More Things in Heaven and Earth

Do you ever feel like a charlatan? A fake? I still struggle with the issue as I creep warily into the terra incognita of Retirement. I wonder what to call myself now that I’ve climbed over the fence. Is it still me who speaks? Was it ever? I find myself consumed by memories of who I thought I was and the nagging suspicion that I may have massaged them into their current shape. I want to believe them. They have become my myth –not in the pejorative sense of deception, but rather in the more sacred tradition of Metaphor: we are all metaphors in our own stories. We are all poems.

And yet one can get used to wearing camouflage. My worry is that I had begun to believe my clothes. Retirement is a test –or at least a mirror of what others may have seen all along. There are no titles in an image; no power in a reflection. It is, in effect, a tabula rasa –or, as a former obstetrician would see it, an accouchement.

But I digress. I had come to regard my pilgrim’s progress in the new life as measurable in cups of coffee for some reason. I suppose we all need une idée fixe and mine was recreational coffee.  Communal coffee. I had to get the locals used to seeing me at that restaurant in the Cove by the ferry lineup. I didn’t want them to stop talking whenever I walked in, or anything, and I certainly didn’t want them to stare at me to see if I was going to make some egregious social gaffe either. No, acceptance was what I craved, not analysis.

But I realized it was going to be tricky; I am not by nature a joiner. I don’t mingle well and I have always migrated to the corners of rooms. Statistically discoverable to be sure but socially invisible. Anthropologically mute.

And today is the day; I can feel it. Rain drums on the roof as I walk towards the shower and I smile in anticipation. Last night, I made a list of all of the things I needed to remember in the restaurant. Nothing special, I guess, but I wanted to be sure I didn’t gaffe out or anything. Words tend to collect in my mouth when I’m embarrassed, and somehow climb through closed lips when I’m not watching.

After the shower, I review the list one last time and then put it in my pocket -just in case. But by the time I arrive in the cove, steal a parking spot and run, sodden, through the rain, I’ve forgotten everything. It doesn’t matter, though –I’m here. Squashed and elbowed in the crowd, I try to smile as if I’m enjoying myself. I try a little eye-contact… well, lip contact anyway –apparently the contacted can’t tell and it still seems friendly. The head nods, but I can’t tell if it’s in response to me or the one it’s are talking to. I’m not discouraged, though; I see it as a start. And anyway, he walks away. Maybe he’s just gone to refill his coffee, I think, but there’s still steam coming from his cup, so I reconsider my hypothesis.

I try saying hello to a man standing by himself near the far wall of the room, but just as he seems about to say something, a door opens right beside him and he excuses himself and hurries through it to the washroom. I try not to get discouraged and regard it as a learning experience: don’t expect a meaningful conversation at the waiting-wall.

Suddenly, as if on some invisible cue, a drain opens, and the room empties like a sink. I see the table I covet by the window and sit down at it, still coffeeless. Still conversationless. I find myself staring at the rivulets of water running down the other side of the glass and wondering if I forgot something on my list. A chair scrapes on the floor nearby and I see the owner sitting at my table with a mug of coffee for me. There is a smile on his face, but he looks exasperated. Worried.

“I noticed you trying to navigate the room, Gary…” –(another person who knows my name?)- “and I’m sorry you couldn’t make it to the counter.”

I smile in return. “I just got here, so I thought I’d mingle with the crowd until it thinned out,” I lie.

His face acknowledges the lie and he shrugs. “Well, as you can see, it’s bedlam in here until the ferry leaves, and then it starts all over again before the next one comes.”

I nod sympathetically. “You need more staff to handle the crowd, maybe.” I don’t know how I come up with these platitudes but I can’t think of anything else to say.

Another shrug. “I do have more staff, but this is an island, eh?”

I tilt my head to one side to indicate that I don’t follow his argument. “What do you mean?” Now I feel stupid for not understanding. He’s obviously talking Island; it’s a local dialect, I think.

“Island time,” he explains. “You show up at whatever time –or don’t. It’s almost like throwing dice in the morning.” He scowls, and then to show he has no hard feelings, sighs. “The staff are all great people, but things sometimes change for them unexpectedly and they have to quit, or take a leave for a while. I understand, but sometimes it’s hard…” A group of men in business suits come through the door laughing and talking loudly so he gets up to serve them. “What I need is somebody I could call in a pinch to fill in for a server who’s sick or away… Just for the morning rush, anyway…”

The men head for the coffee urn and crowd around it still laughing at something. The owner makes it half way across the room towards the counter, stops, and then turns slowly towards me with a wicked smile on his face. “You’re retired now, aren’t you Gary…?”

How do people know this? Do I look retired? I nod politely as he turns, walks to the counter and jokes with the men. I take a sip of the coffee and smile to myself as something Hamlet said suddenly comes to mind: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy’. My philosophy, I correct myself, and chuckle at the thought.

Is it the rain..?

Tell me I’m not alone; reassure me it isn’t an early stage of dementia slipping under all the walls I’ve tried to erect over the years. Speak to me about the rain.

I love rain –I even had a skylight installed over my bed a few years ago just so the patter of raindrops would lull me to sleep. I love watching leaves tremble as the beads of moisture accidentally caress them in their hurry to reach the ground; I love seeing branches waving rhythmically in the wind of a storm like so many conductors vying for the attention of an orchestra hiding in the forest. Rain, after all, is just the sky playing on the earth.

And yet… And yet the January sound of rain pounding down as I wake up these days is no longer a lullaby, but a weight. A shackle. It’s discouraging; even the light seems weaker, disheartening, dissuading my reluctant feet from leaving the secure, dry warmth of the blankets to which they have become so accustomed. Maybe it’s a childhood remnant: if it’s really raining, maybe everything will be cancelled; maybe nobody else is out there; maybe it’s all a mistake that will correct itself after a few more hours of sleep…

But, contrary to popular belief, in retirement, you have to get up. Teleology requires it. In the absence of demand, lethargy is king. Here be dragons, as the medieval map makers used to write on those portions of their maps that were unexplored. And since each day is unexplored, one would be well advised not to disregard whatever omens or portents present themselves each morning…

So I need reassurance that my reluctance to fully engage a rainy morning is not in itself a portent. A foreshadowing of the years to come. A warning.

Not much goes through my head in the predawn storms. Until the radio alarm goes off at six, the remnants of dreams are free to wander, plotless and disturbing, as if they, not I were the rightful owners of my night. They still grope for purchase until the unaccustomed blast of broadcast voices informs me of the tragedies unfolding everywhere outside the room. I think I half prefer the dreams.

Today, however, I remember I have a purpose and trade the seductive warmth of the still-dark sheets for the ice-smooth wooden floor that surrounds the bed. I decide that I will wash away the news of terrorist bombs and distant floods and pretend my day will redeem the evil I’ve just been told. I, after all, am going out for coffee.

I also decide that I don’t even mind the rain; it takes away one decision I had to make: whether to walk or drive the 4 kilometers down to the little restaurant. In a way, I suppose I was looking forward to the exercise, but peering out the window –no, staring at my reflection; it is far too dark to see anything further away- I realize how silly it would be to flashlight my way down a narrow tree-lined rural road hoping as much to avoid the ditch on either side as the stream of sleepy drivers on autopilot to the ferry.

Normally, I avoid driving in rain that’s angled more than 45 degrees to the road -especially in the dark, and with gusts that shake the car. But I had a tradition to establish, a habit that would become so well known, it would, in effect, become a droit de seigneur: the six-thirty table by the window. And as I fight my way down the road, hands gripping the wheel like vices against the vicissitudes of wind, the thought fills me with pride, but not without the occasional frisson of anticipatory anxiety -the road to table is never an easy one, even for a local.

Oh yes, and parking. Who would have thought that anybody would actually park in front of the place; everybody down there at this unhallowed time of the unlit morning should be in the lineup on the road for the ferry. People who actually park in front should be flogged –or at the very least, denied table-rights.

After driving up and down the road a few times on high alert, I finally slip into the vacuum created by a departing miscreant and smile wickedly -they probably saw his car and wouldn’t serve him. There is a kind of frontier justice on an island.

The rain swipes furiously at the door to my car and I struggle to open it just enough to squeeze out. Clearly, I am not yet credentialed here, but that will change. The crowd will part on my arrival, and fingers will point to the table they have saved for me. The girl behind the counter will have my order of a toasted whole-grain bagel with a side of peanut butter (crunchy, unsalted) ready. The coffee urn will be freshly filled in breathless expectation of my approval and an abundant supply of sugar-substitute packages will be lined up beside my favourite mug.

But today, there is not even a place to stand -the ferry is late…

Life is a Garden

Life is a garden, but I don’t seem to have planted well. Now that it is autumn, there is not much of a crop to show for it at any rate. There should be rows and rows of green and leafy vegetables beckoning from night-dark fields and plump red apples calling from their aeries on the trees my father left for me to prune. There should be more to show for all these years, but as I look around, I have to squint to see the harvest.

On a recent moonful night when the winter’s cold had seeped into the room, and the only light was grey and percolating slowly through the somber clouds, I suddenly awoke thinking of Aesop’s grasshopper –you know, the one who discovered to his dismay that you have to plan ahead; that doing what you enjoy does not necessarily provide for future sustenance. And I, in that nadir of the depth of night, imagined that I may have enjoyed my job too much; that I may have sewn patients as my crop instead of friends; I may have built only a coffee-stained social network of hospital records…

But when day finally arrived and the rest of the bedroom surfaced, I realized I had found the answer to retirement: coffee. The meaning of the panic attack was simple: to achieve the full potential of the freedom that lay ahead of me like a field of untrodden prairie snow, I had to socialize. It was never one of my strong suits, mind you, but I understood that it was probably only a question of practice. I mean how hard could it be? I merely had to show up at the village coffee shop, order a coffee, and sit at a table somewhere. The progression from there was unclear, but I envisaged some sort of engagement with strangers curious as to who I was and why I had chosen the table they always used –my first social intercourse.

And it was Wednesday –I had to check my phone to be sure- so what better day to start a new and enriched life? I pulled on a fresh pair of jeans and a just-washed black sweat shirt –no sense in pretending I was a workie- and headed down to the cove to the coffee shop nearest to the ferry terminal. I live on an island whose mornings revolve around the hourly ferries to the mainland, so start big, I thought. Start busy. And start early –the meetings would be necessarily brief as the work-serfs ebbed and flowed.

But crowds at 6 AM are anomalous no matter how much you prepare. And noise is a companion to the afternoon -okay, and maybe the evening –but definitely not the early morning. I’ve always used the early hours to plan for the day, to decide how to proceed -not to party. And yet, as I walked into the café that first time, all sorts of strange thoughts swirled in my head. I wondered if I would be noticeably out of place, or carded. How would I explain my sudden, unexpected appearance? How could I justify my presence in this club to which I obviously didn’t belong?

As it turned out, the problem was not so much one of explanation or apology, as of fighting my way through the crowd –finding a place to stand. There were no tables that didn’t have uncountable appendages arrayed around them, no spaces that weren’t already occupied with arms waving for attention, hands busy with Styrofoam cups shielded from danger by little cardboard sleeves. The noise was deafening, the recognition absent. I might as well have been standing on a crowded rush hour bus downtown for all the socialization opportunities available.

If I hadn’t been so anonymous, I would have felt embarrassed at having arrived with such an amorphous agenda -embarrassed for standing around pretending I had just come down for a coffee; embarrassed that I was the only person in the crowd whose lips were not moving: the embodiment of solitude in the herd I had come to join.

I was about to turn and leave when I felt a hand on my shoulder. The sensation was so unexpected, l think I shuddered at the intimacy. When I turned, I saw an older man smiling at me almost apologetically.

“I think we both got here at the wrong time, eh?” he said, raising his voice to be heard. “I usually come around nine, but for some reason I woke up early today.” He looked around the crowded room, shrugged disappointedly and glanced at his watch. “They’ll be gone soon, so we can grab a table before the next shift arrives.” Then he looked at me more closely. “Retired?” he asked, and a mischievous smile immediately appeared on his face.

I nodded. “How did you guess?” I asked, wondering if it was really that obvious.

He chuckled and let his eyes study me for the briefest of moments. “You get to recognize fellow travellers,” he said, and pointed to a free table as the room began to empty like water down a just-opened drain.

“My name’s John, by the way,” he said, extending his hand to shake. “You hold the table while I grab us a coffee.” His eyes suddenly twinkled. “You do drink coffee, don’t you Gary?” He knew my name! I think my mouth must have fallen open in surprise, so he smiled. “It’s a small island, my friend,” he said, walking over to the coffee urn. “Did you really think you were an unsigned letter?”

No, but maybe an unplanted seed I thought, feeling his smile still lingering in the air as he walked away.

Retirement or Retrenchment

Ahh retirement – a drawing back, as the etymology would have it, but from what? We are all encouraged to prepare for it years in advance but until it arrives it is still a stranger.

I never thought it had dimensions, or volume; I never thought it was a place, any more than I thought that night was a destination, or that day was a region. But, retirement having arrived, I am beginning to change my mind. It is still too early to see the colours, or feel the textures, however; I am merely conscious of an envelopment –as in being wrapped loosely in a kind of gauzy curtain through which I can almost make out shapes and, with effort, hear whatever passes by. It is a world of shadows though. Pre-forms. Almost-things. And although I still miss work, it is hard to truly miss something when it has only just disappeared.

There are no markers, of course -no signposts pointing out the route, or telling me where I am. I could be anywhere -but wherever it is, I keep getting congratulated on having arrived. I find this strange, to say the least. Even if the commendations are for having finished what I started, I am still confused. Are you ever finished anything? And what does that mean? Suppose, for example, you have enjoyed what is now over? Shouldn’t the the response be tempered? Wouldn’t the wisest policy be to enquire how the person feels about the change, before congratulations are offered? Maybe it’s sympathy or an understanding face that they really need.

Or maybe just encouragement would do the trick –reassurance that even a mirror image can look different depending on the light. Depending on the perspective.

Although this may be an ambitious project and beyond my skills, I would like to track the journey from its confusing start. I am not a travel writer, but a pilgrim searching for meaning. I seek to determine if retirement is the bud-filled spring of a new life, or the leaf-strewn autumn of an older, more familiar trail. Will it be an opportunity or the slow unravelling and disintegration of the one who started life with a mewling cry?

I fear Macbeth’s devastating appraisal of his future:

‘I have lived long enough. My way of life

Is fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf,

And that which should accompany old age,

As honor, love, obedience, troops of friends,

I must not look to have, but, in their stead,

Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honor, breath

Which the poor heart would fain deny and dare not.’

So is retirement a beginning, or an end? It matters….