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A Time of Retirement

February Sun. Peter Bishop, 2012.
"Do we take time away from the press of society, the demands of peace and justice concerns, the obligations of the workplace, and even our family? The word retirement can call us to a time of refreshment, not the end of our work. This may be as simple as a period of meditation in the early morning or before we go to bed…

" …Making retirement part of life includes times of retreat – personal retreats especially where one can take a day or a few days alone, in the quiet, to renew inwardly. Similarly, when I take time to write in my journal at the start of the day, or sit quietly and clear my mind, the whole day goes much better."
(From "A Tender, Broken Meeting," by Margery Post Abbott.)

I have been writing this post in my head for a very long time.

In the months that have passed since my last post, my life has spun out of control.  Not everything has been bad, but any sense of calm and order I have had in my life has been thrown to the winds, and I’ve had to reexamine all my priorities.

It’s hard to write about spiritual insights you haven’t yet formed… Though in point of fact, today is the first day since summer, however, when I’ve had enough of a pause in the action–enough of a “time of retirement,” as Quakers put it, to actually sit at a keyboard and write.

Here’s what has been happening:

A little over a year ago, my husband Peter and I helped his parents move in to the house next to ours.  It was quite a process, and hard for them–both Peter’s parents are deeply shy people, and moving from Ohio to New England meant letting go of friends it had taken them decades to make.  It was necessary to do it, though, because the house they lived in had been completely getting away from them, and Peter’s father had begun to experience significant dementia.  There was really no question that they were not going to be able to manage any more without help.

Happily, they are both very lovable people.  What’s more, after a year of having my in-laws living next door, I can say with real certainty that Sheila is not just important to me because she’s my husband’s mother, but because she’s my friend.  I enjoy her company, and she enjoys mine–though I think we were a little tentative with one another at first, figuring out how much help would be welcome, either on the giving or the receiving end.

I find myself feeling tender and protective of both my mother-in-law and my father-in-law.  But after a year of moving in and out of one another’s houses, I can see that my greatest fear, that they would be unhappy once they were here, has not come to pass.  Both are happier than they had been before moving–and my husband is especially happy.  He loves having his parents next door, and stopping by day by day for short visits, handyman jobs, and moral support.

And as lifelong sci fi nerds, we all love Fridays, when we get together for Star Trek and pizza at our house.  (A week ago, during one such visit, Sheila looked up with a wide smile, looking around the living room, and said, “I think this may be my favorite place in the whole world.”  I wish I could find words for how deeply glad that made me to hear…)

So, all things considered, life with Peter’s parents has been a blessing all around.

More than the emotional satisfaction, though, having Sheila and Ed next door has turned out to be financially helpful, too.

Part of caring for parents who are aging, especially when one of them has dementia, involves becoming involved with their finances and planning for what they’re likely to need tomorrow and the next day, and the day after that.  So we know a lot more about his parents’ finances than we used to, and they know more about ours.  And one of the things we’ve researched is long-term care–especially for Ed, should he need it–and we can be pretty confident that they will be able to afford what they need.

What’s more, they’ve been in a position to lend us a hand, too: things like, because Ed no longer drives, they gave us one of their two cars.  Which meant we didn’t have car payments to make… which meant we paid off most of our debts, and have suddenly been able to make more money than we spend. Enough more that, with their help, we will be mortgage free by the end of January.

And suddenly, I can afford to retire.

I can afford to retire.  Wait–what?  Seriously?

How did that happen?

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I have been a full-time teacher for years now.  It’s work that I took on in midlife, when I learned that I loved teenagers.  I’ve always known that I love books and writing, so teaching English wasn’t much of a stretch.

I still love teenagers.  Something about all that passion, all that hunger for adulthood and meaning… Teaching, though…  I have something of a love/hate relationship with my profession.
 
Likely, most American teachers do.

I don’t want to turn this into a rant, so I won’t go into detail about all the ways education “reform” has sucked much of the joy out of this profession.  And while it’s true that my salary is among the lowest in Western Massachusetts, it’s not the pay that’s driving me out: it’s the way that overwhelming demands on my time make it impossible to do the job the way it deserves to be done. Too many subjects, too much paperwork, not enough time to prepare for my classes and keep up with grading.
I’m working myself into the ground… and I’m still not able to do the job as well as I know that I could, if only I had the time.

Friends who mean well try to buoy my spirits when I’m low by telling me that “I make a difference.”

I know I make a difference.  I just don’t know how much longer I can, or should, allow making that difference to crowd out every other important thing in my life: time with friends, time with family, time in the woods, at worship… doing activism for social justice. Though I recognize that, in some ways, simply being visible and present with my students, bearing witness against racism, may be the most powerful thing I will ever do against racism.

Still, the toll it takes on my health and my relationships is huge.

What would it mean to retire? What would it mean, to be able to take time for something besides teaching?

Just being able to ask the question knocked the wind out of me.

Then came the Hard Things.

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We learned that I might be able to retire during a week in August when, in preparation for the busyness of the school year, Peter was running around, doing a lot of work with his mom, figuring out their finances, talking with their financial advisers.  So it was within a week of learning that I might actually be able to retire that we figured out that we might want to transfer ownership of his parents’ house, and what we can of their assets, to us, to protect them in case they need more nursing care than we know they can afford.

That felt really, really odd.

I have a horror of being thought to be predatory.  It’s about as rational as Sheila’s fears of being a burden to us–that is really very far from what it feels like. Still… getting their house put into our names was a disturbing notion.

And just as we were all processing how we felt about that, just as we had scheduled the meeting with lawyers to make it happen, Sheila got her diagnosis.

My mother-in-law has cancer.

My husband’s mother has cancer.

My father-in-law’s primary caregiver has cancer.

And while it took us a very long time to get all the diagnostic information lined up, yes, it has metastasized.  It’s not the worst news imaginable, but it’s pretty bad.  With chemotherapy, she may live another two years.

We need to begin planning for Ed’s care now.  Right now.  We need to have caregivers he can become familiar with before his dementia progresses further, we need to map out who will feed him meals when Sheila is too sick to do so and we are at work, and we need to think about what will become of him when, rather than if, he outlives her.

This sucks.  And Sheila is brave, and Ed is processing the information, and Peter is grieving, and I–
–am grading papers.  And not even getting them back to students in time.

And I’m asking myself if this is really where my life energy is best spent: as a hostage to my job, not doing the small things that could be comforting, practical, and yes, rewarding.

*                                       *                                        *

This is what I’ve been thinking about, between July and November.  My days have been a blur of activity.  Teaching has always been time-consuming, but this year, budget cuts and a bad contract for teachers in my district have really made my workload impossible, and I’m drowning in work at school, and trying to find the energy and strength to simply be present for the people I love when I’m at home.

In some ways, I’ve never had a better year in the classroom.  I’m teaching Advanced Placement Language and Composition for the first time ever, and I’m pretty much on fire.  As in, kids leave my class and talk about it for the rest of the day, in all their other classes.

And this is the last year I am teaching as seniors the students I taught as freshmen.  I really, really love my kids.  It is hard to say goodbye.

But while I’m teaching, I’m not taking my mother-in-law to the library for a knitting club.

I’m not feeding my father-in-law lunch when my mother-in-law is unable to.

I’m not working with any of the racial justice groups I’ve connecting with or organizing that activists’ support group I wanted to create; I’m not training to become an Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, I’m not joining the Raging Grannies… I’m not finding time for friends or writing or activism or rest or long walks or even, gods help me, prayer, beyond a gasp or two during my commute.

It may be time.

I think it’s time.

To retire.

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