Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Semi-Okay with Semi-Retired

Stephen Greene's "Light of Memory #3"*
So already, one of things I promised myself when I first started blogging--or at least I think I promised myself--is that minimally, I would publish a blog post a month. I hoped I would manage to blog more often than that, but I reasoned that if I were also trying write short stories or poems, my divided focus would mean fewer "So Already" posts.

Since April 7, I have written no blog posts, no further short story drafts, no poems, no morning pages. I have written several letters of recommendation, a personal statement for my college class's fortieth reunion report that's scheduled to come out next fall, and a fundraising appeal--and I've designed one flyer and one draft web site home page. If I were going to rewrite a Gershwin song to convey my situation, its first line would be, "I'm writing lots of stuff, but not for me."

This wasn't feeling okay to me, though all of it seemed to be the right and responsible thing to be doing. How'd I get to the point of doing so much for others that there was no time and energy left for me, I wondered? I began to have nostalgia for the first phases of my retirement, particularly for the time I spent writing this blog and walking near my local salt marsh that, in its obliviousness to me, seems to put things right so easily. 

Drawing by Scott Ketcham
Well, of course, my plan hadn't been to create this perfect storm of obligation that would demand all of my creative time and energy. And my description of it above doesn't even include the time I was spending on my part-time job at Harvard and in the company of my parents, whom I regularly help out in small but significant ways. But perfect storms are sometimes--maybe usually--unavoidable. Still, if they keep happening and we keep getting caught in them, there's something worth understanding and doing differently in our lives.

I got the insight I needed into this problem when I went to submit my college reunion statement online: "semi-retired" was one of the options in a drop-down menu related to employment status. "Oh, that's what I am," I thought. My accountant had told me the same thing: "You're Harvard-employed, not self-employed," he'd said. "You're getting a W-2, not a W-9."

"Semi-retired" makes for meaning and purpose--but also for constraints and obligations. When perfect storms form and rage, constraints and obligations to others often trample and sometimes even obliterate personal meanings and purposes. Imperfect storms are a different story: they make for some sighing, some contrary-to-fact "if only" musings--and remind us of how actively committed we need to be to giving our dreams the time and space that they and we need, deserve, and really can have. When downpours, rumbles of thunder, and high winds seize the hour, we need to keep that umbrella at hand, so the minute things let up we're ready to get moving again--for the sake of our dreams and ourselves. 

That's what I'm doing this afternoon, getting moving. I'd thought I'd be "busy doing" this afternoon, but I wasn't. So I sat down and began writing, though all I could do was write about writing and not writing.

So, as I've already made clear, I haven't been writing. But I've needed words and images to weather the storm--and the writing drought at the center of it. So I've been reading. And looking at art. 

Thanks to other writers, I've time traveled to and from Shanghai and Macao aboard a Baltimore-built opium-filled ship called the Frolic**; learned about daily life atop Stung Meanchey, a huge waste dump in Cambodia***; followed the beautifully recounted globe-trotting journeys of a novel and the people determined to find it and claim it****; and thought about what it means to be a feminist in America, in Nigeria, and everywhere.*****

This Kiefer painting is wall height.
Trips to the Chelsea gallery district in New York City****** (the Anselm Kiefer work I saw in one gallery was so extraordinary and breathtaking that I was tempted to post twelve photos here), the Met Breuer (thank you, Marsden Hartley), and the Addison Gallery (Frank Stella's later prints dazzled me) filled me with joy, reverence, and awe. And therefore hope. This art was so much more than interesting; it clearly had evolved through a combination of experimentation and passion. It gave me the major dose of alive I so needed.

This is all to say that if it hadn't been for other people's visions and imaginations, for the visual and literary art I embraced, I think I might have dried up on the vine in the last couple of months. I mean it when I say that I needed not just to be reminded that people and nature are awesome (in the traditional  sense of that word), but to feel it in the wordless part of me.

by Marsden Hartley
May, however, is the month when "the year"--begun just before the fall equinox and designed to end at the threshold of summer--begins to wind down: the last concerts of the season, last exams, last classes, last meetings, last mailings, last chances to do this or that this year. Especially for semi-retirees like myself who work in education, this annual arc, with its predictable cycle of demands and releases, still shapes life and time.
My personal mid-spring perfect storm seems to be over, and that, combined with the customary rhythms of the calendar and the "usual give" of semi-retirement, is making me feel the first hints of a wind at my back. After a hiatus, I'm back, I think. In the weeks and months ahead, I intend to write the blog posts to prove it.

* On view at the Addison Gallery in Andover, MA. The gallery is free to the public. Frank Stella's work, which could not be photographed because it does not belong to the gallery, will be on view until July 31, 2017. Frank Stella owns this painting by Stephen Greene.
** The Voyage of the 'Frolic': New England Merchants and the Opium Trade by Thomas N. Layton. American greed has deep roots.
*** The Rent Collector by Camron Wright.  
**** The History of Love by Nicole Krauss.
***** We Should All Be Feminists by Chimimanda Adichie: can be read in less than thirty minutes, since it was originally delivered as a TED talk.
****** I traveled to New York City as part of the Massasoit Community College Art Department's field trip.
******* Couldn't resist: another much smaller, very beautiful, very different Anselm Kiefer from the same Gagosian Gallery show.