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The House was Quiet and the World was Calm

August 13, 2022

Now that I’m officially retired (as of July 31), I’m trying to get used to it. It should be nice to no longer have so many things pulling at me, but instead it has been making the days a kind of Sargasso Sea, nothing moving and nobody going anywhere. I thought I was already living the life of a writer, setting my own schedule and finding ways to get things done without too many outside deadlines, but I also had the immediacy of things that had to be done at certain times on specific days, and suddenly I have none of that; I am adrift.

The good part of not having to prepare for the fall semester is that August can still be summertime, although the weather is not cooperating with that, as it often does not in Ohio in August; it’s been too cool and rainy for swimming in the cold lake.

Another good part of not being so scheduled-up is that I can read more. I don’t have as many other things getting in between me and the book I have a mark in. Sometimes I wander around the house, though, looking at all the books I’ve been wanting to find time to read and wondering which to pick up next. So many decisions, and so much time.

I wasn’t quite ready to leave my job entirely, but I wasn’t willing to take it on full-time at this point, knowing that “full” time at Kenyon usually means 70 hours a week. So I’m working hard to remind myself that it was my choice and I should have no regrets. I do count it a victory that the college replaced my “half-time” position with a full-time one. Now I’m like Kylara Vatta in Elizabeth’s Moon’s science fiction novel Into the Fire, who “had things she could do things that might–though it was hard to believe–be as interesting, as worthwhile, as what she’d already done.”

I’ve been rereading one of my favorite poems by Wallace Stevens, “The House was Quiet and the World Was Calm,” in an attempt to put myself more into that kind of mood:

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.

Of course, Wallace was still getting up to sell insurance every morning when he wrote that poem. As many of us discovered in 2020, the promise of not being expected to show up anywhere is often better than the reality of it.

Maybe it will help that I have an appointment next week to read some of Walker Percy’s papers at the Wilson Library at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as I’m now an “affiliated scholar” at Kenyon, free to pursue whatever interests me and wander through academic libraries as I decide what that is.

I’m in the fortunate position of being able to decide who should expect me and when. It’s a good thing to be in this position but changes take getting used to, even changes for the better.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. Rohan Maitzen permalink
    August 13, 2022 8:11 am

    That’s such a lovely poem, and it does seem like the ideal frame of mind for a literary retiree – but I can imagine it is hard to adjust, especially to not having to work yourself up for the fall term. I have taken exactly one year out of the academic schedule since starting kindergarten, when I took a ‘gap’ year after high school. Except for that, August has always been the last gasp rather than a luxury. The freedom to follow your interests on your own schedule sounds like a good alternative.

    • August 14, 2022 11:49 am

      It helps that gearing up for fall was one of my least favorite parts of my “half-time” job, so I’m not sad to be missing it, especially since I used to do hiring and filling the required class for writing consultants in the spring, and the new director is going to have to do that in August before she can get all the other programs off the ground.
      I think coping with the freedom will require thinking in new channels. I just fell into my writing center channel thinking about gearing up for fall, and now I need to find a way to get past the relief of not having to do my former things and establish a better schedule and more excitement for my new things.

  2. August 13, 2022 8:22 am

    It’s a bit sad to see others take off for work each morning and to hear them talk of the things they are doing once one is retired. Still, I like to remind myself that now I can do absolutely anything I want to do…and that’s a good thing.

    • August 14, 2022 11:50 am

      Yes, although it may only be sad because as a society we value paying work more than the other kinds of work people do. I keep telling myself that.

  3. August 13, 2022 9:55 am

    It makes sense that it needs time to adjust to this new way of life, and I hope that soon you will be enjoying it fully. I’m glad you can be so philosophical about your half-time position being replaced by a full-time one — that would make me quite cross I think. Happy reading!

    • August 14, 2022 11:52 am

      Oh I count it as a victory that I managed to finally convince the college that my position WAS full-time and they needed to find the funding to make that official.
      Once (in 1985) I quit a part-time job and they had to hire two full-time people to replace me. That was a real triumph!

  4. August 13, 2022 9:47 pm

    I’m sure your days are quite different now and it will take time to find your way. I wish you the best of luck as you navigate the change! You’re right, even changes for the better can throw you for a while.

    • August 14, 2022 11:54 am

      Thanks. I have plenty to do, but I am thinking a lot about the character of Will Barrett in Walker Percy’s novel The Last Gentleman, because he is paralyzed by indecision. That’s what this first week has been like–I can do anything. So where to start?

  5. August 15, 2022 6:56 am

    I hope you’re able to figure out a schedule that works for you — times of transition are always so hard. Have a marvelous time with Walker Percy’s papers!

  6. August 15, 2022 11:18 am

    I love the poem you chose to put you in the right frame of mind. I generally would suggest taking things a day at a time and fall into things in the moment. But I know that this is a big adjustment and will definitely take time. Enjoy the freedom…don’t forget to do that.

    • August 15, 2022 11:24 am

      Thanks–I know I’m lucky to have this kind of freedom at my age and in this country at this time in history.

  7. August 15, 2022 12:28 pm

    All of your flowers are looking grand! Love the Stevens poem. You will eventually find a new groove. Transitions take time and tend to be a bit uncomfortable.

    • August 15, 2022 1:01 pm

      Glad you like the flower photos! I love hibiscus, but have only rarely been able to keep one alive over the long, northern winter.
      Transitions can be uncomfortable, you say, and that makes me think of the word “messy,” which makes me think of The Magic School Bus…”take chances, make mistakes, get messy.”

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