Friday, September 26, 2014

Love Song to Indiana

Five days in to my week in Indiana, I've fallen back in love, as hopelessly as I did the first time.

But who couldn't love a place that offered these assorted joys?

1. Residence with my beloved former housemate Julia and her five-year-old son Alex, who now speaks only in fluent German at home. It was fun for me to try to pick out a word or phrase from tmy two years of college German many decades ago. When I came back to Julia's house one afternoon, letting myself in with the key Julia had loaned me, he came running to the door to see who it was and then announced cheerfully, "Nur Claudia." I remembered, "nur" is "only." So that was one word of German salvaged from all that intensive study. I loved that Alex considers me part of his world again, not a visitor, but a familiar fixture in his home and family.

2. Early morning walks along the Nature Park trails to the Prindle Institute, situated in beautiful woods by an abandoned quarry that is now a refuge for animals and humans alike.

3. Breakfast in the Prindle kitchen with Assistant Director Linda Clute, perched on the counters as we did in days of yore. Linda warned this year's two graduate fellows not to be surprised to see us sitting there. Apparently, counter-perching had fallen out of fashion. But I was pleased that by the end of the week, the graduate fellows were perching there, too. One day Linda brought a moist, rich cucumber cake (like zucchini cake but even better) in my honor; another day one of the fellows brought apple streusel muffins.

4. A lunchtime talk by brilliant sociology professor Mona Bhan on her research on women, sexuality, and national identity in the India/Pakistan border region.

5. A talk by ME on female friendships in children's literature, given as part of the 10th anniversary celebration of the Women's Center. To my great surprise, although I had expected the audience to be only my old friends, actual students arrived to hear what I had to say.

6. Lunch at Dairy Castle, finished off by black raspberry ice cream for me and persimmon ice cream for my friend Keith.

7. Joining with the crowd of parents picking up kindergartners from Ridpath Elementary. And then seeing those same children, a day later, pulling little red wagons full of donated canned goods to the Greencastle homeless shelter, the brainchild of one kind, determined first grader, Lilly Welch. Oh, and there was a police escort to accompany the children's bighearted parade, exactly what a police force is for.

8. A drive down to Bloomington on a perfect late September afternoon with Linda for a reunion with our former graduate fellow Nicki, who perched with us on the Prindle kitchen counters for two years and is now a second year law student at Indiana University.

9. A meeting with the Janeites book group to discuss Jane Austen's unfinished novel Sanditon; as always, champagne and scrumptious dessert (lemon bars) were served.


Monday, September 22, 2014

Off to Indiana

I leave today for a week in my beloved Indiana. I'll spend four nights in Greencastle, staying with my former housemate Julia and her darling little boy Alex (who used to be three and in preschool but is now FIVE and a big, savvy kindergartner!). Then I'll spend three nights in Greenwood with my sister and her husband, who moved to Indiana last fall for Cheryl's job in the tax department at Eli Lilly.

I'm going to sink back in to the life I loved so much during my two years at DePauw. I'll write by the fireplace at the beautiful Prindle Institute for Ethics where I had my office.

Or else I'll write in the Bartlett Reflection Center overlooking the abandoned quarry that is now a nature park.

I'll have breakfast with the Prindle's Assistant Director, Linda, perched on the counters in the Prindle kitchen. I'll take breaks to walk the rim trail around the quarry. I'll attend a luncheon talk by Mona Bhan of Sociology, I'll give a talk myself during the week-long tenth anniversary celebration of the Women's Center, I'll meet with the the Prindle's new director to see  if there is anything useful I might do for the Prindle in the future. I'll sit my favorite chair in the philosophy department lounge in Asbury Hall. I'll see as many friends as humanly possible, including driving down to Bloomington for dinner with our former graduate fellow who is now a law student at Indiana University.

Then: sister fun with Cheryl! Actually, the main sister fun I'm longing for is to help Cheryl finish organizing her enormous library in the new house on her 25 floor-to-ceiling bookcases crammed full of books and bears. That is the sort of project I adore. I want to see her new house, explore her new town, and check out the dairy she's told me about where you can see the friendly cows getting ready to produce the milk to made the home-made ice cream.

So that is my plan. I like my plan. And then I'll return home to figure out how to keep that Indiana joy here in my life every day.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

"Ten Times Better than Anything"

Last weekend I was up in Silverthorne for my annual writing group retreat. Our group has been meeting together for 22 years. I joined when I moved to Colorado in 1992, when Gregory was just turning 1; next month he will be 23.

We go away on a retreat together every summer. This year we chose a weekend in early fall, as for the first time ever I had the luxury of not having to teach during the autumn semester. So this year, for the first time ever, we were there as the aspen were beginning to turn.

The house we rented had some flaws. It wasn't the one we had signed up to get; there was some confusion over a last-minute switcheroo. The couches weren't comfy, and there were no coffee tables on which we writers could rest our piles of manuscripts, books to share, and abundant snacks and glasses of wine. But resourceful as we are, we re-purposed a couple of our coolers as coffee tables, topping them with extra pillowcases from the linen closet for a lovely effect. And the lack of coffee tables was more than made up for by an extra-relaxing hot hub, stunning views of Lake Dillon, and proximity to dozens of hiking trails. Leslie, pictured here with me, declared our first glimpse of the trails to be "ten times better than anything," and that became our unofficial slogan for the retreat. (Official slogan, chosen ahead of time during our retreat planning: "Break Through to Bliss.")

The heart of the retreat is having unstructured time to write and then sharing what we've written. I try to bring something extra significant each year: the first chapter of a new book or the concluding chapter of a book long in the making. This year, despite my supposedly having all this new free time to write, I had been scrambling before I left to finish up revisions on the second book in the Nora Notebooks series and to deal with the proofs and index for my edited collection, Ethics and Children's Literature. But during the retreat I did get something written on Friday to share on Saturday: chapter 2 of the third and final book in the Nora series. It was sweet to remember that I had shared chapter one of book one at the retreat last year.

We also eat, heaps and heaps and heaps of lovingly prepared food. This is becoming more of a challenge as nowadays everyone has so many special diets. There is always someone who doesn't eat gluten, or soy, or shellfish, or nightshade vegetables, or all of the above. It's hard to break bread together when everyone (except me, it seems!) is swearing off carbs. But once we sit down at the table together, none of this matters. We laugh, we cry, we talk and talk and talk and talk. We remember the years we've shared, toast recent joys, commiserate with ongoing concerns, dream of the future.

Being in a writing group like this one is ten times better than anything.

Friday, September 12, 2014

"So How Are You Liking Retirement?"

This is what everyone keeps asking me. "So how is it, being retired?"

My first impulse is to shriek, "I'm not retired! I didn't retire! I quit my day job to follow my dream of being a full-time children's book writer!"

But I can see how other people would think I'm retired. After all, I took an early retirement package from the university; as a benefit of retirement, the university still pays for my health insurance until I'm eligible for Medicare; and they gave me a lovely retirement sendoff and gift.

Moreover, I have to admit that since I've been "retired" or "transitioned" or "become a full-time writer," I really haven't gotten appreciably more writing done than I did when I was on my hour-a-day system that structured my entire thirty-year, fifty-book writing career and that gave this blog its name. I'm still having a lot of trouble figuring out what to do with the rest of my time, once I write my early morning hour and take my early morning walk. And what I have been doing looks a lot like what retired people do: have lunch with friends, go see the Chihuly glass exhibit at the Denver Botanic Gardens for a second time, read a lot more books (currently I'm adoring Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed of Wild fame), and log thousands of additional steps on my new Fitbit (over 20,000 a day sometimes).

But I want my new post-professorial life to be more than that. What I want it to be, of course, is amazing, stuffed full every day with creative joy, with artistic bliss, and in a pinch, creative suffering and artistic angst will do. I want to feel that I left my job to fill my life more fully with something else, not just do the same kinds of things I did before, but minus my salary (though also minus certain inescapable irritations that come from any workplace and most recently came from my workplace). I want to live my new life in bigger, brighter colors. Not have it dinge to drabness.

So how am I liking "retirement"? The answer is that I'm still trying to figure out how to make "it" -- whatever "it" is -- work for me. I have two trips coming up, one to Indiana to visit my sister and dear DePauw friends and one a week of school visits in Texas. Both of these are things I would have had a hard time doing during the term if I were teaching. I've been trying very hard, and recently with some success, to write for TWO hours a day, which means doubling my lifelong rate, a not insignificant increase in both input and output.

Basically, now, I would say that Act III of my life is a work in progress. I'm not ready to open this show on Broadway yet. I'm trying in out in New Haven first. No, I'm trying it out in community theater, with an amateur cast consisting chiefly of me.

But that's okay. It's a lovely challenge, to have the time and space to figure out how one wants to live one's life. It's a beautiful gift that I've given myself, to have this conundrum before me.