14 September 2013

Aimless Purpose

One would tend to think that retirement means suddenly having a lot of free time to do little...or nothing...as one might feel led.  One might think that the biggest occupation of a day might be, say, hitting the grocery store to stock up, spending an afternoon wandering through a library, or sipping coffee and reading at a Barnes & Noble, or simply reading a good book in a favorite home chair.  "Isn't the idea of retirement to be somewhat aimless?" I was recently asked.  The answer to that, from me, was, 'I don't really know, because I have never done this before...retire, that is.'

When I began planning to retire, it had not been on my list of things to do.  A couple of times, my wife and I talked about me perhaps retiring at age 63.  That was kind of out there from about the early part of the first decade of this new century.  For those who do not know about parish ministry, it is not really easy work.  Regardless of the size of the congregation, it is usually a rangy, diverse and an all too human environment.  I was the Rector (senior priest) in four congregations and the Associate in two congregations (right after seminary).  Stress in those environments is rather a constant, because being a parish priest requires more than just a graduate degree in theology.  It is one of the very few vocations remaining where one has to be a true "generalist."  One moves from one layer of specialization to another in a matter of moments, and multi-tasking is an expectation that is unspoken.

It was when my wife told me, on my 59th birthday, "If you want to retire early, I will totally support you doing it," that I suddenly heard the bell.  She wanted her husband to be alive beyond retirement.  It was also the only conversation like that before that moment.  It was four days later, on 4 December 2009, that my bishop and I had that conversation, and I made the decision.  Eighteen months later, on 30 June 2011, I retired.  Between those two dates, I worked as I always had worked.  I had only one dream, and that was to write a book that seemed to be emerging from my 2008 sabbatical project with the Lakota.  It was a project that continued to give new insights and energy.  Other than that, I had no ideas about what retirement might look or be like.

The decision to move to Sarasota, FL began being serious only two weeks prior to the date of my retirement.  Suddenly, the first year of actual retirement got very full.  Selling a house, buying a not-yet-built townhome, planning and executing a move, downsizing and, the real kink, the infection in my shoulder that meant four trips to Mayo Clinic and two major surgeries.  So, the first year of retirement was really just me doing a different kind of work.  Most all of my time was occupied with deadlines, decisions and lots of activity.  Oh, and did I mention that our younger daughter's wedding capped that first year of retirement?  Purpose?  Lots of it!

So, retired and living in Sarasota, Florida in a new townhome and only slightly shy of five miles from the Gulf of Mexico...a land of year round vacation-like atmosphere.  If aimless is the way of being retired, this is really a helluva good place to be aimless.  It is not necessary to maintain anything outside the inner walls of our home.  We have only about 2000 square feet of space to keep clean and organized.  I am five minutes from the fitness center, a major grocery store, Walgreen's Drug, a Starbucks, and I-75 going north or south. The Gulf of Mexico five miles west and the beauty of wild, old Florida that is Myakka River State Park eight miles east.  Sarasota is a good size and supports an incredible array of the arts.  Aimless?  Lots of opportunities here!

On a whim, we decided to spend this morning (Saturday) on one of the Siesta Key beaches.  That sounds kind of aimless, yes?  Well, there was a purpose.  It's like this:  The only people you see covered with sungrease and baking like hams in the sun all day are tourists...or the "seasonals."  There is a love/not-so-much love relationship with seasonal folks.  You know, the ones that have a summer home somewhere in the upper tier of the country and a winter home somewhere in the subtropical area of Florida (roughly a line west-to-east across Florida from just north of Tampa to Cocoa Beach.  Sarasota is one of the Suncoast destinations for "winter overs" (like an extended sleepover, but for senior kids).

We are both multi-generational native Floridians...yep, the real deal.  People who live here all the time mostly know that one does not grease up, drag enough food and equipment down on the beach to supply a small city, and spend an entire day in the sun.  Natives go to the beach in the mornings for a couple of hours of sun and surf.  Or, they go in the late afternoon for some sun, a swim and a sunset view.

This morning, we went to the beach with a purpose...to work on a bit more of a general tanned look before we take our first formal retirement trip to Belize at the end of next month.  It is a major birthday and anniversary trip (not my birthday...I leave it at that).  So, as we were lolling in the waters of the Gulf at mid-morning, it occurred to us that we were here for a purpose, when the design for going to the beach is one of those aimless pursuits.  It did strike us as odd.

Honestly, for me, retirement is nothing like I thought it might be.  I have always been a creature of purpose and planning.  I have a great education and lots of experience in areas really needed right now.  I am not a "sidelines" person.  I am having some real issues around not being able to do what I love and what has been my passion for nearly four decades of my life.

Honestly, my book dreams are in a barren space.  It hit me early this summer, after making a two-week trip to South Dakota for research and development of my thesis, that a week or two, here and there, will not suffice to do justice to this project.  The cost for that trip alone took two months to actually pay off.  I realized that, to do this without destroying a retirement income will take a grant or project income of some kind.  I had not prepared to face that inevitability.  Costs?  My best estimate is about $20K.  This is not easy for me to face for some reason.

Honestly, there is one thing I have gotten used to.  That is being able to structure my own days.  You see, it's not that I don't have anything to do.  I can fill a day pretty easily...and not by doing "retired things" about which folks tend to fantasize.  I do a lot of research, which means a lot of reading.  I practice writing (welcome to blogdom).  I have several quiet projects that I am doing...very much like being a consultant, but unpaid and not really "official."  I have friends here who think I am could be, perhaps, more available.  In all of this, I can construct my calendar in ways that spread things out and allow for some quality reflection time in the midst of the projects.  No bells, buzzers, lines at the office door, or incessant phone call returns.  And, no night meetings!  This last thing is huge.  I'm not a night person.  I am a morning person.  Long, complex and sometimes intense parish night meetings never grew on me.  My dream meeting:  7:00am to 8:30am.  In all my years, I had one group willing to do that, and we got a whole lot done.

I have created a classification for how I am attempting to construct retirement.  It is called "Aimless Purpose."  Each day has a series of activities or projects that have clear objectives.  Outside of certain pre-set appointments (e.g. a doctor, getting the car serviced, someone who has made an appointment for meeting), that series of activities has maximum flexibility.

Let's say, I want to spend some extra time in the morning doing contemplative prayer.  I delay my time at my study desk by thirty minutes or so.  I get an urge to go exercise at the fitness center at 11:00am rather than the usual 2:00pm, I move things around.  I want to take a break and go see a movie or go for a walk in one of our great parks, or take a ride to Anna Maria Island and sit on the pier for an hour, I can work harder to finish what I planned or, if it isn't urgent, re-plan it for another time.

'That's not very organized,' one might quip.  Exactly!  It is an exercise in a kind of spontaneity that has both structured objectives and ultimate flexibility:  Aimless Purpose!

You know something?  The Lakota have known about this a very long time.  They wouldn't call it "aimless purpose."  They simply call it life.  I have long admired their capacity to be totally "in the moment" of what they are doing...and getting it done.  Then, they move on to the next event or project.  It frustrates the stew out of non-First Nations folks.  We are clock watchers, multi-taskers and product slaves.  

Now, I come home from an appointment, put a leash on our dog and head down to the mailbox at the corner of our block.  I pause to look at the clouds.  I listen to the cicadas, the hawks and other creatures moving about.  I inhale the smell of newly mowed grass or the fresh scent following a summer afternoon rain. I decide that this trip won't simply be to the mailbox and back.  We are going around the block.  Then, I think I will finish what I started in the morning.

Today, I decided to write this blog post.  I made that decision while at the beach this morning.  There are a couple of other things that need doing.  They will, indeed, get done...but perhaps not today.  Aimless Purpose.

Much love,


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