Note: When I retired from Castleton State College last May, many of my colleagues and students knew how anxious I was about leaving my work. I defined who I was by my work. Who would I be now? Because the decision to retire was so agonizing for me, I vowed that over time I would devote myself to “teaching” people how to prepare for this phase of our lives. How silly of me. I know better to follow the wisdom of John Dewey who said that education is not preparation for life; it is life. Retirement is similar. To understand retirement, we need to live it, not analyze it or rehearse it.
Thunderstorms on Sunday night, Aug. 25, the eve of the opening of the college, ripped across our island in Maine, driving out an oppressive August heat wave. The next eight days were dazzling — the air so clear it sang — the sun so bright it spawned sparkles across the surface of the Sheepscot.
If I had been living my normal teaching life, on that Monday I would have been scurrying around the Education Department office, running off syllabi, gathering readings, greeting my “Curriculum” class at 10 a.m. and my “Reading and Writing” class at 1 p.m.
Students would have been running in and out of my office crying, “I never should have signed up for that class. Would you help me find another one for that Gen. Ed. requirement?” or “You should see the books we have to buy for this class. How will I pay for them?” Or “Judy, I just stopped by to let you know I got a 3.5 GPA last semester.”
Instead, I am on the west shore of The Isle of Springs reading in an Adirondack chair where, in my leisure, I allow the sandpipers to distract me. They sky dive in a pod, flying at angles like windshield wipers, left to right, tacking out, tacking in, like a squadron of small airplanes. Their wings flap to the rhythm of the wind like windmills. These tiny pilots land on a bevy of rocks, some skittering in the pools as if taking a sponge bath, some preening, and some scavenging. while others seem to guard the terrain, looking out to sea, like the seals who guard their flock on Little Mark a mile up the Sheepscot. A gull lands on an outcropping a distance away, sending the flock into frenzy, out across the water, then further out, and then they shuffle back to shore, like a pack of cards.
I watch the tiny seabirds as I watch my students. Who is restless? Who is active? Who grumpy and aggressive? Who is curious? Who is shy?
Who is focused?
It is on this first day that I begin feeling the difference between being at work and retirement. Later, in the week I will kayak with my friend Pat to a lobster pound where we sit on their deck for two hours eating lobster rolls.
For the first time in the 30 years that I have known this “summer” friend, we have time in an unbroken conversation to get down to the nitty gritty of our lives. In mid-September, when I would usually be reading papers, meeting with students, and planning curriculum for curriculum class, my husband and I take a trip Downeast Maine with our island friends, Deb and Art Pierce. We dip in and out of small coastal villages, searching for the best chowder and visiting FDR’s Campobello. While touring the region, we spend three days in Lubec at an old captain’s home, now a bed and breakfast.
We walk the streets of this charming, but economically struggling town on the Canadian border. It felt as if we were on movie set from the 30s and 40s when the sardine industry once dominated. Now these resilient Mainers are holding onto their economy for dear life by encouraging tourism and promoting the arts.
In October we took occupancy of our new home on Martha’s Vineyard. Rather than attending faculty meetings and department meetings and making trips into Rutland High School for seminar and student teacher observations, I was learning how to use a clam rake and a peek box and net for scalloping. I spent a Saturday night at the weigh-in for the annual Vineyard fishing derby watching men women and children hoist their blues, stripers, bonitos and false albacore up on the scale, marveling at the speed and grace with which a young man on the pier fillets the catch.
For the first time, I gathered beach plums from a secret spot (islanders do not give away where they find their bounty) and made syrup, (not enough pectin in the late crop to yield jelly).
On a Sunday in October, when I would usually be catching up on work in the office, we drove out to State Beach and Oak Bluffs to watch the fury of what forecasters would dub an “almost hurricane.” This World Series month, I stay up late at night cheering on the Red Sox with no worry about having to arise at the crack of dawn to meet with a student teacher and his or her mentor before school starts in Rutland City. I write on days when the Atlantic rains rip the air, hammer against the windows and pound the roof. I read in the early morning when the sun streams into the bedroom window, casting light across the unmade bed.
In November and December, instead of sheparding final curriculum projects, carrying on marathon advising sessions, or agonizing over the grading process, I venture out to two weekly writing groups and a play-reading group held at the senior centers in Tisbury and West Tisbury. No longer do I talk writing and reading with bright young people in their twenties and thirties; now I listen and learn from the energy and wisdom of those in their later decades.
Such has been my short, unanticipated experience with retirement from the work I loved. No one could have taught me the major lessons I have derived from this new life. In just one semester I have learned that no matter how much I miss my work and my association with students and colleagues, I am also able to enjoy new experiences. In addition, I realize how fortunate those of us who found teaching as our passion and profession are; we carry the habit of learning into any environment.
Finally, what pleasure I have derived from having the time to notice what I used to scurry by in favor of my work.