Treasured classic or old chestnut? Writer or dabbler?

yin-yangThere are some most interesting dichotomies that you have to deal with when you retire I’m discovering.   Okay – I’m using the term “discovering” very loosely, the way we might use it when we talk about who “discovered” America or who first “discovered” that you could make comments to The Huffington Post or who was the first to “discover” how fabulous Barack Obama is (by the way, only 12 more days to inauguration).  It isn’t that these things (and  people and places) weren’t already there and  inhabited/noted by many people; it’s that I’m stumbling upon them for the first time and so they seem quite new to me.  Thank goodness for the comments and support that I get from some of you who made these “discoveries” already and are willing to share.  Anyhow, back to those dichotomies.

David and I have developed a lovely New Year’s Eve tradition; we go to a movie at around 5 p.m. and then come home, light lots of candles, open a good bottle of wine (this year that means a delicious Malbec of course), lay out a repast fit for the night (this year it included caviar, fig spread, dulce de leche, crackers, little yellow tomatoes, good cheeses …. followed later by a wee grilled steak to remind us of Buenos Aires… and we settle into watching TV.  We’d taped the Kennedy Centre Honors the night before and of course there was a special concert Live from Lincoln Centre and finally the “dropping of the ball” in Times Square … this year with assistance from Hillary and Bill Clinton (notice the order in which they’re cited these days).  The Lincoln Centre concert featured Lorin Maazel who was conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra on New Year’s Eve for the last time before moving on to a new position.   He’d put together what he called “a glamorous evening of opera favorites”.  As piece after piece was performed, and each one was quite familiar to us, David commented that these were the “old chestnuts”.  Always interested in language, I looked up the actual meaning of that phrase and here’s what I found:  a subject, idea, or joke which has been discussed or repeated so many times that it is not interesting or funny any more.  Hold on a minute!  These may have been “old” songs.  They were indeed pieces of music we’d heard many times before and we could hum along to most of them … even knew the words to some.  That doesn’t mean they aren’t valued any more.  They are.  They are classics, and they’re treasured.  I guess I responded so strongly to this whole notion because I’m feeling my age a bit these days (did a couple hours of Sacred Circle dancing yesterday morning and my knees are still hurting).  So the first point I want to make here is this:  just because something’s been around for a long time and is comfortably familiar doesn’t mean there’s any loss of value.  The music we listened to on New Year’s Eve was – just as we are – treasured classics.  Point clear?  That’s one of the dichotomies I’ve been thinking about.  David agrees by the way; he’s definitely one of the finer examples of treasured classic!   Here it is then, Lesson #6:  Take the time to really treasure the things that have enriched your life;  as Abraham Lincoln said:   it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.

The other dichotomy arises from something that Fran said in her comment made in response to my posting on November 10th – Okay … So I was warned about this.   Among other wise things she said (and I can tell you that for sure, over the years, my big sister has said many, many wise things to me) these words struck directly to my heart:  “… ‘artist’ is never accepted as work and when people ask you “and what do you do”, the response “I’m a glass artist” usually draws a “how nice to keep busy” comment. You’ll have the same kind of response many times. People are really asking what you did in the past that qualifies you for a serious discussion.”    You see,  lately I have been spending more and more time writing and actually starting to see myself as “a writer”, and that’s where dichotomy #2 pops up.  Let me explain.

I’ve always seen myself – at least for the past 30 or so years – as an educator – whether standing in front of a classroom, at the podium in a lecture hall, or leading a consultation.  I’ve seen myself as a “go-to” person; somebody that you go to when you need information, when you need help solving a problem, when you need to know more.  And now I’m starting to redefine myself and I think that’s a very good thing.  “How is that going?”  you might ask.

I am finding that, one way or another, I’m spending a great deal of my time writing.  I’ve given myself permission to do what I love to do – to write.   Writing this blog.  Writing a keynote address I’ll be giving in February which has had me very concerned … I know that I have something important to say; well, not so much that I have anything new and important to say …  it’s that I think I may be able to communicate something important that’s grown out of all of my past experiences.  What I’ve done and what I’ve thought about, in education, for the past 30 years … that’s something … right?  I’m also doing some writing for education journals, trying to share what I think are some of the mistakes we’ve made in the past 10 years and how I think we need to be moving forward in a somewhat different direction.  I write letters to editors in various places to criticize the biased reporting that is being passed off as news.  I write comments in other people’s blogs (as some of you do …. and thanks for that!).  I’m writing … because that’s what I love to do and … because … hesitantly, hesitantly … I’m a writer.  There, I’ve said it!!

My days are starting to have a rhythm to them.  I wake up at around 6:30 in the morning – happy and rested and peaceful – and my sweet David brings me coffee and toast (the toast spread with a thin layer of Dulce de Leche brought back from Argentina).  laptop-tray4Along with that lovely morning repast David also brings me – before he leaves for work – my laptop and a newspaper.  (Those of you who have e-mailed me asking whether or not I would consider cloning David … well, I asked him about that and he declined.  Sorry. My brother-in-law Ed is a good candidate for cloning too I think!)  We’ve got an extra power cord for the laptop so that I can work a little longer in bed in the morning, and a little wooden laptop tray that enables  me to write in bed without losing all sensation in my legs.  I generally have one of the network morning shows on TV in the background (keeping one ear on the news of the day).  The next two to three hours are spent joyfully writing.  That done, it’s usually time to get dressed and head to the gym for some exercise and a shower.  By the time I get home again, having run an errand or two along the way, it’s likely about 1:30 in the afternoon.  Then I start thinking about other things I want to get done.

Here’s the thing.  When people ask me “what are you doing with yourself these days?” I know that they’re implying that now that I’m not working at a job I must be just passing time, finding things to do to keep me occupied.  In fact, often that’s the question they ask straight out:  “What are you doing to keep busy?”  More and more my response is that I’m writing.  And that’s where Fran’s words float back into my consciousness.  The inquisitor (that’s how I’m starting to “see” folks who ask the “what are you doing to keep busy” questions) hears my response, nods her/his head slowly, let’s a little smile (forced) cross his/her face, and says something just short of “that’s nice dear”.  I feel their eyes patting me on the head!  Do you remember the movie Annie Hall and that great scene when we can hear them talking and see – displayed in text – what’s unspoken?   Well, here’s what the script for that scene  in my life might look like:

INQUISITOR:  Hi Sylvia.  Haven’t seen you for a while.  You look so relaxed and rested; retirement agrees with you.  (unspoken text (UT):  Must be nice not to have to go to work every day and spend the days just lazing around … probably sleeping in late and not even getting up until noon.)

ME:  It does indeed.  (UT:  I think I love being retired and I’m sorry that you still have to work.)

INQUISITOR:  So, what have you been doing to keep busy? (UT:  Sleeping in, being lazy … what a change from the days when you were actually productive.  Bit of a drain on the economy now, aren’t you?  Not contributing much.)

ME:  I spend a lot of time writing and beyond that I’m exploring a range of possible things I  might commit some time to.  (UT:  And very little time, thank goodness, having to respond to questions that aren’t worth much time.  Hhmm … this conversation might make a good piece in a posting.)

INQUISITOR:  Really?  That’s nice; you’ve always liked writing.  (UT:  She’s keeping a journal, how sweet.  Too bad she’s not writing anything important any more.)

I’m guessing you catch my drift by now.  The thing is that not only do I feel that I’m being de-valued with these interactions – as if writing isn’t legitimate – but I have also noted that I’m frequently fielding requests for doing “this” or “that” (as in … “could you pick something up for me at the health food store tomorrow … you’ll have lots of time”) as if the writing is just something that I’m filling time with unless there’s something more important to do.  The thing is that I can’t really blame anyone for making me feel like I should be available to meet the needs of others more and that I’m being selfish setting aside so much time to write.  I think it’s my own guilt – as I continue to work through this transition time – that’s rearing its ugly head. 

I’m going to have to keep cultivating this new identity and try to remember Lesson #7:  Honour the importance of what I’m now choosing to do.  What has always been of paramount importance to me is the sense that what I do is making a difference.  Not sure if my writing does that or not.  Maybe you – whom I fondly refer to as “my readers”  can help me with the answer to that.

P.S.  I know that I have some things to say.  I’ve been spending hours and hours in the past days thinking about my February keynote address – in a little bit of panic because the landscape of possibilities about what to talk about is so vast.  I’ve decided one thing for sure:   I’m not going to prepare Powerpoint slides.  Nope.  I don’t need to provide them with the “jist” of what I want to say in a set of no more than 3 points per slide .. plus amazing graphics.  No sirree Bob! (By the way, who is Bob?)  Got to put value to this capacity.  I’m just going to tell a story with no specific points at all.  I’ll let you know how it goes.  Undoubtedly just announcing that “I didn’t prepare a Powerpoint presentation” will raise a stir.

ANTARCTICA JOURNAL EXCERPT:  December 15th, Hydruga Rocks and Cierva Cove

antarctic_for_jan8Today dawned bright and beautiful.  Even before breakfast we had our first landing, at a spot that is rarely seen on Antarctic expeditions because you need near-perfect conditions for a landing.  Only 2 of the expedition leaders had even been here.  We had to go over in 2 shifts so half of us visited the site while the other half did a zodiac cruise among the icebergs.  It was quite a long walk up and over a hill, feet once again often sinking into the deep snow … unless you were lucky enough to find somebody else’s footprints to step into and even then you might be surprised by a sudden “thunk” drop into the depths.  There were several rookeries of chinstrap penguins on the island and some amazing views.  A Weddell seal lay basking near the landing spot.

We were back on-board for breakfast by 8:30 and then, after sailing for a couple of hours, we went for another long zodiac cruise through a sea filled with icebergs, from mammoth ones (300 metres iceberg_group3long, 800 metres high) to small pieces of brash ice.  John Harrison (author of Where The Earth Ends) was piloting our zodiac and he fished a 50 lb piece of ice out of the water.  It was absolutely clear because it was pure ice; most of the air had already been released and only frozen water remained.  He broke off a 5 lb piece and we all passed it around, nibbling on its edges for a taste.  I can hardly describe the incredible beauty of that ice field; the shapes could easily have been designed by Picasso and the colours of blue that shone luminescently from deep within the ice brought tears to my eyes.  It was as if I was travelling through a magical place where nature presented her masterpieces in much the way I’d offer some baked delight to my children.  John told us that last year an American artist had been here making casts of some of the floating ice so that he could then go home and reproduce them in glass.  I must write John and get the name of that artist. 

The highlight of this landing was definitely the photo I took of a napping juvenile leopard seal.  We’d found her (Meghan, one of our expedition leaders is a penguin expert and gave us this vital information) stretched out in the sunshine.  When I first saw her she was stretching and yawning.  Then she’d wriggle about a bit, toss a flipper around, and fall back into her nap.  good-seal1 I wanted to capture the image of that young seal yawning so I decided I’d just wait for a few minutes until she yawned again.  Meghan commented that it would likely happen in a 20-minute cycle of napping and stretching.  So I waited.  20 minutes passed.  As I was distracted by the sound of an iceberg “calfing” (breaking apart) that little seal yawned, wiggled, and feel back into dreamland … without my capturing any of it on my camera.  So, it was another 20 minute wait, this time without taking my eyes off that seal. David sweetly waited there with me.  Remember, we’re on the Antarctic continent.  It’s cold.  Standing still makes it colder.  Sitting on the snow while you wait makes it even colder.  But I knew what I wanted and I wanted to wait.  And wait.  It took me a little over 40 minutes to get the photo I wanted.

After this blissful cruise we returned to the ship for lunch and moving on to our next landing spot.  That “just another bunch of penguins” feeling arose for the first time, making me think that my choice of taking a 10-day tour was likely just about right.  I remember when I was on safari in Africa being incredibly excited by the first giraffe that I saw and then, after a couple of weeks, I hardly even noticed the giraffe anymore.  This is something that I think we all need to be cautious about in our lives … not letting our excitement or sense of wonder be diminished by familiarity. 

We got back to the ship in time for a shower and some relaxation before dinner.  We gathered in the Observation Lounge with our new friends Ed  (a surveyor) and Donna  (an entrepreneur – both from Melbourne, Australia) and Walter (a historian) and Charlottte  (a musician) from Illinois.  Over a bottle of white wine we talked about all we were experiencing and how it fit into the rest of our life experiences.   We had one more day of real exploration in the Antarctic before we’d be heading back to open seas.  With a mixture of excitement for the adventure ahead and trepidation – also for the adventure ahead – we had our dinner and then attended a lecture on the geology of Antarctica.  Another fabulous day draws to a close.   I’m learning more about holding onto the tension of excitement/trepidation, comfort/discomfort, light/dark.  Good lessons I think.


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