My Relationships are an Open Book

photoA recent Wall Street Journal article about couples finding the re-jiggering of their relationships around retirement quite complex amused me a bit. The general theme of the article was that most modern retirees, those from in-home jobs and those from outside employment, come from a world where they have established fairly separate-but-equal lives and find it a challenge to spend so much more time directly with each other, doing things together. I’m so happy that my partner and I are not like most. In my book, there’s no need to be that different in retirement if you’re secure in your pre-retirement life. I’m pretty sure, in fact, that we won’t face nearly the same sorts of questions or find many of them nearly so daunting as this newspaper item intimates they could be. Despite a hectic daily life, we apparently live together like retirees already in some ways. After all, modern retirees are among the busiest, most active class of people I know.

There are a number of reasons I don’t worry about our transition. Working as we both have in art-related fields (and both of us in academia and elsewhere), where schedules and projects and income and venues and so much more have always been in flux, means that we’ve both dealt with fallow times, whether job-induced or voluntary, wherein we were responsible for directing ourselves and choosing what to pursue next and when. That means each of us has taken the lead occasionally in having the more fixed schedule, project, income or venue and left the other either more freedom or more angst about how to fill the void for the moment. We are both artists, yes, but of slightly different sorts (his the musical kind and mine the more visual/verbal); these don’t compete or conflict with each other, so no ego is at stake should either of us be hung up on that kind of thing, but rather our artistic views are complementary; both draw on similar resources of effort, inspiration, creativity and skill, so we can speak the same language even when the details differ widely. As it is, our core life-values are pretty similar, so we don’t have much reason to go far afield for purposeful or enjoyable conversation. We have a whole library of possibilities from which to choose.photoWe have, in fact, worked side by side. Not only did our relationship start when we taught in next-door buildings at university, but I was already good friends with and had even collaborated with some of his colleagues on combined recital/art show projects, a sort of classical-based performance art, perhaps. As members of the same faculty, my future partner and I ended up at plenty of the same meetings and events over time, while both still having our own tracks of need and interest. Since our pairing, I have had the privilege of collaborating with him artistically as well, and his music provides a great deal of the soundtrack, live and recorded, of my life, working or otherwise, while he lives at home and work surrounded by my art and reads my writing. We are lucky in simply relishing time together, whether to Do Things or do nothing at all in companionable silence.

But we are neither conjoined twins in tastes and wants and needs nor dependent on each other for a primary sense of identity. He inhales reads books as quickly and easily as though it were breathing, and I labor through them; his reading ranges from professional interests to serial mysteries and thrillers and more, and mine, when my dyslexia forbids the time and attention required for favorites like SJ Perelman with his dazzling wordplay, or Charles Dickens and Robertson Davies, is devoted more to blog articles and short-form works; I read and write fairly constantly, but it’s a slow-moving river indeed. My Foodie Tuesday posts here will tell you that our preferences in dining also differ widely, if not wildly. Sometimes it’s tricky finding a meal at home that will satisfy both of us equally, given the limitations of our common subset. As for movies, he’d happily be in a theatre watching the latest offerings on the big screen, but he opts to stay home with me where I’m not troubled by the overwhelming noise and the overpowering intensity of on-screen action that were intolerable to me in my anxiety-ridden days and remain somewhat unappealing even now. He still watches a lot of stuff that I have no interest in watching or even hearing, but then I’ve learned that an evening in front of our own big screen makes a great time for me to install a good pair of earplugs, rev up my trusty pencil to draw or my computer to work on blogging, photo editing, magazine proofreading and correspondence. I still get to spend time in his company and swap intermittent witticisms with my favorite companion, and we both get to do what’s more appealing to each of us.

I realized long ago that I have a different attitude about relationships in general than many others, and I know that my attitude differs greatly from my own when I was younger as well. Now that I have a number of years of marriage under my belt (no comments from the cheap seats about ‘love handles’!) I am even more baffled by the people who harp on about what constant hard work relationships and marriages are and how difficult it is to keep them operational. Seems to me that if they’re consistently hard work, they’re not really relationships other than perhaps in the form of a slave/master sort. If it’s really high maintenance, it’s a job, not a relationship. Any that are one-sided because of abuse or complete conformity or any other sort of enforced imbalance cease to be viable or valid in my eyes. Only when both parties have something to contribute that is genuinely respected and appreciated by the other does it seem purposeful and potentially joyful, and if neither of those aspects is in the equation for any length of time at all, it is based on something far different from a relationship in my book.

At the same time, if we thought in perfect synchrony and had no differences of opinion or thought or preferences, it seems to me there would be no point in the relationship either. It would be pretty much the equivalent of marrying oneself, and idea that is both ridiculous and more than a little creepy. Narcissism is inherently the inverse of relationship-ready.

Apropos of this: both my husband and I had spent a fair amount of our adult lives single (he, divorced and I, unmarried) when we first dated, and both of us were fairly certain that we would remain single for the rest of our lives–and most importantly, both of us were okay with that idea. We were whole, functioning, socially active, happy individuals with full lives and immersed in relationships with great companions of all sorts. We think it’s part of what made us ready to slide into a life partner, love relationship with very little adjustment at all. Our cosmic crash into each other was instead a landing beautifully cushioned and protected by the remarkable net of many of those other relationships of ours, almost as much as by our personal contentment, mutual attraction and shared interests. Seems to me entirely noteworthy that a strong and happy relationship was founded on and remains supported by a network of other relationships.

This, too, is significant in protecting us from the dangers of too much intermingling of lives in retirement. We already share a lot of time together that we really love. And we already share so many great friends and loved ones that it’s far from essential that all of the newly acquired ones be mutual. He knows and enjoys the company and support and good humor of plenty of friends and colleagues, many of whom I know only as names or email-senders or office acquaintances or voices on the phone, and I have my own contingent of blog friends, expedition companions, collaborators and mentors as well. If every part of life were spent together, what would we have to talk about at the end of the day?

There are so many aspects of our marriage that make it pretty easy for me to avoid worry about what-ifs when retirement comes, I almost feel guilty. But not! I appreciate that we like to do things together as often as we can, daily, hourly, and that we have a life that allows us to take advantage of it. When we worked in side-by-side buildings in years past, it meant we could meet for lunch or stop by each other’s offices or for any number of other excuses quite conveniently; now, when I’m homemaking and blogging, I have the flexibility of schedule to take the shuttle over to the campus where he now works and grab a quick supper somewhere nearby with him before a tightly scheduled evening recital or concert, or sit in on a rehearsal of one of his choirs, or tidy up his files before sitting down to write and draw while he studies a score for the next choral-orchestral extravaganza. If I’m able to get a job again, I’d like to make sure that it still allows space for our interaction, however different that will be, because we really do value time spent together, however it’s spent.

If that makes ours a little unlike the average relationship approaching retirement age, I’m just sorry for all of those out there making up the bulk of the average, let alone any who remain under the mark for any reason. I’d much rather be novel in this respect.photo

Everyone should Retire Early

The creaky proverb ‘Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise’ has irritated many a dedicated night-owl, and presumably even more so, many a person who was committed to belief in the axiom and assiduously followed its recommendation while continuing to fail to become healthy, wealthy and/or wise. This precept, of course, is only one of a great many that would seem to promise the same sorts of desirable results to its practitioners. And also, of course, only one of as many that consistently fail to deliver on the promise.

Since on average, life rarely puts anyone directly on the path to success and a wonderful, comfortable retirement enjoying it–and the aforementioned life coaching doesn’t generally nudge anyone toward it either–I would think it best to choose and pursue, each of us, our own different paths as needed to try to achieve those ends. I’m not entirely sure that I see it as particularly useful to accept the proposed and codified definition of the desirable kind of aging and retirement anyway. How on earth could (or should) there really be a one-size-fits-all solution to the puzzle of what every unique human wants or should want as life goals?

The only thing I do think makes sense as a somewhat universal goal is to be as well as one can manage to be, and be doing what one loves, not more, not less. For some, that might well mean employment; there really are humans who love their jobs. For many, it would mean either finding work that is lovable or finding ways to get by without having a standard sort of job. In any case, whether it’s called Retirement or Finding Your Bliss or just plain means discovering what makes one happy and managing to capture it somehow, I like to think that doing such things at a particular time in one’s life or in a certain way is pointless and that the best solution is to do what one loves as soon and as constantly as one can possibly do. Retire at age six? Why not, really? If by retirement we mean doing and being exactly what we’re meant to be and loving it, that seems like exactly the right thing to do.

Go ahead. Put me out to pasture.graphite drawing

Super Chicken

mixed media artworkMy superpower, if I could be said to have any, is being supremely ordinary. Yeah, I’m really, really good at that. Now, you may think it’s not impressive that I’m good at being so-so, and you could be forgiven for thinking it. And yet . . .

Besides that it requires massive numbers of us mid-range sorts to keep nature in a sort of balance with the various human outliers at the top (and bottom) of the spectrum, there’s also the comfort and safety of being able to travel under the radar of scrutiny and pressure to which both kinds of exceptional people are exposed.

What on earth does this mean I am good at doing, at being? Why, I do what’s expected. I go to sleep; I wake up. I eat and I walk and I get dressed and undressed, and the world carries right on around me. And though I don’t at the moment have employment outside of our home, my current occupation being Homemaker, I spend myself and my efforts, rather, on doing the small and yet significant things that might not be essential to keeping the world operational but grease the gears, instead. And keeping the cogs working relatively smoothly is as useful in its own way as being the driver, the engineer or a cog myself. I go to meetings and do Projects, too, to be sure, but mostly what I do nowadays is fix a meal, repair a door-jamb, ferry my spouse and a student to a rehearsal. I do laundry; I prune the plantings near the window. Glamorous? Just exactly enough.

Because the luster of the day comes not from being admired and lauded but from being appreciated, even if it’s hardly necessary to hear that announced constantly–after all, the proof of its value is in plain view if the needful things get done. Any reward lies in the belief that I make life that one tiny iota smoother and pleasanter for that one brief instant, even if only for this one other person. It’s borne on the smile of relief worn by him whose sheaf of office paperwork got filed at last when he couldn’t get to it himself, or whose old slippers have been mended by the time he gets home from the office at the end of the day. It’s in the neighbor being glad to have the excess garden supplies or box of art materials I’ve collected to send to school with her. It’s with me when I arrange the chairs alongside the singers before a rehearsal when I come by to listen to their work. It’s mostly in knowing that the stuff needed to keep quotidian action on course is being looked after, bit by little bit. And that I’m the person for the job.

I don’t do this selflessly, of course, because I would hardly keep it up for long if it weren’t so simply and inherently rewarding. And it certainly bespeaks no genius or courage on my part that I do it, for clearly it takes greater skill and ingenuity and bravery to do all of the shiny, showy things for which I provide my atoms of encouragement from the periphery. Maybe a jot of courage only to admit to being a homemaker and loving it. So many who haven’t the privilege of the life seem to disdain it and misconstrue its meaning, especially if it doesn’t have either children or wealth as part of the equation. I am far more fearful of having no sense of purpose than of being thought unimportant by anyone else; I care more about feeling my own worth than having it validated by any outside agents.

So if I seem to anyone to be afraid of taking a larger role in the Real World as they see it, I suppose I ought to admit that in one sense I am. I know that having this Job for a few years has given me new strength and the ability to go out in the wider world for a so-called Real one again when the time comes, yet I do dread leaving this role that has given me a feeling of vocation more than anything else I’ve ever done and risking the dimming of any of the self-worth I’ve garnered or the value I’ve learned to impute to the tasks of being normal and simple and everyday, which I’ve learned to see as so much deeper and richer than they’d seemed until I tried on the role of their custodian myself. I do, at the end of it, think that if I’m a dull, bland or unimportant grease-monkey to the cogs of the world, I’m a damn good one, and if I’m scared of giving up that high honor, then I at least credit myself with being a superior variety of chicken.

A Hard Day’s Work

graphite drawingAnyone can be forgiven for thinking that today’s title is a phrase entirely foreign to me in every way. As an avowed lazy person and general slacker, I am known for working with dedication and intensity only when absolutely necessary and unavoidable, and then of course immediately reverting to a supine position as soon as humanly possible. I can, however, honestly claim a couple of points of connection with the workforce, really I can.graphite drawingFirst, of course, is that as a person who enjoys storytelling in both verbal and visual forms, I find much inspiration in the beauty of working people and the myriad tasks they perform, whether willingly or unwillingly. Their beauty, the admirable strength and the grace inherent in laboring people and their achievements, is worthy not only of recognition and illustration but also of admiration and praise. So I suppose this other understanding that I, in my limited way, have of hard work, this combined amazement and gratitude, is really what drives my urge to illustrate such people and their deeds. Call it my thank you card.digitally colored graphite drawing

Cat, Mouse and Everyday Danger

That little old four-letter word Work has challenged the finest among us to test the limits of endurance, wisdom, hope and courage for as long as there’s been such a thing as a job on this planet. We agonize and weep over our work as though doing unspeakable heroics every single minute, even when we know perfectly well that every living thing has faced challenges of his, her or its own since the first moment there were, well, living things. It didn’t take employers and employees to bring this tension to full expression. If I think I’m sitting on a powder-keg just because I’ve tackled something that pushes me to my limits (or, to be more precise, because it has tackled me), it’s time to step back, take a deep breath, and remember my compatriots of every sort striving and struggling and facing greater odds than I have ever faced, accepting them as the inevitable price of existence.graphite drawingNot that any of this contemplation has the remotest chance of making me stop thinking myself both the greatest martyr and the finest superhero at work on the planet. I only get the smallest momentary glimpses of sanity through the veneer of my regular distorted self-image as the silly person I am, after all. Even though I know that in my own version of ‘cat and mouse’ the tiniest mouse could best me in the flick of a whisker.

Money, Mayhem, Madness

Someday I will retire. Ah, but how does one retire when one hasn’t been employed for pay outside of one’s home for a longish time, eh? How, to be more to the point, does one retire when one hasn’t been productive or purposeful or a contributing member of society?graphite drawingThe very idea is preposterous. Crazy, really. But let’s be clear here: I wasn’t really that impressive and significant a member of the workforce when I was under contract to my various outside employers. Heck, some of them might conceivably have wished to put out a contract on me. But I digress. The thing is that this idea of retirement stems not entirely from my personal lack of a job-related work ethic (a.k.a. lazypantsitude) nor even, strictly speaking, from the retirement-contemplation infection I may or may not have caught from any of those near and dear to me, who may or may not include close friends and family members–it’s simply that Issue that so many people begin to contemplate with a bit of trepidation nowadays when the world of personal finance is so volatile and the future as unpredictable as it could possibly seem. It’s the persistent and slightly frightening specter of what will become of me, of any of us, when we opt out of the workaday world entirely and attempt to live a post-employment life. Retirement, as (or if) experienced nowadays, is a mighty scary mistress, sweet as sticky toffee pudding one minute and in the very next one, raving like a latecomer to the sale at Filene’s Basement.graphite drawingYou will not be the least bit surprised that, no matter how modest and unconventional my work life has been, I am enamored enough of non-work-related occupations to desire the life of a retiree if (and when) I can lay my hands on it. So I consider, now, what it will really require in the way of planning and saving and earning and arranging between now and that magical date, whenever it may be, and am plotting a course through the intervening period that I hope will set me and my beloved up as well as can be for that eventuality. If any billionaires should happen to be reading this and simply itching to offload some of their excess samoleans into my personal coffers, of course I am willing to shoulder that happy responsibility. If anyone should be looking for some fantastic artworks to purchase for home, office, gift or birdcage-liner, I have stacks of material available for the buying. But I suspect it will take some other, further, additional and/or different approaches to actually put me in a reasonable position to retire.graphite drawingDon’t mind me, in the meantime, wigging out just a mite over the whole process. It’s how I handle mysteries and challenges. And yes, I am very well aware that worry about such a thing as retirement is entirely a rich person’s problem and thus not exactly worthy of much sympathy.  Still, I do fuss over it a bit. Since I don’t have regular skills that have kept me gainfully employed (and even when I was employed, it was mostly in academia and selling art, so you can guess how gainful that all was), I shall just have to take my own tack, no matter how tangential it is to the norm. That is definitely how I tend to operate, and I can’t imagine that my life as a retiree will be any different in that regard.

 

Toward Home and Hearth

photoAt Close of Day

After the labor that fills the day and long before full darkness falls,

We long to gather and go away, to leave the dimness of labor’s halls

And go back home to the fireside, where supper and books and armchairs wait,

To spend the remains of eventide over soup and a novel beside the grate.

This is the way the day should end, and peace and renewal repair the spent,

Frayed souls whose work was less than friend, for whom the fire is heaven-sent–

This nest of comfort from which we roam always draws us back to hearth and home.photo montage