Aiming for No Regrets: Looking ‘Upstream’

When I was a little girl, my father and I used to sketch together.  He never declared himself as an artist, but he was. In later life he would carve animals from wood or soapstone, and I have several of these among my most prized possessions.  He was color-blind, so pen and ink or pencil were his mediums of choice. So they were mine, too.  My favorite things to sketch were landscape scenes – in particular, meandering, tree-lined streams, imitations, I’m sure, of the creek running through the Metroparks at the bottom of my street where I played as a child.

It is surprising to me now, how important that creek was to my sense of self.  I considered it my duty to manage it; keeping the tiny waterfalls free of sticks and leaves, moving branches that had fallen in so the polywogs and salamanders could move about more freely.  Although I was probably robbing them of hiding and nesting places in so doing.

I never wandered too far upstream, needing always to be close enough to get home for supper or lunch, but I always wondered where the stream came from.


I had a conversation yesterday with a friend who, like myself, had spent her working life in service to others.  It happens we both worked in the nonprofit arts realm and are both now some years retired, but as busy – or busier than when we worked full time.  The difference now is that most of our busy-work is delivered still in service to others – but for free, as volunteers for nonprofit groups we care about.

We also talked about how frustrated we are that, while our volunteer efforts are rewarding to some extent, there is little time for doing the things we thought we would be doing in retirement; things that would fulfill the unmet needs, the creative growth and satisfaction of our personal, rather than our professional selves.

What is it about people who have spent their working lives in the nonprofit or service sectors – women in particular, I’d venture – that makes us feel we need to keep giving once we stop being paid for that service? Well, there’s the old ‘women’s’ thing of seeking or needing validation through selfless and usually thankless service, I suppose.  But my friend and I are women who have attained a high level of professional accomplishment and recognition in our respective fields of endeavor. We don’t need to prove anything to anyone. Yet we, or speaking just speak for myself now, I seem to believe I still owe it to the universe to keep on giving.

My friend remarked on the message being delivered everywhere now to Boomers, about volunteerism.  About ‘staying happy in retirement’ by using your life’s experience to serve others; all these urgings to volunteer. Even my former employer has a program for retirees, matching them up with needy nonprofits for volunteer service.

Fewer are the messages celebrating the virtue of personal, creative growth. Fewer are the messages that retirement may signal an appropriate shift in the life cycle toward higher individual human development.

Although I can’t believe I am using this as an example – look at former President George Bush.  Once the leader of the free world, he now spends his time painting – investing in his personal development as an artist.  I wonder, having spent eight years nurturing his creative sensibilities and sensitivities, if this investment was not a factor in the brilliant, nuanced and positively eloquent speech he gave recently about the diminishing civility of human society.  I was deeply impressed and moved. Even if someone wrote the speech for him, his impulse to make this statement and his clear passionate delivery of it had to have come from a place of deep reflection and compassionate, measured thought.  It’s not a place you can get to easily without the time and space unencumbered by the demands of others’ needs.

I have been reading (native Ohio) poet Mary Oliver’s essay collection Upstream.  One essay, entitled “Of Power and Time” captures some of what I have been thinking about – and what my friend and I spent our lunchtime yesterday discussing.  Here’s the final  sentence of that essay.

“The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”

There’s a terrific reflection on the essay from the blog BrainPickings, here.

I was curious about the title of the book, Upstream, at first, since it is a collection  published late in her life and career, and the essay that struck  me as meaningful seems to be speaking to me, now, downstream  in my life as the creative call has become restive in me.  But the essays reveal the incredible debt she owes to the source material of both her childhood and her connection to nature.  Who she is and what she accomplished comes from who she was and what the early inspirations were for her.

So I am called to look back – upstream, past the rocks and tumbling cataracts of a busy, complex life of service to others,  to where I began.  To reflect on that stream I so carefully tended as a child. To follow the impulse to seek out the source no matter how far I have to wander from home.

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