Thursday, November 03, 2005

The demons at the door

Lately, since I returned from a (really nice) trip to the Southwest, I have been feeling very busy inside. When I try to slow down, I hear a lot of voices inside telling me I should be “on top of things,” should be out saving the world, should be doing something, not slowing down.

Sometimes it’s hard to know when to turn around and confront the voices, and when to keep on moving in the direction of my dreams. This time, I need to face them.

My father was an old Marxist. His voice is with me now as I take time to sit and stare at the maple trees, watching their leaves whirl down to earth. He says that everyone should be politically active all the time, the more the better.

My mother was from a long line of busy, competent women. She was always thinking what to do next. In free time, she did craft projects like beading and embroidery. Sitting watching the trees would seem strange to her. Her voice tells me to look around the house for things that need doing, plan my finances, and keep busy.

It’s as if my personal demons are guarding the door through which I must pass (more than once) to get to my own world. The closer I get to being serious about creating a new more spiritual life, the louder they shout and scream.

Saturday, September 17, 2005


What is the color of time?
Thin gray of a stretched-out rubber band
Angry red, rubbed raw by expectations
Solid blue of calendar squares
Umber of anxious memories
Deep green of solitude.

How do I inhale it?
Come inside each mortal cell.
Unlimited time, I say.

After all the years of learning
Time for dinner, time for homework
Time to get up, time to lie down
Go to class
Write the dissertation
Make dinner
Read student papers.

Wait! The wood thrush
The veery’s pan-flute.
Stop breath, listen to distillation of summer.
Time is taffy, warm from the pan,
Drawn to full length by willing hands
Sweeter than ever

Friday, September 16, 2005

Where is this retirement going?

So far I’ve been writing mainly about getting away from the old patterns, breaking the habits of excessive busyness. What am I going towards? Something about spirit and creativity. I want the spaciousness to welcome contemplative moments and hours, the time to sit and watch trees grow and their leaves fall. I want the time to dip in and out of creativity, to sit down at the kitchen table and pull the pastels towards me, or pull up the laptop and make a new poem.

I haven’t yet found my new rhythm. It will take a while. I have a few fixed things in my week: my writing group, two movement groups, and my volunteering to help a Senegalese immigrant with computer skills. Then there are almost-daily hikes, times with friends, and chores. And now I may be organizing a local effort to help a Louisiana town in the aftermath of Katrina.

This is a perfect time to learn how to balance these things in a new way that puts the inner life first.

All my life I’ve done the “necessary” things first, then tried to find time for play and spirit. Now I want to be the dreamy one looking out the window, the doodler who does not hear the teacher’s voice. Put off the projects and do the spirit-work first. I did that today, making two drawings and going on a walk before I started a round of phone calls. Step by step into the unknown.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Retiring from school

This week school started without me. After thirty-three years of teaching at Hampshire College, plus five of grad school, two years teaching in Peace Corps, four years at Swarthmore, two years at North Haven High, four at Hamden Hall (where my parents sent me to get out of the violence of a bad school), 2 at Strong School (the one where I had to walk a half mile and cross the steel bridge), and kindergarten plus four grades at the Quinnipiac School just across from my house. Fifty-seven years of discipline, self-discipline, and teaching others how to school themselves—how to get things done, how to inquire, form the question, and follow through.

Now I’m trying to go back through that same gate, get back to wild mind. To take the horses that are so good at staying within the traces and persuade them that it’s OK to kick back, take a side trip, explore the faintest trace. Practice the skill of wandering, of not-knowing, trusting the moment. The discipline of following impulse precisely, lovingly, openly.

Such a lot of unlearning—it’s mostly that attachment muscle inside, the one right up under my diaphragm, the one that says But what are you doing today? Wasn’t there something that someone else needed? Are you accomplishing anything? Doesn’t something in the house need tending? What’s next?

I am slowly (un)learning. Things keep happening. I keep writing, drawing, dancing, being. In a different way, in a different life.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Doing nothing

Doing and not-doing—it’s the question for me just now. There is nothing that I must do, except the obvious things of living: cooking, eating, feeding the cats, taking care of the house. Simply living. Above that, there is no command, no need to plan courses or put out office hours, no meetings or deadlines.

Is it possible to live this way? Is a person worthwhile if she does nothing, allows time to pass, lets the world go by, has no ambition, is not striving for the next thing? It’s not likely that I’ll want to do nothing all the time, but there seems something vital about learning how. It’s a feeling of letting go in the place just above my navel and below my ribs, letting go of the threads of responsibility that have been perpetually knotted there.

Letting go of the illusion that I am necessary—that’s the big one. The feeling, both pleasurable and binding, that I am needed as a part of the fabric of an institution, that there are things I must do, or else. If I am not needed, then who am I?

To contemplate doing nothing, I sit in my rocker and look out at the sugar maple in front of my house, the buckled bark and sturdy limbs. The maple needs to sip water from the earth and do its metabolism, those are basic. The deep green leaves are not ambitious to be anywhere else than on the branches they are tethered to. The whole tree sits there, no tension in its belly, no plans.

I watch the lightly moving leaves. The strings in my belly go slack, I breathe. Then a moment later I am caught up again—what about that volunteer position? Do I need to do anything to prepare for group? Let go again. Nothing needs doing. I can sit here and be. The world will keep turning and churning. I can be all right without doing a thing.

I breathe and let be. Time passes, the wind picks up or dies down, the leaves rustle or become still, the sun moves a bit in the morning sky. My thoughts skitter to things around the house, the roof that needs patching, the dishes unwashed.

What is the necessity so huge that it must always be served? What beast is this that demands total devotion? Not enough to do the necessary things, this beast requires attention at every instant of the waking day. Plan. Think. Look ahead. Don’t stop. Keep busy, if not in body at least in mind.

If you don’t, you might realize how short life is. If you don’t, you might feel the poignancy of it. If you stop thinking, you might simply be alert to the world as it is. This would make the beast very angry.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Running Wheel

There you are, the gerbil of accomplishment
running on your wheel
inside my chest. Round and round
the wheel goes, no end to it.
The gerbil stays in place, panting,
faster, faster. There are gaps
in the wheel, the gerbil could leap off
but it does not.
I put my finger on the wheel.
I reach in and take you in my hand.
Golden one, curl up here.
Then we’ll go out to the garden.
Do you like to eat dahlias?
Carrots, parsley, basil?
Little one, the world is larger
than you know.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Walking Out

Walking Out

From bolted wooden desks
to electron-etched screens,
fifty-five years in school.
Early lessons well-learned—
Color between the lines.
Dead white men are
the poets. You’ll be good
at science, it doesn’t need
much imagination.
In my turn to teach, I schemed
to bring students power and joy,
danced molecules, embraced laughter.
Loving my work, I drop it now
on the floor like a still-warm
shirt, walk out the kitchen door
into the goldenrod meadow
already humming with bees.
The doe was here last night—
see the hollow where she slept.

This poem was published in On Retirement--75 Poems, edited by Robin Chapman & Judith Strasser (2007, University of Iowa Press)

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Serving their dreams

A couple of weeks ago I turned in my keys: office, copy room, lab, and outside door. No more Xeroxing at night or on weekends. No mailbox—I’ll have to call and see what they are doing with my first class mail. No office where I wait for students. No more lists of things to do for them. For thirty-three years I’ve been serving other people’s dreams. A fine thing to do, to find out what these young people aspire to, to coach and coax and kick and cajole, then watch them walk across the stage to cheers and whistles, vanish into the world. One after another, hundreds of them, for more than a generation. They are aging now, the first of them graying too. They have realized the dreams, and the limitations.

Somewhere along the line, my dreams got reduced to theirs, or expanded; my dream simply became serving theirs. I grew expert at seeing beneath the surface—to see the goldfish lurking in the ponds of the quietest minds, to see the patterns connecting the wildest sets of fantasies. But the idea of having my own whirling exploding expanding firework of a dream—where did that go, if I ever had it? Perhaps I always was too modest and realistic, even from age twenty. Get married. Go on to grad school, get the degree, practice a profession, raise a child—none of these smacks of fireworks. None of these whirls and spits sparks.

It must be time to regress and let the wild curls of fantasy expand. It’s time to roll downhill faster and faster. It’s time to look into the pond of my own soul and feed the goldfish regularly. Time to hop out of the pond onto dry land and flop around, or jump into it and flail in the shallows, time to try the ungainly, unlikely combinations. Time to be ungainly and unlikely. I don’t have to be a professor, I don’t have to be a professional. I get to play again.

Slaty skimmer at Quabbin

One of my new passions is dragonflies. I took a short field course on them, and now I see them everywhere.

What is retirement about?

I just retired from 33 years of teaching biology at Hampshire College. I loved teaching—the classroom, the advising, the students—but something in me wanted more. So I retired to do creative writing and to cultivate spirit, whatever that may mean.

I suspect that people in retirement need to do the things that will fill in the parts of their lives that may have been neglected before. Some people need to travel and have adventures of that sort, others need to relax and live day to day. When I was growing up, I learned that only certain chosen “talented” people could do creative things like writing poetry and making art. There also wasn’t much space for the spiritual in most of my life and work. Now I have the incredible luxury of time without work so I can explore both the creative and spiritual worlds and how they connect.

This blog is just a way to share my thoughts with friends and others who may be on similar journeys. Welcome to my blog and please share your responses, if you like.