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!