Growing up in Retirement

I retired in two stages: officially, from full-time ministry in 1995, then from a half-time supply ministry in 2000.  There was a period of two months in 1995 when I had nothing to do before taking up the half-time ministry with a rural pastoral charge in Quebec. I cannot forget the sensation of dislocation on the first day of retirement in 1995.  It was a lovely spring day in Montreal. Birds were chirping in the trees as I woke up with the seven o”clock CBC news as I had done for years. Suddenly it dawned on me that I didn”t have to get up at all.  I felt lost.  I didn”t know what to do.  There was nothing I had to do except washing and breakfast.  After that, what?

Happily, that morning we needed some groceries.  So I walked to a supermarket. Half a block south and two blocks east. The maple trees lining the streets were still bare. The air was nippy, but smelled like spring. I had never been to a supermarket at 9 a.m.  It used to be called "Steinberg," but that old Quebec institution was gone.  It was now "Metro". Even the red of the Metro store seemed disturbing, compared to the soothing olive green of the Steinberg.  I was surprised by how many men were there shopping, all looking like me, retired, looking comfortable with hush puppy shoes and light blue wind breakers, or some similar attire.  They seemed to be in no hurry, looking more as if they were just hanging around than shopping, leaning on the shopping carts like they would on walkers. Some of them were just talking, visiting friends.  I had never seen men just hanging around and visiting friends in broad day light, except in and around coffee shops in Little Italy on College Street or St. Clair  Avenue in Toronto.  But, unlike the Italian men who look like they live for those moments of visiting buddies, those men at the Metro store in Notre Dame de Grace – the English-speaking part of Montreal- looked sad.

Suddenly, I felt depressed. "Is this what the rest of my life will be like?  Cheer up," I said to myself, "I don”t have to answer to anybody.  It doesn”t matter what I do; nobody will come after me or fire me."  But I felt I was nobody because there was nothing I had to do. Nobody cared if I was not there.  I had to learn the first thing about life after retirement that morning in a supermarket between lettuce and celery: it doesn”t matter what I do indeed, but it does matter that I am.  That day, I began to learn the lesson I should have learned during my forty years of growing up.  

My mother and our cat have taught me a lot in this process.  Some people may think it is insulting to my mother that I mention a cat and my mother on equal terms.  But on the other hand, cat lovers will understand this comparison totally.  Importance of just being. I look at our aging cat, who sleeps most of the time.   A famous writer – I think it was T. S. Elliot – said something about a cat having three things to tell humans:  ”Feed me.  Love me.  Leave me alone.”  Our cat, Estra,  lives exactly like that.  It doesn”t bother us if she doesn”t catch mice or doesn”t go after her tail like a cute, cuddly little kitten.  But Estra gives us so much pleasure.  She makes our life richer just by comfortably being herself.   We pray that she will live for a long time, if not for ever.  She teaches me so much about aging, and about life in general, like my mother does just by being who she is.  

My mother celebrated her 96th birthday in June, 2003 and passed away on Christmas Eve of the same year.  Her memory was almost gone.  Only rarely did she recognize me.  Even on a good day when she knew who I was, she asked things like why I didn”t have to go to school that day.  She didn”t see a grey-haired retired man but a school boy of fifty years ago.  She was not interested in eating much any more towards the end nor was she doing anything about her appearance.  She had never used to allow herself to be seen by other people, including her children, without make-up.  She slept most of the time,  but she looked happy when she was awake. She raised her right hand like a queen and said "Hello"  with a beautiful smile to anybody who happened to be nearby. "It makes my day when I see her smile," said a kind woman who visited her regularly.  My mother and my cat teach me how important for an aging person, or for anyone,  to keep on living fully no matter how little he or she can do.  

This is an almost impossible thing for a normal Japanese person to understand. Japanese truly believe that we are what we do.  If you do nothing, you are nobody.  What”s the point keep on living?  When I announced that I was going to retire, one of my sisters, who lived in Tokyo, refused to accept such a notion.  "No, brother.  You do no such thing!"  In Japan, there is no acceptable way to completely retire.  A person who ”retires” there usually moves on to a job in another organization which has no mandatory retirement age – usually a small NGO or a small firm connected to the organization you are retiring from.  A person with no positionis nobody in Japan.  Any respectable person in business, after retirement, would move to a position in a smaller corporation, which belongs to the "Keiren" – a group of smaller, related corporations – suppliers or sub-contractors, which have a special connection with the ”parent” firm, the "Oyagaisha."  Such a job shift is called "Amakudari".  Literally it means "descending from heaven to livean earthy life among the mortals."  This expression means taking up a positionin an organization of lesser importance.  There really isn”t a respectable way to completely retire in Japan. Those who cannot find a position by Amakudari could not have been a person of any significance before retirement.  

So what do you do if nobody wants you?  You create your own organization, often a consulting firm, set up an office some where cheap downtown and go to the office every day.  Not having any position in any organization is unthinkable, unless you are a famous artist, a writer, a freestanding theologian who does not have a pastorate or a teaching job, or a well-known sage or a philosopher.  My sister almost succeeded in finding me a job in Japan.  It was a position of "Chancellor" of a small junior college in Shizuoka  – an honorary position, of course.  I was even interviewed,  kind of.  This is how it went: I was asked to preach at a chapel service of the college.  After the service, I had tea with the entire teaching staff and lunch with the Principal and Registrar in a chi-chi restaurant with a beautiful view of Mt. Fuji.  When I found later that they were serious about giving me a position, I was horrified and respectfully declined the offer.  I really wanted to retire, as I felt burnt out.  My sister didn”t understand me. She was offended that I didn”t appreciate her effort to help me.  

I spent several years working for the Church in Lesotho teaching at a university in Southern Africa.  In contrast to our way of thinking in the western society, among black Africans, a person is considered to be a full person deserving of all respect no matter who he or she is or what he or she does.  In this way of thinking, the amount of money one earns or the positionone holds has nothing to do with a person”s worth.  Every man is addressed as "Ntate," which literary means ”father,” but it is an honorary title like ”sir”.  Every woman is ”Mme” (mother).  "Think about flowers of the field.  They are more beautiful than the riches Solomon ever produced.  Yet they can be thrown into fire when they wither.  Think about the sparrows.  God does not allow even a single one of them to fall without his consent.  And yet two of them can be sold for a mere penny." (Matthew 6: 25 – 34)  God loves us as we are, not so much dependent on what we do and how much we do it.  That was a very valuable lesson Africans taught me.  

But this lesson had unfortunately remained dormant in me until I retired.  It scares me to think how much damage I might have done to others without putting the lessons I learned from African friends into practice in my dealings with other people.  When I was thinking about retirement, I had resolved to follow a life with a set of regular activities.  I was hopelessly task oriented. I had to have a "ToDo List."   My spouse, Muriel, and I have known that she would be in full-time pursuit of her career as a university professor, and I would be a house husbandafter I retired.    So my  time would be divided into regular pattern of physical exercise, learning, volunteering, and writing.  I am realizing as I began to live under a new regime that many things I am learning now are things I should have learned long ago. I shiver when I think now what an insensitive person Imust have been without knowing those things.  However, I must confess that the model for living I see in my mother and our cat is still very far from me. It will take some more time of learning to reach ”Nirvana” – the state of complete understanding.   So I am not in my consciousness what I am, but still what I do.  I hope that in time I will learn to be what I am, because those things I do seem to be good lessons.

Here is what I do, and what I am learning:

On being a house husband:

As I began preparing meals, cleaning and keeping the house, I was surprised to find how time consuming those chores are.  I realized that keeping the house is not an occasional project, as some men think, but it is a full time job.  No, housekeeping is more than a job.  It is almost like a set of regular life-sustaining body functions such as breathing and eating.  You can not call in sick or take a holiday from it.  It is not an option.  But unlike breathing, housekeeping takes attention, energy, and creativity.  Like many other men, I used to think that because a housewife is not paid, her work is pretty close to worthless – not a value-adding activity.  Now I realize it is priceless.  

I was planning to write after retirement, to leave some written record of my life behind for my family and for the sake of posterity.  I was not necessarily thinking about writing a book.  But amazingly, I could hardly find time to write. Planning and preparing meals and shopping for groceries simply take up a lot of time.  I always liked cooking and cleaning the house.  I used  to be quite proud that Icould say I loved cooking.  Cleaning the house was not my strength, but Ienjoyed a sense of victory when dust balls were vanquished from the hard wood floors. Again, it was a revelation to me how time consuming cleaning the house is. I know it is late in life to realize this.

I can”t imagine how career women with children manage to take care of the household.  Many men don”t feel in their heart of hearts that they really have anything to do with it.  They view household chores as a favor all good men would do willingly for their spouses -from time to time.   "I don”t mind, really," we say.  It is incredible to me that I had never realized how hard housekeeping is until I retired and became a house husband.  And I don”t have a young child hanging on to my apron strings!  

Physical exercise:

It”s important for me to exercise regularly.  I had an episode of angina in 1999.  I spent a few days in hospital for observation.  Nothing serious was found, but it was a wake-up call.  Thus began a new regime of proper diet and regular exercise.  I fell into swimming daily.  I say "fell into" because I could have chosen walking or cycling, but didn”t.  By default, swimming has become my regular physical activity.   I used to cycle regularly.  When I had full-time work in church bureaucracies in Toronto and Quebec, we didn”t own a car.  Instead, I cycled to work, in Toronto from Cabbagetown through Rosedale to St. Clair Avenue, and in Montreal, forty minutes to the office in Lachine and one hour home up-hill to Notre Dame de Grace. I enjoyed cycling along the beautiful north shore of the St. Lawrence River.  Muriel and I cycled quite a bit in the dairy farming country of Chateauguay Valley when we lived in Howick.  Since arriving in Lethbridge, our bicycles have not been repaired from the damages of moving.  

Earlier in our life in Lethbridge I walked in the coulees, but the icy conditions in the valley made me hesitate to walk there in winter.  Hence swimming became my regular routine.  I can still walk in the coulees, and will probably enjoy it enormously.   The changing colors of different seasons, the amazing array of vegetation from cacti to wild roses, the variety of birds from Canada geese to magpies to pelicans. Yes, pelicans. I couldn”t believe my eyeswhen I saw them; even the bird watchers” guide books do not mention them. There are also deer, jack rabbits and gophers.  I will for sure enjoy walking in the coulees. 

The university swimming pool gives me a reasonable rate as a family member of the faculty. Every morning, a variety of interesting regulars appear.  A dozen faces of swimmers and friendly life guards now are as familiar as the smell of chlorine.  Most of them look so fit.  I don”t understand why I don”t see more unfit people like me, for whom regular exercise is a requirement.

The 5:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. period at the university pool is a scene from ”Reality TV”.  They all wear tight-fitting swimsuits, looking fit and beautiful. And they all swim like dolphins.  I was amazed how many people there were at that ungodly hour swimming back and forth in silence as if obsessed.  One hardly hears a human voice.  It is a bit eerie.  They must come before breakfast, do 20 (Olympic distance) lengths, then go to a Esquire – a trendy coffee joint for latte and bagels before donning their business suits and going to their offices.  No one swims like me – a slightly improved version of the dog paddle.  I”ve only seen two men my age and an overweight man among the regulars so far.  And I have been swimming for nearly three years.  

Where are people like me, elderly or unfit, those with heart conditions who have been told by their doctor to doregular exercise?    Maybe they come in the afternoon or evening.  It ispossible that those elderly and/or unfit people go to specialized classes like a seniors” exercise class with bouncing balls and stuff like that.  No wonder even those reasonably fit thirty-something professors avoid the university facilities and go to the local YMCA or a community pool so as not to be seen by the beautiful people, or worse, their fabulously fit young students.  Fitness is a good thing, but I”m very ambivalent about its becoming a commercialized fad.  

Those few unfit-looking people who come to the swimming pool in the morning are inspirations.  They have lived long enough to be unashamed of themselves; they don”t feel the need to hide anything.  One morning, I saw a long line-up of primary school kids before the cubicles in the washroom waiting for their turn to finish changing.  Why?  Is it a kids” culture or the influence of their parents?  Why should they feel ashamed of their bodies?   Is it a man”s thing? Those old or unfit people who enter the crowd of beautiful must have achieved a state of innocence like Adam and Eve before they ate the forbidden fruit.  They see their reality, accept it, and are comfortable with it.  

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On learning the beauty of Creation:

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I decided to do take up art. I had toyed with the idea of taking academic courses in political science or sociology, but decided they were too close to the way I used to think in my job.  I wanted to explore unknown territory. I took up drawing.   I take lessons in the basics of drawing from an instructor in the Faculty of Fine Art.   I was lucky to have been introduced to an instructor and a practicing artist who is gentle and patient.   I also go a studio to draw with other artists.  I am grateful that those people, who have dedicated their lives to making art, allow me to hang around with them as they practice their calling.  

The first thing I was obliged to learn in drawing was to observe realities as they are.  I realized, as the teacher forced me to look at the minute details of what is in front of me, how much I had assumed what was there. I learned that reality is not always what the left side of the brain tells you; it is not always linear and rational.  I am learning to depend on the right side of the brain to acknowledge and accept what is often chaotic and irrational.  

Another important lesson was that every object – live or still, nature, landscape, or human face and figure – is beautiful.  There really isn”t ugliness in Creation.  Ugliness is what we read into a piece of Creation from our assumption, a creation of our mind. Often our assumption is wrong.  There is a book I should read cover-to-cover – I have just skimmed through it – titled, “Anatomy of Disgust.”  The author makes the point that a disgusting thing to one person can be another person”s delicious food.  It is a wonderful feeling to see beauty in an unexpected object.   Beauty, indeed, is in the eyes of the beholder, and is in everything if you keep an open mind.  I am still in a stage of discovery.  I expect that it will take me years to learn to re-create the beauty of reality and indeed of God”s creation.  I am even farther away from creating  art as an expression of ideas. But in the meantime, I am enormously enjoying learning to re-create what is in front of me as faithfully as possible.  I now shiver to imagine how I used to think, conclude and argue based on assumptions and on imagining, rather than on the realities of beautiful creation.  

On seeing a rainbow in all people:

As for volunteer work, Muriel found an advertisement for volunteers to help theat a horseback riding stable for handicapped persons.  I phoned right away. The organization is called Lethbridge Handicap Riding Association – Rainbow Riding Stable.   I have been happily going there once a week since early in 2001.  I love horses – I think they are the most beautiful animal.  I rode quite a bit in Lesotho between 1970 and 1975 and in France from1975 to 1979.   Horses are a popular mode of transport in the mountainous country of Lesotho.  The Africans ride a type of pony probably related to or descended from the Arabian horse, the tough little ponies that can climb mountains like mountain goats without ever needing horseshoes and can live from grazing alone.   Because they are so numerous in Lesotho, horses are cheaper than bicycles.  With other horse lovers on the university campus, I used to help paraplegic children from the Lesotho Save-the- Children Fund shelter learn to ride.  Horses made better sense than wheelchairs in a country where a smooth surface is a rarity and where wheelchairs are probably more expensive than horses.  Rainbow Riding Stable brings back happy memories; the smell of sweaty horses and manure make me forget my frustration with Alberta politics.  

The stables are located outside the city limit east of Lethbridge.  It takes only 20 minutes from our house by car, passing the agricultural research station of the Federal Government and a large pond surrounded by tall reeds and trees  -a rare site in this part of the Canadian prairies.  Many Canada geese hang around the pond.  I pass the red brick buildings of a federal prison and meadows where cows lazily graze.  Rainbow Stable keeps a couple of dozen elderly horses for handicapped people.  They are gentle – lazy to some people – but ideal for those with less mobility.  There is an instructor who was trained in the art of hippo-therapy, a woman who aspires to be a professional rodeo rider.  Of course, she has a long way to go to make a living out of the rodeo circuit, if ever, so she teaches at the Rainbow Stable.  Up to three learners at a time usually come for the one-hour sessions.   

I help out at two sessions per day.  There are paraplegics, mentally handicapped persons, persons with Down syndrome, of all ages and backgrounds.  On days when it is rainy, windy or snowy, or too hot or cold, they ride in the cavernous arena. Each rider is accompanied by a person on either side, one to lead the horse and to make sure that the animal behaves, the other person to watch the rider, ready to grab the safety belt around the rider”s waist if necessary.  It is intensive work.  The instructor stands in the middle of the arena and gives directions.  Each rider is expected to brush the horse, bring the tack from storage, saddle up, and warm up the horse by leading it once around the arena, and finally, mount.  A lot of work, but enjoyable.  It is wonderful to watch an unsure, frightened person develop confidence as well as skills.  

Toward the end of a six-week term, the rider often has developed so much confidence and is having so much fun that we have difficulty persuading him or her not to keep trotting.  Accompaniers have to run with the horse, you see.  One can almost believe that anyone can learn to ride a horse, given a chance.  However, one type of handicap I still have difficulty accepting is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.  I  feel angry at the parents that a beautiful child of any background, any race or class, has to bear the burden of their parent”s weakness all his or her life without any hope of a cure.  Not fair! Of course, if you scratch the surface of our society, such unfairness is found everywhere.  That is another reason for all of us to take responsibility in caring for such disabled persons.  At one of the Volunteer Appreciation Day potluck suppers, I sat in front of Michael, a long-time client of the Rainbow Stable.  I was a little taken aback, because this was a supper for volunteer helpers, while Michael is a paraplegic. In our conversation over spaghetti, I found that he became such a good rider that now he is a volunteer.  I didn”t ask how he could do it in a wheel chair. It didn”t matter to me really.  To me, he is an inspiration just being on a horse by himself.  

I can almost believe that life begins after retirement.  There is so much to learn and so many ways to grow.  Didn”t Socrates say something like to ”know thyself” is the ultimate form of knowledge?   I have a long way to go. And if I have to accept that self, I have an even longer way to go.

rn

Spring, 2003.

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