There comes a time when it hangs so heavily on your arms, you just have to lower them; when it so bothers your mind, it’s like standing with trailing shoelaces as you’re about to get off an escalator. A time when you have to be an agent, not a recipient. A volunteerer, not a voluntee.
I think the realization comes to people at different times; mine came late -some might say too late, and that, I think, is my issue.
I suppose I’ve always had a surfeit of time -we all do if we stop long enough to analyze it- but I tended to find a use for it: reading, arguing, or looking for stuff I must have left in the other coat. Frittering, in other words. It was well-intentioned, of course, but largely vacuous and inconsequential.
But now that I’m of an age, it begins to look a little like the hole in the doughnut I couldn’t eat. I mean, what is the hole anyway -that which is not the doughnut, but without which there would not be a doughnut…? The nothing that actually is? The sound of one hand clapping…?
Unused Time is certainly a paradox, so I decided to gather it all up, and volunteer it for something useful. It’s much easier to do when you’re retired, of course, because it’s certainly more visible then. However, much like the doughnut hole, it is difficult to evaluate its usefulness other than as a definitor.
But, Canadian-like, I refused to be defined by what I am not, and so I wondered if I could act as if I had planned this all along. That my life thus far was merely a prelude to the main act. That, to slightly paraphrase the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, It will flame out, like shining from shook foil and gather to a greatness, like the ooze of oil crushed. The problem, of course, was to discover where it might most usefully shine. And what would be the most appropriate area to crush.
I quietly discarded the prologue I had been living, as too dated -too analogue- to be of much service nowadays. You have to keep pace if you want to gather to any greatness. You can’t use the old Time anymore.
All of which left me wondering if I had anything new to offer -anything useful, at any rate. I started by cataloguing those things that interested me and which required no special skills. Ever since I broke my favourite toothbrush then flushed it down a toilet in Saskatoon in a fit of pique, I have been a conscientious recycler. Sometimes things have to get that bad before you can redeem yourself, I guess. But I’ve learned my lesson; I’m now good at recycling; I put a tick beside the word, and smiled.
But then I remembered getting caught trying to shove a plastic bag full of cellophane into the plastics bin. Apparently disguising cellophane as plastic is an indictable offence and a tough, official-looking woman also wrote my name down after apprising me of my sins. I mean, who knew? She as much as told me I wasn’t welcome in her recycling center anymore, so I’m guessing I couldn’t use her as a reference, even for someplace else.
I immediately switched frames and realized I also have a good deal of experience at Starbucks. I could be a baristum -or whatever you call a coffee clerk who doesn’t wear nylons. It sounded promising, but I doubt their insurance would cover septogeneric volunteers with anything hot. And besides, even hints of camouflaged mortality would be bad for business.
I tell you, volunteering in your golden years isn’t at all like what they lead you to believe. It just isn’t that easy to find a satisfying penultimatum before the Home beckons -before you yourself are warehoused. I have entered a time of expectations, when to do otherwise would engender suspicions, and probably launch more pliable volunteers in my direction.
No, I must not only offer my services, I must be seen to be so doing -if only to ward off other, even more gnarled helping hands, groping their way towards me. It’s a curious dilemma: Help, lest ye yourself be helped… A paradox worthy of Zeno.
Suddenly, like a sun-burned opening through a blanket of clouds, an idea appeared. What if there were other people like me? What if there were other well-meaning, and otherwise unselfish people, who needed help to avoid the guilt of not helping? People who just wanted to be allowed to live the allotted time remaining, in solitary contemplation? Unfettered. Unashamed. Unvolunteered.
But, how to find them without seeming to be that which they seek to avoid? The Zeno thing again: how could Achilles ever catch the tortoise when he merely decreased the distance between them each time it was measured? There would always be a gap between them, albeit smaller each time. The fact that the Zeno Paradox is an example of a convergent infinite series (1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 + 1/16… = 1) probably has little relevance to the Volunteering Paradox -and yet… Achilles would actually catch the tortoise in any real life, divorced from sophistry.
It occurred to me that maybe I was approaching the problem incorrectly. Maybe I was fooling myself with an unnecessarily infinite series -making a labyrinth out of a corridor. I decided to think it through at my favourite Tim Horton’s -while ignoring the hole in the 12 grain bagel I always buy, of course.
Charlie was there as always, so I sat down at his table. “Don’t you ever go home, Chuck?” I teased, thinking he’d simply smile, guffaw, and reach into his bottomless carton of stories.
But, this time he didn’t. He just shook his head and stared at his almost-empty cup of coffee. “Martha’s on my case again,” he said, avoiding my eyes.
I sighed sympathetically. He’d told me that Martha never got used to him being around the house so much after he retired -she’d had it all to herself for years; he’d been her night and weekend partner, and the routine had come to fit her like a pair of gym tights.
“She keeps wanting me to volunteer for stuff. She even goes online to see what’s available around here.” His eyes scrambled their way up my sweatshirt and clambered onto my face. “But I don’t want to volunteer…” They finally reached my eyes and climbed onboard.
I smiled and nodded. I live alone, and I could see Martha’s problem: you get used to things. “Jim’s having the same problem,” he added as he sighed deeply, and recalled his eyes to home base. “You’re the lucky one,” he said to the crumbs on his empty plate. “You’ve got no one to nag you.”
His face looked so upset, I thought he was actually going to cry. Something suddenly gelled inside me, and I took a quick bite out of my bagel. “Geordi and… who was it, Harjit?… Didn’t they both say they had the same problem?”
He nodded. “And Geoff, and Martin…”
I finished chewing and had a sip of my coffee.. “So why don’t we phone them and see if they’d like to meet here for coffee?” And then suddenly it occurred to me: “Maybe we could even do it a couple of mornings a week?”
A smile crept onto his face at last. “You mean… volunteer to meet?”
I shrugged and smiled back at him. “We can call it whatever we want…”