On Being Retired

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My top three blessings, in order of appearance, are my sisters, my spouse, and retirement. I can’t imagine the hollowness of a life without loved ones; as for retirement, I am still marveling over the perks.

Who knew that a clear calendar could have such salubrious effects? Free to be no one but yourself, you become intrigued: Who are you? What do you want? What do you shun, and why? You glimpse your infinite layers and begin to peer inside. What will you reach for? What might be out there, beckoning?

At first you flounder. You have never been in open water and it does not feel natural. What if you’re doing it wrong? What if, god forbid, you are wasting your hard-earned time?

Months will pass before you learn how to float, before you understand that you will have all the time you need when you stop looking at the clock. There are, of course, some reasonable conditions. There are bills to be paid, clothes to wash, groceries to buy. These are the actions that keep back chaos, the last thing you need in your golden years.

Having written short stories and essays throughout my life, I assumed that retirement would find me sitting before my computer dreaming up new characters or researching the nesting habits of the scarlet ibis. How glorious it would be! No more leaping up from my desk and rushing off to work, my head clogged with abandoned words. I would be, at long last, an unbridled, full-fledged writer.

Imagine my bewilderment when I found myself with nothing to say. It wasn’t a case of the dreaded writer’s block. I had simply, unknowingly, wandered down a path to a place where words didn’t matter. Odder still, I did not feel bad about it. So what if I couldn’t write—I had written plenty in life, to scant notice, and who cared if I closed my laptop? Maybe I had written myself out, said all I needed to say. Honestly, it felt pretty good, not having to pry meaning from everything I encountered.

I put out a few passive feelers, tested my interests. Maybe I could do something with my hands, something of substance. I had always liked miniatures, and one day in a seaside restaurant I spied a delightful shadow box: a beach scene with a dock, a couple perching pelicans, a wee surfboard, a glowing metal sun. I could do that, I thought. I could be a maker of tiny perfect worlds.

My first attempt was a dinosaur diorama for which I used a thumb-size Tyrannosaurus, stones for boulders, sticks for trees; the background was a photo of a sunset I pulled from a magazine. One day I tried painting my own sunset, just for fun. I had no expectation of success and predictably the results were childish. But the difficulty intrigued me and I persisted. Now, 18 months later, I am painting animal portraits, a few of which have actually sold. Who knew?

A comparison of the art forms—painting and writing—is inevitable. What strikes me most is the disparity of delivery. Unlike a picture, which can be absorbed all at once, a story unfolds across pages. The smallest slip in the first couple sentences and the reader might not bother to continue. Right out of the gate, the author is at a disadvantage, and more so these days as millions of new books pile up on the internet.

Another hindrance to writing is the process itself. There you sit, closed off from friends and family, hunched over a keyboard, shuffling words. Often you cannot produce a single satisfactory sentence, and for this agonizing bout of literary constipation you have given up a day of boating. With canvas, the brush at least is moving. You may not be producing anything of value, but you are painting.

I could never listen to music when I wrote, and any sort of interruption unhinged me. Painting is more permissive. Working with acrylics, I can enjoy my Amazon music playlists or the latest New Yorker podcast; sometimes I hum or sing. Assembling my brushes and tubes of paint, I am reminded of art time in elementary school, when the books were put away and the blunt-tipped scissors, construction paper and Elmer’s glue came out, unleashing a collective imagination.

When I finish a painting I am satisfied with, I send its image to Facebook or my blog. This instant, easy sharing feels friendly: no strings attached, no ego involved. I am just one of many offering the world a bit more tenderness—take or leave it.

In contrast, a short story manuscript has a rough journey to its audience. As most publishers will not consider work that has already appeared online, even on a personal blog, writers must forego their social media followers, assuming they have them, and seek the approval of editors who can take several months to respond. Owing to a multitude of submissions and the caprice of editorial staffs, a manuscript, however worthy, is typically rejected. Because writing exposes our most private selves, rejections can feel like brutalities, while acceptances come as validation. A story lucky enough to be published in a literary journal will have a few weeks of modest visibility before it is buried in the archives. Money is almost never involved.

But it seems I’ve painted myself into a corner. In citing the advantages of painting, I have proven the utility of writing, falling back on the thankless task of sending words into a void. Clumsy, imprecise, maddening words.

The best thing about retirement? Never knowing what happens next.

To Boldly Go

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Recently I watched a video featuring astronauts. They were trying to express what it feels like to see Earth from space. One astronaut was fascinated by the way he could raise a thumb to the window and block out his home—the oceans, the rain forests, the Sahara, the Alps. Seven continents and eight billion people: there, gone, there again.

I could never do that, hurtle off the planet and soar into space. I can trust my body to freeways, airplanes, certain medications and surgeries, but no way am I leaving the atmosphere. I thought it was odd that none of the astronauts used the word “panic” in describing the sight of earth through a porthole. A single glitch and their space ship could become space junk. They must not reflect on that; their minds, like their bodies, must be in excellent shape.

What they did mention was how organic the world appears, a blue ball of ever-flowing energy, with swirling storms and flashes of lightning. They spoke of the planet’s stunning fragility, the “paper thin” layer of atmosphere barely hugging the surface—our only protection from cosmic destruction. There was footage of the damage we’ve done, the scars and erosions and clear-cutting so evident from the clarity of space.

Out there, the sun is not the sun as we know it, not the dependable orb that gloriously rises and sets, but just a star, one of billions. That this particular star happens to keep us alive, held in breathtaking orbit, is an imponderable bit of luck.

The cosmos stretches in all directions, swallowing space and time. To be there in that black forever is to see infinity. And to see the earth from this other-worldly place is to see its plight. There it somehow is, the blue planet, our only home in the universe. One of the astronauts used the term “Spaceship Earth,” because that is how he sees us, a vast crew with one destiny. Scientists call this perception of oneness the “overview effect.” It does not dawn on you gradually, the astronauts attest. It is an immediate and ecstatic revelation: We Are One.

The International Space Station is a technological masterpiece, the pinnacle of human enterprise, a status at odds with its lifestyle limitations. There’s not much glamour in strapping oneself into a bunk each night or squeezing dinner from a plastic pouch. Beyond these character-building exercises, there is the physical toll. Without gravity, fluids in the body travel upward, resulting in headaches, nausea and a constant feeling of pressure. The heart, veins and arteries weaken, as do the muscles—crew members need to exercise at least two hours a day on specialized equipment or lose what they may not regain, like bone. High carbon dioxide levels, needed for optimal equipment performance, make the eyes burn. Bathroom breaks are probably the most challenging aspect of cosmic living. Astronauts must hover over a $19 million potty—it resembles a wet-vac—and, in zero gravity, send their feces into a tiny lining at the top; accidents are not uncommon. Since space toilets are not emptied every day, someone is obliged to don a rubber glove as needed and pack the poo down. When critical mass is achieved, the problem is shot into space and burns up in the earth’s atmosphere.

While viewing the earth from an alien’s perspective may be the highest privilege we can accord our own, I imagine there must be a fair amount of grumpiness and boredom inside the space station. With no doors to close, privacy is out of the question. There are no spouses to hug, no children to adore, no puppies to pet or flowers to plant. There is only that haunting view of planet Earth and a hamster wheel of daily tasks: cleaning filters, checking support systems, updating equipment, collecting data—on themselves and the frigid darkness around them.

Despite their training and valor, astronauts must feel enormous relief, at least at first, when they are back on terra firma. Above them is the sky and sun and moon, each where it should be. And here is that old friend gravity keeping everything in place. When they walk, I wonder if they feel the pull of the earth. Does the weight of their duffle bags surprise them? Some of these travelers have been aloft several months—do their wrinkles appear all at once? Did their skin age more or less? What are they most ravenous for—sex? A grilled steak? A queen-size bed?

But what I really want to know is how they manage later, when they are fully restored and back in their Nikes and Nissans. What do they think of war, the stock market, hair loss, teeth whitening? When they gaze into the night sky, does it beckon them back? When they walk among us, are they lonely?

 

Greatness

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Greatness

An osprey dives over and over,
as many times as it takes to stay alive
and become incidentally superb.

Driving down the road near my house
I see them flying, a stunned fish in their claws,
as if nothing could be more ordinary
than a bird bringing home dinner.

Wings or brains,
we work with what we have.
I can’t snatch a meal from the ocean
at 50 miles an hour,
but I can plant a garden,
make stories out of thin air,
learn the difference
between an aspen and an alder.
Minute by minute,
even I can be splendid.