Good Parents Never Retire

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There are a lot of things I love about my parents.  I love that they never pull out a tape recording of all the things I said I’d never do as a parent when I do exactly that.  I love that they are flush with great advice but wait until it’s asked for.  I love that, as I begin to understand their point of view on so many things, they never say, “I told you so.”   And I love, that at the ages of 70 and 72, they’ve never really retired – not from their jobs or from parenting.

My dad knew he wanted to be a doctor pretty early in college.  He’s been in medicine in one way or another for most of his life (not just his adult life – his life).  His career has changed over the years, taking him and us around the country and even the globe.  What never changed was his drive to learn.  My mom started her career as a history professor when my sister and I were a little older, and, while her job didn’t involve as much globetrotting, she had the same insatiable lust for learning as my dad.   

When they got closer to their retirement age, we expected they might slow down and transition into being full-time grandparents.  My dad, however, kept traveling for one lecture or research project, and my mom kept reading and writing and teaching.  They did have tentative plans for after retirement, but they constantly seemed to get pushed further down the road.

My dad announced his retirement first.  I wondered how long it would take this man who was constantly traveling to go stir crazy (or make my mother crazy).  But he already had plans.  He barely seemed to stop for a breath before launching himself into a different incarnation of his love of medicine and learning and service.  He may have left his job, but, even now, years later, he is still a medical man.  It was not just a job or even a career, it was and remains a passion.  

My mom continued this pattern.  Her job ended, but her work continued.  Like my father, her retirement was marked by the end of a paycheck and the beginning of projects.  She joined another history organization, investing almost as much time on research and writing as she had before retiring.  She’s been retired for several years now, but she is still every bit a historian, and, with my dad is still busy teaching me some valuable life lessons as she navigates this phase of her life.

They don’t work as many hours as they did when they were employed, but even when they’re on vacation, they will retire to their office/bedroom for a little research or writing.  Most days I like my job very much (absent a winning lottery ticket or  writing the next Harry Potter, I’ll probably be doing it till I retire).  Only unwillingly, however, do I let it intrude on my family vacations, and it wasn’t until recently that I ‘got’ why my parents invited their ‘work’ into their holidays and their retirement.

What helped me ‘get’ it was finding the Writer’s Project at Hubbard Hall led by author Jon Katz.  I always loved writing, but there had been times when life got too hectic and I let it fall by the wayside.  The Project demanded that everyone who was intent on staying with it needed to write and share regularly through our blogs.  At first, this was as an act of  discipline.  Then it became my regular indulgence in ‘me’ time.  It was not until we went on vacation with my parents, however, that I began to realize that it was giving me a brand new perspective on my parents and on work.

Determined to have a real vacation last year, I only took my iPad and left ‘work’ at home.  But from the moment we left our dirt road for the paved highways, I wrote.  Every place we stopped I wrote.  At night, I wrote after everyone else was in bed.  When the kids were busy with their Tinker Toys or at the beach, I wrote.  And, as I watched my Mom and Dad withdraw each day to their office and invite their lifeworks into their vacations, it struck me that, for the first time in my life, I had done the same thing.  

Finding the Writer’s Project was serendipity, and it would have been worth selling blood and organs to join had it been necessary.  But watching two people living their passions as I rediscover mine has enriched the experience in ways I couldn’t anticipate.  The workshop encourages us all to follow our passions.  My parents are showing me how to thrive on them for the rest of my life.

Expecting Inspiration

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For the past few weeks my waking hours have been spent mostly shut off from the world.

I rise before dawn to write and read – forcing myself to shut out the world that beckons from the internet.  At 7 AM, I’ll wake my boys and spend the next 45 minutes getting them dressed, fed, and chauffeured to school.  Then I’ll come home and take care of the few chores I do on a daily basis before sitting down to work until dark again.  I’ll re-emerge from my work area in time to make dinner and start the cycle all over again.  The short winter days ensure that I rarely see daylight, but the thing I have noticed the most as my job demands more from my family life with the waxing tax season, is that spending less time with my family often means that I spend less time with my blog.

I first noticed this one recent weekend when basketball practice inspired another post and a story for an e-book I’m working.  I sat down in the the gym at 8:15 AM on a Saturday, watched Thing1 and  Thing2 finish an argument over something important (like which is the better color – red or green) and, as Thing2 began his basketball dance, I felt the urge to pull out my notebook and pen.  I didn’t stop writing for the entire morning.  Doodles and ideas flowed.

Sunday was equally productive.  The ideas and stories overflowed into Monday, but by Tuesday, I spent most of the previous two days away from my family.  When I put the kids to bed, I realized I had seen them for 2 waking hours.  Simultaneously, the story well seemed to go dry and stay that way for a day or two.

Part of me has been resentful of this new routine.  As great as it is to work at home, it can be really difficult to explain to younger children that, even though you’re home, you’re not available.  And, through the door, I can hear the evening antics and arguments as homework and its tribulations unfold around the kitchen table.  The fairy tale is unfolding without me.

But even as I’m already feeling left out and dreading the seemingly lifeless hours in the day ahead, I’m finding an unexpected story this morning.  This story is about the very light causing the shadows.  It’s about the good fortune to be shut up in a warm room and to have enough food to feed a family at the end of the day.  It’s about not fearing about necessities.  But most of all, this tale is about realizing how fortunate it is to have a reason to feel the absence of the stories happening just on the other side of the study door.

Ablaze at Both Ends

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I one of the lucky few.  Most days I like my job.  Every day I like my coworkers.  But there are some days, when I’m on a writing roll (in quantity, not necessarily quality) that I begin wondering how much I could get for a slightly dented, c-listed kidney so I could finance a writing life.

I joined a writing workshop with author Jon Katz at Hubbard Hall in Cambridge, NY, a community theatre and arts center back in May of 2012 with the idea of improving my skills and, hopefully, finding to make a writing life.   I was nervous about both aspects.  The workshop had an application process, and, while I think any artist has heard him or herself say, “I could do that” when embarking on a new work, I was secretly terrified that, surrounded by real writers, I would find out that maybe I could, but I shouldn’t.  I was equally terrified that Mr. Katz would (as a few workshop leaders in the past had) have to explain the unpleasant facts of the writer’s life to us and make us understand that only a select few can ever enter that special circle.

Mr. Katz has had an long and successful writing career, by any measure, but, like many people, has seen his career go through rapid changes with the onslaught of the digital age.  I went into the workshop aware that the internet had driven down the incomes of many creative professionals – stock photos can be had for $1.00 a piece regardless of their production cost, ebooks at $.99 abound – and I was doubtful that anyone could still make a living writing unless they were already an established author or a movie star with a scandal to sell.  But Mr. Katz had invited us to Hubbard Hall to peddle optimism and encouragement – not negativity.

He spent the first hour of the first workshop talking about all the opportunities for writers – established and emerging – and by the time we took a break, I was ready to race home to my computer and wear down the keys a bit.  I still hadn’t figured out what I would write – his first assignment to us was to create our blogs – but I knew something would come.  And then he gave us a piece of advice which has – for the most part – wiped out writer’s block for the last 7 months.  “Look for the stories that are close to your life,” he said.

I thought about that for the next few weeks as we set up our group page on Facebook and each of us began testing the waters with our blog ideas.  The blogs began evolving, and we could see each other developing as artists.  I stopped calling myself a wannabe-writer, coming to the conclusion that writing is where I belong.

So now it’s Monday morning, and work is about to begin.  I’m sitting at my kitchen table watching the snowfall and getting ready to sign on to my employer’s group chat, but before I do, I burn a little of my writing candle.  I’ll work till I can’t see the snow anymore, and after dinner is done and homework for the kids is checked, I’ll burn a little more.  At one point I wondered if burning the candle at both ends was a good idea.  At some points I tell myself it’s just until I can have a full-time writing life.  The reality is, though, that this fire at both ends does not consume me, it sustains me, and it’s just enough to keep the dream alive.