It’s been almost six years since I retired, a retirement in name only. My whole professional life has been lived in and around schools, as a teacher at many different grade levels, a school director and a teacher educator. And my school prowling continues. I’m on the boards of schools and educational organizations; I have volunteered for a mentoring program that helps Chicago students stay on a perilous track toward college graduation; I meet regularly in coffee shops, sometimes with people still in the game who need a mentor, sometimes with geezers like me who are trying to stay engaged; and, most important, I flit in and out of classrooms of former students and colleagues, sometimes on a one-shot basis, sometimes as a regular visitor. It’s hard to define my role in these situations. I’m not exactly coaching because the teachers I visit are by now solid professionals. With them, I’m more of what I’ve come to think of as a “thought partner,” someone who can prod them to explore new structures, new materials, new ways to expand student choice and voice. It’s harder to trek up those punishing flights of stairs to the third floor than it was a decade ago, but for now I can still manage, although the sight of an elevator does make my heart skip a proverbial beat. What’s important is that I’m still engaged and still visible, not yet the ghost I will inevitably become.
As you can see, I’ve not used my retirement as a license to relocate to a South Sea island or to take up mixed martial arts. It’s been more of same, but same has been more than good enough for me for more than fifty years. What’s changed is that, despite all these forms of engagement, I’m often home by the mid-afternoon, just the right moment to set the timer on my phone for a 20-25 minute nap, originally a luxury, now more and more of a necessity. There are chunks of time, like right now, that allow me to write, although being deprived of the vibrant dailiness of school life makes the writing come harder. All through my working years I fantasized about what it would be like to come home at the end of the day with no home-work, to look forward to a long evening of reading, watching TV, going out occasionally. I have that now, an enormous gift that I squander too often by over-reading the newspaper or by dozing over the material at hand.
There’s a sameness to those evenings, which many more adventurous souls than I might find boring, but it’s my life for now and for the foreseeable future, a life I inhabit with much gratitude. There’s drama ahead, most of which will likely involve tragedy and loss, so there’s a lot to be said for a dial currently set to boring. It’s an odd interim period — occasional pre-dinner visits to the gym, dinner at home on the nights with no theater commitments, no board meetings of organizations we support, after-dinner struggles to complete the newspaper and still leave time for other reading. The baseball or basketball game in the background doesn’t do much for reading efficiency, but addictions die hard. When the focus on reading becomes more difficult to sustain, there’s a final round of TV viewing, which might include a Netflix series recommended by a friend, followed by a bit of Rachel Maddow, hardly the most recommended sedative for the sleep-challenged.
This regime could definitely be branded as boring, especially by younger, more adventurous souls. I remember a dear friend well into his 70s who was living through some very super-charged marital strife. “At this stage in my life, I just want calm, peace,” he said. “I don’t have the energy for all this drama.” It’s odd to think of your life in terms of energy efficiency and energy conservation, but that’s the reality when you’re hovering around the 80 mark. There are the rare folk who, at this age, go off to serve in the Peace Corps or engage in a passionate love affair, but my passion reserve is spent on watching the amazing sunrises and sunsets from our 16th floor apartment windows and observing yet another year’s miracle of vegetables standing to attention in our community garden plot. And yes, the passionate indignation about the lies and the greed that are dragging our country down deserves a good portion of our daily passion quota.
What we should be doing with more of the time left is what is now being newly branded as “de-accessioning” or “decluttering.” We are the same people who, after six months of marriage, were able to load all our possessions in our Chevy Corvair for the cross-country drive from San Francisco to Boston. Now we’re surrounded by closets and shelves full of “stuff.” Books, papers, clothes we haven’t worn in years, luggage with broken zippers, pots and pans we inherited from our mothers’ kitchens, though we rarely use them, cassettes and VCRs we no longer have the equipment to listen to or view, a whole storage locker full of disassembled beds and authors’ copies of books we’ve written, on and on. We are engaged in a criminal act of negligence in not attending to this detritus, thereby leaving it to our poor children, one of whom lives halfway around the globe, to deal with. A late friend who had lived a life that was dramatic enough so that he was always being asked why he wasn’t writing an autobiography would respond in the charming German accent he never lost “Ach! I am too busy living.” That’s our alibi as well. Boring and routine though our lives may be, there’s still enough engagement to keep us from a full-time commitment to that “Going Out of Business” sale.
I suppose that retirement could be looked as a time for reflection on lessons learned, the distillation of wisdom from all that accumulated experience as husbands and wives, parents, writers, teachers, community members, world travelers, residents of many different parts of the country. In the midst of all that “boredom” there’s still plenty of time for asking questions about how well we did. For me that’s meant bouncing between pride in what I’ve accomplished – student lives I’ve touched, institutions I’ve helped build which are still standing, books and articles I’ve written – and on the other side, a sense of having fallen short – not pushed myself hard enough, not taken enough risks, only winding up on the B team. It’s a gut-wrenching confrontation with all the failures, small and large, that are inevitable components of the work lives of most ordinary mortals: I should have been a stronger, more definitive leader. I should have been the purveyor of a greater sense of hopefulness at the moments when I succumbed to a darker sense of despair. I should have been a more inspirational speaker at the moments when those around me needed inspiration and instead received a fumbling and inarticulate message. But those moments pass and are replaced with a kind of cosmic resignation. I may still be active, but the main work, the work I’ll be judged by and remembered for – albeit for a nano second – is behind me and in that much maligned phrase “it is what it is.”
These are the boring, yet reassuring daily rituals that make up most of our lives now: the morning ride down the elevator to retrieve one of the declining numbers of print NY Times; the 30 minutes on the exercise bike, the predictable rotation of breakfast menus, and so on through the day, right up to the nightly indulgence of a bowl of Rice Krispies before bed. Thankfully there are still wonderful things to look forward to – those trips planned down the road: the late publication of a book my wife has struggled with for decades, with all the attendant hoopla that accompanies publication; the long phone conversations with our daughters where there’s always lots to talk about and none of it feels forced and obligatory; the visits to our granddaughter, each of which contains a core of melancholy musing about how deep into her life we will be allowed to be active spectators; the ritual summer return to our former New Hampshire home; the occasional dinner party that brings together just the right set of people.
This boring and unremarkable life is a product of privilege that should be the reward for everyone of a certain age, but clearly is not for people living in unsafe environments with no financial safety net to allow for so much as a dinner out or a night at the theater or the movies. I am enormously grateful for the security – in all its meanings – that makes this life of blessed boredom possible, at least until the next chapter begins.