by Francine Ringold
My daughter is going to be 60 years old. That seems impossible, almost as impossible as what she just said to me: “So many of my co-workers are retiring. Perhaps I should too. Yet. . . .”
That is a big “yet” for anyone to face, particularly someone who loves her work as she does. Yet it is bound to happen in this time when we are living longer, when we are healthy longer. We decide to retire.
When we reach an age when we no longer want to pursue the old way—the profession, the job, the vocation or avocation that has dominated the better part of our lives—people, many people, call it retiring. I prefer to say that we are re-tiring, putting on new tires because the old ones no longer suit us, no longer provide the speed and grace and protection they once did.
It is possible that when we re-tire we feel most ourselves—if, of course, we continue to be at work, at work making something: a loaf of bread, a new arrangement for our favorite room, a computer program that will do all the housework at once, a written record of our life up to now, a dance, a song, a story, a poem. We are at work! A different kind of work, work that is play and that has value in itself, work that gives delight in the doing as much as in the product of that doing.
It is no wonder the energy, productivity, and record of the mind and the body’s repertoire coming from older people are mounting. Medical science has made it possible for us to live longer but also—and crucially—that knowledge of the importance of the mind/body connection has become increasingly available. “Keep moving,” we are told. We shed the old tires, the old ways, for new ones. We reconnect with our body and our mind and discover the work to be done and the way to do it.
Yes, I am talking to myself. I do that frequently but I try to refrain from talking to myself out loud. What will they think? And I am not unaware of the physical and mental challenges of aging. I am, after all, eighty-three years old. The so-called “indignities” of aging, the loss of hearing, vision, mobility, bladder control, and recent memory, do not escape my notice. We experience them more or less as the years mount. The skin, the muscles, the bones, the vocal cords lose their elasticity so much so that sometimes they droop. Some of us move more slowly or limp. Some who have always walked quickly still walk as fast as we can even if we limp. And if we can’t walk, we will dance—with an arm, with a tapping foot, with a blink of an eye or a turn of a head.
We can do this—keep moving despite a loss here and there—because most of us have been prepared for the adjustments that age calls for by having experienced the “indignities” of simply being human: the water breaking as we gave birth; the time we tripped onstage and fell into the orchestra pit; the moment when we forgot to say “I do” or “I won’t”; the time we failed an exam or we were fired. Is it possible, given our survival from past embarrassments, to look at the indignities of aging not as losses but as a new way of being in the world? Thus we can welcome our shortcomings as, for example, astigmatic Monet did in the watery impressionist technique of his later paintings, or bedridden Matisse did when he invented his famous cut-out collages, which emerged only when he found painting difficult to manage among the covers. Losing your hearing? Think of how grand it would be to lower the volume on your neighbor’s orgasm screams without touching a knob or calling the police. Perhaps it is not always best to see the distinct outlines or the hard realities in order to see with clarity. Perhaps it might be helpful to remember that we all have frailties, that we are all, young and older, handicapped in one way or another—all imperfect.
And what about memory? The experts tell us that it’s all there: the names we seem to have forgotten, the stories we half-remember; they are all there imprinted on our brain and body. We just might take longer to retrieve the names, the details, like a computer, when its memory is full, takes longer to retrieve information. But the word, the files of years of experiences and thoughts and people are all there.
Sometimes not only does it take longer to bring our memories back, it takes a prompt, a sudden happening like Proust’s madeleine cakes, to thrust a memory forward. At the World Brain Mapping and Therapeutic Science Summits in the last several years, it was affirmed that the brain retains an almost perfect record of every lifetime experience. We just need to find the way to access that memory, those imprints, so that we can reclaim what seems to be lost or dim. We need to work!
As much as we need to work, we need to play. We have to welcome the unexpected, relish fragmentation, bits of information that return in the retrieval process and promise to grab on to the next fragment when it comes, like puzzle pieces that ultimately come together. Jotting down fragments, or spreading out machine parts until they form a new configuration, places our energy in the moment, what someone called “the present moment of the past,” or—we might hope—the present moment of the future.
Open spaces, the spaces between fragments, are also inviting. They suggest more than is stated. We are released from the insistent and even frightening demand of knowing where we are going, of having to see the total picture— beginning, middle, end. That might come later, the transitions, the linear perspective. For now, involved in the fragment and eased by the space between fragments, our energy is pulsing. We leap from one fragment to another. The parts are on the table and we see how to put them together and we make them work together. It’s fun!
Does this sound like a game more than serious business? I hope so. In this re-tiring phase of our lives, work is allowed to be play. And work and play are both enhanced when we engage the body to stimulate the mind and vice versa. I always start my writing of the day (writing is my work) with a simple physical exercise that stretches my mind as it stretches my body.
The importance of play in all meaningful activity was made explicit by Dutch historian and cultural theorist Johan Huizinga, who emphasized that play is something we do for its own sake, for its intrinsic value, for the pleasure of the doing and not for the resulting object of that doing. So, I suppose, when we work at something, when we work at making something and don’t worry about selling it, or publishing it, we are playing—we are joyful because each moment is full of life and presence.
Ideally, this is what we can do when we retire. We can enter into a process fully, attend to each moment, each fragment. We can really see, hear, feel, shape, revise, retool, and discover something new, something that brings us further joy. The arts allow us to do this kind of work/play. So does the engagement in making something: combining ingredients in a stew; stitching a dress or quilt with a new pattern; crafting a golf swing or a curveball; turning wood into bowl or statue; bringing a gaggle of voices into a chorus of collaborative singers. Language and image and color and form often spring out of those moments when we have the time and are given the grace to pull back from all the former routine “doing” in quest of something else, some profit outside the act itself, and re-tiring so that the car of our being runs better—not perfectly, but with new verve.
Francine Ringold, Ph.D., edited Nimrod International Journal for 47 years. She served as the Poet Laureate of Oklahoma for two consecutive terms. Her most recent book: From Birth to Birth: My Memoir and a Guide for Yours.