(Christian Courier column, June 22, 2015)
By the time you read this, I’ll be almost recuperated from two months of extreme gardening. Last fall we left for Florida without accomplishing much cleanup, so this past April consisted of endless days of raking leaves and clearing debris. May was all about weeding, planting and pruning. But June is sheer gratification. Time to sit back and marvel.
I recall last year’s June. Abundant spring rain had given my garden a turbo-boost of energy that resulted in lush exuberance. It was intoxicating. Vivid colours — the bright lime green of emerging tendrils on the elderberry, the sparkling yellow of marigolds, deep purple clematis, royal blue lobelia. The textures – fuzzy moss, waxy hens and chicks, the spidery veins of the caladium. Everything shone, except for the tiger sumac Mark decided to prune on a hot day, promptly killing half of it. Apparently, tiger sumacs don’t take well to being sliced and diced in the middle of a growth spurt. The real satisfaction last year, though, was the maturity of the garden, a five year project completed. It was so rewarding to see those rough original landscape sketches transformed into the artful vistas I’d imagined so long ago.
It will always be a work in progress, naturally, as gardens are. There are plants to relocate, holes to fill. We pulled out eight old cedars last spring, and suddenly, wow, the pear tree in the far corner, which had languished since we planted it, neither hot nor cold (something biblical there), started to shoot up like Jack’s beanstalk.
But truly the most edifying thing about the garden is simply how much time Mark and I spend there together. He enjoys all the things I don’t … filling the bird feeder, installing gadgets like wand attachments to hoses and setting up the rain barrels. He takes care of the gruesome tasks like disposing of the occasional dead bird or scooping the poop left behind by some rascally dog off the leash. One night we heard a rustling in the patio pot behind us. I dropped to one knee instantly, ready to sprint away like a mutant superhero. He calmly lifted the trailing bacopa to reveal a toad. He wondered if I wanted to kiss it. Oh, yes, we have fun in the garden.
He likes to tease me by offering opinions on my aesthetic choices: I think those cabbages would look better in rows, don’t you? That marijuana plant there needs to be pruned, doesn’t it? Of course, I have neither cabbages nor marijuana in my garden. The cabbages are sedums. The marijuana plant? Sumac. He makes up new names for the plants every day, so I’m never quite sure which one he’s talking about. It’s fun to show him new blooms that are emerging, or how much weeding I’ve accomplished that day. He makes a commendable effort to appear interested.
We like to watch the birds together. Of course, as I’ve already confessed in a previous column, I’m terrified of them (ornithophobia). Much of Mark’s enjoyment doesn’t really come from the birds, but from witnessing my fear in action. Do you know how aggressive a mama grackle can get if you (inadvertently) get too close to her baby? She will swoop right at your head! Squeals from me. Peals of laughter from him.
Every evening a neighbourhood cat slinks along our fence on some stealth mission of his own. The resident blue jays go insane. One night they all dive-bombed the cat! It was quite the melee. Better the cat than me, I say. Mark gives ridiculous names to the birds and squirrels, too, some of which are funny but not edifying, so I can’t share them here.
When we sit on the patio and have our coffee, watching the sun go down and waiting for the solar lights to flash on, we can be quietly content for long stretches. I might break the silence by telling him that the fence looks fantastic and thanks again for building that, honey. I might point out that our shed is the second-best one in Wyoming (bested only by our neighbour’s which has French doors and a porch). Thanks for building that, too, dear. I might mention that I saw a hummingbird today. We’ll talk about the weather, now that, as he says, I’m pretty close to being a farmer. We’ll discuss tomorrow’s plans. Golfing? I’ll ask (he golfs every day). He’ll say, “Yep, I might, for a change.”
(Christian Courier column, August 25th, 2014)
Emily Cramer’s funny, candid column, “three year revolution” (CC, August 11, 2014), brought me back 30 years. Teaching, raising children, swept up by the surging busyness. Derek Schuurman’s column in the same issue about his 25th wedding anniversary was another wistful read. When I got married, I, too, was still in school. Their reflections galvanized some further thoughts of my own about the seasons of life.
Let my start by apologizing to retirees everywhere for some unkind remarks I made, oh, about 10 or 15 years ago. Harried, I was juggling marriage, kids and a demanding profession. At the Christian school where I taught, we depended on volunteers to supplement the programming, trying to offer top-notch education on a stringent budget. Driven to excel, frustrated by inadequate resources, I got cranky. I complained about the generation ahead of me. Why weren’t the retirees helping more? They had time. Surely more of them could lend a hand! Yep. I said it. Out loud.
Now I’m retired. Fast approaching 60. A different wave is curling in, a new ride with a fresh perspective. Poised to surf this last third of my earthly life, here are some things I wish my irate younger self would have considered.
- Physical decline. Many seniors are commendably fit. More power to them. Others experience a gradual lessening of health and energy. I certainly can’t function at the frenetic pace I maintained for years. Somewhere in an old daybook is an entry detailing a day that started at 6:00 am, included driving students to Windsor in my own car, leading two workshops at a Fine Arts event, racing back to school for a staff meeting from 3:30 to 6:00 pm, heading home for a quick bite to eat and then returning to school for an Education Committee meeting that lasted until 11:00 pm. Now I wonder, How did I ever do that? Aches and pains, diabetes and joint replacements become all too real after 50. For the first time in my life, I’m experiencing stiffness in the morning. The creaky slowness dumbfounds me.
- There is more loss in the later stages of life. The passage of time inevitably results in an accretion of hurts and disappointments. Sometimes people arrive at the threshold of their golden years pummelled and exhausted from broken marriages, the challenges of raising children, financial worries, bereavement. Yes, there are those who can rise above even a lifetime of trouble, sustaining an optimistic outlook and steady faith. Others struggle to adjust. I wish my impatient younger self had been more aware of the toll of fatigue and heartache.
- Retirement offers new opportunity. Many of the retirees I grumbled about had already given decades of support to churches and Christian schools. My former uncharitable self could have chosen to rejoice graciously with these older folks for their chance to broaden their horizons, to explore God-given gifts and passions in novel ways, to serve God and neighbour at a different pace.
I’ve written often about my church participation — teaching catechism, editing the bulletin, mentoring the pastor. I’ve been a strong proponent of “doing,” conscious that my walk should match my talk, especially for the sake of the students I’ve taught.
But, suddenly, I’m doing less. Some of that is due to pressing needs within my family and some of it, frankly, is due to wintering in Florida. I’m still rather defensive, particularly in light of my opinionated past (grin). But this perfect little poem by Erica Jong inspires me to be less so. And eager to embrace what’s still to come.
The Raspberries in My Driveway
Nature will bear the closest inspection. She Invites us to lay our eyes level with her Smallest leaf, and take an insect view of its Plain. —Thoreau
in my driveway
(for the whole eleven years
I have owned
but have not owned
I have never
Always on a plane.
Always in the arms
of man, not God,
always too busy,
that all along
are red, red raspberries
for me to taste.
Shiny and red,
unlike the berries
from the market.
I share them
with the birds!
On one perches
a tiny green insect.
I blow her off.
I burst the raspberry
upon my tongue.
In my solitude
with the world.
The world was always
if you are so beautiful
upon my ready tongue,
lie in store
It’s been a quiet day. More of them are these days. That’s OK. The frenzied decades slide into calmer waters. You think they’ll never come. You cover your eyes from the glare of the sun and check the horizon periodically, but you don’t see any change in the distance. You keep doing your chores, your duties, the things you do. Then, one day you look up in surprise to realize that something’s different. Somehow the landscape’s been transformed. It was so gradual, glacial, that you never even noticed.
I remember one Christmas Eve not that long ago. I was still working full-time. I got really sick right before Christmas. Some kind of bronchial infection or walking pneumonia. Who knows? Who has time to go to a doctor? I was coughing up my throat, my lungs and probably my toenails. I was coughing incessantly, and not sleeping well because the misery was worse at night. I couldn’t finish out the semester and felt so bad for my co-workers who had to cover my duties and classes when they were end-of-term weary themselves.
Because I’d been so busy and then so relentlessly ill, I hadn’t had time or energy to decorate the house. So, I was madly hanging ornaments on the tree on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, still barking and hacking. The kids were coming home. There had to be some semblance of Christmas. I remember crying a bit as I hurriedly hung the ornaments on the tree. Too hectic. Too run-down. It was all wrong.
Today my house is decorated and cozy. My village is lit up, nestled on “snow” on top of the wall unit. The Victorian with the wraparound porch and gingerbread trim, the bed and breakfast hotel with the big front window through which you can see a little girl playing piano, the schoolhouse and railroad station house the memories of the people who gave them to me. The little white church was my first acquisition, a gift from my mother-in-law. The following year she gave me a bank. I bought the windmill myself, persuaded by my sister-in-law, who insisted that the village should include a nod to my Dutch heritage. At night, if you walk down my street, you can look up and see the village winking at you through the living room window pane.
In the kitchen I have a Nativity made by my father-in-law set up on a little table. It’s a rough-hewn manger, but it’s lit up too. The figurines are from Dollarama, so please don’t picture an elegant Mary or three imposing kings. Still, I rather like it. My granddaughter was playing with it and she put all the people and animals crowded right up against the manger. Somehow that’s a compelling arrangement. The ceramic Christmas tree on my desk is lit up, too, made by Aunt Eleanor who used to run a shop called Ellie’s Dolls. My in-laws and Aunt Eleanor are gone now, but live on, forever connected to me, especially at Christmas.
A digital frame in my living room, a gift from the kids, rolls through Christmases past, reliving old memories. The photos mark the passing of time in the ever-changing hairstyles, the addition of new faces, the absence of others.
I’m typing this on my laptop, watching CMT and enjoying Christmas music by Martina McBride and Faith Hill. I’ve had time today to vacuum, take a walk, peel potatoes for tomorrow’s dinner, make soup for supper tonight and run to Europa Bakery for some treats to bring to my sister’s later. Mark has been puttering around the house working on some remodelling projects. He put a battery in the wreath on our front door, so it lights up once again. We stopped to have coffee together a few times. Right now he’s reading a book on the KOBO e-reader that the kids gave him last year.
This sounds like a story about the rewards of the golden years, doesn’t it? You live through the harried times and emerge on the other side to appreciate all you’ve got. Some peace, perhaps. Sure, there’s some of that. But the truth is, the older you get, the more your family grows, the longer you stay in one place and put down roots and come to know your friends and neighbours intimately, the longer your prayer list gets. Every minute of every day could be spent praying for the broken and troubled marriages, the cancers, the accidents, the aging, the addictions, the misspoken words, the harmed childhoods, the famines in far off places, troubled waters swirling around your feet. It’s enough to make you cry even when your house is decked to the nines, your poinsettias and cranberry wreaths match, and you’re not infectious.
Today, on my walk I saw some things. I saw the shining sun, not up in the sky, but glinting off the leaden water in a mud puddle. I waited for a train to pass. I saw the usual graffiti, but one black car raced by completely covered with a superbly executed gang name in vivid green and yellow. Dramatic. Masterful. It was there and gone before I had time to even decipher what it said. Then, in my own drab December garden, perched in the middle of bedraggled sedums, bent stalks of grass and lumps of wet brown leaves, a lime-green heuchera – preening its frilly plumage just like a cocky parrot inordinately proud of its bright sheen.
Tomorrow, I think, I will take a breath. I will let myself be at peace for just one day. I will believe that tiny surprises like sunlight dancing in a mud puddle or graffiti art whipping down the track or chartreuse leaves glowing in a dead garden are signs. Blinking bits of unexpected glory. Like beauty in a barn, worth huddling in for a closer look. Tomorrow I won’t focus on what’s wrong. For one day, I’ll strain to see what’s right.
(Christian Courier column, Oct.24th issue)
I was asked if I would be willing to put up a Thanksgiving bulletin board at church. I said, “Sure.” So I went home to check out my boxes and supplies. That’s when it hit me – I’m a hoarder. I have over 200 pieces of student artwork, 30 journals, 20 poetry projects, six or seven essays by high school students, and about 100 hundred short stories, poems and paragraphs written by elementary students. I have all my daybooks from over two decades of teaching. I have 8 binders filled with scrounged “good ideas” and dozens of file folders with articles on pedagogical topics and bulletin board ideas. Maybe I need a reality show intervention.
I’ve been retired five years now from teaching in the Christian school system. I wonder why I have such a hard time letting go of this stuff. I do not plan to return to teaching. Yet the physical process of weaning myself from the “stuff” of my career has turned out to be more emotional than I expected. I can’t do it. Somehow that stuff is me, every piece of art, every creative story written by an eager student, every exam I labored over, all those files so carefully organized.
I sort through art samples looking for Thanksgiving ideas. Time collapses. Here’s a pastel composition, lilac blossoms and tulips exquisitely rendered by a Grade 6 student. A lesson on foreground and background. Here’s a seagull, painstakingly created from construction paper confetti. A lesson on texture. It took incredible patience by a Grade 8 student, working with a toothpick and a gluestick, to layer hundreds of circles into a perfectly-proportioned bird in flight.
Each essay, story and poem reminds me of the challenges of teaching writing: that initial writer’s block, the tedium of drafts, first and second, and sometimes third, stapled together, my handwritten encouragements on the back. The stunning results that can still move me, like this perceptive haiku by a Grade 7 student:
Winter’s gentle snow
falling weightless as paper,
weighing down branches.
I’ve counted. My best estimate, given the vagaries of record-keeping and students who sometimes slip into a school and out again before you’ve even found a desk for them, is that I’ve taught over 600 students. Like their art and their stories, somehow they, too, are “me.” The one who made me cry in the staff room in my first year, the one whose compassion I counted on every day for two years to offer support to a disadvantaged peer, the one who lost his dad, the three who lost their moms, the one who was intelligent but couldn’t read, the one who was bullied and the one who bullied, the one who sang like an angel, the one who made me want to quit, the one who played Anne Frank so brilliantly in my first big drama production, the one who told me to f*** off, the one who was so gifted I felt abashed to teach him. They’ve written their names on my heart. I’ve become huge, bigger than myself, stretched, each one expanding my capacity to believe, to forgive, to endure, to love.
Now, on the other side of the career, it occurs to me that these hoarded bits and pieces of student work, cobbled together in my imagination, form my own pointillistic masterpiece, each one emblematic of a tiny dot of effort in the moment. Fleeting, random. But, stepping back from the canvas, the flecks and dabs arrange themselves into a “still life” portrait. A thankful woman. Me. The one who thought she was teaching when she was really being taught.
When I was teaching, busy, busy, busy, attending to the details of the job, raising a family, supporting church and school ventures, if I was thankful, I was thankful on the fly. Sometimes I was too depleted or too frustrated to be thankful. But retirement is a season of thankfulness. With all those names inscribed on my past, I carry a precious koinonia, a fellowship of teaching and learning, into my future, whatever it may bring.
I’ll keep those boxes in the basement. They remind me how immeasurably blessed I was to have participated in a communal and incarnational endeavor where the classroom was redeemed by the presence of Christ and the chalk dust and mud in the hallway was holy ground.
And now I recognize that my imaginary artwork is not mine at all. See there in the corner? It’s signed by God.
Last Friday I received a reminder from Christian Schools International that I can begin the application process for my pension. In April I will turn 55 and can begin to collect my early pension benefit. This is kind of exciting! It’s the culmination of the last five years of transition, choosing to leave a career I loved, and planning to make significant changes.
Retirement has been surprising. Not what I expected. Not what I had planned.
We are always being advised by banks, investment firms, Oprah and Dr. Phil to plan for retirement. Every bank statement I get warmly invites me to come in for a Personal Assessment so that I can retire the way I want, when I want, and make “enjoying life” my full time job.
This must be a relatively new societal impulse, or else an exceptionally lucrative one, to generate so much repetition and encouragement. My great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents didn’t spend much time thinking about retirement. They pretty much expected to work until they were very old, and, for the most part, that’s what happened. Frankly, not many of my ancestors got to live until they were very old, anyway. They raised large families, survived depression and war, slugged their way through life, and wore themselves out. But, if you read the papers, or watch the news regularly, you know that my generation, the baby boomers, are slated to enjoy a long life expectancy. Planning for retirement does appear to be a necessity, all the more so in the present uncertain economic climate.
When you are young, you don’t think about retirement. You’re preparing for a career, establishing a career, getting married, raising children, participating in a myriad of church and school activities, and paying the pressing bills. Some baby boomers might be financially astute, but me? Not so much. When I took a few years off to start a family, I cashed in my pension plan. We got a nice garage from that payout, but it wasn’t one of my stellar math moments. (Friends and siblings are scratching their heads here, wondering… when exactly did she ever have even one stellar math moment?) On another occasion, supporting three Christian educational institutions, I dipped into the RRSP’s to meet my obligations. Seemed like a good idea at the time.
Retiring at the age of 51 was probably not a sound financial move, either. But retirement isn’t solely a fiscal decision. After decades in the classroom, it’s pretty common for teachers to burn out, and I didn’t want to end my career that way. I had family issues, too. A daughter who was a single mom in need of some support. A mom, getting older. A husband whose work week was ballooning. Moreover, my house was deteriorating from neglect. My body was starting to spin out of control from stress and lack of exercise. Insomnia was becoming the bane of my existence. There was a dragging undercurrent to my days that was pulling me down.
So I did my version of a financial forecast. I asked my sister what she thought about my retiring early. She said I should go for it because I could always get a job at Tim Hortons if I needed to. I asked my husband what he thought. He said I could do whatever I wanted. (One of his best qualities). With my minimal math skills and a calculator, I determined that, within certain constraints, we could probably make things work. It would mean budget cuts. It would mean that our present home would be our retirement home. No future “upscale downsizing”. I looked into what my CSI benefits would be if I retired early, and discovered they would be negligible, partly because of my earlier mistake of withdrawing my investment, and partly because some of my career was part-time rather than full time. I retired anyway. Or, as Mark is so fond of correcting me, with his sly grin, I quit.
Here are the surprises. I didn’t expect to feel so guilty. I felt guilty all the time. People just couldn’t believe that I would voluntarily give up my income. I was asked repeatedly by bank tellers, grocery store cashiers, and acquaintances: “Say what? You retired? You’re too young to retire!” Some could barely mask the rolling of their eyes as they sought to hide from me their instinctive judgement that I had lost my mind. Repeatedly, I would hasten to explain that I had worked a long time, twenty-four years, in fact, and that I was now volunteering, and helping my daughter, and my mom was getting older, and I was planning to do some writing… You get the picture. I fell all over myself trying to justify my decision.
That guilt and defensiveness is worth examining. My squirming efforts to rationalize my choice demeaned the Christian and feminist ideals I had always espoused. Why should I have been so abashed to admit that I was going to be a homemaker? I was going to do laundry, clean my bathroom, cut my grass, make meals, garden, wash my car, take out the trash, and manage the details of our home and family. It was work that needed to be done! Work that I had neglected for some twenty-odd years while I did my other work! Humble work, unpaid work, yes, but valuable nonetheless!
I had succumbed to the cultural pressure to accord respect based on profession and income, to consider my “job” the defining characteristic about who I was as a person. A strong bias against “women’s work” – cooking, cleaning, caring for a home, nurturing children, the elderly, and the disabled – is still alive and strong in our culture. It was still living in me.
If media projections are correct, however, and we baby boomers are going to hang around for a long time beyond our income-earning years, we are _all_ going to have to explore who we are outside of our “jobs”. Traditionally, men have had a hard time making that adjustment. But it may now prove be a phenomenon that transcends gender, precisely because women like me have invested less and less of them in the “homemaking” that kept our grandmothers and mothers so busy. How will working women adapt to retirement if the role of women in the home remains so devalued?
There was still more guilt. I felt guilty about being privileged enough to retire. I was worried that I would be perceived as wealthy, that my early retirement would imply that we had a huge stash of cash bankrolled somewhere. Mark likes to needle me: “But we do have that hundred thousand in the Cayman Islands, don’t we? 🙂
We don’t. But with the adjustments to our retirement expectations that we’ve agreed upon, we should be comfortable enough. I hope. It could be that we’ve miscalculated, and that I’ll be handing out coffee at the Tim Horton’s window, or that Mark will have to work longer than planned. That’s OK. I’m slowly learning to accept that I am responsible to God for my financial choices. I’m not obligated to share all the Quicken data with everyone who might be curious about why I get to go for a walk in the afternoon instead of going for a shift at Foodland.
I felt guilty about retiring early. But I also felt swamped! I was busy! You imagine that you will have lots of time at your disposal when you retire. Time to do all the things you didn’t get done when you are working. I didn’t know that it would be so hard to leave a job, and so hard to establish a new life. Or that there would be so much to do to accomplish that!
It was hard to leave the school where I had worked for twenty years. I had to pack up my office, sort through stacks of files and books, and make excruciatingly difficult decisions about what to keep and what to chuck. I am still not done! My house is full of “teacher stuff” that I can’t let go. Every piece of art I saved, every creative story written by an eager student, every test and exam I laboured over, every entertaining video or fun game is a validation of that productive time in my life. Who will remember I was “that teacher” if all this concrete evidence is thrown out? Who am I if not “that teacher?”
The process of physically weaning myself from the “stuff” of my career remains much more emotional and time-consuming than I expected. The password on my computer is still teacher. Again, I need to re-commit to those Christian and feminist tenets that wife, mother, grandmother and friend are not lesser callings. Again, I have to buck my own secular habit of attaching self-worth to external criteria.
I also had a hard time letting go of the daily camaraderie of colleagues. I kept finding reasons to be in the school. I spent time coaching my replacement teacher. I worked as a supply teacher for about two and a half years. I led drama and art workshops and judged writing competitions and science fairs. Many people had helped me in my teaching. I felt an obligation to do the same. It was a struggle to disengage.
At the same time, there was increasing pressure from other quarters to volunteer. There were requests from church, the community, and friends. I painted at church, took on the job of bulletin editor, judged speech contests, and ran errands for anyone who asked. I said yes to everything. How could I not? I was guilty. Guilty of having time. I got so busy, I wondered more than a few times why I had retired. Moreover, in the same period, my own three children and two of my siblings got married. Talk about overload!
Things are finally sorting themselves out. The transition that I thought would magically occur in the space of about three months has stretched to four years. In April, when I actually do receive a pension, and reach the “official” retirement age of 55, it will be easier for others and for me, too, to consider myself “finished” with the workplace. Maybe I will finally be able to part with my “teacher stuff.” As a Christian, I know there is no such thing as retirement from discipleship and service. I will always be challenged to serve God and my neighbour, but I am beginning to understand that those commitments do not have to be driven by guilt.
Now for the happy surprises of retirement. I didn’t know that my marriage would flourish as it has. Simply being home more, sharing meals (where we companionably read the paper in silence), being together in a context outside of children and their needs, has been liberating and remarkably good for us. We work on projects around the house together, we go out to Home Depot together, we wash the car together and sometimes we even watch TV together (not often, because Mark is Supreme Commander of the remote). We’ve been able to enjoy a few vacations together, something we hadn’t done in a decade. Sounds prosaic, but, for us, a whole new world.
Another happy surprise is that my health and outlook have improved dramatically. My sisters tell me that I look better than I have in years (rather a backhanded compliment from the wicked sisters, don’t you think?) I no longer suffer from insomnia. I have time to go for walks. I have yet to achieve the weight loss that was supposed to arrive miraculously upon retirement, but I can dream. And I am actually writing. Good or bad, I’m finally doing it. 🙂
Retirement has also brought more time for devotions and reflection. Even as I write this blog, my eyes are opening to the issue of balance. Looking back at the frenetic pace of my teaching life, I see that the scale was tipped unequivocally towards work. Out of devotion and duty, assuredly, especially within the framework of a Christian vocation, but all-consuming.
That’s why spending time with my husband feels so fresh and new. That’s why going for a walk feels so cavalier and taking a vacation so decadent. I conclude that I did one thing right. I retired at the right time for me.
There is still much to ponder. Still time to learn new things. This stage of life, like every other, is not mine to control, even as I try, wisely or foolishly, to plan for its unfolding. Circumstances can change overnight. I thought retirement would give me more time with my sister, but she got a job with rotating shifts, and I see her less now than I did before. My neighbour’s husband left her after thirty years of marriage. A friend’s house burned to the ground just before Christmas. One of my former students just had an operation to remove a malignant tumor. Life never fails to remind us that no amount of preparation and planning can give us control over tomorrow.
Maybe that’s why New Year’s Eve is such a poignant celebration. Not quite sure what to do with that uncompromising tilt towards an unknown future, media pundits and celebrities drink and party in madcap bravado. But Christians can mark any juncture of old and new as a fulcrum, trusting that what was past and what is to come is levelled by the faithful companionship of the pilgrim God who journeys with us. He makes the crooked roads straight, the rough paths smooth. He knows the way. On the days when I have the faith to live by that, I travel lightly and with joy.