Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Wonders of Early Fall


  The Coming of Fall

We are moving into the last quarter of the year now, and all around us there are signs that the cycle we inhabit is inexorably moving onward. There are changes literally in the air, and we respond to them as humans have always had to do. It is cooler now, so we think about whether we need a long sleeved shirt and whether wearing those shorts is still a good idea. The flashing and blinking yellow lights remind us of school zones as we drive to and from work and the fact that kids are back to school. Our department stores are having “End of Summer” clearance sales, football is back, it will be a new TV season, and newspapers are now previewing the fall movies and theater seasons. Car commercials are advertising “End of the Year” sales on this year's models. Humans are changing their lives in line with the seasons.

On my morning walks I have noticed the cycle's changes as well. A lot of the flowers that so brightened up lawns and gardens a few short weeks ago are now looking a little bedraggled and done in. The wonderful sunflower thicket alongside my neighbor's house has dulled, and she has trimmed and cut it way back. The bright yellow and dark black on the goldfinches that are still zooming around the sunflowers have lost a lot of their luster as well, and their coloration is starting to change. Window boxes have flowers and plants that are starting to bend over, and the color has drained from some of them. Lawns are less vibrant, and if I look carefully, I can see that the tips of some of the trees in the neighborhood are starting change to a burnt orange. And most remarkably, the morning light seems to have taken on a new suddenness in its daily arrival. I normally start my walks about 5:45 or 6 AM, and night is still there. The moon is clearly visible on some days, stars are out, and there is that wonderful and magical sense of the mystery of darkness as I start my walk. Gradually, very gradually, the sky proceeds to lighten up so that by 6:45 or 7 the sun is clearly out and a new day is most obviously here. Now, however, that process is changing. At around 6:00 it is still dark and the sense of night is there. But by 6:40 the day has dramatically broken through-its appearance seems sudden and urgent. Most days it is bright by then, and there is shimmering sunlight reflecting off the cars, roofs and drainpipes of my street by the tie I finish my work. It was last week when I noticed that happening, and it struck me as quietly dramatic. It seemed as if the sun was bursting forth as if to announce that we weren't going to have it at full strength for much longer, and we had better notice it and make full use of it while we can. And I know-that is my take on these happenings; the solar system doesn't much care about what we do or don't make of what it does. But that thought did give me a new appreciation for the holidays and observances that start arriving at this time of the year and the rituals we have evolved to mark the ways of the cycle. Many religions- Judaism, Hindu, Islam, Orthodox Christian, Catholicism, Jainism, and more-have holy days and rituals during this month as humans world-wide work to accept and integrate their lives and existence with the cycle. And the changing of the light is, to me, one of the important reminders that we have to do that, whether we are consciously aware of it or not. For we are part of that endless cycle too, and for years our very survival depended on acknowledging that fact.

So I will watch as the visible sunlight comes at different times this month as we move closer to and beyond the autumn equinox. (And I will watch as night comes earlier and earlier, too). It is a wonderful thing to notice, and I am glad that I have the time and opportunity to be aware of it. When I retired I knew morning walking was going to be a part of my routine. And I am still awakening to all the wonderful gifts it is giving me.

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Sunday, September 13, 2015

"Feeling Retired"

   September 8 was the first day of school for both Philly public and private school students. Our house in Mt Airy is a block away from a public elementary school, and the corner outside our house is a stop on the bus routes of two private elementary schools. So when I got back from my morning walk on Tuesday I could both see and hear that combination of excitement, confusion, fear, nervousness and parental relief that always seems to mark the start of a new school year. It was a bit of a shock to have the level of noise in the area after a summer of slow awakening mornings-the volume of kids' voices and the rumbling of idling buses took some getting used to. But I usually love the sound of excited kids' voices, and I enjoyed seeing so many new haircuts, fresh clean clothes and excited open faces. And over time I will get used to those sights and sound because I will hear and see them on a regular basis now. For the first time in some 35+ years, I am not in school.

   When I retired in June many people said that I wouldn't really feel retired until that first day of school in September when kids were going back and I was at home; when the halls would be full of kids and shouts and energy and I wouldn't be experiencing that. While I am not totally sure what “feeling retired” means, I did know that this summer was not a usual one. For one thing I did not spend time thinking about what changes I would make in my classes or how I would incorporate some of the things I was experiencing in my curriculum. I did have a few moments of seeing something in a museum and thinking of how I could present it to kids, but that was momentary. I knew I was not planning for classes and that felt somewhat freeing. Some folks equate being retired with not doing much, but that definition wouldn't work for me either. Even when I was teaching I also wrote, played music, hiked, birdwatched, traveled, camped and more. I am an active, high energy person, so being retired to me has nothing to do with doing nothing. I will just have more time to do those other things. In fact, I have added one more: my wife organized some friends into a group who will be spending some time working in a public school library helping teachers use the library with kids in their classrooms. We spent part of the summer organizing ourselves and the library to get ready for doing this, and that was one of the highlights of the summer. We were cataloging, organizing and shelving the books, and this brought me back in touch with the joy of being in a library and thinking about the great things a library can bring to kids. I am really looking forward to doing that work this year.

    When it came down to it, though, the thing that made me feel most like I was retired was all of those personal infrastructure things a person my age has to do in order to lay the groundwork for the last third of my life. Figuring out Medicare and Medicaid; deciding on long term care insurance; revising the will-doing those things this summer is what went a long way to making me feel truly retired. I know I have more behind me than I have in front of me; I have known and accepted that for some time. That is not a negative thing to me; I have been aware of my own mortality for a long time now, and I am not afraid of death nor do I fear it. But doing that basic personal groundwork of preparation-wrestling with the forms and their arcane language and getting help and having to make some real choices, the results of which would have real consequences for me and for others--made my life status real in a way it hadn't been before. I am used to going through life moving fairly lightly and easily for the most part. You try some things, revise if it doesn't work, and move on to the next thing. Easy. But these "personal infrastructure" things required a level of thought, planning and seriousness that was different for me, and this had me thinking about my past and my present and my hopes for the future in pretty intense and deep ways. And when I finally made those decisions and signed those forms and had those basic plans for my future set, then I truly felt retired. My head was lighter and more open . It was as if I taken a path through a forest to a clearing from where I could see new paths and roads and rivers to try. And I felt freer, which is what I imagined and hoped being retired would feel like.

   So that first day of school found me wishing those kids I saw well and sending good thoughts and hope to my former colleagues and former students. I hope the year is a good one and that the joy and great feeling that I was privileged to have had for so much of my teaching career could be as real for them as well. I am looking forward to playing more music, traveling and birding more, working in the public school library, and eagerly having new adventures and new encounters with the world as they come up. Living and facing life with quiet joy, wonder and good spirit. As a friend of mine said when talking about what it meant to her to be retired, “When I was working I had a busy life; now I have a full life.”  Yes-that is it. For I am retired. And now I feel it.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Beauty of Late August in Philadelphia

My wife and I just got back from our annual camping trip in Canada a few days ago. We camped at our favorite camping spot,Ivy Lea Provincial Campground along the St. Lawrence River, and once again heard some great music at the Limestone City Blues Fest in Kingston, Ontario. We have been doing that for about 16 years now, and we absolutely love it. It is a wonderful ritual and is absolutely joyous. But before I went camping, I had the opportunity to do a lot of walking around Philadelphia and reflect on late August in my beloved hometown. I have had the luxury of walking daily this summer, and I have really been able to focus on what I can observe in West Mount Airy, Germantown and Chestnut Hill. My normal walking routes take me along and within a few blocks of Germantown Ave. I often go by a lot of the same places, so I can note little changes from week to week and even from day to day. And while I do not relish the high humidity and heat that are characteristic of late August in Philly-that is why we go north -there is also no denying the simple sheer beauty that is here at this time of the year. And I know that beauty must be acknowledged and given its due.

As I walked down my block and around my neighborhood these last few weeks, I was regularly amazed by the diversity of approaches to gardening that I saw. There were some front gardens that have a few flower beds at the edge with lilies or peonies of different colors and maybe an iris or daylily or two. Then there are others that are flat out wild and crazy-with things growing all over the place full of different colors, different heights and different mixes of flowers There can be irises, peonies, celosias, marigolds, phlox, daisies, coneflowers and more all jammed together and growing wildly. I love that each gardener has his or her own style and color sense, and that side by side you can have wildly different definitions of what it means "to garden." It is a kind of "harmony out of chaos" approach that is so emblematic of much of life in the Northwest part of the city. It means that no block I walk is boring and uninteresting. Each one has something to catch your eye and call itself to your notice. They are individual. I also love the potted plants and the window boxes that I see. They add color and nice touches to the properties they adorn, and they brighten up the spaces. These, combined with the great doors and windows in the Northwest, make my walks a visual treat.

Another great thing about late August in Philadelphia is the array of birds and butterflies that become more active and more noticeable-especially hummingbirds, woodpeckers, monarchs, viceroys, and goldfinches. Our backyard feeders and the feeders and birdbaths in the neighborhood are dripping with these birds-downy and hairy woodpeckers, the occasional nuthatch, chickadees, and the showy and joyous goldfinches that are zipping all about. Late July and August is when thistle flowers, butterfly bushes, coneflowers, manarda, and sunflowers bloom in this region, and they are among the favored foods of these flying wonders. So they are out in full force from mid- August to mid- September. Our across the street neighbor has the corner of her property covered in sunflowers, and there are always goldfinches feeding on and resting on those sunflowers and traveling back and forth to our thistle feeder. One of the joys of this summer has been seeing and hearing little kids walking through the array of sunflowers and excitedly marveling at the finches. To see the looks of surprise and unabashed joy on the kids' faces has been wonderful. And the butterflies in the backyard have been thoroughly delightful. We have had several monarchs, a number of streaks that I cannot identity, a viceroy or two, and the beautiful Eastern Swallowtail-one of my favorite butterflies. It is hard to be in a bad mood when you slow down enough to watch hummingbirds and butterflies flit about, land on a flower, and feed. It puts you in touch with all the quiet minor amazements that are there in the world to be appreciated and savored. And that has to lift your spirits.

So while I dislike the humidity and heat of Philly Augusts and go north to the shores of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River to escape them, I can still appreciate the pure beauty that Philly summers allow and that so many people use to lovingly provide beauty and pleasure to the world. And if I can be still enough to acknowledge that beauty here in the midst of late August, then I can acknowledge it anywhere and have it with me anywhere I go. And that is truly a gift. Enjoy the rest of your summer.