catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 12, Num 21 :: 2013.11.15 — 2013.11.28


Humans being

What I remember is the joy in her eyes — the light in her smile, the easy movement of her body, her enthusiasm.

She sat across the table from me in the quiet coffee shop, telling me how her life had changed in the last few months. After years as a single mother, then grandmother, a full-time member of the workforce with a job that carried many responsibilities, she had crossed the Rubicon. In the spring she had turned sixty-five and retired.

As my own years accumulate, I hear stories of retirement more frequently. One acquaintance after the other is worrying about financial security or planning a second career or a major travel adventure. They display varying degrees of excitement or anxiety. Several have already retired, and from them the refrain is surprisingly consistent: “I don’t understand it…I’ve never been so busy!”

As these voices echo in my head, my friend is describing her typical day. She sits at her window each morning, sipping coffee and watching the day come. When the sun makes it over the top of the dune that see can see through her window, she gets dressed and goes for a long walk, often on the trails that lace the wooded back side of that very dune. (Last summer, she said, she would dress in her bathing suit and spend the morning on the quiet stretch of Lake Michigan beach on the dune’s other side.)

She reads. She writes poems. She likes to write in coffee shops and will drive a half hour or more to spend a couple of hours in a place where she can hear her muse more clearly. Because I have read some of those poems, I know that she gives her full attention to what she encounters on her walks and in the shops and streets of the lakeshore towns, whether trees or people, animals or sky. They are revealed anew on the page with precision and compassion, and with insight that is hers alone.

Clearly, she is doing exactly what she wants to do in this season of her life. As I type this sentence, I hear the warning bell in my head clanging SELFISH! IRRESPONSIBLE!  This warning system was installed at birth it seems — in many of us. It’s become fashionable to compare notes among different religious traditions to see who has the strongest heritage of guilt. Does Catholic guilt trump Jewish guilt? I don’t know whether Muslims or Mormons play this game, but Calvinists, along with other Protestants, certainly do. My Calvinist heart was born, it seems, needing to DO the right thing.

My friend has said “no” to this guilt — she’s also said “no” to doing as a way of being. To calm my fluttering heart, I remind myself that she still cares for her grandchildren when they need her. I doubt she has forgotten the poor or her finances. But, for this season, she has decided to put something else first — the part of her that needs to be.

She’s going on now, telling me that a few weeks ago, her old employer called. There was a position open that needed badly to be filled. Like so many veterans, she was being called back into the fray. But she, at least, had a choice. She went to talk to the manager, the old tensions of the work descending on her like a familiar cloak. She didn’t have to think about it. “I told them no,” she said. “I couldn’t do it. Maybe I’ll have to work again someday. But not this year.”

Not this year: with those words my friend had carved out a place bordered and protected by whatever “no’s” she needed to erect for herself: no to money, no to the satisfaction of being needed, no to “usefulness,” no to the anxiety of living alone with no one to schedule her day but she herself, no to a whole tide of cultural assumptions, bolstered, too often, by religion. I admire the courage of her choice.

She would laugh at the word courage. She would say she is just doing what she wants to do. Maybe she is. Maybe it’s just me who has a crawl of nattering objections running across the screen of my mind when I think about her with admiration. But I doubt it.

And this is what I know. I know that the “no” she’s spoken has opened space in her life for a deeper “yes” to be born. This is the “yes” she is speaking to the world she now has time to observe at length and in detail. This “yes” emerges out of her in words on a page, words that can build bridges that connect her to others, connect other souls to hers.  And one day, while she was in her favorite coffee shop writing, a man, another poet, came over to compare notes. They began writing together, first spontaneously, then regularly. Their creative friendship is blossoming into love. This profound “yes” couldn’t have taken root in a life filled up with replacement activities.

Perhaps, in a year, my friend will take a job again. Maybe her new love won’t last. Maybe she’ll write all she cares to write and take up the bass guitar or start a non-profit. Then again, maybe she’ll keep walking and writing delightedly until she’s 90 or more. Whatever the future brings, she will know herself better for having given herself this time to follow her deep desire for beauty, creativity and rest. I believe God lives there. When I meet her in that territory, I sense a holy, animating spirit between us.

I hope I won’t forget.

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