WATERSHED – INTRODUCTION
I was ambushed by how agonizing it felt to hit ‘send’ when I finished the email. I let it linger there on the screen, pulsing faintly. I read through the short thread of correspondence leading up to my response. I got up, went to the kitchen and made a cup of coffee while it sat there, waiting.
The email was an answer to a simple, breezy, routine request from the coordinator of the college department I taught for. How many classes did I want in the fall? Every semester, about halfway through, I’d gotten a similar request. For fifteen years roughly half of my professional time had been taken up with teaching freshmen seminar classes at Montana State University. It was a gig I’d happened on to augment my erratic and unpredictable freelance writing career.
I was a lowly adjunct professor, that class of teacher colleges have gravitated to in order to save money, reduce benefit costs, and escape saddling tenured professors with teaching lower level courses. It offered few benefits, no long-term security, and pitiful pay. Every semester, especially early on, felt like a crapshoot – whether I’d be asked back, how many sections I’d be offered – all up to the whim of an administrator or department head who might decide new blood was needed, or my evaluations weren’t up to par, or that I didn’t match the seniority of someone else on the roster. Adjunct faculty are both the institutional grist that keep colleges and universities running, and about as institutionally valued as grist.
And yet, that email remained on the screen until I finished the cup of coffee, all the while pondering what felt like a monumental step. You’d think it would have been easy. I had expected, contemplating my plans, that it would be easy, liberating even. I’d made up my mind, hadn’t I? My finger hovered. I punched ‘send’, stood up, and took a nervous, pacing lap around the room, swinging my arms.
The fact was, inching into retirement at 66 was a decision fraught with ambivalence and worry, tangled up in a messy nest of self-worth, self-doubt, ambition, notions of legacy, concern about making ends meet all the way to whatever the end is, health concerns and that overworked quality-of-life calculation.
To begin with, I knew I’d miss teaching. The department was nice enough to say that if I regretted my decision, I’d be welcomed back, but I’d shut a door. Despite the unglamorous and underappreciated nature of adjunct status, I liked the work.
The weekly faculty meetings, intended to keep us a week or two ahead of the class syllabus, were part of the job I’d initially dreaded as bureaucratic blah-blah-blah. In fact, those weekly discussions about Socrates, or Martin Luther King’s letter from jail, or any number of readings on the environment or social justice or indigenous people were stimulating as hell. They modeled the very style and energy we all strove to foster in our classrooms.
Around the table sat fellow teachers who had all arrived at the same adjunct ingredient in their recipe for economic survival as I had. There were newspaper editors, musicians, vegetable farmers, philosophers. Many had taught for decades in a variety of settings. No one was shy. They were smart and articulate, with real life experiences, and they were worth listening to. The fifteenth time we discussed MLK or Socrates, I was still gaining insights into what was meant by an “examined life” or by “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” That hour around a conference table was always lit by a burst of intellectual fire.
I liked the students too. College freshmen are at a cusp of life. They are, for the most part, navigating independent living for the first time. They come, mostly, believing what their parents believe. They wear the narrow blinders of their parochial lives. They are floundering toward what they believe in, who they love, what they might do in life, what, if any, god they accept, how to handle money and responsibility and friendship and ambition and the inevitable episodes of failure and fuck up. They reminded me of my own three children, all busy living their own versions of the above. It’s fun and excruciating to watch, by turns.
We sat in a circle. We put phones away. We had books open on desks in front of us. And we talked about justice, about climate, about wisdom, about war, about politics. We strayed off on a great many tangents along the way. We looked at each other. We used first names. Inevitably, we learned a lot about each other as the weeks passed. At least for some the blindered view of the world opened noticeably wider.
At the beginning of each semester I asked for a show of hands of all the people who signed up out of a burning desire to be in the class. No one ever raised a hand. Not one in fifteen years. This was one of those ‘core’ classes that everyone was obligated to take. Then I told them that it would end up being the favorite class for at least a few of them. I also said that it was a rare luxury, to be in a circle of strangers who get the chance to talk and share ideas in a direct, respectful, exploratory way, especially these days, when everyone texts instead of talking face to face. I said that this class was a gift, if they chose to open it.
Students ran the gamut. It wasn’t always pretty or comfortable. The student who showed up to an 8 a.m. class still very drunk from the frat party the night before. The young Chinese exchange student who could barely speak, much less write, in English, but who never missed class and who struggled heroically to stay afloat in foreign academic seas. The Iraq War veteran who never spoke, but instead, shouted. Worst of all, the students who refused to speak.
Each of them, even the unexceptional, seemingly run-of-the-mill students, had their dramas and their brilliance. The young woman from a tiny Montana community who rarely spoke in class, but who, near the end of the semester, ripped out an unbelievable tap dance performance on the linoleum classroom floor that left everyone’s jaw hanging. The young man who lived out of his car, who could never be counted on to show up on a powder ski day, but who seemed to have his life perspective on remarkably firm ground. The young woman who revealed that her sister had recently been shot and killed by a police officer at a traffic stop.
Every semester was a new concoction of chemistry, a fresh experiment in social dynamics. A gaggle of young people who shambled together with their triumphs and tragedies, their challenges and gifts, their naiveté and wisdom, their curiosity and resistance, and for thirteen weeks we’d look at each other and try to talk about stuff that meant something.
As years went by I got incrementally better at teaching. I assembled the arrows of technique in my teacherly quiver. I got more comfortable. And I genuinely liked my students. That effort, and that mutual regard, went deep with me.
That I had the luxury to agonize over my decision to quit teaching, to even have that decision to consider, is a mark of my privilege. Call it a first-world problem. Anything could happen, but it doesn’t look like I’ll have to sling hash in a fast-food joint to make ends meet when I’m 75.
I own my house outright, by dint of having bought at a propitious moment when a person like me could afford a house in what has become a hot real estate market, and by dint of having parents capable of acting as my lending institution for a down payment. I’ve put money aside over the decades. I received a share of the sale of my parents’ home after they died.
More to the point, I was born white and middle class in an affluent country and have benefitted from the safety net perks that come with that status – from a college degree to good health care. Pure luck, nothing more or less, the hand of cards laid out when I popped into the world. How I’ve played that hand is another thing, but luck has put a heavy thumb on the scale of my fate. No small matter.
Still, ambivalence and hesitation loomed over the next phase of my life like a cloudbank. Losing the structure and satisfactions of teaching was some of it, but only part, and not the existential part. Conventional hype casts retirement years in a halo of sunset decades devoted to travel, relaxation, comfort, open horizons to explore, enjoyment and indulgence. Believe the ads and it’s all about learning new languages, cruising the rivers of Europe, playing pickleball and yucking it up with friends over a glass of cabernet. That’s not how I felt. I wasn’t at all confident that I’d live up to the promise, or the challenge, of that freedom.
There are things about me I don’t trust.
For one thing, that cozy image of sipping a glass of wine and chumming it up with fellow retirees spells trouble, in my case, and the potential vacuum of retirement is fertile ground for that trouble to flourish.
Drinking has played a prominent role in my social life and identity since I was a teenager. I was the one who could hold his liquor at high school beach parties on Lake Michigan. I drove everyone home with a bullshit display of control. Drinking beer was what loosened me up at parties, what got me on the dance floor, what lubricated interactions from dinner parties to work happy hours.
I never succumbed to the barfly syndrome. I drank with friends or at home. But I drank steadily, habitually, and, over time, compulsively. It became an issue. It made me irritable, moody, manic depending on the day.
I played mental games with myself, reasoning that it made sense to buy a bigger, cheaper bottle of wine because it would be more economical, but still drinking it all in two nights. I tried going to hard liquor, thinking it was all about beer. I tried limiting my drinking to weekends. None of it worked for long. We’d go out to parties and the first thing I’d locate was the cooler with drinks. The last thing I’d make sure of was grabbing a final beer for the ride home. That habit drove Marypat crazy, but it persisted.
Then, in 2007 I had a revelation. I had been asked to attend a conference on Haida Gwaii, off the coast of British Columbia. I was invited as a writer to report on the event, hosted by the Haida people and run by indigenous elders from Greenland to New Mexico. It was an invitation for non-Indians to be exposed to Indian reality and traditions. I was honored to go, to experience the ocean-infused geography and to witness the event.
For four or five days the group of Indian and non-Indian people met, talked, drummed, sang, shared their visions and experiences. Slowly I found myself less and less an objective outsider observing the phenomenon, and more and more a participant pulled into the subtle, powerful spell of place and culture. Also, there was no alcohol.
There was humor. There was a great deal of hugging. There were tears and confessions and sorrow. There were stories and wisdom and a window onto another way of being human in the world. We ate food from the ocean and the forest. In a nearby workshop a Haida craftsman was fashioning a traditional ocean-going cedar canoe out of a single tree.
Each day began with a ceremonial fire on the beach at dawn. A designated Haida was the keeper of the fire. A prayer was said. Offerings were made. We stood in a circle. People spoke, deeply. A simple thing, standing together around flames. Simple, but intense and sacred. In the silences the Pacific rolled in, ravens landed on totem poles, bald eagles coasted over the cove.
Some days these dawn fires would last hours. Other days were brief. On the final morning there was a long stint of heart-felt sharing of emotions and intentions. All the while a young Haida man stood quietly outside the circle. When the talk ended, he was introduced. He was a man who had brought back, through visions, many ancient Haida songs and stories that had faded with time, with genocide, with cultural change.
When he stepped into the circle he began to cry. He said how much it meant to witness the sharing and openness at the fire, how important that authentic interaction was, and how rare. He went on to talk about how difficult it was to stay on a true path. He talked about the many distractions and pitfalls that pull us off course – drugs, addiction, alcohol, abuse, material baubles, electronics, all of it seducing us away from our true trail.
As he spoke, through tears, I understood, in a vivid way, that he was not only speaking about his experience as an Indian, or about a phenomenon impacting Indian culture generally. He was speaking about all of us, each on our difficult and elusive personal pathway through life. He was speaking to me.
I stopped drinking as a direct result of that epiphany at the dawn fire. I had no idea that might happen, but I came home and I didn’t drink anymore. Ironically, it turned out that my sister had also made the decision to be sober that same week, across the continent and unbeknownst to me. After we put that coincidence together we made an annual September phone call to commemorate our shared resolve.
I didn’t drink for the next six or seven years. Long enough that I came to think of myself as permanently sober. Long enough that my social community considered me a non-drinker. Every September my sister and I reinforced our solidarity. She used AA meetings to stay on top of it, found real support in those groups. I attended a few, but didn’t find them compelling.
My social life changed. It was almost certainly my own reading of things, but going to parties, even meeting friends for dinner, wasn’t the same. I lacked that social lubrication, the slightly manic energy that a little buzz produces. I found most social scenes boring, especially watching other friends enjoying a drink, revving things up, getting silly. From my perspective, I wasn’t part of the fun.
A little voice started up in me. Why can’t I be a social drinker? I’d proven I could stop. For years I’d controlled my impulses. Why couldn’t I take part from time to time?
I resisted that voice for a long time, but one summer night, out for dinner with friends on the patio of a local restaurant, I ordered a Scotch ale. It tasted just as good as I remembered. And it produced that familiar flush of energy I’d been missing at these moments. Especially after years of abstinence, that flush was exhilarating, dangerous but exhilarating. Marypat gave me a long, assessing look, but I ignored her.
The story of my slide back into the clutches of alcohol is as predictable as it is boring. Within a few months I was back to the old habits, back to hiding evidence, back to daily beer runs and zeroing in on the drink cooler at parties. I sometimes paused, considering my behavior, that I was back doing the same old things I thought I’d never do again, but only a pause.
I remained functional in terms of maintaining my life, keeping up with work, meeting deadlines, but I knew very well that I was back under the hold of that dulling, compromising spell. Also, I was sheepish with my sister, despite her reassurances and understanding.
So there’s that. The open horizons of retirement could be filled with that specter of addiction and blunted potential.
Overlaid like a layer of sediment on top is the business of how I spend my time. What gives life purpose? What holds meaning? How do I serve as more than a placeholder in the march of time? And is it pretentious to entertain such existential pap? I can’t imagine elder elephants or aged ravens waste much angst over their purpose in life. Why should I presume any more elevated status?
But it squats there like a boulder in the trail of life. And I don’t think I’m the only one struggling with these questions. Seems to me, based on a very unscientific, intuitive reading of things, that a lack of purpose, coupled with thwarted ambitions, unfulfilled dreams, explains a lot of cultural dysfunction. How else to explain well-off young people signing on to Isis or the Taliban? Or entire communities falling prey to the scourge of opioids? Or the burgeoning number of suicides? Or the mundane daily acts of popping open another beer, lighting up another joint, or sitting, anesthetized for hours in front of a droning television or computer screen?
The day after Donald Trump was elected I showed up in front of a very split group of young college students in class. “Half of you,” I said. “can’t believe your good luck. That the crazy dude who nobody gave a chance has just won the election. The other half of you are thinking – holy shit, what just happened?”
“I’m not going to weigh in politically,” I went on. “but here’s the thing. All of us, no matter what side we’re on, need to pay attention.”
I haven’t heard what those students have been doing with my professorial tidbit of advice, but in the years since, I’ve been following it like a damn zealot. I’d always kept up with the news, but after that election, it ratcheted up to ridiculous levels – podcasts, streaming news shows, checking media posts multiple times a day.
The fact that Trump’s grotesque administration fed that obsession with daily, sometimes hourly, new outrages only encouraged it. I know I am not alone. I’m amazed when I admit my obsession to friends to find that many of them are doing exactly the same thing. Over the months it got to the point that I’d spend hours a day surfing news sites, reading articles, streaming late-night comedy shows. Ostensibly I’m following my own edict to be a good, informed citizen and witnessing the sad drama of our crumbling democracy. In fact, I’m squandering big hunks of life to the relentless treadmill of political crap that resulted from that questionable election.
I worry about myself.
More available time in retirement could easily be vacuumed up surfing news and indulging my outrage, when I could better serve myself and, arguably, my country, doing almost anything else. Maybe paying attention is a duty of citizenship in whatever remains of American democracy, but it is also a trap. And I am deep in its grasp.
I’ve watched, with self-serving interest, more than a few friends and acquaintances forge their way into retirement. Strategies range from picking up shifts at Costco to stave off boredom to self-absorbed navel-gazing; from peripatetic travel and activities to spending time with grandkids; from turning hobbies into full-time occupations to diving into volunteerism.
Some of it seems appealing, some seems vacuous, some outrageously expensive, some heroic or pleasant or boring. It’s anyone’s guess what blend of opportunity, necessity and attraction will emerge as my path into the coming frontier.
Tragic turns of circumstance also punctuate my world, like hazards on a golf course or maybe more accurately, like hidden land mines. Friends who have been paralyzed by tragic falls, or struck by an obscure cancer, hit by memory loss, burdened with unexpected family obligations, laid low by a stroke. This is that phase of life when hospital visits and memorial services have taken over for weddings and graduation ceremonies. I’ve had my own brushes with mortality – an ocular tumor that left me blind in one eye, a childhood accident that led to deafness on one side, and the usual run of aging complaints, from back pain to arthritis. Life’s aperture is tightening down, the sands in the hourglass running low. People I know appear in the local obits with disheartening regularity. Time and the ability to do something with it is, more and more, an urgent, precious matter.
What I do know is that at these turning points in life, moments of uncertainty and decision, what has sustained and directed me, again and again, is time in nature. The summer before my junior year in college, I spent nearly a month in the Uinta Mountains of northern Utah. At that point I’d already declared and then dropped several academic majors. Geology, which I found fascinating, but which got into more math in the upper level classes than I could handle. American history, which was also interesting, but what would I do with that?
Over the weeks I hiked the alpine meadows, climbed the serrated peaks, camped on the shores of mirrored lakes, and a slow dawning of purpose crept up on me. What I was passionately involved in at that time was wilderness adventure and outdoor education. As a sideline of my academic experience I had been pulled into outdoor programs, building ropes courses, taking part in outdoor group challenges. Why not make that my major?
I returned to campus, wrote up my own major, and two years later, graduated with a degree in Outdoor and Environmental Education with a much higher GPA than I’d maintained as a floundering underclassman. Unlike most of my classmates, I went on to work in my field for the next decade.
Years later, married and living in Montana, where we had become fledgling home owners and where my freelance writing career was just gaining some traction, Marypat and I were struggling with starting a family. For more than four years we rode the monthly emotional roller-coaster trying to get pregnant. We both endured medical tests, tried various and sometimes ludicrous fertility techniques, and suffered through repeated miscarriages. It seemed like every time we grew hopeful enough to start a list of baby names, within days Marypat would find telltale blood, followed by crushing disappointment. Our failure to succeed at this basic natural function, a function we’d both zealously guarded against ever since becoming sexual beings, took a toll. It sapped our resilience, cast our future in shadow, strained our ability to console and encourage each other. Something had to give.
What we came up with as a means to spur us on to the next phase in our lives was to take a really long wilderness expedition. We decided to paddle a canoe across Canada, spend the winter in an inaccessible cabin on the shores of Lake Athabasca, and return, more than a year later, with what we hoped would be renewed purpose and a vision of our future together.
Months later, months full of dehydrating food, gathering equipment, planning logistics, saving money, we set our red canoe in the roiling current of the Smoky River in Alberta and set off, alone together on a quest to save our partnership and find a direction forward.
Fast-forward to January of that journey, at the dark depths of a northern winter along the frozen shores of Otherside Bay in northern Saskatchewan, some 300 miles from the nearest paved road, when Marypat missed her period. By that point we were so spooked by our history of failure that neither of us mentioned it. We both knew, but we weren’t about to jinx our chances. Every time Marypat came back from the outhouse, I studied her face for clues, but never said a word.
Weeks passed. Weeks of -40 and -50 degree cold. Weeks of indescribable northern lights. Weeks of wolf howls and lynx tracks and pure white willow ptarmigan bursting out of snow burrows. Not until nearly four months had gone by did we bring it up. Even then, we never talked names, never dared confidence. We slid past the dangerous topics the way we snuck past the edges of whitewater in our canoe. At night, I held my partner, my hand resting on her rounding belly, and said nothing.
That expedition began our family. We completed our journey across the tundra barrens of northeastern Canada. Marypat returned home seven months large. We found a midwife and in late October, our son Eli, our child of the North, was born in our bedroom.
Two more children followed in the coming years, disputing the medical wisdom that we’d have little luck following our initial success. No telling what matrix of factors contributed to that isolated, boreal triumph, but in our minds and hearts, there is no doubt that immersing ourselves in wild space, months on end, had absolutely everything to do with it.
It isn’t that wandering around in nature is always a revelatory panacea. Nor do I anticipate any Siddhartha-like levels of enlightenment. The fact is that things come clear when I strip away the distractions of life. Dreams become more vivid. Insights emerge. Confusion subsides. The clamor of news and deadlines and conflicting information and life’s details – from forgetting my login for my bank account to signing up for Medicare – recede. In the relative mental calm that ensues, priorities shuffle into place, my perspective comes into focus, the things that seem so all consuming in the thick of urban life look minor and a little pathetic from afar. Life on the trail isn’t always easy or comfortable. There are times when I long for creature comforts like a warm bed, good pizza, or a door to close against the storm. But, time and again in the arc of my life, the sharpened view that resolves in wild places has helped me find my way.
Interestingly, the longer the wilderness immersion, the clearer and calmer my state of mind becomes. After a three-day weekend out on the trail I feel refreshed and reinvigorated. But on our trip lasting 14 months, paddling a boat across the continent and hunkering down in a remote cabin for ten months of winter, that calm center kept deepening. There was a plateau a few weeks in, that point when I became aware of having achieved ‘river time’, but on Day 400, the clarity and mental peace were still growing more profound.
My teaching duties ended in early May. Over the next week or two I wrapped up grading final papers, submitting course grades online, finishing evaluations. Summer stretched ahead, as usual, but at the end of that hiatus, this time around, there would be no resumption of classes, no bike commutes up to campus, no staff meetings, no class prep. Instead, the next phase of life opening on the horizon, with its special mix of anticipation and angst. What would I do with it?
I did have some plans. A family reunion, some writing projects I’d been waiting to get to, people I’d like to visit. I realized, too, that every month of summer I had a river trip on the calendar. It just developed that way – invitations, opportunities, traditions – from May through August, river trips were already booked. What if, I thought, I continued that theme? What if I tried to schedule some sort of river trip every month of the year, from May to May? For one thing, it would give me a framework on which to start cobbling together my retirement. More important, that time on the water, time away from distraction, might clarify some more coherent intent and direction. Along the way, I might find some level of contentment. It might also help me cope with the tendencies that might otherwise create my personal mine field.
On the one hand, the idea seemed frivolous – a first-world solution to a first-world problem. Then again, what more meaningful exercise might I take on than to immerse myself in the environments I’d always found so profound and life-affirming.
I know well that wild journeys never go according to plan. That is part of the plan, to be surprised and challenged, delighted and daunted, entangled and set free. It isn’t called a frontier for nothing.