“First there was the ice; two miles high,
hundreds of miles wide and many centuries deep.”
Waiting for the Morning Train by Bruce Catton
First, the ice.
Then a roar as millions of giant first growth trees fell into lumber.
Furs, muskrats, confusion and disease for the first people.
Storms on the big lake and tales of bare-knuckled survival.
Lighthouses, floods, and the relentless immigration from northern Europe.
Now retirees learn to snowshoe, and tourists climb the dunes.
No one knows if the second and third growth trees smell as sweet in the heavy summer air.
But sometimes, when the wind is from the north and the conditions are just right, you can smell what is coming next.
When I think of northern Michigan, my first thought is of the trees. The smell of pine needles on a hot still summer afternoon, the incredible riot of autumn color, skinny sentinels standing guard all winter, the moment of spring giddiness when the first buds emerge. Michigan’s trees are stressed now – since the great logging era ended 100 years ago, age, disease, and climate change have decimated millions more trees, and recent trends of not re-planting what is “harvested,” have already changed the northern Michigan my niece and nephew’s children will see. The Ash, Beech, Oak, Spruce and Fir are all under threat or dying from insects, fungus, or disease. Hemlock could be next.
Michigan still has 19.3 million acres of forest – that’s more than 50% of the state’s land – so these trees are critical to our identity. The diversity and mix of trees are also critical to the wildlife we have here.
When the trees are gone, the birds and the birdsong will be gone too. The silence will be deafening.
I’ve become obsessed with a plastic bag caught in a tree near where we live. It’s a common enough sight in urban areas but I don’t think I have seen one here. Every time I drive past it, I think about how long that bag will endure.
Even if I could get my hands on it, there is no real way to get rid of that bag. It will be in a landfill, or in the lake or an ocean for enough years that it may as well be forever. My understanding from a cursory look at the research is that bags last 450 to 1,000 or more years. Burning them releases enough harmful dioxins that experts say it is better to put it into a landfill. Of course, they can be recycled. Another way of existing forever.
The people I know now live in rural America. They aren’t who you think they are.
The people I know now think it self-evident that everyone’s water should be clean. It is obvious to them that everyone who needs medical attention should have access to it. They accept that mental balance and self esteem can be hard to come by, and those who will say the truth out loud are precious. They fight against the big foreign company stealing water at a bottling plant, and against the small fracking company that dumped chemicals on a road near their well. They have old cars, or none at all. They call the bus and wait. They are often between jobs, and always needing a higher-paying one. They seek dignity as they learn to live in the world after an addiction or time in prison. If they can, they grow their own food, and eat healthier than most in America. They don’t write a check for $50 or $100 easily, if at all. They don’t shop on-line as a hobby, and their clothes might be worn. The internet coverage out here is slow or non-existent. Few have big screen televisions and they still play their music off CD’s. I haven’t seen many new iPhones out here.
The people I know now inspire me as they matter-of-factly go about daily challenges that cause me to whine about life’s unfairness. I think about the inner resilience my privilege has earned for me (or not). I compare them to the corporate ghosts I knew in my past life: executives living on chemical-cesspool golf courses, drinking their way through long trips away from home; sales people making piles of money but filled with self loathing; leaders wanting to win, more than wanting to do right. Everyone striving for bigger cars and more stuff. No one willing, or able, to name a principle they believed in, much less take a stand for it.
The people I know now read, draw, cook, sculpt, think, listen for the owls and the coyotes at night, and talk quietly among friends. They protest, march, and speak up. They take care of their land, their animals, and one another as the earth slips slowly from solstice to equinox.
I came to this rural life a cynic. The people I know now are slowly turning me optimistic.
Watching a woman smoking a cigarette and walking down the street in Montreal, I am struck by the number of idiotic habitual behaviors to which humans wed themselves. You wouldn’t see a dog walking around smoking.
I have been wanting to write about intention. By this I mean a life by design, not accident; a life in which you actively choose where to put your attention, your money, your time. Annie Dillard notes:
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.”
For me, working meant built-in purpose, a schedule, a routine. My days were interesting and full and fun. I rarely had to choose – I could spend indiscriminately, I could multi-task, and I believed I was doing it all. I was the embodiment of “more.”
Annie Dillard also wrote:
“There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by. A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading — that is a good life.”
It is that life of the spirit I grapple with now that I do not have a built in schedule. Without work to distract me, I can see clearly the culture’s drive to commoditize the human spirit. I stand apart and observe how we deftly we are pulled into the life of sensation – though our increasingly intelligent devices, targeted advertising, food and medical options presented through traditional venues. “More” and “faster” are the dictates of this drive.
I also observe more people now who are choosing to live an intentional life. They are opting to live less expensively, to do without or to live in a rural environment, so that they can be free from work earlier in their lives. I’m not sure if these folks have always been there and I didn’t know them, or if this is becoming a movement. In any event, as I get further from the noise and drama of working life, I see more options than ever before. Options for good days and a good life.
I really enjoy watching the You Tube contributions of Dr. Sarah King, PT, DPT, who is a Parkinson’s physical therapist (and owner of Invigorate Physical Therapy and Wellness). She wrote a letter called Things I Wish I Could Have Told You the Day You Were Diagnosed with Parkinson’s – the letter is here; the video here. I recommend it for everyone – it could have been written for anyone recently diagnosed with “aging.”
To believe we are not broken, that a future is still ours to create, and that we can get where we want to go with small changes applied with urgency is important for everyone.
Your colleagues are not your friends.
Your boss is not your family.
Even if they have been to your home.
Even if they have met your wife.
They may remember you.
For the stand you took, a battle fought.
For your authenticity.
But they aren’t going to stay in touch.
Regardless of what they say at your retirement party.
A few words exchanged with a stranger at a coffeeshop.
A dramatic storm coming across the lake.
The screaming, yipping celebration of the local coyotes.
That’s what I’ve got now.
Here are nine things that I see differently from this perch called retirement, now I have been here a while:
- Building a New Life. Think about retirement as the chance to build a new life from scratch, and this goes doubly if you are moving to a new part of the country. This is an opportunity to be yourself fully, so think about not just the stuff you want to start doing, but also what you want to stop doing. You will still have constraints, of course, but how you maneuver around them is part of who you are.
- Giving. What you give to others in retirement is a mindset and attitude as much as knowledge and time. Help others be better.
- Money. Unless you have really saved “enough” money, you are going to need a budget. Get that spreadsheet ready. Also, there is nothing like a 30 minutes, once per week, discussing with your spouse what you spent and why.
- Organizing. Retirement requires just as much, if not more, administration and project management time as your working life required.
- Living Space. If you move to a new area because you believe it to be cheaper, give it a year or so before that cheap kicks in. There is always a period of settling into a new home and new community that requires resources.
- Time. Take responsibility for yourself and the time you have. Don’t drive your spouse crazy.
- Parents. Your parents and your spouse’s parents are going to need attention. You basically have four parents now (more if you have a multiple marriage situation), and you are going to have to help attend to all of them at one point or another.
- Health. Your health belongs to you – not your doctor, your spouse, your friends, or your trainer. If you aren’t in the habit of moving around most of the time, of eating mindfully, recognizing when you are stressed, then your health is already declining.
- The Future. You cannot know what is to come. Don’t believe every thought that pops into your mind.