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.

Burning Obligations

It has been a hot and dry early autumn.  Too many of the trees have gone right from green to brown, putting expectations of a brilliant fall in wait-and-see mode. Lawns and sidewalks are littered in a shifting sheet of papery detritus. A shuffled crunching accompanies each step of my evening walk through the neighborhood.  Here and there, though, there is fire peeking through the scuffle of dead leaves, and some of the trees seem to be fighting to achieve glory.

Fire in my fingers!

Last night was one of those that signal the shift in the year; unseasonably hot for October, but with a grace of wind that propelled the day into a cloud-less evening. As night fell and the daytime clamor of the neighborhood dropped away, the wind in the trees became the dominant sound-scape, even drowning out cricket-song.

It was a perfect night to sleep with the windows open – or so I thought. The wind picked up after dark and the sky-scraping sway of the trees filled the night.  At first it sounded like the crash of the sea against a pebbled shore.  But rather than soothing, the waves of sound just agitated the night – more like the rasping schuss of a stiff broom on a stone walk, or the scraping of a crust of ice off a windshield. The volume just intensified as the night wore on – or maybe my sleeplessness just made it seem so.

I’m writing this at 2:30 am, unable to sleep with the noise of the wind in the trees and the dry leaves clawing at the screens to get in, but reluctant to close up the house against the sound.


In February last year, I wrote another post about wind. That post talked about the force of change in my life soon after retirement.  Now, two years later, I am again facing the need to make change.

Two years ago, in a somewhat desperate effort to fill the supposed empty time ahead, to feel useful and engaged with something meaningful, and – truth be told – to avoid facing the discipline it would take to become a serious writer, I said ‘yes’ to too many things.  I am now busier than I was when working full time. It’s not that I have too much to do. I will always choose to be busy.  It’s that I have too many different things to do. It’s like having five jobs.  No, it IS having five jobs, four of which are purely volunteer. 

So, what to do?  My separate obligations are like the recent spate of hurricanes – individual tempests, blowing me left and right, creating a storm of sleeplessness and worry that I will drop the ball somewhere. The details and tasks are piling up like the growing blanket of leaves on my lawn.


Well, it is the turn of the season – always a chance to make change. Somewhere I have to find a leaf rake – and a match.

Meandering into Balance

sprinkler rainbowI’ve been assessing the arc and scope of my days, now that I am nearly 11 months into my retirement. I’ve kept busy with this blog, working on renovating my house, and with a few volunteer commitments that require a focus outside of myself. Early on I felt this last was important so as not to fall into navel-gazing self-indulgence or ennui, things I feared could take over my days ahead. But just this morning I was struck by a sense of lovely balance that comes as close as I have ever imagined to what an ideal retirement – a productive retirement – might be like.

Tomorrow I go to meet with my new part-time employer – one who has offered an opportunity for me to continue to contribute to the arts in a new way that will keep me growing in new ways as well. For the past several days I have been preparing for this meeting as well as finishing some volunteer work.


One tomato gone, another tasted.

But this morning, I woke early and, with nothing on the schedule after feeding the cats, I had, before 9:00, read the headlines and finished the N.Y. Times Crossword, chased two deer out of the garden (after losing a perfect, ripe tomato), painted the columns on my front porch, and set up the sprinkler to water the treatment applied to my lawn yesterday.  All the while the cicadas whirred and the birds looped through the yard to the feeder, the fence and the branches of the trees.  The sun sprinkled rainbows on my parched lawn and the deer kept watch on me from behind the neighbor’s fence.

The day felt both full and open.  I had time—and I had useful tasks, at different levels of personal challenge and satisfaction, both accomplished and ahead. I don’t think there’s a better example of what retirement should be.

Nothing for it but to be grateful.DSC00886-001

Here’s a beautiful poem about a deer from an unexpected source. The Visitation by Marge Piercy

Unseen Forces

A few weeks ago the sudden rise in temperature brought March-like weather to the neighborhood. One evening the wind kicked up and grabbed the house and yard by the throat and shook it all night like a dog with a rag toy. My backyard neighbor’s security light shone through my bedroom window, throwing images of thrashing trees across the ceiling — an animated shadow puppet show. And somewhere in the house a piece of old metal weather stripping buzzed intermittently like a hive of angry bees. Not much sleep that night.

When I got up in the still dark morning, I saw that the burlap I’d so carefully wrapped and sewed around the flame-shaped fingers of the young Arborvitae planted last fall (so the deer wouldn’t get at them over the winter) had been pulled off and flung across the yard like Gypsy Rose Lee removing her elbow-length satin gloves. A heavy, tarped, wicker armchair had been slapped off the porch as well.  It now lay upside down on my neighbor’s front walk, tarp flapping like a luffed sail. I must have made quite a comic sight in my rubber boots and coat pulled over my ‘jammies’ and robe, wrestling with the chair and tarp — or rather, wrestling with the wind still wrestling with the chair and tarp. I was grateful for the semi-darkness.

Mostly, weather descends on us; rain, snow, even the sun shining down or the pressing weight of a heavy clouded sky.  But there’s something distinctly different about a wind storm. When there’s precipitation, the wind is just one part of the action and the effects we feel are more from those other elements than from the wind alone. Wind though, be it a soft breeze or a lashing gale, moves more horizontally through the world — and us — pushed by forces science has explained and our brain can comprehend, but which our senses still feel as mysterious.

windThere are lots of unseen forces blowing through our lives, pushing us one way and another almost without our noticing. It’s hard to pay attention to them all; even harder to try to master some of those we may be aware of. Like the expectations of others. Or, more challenging, what we think or feel are the expectations we have for ourselves. (The morning I wrote this, LinkedIn sent me a query; “Kathleen: what are your career resolutions?”)

I’ve been thinking a lot about expectations (and resolutions, truth be told) now that I am retired and do not have to respond to the expectations of a job. I have found it quite daunting to imagine the next 10 or 20 years with no one to answer to for how I invest my time and energy but me. What are my expectations?

Perhaps the bigger question though, is; do I have that mysterious, unseen force within — of will or commitment or fortitude — that will push me toward meeting whatever expectations I set for myself over the time remaining? Or will I end up buffeted toward an indeterminate end by indulgence, capricious fancies, or other external forces?

Like the weather, life descends on us regardless of our awareness. Finding the balance, the equilibrium between moving flexibly with what the winds of circumstance present, and still feeding the force of personal convictions and commitments within, is the challenge of mastering the dance ahead. The invisibility of the force that made my yard and house come alive last week is a reminder that there is power in what is unseen and what can blow us off course if left un-considered, un-wrestled-with. pat attentionA reminder to Pay Attention!


Touchstones and Bridges

Some years ago, after what I thought at the time was a major life disaster, I bought a small green juice glass from an estate sale to mark the start of a new beginning. Salvaging something beautiful that had survived another’s lifespan seemed important at the time. DSC00498-001 Last week the glass slipped from my hand and shattered, scattering emerald shards  across the white porcelain of the sink.

I’ve broken many glasses over time; crystal wedding gifts, acid-etched water glasses thin as paper, fancy stemware from my menagerie of antique-store orphans, bottom-heavy Dansk tumblers from an old boyfriend who didn’t like to drink his beer from my fancy Pilsner flutes. But somehow this mishap left me more distraught than all the rest.

I am not a particularly sentimental person. In my earlier life as a working artist/potter I lived quite acceptingly with the regular shattering of cups and platters, casseroles and teapots. Perhaps the fact that I could make them – or similar things – again, removed their preciousness and I had no problem letting go. I have let many, many things go over the years – things that gave me great pleasure or were important at one or another stage in life. Still, there are a few things, the loss of which continues to resonate wistfully and on occasion, painfully.

Things come into our lives and some aquire a value far beyond their intrinsic selves. They become symbols, carrying great weight of meaning. And when they go missing or are destroyed, they seem to take a piece of us with them.

Thirty years ago I lived in a small apartment in the inner city. It was an exciting time of independence and enormous personal growth, when I felt I was doing and being just exactly what and who I should. While away for a week-end, the apartment was burglarized. Expensive stereo equipment and some other quite valuable things were stolen. But the only thing I really miss from that time (still) is a small black leather jacket. That jacket fit so perfectly. It made me feel powerful and protected. In an odd way, the jacket was me—the me of that time and place. It had become a touchstone for an important transition into a new and joyous phase of life. Perhaps I remember this now as I face another transition, from a long, productive cycle of service to others, to retirement and all the questions of “what next?” that are before me.

When I broke my little green juice glass, my lucky charm, my touchstone for bridging the gap of a critical past life transition, I felt the need to replace it as I face the next. Foolish, perhaps. One can’t create a lucky charm. Still, I went right out and found a small, green, hand-made chased-glass tumbler in a local antique store. DSC00500But it’s not the same. It is lovely, and I will enjoy using it. But each time I do, I know the memory of the other, and all it symbolized, will arise and I will feel a pang of loss.

I can’t know what might become the touchstone for this transition into the next “who” I will be and “what” I should be doing. The bridge to the next landing site is still being built. It is a process; uncomfortable and scary at times, exciting at others, still early in its construction.  Perhaps I’ll pick up a new touchstone as I make my way across that bridge.


Accomplishing Retirement: a Dilemma

The adjustment to retirement is very interesting (51 days in so far). While there is much to recommend it, I am confronted with feelings of guilt for not being productive in service to goals and obligations outside myself.

I spent the last week making and hanging new curtains for my front bay window.DSC00478

I went to lectures on the Milky Way and the La Brea Tar Pits at the Natural History Museum, attended an astounding concert by Benjamin Bagby singing/reciting Beowulf in Old English, put on by Apollo’s Fire, and saw a movie in the middle of the day (Bridge of Spies – worth seeing). I finished a novel by Sarah Braunstein (The Sweet Relief of Missing Children) and started another by Irish writer Dermot Healy (A Goat’s Song).  I mulched and trimmed the garden for winter, made giant pots of soup and stew for the coming cold weeks, bought and assembled a new, cushy office chair and a desk to replace the decrepit one I’ve been carting around for 15 years. DSC00483 I went to the gym twice and tried and failed to write a poem to fulfill an assignment from my writing group. Among other things.

And it feels like I haven’t accomplished anything. I’ve done stuff, but what have I accomplished?  What, beyond things that made me happy, that satisfied my personal needs, have I accomplished

I was having lunch with a friend, also retired, and musing on this matter, and we thought that those of us who have spent their working years in service to a cause they were passionate about, may be similarly plagued with this odd kind of selfish guilt upon retirement. We wondered if folks who had made their living from work that had no deep personal meaning felt differently when they retired—could go play golf all day, travel, etc., and feel they deserved to have all their time for themselves.

That’s probably a simplistic and maybe rather arrogant musing. People volunteer all the time for things they care about.  They get involved in their church, do all kinds of things that go beyond self-indulgence.  Truth be told, I will too, I am sure.  But what?  Maybe that’s what’s bothering me. I don’t have a plan; not working toward a goal.

Our society and our economy are rooted in the Puritan concept of the productivity of the individual.  We work harder and longer than people in any other culture. At the same time, we are a consumer society, one that constantly flirts with hedonism as a defining value.  It’s sort of a vicious cycle: produce stuff so you can be happy consuming stuff.  Service is not a valued part of the economic equation.  Yet service satisfies at a deeper level than consumption, doesn’t it?  But its rewards are not necessarily monetary and so are less valued in our capitalistic culture.  Perhaps that’s why the on-profit sector too often finds it so hard to make its case for what it contributes/produces.

I get Social Security payments now, each month.  On the one hand, I know the payments I made into that system over the 57 years that worked (I had a paper route as a youngster) have earned that money.  But it still feels a little like pay for no work.

Well, as I said, I’m only a month and a half into my retirement.  Perhaps I’ll take it a little easy on myself. I have always been able to find and follow my passions.  The problem is, I have a lot of passions.  The dilemma is choosong what to throw myself into now.

I promised myself—and have told anyone who asked me “what’s next”—that I did not intend to think about that question until after the first of the year.  Perhaps that’s the best goal I might try to accomplish right now.

Being Amazed

Under the glass on my desk, right next to my computer, is a greeting card with a picture of Mary Oliver as a child; long blond hair, princess dress. She looks right at me, one arm reaching up and out. Below the photo is a quote of hers; “Pay attention. Be amazed. Tell about it.”

Mary Oliver

These early mornings, as the sky crisps and clears, I have been amazed by the view out my front bay window. Venus, intensely bright, rises in the east before the sun can lighten the sky. She has been followed in recent weeks by Jupiter, who climbs closer to her each day. Fainter, but still visible is Mars. In a few days – October 26 – one hour before sunrise, they reach their closest proximity of the year. It will be something to see, weather permitting.


I rise early and sit in my living room, first cup of coffee in hand, cat on my lap, looking out at the sky through the upper panels of my tall bay windows.


I get to see the sky brighten – naked or cloud-shrouded. I watch the trees gradually disrobe in the fall and dress themselves in the spring. But these past weeks, with the planetary display, I have been amazed to feel something of my place in this corner of the universe by imagining the silent, smoothly moving orbits of the planets in our solar system, oiled and balanced like the jeweled movements of a fine watch, We all move ’round and ’round our own courses, but from time to time, get a glimpse of where we are in relation to others.

I imagine myself, sitting on the surface of earth, facing out to the edges of our system – a ring-side seat, right now, to the performance of three sibling planets dancing together for my amazement each morning, I will be interested to see what happens October 27. Will Venus, Jupiter and Mars begin to move away from each other again? In what directions? Will there be some dramatic shift in the choreography that will surprise – change the rhythm of their moves?

Where I am in relation to others has been a subject of much musing lately. My own orbit has changed so dramatically since retiring from my rewarding but all-consuming job – less than a month ago, now. I am working to find the equilibrium that will govern the shape and balanced eccentricity of a new orbit, and its relationship to the orbits of others. I expect there will be new entrants in my planetary system, and some old and familiar worlds continuing to circle with me. I wonder, a year from now – five years from now – what my universe will look like. Who will I dance with in a regular cycle of relationship, who will I meet serendipitously or through some unseen machination of time or karma? And how will my orbit shift or settle in response? I can’t know, of course, but I can pay attention, and watch with amazement. And maybe tell about it.

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