Friday, April 22, 2011

The Times and Seasons of Our Lives

It was an innocent question from a friend: "How was your summer?"

I stopped, aghast. What? MY? Summer? I had hardly noticed the summer pass, working my full-time job that required a horrible three hour daily commute and two part-time jobs that kept me frantically busy six days a week.  Summer really didn't happen for me. Not for a lot of years. And only rarely  during that time did I feel that any season or any day was mine. And suddenly I felt profound sadness and a sense that time  -- and life -- was passing me by.

And I thought of other seasons, other times in my life.

I thought about the seasons of life as a child, when fall meant new school shoes, the smell of new crayons and freshly sharpened pencils, the crunch of eucalyptus buds under my feet as I walked to school on a horse trail. And I looked forward to Halloween and changing leaves, so fun to roll around in, and the excitement of the holiday season and Aunt Molly arriving for Christmas and making our lives merry. Rainy winter days made me feel cozy, whether at school, when we did crafts and played games in the classroom instead of going outside to recess, and or at home in bed at night, lulled to sleep by the sound of rain on the roof. Spring meant flowers, warm days, my birthday, the school year winding down, the promise of summer. And, oh summer! It was so delicious and so mine when I was young! I loved the mornings of sleeping in, the endless possibilities of a day entirely mine, dashing into the ocean, holding hands with Aunt Molly and my brother Mike as we pulled each other into the surf, laughing as we fell and rolled with the waves, the velvety warmth of a midwestern evening as I lay on the porch swing of my grandparents'  Kansas farmhouse, watching fireflies dart through the night and hearing train whistles in the distance. Swinging languidly, listening to the voices of the adults, laughing and telling stories around me, I thought that there was no better place to be and no better time to be young.

My growing up started early -- the year-long science courses squeezed into tortuous summers when I was in high school, working multiple summer jobs when I was in college and then getting into the work rhythm of life. Despite the fact that summer vacation was now reduced to two weeks at most -- and was not always in the summer -- for most of my working life, I didn't dread Mondays. I looked forward to the week --an interesting article to research and write, someone to interview, later on, seeing patients I cared about and enjoyed seeing. But nevertheless, work became all encompassing. Neither writing nor therapy is necessarily a get-rich-quick endeavor and I found myself cobbling together full-time and part-time jobs to get by and build savings. And I began to fall out of rhythm with the earth and its seasons.

During the last five years of my working life, I experienced the sort of work rhythm that many people do every day of their working lives: longing for weekends, feeling depressed Sunday afternoons, counting the hours and days until the next weekend. It was a full-time job for which I was grateful -- paying more than I had ever made in a single job before, offering a small pension if I could last five years -- but the job wasn't something that utilized what I valued most about myself or any of my real talents or training. My boss was encouraging and supportive. But my spirit began to wilt every Sunday afternoon when I thought about another week of that job, that commute. I wasn't the only one. It was common to meet a co-worker at the elevator and hear a variation on "Well, it's Thursday. Almost Friday. We'll get there." At last, I understood the meaning of TGIF.  And I rushed from that job to my evening work at my private practice. And some weekends and evenings I did admissions work for Northwestern. I felt deep satisfaction in seeing patients. I genuinely enjoyed the admissions work. But I was totally preoccupied with work, three jobs, six days a week. How was my summer, indeed? None of my time was really mine.

I wondered sadly how it could be different. I tried to savor Sundays with partial success. I tried to notice seasonal changes. But it was dark when I left for work and dark when I came home. Rainy days weren't so cozy at the commuter bus stop. Holidays meant more traffic and an even worse commute. Vacations, however, were delicious. I would breathe deeply and savor the ocean breezes in Hawaii or the scent of the desert after a summer rain. I would treasure each free moment of a day off. But it still felt temporary. In the midst of the savoring was a longing for these wonderfully relaxing moments of feeling so in tune with nature to go on and on. I would end every vacation with tears in my eyes.

Retirement has changed everything. Each day is mine. I have my life back at long last. It's a daily wonder to me. I now have time to savor the seasons and rhythm of life.

I'm delighting in spring with the flowers and fruit trees in my yard coming back to life after an uncommonly harsh winter of sub-freezing temperatures. The days are longer and warming and the night breezes are turning velvet, so wonderful in the desert. I'm planting a garden, starting with tomatoes, for the first time in years. And my spirit soars as I watch the tomato plants growing and thriving.

I look forward to summer: its fresh early mornings, the heat of the day, the evening monsoon thunderstorms and the smell of creosote after the rains, the joy of spending long, languid afternoons in the pool with our neighbors, talking and laughing.

I look forward to fall and a hint of crispness in the evening air, to classes at our Arizona State University extension here .  I look forward to holidays with new anticipation because we celebrate everything here -- Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's. We decorate. We entertain ourselves and our neighbors. And we look forward to seeing family during this time and experiencing the excitement of the holidays through the eyes of my little niece Maggie.

And winter in Arizona can be wondrous -- lots of sunshine and clear blue skies, warm days, cool nights, and the coziness of being lulled to sleep by rain falling steadily on our tile roof.

I feel, after far too long, that I am living in and savoring the world once again. I have reconnected with the child within who delighted in each season. I feel in tune with the rhythms of the seasons and with my own life, taking pleasure in the moment, in a sunset, in eating healthy foods, in vigorous exercise, in breathing clean air, in enjoying the sunshine.

And each season, each day is truly mine.


  1. Good for you! Enjoy your summer.

  2. Your post hits home with me. Like many other Americans I relished the long summer holidays of my youth and always felt unhappy, even deprived having to work through the long hot months. When I came to live in Europe I was amazed to discover that they are accustomed to at least a month if not 6 weeks of holiday time a year! Retirement is bliss for me and my husband -- I only hope the benefits of the retired life are still available for my own children when their time comes.

  3. Beautifully written post. It does seem that the only truly free times in our lives are in youth and senior years. The rest of the time, we owe our souls to the company store.
    I never regretted work and actually enjoyed each job I had, but never realized what was missing till I retired. All I can say now is AAHHH and smile a lot.

  4. Oh you described many of us, rushing to work and working to work more. Yes, finally, in retirement, the seasons are appreciated, the roses planted and smelled. Life is lived fully. Amen!

    A beautiful, evocative piece of writing.

  5. I love what you had to say. Retirement allows us the luxury of not missing out on the seasons that we have left to enjoy.

  6. Thanks so much for your comments! I'm so happy to hear that all of you are feeling that life is full and incredibly rich. Like you, Broad, I so hope that we're not the last generation to have such an option. I get desperately worried when I hear about proposals to gut Medicare and cut back Social Security for the generations behind us and when I see the changing workplace these days where so many gifted and ambitious young people are struggling to get a foothold. I hope so fervently that they will have the same opportunities that we have had.

  7. Another lovely, insightful post, Kathy. You so write so beautifully.

    Yes, in the USA you seem to go from much longer summer holidays as children than we have in the UK, to a very ungenerous allocation of holiday leave during your working lives by European standards. No wonder retirement is so special for you.

    Finally, happy birthday for today (25th). I hope you have a wonderful day.