Retiring (written 2018)
Yesterday in the afternoon, in a lull between sporadic rain showers, we sat for awhile in the bright sun in our yard. It was late enough in the day that the busy sounds of mowers and chain saws and traffic on the road were absent. We live far enough out not to hear the reverberations of the celebratory music at Party in the Park. The air was filled with sunlight and birdsong. Happiness coming in by the sense doors...warmth and light and lilting song. A deep gratitude arose in my heart, often sore and a bit tender these days. What was especially lovely was that this gratitude was not tinged by any melancholy. For a moment, a sensory based facsimile of Nibbana.
Just sitting, body moving with the breath, absorbing warmth, allowing notes to fall on open ears, breeze on my skin and stones beneath my feet stirring tactile sensation; this impermanent moment was enough. Into the space my husband let fall a question: “What do you think it would take for you to retire?”
Sometimes I am pretty busy these days with writing in my little study room, not for solid blocks of hours I used to carve out, but for intermittent spaces of time throughout each day at odd hours, whenever it's possible. And sometimes I am busy with teaching and meetings and the like that take me out of our home for various reasons, mostly for just an hour or two here and there, but nearly every day at times. And sometimes I am just busy with the work of a household...cooking, shopping, paying bills, cleaning, making calls, that long list that could fill pages. We also have, right now, the shared necessity of dealing with his illness and his treatment, whatever arises day to day. So what does “retiring” mean in this context?
It means, I think, a state of mind. Not to allow these various tasks, paid or unpaid, to become “work”. To do what needs doing, moment to moment, and not to take up the mental load of listing and anxiety. I could pare down the to-do list, I've done it before, but if I am not successful in putting down the mental loads that go with what is left, nothing really changes. Contrary wise, I can maintain my current commitments and open up mental space around them and feel the cool sense of ease which is, I think, what many people hope for when they express a longing to retire.
There are, of course, things I can do to make that heart-mind space more accessible. Own less, simplify my needs. But letting go of expectations, a wish list, the need for approval from others, these are internal moves, this is mental space clearing. Not as easy as resigning a position or selling a house or stepping off a committee.
Retiring means stepping back. For a longtime Buddhist practitioner this rings bells with the language of abandonment, or letting go, or disentangling. In our society it usually just means quitting your job. This popular definition can lead us to believe that “just doing what we want to do” equals the freedom we've desired. I think many people find this isn't so when they try it. It's either empty and meaningless play or maybe new burdens of recreational residences, financial and organizational strain of travel, boats and toys to maintain. It's important, I think, to remember that freedom, a felt sense of freedom, is not the presence or absence of things or duties in our life, but our attitude toward what life holds.
My husband's question led to contemplation. What I'm reflecting on is how I hold the things I do, the things I have. Re-visiting my intention to hold loosely, not to allow the small self to indulge its greed for achievement and approval, but to find the more enduring joy that is there when I open and trust the moment, letting fall through open hands what cannot really be held anyway.