My Aunt Belle once came to visit us at the farm bearing some rather expensive gifts. These consisted of two or three intricate, expensive, finely-wrought wind-up toys that I vaguely recollect were considered by the adults present to be special in some way – I think it might have been that they were imported from Europe, or were made by some renowned manufacturer. I remember one more clearly than the others; it was a model of a Ferris wheel which, when wound, rotated with its brightly painted little cars going up around and down, as Ferris wheels are meant to do. There was also, I think a carousel and possibly a third toy, which I can no longer recall or even be sure existed. Aunt Belle and my parents marveled at these fairly spectacular objects – I actually have a greater recollection of the adults’ sense of their specialness than I do of the toys themselves.
We kids were, of course, excited to receive these as we were excited to receive any toys. New toys were few and far between in the late forties and early fifties, and having these show up on a day other than Christmas or birthdays was a rare event, indeed. Even children far wealthier than we were, with parents far more indulgent than our own, did not seem to live amongst the constantly growing welter of playthings that create an almost pornographic excess in even the poorest homes I visit today. Pink, plastic and pornographic; it sounds like a magazine article, n’est-ce pas? But the problem was, once the adults had retired to talk of adult things, we were left with these expensive, seductive, colorful items with which there was nothing we could really do. One wound them up and then one just sat there watching. There was very little difference, really, between owning these toys and gazing at them in a shop window. Some instinct for survival warned us that our usual recourse with toys which no longer fascinated, either disassembling them to see what the insides looked like, or bashing one another over the head with them, were not options conducive to our continued happy co-existence with Mom.
So for a period of my youth these toys sat there giving rise in my young breast to feelings of impotence, frustration and a kind of anger. Did other, better children wind these things up by the hour and sit happily watching the wheels turn? Were other children inspired in some way by this expensive indulgence? Is it possible that other children – maybe city children or European children – actually wore these kinds of things out from constant happy playing with them? What was wrong with us (or with me at least), that we just had no idea what to do after about three wind-ups per toy?
I have no idea of what became of these toys; there will be no trip to the Antique Roadshow with happy ending for me. My clearest recollection of these toys is of the feelings of letdown they provoked; I can only vaguely visualize the Ferris wheel, and of the other(s), I cannot even recall how many there were.
I am very much afraid that Retirement is currently provoking feelings remarkably akin to those engendered by these toys. All the conditions are amazing; just now the weather is lovely, every seed I even thought about planting has sprung up, the expensive fixes I put in place just before I retired are all doing just fine – my fancy beveled glass front door, my just-in-time water heater, my flat screen TV, the new refrigerator. But I sit here amidst the luxury and I wonder, day after day, what can I do with all this? Don’t get me wrong, I would not for anything return to working. Freedom is a wonderful thing, but there just seems to be so much of it. It almost seems too precious to waste on anything I can come up with, especially on the sunnier days. I might put in a desultory hour weeding a flowerbed, but I can’t bring myself to commit to actually getting any one of the many plots into tiptop, weedless, well-mulched and fertilized perfection. I read a bit of this and a bit of that, but there are so many unread books I can’t seem to settle on one. I went for a brief canoe trip up the creek out back yesterday, and the difficulty I had untying the canoe from the tree to which it was anchored forcibly reminded me that I had not used this canoe for at least a couple of years. The rope had grown into the tree to which it was tied, (or I guess it was actually the other way around). And the canoe trip just filled an hour; even though the scenery along the creek was spectacular, like the toy Ferris wheel there was nothing I could do with it.
I have always been like this; I can travel to the most spectacular wonders, I can finally come to a castle I have read about for years, and then, well, there it is. What now? I have spent hours designing wonderful verdant bowers to which I can retreat for reading – and I have even spent some hours bring a few of these plans into a semblance of reality, but I never actually read in them and rarely even sit in them for more than a passing moment. There are mosquitoes or the stems scratch my leg, or I can’t lie down or the coffee pot is too far away and I have to keep getting up to get things, or the sun is too bright or the breeze keeps turning my pages or I just get bored, or I am not in the mood just now – mostly, the last. I get to thinking that I should replace or add some plant that I don’t have, or that I should build something that I’ll never build although there is a fifty-fifty chance I will spend a bunch of money I can’t afford to buy some or all of the necessary materials.
I am very good at purchasing for contingencies. I have not one, but two, Chinese brush painting sets. I have acrylic paints and water colors and sketch pads. I have a complete set of more than 30 wood-carving chisels which I bought in Bali, as well as some supplemental American blades, in case I should ever actually be inspired to carve or sculpt some wood. Oh – and I have the wood itself in great heaps. There is also a wall of firewood in case I ever want to build a fire, and an air compressor should I suddenly become a person who does whatever one does with those. I have a bike I rode once and a helmet I bought after the one ride in case I might want to ride again, although the latter is still wedged into the fitted cardboard construction that it came in. I have a calligraphy pen somewhere, probably more than one. I have a set of 100 bits for one of my two cordless drills, and several smaller supplementary sets of drillbits. For leisure, there is a hammock folded up in the garage. I am fighting an urge to spend $229 on yet another course in Arabic and I will probably lose the battle sooner or later.
I have planted a number of vegetables this year, but if history is any guide, it is very unlikely that I will cook, eat or even harvest most of them. If I do want to cook them, I have more than one set of pans, and even some canning jars, just in case I become a completely different person than I ever have been, and if, miraculously, this happens just at harvest time. What are the odds?
I am doing one positive active thing, and frankly, I am amazed at myself; I wonder how long it will continue. After I returned from Bali and found myself slogging through the Slough of Despond, during the first half of March I joined a local gym. I actually have gone three times a week (missing only once or twice) since then. I didn’t really anticipate meeting any convivial souls there – that was not my purpose – and it is well that I did not hope to do so because other than my trainer (you get a person assigned to you to start you out and to measure progress every 6 weeks or so), I haven’t met anyone. I tend to dread going to the gym as I once dreaded going to work, but it has provided a semblance of structure to my life and unquestionably has made me feel a little more energetic and I look a little better. At first it actually seemed to motivate me to come home and do stuff (hence the semi-weeded and fairly well planted gardens) – it probably provided the oomph to get back to the old blog. But lately the motivations have tailed off, and even when I do something, it has the feel of throwing a teaspoonful of dirt into a yawning bottomless hole. It filled that moment; it got that task completed or started, but nothing seems to be strung into an ongoing chain of engagement. I have looked up a number of old friends from long ago, but none of these have caught fire. I know I need desperately – especially before the onset of another winter – to engage myself in something that I care about. I have looked up a local writing group and am thinking about some form of workshop or class or the like. But my fear is that I will end up feeling like I have a series of assignments, that I will turn one of the few things that are pleasurable into work.
The trouble with me is that I have to connect with a person or with people to really enjoy anything. When travelling I will remember a friendly taxi driver long after I have forgotten what the castle or hotel or cathedral looked like. I need someone to impress, someone to please, someone to admire, someone to like. I have a horror of groupthink. I don’t feel like other people – or as I imagine other people do. If I go to Hawaii, I dread things like the arranged luau or the lei greeting. Schedules make me shudder – at 5 we meet for a preparatory drink, at 5:15 we board the bus for the Waikiki Tour. The world seems to be full of versions of those children who actually enjoyed those elaborate wind-up Ferris wheels. Whereas I don’t like people who strive to be different just to be different, I do like people who don’t mind being different. And I really don’t know where to find what I am looking for. I am not even sure what I am looking for exactly; well, yes I do: connection and passion. I want to find something that I stick with because I love it or love the people it brings in its wake, not things that make me feel scheduled or as if I have an assigned task or thinks that make me a spectator. I know that the kinds of things that I want are not all pleasure, there are always the hard parts, but I know from experience that there are things which the hard parts are leavened by the awareness of moving forward and of getting to the rewards.
My efforts to find love have bogged down and are, for the moment, abandoned. I am pretty sure that I am not one who can find a partner through writing or answering ads. People seem to like me well enough when we are engaged together on a job or activity, but I do not appeal to people in either the exchange of letters or in discussion groups. I am so impatient with common wisdom. I do not understand how highly irreverent comedy can be so popular (as in, for instance, the Seinfield show) while people are so put off by anything but the most bland platitudes in real life. Am I the only person who dwells in the area that lies between cute kittens and dead baby jokes?
I really could live, I think, without having the things I want; what is really hard to endure is not knowing what those things might be.
Oh, well, off to another damned day in Paradise.