Elizabeth and I had dinner on Saturday night in a crowded Bangor restaurant. The food was great, but the place was noisy. When I’m in a space with a lot of background noise, a minor, age-related quirk kicks in. I find it difficult to hear what the person sitting across from me is saying. The curious thing is that I am able to hear quite distinctly what’s being said at tables farther afield, a talent that might come in handy if I ever decide to pursue a second career as a private investigator. At the table diagonally across from us sat two couples, fortified and voice-amplified by a significant amount of Argentinian wine. I couldn’t tune out snippets of their conversation. They were were comparing notes on retirement.
I heard one fellow say that he couldn’t handle “having all that time on my hands.” He added something to the effect that he was looking for part-time work. The lady to his right, on the other hand, declared she was delighted to be retired. She saw it as “a time to take care of myself” after a lifetime of having “to take care of everybody else.” The other fellow at the table said that he does “absolutely nothing all day” and claimed that he didn’t have enough time to get it all done! As he told this joke, the lady on his left, his wife, perhaps, sat stony-faced and chose not to voice an opinion. It didn’t seem like anyone at the table was particularly interested in her views on the subject. I was, but of course I couldn’t go over and ask what she thought or share my own perspective on the matter.
As we left the restaurant, I thought of the many times this week I’ve used the word ‘retired’ to describe my status in life. Especially when they first meet you, people want to know what to do with you. They’re trying to decide into which hole they should fit your peg. The problem lies as much with my peg, I guess, as it does with their holes. When I write the word ‘retired’ on a form or serve it up in conversation a warning message goes off in my brain. “Don’t let folks pigeon-hole you,” I tell myself. “If you do, you’ll end up believing all manner of sorry things about yourself, and then you’ll have had it, you’ll be done for, as good as dead.” That’s an over-reaction, to be sure. In fact, I love being in this “third third” of life and not having to be tied to or defined by a full-time job. But I don’t see retiring as ‘pulling back,’ from life, despite the word’s root meaning from the Latin. This phase of life has got to be more than a melancholy epilogue to one’s earthly days. It’s too precious a time to become an excuse for indolence or a cultural permission-slip for self-indulgence.
Driving out of town across the river, I thought that maybe we need a new word to describe life after full-time work. Six years studying Latin kicked in, and I remembered the verb proficīscor. It’s a beautiful word meaning to start forward, to arise, to become engaged in, to set out on a path. It’ll never happen, I thought, but wouldn’t it be great to be considered ‘profected’ instead of being labelled ‘retired’? This made me think of a phrase I came across this week in a novel by Walker Percy. One of his characters describes what he does in life as being “on to something.” That’s what you can do, he says, when you’re “not sunk in the everydayness” of life.
Well, we were ‘on to something’ as we drove through the clear, cold air Saturday night. We were searching for a night club located somewhere on the outskirts of Bangor. A friend who sings beside me in the bass section of the church choir had invited us to a big band concert. He’s a retired, (profected?), professional trombonist. He knew of Elizabeth’s love for the music of the Great American Songbook and thought we’d both enjoy listening and dancing to the sounds of his band.
Finding the place became an adventure in itself. We parked on a dimly-lit street and walked uphill on icy sidewalks. Finally we arrived at the address we’d been given. But there was no music to be heard on the street and there was nothing that looked like a night club. The only thing open on the whole block was a curio shop filled with dusty items that it would be hard to imagine anyone wanting to buy.
We peered through the store window and spotted a woman sitting behind the counter. She gestured for to us to come in. “Close the door behind you,” she directed. “You here for the band?” “Yes,” I answered, half-expecting her next question to be, “What’s the password?” I was thinking of telling her “Louie sent me.” I’ve always wanted a chance to say that. But all the lady behind the counter wanted was “fourteen bucks for the both of you.” She took the money and then motioned toward a door in the back wall of the shop. The door opened on a dark corridor. We stepped inside and immediately felt like we’d fallen down the rabbit hole of Alice’s wonderland.
As my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I looked around, unsure of what we had come upon. At first, I thought we had stumbled on a run-down VFW hall. Then I looked at some of the faces and wondered whether we had landed in a funky, after-hours recreation room at a senior citizen’s center. I noticed the abandoned band-stand and the empty dance floor and began to imagine that we’d arrived at a badly-decorated dance hall where everyone was sitting at tables waiting for the junior prom to begin. It all felt like a cheesy dream, but I could see that the folks around us were real enough. They looked happy to be there.
Suddenly musicians clambered onto the bandstand. A torch singer, appearing out of nowhere, approached the microphone. Someone started clapping a beat and the twenty-piece orchestra offered up a loud and saucy tango. People streamed out of the shadows onto the floor. The women wore high heels and knowing smiles. The men steered their partners across the floor like seasoned mariners who knew what they were doing at the helm. Everything, everyone seemed transformed. One young woman in a red skirt at the center of the room attracted everyone’s attention, or she attracted my attention, at least. She had a way of subtly flicking her hips on every eighth step of the tango, a tiny gesture that seemed to contain all the passion, grace and joy in the world. Could this really be happening in Maine, I wondered?
People danced, they really danced, well and beautifully. Although no alcohol was being served, everyone seemed intoxicated; young and old, pretty or plain, all seemed swept away by the music. We got up and joined the crowd on the floor. I’m painfully aware of how dance-challenged I am. Still, I noticed that people were beaming at us. For one brief moment at least, I imagined that my partner and I were ready to go on tour. I had so much fun that I completely abandoned a long-standing attitude of resistance. I promised Elizabeth, right there on the dance floor, holding her close after leading her through the final spin of a swing dance, that I was willing to sign up with her for ballroom lessons. Promise in passion, regret in leisure!
But the image from that night that I think I’ll always hold in my heart is the vision of a willowy, ten-year old girl in Swedish braids. She danced every dance with her eyes closed, all by herself, in a far corner of the room. I could see her parents were keeping an eye on her from their outpost of a table in the nearby shadows. They had the good sense — more than that, they had the wisdom — to give that beautiful child her own time and space to sway in public, without embarrassment, to the sweet melodies of the orchestra. And there were times when the sprite seemed to be dancing to a song that was hers alone, a secret strain from deep inside, her own melody for life.
At times I feel like I’m that ten year-old child, listening for a tone that sounds from deep within. Despite the public’s usual assumptions and expectations, I resist pulling back from living life fully. I can’t settle for the everydayness of life. Instead, I feel called to document a hunch that I have, a hunch that, quite often in life, things are not at all what they first appear to be.
As I see it, we’ve been given some time to be on to something — something that’s there just below the surface, something that is always waiting on the other side of life’s improbable doors, something that leads you forward to be engaged with what is really important. I may never be called ‘profected,’ but I would like to become proficient — proficient at being onto all that is really important in life.
Edward R. Dufresne © 2012