"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

03 September 2018

On Seeking a Net to Catch the Days

A distinctly rambling consideration of the use of time when others are no longer telling me how to use each minute.

In Chapter Two of The Writing Life, Annie Dillard contemplates the place of routine in our lives, noting that it "defends from chaos and whim":  

"How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.  What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.  A schedule defends from chaos and whim.  It is a net for catching days.  It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.  A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order -- willed, faked, and so brought into being; it a a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living.  Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern."

I have had such a schedule for some 35 years now as a teacher of college literature and writing.  The semesters form the underlying structure, with their predictable beginnings and endings and breaks, and the days themselves move hour to hour, five days a week precisely scheduled from class to meeting to class to prep to class to grading to class to conferences . . .   Then summers to recuperate a bit and prepare for another year.  Day after day, semester after semester, year after year indeed blend into one another in a pattern both blurred (individual details must be sought within the pattern; they don't stand out immediately) and powerful (this was a good life; it held meaning every moment of every day).  

Now what?  If schedules keep our lives productive -- and if the family genes hold true I may have a significant span of life left to me -- how shall I form a schedule that allows me the peace and rest that I need while creating a new pattern that will lend significance to what I do?

I am finding that being able to sleep until my body tells me it is ready to get up has already made a difference -- I still tire easily (I tired easily when I was a child), but I do not begin every day utterly weary and drag myself through each week never feeling well.  So part of my new schedule will not be "arise at X time every day."  Nor will it be "go to bed at X time every night" -- chronic pain is better or worse on any given day and largely dictates when it is likely I'll be tired enough to fall asleep without hours of tossing and turning.  Nor will I avoid naps if my body cries out for sleep; rest during the day often helps control pain.  This is the greatest boon of retirement: beginning to find physical rest far more often than has been my wont.  (That and not grading papers.)

I let myself have this summer to simply live moment by moment.  I had tasks on a list, but I never planned on accomplishing them more than a day in advance, and I didn't hold myself even to that plan; maybe my husband would suggest an outing, or I'd be in more pain than usual, so I'd let it go.  But the tasks, clearly in mind and needing to be done, have mostly been accomplished.  (We can find things in the kitchen cabinets and drawers now, for example, without having to take everything out.)  There's a bit more of this kind of thing to be done, but there is no urgency to it; it will get done as I am ready (probably when I wish to procrastinate from something else . . .).

And I finished a special cross-stitch project recently, just awaiting a frame to be sent to its destination.  I learned one new minor technique in the process, and I'm looking forward to designing more projects and learning more techniques I've admired for years.

Other than that, it has mostly been reading -- visiting new novels I've had on my list forever, and re-visiting dozens of old favorites.  I've not challenged myself a great deal -- except that every time I read, even books I've read a dozen times, I am finding something new about the characters, the plots, the themes . . . I read for pleasure, but not mindlessly, because the understanding alongside the storyline is what makes reading most pleasurable for me.

I've started turning to the more challenging books now -- Roger Scruton, Matthew Arnold's prose, Josef Pieper, Alan Jacobs.  I have to re-attune my mind to this level; exhaustion for the last several years has kept me lazy for this kind of reading.  But the benefits of course will be more than I will ever be able to explain.  

I've not done a great deal of writing yet, but am easing myself back into it.  The problem is not lack of ideas; the problem is far too many, and being unclear as to where I want to focus my energy.  I can count four very different directions without thinking, and more with a little contemplation.  But all I've done so far is revise a short essay about my friend who died in the spring, write a short review of a book new to me, start an essay in response to questions someone posed, and work on a presentation I'll give in a colleague's class next week.  And some journaling along the way.  All very different forms and subjects.

 I hear so many people say they are bored when they retire.  And so many of my colleagues kept asking me, "But what are you going to do when you retire?" as if life is made up of grading papers.  My problem is the opposite: I have so many things I want to do I can't settle into them.  I'm not concerned about this yet; I'm still recovering from the past few years of physical and mental exhaustion and I'm fine with that for now.  But it's time to start figuring things out, and I'm wondering what kind of schedule might help me do that.

Domestic tasks, needlework, reading, writing, rest.  I like being able to take off with my husband when he appears at the study door and asks if I want to go here or there with him, so I don't want to schedule myself out of spontaneity.  I intend to take care of my need for rest, so hourly schedules are going to end up as mostly mere suggestions anyway.  I've been told that I must act in retirement as I've always done, with a schedule to keep to as if it were imposed from outside -- but that seems counterproductive to my greatest needs.  But the need for rest cannot take over the need to give -- to keep learning and growing and to offer what I can to my neighbor.