Tuesday, January 17, 2012

On the Edge of the Sea

Hi, again;

Not surprisingly, Chris' beach-walk went well. About two hundred seventy people showed up, including his bosses and various big-shots who made speeches to the effect that Chris is awesome--which he is--and gave him awards. My mother and her partner showed up--a surprise for Chris but not for me--and Chris gave one of his best talks ever. We took him out to dinner afterwards.

I like that his last public talk was a beach walk. He was originally planning to finish a few weeks later, but some scheduling complication made New Years' Day work out better logistically--I forget the details--but this was one of his signature programs, so the way it worked out let him go out with a bang.

And of course, the beach is such an iconic place, a line of transition, obviously, and thus a great symbol as a place to retire, but beyond that Chris just likes beaches (and forests, and snow, and Chinese food, etc., but that's not the point). There's a sign above a front door, on the inside, that reads "A Day At The Beach Is Worth A Month In Town." There's a Jimmy Buffet line (of course) that has always reminded me of him;

I'm a tidal pool explorer
from the days of my misspent youth
I believe that down on the beach
where the seagulls preach
is where the Chinese buried the truth.

Of course, there are no tide pools on our beach, not in the traditional sense, just sand. Sometimes pools form and hold back water for a while until the fluid cuts a channel through the sand and pours itself back into the sea. The pool is gone on the next tide. But Chris has connections to rocky shorelines as well, skipping stones on the coast of Maine as a little boy.

It's always delighted me that he and I, though separated by a generation, have so much from our pasts in common--like vacationing in Maine as children. Maine is where I first really got to know the seashore, and Maine is rocky. I explored tide-pools some, but mostly I climbed on rocks. I remember one day we went down to the end of the island to the little beach between the arms of rock by the tourist-trap where they sold fudge, and we brought a picnic lunch. We left our sandwiches on a table-like rock, and ran off to play on the rocks by the water. When we turned back around, there was a seagull standing on our lunch-rock, with my little sister's peanut-butter sandwich in its bill.

Do you know how big a seagull is?

Of course, you know the size of all of the various gull species I was even remotely likely to have seen that day. That's not what I mean. No, I don't mean how many inches run from here to there on a Herring Gull, I mean how big is a seagull when it's on the ground and it's got something of yours in its beak and you are eight. Bigger than you had thought one was when you were seven, that's how big. I took one step towards that sandwich and the bird flew.

I no longer remember how we knew the taken sandwich belonged to my sister and not to me, but we all knew it, so I gave her half of my sandwich, and felt very noble for doing it. The beach is a child-place for me, and for Chris, so it is a fitting place for him to retire, because Chris remains childlike in the best sense.

Of course you say you are jealous of his retirement. Everyone says that, and I know you're more or less constantly exhausted. But I wonder, could you retire? I mean psychologically. Some people can't. I've heard of people who fall apart when their careers end.

I've thought a lot about life transitions. I spent several years more or less obsessed with transitions and their accompanying rituals--coming of age, initiation, eldering...I think I was overdoing it, over-thinking things that should be allowed to be more intuitive, but it has made me sensitive to the psychological impact of things like retirement. Any time one part of life ends and another begins is a moment of crisis, because the big question is when the context that has defined your life changes, who are you now? The crisis could be transformative, but if a person can't negotiate the shift, can't use the momentum as it suddenly shifts directions, he or she can get dropped.

Change is, of course, why Chris has chosen to retire; he is ready for a new game, ready to become a new version of himself, the new adventure, as he says. He is psychologically buoyant, he has made his decision freely, and he'll be ok. But I've seen people, too, who didn't seem to be fine.

I remember about ten years ago when I was a volunteer sailor, and I asked a more experienced, older volunteer to teach me another way to splice a rope. It was during a shipboard party, and what I didn't know was that this man was drunk, and getting drunker as we talked as his body soaked up its alcohol. The other thing I didn't know was that his poor eye-sight was more than poor. The man had glaucoma, and after years of adjusting his duties aboard ship to match his failing sight, the sailor was finally blind.

Night had fallen on deck, and he wouldn't let me move over by the light. He said I had to learn the splice the way he could teach it, or I should ask someone else. He said I should learn to function blind, in case I ever lost my sight. He said I was stupid for not having a "reading finger," the enhanced sense of touch that he was already taking for granted. So I learned to spice a rope by touch as a progressively more drunken sailor gradually confessed to me that his days of sailing were over.

He was retiring. I don't know what he did for a living, or whether he was still doing it or had started collecting a pension twenty years before. But regardless of his professional status, he was facing the retirement crisis as the life that he had known became closed to him. If he had asked me, if he at least had not been drunk, I could have helped him, maybe. I could have helped him find something else in and beyond the ending. He didn't ask. Maybe he felt better when he sobered up in the morning, I don't know.

Not everyone gets to choose the moment of retirement. Not everyone retires because he or she can; some do it because they can do nothing else. You are so constantly busy...what if something happens, if you have to stop, if you lose, say, the edge of your intellect to a stroke, as that sailor lost his eyes...?

But you've never asked for my counsel. I don't know what you are and are not prepared for, and do I know you are a man of strength. How you might handle your life transitions is probably a classic case of Caroline Should Butt Out. So never mind. I won't try to frame another person's life with under-informed warnings. Be busy or not, as you need to; you do noble work, anyway, and you do it well.

And when you do retire, you can come here for a while, and Chris will teach you to sail our boat. And we can find some little sandy isle somewhere and you can fall asleep on the warm sand and think about nothing at all, if you like, and Chris and I will put your lunch in a cooler until you wake up so not even the birds will disturb your rest.

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