Monday, February 20, 2017

In the Studio

I think I am beginning to get a little glimpse of what retirement is (or could be) like. In this, Rob has been a model and an inspiration for me.

Up until now, I have been preoccupied with planning for retirement, and taking the actual practical steps to make it happen. In my case, the practical steps have included making sure that my financial situation is secure, deciding on the date, negotiating exit conditions, telling people, and beginning to prepare to put our house on the market and then to move.

I also have been caught up in the emotional work of determining whether and accepting that I am ready to leave the paid workforce. I have enjoyed my career, and I have a satisfying and well-paying job. For so many years I have been striving upwards on the career ladder, and so deciding to retire has meant coming to terms with the idea that this is as far as I am going in this career. It has meant, to a certain extent, grieving what I will lose by stepping away from my job and career, and knowing that I will have to address the big chasm of empty time in front of me once I no longer have the excuse of a busy schedule to distract me from the question of who I am apart from work.

I have been letting it be, letting that question gradually form, and making empty time for the gestation of the self that I will become in retirement. It goes beyond the question of how I will fill my time. Sometimes I get a fleeting sense of a possible future. For a great read, look at Karen Hume's post on this topic.

Last Friday morning, I puttered about doing little tasks around home. I said to Rob, "I am thinking of doing either X or Y this afternoon," with X being a tedious and time-consuming household task and Y being a trip to the art studio.

"Oh, go to the studio!" he said. And after diddling around a little longer (my typical creativity avoidance procrastination*), I did.

I signed myself into the 2D studio of the amazing community arts building that recently opened in our city. I was the only artist in the studio space that afternoon. I set up an easel and laid out my oil paints on a table with the big north-facing windows behind me. Then I went to the storage area and retrieved my current painting. I had not worked on it for a month.

I started the way I always start -- by setting it up on the easel and contemplating it for ten or fifteen minutes. And then I set to work.

It was a wonderful couple of hours. I was totally focused on the work at hand. The studio was quiet. From time to time, I would wander over to the windows and look out over the cityscape, and then turn back to my painting. At the end of my painting session, I felt a sense of deep peace.

Throughout most of my life, I have had to struggle to make time for painting or any other creative work. These last four years, I have participated in a Thursday night painting class. To get there, I had to leave work by 5:30, much earlier than usual, race home, gobble down supper, change, grab my gear, then drive downtown. I was typically half an hour late, stressed, and exhausted from the week at work. Often I was unable to attend because of evening work events or work-related travel.

How different Friday's painting session was! I wandered in at a time of my own choosing and had full access to the beautiful space. I stayed as long as I wanted. I felt like a kid in a candy shop!

I am working on a composition that involves figures. This is a departure for me; I usually paint landscapes. For me, the human body presents a great challenge.

This is my painting in progress. On Friday, I laid in the background.

I also have challenged myself creatively in another way. I recently started taking an art class in something new to me. I am taking a line and wash class. It involves working with watercolour and ink. It is something that I have come to with great trepidation. You see, one of the other consequences of having little personal time for creative pursuits throughout my adult life is that I have devoted the tiny bits of art time that I have to a genre and medium that I already feel fairly comfortable with -- landscapes and oil paints. So this has been another aspect of the shutting down of my creative life; I have not had the courage or the energy to explore and branch out.

After frowning my way through my first line and wash class ("Why is she spending so much time talking about basics like the colour wheel? Why are we just making marks instead of producing something?"), I have settled into the class and am greatly enjoying it. It turns out that it is tremendously liberating to just explore the new materials and techniques without the expectation that I should instantly be able to produce a credible painting. It's fun!

So, back to Rob. What kind of amazing person encourages his wife to go to the studio instead of doing the tedious overdue household task? Well, a creative person who is comfortable with himself and retirement.

Rob's creativity manifests itself in a completely different realm than mine. He is an audiophile who designs and builds audio speakers. He currently is working on building a tall narrow set out of bamboo plywood.

Here he is working in his shop, sanding.

In his previous project before this one, he designed and built a pair of speakers that he calls "The Octopi." They currently are in our living room and they produce beautiful sound.

An Octopus

So you can see why Rob is an inspiration to me. Seeing him full of enthusiasm about a new project and working down in his shop putting in many hours to realize his vision reminds me that retirement is going to be okay. And also, by the way, it is time for me to get down to the studio, or to sit down at my computer and write.
*If you have ever struggled with procrastination (and most artists and writers do), I highly recommend reading Tim Urban's Wait But Why blog. His posts on procrastination are funny, insightful, and actually kind of painful. But don't read it right now if you are doing so to procrastinate from your creative project; just bookmark it for later.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Taking Steps


Taking Steps

working hard at megacorp
so I can buy some shiny things
step tracker, fitness wear

duped again, focused inward
eager to believe
it’s all about me
a seductive topic
nothing closer to home than me

me, me, me
I hum it in the shower
I’ve just completed a walk
5.4 kilometers
post a status update
such discipline

tracking my steps
for big brother
big data la la la
not thinking about that

aerobic workout five days a week
my health is up to me
I have the moral edge
inside the bubble
echoing the echo

they know where I am
my route, time of day
how long it took
if I met the goal
whoever they are

docile me
oblivious me
my head is full of me
I deserve it

too focused to think about
climate change
child brides
potable water
sexual violence
genital mutilation
living wage
social determinants of health

I’m busy with my body project
managing my risk
I walked 10,000 steps today
gold star for me

Source: Getty Images

About this Poem

I recently had the opportunity to attend a lecture by Dr. Mary Louise Adams from Queen's University. Adams spoke about risk discourse, and how the individual pursuit of health has become a central cultural theme in our society. In particular, she spoke about the current craze for step counting, and how fitness trackers redirect one's attention to oneself, and to one's body as an object.

Although I do not own a fitness tracker such as a fit bit, I do have a couple of fitness tracker apps on my phone. I confess that there have been times that I have become rather obsessed about tracking and keeping stats on distance, time, speed, and calories burned when I go out for a walk, bike ride, or cross-country ski. Adams' talk made me think more deeply about fitness tracking and inspired me to write this poem.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Bye Bye Books

The day after I submitted my letter stating my retirement date, I made a list. Actually, it was two lists in one. The first column listed small renovations and repairs that we might consider doing before putting the house on the market. We have already done a number of things that add value to the house in the five years that we have been here, such as replace the roof, adding a range hood and fan in the kitchen, and so on. (Shout out to Rob!) The house had been newly renovated when we bought it, and the inspection showed that it was a solid house with no issues. So this list is mostly focused on "spit and polish" items that will help it show well.

The other column listed things that we could do to declutter and tidy things up. There are just two of us rattling around in a great big house, but we have a lot of stuff. This is in spite of giving away heaps of stuff (furniture, wood stove, tools, canoe), and throwing away lots of other stuff (old ski equipment, broken toys) when we moved last time. While neither of us is a hoarder, we are very fond of our stuff. Although we have not set a date to put the house on the market or to start looking to buy, we want to give ourselves lots of time for the transition process.

So far, Rob has been the true hero in this endeavour. He already has gone off to the recycling depot with five boxes of old computer parts and cords. He also has climbed into the attic of the storage shed and begun rooting through the old sports equipment (I'd thought we had already gotten rid of that stuff???) and has begun throwing things out (e.g., ancient tents with broken zippers). He also moved a pile of his totes out of the basement storage room, revealing the awful truth that most of the boxes in that room are mine. My stuff that needs sorting comes in four categories: things that belong to my kids that I have been storing for them; boxes from previous moves that I never unpacked; boxes of career related materials (about 25 bankers' boxes in our basement), and books.

I decided to start with the books. Specifically, there was a stack of twelve boxes of books in the spare bedroom, still never unpacked since we moved here. I began unpacking them and sorting through the books, all the while muttering that it seemed ridiculous to be unpacking boxes, knowing that soon enough the books would just have to be packed up again when we move.

It is very hard for me to get rid of books. I have always viewed my books as precious. In the seven frugal years when I lived the life of a poverty-stricken student, books were one of the few luxuries that I allowed myself to purchase. Although I am happy to give books to my kids, or to friends who love to read, or to students, I abhor the thought of books going to the landfill. So, I have a lot of books.

As I unpacked each book, I held it in my hands and thought about who had given me the book, or who had owned it before me, or how that book had shaped my thinking decades ago. And then I asked myself whether I would ever read it again, or if I really needed a book of lists from the 1990's, or a book from the 1980's about pregnancy. I considered whether anyone close to me might want the book. And then, ruthlessly, I sorted many of them into good-bye piles. I have taken two boxes of books to the university to put on the "free books" table for students. I have stuffed the Little Free Library with novels. I have taken four boxes of books to the secondhand bookstore. The bookstore owner took about half of them and said he would give the rest to charities. He tried to pay me for them, but I talked him into letting me take two books from his shelves in exchange. (Uhoh! I'm supposed to be getting rid of books, not acquiring more books!) And, sadly, four boxes of books are going to recycling.

The rest of the books, old friends, have found space on my bookshelves. I have finally found my art books, my poetry books, my gardening books, and my outdoor books! I still have way too many books. I now have three shelves of books, mostly fiction, in my den. There are books in the bedroom, the living room, the kitchen, and the basement. At least fifty of them are books that I have bought or been given but have not yet read. There are about twenty boxes of children's books in the storage room, and I am not throwing out any of those. I have been transporting them, a few each time, to my grandchildren when I go for visits. And then there are three floor-to-ceiling shelves full of books in my office at my workplace. My heroic book decluttering has eliminated just a small fraction of our collection.

The other day, I opened and sorted a box from the basement storage room. It contained, not surprisingly, books, and also a lot of my children's art. For example, I found calendars from twenty years ago that my kids had made me for Mother's Day, and stories they had written. I found the travel diary we had kept when we took a six week trip down the west coast of Canada and the USA in 2001. It took me two hours to sort through one little box because I had to read the diary and every one of their stories, and look at every picture. It sure is a good thing that I move every once in a awhile because I get to rediscover these treasures and take a sentimental walk down memory lane! 

Friday, January 27, 2017

Wrote the Letter; Set the Date

Here's my news of a lifetime. I have decided to retire!

Not only have I made the decision but I have met with my supervisor, set the date, and submitted my letter of retirement/resignation. My retirement date is June 30, 2017, and now that I have put it into writing, it is irrevocable according to the human resources rules at my workplace.

Drum roll.

You know how sometimes you don't know if you have made the right choice until after the thing has happened? Like when I left my leadership role in June 2016 after many months of agonizing over whether I should; it wasn't until after I stepped out the door and began my leave from work that I truly knew I had made the right decision. I wrote about it here.

So how do I feel about retiring now that the irrevocable decision has been made?

Well, the first and most overwhelming emotion was relief. I felt tremendous relief that my decision was finally made. The process of making this decision has been grueling and it has taken a long time. The uncertainty was hard to live with.

I also felt a huge sense of relief that I wouldn't have to go back to work. As I would have been starting in quite a different role, it would have required a lot of hard work and a significant time commitment to do the new job well. (And it is my nature that I must throw myself into every job and excel at it. I have never learned moderation.) I finally realized that I do not have the energy and passion for it anymore. I just don't want to have to work that hard. (In my mind, I can hear everyone who knows me laughing their heads off at this statement!)

I felt light, as though my head and shoulders were floating way above the ground. A huge weight has been taken off my shoulders.

My supervisor, lovely man that he is, made the whole process so much easier. I will have an honorary title and be able to maintain an affiliation with my institution after I retire. There is the potential for me to take on short-term contracts. He even suggested that I could request keeping my office and some professional development funds for a time-limited period after retirement. These things go a long way toward addressing the identity issue that has been such a big factor in my anxiety about retiring. I might never take on a contract, and if we move I will not need to keep my office, but just having these possibilities in the background in case, you know, it turns out that I can't figure out what to do with myself in retirement, puts my mind at ease.

I felt that time suddenly sped up. There are other decisions that hinge on this one, so making the decision to retire has created a domino effect initiating other decisions and actions. Now we will begin getting the house ready to put on the market, selling it, deciding where and when to move, buying a house somewhere else, and moving.

I felt released to act again. While I was in the purgatory of indecision, it was hard to focus on things or to take any steps because I couldn't see my way forward. I was wandering in circles. Since submitting my letter, I have suddenly thrown myself into a couple of projects that I committed to do during my leave.

I felt surprised that once the decision was made, it seemed so obvious. Why had I been fretting about it for so long?

I felt tremendous gratitude toward Rob for being so patient with me and letting the process play out without pressuring me.

In terms of the responses of others close to me, Rob is so happy that I have made the decision, finally, to retire. In fact, I feel a certain degree of guilt for having been so focused on MY decision all this time. This decision will have a huge impact on both of our lives, not just on me.

Our kids responded with a range of responses. To one, it was no surprise at all. It was obvious that I had been moving in this direction for a long time. Another was completely thrilled and joyful. Another was pleased that I had made a choice that would enhance my own well-being, finally stepping away from the workaholic choices that have characterized my past. And another was cautiously optimistic, knowing how much my work identity has always been so important to me. One hasn't heard the news yet.

However, it was no surprise to anyone. To them, it was obvious that I was moving toward retirement and they all clearly thought that it was a good idea. Even my supervisor at work said he was kind of anticipating it. In a sense, I was the last to know that I was ready to retire!

I still haven't had a chance to phone my friends and family to discuss my exciting news. But I sure am grateful for all their support, and the many long conversations over the past year helping to talk me through the decision.

As a funny postscript, I submitted the letter late last Friday afternoon. That way, I had the whole weekend to "test" the decision. Knowing that my supervisor would be unlikely look in his mail slot until Monday, I had a whole weekend to contemplate the possibility of racing to my workplace and removing the irrevocable letter before he saw it. I didn't do it, of course, but I sure do like to torture myself!

Friday, January 13, 2017

January's Rhythm

Since returning home from our month on the west coast, we have been experiencing cold January weather. It took us a couple of days to unpack and to recover from our sometimes scary two-day drive along icy highways and over snowy mountains. Our two pets travelling with us in the truck (our dog and cat) were very well behaved. I think they didn't want to get left behind anywhere!

The past week, the temperatures have ranged from -15 to -28 degrees Celsius, although today it finally was a bit warmer (high of -7). Although we had a great holiday, it feels good to be home.

Despite the cold weather, we have managed to be pretty active outdoors most days. Rob has shovelled snow. We have gone cross-country skiing three times around a local golf course, where there is a nice five kilometre loop. We also have been out for some walks. Yesterday, Kate (dog) and I tramped more than 5 km. over hill and dale in the river valley park that we can access just two blocks from our home. It was hard work walking through the windblown snow, especially seeing as I had to break trail much of the way. We came across a herd of 17 deer sheltering in the coulee. Kate must have been as tired as me because she didn't even attempt to chase them (not that she would have had any chance of catching up to them). It was quite spectacular to watch two large bucks that we surprised bound up the hillside right in front of us.

The big outdoor highlight of the week happened today. We drove to the nearest ski hill and skied for the afternoon. It was a brilliant sunny day, although about -12 degrees and windy. It feels great to be on skis again after last year's enforced absence. I have skied all my life, and recently I have taken up telemark skiing. It is a lot of fun to learn something new. We took it easy today, as neither of us really has our ski legs yet. This is only our second time skiing this year.

We have been out to a movie (Rogue One) and out to dinner to two of our favourite ethnic restaurants. I have worked on writing the first draft of my novel a bit more, and it's now up to more than 47,000 words. I've also done some baking -- just what we need after all those Christmas treats! I have spent some time at my office. We also have spent lots of lazy time on the couch in front of the fire.

I did one new thing that I am feeling quite excited about. A few years ago, our city built a new community arts building. It has studios for visual arts, pottery, sculpture, and woodworking, as well as music and dance studios, an art gallery, and a multipurpose room for performances. Yesterday evening, I went down to the arts building and met up with some new friends there who are also painters. A member of the staff, a lovely young man named Andrew, gave me an orientation to the 2D studio, and showed me how to sign in. Now that I have registered, I can drop in and use the studio anytime. The building is open from 9 am to 10 pm, and for $5, the daily drop in fee, I can stay as along as I want. Or I can purchase a monthly or annual membership at a reasonable rate. I stayed the whole evening, and began work on a new painting. Although I have room in my home where I can paint, I like being part of a studio where I can interact with other painters. I made a mental note to myself that if I were retired, this would be the kind of thing that I would have the time to do as often as I wished.

The new year also has brought creative inspiration to Rob. He has begun to work on designing the next pair of speakers that he is planning to build. All in all, I would have to say that we are off to a good start in this happy new year.

Friday, January 6, 2017

A Place to Call Home

Now as I approach the age to begin considering retirement, I have discovered that I am stumped about where to settle for our retirement years. Where will home be? What makes a home?

Although I grew up in a small town, the same town where my father grew up and where my mom and some siblings still live and I spent all of my early years there, I have moved a great deal since first leaving home to attend university. I have lived in three Canadian provinces and in nine different communities. I have returned repeatedly to certain communities, such as Vancouver, to live there at different stages of my life. I have also lived in various other places on a short term basis of a month or two. I have owned five houses and have lived in rental accommodations, including apartments, a shared house, and university dorms, and I have lived with family and with friends' families.

As I think about where to settle in retirement, I have the feeling that I belong nowhere. That is the consequence of moving so often. Just as I began to set down roots in each place, I was off again to somewhere else.  The moves were all related to work opportunities, schooling, or to follow a partner's job. Now, with the most recent job move, we have ended up somewhere far away from family and friends. Although we love our house and have begun to grow comfortable here, we know that this is not where we want to settle for the rest of our lives.

At the same time as feeling as though I do not have one single home, I could be comfortable living in many different places. I have moved before, and I can move again. It will be just fine.

What makes it hard is that we want this to be our last major move. We want it to be a place that we can settle into and make it our home. We want to be closer to our kids and grandkids, and our friends and other family. We want the place to have a small town feel; we don't want to live in a city.

We have just returned from a month in a rental holiday home on Vancouver Island. We had a wonderful time spending Christmas with my daughter and her family, and my two other grown children who presently live in that area or nearby were also with us for Christmas. It was so good to be close together for the holidays.

           Vancouver Island beach

In a sense, we were also trying out what it would be like to live there. Neither of us have ever lived on Vancouver Island for more than a short stint. The climate and lifestyle shares many similarities with the part of BC where Rob spent most of his life, but the winters are not as harsh and there are better health services nearby. On the other hand, the climate is damp, which seems to exacerbate our arthritis.

However, many of our friends and family live in more northerly parts of British Columbia. So although living on Vancouver Island would bring us much closer to my grandkids and a little closer to those in the north, there is no perfect solution that would allow us to be close to all of our loved ones.

We were also a bit horrified to discover how quickly the cost of real estate is going up on the Island. We would not be able to afford the type of home that we currently enjoy without taking out a substantial mortgage. We are mortgage free, and do not want to commit to paying a mortgage in retirement. A home in northern BC would be more affordable.

Ultimately, we do not know where our kids will end up as they continue to build their careers and their families. Moving to the Island will provide more time with some of our grandchildren in the short term. But in the end, we have to choose a place where we will be happy to settle, regardless of where our kids go and how their lives unfold. It's the "for the rest of our lives" part that is making this decision such a hard one.

I know that this is a wonderful problem to have, and I am grateful to have this choice to make. Having wide open choices is much better than having fewer options. We are lucky to have dear family and friends, and wherever we finally end up, we plan to travel often to visit them.

Perhaps the reason that I am stumped is that I am trying to make a "perfect" decision instead of a "good-enough" decision. If I reframe it and say, this is where we will move for now, and keep open the option that we might move again when things change, it wouldn't seem like such an impossible choice.

Rob's point of view is that we should just pick a place and go for it, instead of researching it so much. Sooner rather than later is also what he would say. Like me, he believes that he could adapt to living in whatever place we end up. I'm the one who keeps searching for a place to call home.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Family Time

As is true for many others, Christmas is an important family time for us. This will be the fifth Christmas since we moved to the prairies, far away from friends and family. Our kids and other family are spread around, but none of them live near us. So every year we have travelled a long way to spend Christmas with some of the family, or they have travelled to our city to spend Christmas with us. Last year we spent Christmas with Rob's daughter and family in the north, and had a wonderful time seeing our two young grandchildren there experience Christmas. We also managed to fit in a visit with my extended family in the north and saw some dear friends.

This year, my daughter invited us to spend Christmas with her family on the southwest coast of BC. I was thrilled! My two grandsons are four years old and one and a half years old -- perfect ages to experience the magic of Christmas. We rented a little house in a resort community not far from my daughter's place and spent two days driving here though nasty snowstorms. 

 Horrible blizzards on the way.

We brought both pets along, a dog (Kate) and a cat (Oliver). We have travelled with the dog before, mostly in the truck and camper, but bringing Oliver has been a bit of an experiment. So far it has worked out really well. They are both happy to have come along on the trip, and have settled in well and behaved themselves. I guess they know that the alternative would have been to stay in a kennel, not their favourite place.

 Oliver making himself at home.

I am really looking forward to Christmas, as not only will I get to spend time with my daughter, son-in-law, and grandsons, but also my son is living here and attending university at present, and my middle daughter who lives in a nearby city will come stay with us for a few days at Christmas. It will be the first time in a few years that I will spend Christmas with all three of my (now adult) children, AND the first time ever to spend Christmas with both of my grandsons.

 Younger grandson.

 Older grandson.

Rob's two kids and my three all have been adults for quite some time. They have busy lives and we are so proud of all of them. Of course, those busy lives and my career have meant that we have all ended up living in different places, for the most part far away from each other. We don't have the chance to see each other on a week-to-week basis, but usually just for short, intense visits. I love seeing my kids and sometimes feel sorry for myself that I don't have much time with them. One never really stops being a parent.

I remember when my first a child, my oldest daughter was born. Those wise eyes, rosebud lips, chubby cheeks, and black hair -- it was love at first sight! Although I had little experience with babies and had never played with dolls, suddenly I was the proudest, most possessive parent on earth. When my second daughter was born, it was love all over again. She was the most cuddly, happy baby ever, with thick blond hair that stood up straight and an old soul's blue eyes. And then my dear son was born, calm, long, and skinny (in contrast to my first two chubby babes). He was very observant and content. He was a boy who bum-scooted around the kitchen, and figured out how to open the cupboard and help himself to cheerios (breakfast cereal). He was a kindhearted boy and now is a fair minded, kindhearted man.

When I look at my adult children today, I see their day-to-day lives and dilemmas superimposed over my memories of them at each developmental stage of their early lives. That is an annoying thing about parents -- they persist in thinking about the past. I know that when I was a young adult, and even a middle-aged adult, my attention was focused on the present and the future. It is only now as I am on the threshold of my senior years that I have become more nostalgic and interested in the past.

Becoming a grandma is reminiscent of that first experience of becoming a mom. Those tiny little humans are born into the world with their whole futures ahead of them. I love them with the same intense passion that I loved my own babies. I am very lucky, because I get to be grandma to my children's children, and also to Rob's children's children.

Yet being a grandma is different than being a mom. I am not the parent, and it is not up to me to make parenting decisions. I am only around from time to time, not every day, and each visit is a chance to build my relationship with my grandchildren a little more. At the same time I try to offer whatever help I can to their parents who are busy and enmeshed in complicated lives. Sometimes it is not an easy balance to be present, to spend time with the grandchildren, to help out, and to also spend some one-to-one time with my adult kids, without being intrusive, neglectful of my spouse's needs, or ignoring my own needs and boundaries. I sure have noticed that I no longer have the same energy level that I used to -- being with small children can be exhausting.

A walk on the beach with Kate.

So, we feel very fortunate to be staying for a whole month and to have a rented house during this Christmas visit. We will be able to experience some great family time, and stretch it out over a period of weeks, rather than trying to cram it all into one short intense period. It also gives Rob and me some quiet time to spend just with each other, walking on the beach, sitting in front of the fire, or going out for a romantic dinner. It gives my daughter's family some breathing space, without feeling the pressure of having guests in their home for an extended period. And, as it is a vacation for us, we would like to make a few little excursions while we are here, visit some friends, and possibly go skiing. But, the highlight will be spending Christmas with my kids and grand-kids!
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