, I will be able to transcribe it when I get to a computer.

I have had a couple of transitions since 1989. The first was Helen's death in 1989 when I was no longer a husband, just a widower.  I am not going to write about that as I don't think it relates to your situation.  The second transition started in 1996, the year I first met you after an Oriana [Consort] concert in Cambridge. As opposed to 1989, this transition was of my own doing.

I was fortunate in having a profession as a town and city planning consultant that was challenging, interesting and directed at making our communities better places to live, work, study, play and worship.  The hours were long and there were countless meetings with various town and city boards, agencies and authorities and citizens groups.  The communities were very diverse ranging from East St. Louis, IL where 95 percent of the population was black and most were on welfare to Marion, MA where 99 percent of the residents where white and quite affluent. During the last years of my career I had my own firm and in 1996 at the age of 71 it was becoming obvious that my age was a factor in my not being selected for consulting assignments.  So I decided to call it quits.

Early in 1996 I had taken four months off for a solo auto trip across the the US to the Pacific and back through Canada using my tent and sometimes my car for sleeping.  On the way home in British Columbia I met Peggy O' Connor, a divorced woman and former Assistant Superintendent of Schools, whose year round home was near Seattle.  One thing led to another and at her suggestion -- "Why don't you move out with kindred spirits who enjoy the outdoor life?"-- I sold the house in Cohasset and moved west in January 1997.  Seattle was a city I had spent some time in during my days in the US Navy.  After college I had considered moving there from New Jersey but then I met Helen and the rest is history. I have often wondered if I would have made such a move had Peggy lived in St. Louis. Suffice it to say that it did not work out as I had hoped with Peggy, but I have never regretted the move.

When I settled down in Tacoma Peggy was the only person I knew. But now sixteen years later most of my friends are from this area. Upon my arrival I wanted an involvement in something that would take advantage of the skills developed during my working life and my years as a husband and father. One day before the move when Peggy had come back to visit me in Cohasset she suggested that I might be of the right temperament to pursue the chaplain training program (CPE) she had finished following her retirement from the school job. She did this knowing that I had had no religious affiliation for over 40 years.  But prior serious discussions about spiritual matters with Peggy at her tiny cabin in New Denver, British Columbia led to my having a spiritual awakening of sorts.  So when I arrived in Tacoma I applied for the CPE training program at the Franciscan's St. Joseph Hospital.  To my great surprise I was accepted into the program.  There followed a year-long training involving 20 hours a week in classroom and seminar training and 20 hours a week of meeting with patients. My classmates included, inter alia, a Chinese/Jamaican Catholic priest, a defrocked female Lutheran minister, a woman who had failed in an effort to become a Catholic nun, a Black Methodist minister from a country in East Africa, an Orthodox Russian priest, and a fundamental Christian minister.  Not my usual traveling companions!

After completing the CPE training I met with one of the vice presidents of St. Joe's who was in charge of community outreach to promote public health in the Tacoma region.  I think she was more impressed with my community planning career than my recent chaplain training.  So I was offered a position as a Healthier Communities Planner.  At first I was to be paid but that never materialized so I ended up working two days a week as a volunteer.  This proved to be interesting work leading to my organizing the Pierce County Physical Activity Coalition, becoming the chairperson of the Healthy Start Committee for the nearby 100,000 population City of Lakewood and a member of the board of the Washington Coalition for the Promotion of Physical Activity.  Concurrently, I was one of the founders of United for Peace in Pierce County and participated in vigils opposing the Iraq war. I also was active in Howard Dean's campaign to become a candidate for President.  All of these activities were challenging and served a public need. They gave me a feeling of accomplishment.  These and other pursuits such as taking some art courses for the first time led to a wide circle of friends.

I do not want to beat this to death other than to say that I followed my bliss and that has led to a fulfilling time in retirement.  I also had the good fortune to know a neighbor in Cohasset who taught me to row.  I continued that when I moved west.  Being part of the Green Lake Crew in Seattle led to additional friendships and sharing a sport that was good for my mental and physical health. In  a few hours when we get to JFK I will transfer to plane to Milan, Italy .  Later this week I will compete in five races in Varese, Italy at the world's masters rowing races.  At 88 I expect to be the second oldest of about 5,000 female and male rowers from around the world. ( I was.)

I may be coming to the end of my rowing days but that should release some energy for developing my skills as an artist. Last year I sent 170 individually painted seasonal greeting cards to friends and relatives around the world.

I think I have gone on long enough to suggest that the last transition has been a success in my eyes.  I am satisfied that I have not let too much grass grow under my feet, have served humanity and had a good time in the process.  What I would caution is not to intellectualize the transition too much.  You are a doer with many friends and a supportive husband.  My transition was not planned and I was willing to take risks such as a major move at age 72. It could have been a failure but it was worth the risk.

I am not sure if any of the above is helpful but stories often get the idea across better than theory.  One final thought.  I sense that you like to write and you certainly write well.  Ever tried fiction?  Give it a try.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Thoreau-ly Enjoying Vonnegut!

So already, since we're talking about stories -- okay, since I'm talking about stories -- just want to talk about a few other ones -- the fictional ones that grab our hearts and sit there like blessings and burdens, that make us want to run out to the street and tell everyone "You have to read this!" -- even though they probably read it years ago, in the case of Vonnegut, while we were busy vacuuming, or weeding our gardens, or paying our bills, or doing what I'll probably be doing after I finish posting this -- reading student essays.

Recently, one of my students, Solomon -- he and his mother both know that I'm mentioning him here -- designed a graduation project entitled "Literature, Writing, and Blogging" and asked me if I would be his advisor.  Both of us are trying to understand who and what blogs really are for, and we both trust literature to make lives -- ours and other people's -- better. It's good news for me that my blogging life and my work life are coming together in some way.  I hope that it's good news for Solomon, too.

While he continues to develop the reading list for his project, Solomon has agreed to read Howard's End at some point this semester. But in general, he's the one who's creating and updating our reading list, which we are treating as a work-in-progress that can and must be revised if reading way is to lead authentically to reading way.

Currently, Solomon has me reading selections from Vonnegut's Welcome to the Monkey House, which I'm loving.  I have loved Slaughterhouse Five for years, and taught it for years, but this is my first foray into Vonnegut's short stories as a collection. Because I'm in full-throttle college-recommendation writing mode, I worried about when I would be able to read these stories, but when I opened the book on a rush-hour Red Line train last week and read the book's epigraph, from Thoreau -- "Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes" -- I knew I owed it to myself as well as Solomon to make the time. (One other thing I've learned over the years: if you're going to start laughing all by yourself on a subway train, it's better to be holding a book, so people think you're laughing at something. It's also better if the book isn't the Bible.)

Solomon and I are planning to blog about Vonnegut -- maybe on my blog, maybe on his. So if you have the chance to read or reread "The Kid Nobody Could Handle," we hope you will join the conversation. I suspect it's a must-read for Cambridge Rindge and Latin School staff, since relationships with students is one of our front-burner concerns this year. The story was written in 1955, the year I was born, and arguably it reflects a different world from our present one in some ways -- and just the same world in others. Maybe there's something for teachers and parents to learn that won't involve the destruction of too many pricey musical instruments, given the fiscal realities and priorities of our schools these days.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Meg's Story

Below is Meg's story, which I wrote about in my September 17 blog entry entitled "The Challenge of Ordinary Time and Extraordinary Experience." It's italicized to remind you that you're reading her story, not mine.  Earlier today, Meg reconfirmed her willingness to have me share it here. You can respond directly to her here if you wish, and I hope you will. Thank you so much, Meg!

"I was 13. What I remember about the 1963 March on Washington and the horrific events leading up to it is visceral, emotions filtered through my mother. Pictures and stories about what happened over that summer came afterward. TV was not a regular part of our lives and I suspect my parents sheltered us from the gruesome, tragic pictures on the news. So the measure of what was good and evil in the world developed from the dinner table discussions as much as from any media story. Viola Liuzzo was from Detroit near where we lived at the time, so I think my mother,who was the same age, was particularly struck by her courage.   She probably carried some guilt for not also being more active in the voting rights cause and the March as I did later with the March against the Vietnam War.   She was involved in local activities through our church, and I know she was a voice for the marginalized as a social worker in the high school, but I’m sure that never measured up in her mind.  The names of Medgar Evers, John Lewis, Martin Luther King and others have an electrical charge for me because I came to understand the horror and sadness, the hopes and the determination through the emotions of my mother.

"I would have my own experiences later, of course, as I grew up in a community where the John Birch Society was very active.  I had already experienced the class snobbery of that community.  We were solidly middle class surrounded by the wealthy.  My older brother worked hard to be included in that group – something I think he still does.  I saw him angry and spiteful at times to my parents because he didn’t have the vestiges of wealth – a car, clothes, etc. that were the badges of the very privileged.  I also saw this incredibly sensitive and talented artist crushed by the traditional mores of the community.   I carry with me a hard edge against the wealthy to this day for that reason.  In some ways the prejudice of the John Birch Society and wealth have merged in my mind, so I have to be very careful of my assumptions even with some of my own family members.

"Several events happened in my senior year in high school that influence my attitudes, commitments and beliefs to this day.  I was a senior when Martin Luther King came to speak at my high school in Grosse Pointe in February (I think) of 1968.  I have often wondered who decided this was a good place to speak where he must have known the John Birch Society was loud and nasty (in a very “proper” sort of way - no burning crosses).  Why not Detroit where he would have been met with passion and accord? 

"As a member of the student council, I was chosen as an usher for the speech.  We were to seat people, and we got to see Martin Luther King speak in person.   Before the event, all the high school ushers were prepped by someone – wish I could remember who – the police maybe.   This person explained that there would be organized hecklers and that they would most likely seat themselves around the auditorium in a diamond pattern which would make their numbers seem larger as they jeered. We were told that we were not responsible for keeping order – there were police there for that – but we were urged to help influence those who were reacting negatively, especially among our peers.  Very early before the speech, people began to filter in and sit in various places around the gym-auditorium.  I can’t say if it was suggestion or fact, but it did look as though there was a deliberateness to where they sat.   And from my final listening spot up in far left balcony, the jeers sounded very loud and shocking indeed.

"I was seated above Martin Luther King, but, as balcony seats go, I was pretty close.  I really don’t remember his words so much as how he responded to these hecklers.   They tried to interrupt his every sentence and distract him from his purpose.   At one point, he stopped what he was saying and invited one of the hecklers to come up and join him to talk about his points. The person didn’t respond.   What impressed me most was how gracious and patient he was with these hate-filled people.  He offered them space to speak rather than dishonoring them with anger. I’m sure his response came from many years of practice in other places, but most certainly it came from his belief in democracy and non-violence and his life as a teacher/preacher.  In that moment he became my mentor and hero.

"Shortly after his speech there was a town meeting about allowing Wayne State University to offer classes in the evening at the high school.   There was a good deal of opposition to this because it would bring college students of color to the community.  My mother and I went to the town meeting to listen and support the proposal to offer the classes.   I listened to the weak arguments against the proposal – no one was raising the race issue.  Finally, with Martin Luther King in my head,  and fierce whispers with my mother (who was afraid of me making a target of myself), I stood up and said that the opposition really was all about black students attending the classes.  I don’t even remember if the proposal was passed or not.  I do remember my mother whisking me out of the auditorium before I could be spoken to by one of the opposition.  For the few months before my high school graduation, we would get terrible phone calls, most of which my parents intercepted; but on one phone call that I took, the woman said she would make sure I couldn’t get into any college.  I found out years later that during those months people put threats in our mailbox vowing to burn down our house.

"And in April, Martin Luther King was assassinated.   I remember coming home from school and my mother met me at the door with, 'They’ve shot him.' I didn’t even have to clarify who.  We held each other and wept.

"I saw the movie 'Butler' last night.  I cried all the way through it and all the way home.  It covered the whole time-span of my life and brought back those visceral moments – so many of the things I felt terrible about then and still do. I try to keep John Lewis’ most recent words of hopeful acknowledgement and cautioning realism in my head – that we have come a long way, but we have a great distance to go."

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Challenge of Ordinary Time and Extraordinary Experience

So already, sacred time has given way to ordinary time, officially and unofficially. The Days of Awe are over, the Gates of Repentance have closed, and the journey of a new year has begun. My students are writing their first major essays of the term, which they'll submit on Thursday, and the first parent open house of the year was tonight. There's no denying it: school's in session, and the great express train of the school year is barreling down the tracks.

Maybe that's why I want to take a moment to say that the High Holy Days were extremely meaningful to me for the first time in many years. Even though in September I didn't manage to follow my Sixty Days reflection and writing routines as faithfully as I managed to do in August, I kept at them regularly enough to develop a better understanding of the holiday liturgy and the nature of repentance itself in the Jewish scheme of things than I ever had before. The holiday services, with their deliberately arranged and chosen prayers and portions, welcome and remind, demand and support, challenge and understand, unsettle and comfort, and ultimately deposit one -- lightened, mindful, and hopeful -- on the threshold of a new year. Right now, I'm feeling grateful for the whole notion of "covenant with God" and for the heightened opportunity that the High Holy Days provide annually for attempting to "get it right" with God. I am grateful to those of you whose responses to some of my earlier blog posts have inspired me to keep reading, thinking, and trying.

In general, your responses to my blog have been inspiring and encouraging. First of all, some of you have actually left comments, and that's made for a conversation and company, not just my lone voice. Meanwhile, others of you have let me know that you're "lurkers" who read my blog but will probably never post response comments.  A number of you non-bloggers have sent me thoughtful e-mails, facebook messages, and snail-mail notes in which you've shared your own relevant experiences, questions, and insights. Unfortunately, a few of you who are comfortable with the interactivity of blogging have actually tried to post -- only to have your comments evaporate into cyberspace for reasons that neither you nor I understand. But you wanted to post, and I appreciate that. If it's one thing I know, it's that ordinary time doesn't leave much time and space for blog-reading and blog-posting, let alone technologically thwarted blog-posting; so that you have made the time to read and (try to) respond, or even just to read, means so much to me.

Meanwhile, the existence of this blog has changed some of the conversations I'm having with people -- I suspect because I am making clear and they are recognizing how seriously I am taking myself as I attempt to prepare, in part by blogging, for the fast-approaching next phase of my life. If it's one thing I've been doing quite deliberately, it's been trying to recognize and capture those moments and experiences -- past and present -- that I think have the most potential to tell me about my authentic self, the self that I must be in real relationship with if I am to discover new, satisfying post-retirement paths. Simultaneously, and probably understandably, my interest in the moments and experiences that others feel have most defined  and guided them has also grown.

When the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington came along, accompanied by a slew of magazine and television news stories about people's recollections of the March itself and the weeks before and after it, I realized that I had no personal memories of a moment that was critically and personally important to so many people whom I know, as well as to the nation as a whole. In August 1963, I was a seven-year old who had strong television memories of JFK's inauguration and of rockets leaving launch pads, and I carefully examined any photos of Caroline and John-John that came across my path. But the March on Washington never registered. 

At a late August supper at the home of my friend Meg Anderson, who's just a few years older than I am, I asked if she remembered it.  Meg told me that she remembered it vividly. Then we somehow got off-topic and she didn't share what she remembered.

If Meg's name seems familiar to you it may be because she posted a comment in response to my last blog post. Meg and I  began to get to know each other when she became the Dean of Curriculum of one of CRLS' newly established small schools and my direct supervisor in 2000. Some years later, when she left CRLS to join the Center for Collaborative Education and lead its Principal Residency Program, in which my current principal participated, our already firmly established friendship continued.  We've spent much time over the past decade discussing the state of education in general, new educational ideas and programs that seem promising, poems and books we love, and our personal struggles to balance the worlds of work and "non-work" -- and to envision next career and life steps.

A few days after Meg didn't get to share her March on Washington memories with me, I received an e-mail from her that was also addressed to her two daughters, both of whom are a young mothers, wives, and professionals.  Meg had decided to share with all three of us her answer to my question.   Her daughters knew some of the stories, but they'd never experienced them collected into a written whole.

The first thing I did was to do a little bit of online research about Viola Liuzzo, whom Meg had mentioned in her first paragraph and whose name I had never heard before. Then I read Meg's narrative start to finish, beginning again with her first sentence. Among other things, Meg wrote about serving as an usher when Martin Luther King came to her high school in Grosse Pointe, Michigan and hearing him -- and watching him -- speak to an audience that included strategic, venomous hecklers. She also told about her experience of expressing an unpopular race-related opinion at a town meeting and dealing with the consequences of that in the moment and afterwards. Always present in the narrative was Meg's mother, sometimes shielding Meg, sometimes supporting Meg's participation in public life, but always, always talking and listening to Meg, while responding herself to the events of the day.

I've known Meg for thirteen years, but as I read these stories, I felt that I had a much better understanding of how she had come to be the Meg whose integrity and moral judgment are trusted completely by so many of us. At the same time, I also realized that I had come to hear these stories almost accidentally -- because, over a delicious late-summer supper, I had chanced to ask her whether she had March on Washington memories, and because she had remembered that I'd asked her and decided to answer.  

The serendipity of getting to hear stories about experiences that so powerfully shaped Meg made me wonder how often and why really important stories, stories in which narrative and reflection co-mingle explicitly or implicitly, don't get shared face-to-face or one-on-one. Folklife centers collect important stories, oral history projects proliferate, and radio shows such as "The Moth Radio Hour" thrive.  Are we more apt to share our most significant stories, crafted to communicate that we recollect them with no less feeling over time and even perhaps to suggest that they are actually becoming more significant to us over time, with people we don't know personally? 

So what is it that might make us hesitate to share our stories with friends and family? I understand that some of us are by nature quite private, but I am also wondering if there's something about the stories themselves and our relationships to them that holds us back from sharing. So here are some questions I'm wondering about:

  • Do we simply love holding our important stories close, treasuring them as our own?
  • Do our stories feel especially private to us because they're so personally important? 
  • Do we fear that we can't do them justice in the telling? 
  • Do we fear that our audiences won't understand why they matter so much to us -- and may not even try particularly hard to understand? 
  • Dwe hold them back because they're precious to us -- but also still a little too mysterious to us to be shared just yet
  • Do we fear that others won't treat them as the precious things they are -- and might even jump in and assign them particular meanings that are more about who they are than who we are? 
  • Or do we keep them inside because they don't fit into the social discourse of the day, which is often a combination of reporting "the personal latest" and dissecting the events of "the day" more intellectually than personally?

There's an interesting moment in Howard's End when E.M. Forster lets us know that he has a story about a personal experience that he's not going to tell us. Explaining the affectionate, durable relationship shared by sisters Helen Schlegel and Margaret Schlegel, Forster comments, "There are moments when the inner life actually 'pays,' when years of self-scrutiny, conducted for no ulterior motive, are suddenly of practical use," adding that "Such moments are still rare in the West." That eight-word declaration, with its authoritative tone, informs me, "There's an important story to be told -- but it's certainly not going to be told here and now." Then, I begin to wonder how many readers see that there just might be an invitation here, that there just might be a door to open. Then I begin to wonder who will care.

Recently, Meg told me that I could post her story on my blog.  Once she reconfirms, I will do so.  Stories told seem to have so many potential effects:  under the best of circumstances, they can deepen positive relationships, create nuanced understandings, illuminate our identities as members of groups and as the individuals we always are, even enlighten and inspire people who don't even know us.  So I hope you'll respond here with your theories and comments -- and your stories. We'll hope for the best of circumstances -- but I'll count on you to bring up other points and ideas if you think my optimism needs some leavening.