Some time ago, in early October before I actually retired, I worried about what might happen if I slid into a blue funk and didn’t have the distraction of work to pull me back into a brighter, lighter place. Well, two weeks into retirement my worries have proven to be well-founded. This isn’t a pretty tale, but let me share it with you because I think there’s something important for me to remember and to learn from the past few days.
David and I travelled to California recently to celebrate Obama’s victory with my sister and brother-in-law. We spent a lovely evening cheering and drinking champagne as we felt hope return to America. Then we had a lovely couple of days journey from LA to San Francisco, stopping along the way to spend some time with David’s Aunt Boots and Uncle Danny. They are the most incredible people; both in their 80s and still vitally involved in living. They volunteer as docents at the San Luis Obispo Art Centre (where there’s currently an exhibit of Sebastian Copeland’s photographs of Antarctica), they’re politically involved, they take walks along the beach to check out the elephant seals, they read … they are truly role models for successful retirement (having both done that some years ago) and for growing old with dignity and grace. I adore them both. The next day we completed our journey up the Pacific Coast highway and finally arrived in San Francisco. We checked into our hotel and then headed out for a good meal. And that’s when the tides came in! It was a category five emotional storm for sure. The details of what transpired aren’t so important. The cold feeling it left in my soul, however, was definitely tantamount to the frigid temperatures of Antarctica (where we’re heading on December 5th)! Sufficient to say that both David and I were struggling with some significant issues while we were in San Francisco.
The plot thickens. On Friday, November 7th we got up early to take the tram across town to a synagogue where I could say kaddish for my father; this is a Jewish tradition of recognizing the day of a parent’s death. My father was never very happy that he had 4 daughters (to say the least), but numerous times as I was growing up he made me promise that I’d say kaddish for him when he died and so I was following through on that promise. Afterwards David’s plan was to go for a run and make arrangements to see his daughter and mine was to travel back to the hotel and amuse myself for the day – not a difficult thing to do in a city as interesting as San Francisco. I rode the tram back – an hour’s journey – and went for breakfast. Part way through eating breakfast I felt my breakfast start to make a return journey and after telling the waiter “I’d be right back” managed to get to the washroom before throwing up. I went back to the hotel after that, thinking that if I could just take a nap – having not slept well the night before – I’d be ready to join Fran and Ed by lunchtime. Just as I was falling asleep David returned from his run, planning to shower and then head out for lunch. He took his shower, and then … the bathroom door was stuck. Really and truly stuck. He was actually locked into that little wee bathroom. We tried to get the door open, no luck. I called down to the concierge and they sent Pedro up with his stack of tools and determination. After a full 45 minutes of hammering and banging – and just as I was starting to have images of firefighters arriving and breaking down the door with axes – he did finally manage to get the doorknob off – a moment which wasn’t necessarily so comforting for David who was still huddled in the bathroom wrapped in a towel and watching the doorknob on his side fall to the ground. A little more work and – presto – the door was opened. By this time I was feeling utterly miserable; still nauseous and now incubating a migraine as well. And that was the good part of the day!
Saturday was a relatively pleasant day; we hiked in the Jack London forest, had a great dinner in an Italian restaurant and attempted to get a reasonable night’s rest although that’s always a challenge when something is weighing heavily on my spirit.
We had to get up at 4 a.m. for our flight home on Sunday. Sounds like it couldn’t get much worse doesn’t it? Not so. We still had to face a long journey home, including over an hour to cross the US-Canada border since we’ve been thrifty and flown out of the Buffalo airport which is an hour and half drive from Toronto at the best of times. When we finally did get home there was only one thing on my mind; get into bed, pull the blankets up over my head, and sleep. Have I told you that we have an absolutely lovely dog, Isis? David’s daughter Leora often dog-sits for us when we’re travelling; she is a very competent young woman who takes fabulous care of Isis and our home. I’m not sure if it was Isis feeling sad when Leora left to return to her own apartment that day, or just the luck of the draw, but in the time between when Leora left and we arrived Isis had managed to throw up all over the house. On the bed; right through the duvet cover. On the futon. On the floor. On the stairs. This was one thing more than I could bear and it catapulted me into hours of utter despair as David did his best to get disgusting linens into the washing machine and I hunted for clean bedding and carpet clearning materials. Finally, late late late on Sunday night, sleep came inching along.
Monday morning I woke to the remnants of a headache and a sore throat. I was retired; this was supposed to be fun! I wanted, more than anything, to spend the day wallowing in self-pity pudding. Not to be! I teach a graduate course on Social Justice in Education on Monday nights and my students had submitted major pieces of work during the week I’d been away. Instead of dissembling under a mound of blankets I had papers to mark, a class to prepare, e-mails to answer. I dragged myself through all of this, concerned that I’d never make it through the first half hour of class without bursting into tears of exhaustion. On the drive to the university I was still fretting about my ability to function and then I arrived in class.
Something akin to magic followed. I’d already been somewhat bouyed by reading my students reflections on how what they were learning in the course was changing their view of the world and their place in it. Once the class began it was as if all of the pain and adversity of the previous few days just melted away. The vituperative aura that had hung over me dissipated. I felt validated and valuable. I felt that I had a contribution to make and a positive role to play. For days I’d been feeling like the legendary wicked witch of the west; evil reincarnate. Have you ever felt like that? Have you ever had a moment or two – or more – of feeling that nothing you’ve ever done was done well and that nothing you’d set out to accomplish had amounted to anything? The funny thing is that work is one of the ways that, if we’re lucky (and I often have been) we get validated. Sure, work is a much easier undertaking than parenting; the hours are shorter, the requirements more clearly defined, the feedback loop is more consistent, and the goals are more clearly defined. Nonetheless, work can be an antidote to the sense of failure that those of us who are parents all feel from time to time.
So I’ve learned something important through this painful exercise. I need to make sure that I always have some sort of meaningful work to do. How I define that will change over time I’m sure. There are many ideas that I’m going to explore over the next month or so – and if you don’t mind I’ll run them by you for your advice and suggestions.