Thursday, December 30, 2010

On Being Irresolute

Let me be absolutely clear.  I do not make New Year's resolutions.  Although this time of year causes me to reflect on the roads traveled in the past year and to think about what may be on deck for the next 12 months, I've never thought about, constructed, or written down all the ways I'm going to change my bad habits.  Just making the list of my bad habits would be too taxing, and then I'd have the problem of figuring out how to turn those habits around.

In recent years as soon as Katie and Dillon have returned to their home, and Larry has gone back to work, I climb the step-stool of death, teeter over the shaky tree laden with delicate glass ornaments, and carefully remove the decorations from our Christmas tree.

Putting up the tree is a great social event.  We all gather around; Katie puts on the Christmas music; stories are shared about each ornament.  The dogs bark, and the cat observes.  We usually scrape up some kind of cookie and a cup of hot coffee.  When Larry wondered why we didn't have as many ornaments as the year before, I confessed that last year I'd broken at least two when I took the tree down.  No matter how many times I test it, gravity works every time.

But taking down the tree is a lonely job.  No one wants to be reminded that Christmas, once again, is gone.  I'm alone with the tree, and the beginning of the new year is only days away.  This is the new start we've all wanted.  People decide this is the time to do things like those they've put off, such as losing weight (probably the most common resolution), the things they've always wanted to do, but didn't have the courage to do, and the things they feel obligated to do.

There's a reason we put things off.  They're uncomfortable, disgusting, or maybe even painful.  I suppose it's better if we only attempt these changes once a year and keep at it as long as we can.  If you can make it to Valentine's Day, the resolution might become a life-style instead of a rule, but many folks don't make it more than a couple of weeks.

"Bucket list" has become almost trite as people think about those childhood dreams that flutter away as life's responsibilities take over.  But there is no time like today to realize a dream.  Does it require money?  Start saving today.  Does someone else object?  Address that situation and work out the details.  When I start whining, my husband reminds me that if you really want to do something, you'll do it.  Why wait for an arbitrary date on the calendar?

Obligations come in many forms, but if you're making a resolution because it's expected of you, take a deeper look at your motivation.  Let someone else make that change if it's important to them; I want to reserve my time for what's important to me.  It's hard enough to lose weight, but if you're doing it to appease your mother, every bite of tofu or broiled fish will taste even worse.

When I retired, I thought about how I wanted my life to be.  I don't need a string of rules or a bucket list. I came up with only two rules.  First, I'll only eat when I'm hungry.  Two, I'll only watch television when there's a show on that I want to see.  This way I'll avoid sitting in front of the tv all day, and I'll keep the grocery bill low.  Because I didn't wait until January 1 to implement these changes, I'll have plenty of time to get those Christmas ornaments packed away.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Christmas Story

Horatio Alger more or less invented the American dream.  Near the end of the 19th Century, he wrote a series of novels that involved impoverished boys who, through some act of selflessness or bravery, came to the attention of a wealthy man who mentored the boy into a successful middle-class life.  Mr. Alger was a productive writer, and his novels were well-known up through the mid-twentieth century when references to his works were common on television shows and in other books.  The conclusion of a Horatio Alger story was understood to be a happy ending.

Mr. Alger himself was from a middle-class New England family.  He studied at Harvard and found that he disliked teaching.  Unfortunately his background included being accused of distasteful and illegal activities with children, but he managed to retrieve a writing career from the rubble of his work as a Unitarian minister.

I love to hear a story about someone who lived in difficult circumstances but was able to overcome poverty, crime, sin, or other evil obstacle to succeed.  The Horatio Alger boys always succeeded in the end, no matter how much they suffered at the hands of unscrupulous cads who laid in wait for an unsuspecting lad.

I know a story about a boy who was born into a family who lived in poverty.  The father was a blue-collar worker, and the mom got pregnant by someone other than her fiancee before the couple married.  It was a rough start for the family.  As a matter of fact the boy was born to the unmarried couple while they were homeless because they were fulfilling a government regulation.  I don't know what they did for diapers; it's hard to care for a newborn when you're homeless.

Somehow the couple managed to get by, and they eventually married and lived in a small town where the dad could work.  They didn't have much money, and resources were stretched to feed the growing family.  There wasn't much formal education; the boys learned to read from the religious leaders.  Though the family was poor, they obeyed God's laws and placed their hope in God, not in money or fancy clothes.

Just like the boys in the Horatio Alger stories, this boy grew up to have a successful career.  He defeated death and Satan to become a King.  He rules over all of God's creation, and all things that we know today are held together through Him.

What a success story!  From a humble birth which we celebrate yet today at Christmas, the boy Jesus grew into a man who loved God's children on earth so much that he followed God's directions all the way to the cross where he died for our sins.  Through his obedience, he became King, Redeemer, Messiah, Savior, Light of the World, Immanuel.  First he was a boy in rags, though, the child we love at Christmas.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Retirement in the Ice Age

Anticipation.  That first day of retirement will be great!  The feeling of relief at the reduction of responsibilities will be wonderful after getting up at 6:00 a.m. for decades.  My sense of autonomy will be restored as I gain a sense of where I want to go and decide what I enjoy doing the most.

I did something nice for someone on my first day of retirement.  I prepared a hash brown potato casserole for my husband's Christmas party at work.  I was also going to get a hair cut, but my stylist called the night before to cancel the appointment because winter weather was expected.  "That worked out well," I thought.  "I'll be able to get the casserole baked and up to Marion much quicker."  Everything was looking great.

I kept an eye on the weather as I worked in the kitchen.  There was a cold rain coming down, and ice started to stick to the tree branches, although the roads didn't seem to have much snow or ice.  By the time I was ready to go to Marion, the temperature would be higher and the precipitation would be rain.  Many times the lights flickered.  I held my breath, but the electricity stayed on.  The casserole was bubbling away when I pulled it out of the oven and wrapped it in foil and towels for the trip to Marion.

That was the high point of my first day of retirement.  The rest of the day went down hill.

As soon as I took the casserole from the oven, the electricity went off.  The roads had some messy looking slush, but other cars had driven down the street so I loaded up the scalding hot dish and carried it out to the car.  I had to gently crack the ice away from the car door handle, and I got the engine going as I scraped ice from the windshield.

The layer of ice over the slush on the streets had been mashed into troughs by car tires.  The branches of the trees in our yard were bending low with their burden of ice.  The main roads were only wet, but I wasn't prepared for the utility lines lying in the road or the trees fallen across the road.  On the interstate I could feel the car shimmy a little as the tires lost contact with the pavement.  Trailer trucks were not so concerned as they blew past me at full speed.

When I pulled up in front of my husband's office building, I told him, "This is the dumbest thing I have ever done," as he retrieved the food  from the car.  While I stopped at the gas station to fill up the car, I planned a route home that didn't go past stretches of road lined with tall trees.  I made it home to the dark, cold house with no internet service or telephone.

Amazing how most of my plans for retirement involved electricity.  Or at the least they required light so that I could see what I was doing, and it's incredibly dark on a rainy, cloudy, snowy winter day.

If any of you plan to depend on those wind-up battery powered emergency radios, I can tell you that there will not be any helpful information coming out of that contraption.  I was able to pick up country music, NPR, and limitless stations playing non-stop Christmas music, which included a jazz piano version of Walking in a Winter Wonderland.  There were precious few news broadcasts, and those failed to even mention the ice storm that had swallowed Smyth County.  There were no updates on power outages or when power would be restored, just Elvis or Bing or Tanya Tucker.  It always surprises me when television stations run those emergency broadcast tests, like they think that after a nuclear attack we're all going to tune in to cable television.  If we don't have electricity or cable after an ice storm, I'm not hopeful that broadcast services will be helpful after terrorists take out the power grid.

The first day of retirement is a once-in-a-lifetime event.  It wasn't what I expected, but it has come and gone, and it's a day I'll always remember.  Along about supper time on Friday, my husband said I'd been retired for 48 hours, and I'd been without electricity for 32 of them.  But eventually the power came back on, and the house breathed life again.

I can't change what happened on this first day.  It's a memory, a vivid memory now, but it will fade, and I'll only remember important parts of it later on.  It'll be something to talk about over coffee.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


Here I am:  age 60, bad knees, cranky, and overweight.  I wheeze a little when I walk too fast.  Who would give me a second look, much less an undeserved second chance at anything?

I've known people who always seem to land on their feet, no matter what happens.  Employers call them out of the blue and offer them jobs.  When the bank account gets low, they get an unexpected check in the mail.  People just can't stay mad at them for long because they are so likeable.  No matter how many mistakes they make in their work, they can't help but be successful and make money.  Lots of money.

And then there are people like me.  I've never been able to make it on my looks or my wit.  I survived by showing up every day.  When an assignment was made, I actually read the book.  I learned to plan because I didn't like the feeling of being unprepared.  Plan, work, stick with the job no matter what barriers or discomforts are in the way. 

All I have ever known in my life is work.  I remember being in the garden with my mother when I was a  little girl, helping her pull weeds and talking about how I'd learned in school that at Jamestown those people who didn’t work weren’t allowed anything to eat. Once when my mother told me to bring in a bucket of coal for the stove, I jokingly (or so I thought) asked how much that would be worth.  My mother (not jokingly) explained that we did not get paid for doing work in her household.  

My first formal job came in high school when I had a summer job as a waitress at a restaurant, only one of many jobs that taught me humility.  I managed to work a sufficient amount of time to earn enough money to pay for my senior class ring. I don’t remember specific lessons that made me think that I couldn’t have things unless I worked for them, but somehow those lessons were branded on my consciousness from the very beginning of my life. I don’t know who did it or how it happened, but there it is. I don’t remember being petted and spoiled (even though I am the baby of the family) just because I was precious. I remember having to prove my worth.  My motto has been, "Here.  Let me do it."

I get nervous when I think about not working. I think about not having enough money to pay bills or shop the outlet malls. Do I have ample clothing to last me the rest of my life? Can I use my current car until I die? Am I worth anything at all if I’m not working? Do I have any value as a human being other than what I can produce? Does my existence on earth have value in and of itself?

Not long ago I found myself sitting in a surgeon’s office, contemplating life and rolling the dice. The big C.  A few years ago when I was editing a student literary publication, a young man submitted a poem that contained the line, "Sometimes tomorrow is not another day."  Yep, after committing my life to work (and I don’t mean a career, I mean just work—like doing laundry, cleaning the toilets, carrying luggage for someone who’s having trouble doing it, digging up garden plots, editing someone's letter of reference), I asked some difficult questions about my worth. 

I decided to retire from my job.  It doesn't mean I'm giving up work.  It means I'm getting a second chance.  Despite all the mistakes I've made in my life, there have been many second chances given to me.  I received a second chance when the small cancer was treated and no other cancers were found.  When I've made others angry, sometimes they didn't' forgive me, but some gave me that second chance.  From the moment of my birth, God has looked down on me with mercy and said, "Janet, I forgive you.  Try again."   

My retirement is a second chance.  I can re-train my focus away from a formal job to work that I enjoy and find productive.  There will continue to be mistakes.  How could there not?  This is my tomorrow, though, another day, a second chance to try again through the mercy of God.