Retirement, Rain, and Coming Back Down to Earth

My heart and my eyes were full as I walked out the door of my office building as an employee for the last time. All the automatic tasks of leaving for the day, like logging off the computer and turning off the cubicle lights, had a strange sense of ceremony, seemed to be a final ritual marking the end of my days in that building. My coworkers were in meetings, or on vacation, or on their lunch breaks, so no one actually saw me leave, saw me walk down the long basement corridor to the outside world, carrying the last box of the things that have kept me company throughout my work life.

And the rain, the soft, gentle life-giving rain started to fall as I walked through the parking lot to my car. It’s not rained at my house for 5 weeks. The creeping phlox is crisp, the tomatoes, peppers and eggplants withered, the blueberries already shedding their toasted brown leaves for the winter. The rain felt like a blessing, a baptism welcoming me into my new life. But I know the rain really had nothing to do with any personal symbolism; it finally rained only because that evening, six of us would be transporting our harps through the rain to our first harp ensemble class of the semester. If our ensemble had started a month ago I’d still be enjoying fall tomatoes instead of pulling dried husks of vines out of the earth.

So much about retiring has felt like a giant leap of faith, an exhilarating leap into a new life and new adventures. Yesterday the leap become quite literal. While leaving the student services building at the community college, my bifocal-ed eyes did not see the edge of a gray terrace nor the 6-inch step to the gray sidewalk below. I stepped into nothingness, and flew in an ungraceful arc across the sidewalk, leaving most of the skin on my knees and elbows behind. The non-surgery knee took the worse hit and now looks more gruesome than any skinned knee I had as a child. The surgery knee has some minor scrapes and a couple of new bruises, but I think I avoided serious damage. I’ll see if the physical therapist concurs on Friday.

This falling, this stepping into nothingness and the resulting bumps and scrapes and bruises of this bit of my new adventures have brought me back down to earth.  Too painfully they are reminding me of the need to keep my head where my feet are, and not in some metaphorical swirling snow-globe that contains my future.  Ouch!


Approaching Retirement and Coming in for a Landing

I have three more days to go to work. I am pretty much dumbfounded by that concept. All the internal debating, considering, planning, and deciding is over, leaving only the doing. The logging off the computer, packing up my work tote bag, and stepping out of the door for the last time.

My coworkers gave me a retirement party yesterday afternoon. People I worked with and supervised over the past 20 years showed up, along with current co-workers and people from community agencies that I’ve regularly consulted with over the past 5 years. I’m not much of a party person – 8 people in a room is a crowd. But I really enjoyed seeing so many people from my past and present work life, and I appreciate that they went out of their way to help me celebrate and to say goodbye.

The party made retiring real to me. I really was saying goodbye to people, some that I’ve known for more than half my life. And I know how unlikely it is that we will stay in touch. Our connection is through our work, and not through any other aspects of our lives. These are good, hard-working, solid folks, who spend their lives doing thankless jobs trying to make the world a little better for people, and I am lucky to have known and worked with them.

People kept asking me yesterday what I had planned, did I have big trips in my future, what would I do without coming to work. I still don’t know what to say when asked that. In an earlier post I wrote that since deciding to retire, I felt like I was living in a snow globe, with the snow still swirling, and I didn’t know what the scene would turn out to be once the snow settled. The snow hasn’t settled yet. So all I can truthfully say, is that I’m going to go forth and live my life, without trying to fit 40 hours of work into it each week. And I’m pleased to know that I don’t want to leave the life I have here, unlike a coworker who intends to flee her life and rent a flat in the south of France when she retires next month.

I might want to do something like that eventually, might want to plug myself into another life in another land. I know I want to return to Ireland, and to visit Iona in Scotland, and now Cornwall is also calling to me. But I am content in my world. My friend Beth eagerly awaits my being able to play with her at her studio any day of the week. I love my weekly harp lesson, and my evening recorder ensemble class. Our harp ensemble starts meeting next week, so again I get to do battle with the sight-reading demons and in the process, make music with others. I’ve signed up for the yoga class I promised myself I would take as soon as I wasn’t working. My garden awaits my removing the heat and drought-tortured summer crops and planting the soil-building green manure, and garlic, and the winter’s worth of spinach, lettuce and arugula in my grow tunnels. Mornings are finally cooler, and perfect for walking the greenway with my dog and watching the day-by-day changes in the trees and the meadows as summer loses its grip and autumn takes hold. Fall crops are already coming in at my Saturday farmers’ market – how could I possibly miss Dane’s dinosaur kale, or Carl’s fall potatoes and red-cored chantenay carrots, or Jennifer’s late tomatoes, or Mindy’s lettuce and fresh eggs, her”Gifts from the Girls”?

No, this life, the one right here awaiting me,  is sweet, and good, and is spread out before me, waiting to be plunged into and savored, swirling snow and all.

Arranging a Tune, Arranging a life

I had the good fortune take a workshop on arranging traditional tunes with Janet Harbison at the Southeastern Harp Weekend in October 2008. I was so thrilled by being able to do harp things at the end of the 90 minute workshop that I couldn’t do when she started the class, that the following summer I attended Janet’s adults only SummerSchool at the Irish Harp Centre in Castleconnell, County Limerick, Ireland.

In both settings, Janet stressed that harpers do not need to learn to play other musicians’ arrangements of traditional tunes. Instead, if first one thoroughly learns the melody, then the spirit of the tune, along with the notes, can become part of one’s repertoire. Then accompaniment can be added, starting at whatever level of simplicity fits with one’s skills at that moment. By absorbing the spirit of the tune and then by doing one’s own arrangements, one can play beautiful and heartfelt renditions of traditional tunes, in a way that fits comfortably within one’s skill level.

And so, our adventures with arranging started with learning the melody. When the tune was completely and comfortably in our fingers, we added simple one-note left hand drones. Once comfortable with single notes, our left hands ventured into playing root position triads.  Once comfortable with the triads, we could vary how we played them. Each new left hand idea built on the previous one. Each new step was taken only when the first pattern was completely comfortable and automatic. Janet called this process “dressing a tune,” and instructed us that a harper will dress and re-dress a tune many times, as one’s skills at the harp develop and evolve. But through this process of dressing the tune, of creating one’s own arrangement, the tune becomes one’s own.

I find myself remembering Janet’s phrase, “dressing and re-dressing a tune,” as I near my retirement date. Now barely two weeks away, the approach of my last day at work is surprising me with new anxiety. I keep trying to reframe this anxiety, keep telling myself that anxiety is one way I am recognizing the impact and importance of this milestone and this change in my life.

The bottom line is, I’m still gobsmacked that I am going to retire in two weeks. Growing up during the era of nuclear bomb testing, fallout shelters, the Cuban missile crisis, the Cold War with its lurking Communist menace, and then the Vietnam War, I never really envisioned retirement as a truly possible event somewhere in my future. I’m still amazed daily that both I and the planet survived long enough for me to retire. And while I did hedge my bets on my certainty of planetary destruction by contributing to a retirement savings account, I never had a vision of what my retirement would be, what it could look like.

But today I am realizing that retirement means I can quit living my life by playing someone else’s arrangement, and I now can create my own. I can figure out how my life will be different when I am not squeezing everyone and everything I love into the little time that’s available after working 40 hours each week. I can consider and decide what I want the next hopefully many years of my life to be, to look like, to contain.

What do I want to experience? What do I want to learn? What do I want to accomplish?What do I want to contribute? What is the best possible use of my time? How do I want myself and my life to be different from today and from the years of my working life? Who and what do I want to invite into this new life I am embarking on? This is not the kind of retirement planning that financial advisors seem to advocate. But for me, it may be the only retirement planning that truly matters.

And so, today I am finding comfort in Janet’s words about dressing and re-dressing a tune. Just as with the tunes we arranged, my vision for retirement, for my life, does not have to be the ONE decision that I cling to forever. I can re-dress my life as often as I can re-dress a tune. I can add in more elements, more complexity, as I am ready. The arrangement can change. For now, all I need is to create a vision for a few essential elements: How do I want to wake up in the morning? What do I want my day to include? What do I want to cook and eat? When will I practice? How will I spend time with people I love?

This much I know: I want a morning that starts with coffee, breakfast and reading the morning paper. Then a walk with my dog, and harp practice. Not such a different selection of activities than in my mornings now.  Only instead of starting at 5 am and walking the dog by flashlight, so I can fit in an hour of practice and still get to work by 8, now there is the possibility of a more leisurely awakening, of waiting for the sun to come up before walking, of taking time to explore a tune on my harp and see what choices to dress the tune I like the most. For today, that vision will be enough, I hope.

Empty Walls

That the new year, and the resulting rush for new beginnings in the form of diets, exercise regimes, and other resolutions begins on January 1st is an accident of the calendar. Anyone who has lived through 12 years of elementary and secondary education in this country, plus any additional college or graduate school education, knows that the new year and it’s assorted new beginnings actually starts with the new school year.

Our school system jumps the Labor Day gun and starts today, in the still oppressively humid heat of August. Yellow busses were already clogging the morning streets with their trial runs. Today, busses are joined by cars of parents who drive their children, and of teenagers who drive themselves to school. My ten minute summer drive to work has morphed into a full 30 minutes behind the wheel. I get to listen to 20 more minutes of our classical music radio station, but lose 20 minutes of morning harp practice.

I am readying for my own new beginnings.  I will be retiring in 6 weeks. But before there can be new beginnings, there must be endings.  So today I started to clear off my cubicle walls and bulletin board. I’ve needed some tangible, exterior evidence of my upcoming changes and new beginnings to come. My soon-to-be blank walls and bulletin board will be a moment-by-moment reminder that this cubicle is no longer home, and that this place is no longer where I belong.

 I can best describe my work cubicle as a three-dimensional collage that I step into every morning. African violets are blooming under the always-on fluorescent lights. Rocks and crystals brought to me from friends’ trips across the world are strewn on my file cabinet. A collection of stuffed polar bear toys given to me by coworkers sit on a shelf above my computer monitor. Framed photos of past and present dogs and cats cover a corner of my desk. And every vertical surface is papered with thirty years of assorted cartoons, quotes, pictures of polar bears, poems, photographs of my favorite places, Dilbert and Non Sequitur cartoons, and the best of what gets passed around on the internet. All of these scraps of paper have helped me laugh, stay sane, and remember what is important, throughout a career that was too often deadly serious, surreal, and in these last months, inane.

I’m taping all these relics of my working life into their very own journal. In my new life, whatever it may be, I don’t think I’ll need to see them every day. Nor do I have a place to put them.  But neither am I ready to toss my paper companions into the recycling bin. These little scraps of paper have traveled with me from office to office and job to job for far too long to abandon them now. They are tattered and worn, with frayed edges, yellowed tape and multiple push-pin holes documenting their many moves. All still hold memories, and some bit of wisdom that helped me survive and thrive through all my years of working in public mental health programs.

These are my three favorite wall quotes that I’ve taped into the new journal. From Idi Amin, the former military dictator and President of Uganda:    “Sometimes people mistake the way I talk for what I am thinking.”

From the actor Peter Ustinov:  “I regard myself as an optimist. An optimist is a person who knows how sad a place the world can be. The pessimist is one who is forever finding out.”

And finally, one last bit of wisdom, the paper yellowed and frayed from its many moves, from the journal Zero to Three:

“What has become critical to me occurs in the moment of interaction. It is more important to entertain the questions, “Were you kind, compassionate, and honest in that moment of interaction? Are you respected for being a decent human being, one-on-one?” These are fundamental to the relationships we have with one another. . .”

None of this wisdom was to be found in any of the management or organizational development fads I survived. Over the course of my career I’ve been stalked by One-Minute Managers, sat through endless Quality Circles, had my Total Quality assessed, and my work improved by Process Improvement Teams. I’ve searched for Who Moved My Cheese, caught fish toys from the Pike’s Place Fish Market, worked with no direction on Self-Directed Work teams, and been Managed for Results. No one, from any of these methods of organization development, could manage to simply say what these three pieces of paper have reminded me for the last thirty years:  Say what you mean and mean what you say. Stay hopeful despite all the sadness in the world. At the end of the day, look in the mirror and ask yourself, “Was I a decent human being today?”

I wish I could draw some unique and witty conclusion from these reflections, wish that I could sum up what my work means to me now, as I prepare to leave it.  Instead, my brain feels about as blank as the walls I am emptying. And I wonder, after I walk out of these doors for the last time, how will I be remembered? Did I say what was in my heart? Did I do what I said I would do? Did I help someone find hope in the midst of darkness?  Will I be remembered as a kind, compassionate, honest, and decent human being? Will the lives I’ve touched be better off for my having touched them?