Another Uncertainty

July 27, 2022

I’m puzzling over my current inability to generate an essay or post without something triggering me to respond to another’s thoughts. I have written quite a number of letters to columnists, or “to the editor” in response to articles (mostly in NYT or Atlantic) that, on rereading, I find to be thoughtful and probably appropriate to post, with some edits to clarify the content to which I have responded. What keeps me from creating posts on those same topics which I have been reflecting on for some time? Have I retreated so far into pandemic initiated solitude that I no longer feel a connection with any audience (a necessity, in my experience, for finding my voice) so that I am only able to respond to someone I’ve read?

Maybe…

With plenty of time to start practicing piano, I have not done so – until now that I have committed to play duets with a friend who will be visiting, with his guitar, at the end of the year. A deadline and an audience in place, I have begun to sit down for at least a short session of music as close to daily as I can prod myself to undertake. Am I so undone by the loss of work deadline pressures that I can’t commit to something I want to do, without a target date?

Maybe… 

Or am I simply not yet adjusted to the transition to retirement after being multiply engaged with work, housework, family, social obligations, etc?

Maybe…

So how long does such a transition take? Is there a standard? If so, does the standard take into account Covid lockdown and a need, due to age, for continued precautionary limitations to activities?

I don’t know. Maybe…

Walking to the mailbox this morning, I recognized that my many letters of response to opinion pieces or other news feed items are an exercise of intellect, whereas my posts have most commonly been expressions of inner reflection, or insights gifted from spirit. So am I, of late, giving too much attention to mind and not enough to Soul?

Maybe…

A recent increased interaction with Quaker acquaintances and friends has challenged me to clarify how I perceive the relationship between inner spiritual unfolding and outer expression of spiritual beliefs. Both my Quaker (and far distant Jewish) values and my ongoing spiritual Path dictate being engaged in the world, though not focused on finding one’s worth there. Rather, one’s outer daily environment is both a source of lessons, and the outlet for manifesting one’s growing awareness of spiritual Truth.

Intellectual understanding (represented for me at the moment by reading and responding to well reasoned opinions on affairs to the day) has its place, but should not overshadow time spent in inward contemplation – “seeking that of God within” in Quaker parlance, “checking in” with the Master and Soul, as explicated by my Path.

So are my questions about motivation, reasons for writing, use of my now abundant free time a reflection of an as yet unresolved issue of self identity? Am I in the process of transforming my sense of identity, of Self, from being rooted in what I think and do to what I Am?

Maybe…

Reflections on Motivation

May 20, 2022

For years, while working more than full time, I kept up a regular weekly posting to my blog, mostly reflections on circumstances encountered in my daily interactions. A friend just recently commented that I was so busy then, that I needed the blog posts to organize my thoughts. She was probably correct. I have experienced myself as someone who needs “an ear”, preferably a trusted friend or my spouse, so that I can hear myself working my way through whatever concern needs clarification, using the feedback to refine and define my perception. Lacking that in-person ear, writing things out has also served me well as a means to achieving clarity.

Enter retirement, and Covid isolation, and a spouse who lives away the 5 days of the work week, and one might think I would be that much more engaged with posting to this blog. Not so. With a great deal more free – and largely silent – time, I have instead seemingly become mute. I read steadily, back to my childhood sick bed years of a book every 2-3 days, and I play solitaire (current undefeated streak at Free Cell approaches 700 games), I follow an assortment of news and opinion newsletters, tend to my chickens, go for walks when the weather and my health permit, and do the basics of house chores necessary to keep things running here, and my husband’s second home at his work location stocked with his preferred meals. 

Yes, I talk to a few people each week – my acupuncturist and massage therapist, and a couple of dear friends with whom I have an established regular call. I also talk to a limited number of people with whom I am engaged as a part-time contracted worker, assisting the NM Caregiver Coalition and – just lately – those who participate in a weekly, via Zoom, Quaker Worship Sharing group. None of that answers my question to myself of why I have not, in the more than two years since retirement, not resumed posting regularly, particularly given the Covid imposed dearth of opportunity to talk out my concerns.

I had thought, pre-retirement, that I would be able to devote energy to small home improvements – planting flowers in the entry area, refurbishing my kitchen, clearing out years of accumulated stuff. I have made some inroads in all those areas, but not come anywhere near completing the tasks. Whatever I thought I would gain from doing so has not materialized. Instead, partially perhaps because of an unanticipated decline in energy and increase in daily pain, I have been avoiding the endeavors to not be confronted with my decreased capacities.

At first, it was easy to say I would get back to them when I recovered from the first health issues. By now, having experienced a seemingly endless cycle of two steps forward and one-and-a-half back, I am trying to accept that recovery is a myth akin to pre-pandemic normal. My new normal appears to require a degree of flexibility that goes counter to my lifelong mode of accomplishment – organized, planned, scheduled and with Plans B and C pre-mapped in case something (usually another person’s decisions) make the initial schedule unsustainable. With very little scheduled in any week, and no advance warning of better or worse energy/health/pain days, I seem to have lapsed into non-accomplishment of even something as seemingly easy as writing regular blog posts.

I am unclear what underlies not just my lack of writing, but my lack of overall motivation. I really want the kitchen refurbishment, but am defeated before I begin by the non-response of those workmen I manage to identify. Two plumbers have both said they will schedule me, but weeks go by without a call. I should be on the phone, badgering and pestering until one of them wants rid of me enough to come – but I don’t find myself with motivation to expend my limited energy being a nuisance. With the not-feeling-well days coming unpredictably, I am hesitant to enroll in a class, or schedule volunteer activities when I may not be up to keeping the commitments. I am still waiting for a day when both the unpredictable New Mexico spring weather and my energy will match, to set out bulbs and pansies in the pots I arranged last year.

None of which explains my disinterest in writing.

A friend with whom I am mostly linked by our common engagement as writers just recently asked me what I have been working on. She sets herself the challenge of a poem a day every April, has self-published quite a number of books, runs a LIterary Salon now and keeps a regular writing schedule despite her own health and energy issues and those of her husband. I had no real answer to give her, other than mentioning some thought of resurrecting a project sharing creative ways people have found to outwit the limitations of Parkinson’s. I did not recognize and hence could not admit to my problem with motivation.

The question did, thank you Sharon, prod me to examine what has been immobilizing me and, as I am grateful to acknowledge as a blessing, once the question was clearly posed, answers have begun to emerge. They lie in a need to completely redefine how I assess my sense of self, how I shed restricting core identities that have served me productively as a self-reliant and successful worker but which do not pertain to an older, semi-retired individual.

I may not yet be properly motivated, but I am interested to see what emerges.

Empathic Excess

March 7, 2022

I know there is a condition (sometimes labeled compassion fatigue) of excess of empathy producing its opposite, over time, in the person who has generally been open, accepting, willing to see another’s viewpoint and vulnerable to feeling their pain. I know because I recognize that, contrary to my habitual way of being, I have been notably intolerant of late, managing not to express my disdain only by withdrawing from engagement, staying “out of people’s way” and trying to minimize my following of news and other online activities. I haven’t been very successful with that last, still reading many of the stories and opinions in my inbox daily news feeds. I have, unexpectedly, been far more successful at insulating myself from the cares and needs of characters in novels, by ceasing to read them. It has been a puzzlement (to use a term from a favorite story, “The King and I”) that I have become impatient with reading, when that activity has, throughout my life, been my preferred means of escape from my immediate circumstances. 

My childhood was not a happy one, an only child living with a rageaholic mother and an emotionally absent father, and prone to catching every illness passing around, so that I spent a good deal of time alone in bed, in my room, with the radio and books for company. The few activities I could engage in that my mother would not interrupt with a physical or verbal assault on me, were using the toilet or being ill, and reading. Not being a stupid child, I quickly learned to take a book with me into the bathroom, shut the door and sit on the toilet reading – for so long a time that when I finally stood up I had a deep red ring on my behind and my legs were numb. In retrospect I perceive that I probably also fell sick more easily and quickly because of the household stress, and the fact that the ensuing days alone (my mother had a deep fear of germs and would not enter my sickroom) bought me a break from my standard role as her scapegoat.

What I only realized a day or two ago, after weeks of shutting books abruptly after reading only a few pages, is that I can still enjoy reading – just not “serious” books. Lighthearted mysteries, with a touch of humor in the writing, still engage me even when I can see through the plot lines almost from the beginning. Knowing how it will all turn out does not diminish my interest in seeing how the author unfolds the story.The key word, I am sure, in the above sentence was “lighthearted”. Anything more realistic as to characters and their motivations, even mystery novels by some of my favorite authors like Louise Penny, bring on my sensation of being overwhelmed by unwanted emotions. Not just negative ones, any emotions stirred by the excellent writing and delineation of character. 

I have been replacing reading with very specific, limited conversations with a select few friends and acquaintances who are able and willing to discuss abstract ideas, philosophy, or spiritual processes without requiring of me that I solve any problems they may have in living their values. 

In the course of these exchanges, and participation in Quaker Worship Sharing, as well as attending to my daily spiritual exercises, I have come to see my detachment from emotions as a positive indicator of progress along my chosen Path. I seem to be functioning as required on the physical plane, doing my routine, no thought required homemaker chores and offering appropriate support to those around me who request my input. I have been enjoying dialog on the mental plane (reasoning, knowledge, intellect) including giving my analysis of issues or interpersonal concerns when they are requested.

With distracting tugs from the emotional plane effectively shut down, my attention can remain where I wish it to be, developing and maintaining  a spiritual perspective on my life. Aware of the frequency, in the past, of periods in which I felt as though I were teetering on the edge of a precipice, at high risk of plunging into irredeemable depression, and needing to use anger to fight my way back to safer ground, I find that I am now increasingly comfortable with this more disengaged way of negotiating my remaining days.

I do still care about people and broader societal challenges, but most days the caring is more detached. To borrow an image from one of the teachers on my spiritual Path, I am increasingly able to walk along a beach, hear the cries of a swimmer in trouble, throw out a life buoy and tow the swimmer to shore and then walk on, without attachment to how the rescued swimmer proceeds with the remainder of their life. Diametrically opposite to the alleged ancient Chinese belief that if you save a person’s life you are responsible for it forevermore.

Given that my professional career has had me in the role of helping others, and my current part time work still calls for that engagement, I find it an interesting challenge to not drift back into emotional attachment to “what is going on in the world” whether that world is the near one of my friends or the far one of international conflicts. I know from past experience that I am actually better able to assist, when asked, if my ego is not engaged with an outcome, and if I therefore merely offer a new perspective, or make a suggestion for next steps, leaving the implementation to whoever has asked for my input.

Is this new way of being an upside to chronological age? Given that I have also, lately, been rather forcefully confronted with the physical downside of aging, I have to hope that the benefits of detachment will also imbue a revision of self concept, as I figure out how to become comfortable with being an old person.

Wish me well – and success at this endeavor  – please.

Out of Silence

February 20, 2022

I had thought my part time job was taking the time meant for blog posts. But it is not so demanding as to leave me no writing time. I had thought pandemic isolation had stilled my ability to observe and comment. But my inner voice remained audible. I had thought there was no longer much point in posting reflections, year after year, that have mostly been one way communication from me out to ??? But I have no interest in engaging with “social media” type dialog that so frequently sinks into diatribe and vitriol. Perhaps a speck of my being wanted to see who, if anyone, would reach out to me via a comment posted to the blog site, to ask if I was okay, still alive? But I seem to have already known that was unlikely from outside my immediate circle of friends, as my life pattern has consistently been that, if there is to be a connection, I must initiate it. Very, very few people have checked in on me unless they wanted/needed something from me.

It is only just recently that I have begun to recognize my public (and to a large extent also private) silence as due to the need for a serious reconsideration of who and what I am now that I am semi-retired, with less energy to cope with more physical limitations, less accepting of deadlines, more engaged with inner spiritual goals yet finding it challenging to let go of a life pattern of attending to others’ needs before seeking to address my own.

Into this examination came a just published column by Tish Harrison Warren in the New York Times speaking to periods in her past when reading, a primary love and satisfaction, became virtually impossible. I have been aware that, along with not writing, I have lately had unaccustomed difficulty staying engaged with reading. As for Tish, books have been my companions, my escape, my primary pleasure since I began to learn to read at age three, sitting on my Grandpa’s lap and following along as he read “I Went for a Walk in the Forest” aloud to me. Now I have found myself reading only a few pages, even of favorite authors, before setting the book aside to engage with a crossword puzzle, or to extend my undefeated streak of Free Cell. Thanks to Tish’s essay, I see the why of what I had observed but did not understand.

“Sitting with a book requires some level of compassion and energy. A reader sits with the thoughts, stories, insights or opinions of another. She opens herself empathetically to the work of another human being. And I didn’t feel I had the requisite compassion or energy to do so.”

The proximate cause of Tish Harrison Warren’s loss of ability to enjoy books is different from mine, but the experience is virtually identical, including in the way, step by step, she recovered by engaging first in reading short pieces before resuming books. I have begun following, and responding with letters of commentary, to several NYT columnists as a means to counter not just Covid imposed isolation, but my retirement triggered energy crash and loss of my sense of self.

As I responded to the Harrison Warren essay, “You hit the mark, for me, when you mentioned lacking the empathy, compassion, and the energy these take, to enjoy reading. Along with retirement and disconnect from interpersonal interaction, I confronted the difficult questions of retirement. Who am I without my professional role as a caregiver? Of what value has my life been? And what of value do I still have to offer now that my body is tired and resurrecting all the old, healed and forgotten but not gone injuries and pains of my nearly 80 years of living?

Escape from a difficult family life into books was my path since childhood, making it even more disconcerting now to find that escape denied me. I am mentally yelling at Elsa, in Kristin Hannah’s “The Four Winds” to open her stupid mouth and speak up for herself, then tossing the book aside. I think I would not pick it up again were it not for the fact that it is my book club’s choice for our next discussion meeting.

I had not considered, before reading your essay, that my own inner dis-ease was the source of my new inability to escape into books. I am relieved to learn my experience is in fact a common one, and that I can hope to not only find my way back to the pleasure of reading, but also to that of writing. I will not close down my blog site just yet.”

And so here is a post, after long silence. Step one, writing as well as reading short pieces. I may need to use other responses to recently read columns, in order to resurrect the habit of posting, as I am using the reading of those columns to resurrect my ability to find the compassion and empathy necessary to read books and engage once more with a wider world.

Or maybe not? Maybe I will find that engaging outwardly is no longer so important or rewarding as is withdrawing inward to “dip into the Divine spiritual current always flowing, if only we take time to seek it.”

Alone, in Silence

December 13, 2021

I started to put together a post incorporating some of the letters I’ve written in response to columns I have been reading, mostly from the New York Times opinion section – because I don’t seem able to write without a prompt these days. Not that I don’t still have thoughts, or reflections about the events in my life and the larger world – but I seem to have lost the habit of sharing them unless I read an opinion that I either disagree with and want to counter, or that I agree with but think would benefit from enlargement. So I write letters to the writers, knowing that it is unlikely I will get a response, and equally unlikely that my comments will be published and reach an audience.

What has changed? My degree of solitude, primarily. What I felt I never had enough of before retirement and Covid (quiet, alone downtime) I now have so much of that I feel as though I’ve forgotten how to initiate a conversation. My part time work gives me what amounts to a script that I follow when I make outreach calls to engage caregivers with the NM Caregiver Coalition programs. The teaching and care coordination I do with participants also largely follow an established script, and involve more listening and giving feedback than expressing opinions or leading the conversation.

I’ve always been more of an introvert than a socializer, probably because my childhood was nearly as solitary as my daily life now. An only child in a household of the old school, where children were to be seen and not heard, and in fact seen only when a parent wished to assign a chore. Otherwise I was best protected from parental anger by spending my non-school hours in my room, usually reading. Not the sort of conditioning that teaches how to initiate conversations, reach out to build relationships, or make friends easily. Over the many years since, I have acquired some of those skills, at a basic level most commonly yielding success when my circumstances foster frequent enough interaction to grant the opportunity to get to know others, and they to get to know me. 

Not, by any means, the circumstances I now function within. Working from home, living alone during the week, minimizing my time “out” in public in accord with the health and safety guidelines we are encouraged to embrace as our “normal” lifestyle for the foreseeable future… not circumstances that promote conversations and, for me at least, circumstances that instead push me back into being minimally seen and rarely heard. Easier to read, do crossword puzzles, play solitaire – the same activities that filled my childhood – than to figure out how to keep initiating conversations (via blog posts) that only rarely evolve into social interaction.

That is mind trying to sort out and understand its present state. The proper activity for me at this time, however, is not to understand, elucidate, converse or write so much as it is to accept the alone-ness of this period as right, proper, a gift to be cherished for its offering of the opportunity to simply Be. In gratitude. Moving towards enlightenment. Baraka bashad.

Human Creativity

August 23, 2021

Portions of what follows may be lifted from a recent letter written to a friend, in response to an essay he wrote about a meaning of creativity. Somehow that topic blends with the dilemma I faced upon awakening this morning – what to do with a week of time stripped of its usual structure by the absence of providers I normally see weekly. I do have some commitments throughout the week, but not my “usual” ones. Thus I am both empowered and challenged to be creative with my use of time, especially knowing that in a few weeks there are apt to be substantively more demands fon my time and attention with consequent reduction in fluidity of my schedule.

I am marking a year out from retirement, and remembering how happy and relieved I was, initially, to have unscheduled days, free of deadlines, un-pressured time to do whatever I felt like doing, energy to climb the hill in my driveway 6-8 times at a good pace, or equally to sit on the couch reading all day if I wished to do so. Today I did climb the hill twice already and will do so at least once more, but I know I am not able to complete more trips without feeling a substantial energy drain. I still have the discipline of a year ago, to pursue what needs doing or what I want to accomplish, but I am missing both motivation and a sense of direction as targets for the discipline. All my previous pending and accumulated have to’s are done, management of daily chores now so routine as to not require thought, and want to’s mostly vanished into impossibility due to the curtailment of options imposed by the pandemic.

All that seems to remain with me is a desire to communicate, to engage in an exchange of ideas in order to create a sense of connection despite the emphasis in our larger society on division and unbridgeable difference. Hence my own short essay in response to my friend’s reflections on creativity, and any number of letters recently written to the various NY Times essayists whose columns I follow. Only the outreach to my friend starts a discussion. The other letters serve to clarify my views, but otherwise are written into a void as they are not replied to nor published (with one exception).

The point I made to my friend had to do with the tone of articles about the “new discoveries” being reported lately in unearthed artifacts and in animal studies. Isn’t it just one more example of ego and arrogance, to keep being astonished that earlier versions of humanity could imagine and create, just as we do? No different than the hubris behind amazement that various animals invent and use tools, or that cuttlefish have memory, or that apes exchange hello and goodbye gestures.We present day humans are not at all special except maybe in our arrogance and destructiveness.

I awoke this morning to a gorgeous sky, the sun reflecting through and off of scattered clouds creating a full palette of color. The joy I felt lasted through morning coffee, feeding of chickens, watering the garden and climbing the hill, but has now begun to fade. I do not want to sink into dulled awareness, or a routine plodding through the day. Nor do I want to continue writing into a void.

The biggest threat, according to psychologists, of extended pandemic restrictions is not to our economy but to our mental health. People comment in surprise at the resilience of others who have lived through violence, ongoing war, famine and severe stress like we are seeing in vivid pictures just now from Afghanistan but which are happening in multiple places all the time, just not reported in our press. I suspect that the resilience noted should be no more surprising than the discovery that cuttlefish can learn and remember where to get their preferred food. So long as there is a sense that “we are in this together” and a collective effort to manage the tasks of daily life despite fearsome environmental conditions, people can be resilient.

Wearing masks which hide our faces and limit nonverbal cues we rely on for connection, keeping safe social distance and forgoing hugs, cancelling group activities in the name of staying safe are intended to reflect a concern for all of us being in the pandemic together. The same actions, however, sever our sense of togetherness and connection. While I do not in any way support or condone actions of the objectors to basic public health mandates, I do understand how deeply rooted their unacknowledged motives may be. Verbalized and justified as standing up for individual rights, the resistance is, I think, mostly an expression of the need to remain somehow connected. Yes, the rule breakers exhaust the rest of us, anger us, seem to want us to all sink and die together rather than survive what is morphing into a permanent condition of living. But yes, they also seem – however unconsciously – to be expressing a basic human need for connection, interaction, and the creativity of interpersonal contacts.

In that expression, these people I distinguish myself from are just like me. We seek “call and response” and a collective sense of belonging. We differ in how we manifest that desire. Please, someone, some expert somewhere, or some especially creative thinker, find a way for us all to feel engaged and connected, “heard” and together as we try to learn and adapt to the changed reality we are, collectively, facing.

Ambiguities of Aging

July 26, 2021

One of the blessings – and curses – of my life has been my engaged, analytical mind also capable of synthesis and of so-called right brain activities like artistic design. Blessing in that it enabled me to attend Swarthmore College where, for four years, I was surrounded by people of comparable “smarts” and thus where I fit in. The experience was a soothing balm after the social exclusion and general disregard previously afforded me in school, where I was dismissed as a mere nerd. Blessing also in that I found myself, over the course of my life, able to work effectively in a wide range of fields – law, education, government, health care – and to engage with all sorts of people, across cultures, races and economic and educational levels.

The curse began with that nerd label and has carried forward in what people express (those who make the effort to express themselves) as being intimidated by my intellectual ability. In too many work environments I encountered co-workers – mostly male – who could not accept that I was as able as they were at planning, writing, envisioning, managing. I very consciously, in one totally male dominated position, chose to emphasize my femininity in dress at the same time that I showed the full extent of my mental skills. The two other women classified as professionals, in that workplace of 100 or more where I found myself in my early thirties, were both already mature (late 50’s) and treated as invisible by the men, in the way so many older women have been disregarded for generations, in U.S. society.

The blessing extends into the present as an interest in reading and responding to essays and op-ed pieces in the various outlets that send their email newsletters to my inbox. The curse extends to having so few face to face opportunities to discuss and debate those topics. During my long work career, I rarely had time for non-work-related discussions, but I did have access to people with whom to debate. Since retirement just a year ago, I have had too much free time, and extremely limited options for interesting discussions. One extreme to the other, in the midst of pandemic lockdowns, has not been an easy transition.

In the blessing column I need to list the fact that my mental skills continue undiminished so far, except for a curious, recent tendency to come up short on names. Once I stop trying to recall the place or person’s name, it rises up into awareness, fortunately often while I am still involved in the conversation that requires it. In the curse column I probably should list a propensity, now that I have so much “spare” time, to do what my spouse calls “overthinking” situations, rather than relaxing and just letting them unfold.

A current client uses the terms Harvard mind and Stanford mind to identify two different styles of communication. He feels able to deal with either, but finds it challenging to switch quickly from one to the other. He says he admires that I can work with both simultaneously. If I understand him, he is referring to tightly reasoned “intellectual” discourse (Harvard) contrasted with a more emotionally directed interpersonal connection (Stanford). A dichotomy kin to the traditionally perceived left brain/right brain dichotomies of thinking that have increasingly been relegated to the status of outdated, inadequate explanations of mental differences between people. For my easily distracted client, having both capacities with neither under good control is decidedly more curse than blessing. For myself, having both and knowing when to use each is clearly a blessing,

About those ambiguities of aging – I am attempting to decipher whether my mental skills are blessing or curse or still a mixture of both, as my opportunities and situations change with advancing age. Having skills without much occasion to use them is frustrating and contributes to feeling old and past one’s “sell by” date. Recognizing that mental skills are of limited value for advancement in spiritual endeavors, it is a blessing to be able – at least at times – to just stop thinking and allow myself to be guided minute by minute throughout days that in retrospect show themselves full of accomplishment that “I” don’t claim credit for. What has been achieved has been done through rather than by me. The ambiguity lies, perhaps, in my hesitance to accept that I have reached the age when what I “should”, per societal dictates, be focusing on is a less engaged, more abstract appreciation of the simple acts of daily life, with perhaps a bit of legacy wisdom dispensed. The trouble comes from the fact that I have never easily done what society expects I should do.

Others have written extensively about the disconnect between chronological age, with its more or less decreased physical function, and their self perceptions as still vital and engaged persons frustrated by the limits to engagement that they keep running up against. In all that writing I have not come across any useful guides to follow, to be less frustrated. I have not so far found much comment on how the recommended activities with which one is urged to fill retirement – to ease the transition from work life to a more measured pace – when pandemic isolation, and now because I live in the West also wildfire smoke, force me indoors and into increased isolation. 

Yes I can email, I can and do talk on the phone, I read, I write essays and letters to the editor in response to opinion columns that catch my interest. I run my home, filling my time with a variety of tasks and I rarely encounter my blessedly few physical limitations. These are all Harvard brain activities.

What I miss is the interaction, the human to human contact necessary for my Stanford brain to feel itself heard and engaged. That bit of self feels like the small girl, the unsiblinged and sadly overlooked nerd child still crying softly “see me, look at me, hear me, I have something to say and to contribute, if only someone would take the time to notice and listen.”

How too many of us feel like that these mid (I regretfully do not feel we are yet at post) pandemic days!

Alike – and Not

July 7, 2021

Emerging from my lockdown solitude, I have recently interacted with two couples with whom I have a number of things in common, and some significant differences. All five of us attended the same college at approximately the same time. Three of us graduated together, the others a year and two years behind the three. The two couples each married upon graduation, becoming additional statistics in what has been affectionately labeled “the Quaker matchbox.” They are still married, roughly 50 years later. I too married just after graduation, and I too have been married just short of 50 years – but my total is accumulated across several relationships instead of a single long-lasting one.

All of us live in the fire threatened, drought stricken Southwest, within a day’s drive of one another. All of us do our part to care for the environment, and we have all had careers that emphasize making life better for others – in medical care, teaching and the arts. We are all retired and, to the extent that circumstances permit, either working part time or otherwise engaged with activities generally labelled “contributing to society.”  

One couple, my classmates, live in an intentional community, or what they refer to as co-housing. Some twenty four families have their homes clustered along two graveled walkways radiating from a Community Building which has a kitchen and expansive meeting/dining/activity area all centered within some 340 acres of ranchland, with animals, gardens, greenhouse and necessary support buildings and infrastructure maintained communally. The housing area is, courtesy of a good, carefully protected and rationed well, a riot of trees, flowering and native plants, an emphatic green thumb imprint on the adjacent dried grass fields. 

The second couple live in a shaded urban residential area within the largest city in our state. They too have a landscaped and flowering front yard and a small vegetable garden behind their home. Their street is a block long dead end, creating a sense of community among the neighbors who perforce coordinate to care for plantings dividing the block into a U, one side in and one out, rather like a circular drive moving past and uniting the several homes.

By contrast, I live in rural solitude in a small home on four acres, my neighbors barely in view. I have no landscaping, only wildflowers, assorted grasses and a persistent army of encroaching mullein stalks that I do my best to weed out. I have started a small, one vegetable garden, to grow my husband’s favorite greens.

All of us have dogs. I am the only one to also have a cat.

All of us have maintained a positive attitude toward our health and longevity, focused on what we can do rather than what now limits us.

All of us follow, to some extent, current politics and express our similar views in the voting booth.

They have children, I do not – except now in my later years, by step-parent status.

Using my driving time during recent visits to both couples, I have been reflecting on my life overall, undoubtedly part of the process of emerging from pandemic isolation. Also part of the ongoing process of considering who I am as a retiree, and what I wish to do now that the focus of my life is more my own to discern.

The one clear direction I am following is to be guided more by inner prompting (listening to that of God within, as Quakers would express it; Hearing, and Being the Sound Current as MasterPath reveals it) than by outer demands. 

What does that have to do with the comparisons with which I began this reflection? 

As a child, I expected that the course of my life would be more like that of the two couples – finding a compatible mate and living our lives out together. It still surprises me to see that instead I learned and grew through a sequence of relationships, mostly to partners of different races and ethnicities from my own. Yet I have evolved in a quite similar pattern to my college mates as regards values, professional roles and lifestyles.

What if anything meaningfully sets me apart?

My marital relationships have been cross race/ethnicity/culture whereas theirs are not.

I have had longish periods of functioning as a single person; they have not.

They have articulated their goals for the next several years; I do not know mine.

Or rather, I only know that it is time for me to have goals of my own, and to make them as much of a priority as I have, over my lifetime, made it a priority to help my mate(s) meet his/theirs.

Now the work begins – first to define my goals and then to teach myself to keep them front and center. 

Fortunately I know that the only place to seek my new goals is within myself, as I complete my daily spiritual practice. Which means that defining the goals is not work, merely an extension of what I already do.

As with so many questions in life, the answer is simple once “overthinking” is curtailed.

Quiet the mind and let inner wisdom speak.

What Next?

June 22, 2021

How does one – how do I – regain a lost habit of writing regularly? I managed to keep to frequent posts through years of long working days, only to lose that pattern in the last couple years of pre-retirement exhaustion. I thought that being freed from my work routine last August would  lead directly to a renewed engagement with writing. Wrong.

And no, I do not blame Covid, which removed all the retirement-filling activities I thought I would enjoy, deepening my isolation and solitude and presumably increasing my free time for reflection and comment. Instead of which I went even more silent.

My only activity that increased is nonverbal – assembling jewelry both to send as gifts and to accumulate for whenever I find a market (or someone to do the marketing) and make it available for sale. 

Returned now from a four day venture out into the larger world (a road trip to visit friends near Durango) I have become aware of how much my world view has altered. Since retirement in late summer of 2020 I have not made more than 3 trips to Santa Fe, none to Albuquerque, and barely weekly from home to the nearest shopping in Las Vegas. My husband works away during the week, coming home on weekends and able to do the Santa Fe errands en route, removing pressures that would have existed on me to get out at least that far. The major energy crash and never-diagnosed health decline that followed after retirement (no not Covid) reinforced my “stay at home and do little” behavior, and subtly altered my mental state in ways I did not recognize until I experienced the difference brought on by being away and in company for several days.

I have read essays in the online newspapers to which I subscribe, about both those who can’t wait to emerge from home and resume social life, as well as those who find themselves reluctant to do so. The latter seem to mostly be described as fearful, untrusting, having lost their sense of community. 

I find I am somewhat reluctant to be out and about much, but I deny that I am fearful and untrusting, and I know I have not lost my sense of community.

Instead, I think I have found a pleasure in my own company that I had rarely had the ease to explore, until now. All my life I have had to be a financial support for myself and others, to organize the household, to be engaged and outwardly focused. One very brief exception was a month when I (and my then husband) first moved to Boston. I was in my mid-twenties. He got a job immediately, and told me I should take my time before starting one myself. I explored the city and did enjoy a type of vacation, but felt the pressing financial limitations of only one income in a two-incomes-needed city. I started work so that we could afford an apartment in a newly restored brownstone. 

Last week’s trip took me to a co-housing community of 24 families that has been functioning effectively for over twenty years. My friends there are college classmates. The atmosphere on the ranch (they live in a cluster of individual houses around a Community Building on 340 acres of farmland) is open, inviting, trusting (no locked doors), thoughtful and as self sustaining as possible. Maintenance duties and gardening are shared responsibilities, as are preparation and clean up from weekly communal meals, but each family also pursues its own interests individually. Looking at all the landscaped homes I asked if one had to be a gardener to join the community. My hosts laughed and said “not necessarily, but you have to be willing to pay someone to do the gardening for you if you don’t do it yourself.” Caring for nature and the land is a priority of the community.

Given how easily I fit into that group, I know my remaining reluctance to get out and about is not due to loss of a sense of community. Rather I have become aware of how challenging it is to achieve connection with like minded souls in the broader strident, divisive environment that is “today’s world.” Even in my relatively quiet corner of the country, the tensions and disagreements and deep divisions troubling our society (not just in the US) cannot be avoided except by isolating. So it is not that I am fearful of re-engagement, but that I desire the original meaning of retirement – withdrawal, absence of tension and pressure, an opportunity to live quietly and reflectively. Wherein I have discovered pleasure in my own company. Less need to communicate. And apparently also less motivation to write.

The first two are definitely pluses. Not sure yet about the third. What next? We shall see.

Sounds and Silence

May 24, 2021

A good friend, who is a multi-talented musician, just told me about a project he completed in a week of intense collaboration with a former student – she wrote a play, he wrote the music and she submitted the ten minute musical comedy score to a competition. It was so well received that it will be performed at the awards presentation. My friend described the hectic back and forth of the week, as the script was modified and his music had therefore to be adjusted as well – all under the pressure of the immediate deadline. “Sometimes that is what it takes to get me composing” he concluded.

Apparently it takes something similar to get me writing these days. I have been posting my reflections on the events of my life with regularity, despite a demanding work schedule, for many years – until sometime last autumn. Retirement was supposed to expand my time to write, but instead it seems to have shut me up. While Covid prevented my engagement with many of the activities I anticipated would fill my days, it cannot be held responsible for the silencing of my written voice.

Or can it? Whereas I have mostly felt that I needed time away from interactions with people to reflect and write, is it in fact the case that I need interaction with people to stimulate the reflection that produces writing? Is the reality that I and most of those around me have been vaccinated and can begin to meet in person, out least in outdoor venues, enlarging not only my physical boundaries but also my verbal ones?

Is the persistent urging of a writer friend, that I submit an essay or story for a project she has undertaken, also a  necessary condition (and perhaps a sufficient one) for me to haul out the laptop and start putting words together? It would seem so, as here I am, writing. The criterion for inclusion in the pending project is a connection with northern New Mexico, one I easily meet as I have lived in this beautiful high mountain community for more than forty years. In newspaper columns, blog posts, short stories and even an unpublished novel, I have written about the foibles of local culture, weather anomalies, the healing tranquility of vast open sky, highly talented local performers and, in the words of Anna’s Siamese king, et cetera et cetera et cetera.

Called on now, under almost as tight a time constraint as that faced by my musician friend, to produce an essay worthy of inclusion in a book focusing on my home region, what new do I want to say? 

That on May 17 it is spitting snow? The weather in this area is absolutely uncertain, changing from summer back to winter and then summer again, not just day to day but often hour to hour. The only aspect of weather that is certain is wind. Enough sunny days, most years, for solar power to be an effective alternative to carbon-based energy and what feels like enough wind to power the world. Two benefits of living with permanent weather uncertainty.

That yesterday I watched antelope running free across a neighbor’s pasture? We have quite a variety of wildlife sharing our space. Deer, wild turkey and the antelope are seen frequently. A herd of elk also ranges over the open pasture beside the county road where I go for my walks. Covid shutdowns have limited dining out, and prevented me from attending classes at the nearby NM Highlands University but have not otherwise hampered my routines. I walk (weather permitting) amid pastures occupied by cows and the elk and antelope. I raise my chickens, eat and sell their eggs, and have ample space for a garden. The unpredictable weather means mostly growing only hardy vegetables until I can place a roof over the beds. When that will happen is another uncertainty, on a par with when the university will reopen campus classes. 

We are doing very well here on the Covid front, and are national leaders in vaccination rates. More activities are now permitted at the same time that people remain vigilant, masked in indoor  spaces and mostly caring for the health and safety of our neighbors and communities. I am told by those living in more urban areas that the noises of social activity have increased. I would not know – where I dwell the predominant theme, Covid or no Covid, is the semi-silence of the natural world.

Another friend, a music lover, actor and writer who lives 140 miles away in Albuquerque mentioned recently that he appreciates silence at home in ways he did not used to do – choosing to play music only when he intends to sit down and listen to it with focus, whereas he used to have music playing almost all the time. We talked, without reaching a conclusion, about whether this change is a function of aging, or is another curious adaptation to life with Covid.

I consciously avoid any created background sound when I am alone at home, preferring the silence that is not silent. I hear my rooster crow, and the several hens who lay each day warbling their productivity. Occasionally a woodpecker is attracted to one corner of my house. After an hour of his intermittent drumming I squirt him with a water pistol, to regain some semblance of peace. Winds vibrate metal trim on the house, creating a whistling that cannot be terminated with a well aimed shot from the water pistol. Those I have learned to ignore, knowing the wind is both intermittent and perpetual, one of the factors that must be accepted as central to life in this area.

On warmer, less windy days, I hear the zoom of hummingbirds, and always there are the rowdy crows and less rowdy but equally insistent doves making their presence known audibly as they compete with the chickens for daily grain rations. My active guard dog barks away most four-legged intruders, keeping me aware of what is going on around the edges of my acreage. 

Some years ago I had house guests for the summer, two African girls who had graduated from the United World College nearby, but were stranded waiting for arrangements to travel to their next destinations. Both were urban-raised and admitted to being afraid of the quiet. While I was away during the day at work, they would play their music loudly, covering over the sounds that to me are evidence that this country is not silent. They managed to hear my car engine pulling into the driveway despite the music and would turn the volume down to what I consider a “listenable” level as I entered the house. In the three months they spent with me, I did not succeed in my efforts to help them hear the natural sounds within what they thought of as intolerable silence. I try to keep that failure in mind, when I talk with others about the pleasures of my home environment, reminding myself that not everyone has the same preferences.

It has been many years since I recognized that I was unlikely to ever have the kind of income that would permit much travel. I have been grateful to live where I do, in the high mountain desert where I would choose to come on vacation, if I lived elsewhere. And of late I have been especially grateful to live where, despite the pandemic, I have been able to enjoy the outdoors, continue my walks, work safely and comfortably from home, and appreciate the noisy silence of an airy, uncontaminated natural environment.

For those who seek the same, welcome to my world.


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