by Max Mackay-James, Larry Butler, James King, and Kim Stafford
You are walking along a path in a wood in early autumn. It is a memory and the time is about two months ago. There are chestnuts on the path which have fallen from a large tree nearby. You stop and bend over to look more closely. You wonder at their spiky green husks and white pulp, and the shiny brown beauty exposed inside.
You touch one of the chestnuts and it pricks another older memory. You are me, and I am at a distance from you with this memory. I remember walking in London more than forty years ago, it is a day in winter and I come across a charcoal burner on the pavement. An old man with a cloth cap is standing beside it, his face mostly in shadow. I stop, feeling the heat of the burner, and the contrast with the coldness of my hands and feet.
Or your cold hands and feet perhaps, bending over on the path.
The old man picks a roasting chestnut out of the burner and gives it to me. Or to you now you are living in my memory. It can be you really. You feel the icy coldness of his fingers as he tips a chestnut on to your outstretched hand. It is hot to hold so you roll it in your palm. Then you begin breaking off the chestnut's brittle skin with your fingernails. You bite into the hot cream flesh.
Bending over on the path in early autumn two months ago, you pick up a chestnut. You feel the fierce protection of the mesh of spikes around its green skin. The spikes startle you, and you carefully break apart the green skin and flesh to expose the brown nuts. You collect a few to take home with you.
Soon after your splitting apart begins to ripen too.
"RETIREMENT" is the first word you write in your new week-at-a-time diary notebook back at the beginning of the year. You write it in capitals at the top of the page above Monday 31st December 2018. The inverted comma's you add later on. The meaning for this is not clear to you now, perhaps you do it because you lack conviction or have doubts about the retirement word.
From time to time during the year you are also making handwritten notes on the right hand notebook side of your diary. You make headings like My Work and My Home, and at different times write some more words in note form down the page. Now it is autumn and by now you would have liked to see a complete list of sub-headings underneath with straight red lines through them indicating all the things you are succeeding in stopping doing. But this isn't the way your retirement or your diary notebook looks. What you write underneath the headings is all a jumble. The handwritten words are like they are written on post-it's, all stuck on at different angles.
This is how you anticipate your splitting apart through the year.
Now it is today and you have gone past ‘week 47’, late autumn in the year. Today you are going to the doctors. You have to go because you need your repeat prescriptions. The receptionist told you that you can't order them over the phone and you have to come in to see the doctor. She gives you an appointment and you are grateful because it is only just over two weeks to wait.
You need two repeat prescriptions. One is for antibiotics because you are getting recurrent infections. I don't want you to talk about this because I know it makes you feel embarrassed, and you don’t like to draw attention to yourself in public, or to your older body. You mostly avoid looking at your body now. Except for your face, which you look at every morning in the mirror examining it for evidence of change, your splitting apart as you call it.
Going to the doctor, there is a part of you that is afraid. Is this your body beginning to fail you wonder to yourself. Or I ask you. Because I know you are anxious because you still have to work. I know you really need the money. The other thing you say is that work gives you meaning and you don’t want to stop altogether anyway. At least that is what the stronger part of you likes to say. But you don’t altogether believe it. There is too much of a gap these days, this splitting apart that has opened up in all life and the precarity of how all work goes on.
The other repeat medication you need is for antidepressants. Something terrible happened in your life just over two months ago. Somebody very close to you died who should not have died. You are not going to tell the story about that here. Not today, it is too raw, maybe not ever. Then about a month ago you go to the doctors because you are not sleeping. They prescribe you antidepressants. It isn't the first time the doctors do this in your life, you had them before, for about a year the last time.
So you know right now that you are splitting apart.
You get to the doctors in good time before your appointment time today. The waiting room is full and you have to stand. Twenty minutes later the doctor comes into the waiting room and calls your name. You would rather she didn't call your name in front of the other people waiting there. Being named feels to you like you are being summoned for an army examination.
You don't want to be a recruit, you think. You don’t want to join the army of illness, you want to say to the doctor, but you know it is not safe to speak this way to the doctor. You keep quiet. Besides she looks more exhausted than you.
This is a paltry time to be living you think to yourself later as you are leaving the doctor with your repeat prescription notes. You use a whiny voice to haggle with her for what you want, occupying her room and wearing her out until she gives in.
Back in the waiting room waiting for your medicine packages it looks more like a war zone than ever, short of time, short of supplies, and short of compassion. Where nobody's safety can be guaranteed, as if barrel bombs are dropping, and an invisible coat of dust and debris is covering everybody.
Then it happens…
…as you finally leave the doctors you begin to cry quietly to yourself. The memory of the chestnuts on the path comes back to you. You wonder at their shiny beauty. Perhaps I can stay there on the path you tell yourself. If you can stay, you think, mixing my tears with yours, I can say everything I need to in the way of love.
Splitting Apart is an `Autofiction' by Max Mackay-James: partly experienced, partly witnessed, partly imagined or dreamed.
Planning and Preparing for….
by Larry Butler
Retirement is the withdrawal from one's position or occupation or from one's active working life. A person may also semi-retire by reducing work hours.
Play is to engage in games or other activities for enjoyment rather that for a serious or practical purpose. Gambling. Allow a fish to exhaust itself on a line before reeling it in…
The difference between work and play seems obvious to most of us. One is serious and the other is frivolous, some might say. Play is older than culture; for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing. For children play is deadly serious, the game is paramount.
Is this you splitting apart, dividing yourself into little pieces ready to be scattered after you die? Is there another way, a gradual decline, a positive de-motion? Or can we raise our game when we reach a certain age? Let’s leap into left field beyond all ideas or right or wrong ways of being in the world, of getting older. Let’s play…
Let’s play clickety-clock,
down the road go rickety-rock
the run away clock . . . .
(a song from Matchbox Theatre)
Having retired when I was 18 after three months collecting garbage from the machines on the General Electric factory floor in San Jose, California, I knew then, I would never work again. I’ve been playing ever since. Now well past retirement age, I’m beginning to understand what it means to work. I’m still working: teaching tai-chi, writing and editing books and blogs like this, leading retreats and therapeutic writing groups. Or have I been retiring continuously since my days as a garbage man, withdrawing from opportunities to work, all my life? Well into my 50s, when I called my American mother, she would usually ask me: “Larry when are you going to get a proper job?” She stopped asking when my first book of poems was published, although I didn’t receive any money for it.
From listening to retirees, some have been promoted beyond their capability, some side-lined, redundant, early retirement, put out to fodder.
Every employee to rise in the hierarchy
through promotion until they reach a level
of respective incompetence
(The Peter Principle)
At work, some of us reach a plateau then rest on our laurels coasting to the end of our working life. A few, like me, never bother getting a job, never go for an interview, never fill out an application form. I’ve been lucky floating along happily self-employed, shifting from one piece of work to another. Living Our Dying is my current work – unpaid – editing an anthology with my friend Sheila Templeton – a retired English teacher, the ideal co-editor for someone with dyslexia. I didn’t learn to read until I was 18.
We die. That may be the meaning of life.
But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.
Some jobs die almost before they start, while other jobs linger on never quite getting started. I worked for over ten years trying to start an eco-village in Scotland – it grew arms and legs offering courses in NVC (Non Violent Communication) and Permaculture (revolution disguised as gardening), but we never found land to build on…..
Some consider working-life like prison; freedom when you retire. When we receive a prison sentence, there are big rituals culminating in being locked up: arrested, investigated and questioned, interviewed, the trial, the sentence. When we leave prison, the gate opens and we walk out without ceremony. If you’ve a long sentence in the same job, statistic indicate that many folk die soon after retirement.
Riding my bike – “look ma no hands” – along the canal from Maryhill to the Royal Infirmary for my weekly tai-chi class, I chat to the swans, sing to the coots, pick brambles in Autumn, elderflowers in Spring. This class started as a physio-therapist’s Ph.D research: a randomised control trial to find out if there’s a difference between tai-chi and aerobics in helping osteoporosis patients. The research showed very little difference, except two things: the patients who did the tai-chi significantly reduced their fear of falling, and they grew in height! They were all well beyond retirement age. The class continued after the research, offering tai-chi to the control group who had only attended the aerobics. Now 25 years later, we continue to play tai-chi every Tuesday.
Whatever work we do, there is suffering every day – including boredom. There is impermanence along the way. Some jobs last longer than others, some never end: Undertakers! The death of a Salesman is always present:
“Why am I trying to become what I don’t want to be …
when all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute
I say I know who I am.” (Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman)
Do you sell your skills? I do. Yet there is no one selling and no one buying. That’s the big delusion. There is no such thing as Retirement – just moving on, moving up, moving down, positively de-moting, emoting, a gradual decline, reclining towards continuous giving and receiving and not knowing the difference.
by James King
Many people retire form ‘WORK’. And lots of people seem to assume that that means you stop doing anything!! Others think that it is simply a capitalist construct.
ARE YOU RETIRED
Rue REED HIGH HER ED
ARE YOU READ HIGHTER ED ?
EDWARD THE MAN WHO ALWAYS READ HIGHER
CLIMBED TUFFETS THEN HILLOCKS
WITHOUT EVER TIRING
HE READ AS HE CLIMBED
BOTH MOUTAINS AND HILLS
HE READ AMD READ SOME MORE
HE READ NOVELS AND WILLS
HE CLIMBED STAIRWASY & LADDERS
READ OF HEROIES & BADDIES
CLIMBED STEEPLES & READ MYTHS
READ THRILLIERS & SCALED CLIFFS
EDWARD THE MAN WHO ALWAYS READ HIGHER
SURRMOUNTED HIGH WALLS
AND SCOFFED AT BARBED WIRE
(James King has developed his career as performance artist and sound poet, while maintaining his interest in Dramatherapy with vulnerable groups in the community)
The Search for Vocation, and the Life Beyond
by Kim Stafford
We have a son in college, a philosophy major. When I asked him what he wants to do with a degree in philosophy, he replied without hesitation, “I want to end dualism in western civilization.” Ah, bless him. When I once asked him why many of his classmates looked so glum, he replied, “I think it’s capitalism.” And when he was ten or so, he told me, “Dad, we didn’t become human when we invented tools—because when you use a tool, you just look at the tool. We became human when we looked across the fire into each other’s eyes and told stories.”
He is in the process of inventing a vocation never known before, because the world is in a crisis never known before. And I am seeking in retirement a kind of fervent witness for a world on fire, testimony by poetry.
Poetry? Testimony? This binge of insight from our son takes me back to my own formative years, when I thought I was (of all things) a medieval scholar, getting a Ph.D. by delving into the eighteen modern English translations of the Middle English poem Pearl (c. 1400, some say composed in Staffordshire). What was I thinking! When my advisor returned my dissertation draft, he had scribbled on the top sheet, “This may be the most turgid prose ever penned!” I wasn’t sure what “turgid” meant—not a word I used—but I knew it wasn’t good.
I got the degree, and have been in flight from scholarship ever since—but not from poetry. Poetry seemed from the start the most practical thing I could do. A poem is short, intuitive, enriching, possible in a busy life, and a restorative response to the many forms of darkness and anger and fury that assault us daily.
So, after college, for my soul-work I became a writer of poems, and for my bread-work the person who would teach anything, any time, to anyone. I taught because I enjoyed being with people learning, and would generally start each class with a conversation, saying, “Let’s go around and say why you are here… what do you hope for… what’s the best we could do? It didn’t matter the subject. It was about leaning inward in a group, sharing what we knew, then what made us curious, then finding ways to seek together. I taught poetry, photography, journalism, folklore, linguistics, “basic inquiry”…and in time, courses like “One’s Own Light,” “Musing: the Powers and Pleasures of Thought,” and “Audio Postcards.” We interviewed strangers, made little films, conducted a writing “marathon” (wandering and writing together), wrote songs, broadcast our stories on the radio, revived the art of letter-writing, developed “eloquent email,” experimented with the practice of writing in multiple genres including many we invented: rambles, leftovers, mullings, flints, uncoveries, and mute sonatas.
For forty years I taught at a college—Lewis & Clark College in Oregon, USA—but I really taught in a secret time-out-of-time, in a feral, tribal, revolutionary zone of exploration. When I asked the class, “Why are you here?” one of my students said, “That’s just what my counselor says to start a session.” “Well, yes,” I replied. “This class is a place for consolation and life-saving honesty, no matter how difficult the process of finding rock bottom, and then digging farther down.”
Increasingly, part of my work as a teacher now is to be gone from school. I’ve taught in Scotland, in Italy, in the tiny kingdom of Bhutan, in a remote Inupiat village in Alaska, and in Mexico. In forests, prisons, homeless shelters, retirement homes. In the French Quarter in New Orleans I was invited by a local genius, Richard Louth, to take part in a “writing marathon,” whereby we wandered in groups of three or four, and settled together for an hour at a bar or coffee shop, on the levee, in the cathedral, at Jackson Square, at the Café du Monde, in the hurly burly of the French Market, beside the jukebox at Harry’s Bar, or in the pastry attar air of Croissant d’Or. We would write for half an hour, then share what we had written, and then the only allowable response was, “Thank you.” No praise, no fixing, no advice, no “help.” Just gratitude. Murmurs of approval and glances of admiration. Then we wandered to the next place to cast our spell of words again. By the end of the day, we each had half a dozen semi-related pieces magically completed in welcoming companionship. By the end of the week, I had a little book called An Encyclopedia for Growing Older.
I think it was the New Orleans marathon that caused me to recognize that an institution of higher learned would no longer do, and this summer I’ll surrender my office key at the college and join the company of the retired.
I learned from a friend that in Viet Nam, when a person retires, friends say, “She has gone to the garden.” Such will be my lucky destiny—cultivating beets and poem, beans and songs, squash and stories. And always growing texts from native seed—a word overheard, dreamed, or looming forth from the mind. Then we look across the fire into each other’s eyes, and tell stories.
Gone to the Garden
In Viet Nam, when one retires,
people say, Ve vuon… Our friend
has ‘gone to the garden.’
Now my calendar appoints the seasons.
Now I take calls from jay and crow
as I open a row in dark earth.
Now I confer with seed of beet and gourd,
and with a tent of sticks and string
I offer the bean vines a path to heaven.
Instead of paper, mulch.
Instead of clock, dawn and dusk.
Instead of memo, memory—
bowing over potato ground
I greet my father’s shadow
lifting the hoe.
Kim Stafford is the author of a dozen book of poetry and prose, and the founding director of the Northwest Writing Institute at Lewis & Clark College in Oregon, USA. He currently serves as Oregon’s Poet Laureate. His Encyclopedia for Growing Older can be found at www.lulu.com.
All memo readers
From: Ted E. Bare
RE: The Bare Essentials
Periodically, news about my new business, The Bare Essentials, will be sent to selected persons, who as a friend and colleague puts it, are nude under their clothes. She knows about the bare essentials.
This memo will be short. We, here at the Bare Essentials, believe in walking our talk...and our essentials. So, there will not be lot of fluff or filler, just the bare essentials.
Many of you have inquired about how I am doing since retirement stripped me of weekly pay and some benefits. Many of you have agreed that their actions exposed the true undergarments of the organization and, I agree, it was ugly. Well, as many of my business say, you can strip us of pay and benefits, but when you get down to the bare essentials, you will find a treasure.
I have found work since retirement with people whose skins are either thick or thin. We believe in diversity at The Bare Essentials and, thus, do not discriminate with respect to skin depth. We pride ourselves on meeting people as they are, or as some put it, as they really are. Ours is a straight-forward organization, though we are also willing to work with gay or lesbian persons. We try to embody our mission statement, which reads something like, "Get to the Bare Essentials." Many organizations find this titillating because other consultants, we are told, use layer after layer of words and procedures and jargon - total quality, team work, learning organization - before you can get to the real body of their work, whereas we come in and get to the bare essentials. This doesn't mean a "quickie." No! We have found that many, especially our older customers, don't like quickies, even though they are often quick. Rather, it means that we get to the bare essentials and can linger there as long as the client is willing to pay. Yes, we cut to the quick, but not too quickly. Essentially, we are bearish on The Bear Essentials, as you can tell if you are still reading.
Many speculated that we would not make it at The Bare Essentials. Others thought that if we made it, it would be barely. We don't engage in naval gazing; we're too busy exposing ourselves to would-be customers who, after exposure, are at a loss for words except to say, like the police officer, "We'll book you right away." You know we like books, so those are the words we want to hear.
I hope everything is coming off well for you. If we at the Bare Essentials can assist you in baring your burdens, call us during our intake time of 2:37-2:42 each afternoon.
Ted E. Bare has also been known as Ted Bowman (https://www.bowmanted.com/)
a grief educator / writer who specialises in change and transition in families, an organisation, or communities. He lives in the USA but travels to the UK where he works with hospices and care homes. Ted teaches Family Education at the University of Minnesota. He is co- editor of The Wind Blows, The Ice Breaks, poems addressing themes of loss and renewal, and author of two booklets, Loss of Dreams and Finding Hope When Dreams Have Shattered.