Friday, August 20, 2010

An Authentic Retirement

Neville's hat and glasses Neville encouraged me to retire. He seemed to have found himself after retirement. He told me he gets up early, puts on a pot of coffee, turns on his computer and starts writing. “Sometimes it’s way past lunch before I realize I need to eat something.” He said when people ask him what he does, he tells them honestly, “I’m a writer.” When we met on Friday mornings, he brought along the latest chapters of the novel we were writing together.
We originally just met once a month for coffee. We talked about books, movies, politics, ideas…anything was fair game. Our conversations had a vibrancy and liveliness that left us both feeling exhilarated. I thought of our time together as being like Hemingway and Joyce on the Left Bank, or Huxley and Lawrence hiking the hills of Northern Italy or Kerouac and Ginsberg at a coffee shop in the Village. During one of our meetings, Neville suggested writing a novel together. He had the central idea worked out and shared it with me. I wasn’t working on a writing project at the time and hadn’t for years. My excuse was I was using up all my creative energy at work and didn’t have any left over for writing. I liked Neville’s idea and decided maybe this joint project was what I needed to get me going again.
So we started meeting at a coffee house on my Friday mornings off. I loved the unhurried feeling of our Fridays together. The characters and story line began to develop rather quickly. Neville considered himself a scientist and I considered myself a social scientist and this was the catalyst for his idea to write the book together. It was a detective story, but instead of having one main sleuth, there would be two, one with an acute mind for the technical aspects of detective work and the other, with a trained, observant eye for human behavior. His vision was that we could channel our often intense and always interesting discussions into a work of fiction.
Neville said many times that this book was going to be great, maybe even a best seller. I believed him. We were both excited as the novel began taking shape. Neville was immersed in the creative flow and it manifested in all parts of his life. But this flow was happening for me only on Friday mornings, when we were together at the coffee house. The rest of the time, I was working at the mental health center and feeling worn out, like I wanted to retire. I was happy for Neville. It hadn’t been too long before this that he had hit rock bottom, stuck deep in depression.
We first met when he came into the veterans’ counseling program as a client. His story poured out easily, as if he had been waiting for an open receptacle. His wife had left him for another man, he was “let go” from his job at the college where he taught science classes and he was forced to live at the local homeless shelter. We related well to each other right from the beginning. Somewhere in the course of therapy, his depression gave way to anger. He was angry at his wife, angry with the guy she took off with, angry with the boss who forced him out of his job and angry with the homeless shelter for some of their unfair policies and practices. He had a lot of good reasons to be angry and he talked emphatically about all of them.
I would not describe Neville as a guy who normally got angry. But the anger was necessary, supplying the energy and direction to pull him out of the depression. One session he brought in a scholarly paper he had written laying out all of his complaints against the homeless center. It was well written, displaying passion, keen perception and intelligence. This was the beginning of Neville’s transmuting his anger into constructive behavior.
We saw each other as counselor/client on a weekly basis for about 2 years. At some point his attitude about his losses; marriage, work, home and personal identity, began to change. I noticed this shortly after he moved into his own apartment. One day he told me he had hung some pictures on the wall and was excited about this. “You know I’ve never really had my own place before.” He said he went into the Army right out of high school and married right out of the Army.
Toward the end of therapy, he asked if we could get together for coffee outside of the sessions. We both recognized a unique friendship quality to our counseling relationship. I told him I would like to meet with him as soon as the therapy sessions were completed.  Several years went by before we actually began meeting. One day I ran into him at the bagel shop and one of us must have said, “Let’s really do it this time”, so we started meeting regularly over coffee.
Neville was working on several writing projects and gave me several of his shorter works. One piece was called “Finding a Niche”. It was reflective about the many roles he had adopted throughout life, like  son, student, soldier, husband, father, construction worker, scientist, teacher and park ranger. The piece ends with his discovering and choosing his ultimate role, just being Neville, what Existentialists call “living an authentic life”. He was through living in a reactionary mode, doing this activity or playing that role in reaction to others wanted or expected it. He was experimenting with being genuine, really choosing all aspects of his life, including how he defined himself. He said the essence of who he was did not neatly fit into any one of his previous roles. He had come to the realization that these roles shaped and influenced him, but none totally defined him.
He started wearing a hat similar to the Smokey the Bear hat he wore when he worked for the National Park Service. People around town often recognized him as a former park ranger and he liked that. He had cherished his role as a ranger and so it remained part of his new chosen identity. One Friday morning I noticed a piece of tape around the middle of his glasses. He told me they had broken and this was the way he’d fixed them. “I’m paying homage to all those nerds from my school days.” He said he didn’t realize it at the time, for he was too busy trying to be cool, but the nerds didn’t seem to care what others thought of them. They were involved with ideas and activities, unconcerned with how they looked. Neville wore that piece of tape for a long time. He wrote a story about being “cool” and how shallow and relative that is. His creative side was really flowing and there was nothing beyond it’s reach.
Neville lived off his social security check. At times he was totally out of money but I never heard him complain about it. He no longer defined himself by money or possessions. He didn’t own a car the entire time I knew him. He liked taking the bus. “You meet a lot of interesting people on the bus.” I often felt a strong need to get out of town, but Neville didn’t seem to have this need. He loved our little town and its natural surroundings. He had found his place in the world and had no desire for any other.
As our novel began to take shape, my view of the town took on a new depth and richness that wasn’t there before. We discovered the town’s beginnings, what it was like during the late 1800s and early 1900s. We became familiar with many of the early characters important to the town’s development. Neville did most of the research on the computers at the library. One day we walked over to view a mural on the side of a building that depicted the town’s early days. He pointed out some of the details in the painting that illustrated the town’s history. For example, Neville said the men using giant fire hoses to spray the surrounding hills were sluicing. This process caused a mud landslide that ran down the hill and into the town raising the street levels. He pointed out the buildings in the mural and then we rode around town to see what used to be brothels, tobacco shops or mercantile stores.It was like we were living in two different worlds. I’m sure this effect was stronger for him, for I would return to my regular life of work and family, but Neville immersed himself in the time and place of our novel. The story was beginning to write itself and go in directions neither of us could have predicted.
At the coffee house Neville liked talking to the young barista. He drew her out like a master. She told us all about her less than attentive boyfriend and how she wanted a better life for her young daughter and herself. Neville encouraged her to follow her dreams. She lit up when she saw us coming on Friday mornings. I should say when she saw Neville coming in with his side kick. She had a load of recent information about her life to share. Neville acted fatherly and supportive. I have to admit, I was a little impatient with the whole process. It was too much like my work and I wanted to get going on our novel. But this was part of Neville’s new life, listening to others with interest and enjoyment, and giving them encouragement.
One day Neville told me about meeting a woman on the bus that he was most attracted to. He would ride the bus at certain times of the day just to run into her. He didn’t waste any time and was soon seeing her on a regular basis. He told me about the freedom he felt at this age, not feeling pressured concerning relationships. He was determined to allow this new relationship to evolve at a natural pace. One day he said he never thought it would happen for him at this stage of life, but he was in love. “I feel like a giddy adolescent.” Once on our way to the bookstore, he pointed out where the two of them liked to sit on the grass and look out over the water. One day he told me, “Life doesn’t get any better than this.” Neville had been happy with his life before this new relationship, so it was like icing on the cake.
After I decided to retire and move to Arizona, Neville worked out how our novel could end in the Southwest, leaving some clues for our detectives’ successors to pick up on in our next novel. We weren’t sure how we could work together at such a distance, but assumed we would figure that out. Katie and I moved to Arizona in November and all my attempts to get hold of Neville failed. I called and left messages, emailed him and wrote him a Christmas card, but didn’t hear anything back. I knew our friendship was strong and figured there was a good reason he didn’t respond. In December I got a call from his lady friend. She told me that Neville had died suddenly of a massive stroke.
I had wanted to tell him that I was writing again and was feeling the excitement and creative energy we felt at the coffee shop. And that I also felt that retirement, was a unique time for a new beginning. I wanted to show him a picture of myself in the big cowboy hat I bought. He would have loved that I looked kind of goofy in it. I wanted to tell him that I had been down to the library and did some research on the cowboy years in Arizona. I found out by reading old newspaper articles that the “wild west” really did exist for a short period of time and that this time period would be the perfect setting for our next novel. Now I’d like to tell him what an inspiration he was to me and how much I’ll miss him.

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