This IS Your Real Life

Since the pandemic began I’ve told myself the quarantine restrictions were “for now.” That my real life would begin again later. 

Surprisingly, I was fairly patient with this odd limbo. Although I had bad days sometimes, I accepted that living with restrictions was necessary. I could handle this. My life was not all I wished for, but I could be content within the new parameters.

And seriously, I have nothing to complain of. 

Despite my acceptance I felt a level of distraction, a channel of disruption or low-key anxiety running in the background, keeping me from being wholly engaged in my days. 

Perhaps I was sparing myself from comprehending the limits and freaking out about them. But I was also banking my fires, saving my fully present self for later. As if this wasn’t my real life. 

After nearly 10 months, I understand I can’t keep holding back. This IS my real life. The days, weeks, months are ticking by. I won’t get them back. There’s no psychic bank account where the losses are preserved, waiting for me to claim them, and restore them to my life. 

My days are different from what I imagined they would be right now, but I remind myself that I’m already doing a lot of what I like to do. I’m still writing. Reading. Volunteering. Finding other creative outlets. I’m not as connected with friends and family as I’d like to be, but I call or video chat with them.

I haven’t completely figured out how to be immersed in this life, but I know that’s the answer.

When Will I Do It?

My friend Maery did it after fracturing her shoulder at a company outing.

My cousin Eugene did it when he ran out of staples for his office stapler.

My sister Karen did it when COVID-19 closed the dental office where she worked.

What did they do?

They retired.

But unlike me, they all had employers to retire from. They also all had a key moment when they knew it was time to do just that.

But as a freelance writer who works for dozens of clients, there’s no one employer to retire from and since I haven’t yet had a “now’s the right time” moment, I’m still saying yes to most client work that comes my way. Thankfully, I enjoy the work…and the people I work for.

That said, I am beginning to think more seriously about retirement and what it might look like for me.

Despite the fact that I’ve been dreaming about (and saving for it) since I was 22, I don’t have a very clear picture. That’s one reason why, when I turned 60 three years ago, rather than celebrating with a big party, a piece of jewelry or an exotic trip, I took a one-year sabbatical.

Though I missed having work as a way of structuring my days, I really enjoyed the downtime and the chance to unplug both personally and professionally. I also enjoyed the chance to travel for months at a time.

Although I’ve since returned to freelancing, I now say yes only to projects I can do from anywhere at any time. That way, I still have plenty of flexibility and free time, a lot of which I just putter away. Most days that feels like exactly the right thing to do.

Other days, I’m more engaged. I’ve also started journaling again and gotten reacquainted with art supplies I haven’t touched in years. I’m cooking some and reading more. I’m writing letters and calling friends. I’m even enjoying routine household chores, plus getting estimates for several home improvement projects.

Increasingly, it’s these things—not my client work—that’s giving structure to my days…and no doubt moving me closer to retirement. What sign will tell me that it’s finally time? I don’t yet know, but I do look forward to finding out.

Affection for Collection

“Madeline Kripke, Doyenne of Dictionaries, Is Dead at 76”

That was the headline on a New York Times obituary that got me thinking about what it means to be a collector.

Like Kripke, I have a collection of dictionaries. But unlike her collection, which took up her entire apartment and three warehouses, my collection—now that I’ve given away my two-volume Oxford English Dictionary and the magnifying glass it came with—consists only of a handful of paperbacks: The Pocket Oxford Dictionary, The Official Scrabble® Players Dictionary, Dorland’s Pocket Medical Dictionary, Cassell’s Compact Latin Dictionary and Drugs From A to Z: A Dictionary.

As a writer, I refer to these and other dictionaries often. So normally I’d continue to hold on to them.

But instead, I’m Marie Kondo-ing and letting go of what no longer sparks joy for me. In addition to the dictionaries and dozens of other books, I’m emptying shelves, drawers and closets that were once jam-packed with memory-provoking treasures—everything from journals and jewelry to purses, postcards and paintings.

That said, I have several collections I’m not yet ready to part with: sea glass from my favorite beach, postcards from places I’ve traveled, prayer cards from funerals I’ve attended and just about every handwritten letter I’ve ever received. For now, I’ll be hanging on to them, in large part because I still value the memories they evoke.

Taking inventory of my collections also has me thinking about my family and friends and what they collect.

My sister Karen, for instance, collects ceramic chickens for her kitchen, while my sister Diane collects nativity sets from places she travels. My cousin Mary Ann, a quilter, collects fabric.

Writer Cathy Madison, inspired by the pleasant memory of a green polka-dot clothed clown she used to carry as a child, collects clowns. And while fellow Word Sister Ellen Shriner doesn’t consider herself a serious collector, she does have half a dozen perfume bottles she thinks are pretty.

My friends Diane and Alan, on the other hand, get a kick out of a bathroom basket of “weird things” they’ve collected from the sea, including broken exoskeletons and some mystery items they can’t even identify. The items bring back fond memories of past vacations and spark debates over who dove down to collect what.

My friend Susan uses her journals to collect nametags from the events she attends, while my colleague John has spread his collection of vintage radios, which range from hip transistors from the 60s to large wooden consoles, throughout his house.

Regardless of what we collect, our collections put us in touch with our past selves and sometimes with our hopes and dreams for the future. They also offer an ever-ready way to experiment with arranging, organizing and visually presenting ourselves and our experiences to ourselves, as well as to family and close friends.

While I have valued and enjoyed my collections, many of which I began in my early 20s, some now feel more like clutter. I’ve even occasionally wondered if instead of being a thoughtful collector, I’ve crossed the line and become a haphazard hoarder. One reason is because I’ve moved some of my collections—once neatly organized and creatively displayed—willy-nilly to storage closets in my basement.

Plus, I’m feeling weighed down by my possessions. I’m traveling more and beginning to think about downsizing, so I’ll likely set several more of my collections free in the weeks and months ahead. One reason is because isolating at home due to the coronavirus makes it easier to sift and sort, reflect and reassess.

Do you have something special you collect?

If so, what is it and why did you start collecting in the first place? How does your collection make you feel? Are you still adding new items, or have you, like me, begun sifting through your collection with an eye toward curating or even curtailing it? Please share.

Uncertainty Is Its Own Trouble

This week, I expected to write about a reunion in Ohio with a handful of my graduate school friends. I haven’t visited with them in more than 20 years, because we live in five different states. I was eagerly anticipating seeing them in person. We would have unearthed long forgotten stories, laughed about our younger selves, and discovered who each of us is now. Last week, during the days we intended to gather, we emailed and expressed our disappointment along with our hope that we’ll be able to meet in the fall.

Uncertainty is its own trouble. Especially for a person like me, who thrives on planning and likes to take charge of my life. It’s even harder for people who are missing out on milestone events: canceled study abroad programs, postponed weddings, and trips of a lifetime on hold. For certain dreams, there’s no do-over.

I feel for anyone whose major life event has been short circuited by the pandemic. Those disappointments pale in the face of death from coronavirus, but it’s understandable to be depressed and frustrated by the loss.

Reading and watching shows about life during WWII is surprisingly comforting. From day to day, people in Great Britain and Europe didn’t know if they or someone they loved would be bombed, arrested, dead, or alive. Many days, just carrying on with ordinary life would be all anyone could manage. No doubt, some people couldn’t spare the emotional energy for dreaming of a happy future. But others projected all of their hopes to when the war was over and things got back to normal. The same way we do now.

These days, I remain hopeful for the future, but am learning to accept how much is out of my control. And always was. Tamping down my expectations is one of the lessons of the pandemic. I’m not planning too far into the future, not counting on anything unless it’s something that I alone can make happen, like writing, reading, laying out a new vegetable garden, or making a strawberry pie. I’m more at peace than I have ever been with taking each day as it comes.

Will I get together with my grad school friends in the fall? I hope so. If we can’t meet then, we’ll try again for next spring or summer.

Time Suspended

Ancestral Pueblo people, including the Anasazi, lived in the New Mexico cliffs for centuries. The view from one of their dwellings helps give me perspective about the pandemic.

Whenever I travel, time suspends at the airport. I’m not flying the plane. I can’t control the weather. I’m at the mercy of the airlines and TSA and whatever rules they impose.

So I wait. In limbo. Crowded into a row of airport seats, keeping my arms and legs close, pinned behind my roll-on suitcase. Listening to announcements. Unsurprised by delays. Constrained.

Onboard, I shoehorn myself into an airplane seat. And wait. Wait to be given a snack. Wait to be allowed to get up. Usually, I accept the waiting, don’t expect anything different.

Often, I relish the flight time. No one needs anything from me. I can watch a silly movie that I wouldn’t have bothered with in the movie theater. I read, write, or doze. Eat all of the snacks.

Like air travel, sheltering in place is restrictive—close quarters, limited amusements, and out of my hands. I wouldn’t have signed up for it, but now that I’m on this journey, borrowing from my air travel mindset helps me accept this limbo. For the most part.

Cosmic smooch

In flight and during quarantine, time suspends. After an indeterminate while, we will arrive, and time will re-engage. Life will start up in a new place.