Monday, February 6, 2017

The Path of Retirement

It has now been a month since I retired… and it is good.  Still lots of things going on, but there’s a little more space in my life and I like that.  In that space I’ve had time to ponder and there are two places my mind often goes:  my traveling last year to visit our retirees outside of New England and my time as a pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago.

I greatly treasure the traveling I did last year.  It was a wonderful adventure as I gathered with retirees and they shared such rich stories.  The story of my life has been enriched by each of their stories.  My way was also enriched in the process of traveling; I had the chance to visit with people in lines at airports, at meals on the train, as I needed help on buses, and with cab and Uber drivers.   I’m thankful for all these modes of traveling along with the automobile as they allowed me to get from one part of the country to another quickly which gave me more time to spend with retirees. 

No matter how I traveled to a section of the country I ended up traveling in an automobile.  Though my husband, Richard, was with me for a couple of trips I was usually alone in the car.  I’d often turn off the radio and just enjoy the quiet time between my visits.  From my car I saw beautiful landscapes as I traveled, but over and over I found myself longing for more time, the time that comes with walking.  And that is one of the gifts of retirement, I have more time in my days and walking requires time.

I’ve always enjoyed walking, but it was my time as a pilgrim on the Camino that showed me what might happen if I slowed each day to the pace of walking.   I quickly fell into a rhythm of getting up and walking, visiting with other pilgrims, eating meals, meeting hosts, enjoying quiet time, journaling and then sleeping in preparation for the next day of walking.  It was a slower pace; one that I think will be good for retirement.  I wanted to walk the Camino as a way to prepare for my “Elder” years, my final third of life.  It provided just what I had hoped in ways that I would never have imagined.  Most of all it encouraged me to walk at my own pace, to slow myself down, to let go of plans, goals, and accomplishments.  Good practice for retirement.

The slow pace of the Camino helped to heighten my senses.  Often I would have to reverse my steps  Walking along the paths I found I could hear the birth of a breeze and listen to it grow for a time before I finally felt the rush of air cooling my cheek.  Sometimes I would smell water before seeing it in a creek or irrigation ditch.  Other times I would hear water and would follow the sound until we went our own ways while other times I was rewarded when a river or creek came into sight and confirmed the sound I’d heard. 
to find the tree or plant that had produced a particularly inviting spicy aroma or sweetness that I couldn’t leave behind but needed to breathe in deeply.

Walking allowed me to experience the nuance of the night fading away into a new day.  I remember spending the night with “overflow” pilgrims on a cot in a gymnasium one night.  The next morning I left through its back door and entered into an inky black night.  The sky was bursting with thousands of stars greeting me and they took my breath away.  I had to stop… and as I did I saw a falling star’s graceful arc.  As I began walking I saw four more stars fall before the first light of morning began to break and the dark of night started to lose its hold.  Gradually, ever so gradually on these mornings my eyes would start to make out my surroundings on the sides of the paths: the outlines of trees, barns, fences, bushes, rock, and terrains.

I learned that first light is much earlier than sunrise.  Sometimes I’d feel a slight breeze as the sun began to warm the air before I could see and feel its warmth.  Sometimes I’d have to turn around to the East and stand there or walk backwards if there was a sunrise too glorious to miss.  The beauty of the earth’s atmosphere turning towards the sun never got old.

The first time it rained I was concerned.  How would this steady downpour affect my walking?  I need not have worried.  Though it was uncomfortable walking in wet socks I found the rain brought the pilgrim community together in a new way when a covered portico became the place for us to shed our raingear, take off our boots and squeeze the water from soaked socks.  We left those socks and raingear flung over the railing and went into a packed cafĂ© to dry our bodies and souls while cupping our hands around hot coffee.  As I left I noticed what I didn’t hear – the rain; it had stopped.  The overcast afternoon and damp socks kept my feet cool and I ended up walking nineteen miles.  When I arrived at the albergue they handed me newspaper to stuff in my boots and then I lined them up with the many other boots, equally damp and dirty and emitting the pungent smell of a long wet day’s walk.

My reminiscing about the Camino brings to mind slight breezes to stiff winds, the warmth of the sun on my body and the coolness of a damp day, the hidden path ahead moving through the mountains and the long vistas seen from the top of mesas.  The smells of eucalyptus, dank caves, musty ancient churches, tortillias patatas, dormitories, pilgrims, and dirty boots crusted with cow manure were all part of the Camino.  And while I enjoyed all my traveling last year, from jets to many different rental cars, I’m ready to slow down – to return to the pace of the pilgrim.  It’s time to exchange the speed of the interstate for back roads and walking paths, time to pay more attention as I pass through.  What will my senses experience as I walk further into retirement?  What’s will I find on the path of retirement?

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Crossing the Threshold

This blessing
has been waiting for you
for a long time.
...And now that
you are here
this blessing
can hardly believe
its good fortune
that you have finally arrived,
that it can drop everything
at last
to fling its arms wide
to you, crying

These words of Jan Richardson from "Blessing the Threshold" were the perfect welcome as I crossed the threshold into retirement. Just last Friday I was a staff member of the Preachers' Aid Society, busily completing some loose ends much like I would do just before leaving for vacation.  Only this time rather than returning to my work,  I'll be paying attention to where I am going.

I'd like to say that the crossing was a smooth one, and on the surface it certainly seemed to go well.  I enjoyed the holiday weekend and on Tuesday morning relaxed a little longer with my cup of tea while reading my book.  Then later in the day I saw the email to the PAS staff reminding them about their "GotoMeeting" on Wednesday morning.  In the months when we don't meet together as a staff we have a staff meeting through the blessing of technology.  It's a chance for us to connect on a regular basis.  And I wouldn't be participating.  A reminder that I'm leaving something behind.

For years I've heard retired clergy who have shared how hard it can be no longer serving a church.  In fact, one retired pastor I called on continued to write a weekly sermon for many years.  It was a ritual that was part of his connecting to God each week so he decided to continue the practice.  I too have felt the loss of rhythm to my week that centered around my work at PAS.  Missing this first staff meeting of the year was a tangible reminder of the rhythm I'm leaving behind.  It is also a chance for me to pause and give thanks once again for the wonderful staff of PAS and the ministry that will continue in their care.

So now I will try to put into practice what I have been learning from our retired community over the years.  I will attempt to stay in the openness of these early days and months of retirement and in particular I hope I do not falter and start filling my days with busy-ness.   I will stretch out my time in contemplation, my time with God, as I listen for where God is calling me in retirement.  And I will linger in the arms of the blessing at the threshold, the blessing that has been patiently waiting throughout all these years, the blessing that is crying out, "Welcome."

Monday, November 7, 2016

Nashville and a change in plans

The last week in October I flew into Nashville TN.  I've only been to that airport one other time.  When I arrived in the newly renovated airport it was after 10:00PM and the concourse was fairly quiet.  I went down the escalator to the baggage floor, then continued downward on another escalator to the lowest level for Ground Transportation and Rental Cars.  The silence in that area was in profound contrast to the roar of voices I heard the first time I took that escalator.

On September 11, 2001 my husband dropped me off at Bradley Airport where I boarded my plane to Houston TX to visit with my parents.  It was an early flight leaving around 6:00AM - if all went well I'd be in Houston in time to have lunch with Mom and Dad.  Things did not go as planned.

Only one-and-a-half hours from Houston the pilot came on to say that the FAA had asked all planes
to land so we were heading to Nashville, the closest large airport.  He told us that he'd get back with us after we landed with more information.  I heard a man's voice 4 or 5 rows ahead talking.  I only caught the words "plane" and "building".  It meant nothing to me.  My own mind was logically working this out that there must have been an issue with the computers at the control towers.  Maybe a communications breakdown nationwide.  That thought made me a little nervous about the landing.

Once on the ground the pilot came back on and told us about the planes going into the World Trade Center buildings.  As we disembarked and entered the concourse there was a TV on and as we turned to check it out we watched the first tower collapsed.  We learned that a plane had flown into the Pentagon and another plane had crashed in PA.  We looked at one another, all with expressions of  confusion, asking one another, "What is going on?"

I headed to the pay phones and called home to leave a message for my husband and also called my mother-in-law.  Then I called my Mom and told her I'd get back to her when I figured out what to do.  I hung up the phone with that question continuing in my head, "What am I going to do?"  As I stood there a woman came up to me and asked if I had been heading to Houston.  I said yes and she told me she was a lawyer who had been returning to Houston after doing some work up in New England.  After calling her family she called her law office and someone there had started calling rental car companies trying to find a car in Nashville.  This woman told me she had a reservation for one and asked if  I wanted to join her.  Her eyesight kept her from driving after dark so she also wanted to know if I could drive at night.  I was fine with that.

We picked up our luggage and headed down to the rental area.  It was packed and the roar of voices made it hard for us to hear one another.  Many of the companies already had signs out: "No more cars".  We hoped that our rental company truly had the car that their computer had shown available.  It did and we were soon on our way. 

My travel that day was a sort of pilgrimage.  Accompanied by a stranger we got to know one another better as we traveled; we made stops and checked in with our families.  As the horrors of what had happened unfolded we were able to talk through our fears with one another.  We traveled across the countryside, following the roads to Houston.  Ten years later I walked across the countryside of Spain, following the road to Santiago de Compostella.  I was accompanied by strangers, many who I got to know better.   As I walked I found I had to change my plans a number of times and in fact,  I found that "letting go" of plans seemed to be a major theme of the pilgrimage.

I had become a pilgrim to mark my 60th birthday and to reflect on the final third of my life.  The physical and mental act of letting go along the way, I realized, would certainly play out in my life after I returned home.  I'd watched my own parents age and talked to many, many retired clergy and spouses.  Plans are made and then something happens.  The death of a spouse or the diagnosis of a serious chronic illness might change the entire direction of one's retirement.

I reflected on the theme of "letting go" as I walked the Camino and I found that the companion theme was building trust in God, not trusting that God is going to step in and make things go the way I think I want them to go, however.  It's a more subtle thing, an understanding that I will trust God is always with me - helping me to find the strength, courage, patience, creativity, compassion that has always been within me.

My date of retirement, January 1st, is quickly approaching.  That in itself will be a be "letting go" as I step away from twenty-five years with Preachers' Aid Society and my identity there.  I have done much in preparation and I've made some plans for the early months of my retirement. I wonder how long before a find myself needing to make a change in plans.  For this my prayer is  "God, help me to hold on to the coming days lightly, ready to let go of plans easily and to make room for change.  Thank you for the friends, the family, and the strangers along the way who will reach out to help me on this journey.  And God, I trust that you will be there too!" 

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

A Walk in the Woods

     I enjoyed my time in North Carolina with a jaunt over to Knoxville TN.  Just as when I began with Preachers' Aid Society, I am so enriched by having the opportunity to sit down with retired clergy and spouses from our conference and visit.  The stories they share are marvelous and it is truly a sacred time.
     But after being away it is also good to return home.  I quickly returned to my rhythm including walking in Forest Park each morning.  Last Wednesday, as often happens, I saw the heron in one of the ponds.  Unless I've spotted it flying the heron only gradually comes into view as I focus on the water.  I paused and watched for a time, then continued.
     There's a short heavily wooded path I take that leads up to a busy street in Longmeadow.  I always go up its steep incline partly for the exercise and partly because I often see deer either as I go up or come back down.  When I headed up on Wednesday I saw no deer so I continued towards the top with the hope I might spot one on the way back.  Instead I heard a very loud yell from down the hill behind me. 

     Because it was so early in the morning I doubted this was a child and as I stopped and listened I realized I was hearing what sounded like a very angry man talking and yelling every so often as he walked up the hill behind me.  I continued walking.
      At the top of the hill I headed down the street then turned around and looked back.  The man that I saw was still yelling and gesturing.  He could have been someone working out their anger, someone talking angrily to an imagined companion, or possibly a preacher working on a sermon full of hell, fire and brimstone.  I decided not to  find out which as it appeared he was going to start back down the path.  So I watched for another way back into the park and was soon rewarded with a small trail opening.
       And here's the interesting part of this story.  I had decided to be cautious and go another way and I actually found myself rewarded for the effort.  I quickly forgot the other person and the anger because almost immediately I was walking through a thick canopy of rhododendrons in full bloom.  The path narrowed and I was brushing the plants as I walked, but it was worth it.  They were like beacons inviting me to move forward.  I finally wound my way back to the usual path and continued around the Park.
        As I walked up a familiar hill, a wide area on an asphalt surface I looked up to the top and there was a deer looking down at me.  I took a couple more steps and stopped and we just stared.  Then she continued her walk to the other side and that's when I saw the two very small fawns following behind her.  I have never seen fawns in Forest Park and the sight took my breath away as I watched them disappear into the woods. A little farther along I entered another wooded path and there in front of me were four wild turkeys with one chick.
         As I continued my walk I thought about the use of caution as I continue to age.  I find that many have "cautioned" me as they've learned I'm retiring January 1st. Every so often someone warns me: "Don't get old - it's really hard!"  I usually reply that I'll take a chance since I don't like the alternative.  After all, there are always parts of our lives that are harder.  More often than not those are the times when faith grows deeper and we learn more about trusting in God. 
        One doesn't have to read the Gospels for long to find that Jesus made some interesting choices around caution.  He can hardly be described as a cautious person as he lives with others on the margins in ancient Israel.  He doesn't play it safe and have the disciples send away the crowds instead of feeding the 5,000.  He doesn't use caution when he reads from the Torah in his hometown of Nazareth.  But he does step away over and over to be by himself to pray.  Jesus shows us how to live boldly in the world putting our trust in God.  Prayer is key if we are to live lives of faith.
        I do understand I need to be cautious about many dangers such as walking very carefully on ice in the winter.   I also believe it's important not to let other persons' fears make me overly cautious.   I hope I will always speak out against injustice and create community rather than retreating to a small safe space.  My prayer is that God will help me to choose wisely when to use caution... and when not to.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Another Rule of the Road

Driving on some of the two lane highways in Georgia and Ohio reminded me of another of my Dad's rules - get out in front of everyone else.  He thought it was better to get out in front and see what's coming for yourself rather than have to guess what's going on with a car in front of you.  So as I was learning to drive I had to learn to pass other cars.
   I remember the anxiety I felt as we drove the curving Highway 90 between Morgan City and Lafayette.   When the sugar cane had already been cut or had not yet started to grow you could see around the curves and I gradually learned how to move my car into the other lane and quickly get around whoever I was passing.  However, when it was harvest season the tall sugar cane would block visibility at the very time that we would get caught behind the large trucks carrying the sugar cane from the fields.  I found that I could be much more patient than my dad.
   I didn't complain about the curving roads in Louisiana, however.  After being raised in Kansas, where every street seemed to be in a perfect square with the next and from the highway you could see all the way to the next town's water tower straight ahead, I was glad to have the meandering roads that refused to go straight to the next town.  I was in downright ecstasy at first after moving to New England.  I loved the adventure of turning on a street in Boston and not being able to take anything
for granted about where it might lead.
    When I was walking the Camino de Santiago I was also thinking about straight roads versus those that curve.  After the winding roads through the mountains where I started the way began to flatten out and on the Meseta you could see miles ahead towards where you thought you were going. I had looked forward to the flatness of the Meseta with only a few mesa's to climb.  Only when we arrived at what we thought was the end, we'd find there was still farther to go.  I longed again for the winding roads through the mountains that carried with them surprises and variety and a touch of mystery.
     I'm reading a book on retirement now that has suggested I write out my goals for retirement - my vision.  I guess my long range (straight road for miles) vision is to live a meaningful life staying active and engaged right to the end.  I know, however, that life is going to be more like the curving highway, full of twists and turns and surprises.  I think a more important goal for me to reflect on is how will I live the later years of my life.  How will I respond when illness or an accident brings me to a halt?  How will I manage when the landscape changes as friends and family die or move or relationships change?  How will I deal with the need to move from our home one day?  And most importantly, what will I do to nurture trust that God will be with me for the whole trip?
     In Terry Hershey's Sabbath Moment (  this week he included a quote:
I don’t really know where I’m going. The road is unfolding in wonderful, challenging, and unexpected ways. -Rabbi Alan Lurie
Sounds to me like a good way to travel and I hope the road will unfold for me in the same way.  As long as I have God traveling with me I think I'm ready to continue around every bend, whatever may come.  May God be with you in your travels also!

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Rules of the Road

    As I was driving through Atlanta during my trip to Georgia I thought my dad’s driving rule for interstates:  trust the signs.  He taught me this as I drove through Houston TX in the summer of 1967.  I had been driving since my birthday in December 1965, but had little experience on freeways as there were few completed in our area.   On our vacation I'd had the chance to drive on freeways many times, however, I had yet to drive on one in a big city.  I felt a mixture of great excitement and utter fear as Dad announced my driving through Houston would be good practice. 
      Things went pretty well until I had to change from one freeway to another.  My dad sat next to me asking “What does the sign say?  What lane should you be in?”  Please do not imagine that he was calmly making these statements - that just wasn't my dad's style.  I gradually learned how to use the signs and what my dad meant as he told me, “You've got to trust the signs, Cathy.”  “Follow the signs.”
      I made it through Houston (with no yelling between my dad and me that we couldn't laugh about later).  Years later I was driving in New York City and glanced over at a completely separate highway parallel to the one I was on.  I panicked for a moment when I saw a sign over the other road for the interstate I thought I was on.  Then I remembered dad’s words, rechecked the signs in front of me and realized I was on the right road.  The road to the right had its own signs directing people who wanted to merge onto the interstate I was traveling.
      In Atlanta there was no time of day when you could travel without running into terrible traffic somewhere.  So once again I thought of dad as I trusted the signs would lead me to the correct lanes and the highways I sought.  They did.
     Driving around Georgia I continued to think about "trusting the signs."  I started wondering what signs I need to trust as I prepare for my retirement.  I've called on many retirees over my years and know that they have followed signs.  Some signs were truly helpful.  Other times not so much.  For instance I've heard surviving spouses talk about how a couple's retirement plans were made based on the health issues of one spouse, only to have the "healthier" spouse pass away suddenly.  Some have moved to be near grandchildren or for health reasons, only to feel stranded as families were transferred and conditions changed.
     I saw signs within Preachers' Aid Society that pointed me towards setting my retirement date.  Our staff has gone through changes, job descriptions have been in transition, and I could see how 2016 could be a time of letting go of those responsibilities that have defined me in my work for many years.  By the end of this year I will have only one focus: completing the visits with our retirees who live outside the New England states.  As conversations have started to include such phrases as "at your last staff meeting"  or "my last annual conference while with PAS" I've felt the impact of just what following the signs will mean leaving behind.
     I remember that while I was walking the Camino I would trust the yellow arrows along the way and they were usually trustworthy.  But the greater lesson I learned on the pilgrimage, and one that I keep in mind now, was to put my trust in God.   I'll be following the highway signs as I head to Ohio to visit retirees next week, but I'll be trusting God to lead me on through this year.  God, what are the signs you have set out for me?
    Safe travels!  Cathy