In Splendid Retirement by Miriam Sagan

“Retirement”—The First 9 Months

When I retired from my creative writing job at Santa Fe Community College last December, I made some firm statements about my plans. Those who know me well, however, will attest that I always sound definite even as I’m changing my mind. I said I would not:

1. Do home repair
2. Improve my fitness
3. Concentrate more on writing

That is, I wash’t retiring to focus on improving myself or anything else. I said I wanted

1. Adventure
2. To learn something
3. To understand death more

And, privately, I told myself to

1. Keep everything that was working
2. Add to that

I also wanted something contemplative, but I couldn’t explain what. I had started to think of myself as needing to be more of a “forest dweller.” In the Hindu approach, there are four life stages:
1. Student (check)
2. Householder (check)
3. Forest Dweller
4. Renunciate.
But what IS forest dweller? Me in my garden? Me and husband Rich in an RV? It needed exploring.

Some unexpected things happened. I’d decided to retire in August, 2016. By the following January, when the time came—

1. Donald Trump was president
2. My mother had died (so no more care taking or commuting)
3. Rich started to work “seasonally”—about half the year, with lots of overtime during that period.

So—what happened?

Well, I did do some home repair. I now have a pretty red concrete pathway and some hardscaping in my front yard. However, no new kitchen cabinets or much of anything else. I have been to one stretch class and 1/2 a zumba class—so I really haven’t improved my fitness. I’m writing per usual—emphasis on usual.
So I count this as—negative—goals met.

As to adventure…I’ve seen the total eclipse of the sun, the love fest of Twin Oaks commune’s fiftieth anniversary, the solitude of two weeks in a campground in Hot Springs, Arkansas National Park, and eaten the Chinese food of Vancouver.
I marched on Washington. I took a non-violence class. I had a rifle lesson. I lobbied at the Roundhouse.
I’m still learning to use a “real” camera, do suminagashi, monoprint, geocache, and install poetry text. And I’ve learned to knit a hat.
I’ve been working in hospice and teaching writing in that context.
And, I’ll be going to Japan.

However, I don’t really feel satisfied. That’s probably just because I never am. Should I be studying more in a formal context? Should some challenges be more physical (old and crippled as I am)? Or maybe I should learn ancient Greek. Should could would maybe…

I took poster board and mapped out everything I was doing. And perhaps more important—everything that feeds me. It says: solitude, community, love, literature, nature and more. It says “Investigation.”

I joined a Torah study group. The combination of prayer, study, and community has been challenging…yet elevating. It’s the Days of Awe. I could meditate more. I could write in my journal more. I could…

Go with the flow and see what happens. Ask each day what it wants from me. A few years ago I had an enjoyable practice: I gave each day a theme. It might be teaching or beauty or fiscal responsibility or fun or friendship.

I love my To Do lists. I found one from my teenage years that listed “tampax” and “Pablo Neruda.” That pretty much summarizes my approach to life. My current list has some mystery items on it. It says Detroit? and Start “Mosaic.” It says Chrysanthemums and Go to Ohio.

I’m on my way…to something or other…

So What Is The Right Ending? In The House of God–final piece

Thank you so so much, readers of this blog and on Facebook, for all the comments and support of the piece I’ve been posting about my illness and hospitalization.
I’m not sure exactly where it ends. I like the sense of closure at the end of section four. My friend Kath said, somewhat disconcertingly, that even at the end nothing had changed. I was still trying to get help and failing. And in many ways that was true. Whatever was going to change was going to take years.
However, there is a short section more, which I’m posting here. I’m feeling the narrative stands by itself, but it is also part of a much longer piece I’m working on, hopefully book-length.

***

The next day I was discharged. I had been released into my parent’s care. I had fought the doctors on this, but they had insisted it was either a nursing home or New Jersey. I couldn’t fly home because of my lungs. My father said he’d drive me. I put on the purple embroidered shirt and my own underwear. The little ring of enamel flowers, though, was sadly lost forever.
That first night out we stayed at the Copley Plaza, where my parents had been married, to rest up for the drive. I had my own room. My dad let me invite my boyfriend for room service dinner. We shared an avocado stuffed with crabmeat and each ate a steak. I caught a glimpse of us making love in a mirrored wardrobe. I looked terrifying, like a barely developed teenager. A violent red scar with railroad track cross hatchings burned across my torso.
A few hours before, I’d been anxious, getting out of the cab and having to cross the lobby of the hotel.
“What will people think when they see me?” I asked my father. I was also afraid someone would bump into my painful right side.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “No one will know what has happened to you. You just look like you’ve had a mental breakdown.”
At the time, distressed as I was, I found this re-assuring. Although now that my father is dead, forty years later, I like his response less. Why was a mental breakdown somehow more acceptable than almost dying? Was it something he expected of me-—mental collapse? It was the start of my parent’s total refusal to ever discuss my illness and surgery. And yet at that moment I just wished that he would also say he was sorry about what had happened to me.
However, it is obvious now that my father did indeed save my life. And that I never thanked him. I’m not sure he felt thanks were due—-he was my father after all, and in his own way committed to that role.
A few years ago, I had the startling realization that although my experience in the B.I. was of being traumatized and tortured, that was not the doctors and nurses intent at all. I understood quite vividly, and for the first time, that to them I was a desperately ill young person—someone’s child—who they would try and save. As a result, I wrote the B.I. an anonymous letter thanking them. I enclosed $36.00 in cash. In Jewish mysticism, the number 18 stands for chai, or life. Charity is often given in “double chai” or amounts of thirty-six. It is spiritually efficacious for both giver and receiver.
And the time has also come for me to say the same thing to my father. Thank you.

Stella Reed on her Mother’s Death–actually a meeting with a remarkable poet

My mother self-published her first poetry chapbook about twenty years ago, before it was a popular thing to do. She’d been raised on Dickenson and Frost and it was her foundational belief that poetry needed to rhyme. She was not a “remarkable poet” but she loved poetry and she paid attention, particularly to what she found beautiful. Writing for her was a hobby, never seen as a possible vocation. When she was in her sixties she joined a local poetry society. Occasionally she would share with me by mail the poems that she had written for the society’s get-togethers and sometimes the poems that others brought to the table. She taught me that poetry creates community. That creativity connects you to something larger than yourself.
For the past few years she has been speech aphasic with a touch of dementia. She always knew my sisters or I when we arrived at the home to visit, but she couldn’t express what she was thinking and feeling. This frustrated all involved, but especially her. Most days she would be lucky to speak one fully formed, sensible sentence. That’s why I found it significant when I came across this untitled poem while looking through her papers. By the handwriting I’m guessing she wrote it about ten years ago.

Once you imagine a word is a cloud unseen
that somehow connects you to where you have been
a few wingbeats ago,
or to a noplace where you must go because it is a place you don’t yet know,

You scribble more clouds of music
misty with dew
a quiet river becoming a pool
of deepest blue

And though the clouds intend
elsewise you will swim
to the stars reflected there
when you reach days end.

Word clouds. My mother always had her head in the clouds, even while she loved the earth beneath her feet. When I read this I thought that this place, with its misty music, its rivers and pools, was very much where she had been living, internally, for the past few years.
I received a call last week that Mom was in the process of dying. I flew to upstate NY to join my sister and be with our mother if possible, hoping she would hang on until we arrived. When I got to my sister’s house we discovered that a solitary white swan had made a temporary home on the pond on her property. Three times I attempted to photograph it. But it was elusive. On the last try I was rewarded with a photo of it as it lifted away from me, massive wings stretched above the water, graceful neck thrust forward.
I spent six days at my sister’s house. Each morning when I woke I would use binoculars to scan the pond for the swan. Every morning it was there…until the day I was to return home. When, on the last day, I couldn’t catch sight of it I felt anxious. Its presence had become part of the routine that had made the vigil at my mother’s bedside bearable. Mom died that afternoon just hours before my scheduled flight. I held her hand and watched as the wingbeats, the waiting stars, the noplace she had to get to, all came together in her final breaths. Her death, like her life, was a poem. Simply remarkable.