Wednesday, January 25, 2012

On Retirement III

“You’re retired! You should love what you do.”

That’s what the coordinator for the snack bar volunteers at the AMTRAK station in Hudson told me.

An acquaintance roped me into becoming a snack bar volunteer late last fall, right after I retired from Bard College. She needed someone to cover for her while she went off to Florida for six months. I figured it was a worthy cause, I’d enjoy the interaction with the public, and who knows whom I might meet   . . .

I did enjoy the public interaction, but that was the only thing about the gig that I liked, and during my hours there was seldom any public to interact with. In the meantime, my trainer, the lady on her way to Florida, was a grump, and I counted the money wrong the first time I did it by myself because I have some skills in communication but none in arithmetic.

Further, the Florida lady’s time slot was alternate Sunday evenings, which led to the self-discovery that I did not want to give up a Sunday evening to, basically, commerce. If I’m not seeing friends of a Sunday, then I’m home chilling with the dog, immersed in the Times, gearing up for the coming week, that kind of thing.

Finally, the snack bar supports the Hudson Day Care Center, which is a worthy cause, but it’s not my worthy cause. I have several such causes; I need to focus on them.

The grumpy lady was tootling down to Florida by the time I figured all this out. I prepared to call to the coordinator of volunteers, a woman I barely knew. I made some notes, saying some of the above in a kinder way. Nervous, guilty, I dialed; I had resigned from jobs before, knowing my employer would survive; I could do this.

I barely got through #1 on my list before the coordinator interrupted me.

You’re retired! she said. You should love what you do.

Well, I said. Yes.

She had the staffing challenge and my guilt problem solved in less than five minutes. I loved her. I would have done anything for her. But I didn’t have to.

Do I now love everything I do? No. Oneathesedays, when I have a free moment, I will print out that phrase in a nice big font and hang it above my desk. Still, I’m getting there, learning to say no, to worthy causes and even to part-time jobs I don’t have time for.

Should I turn down any job? Who do I think I am?

The other night we got a couple of inches of snow, nuisance snow because it comes with all the shoveling and slippery roads but none of the fun. For freelancers, I’m learning, there are nuisance jobs, perfectly commendable work that pays, not much, and still requires focused attention, good writing, and research, as if it paid a lot. I could fill a five-day workweek with little jobs and then scramble, shifting things around nights and weekends, when a big job came in.

I really could do this.

But I wouldn’t love it.

All this is code for saying that I’m going out of the press-release writing business.

Next: Why I bailed out on a worthy cause that I loved.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Now winter comes slowly . . . *

Atop the tree
Every year I tell myself that I’ll take down the Christmas tree by Martin Luther King Day. Setting a goal doesn’t mean I succeed; more than once the tree has come down on St. Patrick’s Day, despite the silent disapproval I feel from the cleaning lady (how lazy can she get) and from Dan, the firefighter’s son.
Neither of them understands how I feel about the Christmas tree. It’s a plant, a living thing, and each Christmas I declare that year’s tree the most beautiful I’ve ever had. I water it and become fond of it. Dark January mornings, its red chili pepper lights warm me. In Claverack, where I lived on one floor, the tree glowed next to the desk where I wrote before sunrise.  

To discard the tree into the cold seems cruel, to cut its branches off and use them to cover the garden, as I know I should, feels barbaric. 
This year, I steeled myself. Although this tree is so special, with its long, soft needles, one of only a half-dozen like this that the tree farm grew, I don’t want to be a sentimental old lady, so on a bright, frigid Sunday, a few hours before the annual Martin Luther King service in Hudson, I got the boxes down from the attic and put on Sting’s If on a Winter’s Night. I would just take the ornaments off; I’d leave the lights on, the tree up for a few days more. I’ve heard Winter’s Night called solemn and gloomy, but it suited me perfectly. 
My tree is never taller than I am, so that I can handle it by myself, and I can tell you the provenance of every ornament I put on it. This year I had particular affection for them as I decorated the tree (to Bach’s cheerful Adventskantaten), probably because I’ve been writing this blog, thinking more about Dan. Each ornament carries a memory, and the Christmases I remember are those I spent with Dan. 
As New Yorkers, we were automatically considered the itinerant relatives, but we always had our own tree, and I remember one year in particular when a combination of car trouble and bad weather kept us in the city. With our across-the-hall neighbor V. we created a delicious Christmas Eve dinner. Our downstairs neighbor G. joined the three of us for Midnight Mass at the Episcopal church around the corner. The three of them groused about the service, but I loved it, and I still feel that we all loved that serendipitous Christmas. 
Dan and I had to make up the time later with family, but family was fun too—watching the younger generation grow, our parents still active, years of cross-country skiing together (that freezing afternoon at Hildene) . . . 
No. Joy only, no regret. 
If the ornaments make me sad, I should give them away, get new ones. 
I won’t do that. 
Bambi stays out all year
These days I spend Christmas as we did that one happy year in New York—meals with friends, special services at church. What’s missing is Dan; this is becoming tiresome, Sweetie, I said to him in December, not easier but harder each year to make my own Christmas. A. travels at Christmas now, determined not to be home, but I’m not there yet, with still enough here to keep me by my tree. 

*Thomas Betterton

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

On Retirement II

Thinking about retirement again, what I thought would happen vs. what has happened so far:
I write more, but not enough (see November 21, 2011 post).
I read more books, (cf. 11/21/11), at the expense of newspapers and magazines. On December 28, 2011, Terry Gross (Fresh Air) reran her October interview with David Carr, who writes for the New York Times. By the time Fresh Air comes on in the evening I am fatigued with a day of words and in need of music, but Carr is an interesting man, so I listened, and what I took from him was that if you work in media you can’t just “put it out,” you have to “consume” it, too. Those were his words, "put out," and "consume." I dislike calling people consumers, but I know what he means: in essence, if you write, you have to read. Everything.
A wise poet pointed out years ago that I was making a futile attempt to live the entire spectrum of my life each individual day: writing, work, exercise, reading, music, friends, etc. Yup, that’s me, decades later the only change is to add "dog" to the list. (The poet mostly wrote, taught to earn a living, ignored family, never exercised, and became a household name.)
Third on my Retirement Concepts list was freelance editing. Planning my retirement from Bard College, I knew I would need some live income, and I do, but I had no idea how often, and how completely, freelance editing could and would take over my life. I have been pretty successful on this front, to the detriment of my writing. 
What to do? I am extremely fortunate that a handful of businesses and institutions want me to help them with their written materials. Note handful; if I were truly supporting myself with freelance work, I would be dining on chicken broth and falling behind on my property taxes. 
I know freelancers who live just this side of welfare. I earn enough to live comfortably in Hudson, N.Y. I don’t earn enough to travel a lot, but that’s OK, I didn’t retire to travel, I retired not to go to work every day. 
But I do go to work, almost every day. I have deadlines, which make me nervous. When the alarm rings at 5:30 a.m. I may worry about how much I have to do that day. 
Still, I work at home now, which is a huge benefit, and I get outdoors more, which makes me happy. I noticed that immediately, the first weeks after I left Bard, when I did voter canvassing in Hudson. The November days were overcast, cold, and blustery; I walked around with the election materials for hours at a time, seldom encountering anyone who was glad to see me, and I was so happy
What a life!
Then came December, and January, with so much snow that my kind young neighbor put himself and his single-digit daughters to work helping me clear my twelve-foot “driveway.” But I didn’t have to worry about it, about clearing snow and getting to work on time, and I was so happy. If I were to do a “best of” my months of retirement so far, it would be January 2011, when most days I wrote my blog and then went snowshoeing. What a life!
These days, I am unable to turn down almost all work that is offered to me. 
It’s the fear of scarcity. I am a team of one. Make a mistake and there’s no Dan to roll his eyes and pay off the credit card, no Mom to make a quick loan. Yes, I have savings, but that’s toward a new car, or to tide me over during ill health. 
Next: “You’re retired. You should love what you do.”

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Happy New Year

Every New Year’s Day I visit the cemetery at Zen Mountain Monastery in Mt. Tremper, New York, where Dan’s ashes are buried. It’s a perfect way to start the year. 
The cemetery is small, about two-dozen wooden markers in a grove of pines that soar to the sky—utterly beautiful and completely peaceful. How happy I was to discover it when I was planning Dan’s funeral—the most wonderful place I had been in months. You can hear, in the distance, the sound of traffic on Route 28, and that’s perfect too; Buddhists are very much part of this world.
This year I brought Lulu, our basenji; she’s a little distracting, but she needed an excursion, Dan brought our dogs everywhere with him, and Lulu proved good company. 
First we greeted Dan. Some new clear shellac-type substance had been applied to the top of his wooden marker. “I think you were splitting a little up at the top here, sweetie,” I said, giving the marker a pat. Usually I find it hard to talk to Dan because I figure he knows what I’m thinking, but I like Lulu to hear my voice.
I admired, as always, the letters, hand-printed in bold black ink, on his marker: his birth date, July 11, with all its straight lines, his death date, August 28, with the roundness of the g and the 2 and the 8. And I thanked someone, up there or down here, that the calligrapher planned the letters    D A N I E L  Z I N K U S   to fit perfectly across the narrow marker, and likewise the dates below them, not running short of space and crushing the year at the edge, as happened on another marker. 
We made a circuit of the cemetery, Lulu sniffing, me impressed again at how young these deceased tend to be. Yes, there are some elders, but so many have birthdates much more recent than Dan’s. I wonder about this, if Buddhism in general and this cemetery in particular appeal to a younger person. 
We came upon only one 2011 funeral, a woman in her early 60s, and I greeted her. The large flat stone that covers her urn in the ground was empty, which is unusual, so I arranged three small pinecones on it in a way I hoped she would find attractive. You don’t bring flowers to a Buddhist cemetery, but stones, or, here, pinecones, pine twigs, all sorts of beautiful natural things.
I stopped by the marker for Matt, our neighbor from Snydertown Road in Claverack. He attended Dan’s funeral here and was so impressed by it that when he died a few years later his wife asked that he be buried here. She only told me afterward; they’re Scots, a quiet, private couple, and I imagine the Buddhists won over by her complete lack of guile. 
This New Year’s Day I had something specific to ask Dan: “My horoscope today says ‘A short trip that ends in time spent with someone you respect will help you get a better handle on where you should put your time and effort over the next 12 months.’” 
Dan would begin by telling me not to waste time reading newspaper horoscopes, “but really, sweetie, if you have any ideas, let me know.”
I don’t stay long. When I find myself thinking about his illness, not his life, I remind myself that if I have to leave him, this is so much better a place than the hospital, where for all those days, almost ninety of them, I left him. He loved the woods, he loved the world beyond the woods, he loved the Buddhists. With luck and love I found him this place. 
Happy New Year, Dan.