Friday, March 04, 2016

Retirement Plus Six

“If you want to make G-d laugh, tell G-d your plans.” – Rabbinical proverb

I got a letter yesterday from the president  of the university which formerly employed me inviting me to a Founder’s Day banquet at which I, as a recent retiree from the university,  would be “honored for (my) service” there. I had to smile. It’s so nice to know that the university thought so highly of my service. Had that been even remotely apparent when I was actually providing it, I would likely never have retired.

Truth be told, it’s hard for me to imagine that possibility now.  Six months ago I was absolutely agonized about my decision to leave. In the weeks immediately preceding and following my announcement, I had major trouble sleeping and I drank way too much wine. I often awoke asking myself “Am I crazy?” 

Six months out that all seems so far away.

A Multitude of Doubts….

The decision to actually retire was prompted in part by the surprise of learning from the retirement counselor at human resources that I actually could do so at 62, not 65. Even so, it took me a good six months to come to that final decision. I wrestled with the possibilities on two different continents, reflecting, praying, discussing my dilemma with others, seeking inspiration at retreats in holy places from Iona, Scotland to the Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky made famous by Thomas Merton. I agonized aloud on my Facebook accounts and my Redeeming Barth blogsite. And I listened to an awful lot of advice that poured in as a result.

 Pondering the Future at Iona

To say I had a multitude of doubts about this path is an understatement. I was terrified that we would be financially unable to sustain the loss of my income. Though I’ve had to become quite the frugal person since my last salary check was direct deposited, it hasn’t been quite as hard as I thought. I debated taking social security early at 62, a decision I delayed for a lot of reasons, and considered a number of part and full-time jobs to fill in the gap between full-time teaching and whatever my next gig ends up being. I worried about medical coverage (Andy’s policy at Valencia now covers me) and I was afraid that the only job I could get that would satisfy my need to do something of value to serve the world would require me to move, perhaps even overseas. (Thus far, no redeployment orders have arrived.)

Most of all, I mourned the death of my dreams as a university instructor. I struggled with notions of identity. I’d been a teacher of some kind all of my adult life. Who would I be if I no longer was in the classroom (albeit I hadn’t actually been in a university classroom for two years at the point I left)? Would I be one of the people who curl up and die within months of retirement? Where was I going, what would I do and who would I become? All of the existential questions with little hint of any answers and lots of time on my hands to think about them.

And yet, even with all those apprehensions, when the moment of decision came, I knew the time had come to leave the university and I charged ahead. There were a lot of reasons for my departure that I’ve belabored previously which need no revisitation. Six months out, I have no second thoughts about my decision to leave or the reasons for that departure. If anything, I’m even more convinced I read the tea leaves right. It was definitely time to go.

Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans. 
- John Lennon

In my letter to my chair announcing my retirement, I related the conclusions I had come to over the preceding year leading to my decision. Every vocation needs a venue to occur, a place where the gifts of the one called can be received and appreciated.  I had simply realized that the university simply was no longer able to be that place for what I offered. I also spoke of needing time to do the kind of writing I had hoped to do for a long time, writing which required a lot of undistracted attention that a constant diet of online credit facilitation did not permit. I have several books burning holes in my brain right now, begging to be committed to writing. And I noted that I needed time to spend with my then 87-year-old Father.

My plans were to give myself a year to catch my breath, to get my life organized and to heal the wounds I carried with me in leaving the cutthroat arena of the university. I knew I would need to go through 40 years’ worth of teaching materials I had accumulated over my time as student and teacher. I needed to go through the books in my library and weed out those I would no longer need and contribute them to libraries or used books stores. I also needed to organize the files on my computer as a prelude to beginning writing the books screaming to be exorcised from my head. I had stacks of things from my offices to go through; pictures, mementos, papers.

Six months out, I’d hoped to have made a significant dent in those tasks by this midpoint in my late professional gap year. Now, halfway through that year, I am beginning to realize the wisdom of the rabbinical proverb with which this entry began.

As it turned out, the healing I needed was not just the broken heart I brought away from a teaching career that went sour. I was unaware of the skin cancers that had claimed two spots on my head which I had ignored and explained away as seborrhea. I had no way of knowing of the Barrett’s Syndrome in my lower esophagus which had developed years previously during my time of hard working and hard playing while practicing law. In comparison, the broken heart has proven much easier and less painful to resolve.

I also had no idea what kind of demands my callings as son, brother and uncle would make on my life upon my retirement. My brother’s wife, Rose, long in declining health, finally succumbed to her many illnesses last month. Our home has been a whirlwind of nephews coming to and from the airport and taking my niece up to the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville to see her dying mother. It has been a long, draining and very sad five months.

Just as that drama was coming to a close, my Father was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. His chemotherapy began last week. As I had promised myself, I am spending at least one day a week over at our family home in Bushnell and taking Daddy to events he wants to attend – the 90th birthday of a fellow teacher, my sister’s fundraiser for the Pace School for Girls she directs in Ocala, the USO Show reenactment at the local state park, a weekend trip to Tallahassee and Pensacola to see his 94-year-old sister and sister in law. Now we can add to this the periodic doctor’s appointments in Ocala.

Visiting Aunt Frances, Mother’s 94-year-old Sister

What that has meant is that a lot of the things I had hoped to do in my home and for my healing process have been put on the back shelf. My daily 1.8 miles walk around Lake Underhill has become more honored in the breach than anything remotely regular. My attempts to lose weight and lower my blood pressure have stagnated as well with the loss of exercise time and having to catch as catch can on meals while running between hospitals and doctors’ appointments.

I have felt a bit blind-sided by these unexpected events I sometimes describe as being in the eye of a shit typhoon. But, I’m getting through it all without too much difficulty. And one thing that is absolutely clear to me is that had I not retired when I did, my life with all its recent demands would probably be close to unmanageable at this point. As one of my friends said to me, there was a reason I retired when I did even if I didn’t know it at the time.

The New Normal

Six months out, life has settled into a sort of new normal. I continue my work with the Florida Humanities Council, leading discussions at several libraries on world religions and the impact of technology on our daily lives as well as continuing in my role as public scholar for the Prime Time Reading program at the Orange County Library System. While I won’t make a fortune at this, I have been able to earn a little money between my various Humanities Council projects to pay for books, the little bit of travelling I am doing and the occasional eating out we’re still able to do. More importantly, I enjoy this work and honestly feel it has the potential to make the world a little better place.

I’ve also been called upon to preach, lead services and teach classes at my local Episcopal parish, St. Richards, Winter Park. St. Richards has been a godsend in so many ways for me. I have been enormously supported as I struggled through my decision to retire and the prayers of this community have been indispensable in the sickness and death in my family since then. I have resigned myself to the reality that I will probably never be able to fully function as priest in this diocese unless the unexpected occurs and  it repents of the homophobia it confuses for religion. But for the time being, St. Richards provides an oasis in that desert of hard-heartedness and for that I am deeply grateful.

A couple of weeks ago, Valencia College called me about teaching for them this fall as adjunct. I was very pleased to be sought out and I think I need to be back in a classroom once again on a part-time basis if for no other reason than to remember why I so deeply loved being a teacher for the vast majority of my life. It will require me to get down to Kissimmee two days a week but I love the Osceola Campus, having never fully cut my ties to that place after I left it in 2003 for my great adventure at the university.

I have also finally begun writing. I have a lot of books swimming around in my imagination. I want my first to discuss the questions facing education at all levels in America today and the values that inform those questions. As I read the many articles I have saved and the books I have bought to help me frame my essays, I keep coming back to some questions that I think lie at the bottom line of the future of education in America: Who is education about? Whose interests are being served? What is education for? Who decides that?

I’m also jotting down notes during my travels to Bushnell to see my Dad which will hopefully one day be fleshed out into stories of growing up in a place whose residents willingly called their home Hog County, something simply incomprehensible to a former city boy plopped down in their midst at age 6. I have a lot of stories about those very challenging and yet rewarding years of life in the country that I’d like to share.

Finally, I am adjusting to being a student once again, completing my first year in the Living School for Contemplation and Action. Truth be told, the meditation practice the course requires has been severely lacking. While I am able to meditate quite easily once I finally get settled, the uproar of life the last few months has been a major impediment to such practice even as I know that uproarious times are precisely those in which meditation is most needed. It is one of my many growing edges.

I also am having trouble adjusting to being in a hybrid class format. I found myself overwhelmed in Albuquerque last fall with classes from 9 AM to 6 PM. No doubt that will be true of the spring intensive coming up in May as well. But even more difficult has been the long distance solo running online in between these events.

I am behind on my reading and video classes partly because I find it hard to read and watch without anyone to talk with about the course content. These ideas are profound and potentially life changing. They merit discussion, critical consideration and hearing from a variety of perspectives on their meaning and application. In some ways that makes this solo online process even more lonely.

I have some classmates locally who meet every six weeks or so and my group to which I was assigned last fall has met on a video call several times. I am very grateful for that. But, this format is very difficult for a student formed in 17 years of higher education conducted on-site in classrooms with ongoing discussions spilling out of the same and into local taquerias and pizza joints thereafter.

Truth be told, this experience has reinforced my understanding of online classes as a second-best approximation of real classes held on site and requiring an investment of time, presence and attentiveness to be effective. On the other hand, I have developed a level of empathy for the struggles of my former online students that I could not have known previously. They were right: Online classes are a bitch on a good day.

Life Outside the Pressure Cooker

In looking back on this first six months of retirement, I have to say it was probably the best decision I could have made. I love being able to spend time at home, working at my desktop computer, puttering around my garden and curling up in the afternoon with a good book, an assortment of dogs and cats keeping me company and going for my daily outing to the grocery store to buy the ingredients for the supper I will cook and my husband will come home to eat with me. I like being able to say no to invitations without feeling guilty or worrying that my professional interests demand I say yes.

When my computer recently went down and had to be replaced, there was no immediate Vesuvius of anxious irritation as in the past. I had no schedules to meet, no papers to grade, no email to read from students suddenly worried about grades as the withdrawal deadline approached. I managed the shift to my iPad and laptop with ease. When work on my car required me to be without transportation for a day, I was happy to ride home in the company’s van and await the phone call letting me know the work was complete. I had no schedule to meet, no mad dash down the highway to another campus to make.

What I have discovered is that life without the pressure of unending demands from those whose interests you are actually serving is decidedly worth living.

As for my former life at the credentials factory that has supplanted the university whose name it still bears, I have not been on campus since my last day there. And, sadly, I have not missed being there one nanosecond.

I do miss some of the folks with whom I worked. There were some very fine people working in my department and at the university at large. I also miss a number of the students with whom I worked and continue to meet with some of them and hear from others on Facebook. It does my heart great good to see my young Jedis out doing their thing, making the world a better place by their presence and I routinely tell them so.

But, sadly, for the most part, while I am glad I had that experience, I miss nothing about it at all. When I think back on my time at the university, I largely feel nothing. It’s hard to imagine being back there. Indeed, on most days, it’s hard to even imagine I ever was.

My year of healing, regrouping and discerning my new path in life will expire in September. Much could happen between now and then. It’s possible I could still find myself drawn away somewhere to a worthwhile project. I may be 62 but my idealistic Boomer genes are alive and well. I still want to do my part in saving the world, tikkun olam as the Jewish tradition calls it. And as I watch my loved ones ailing and dying around me, I am all the more aware of my own life’s ticking clock. But for now, I am content to watch and wait, grateful for all the blessings my life has provided me and ready to go wherever to do whatever I am called to do when the time does finally come.

"I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good therefore that I can do, or any kindness or abilities that I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer it or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again." 
William Penn

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)


Anonymous said...

Good for you, Harry. And, good for Valencia and St. Richards. Could I get you to consider using some more modern, or the style that fits the community, music in the liturgy to draw people's spirit out of their physical body? Agape, Mike

Sue Cline said...

Harry, I am so happy you are at peace with your decision, knowing well how you struggled with it. Time is a great thing, we learn now, hopefully to be able to treasure our remaining time doing good work at things we believe in. LOVE to your family, human and animal alike.