Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Oddness of "Retirement"

Prime among the numerous conditions which apparently don't bewilder other Americans but bewilder me is the idea and practice and the evident assumptions which adhere to "retirement." It's up there with "vacation" or "weekend" or "holiday" or "going on a date", to none of which I can truthfully say I've ever subjected myself. "Vacation" suggests vacating - turning a swatch of time into a vacuum which sucks you into presumably another world for a little while, and then, when you come back, like waking from a dream, dumps you back into the "real world." Like vacation, "weekend" and "holiday" similarly purport to most of the American populace to signal release from "the daily grind" - they are what seem to me disturbingly artificial ways of demarcating time, so that we can claim we've "gone somewhere" or "done something" distinctly Other than "the daily grind." TGIF to me is a horror. Why not TGIM (Monday) or TGIT (Thursday)? Why not, in fact, thank "God" for everything? "Going on a date" is also a gruesome idea to me: to call it a date is to lard it with the heavy grease of expectation. "Is this a date or, um, are we just going to the movies together?" I would opt and have opted in every case to call it the latter. And "Marriage"! - oh my.
Well, I'll stop.
Except to return to the extreme strangeness of the notion of retirement.
I suppose I have my parents to credit or blame for my incomprehension of what this could mean - or rather, what possible allure it could have as a state or stage of life. My parents early developed, and sustained at a fast simmer forever after, what I enjoy thinking of as"the habit of art." (Title of an absorbing play Donna encouraged me to see in London years ago in which Auden dropped in on Benjamin Britten for a while, fomenting, as Auden did with anyone he dropped in on, extremely colorful distress.) My mother's art which had become a habit was not only that every day at about 2 or 3 in the afternoon she sat down at her drawing table to paint, but that every rhythm in her life attested to a similar desire to create esthetic order out of the undifferentiated: from mopping the kitchen floor on Thursday to taking our neighbor Mrs. Holland (Steve Holland's mom) out on Monday morning at 10:00 a.m. to Stop & Shop to going to St. Mary's Episcopal Church early in the morning on Sunday - largely, I think, because it left plenty of time to get to Wallmark to benefit from weekend sales for which she'd clipped coupons. I lived with her in the last year and a half of her life and I not only got to see at close range the beauty of these rhythms but to participate in them. It was an orchestrated life - the adjective used with purpose: tone-deaf though she arguably was, she knew what the heart & soul of music is - and how to create & play it. Her life was a kind of music.
My father's was too. The focus for him (before he lost all ability to function from Alzheimer's) centrally became taking care of the grounds of the house. This he did - as he did everything - with meticulous art. I would learn in my 30s from Richard that a central aim in Jewish observance amounts to the pursuit of "the sanctification of daily life." This my father knew & practiced as thoroughly as the most enlightened rebbe.
"Retirement" was a foreign notion to them. I suppose I've more than suggested why. I don't intend a diatribe here - I think what I may be claiming mostly is that I probably have several screws loose in this inability to grasp the value of what so many other people clasp eagerly & warmly to their hearts. (I'm not, for example, crazy about Christmas.)
July 25 marks the 73rd anniversary of my parents' wedding. I'll celebrate it with pics tomorrow. But for now here they are at one of their heydays. ca. 1967 - at about the age I am now - taking on the sea breeze full in the face as they survey the view. They were never to retire from what this suggests as a stance. They were to die - sure - which I suppose we might call forced retirement, but I feel more drawn to seeing as another door opening to permit new pursuits undreamed of back here in the incarnate world - pursuits for which we may be richly preparing by refusing ever to retire.

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