Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Retirement: A Meditation

(painting by Theodoros Stamos)

Suddenly I had as much time as I needed. The dream I’d nurtured all my working days of being my own person, of doing whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted to, had become a reality. I was retired. I should have been happy. Instead, I experienced a strange emptiness, a deep sense of loss. It was the first day of the rest of my life and I felt as if I had fallen though a hole.

It was a hole in time, not a black hole, not even a particularly frightening one. Rather, it was a new space I discovered myself inhabiting, one that made me dizzy, dizzy with the possibilities of freedom.

I had gotten up at my usual time, as if I were ready to leave for the office. There was work on my desk at home to attend to. Bills to pay, then letters to write, thanking friends and co-workers for their kindness in helping me make the transition from work to retirement. There were e-mail messages to read and respond to, some having to do with my 65th birthday, which coincided with my retirement.

I was ready to accept retirement. In fact, a year before, I’d planned it down to the day. It was my own choice; no one was forcing it on me. I had long felt that I needed to make a change, to get back to what my former wife, in a letter of congratulation, had called my “real vocation.” She spoke of a mutual friend who had “flunked retirement twice.” “We expect you to set an example of success,” she said.

The truth is I’d had another vocation, not just a job. For thirty years I’d given my life over to helping others and I loved every minute of it. It was a vocation I didn’t even know I possessed. But looking back to high school, to my involvement in Glee Club, the National Honor Society and the school paper--not to speak of the fact that I’d been a Junior Rotarian and gone to Boys’ State-helped me understand an early commitment to service. Add to that my matriculation at a college whose mission stressed the elevation of the common good over personal gain. How could I not have become a social worker as well as a teacher, vocations that I pursued jointly for many years?

Yet, deep down, the writing was always there. It called to me at night as soon as I got home from the office. It beckoned to me on weekends, while others raked leaves or played ball with their kids. It absorbed my vacations. It was fun, but it could also be a stern taskmaster. Sometimes I wondered if the writing weren’t the voice of my super-ego, the speech of my conscience, breaking through the orderly surface of my days. It was a voice that often kept me awake at night, a voice that disturbed my leisure, one that kept me distant from friends and family.

“Pity the writer’s child,” my son Ben, a writer himself, wrote in an essay on J. D. Salinger, “for discovering, early on, that parents don’t always want their children underfoot, that love is not always returned in the way that it was given, that fictions are sometimes more prevalent than truth, even in the ‘safe haven’ of the family.”

Ben also wrote in that same essay, published in 2001, in a collection called With Love and Squalor, “I’ll always remember, too, how my father, an inveterate journal-writer, took his black ring-binder out from its hiding place and sat at the kitchen table, beginning to write about our weekend (or whatever else was on his mind) before the weekend was over, laying claim to our shared experience by writerly prerogative. Does this explain my failure to keep a journal of my own? Or my reverence for the imagination and its ability to change the personal, to transform experience into something else?”

Why else do we write? And here my son has answered the question neatly. And why else do we pursue whichever vocation we choose, or that chooses us? For at heart we are not on this earth primarily to be economic creatures, though we must earn our own bread however it comes to us to earn it. Neither are we in this life to bully or dominate others. We are in this life, this preciously shared space, to give and to love; to do the work we’re called to perform, to nurture each other with the gift of our personhood. I don’t know what else we live for. I certainly haven’t lived for anything else, especially personal gain.

This was my meditation on the day after my retirement. This is what I wrote in that journal Ben remembers, the journal I’ve faithfully kept since I was in my early twenties. This is how I made the transition, or tried to, from one part of my life to another; from the lived and known to the new and untried. This is how I spent the first day of the rest of my life.

Editorial: A fighter for Gloucester

Peter Anastas is retiring? We find that unlikely. Anastas may be leaving his job as advocacy director at Action after nearly 30 years, but no one will ever describe him as retiring.

Anastas is one of those rare individuals who lives an authentic life. In his work at Action, he has helped hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people to live better lives, mostly through housing assistance but in other ways as well. He has helped create educational and training programs, he oversees Action's homeless shelter, he lobbies for state and federal programs and he has personally helped people loosen the shackles of poverty.

No one ever got rich doing this kind of work, but Anastas has not judged the worth of his efforts by his paycheck. Other idealists may have made their way to Wall Street, but Anastas put his ideals into action, so to speak.

Those ideals don't stop with his job. Anastas has thrown himself into Gloucester politics over the years. From the Cape Ann Concerned Citizens in the 1970s to today's Gloucester Initiatives, Anastas has worked with like-minded activists to preserve the Gloucester he loves. He has been front and center in some of the hottest debates in recent years, such as opposing the Gloucester Landing mall proposed for the waterfront.

He has even distilled his vision of Gloucester into a position paper that starts: "To preserve and enhance historic Gloucester, including the physical environment, culture and folkways, while assuring a high quality of life for each of her citizens." His is a Gloucester with a marine-industrial waterfront, an active citizenry, a pedestrian-friendly downtown, affordable housing, living wages, good schools and "manageable, human-scale tourism." There are many who disagree with Anastas' goals or tactics -- he was one of several activists unsuccessfully sued for libel by the Zoning Board of Appeals in 1998 -- but few would say he was ineffective or ill-intended.

In addition to his job and his political activity, Anastas is a thoughtful, talented man of words. A keeper of the Charles Olson flame, Anastas is a published author and former Times columnist. (This son of a Greek immigrant now sees his own son's books reviewed by the New York Times.)

"The people of Gloucester are the greatest teachers a writer could ever have. They're great levelers, great democrats. A writer learns humility from these people -- and you can't write without humility," Anastas told Times writer Peter Tuttle in 1973. "Everything I've learned about people, I've learned in Gloucester. I may be critical of Gloucester sometimes, but it's only because I love Gloucester."

Thirty years after he said those words, Anastas is still writing and fighting with passion and will, and Gloucester needs him today as much as it ever has.

This editorial ran in the Gloucester Daily Times on 6/25/02

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