Retirement, or Dreaming Myself Awake

On my way to the front of the room with my completed questionnaire, I bump into a former administrator of my university. We’re delighted to see each other. I’m finally retiring, I tell him. He’s happy for me. How much money have you saved, he asks. I’m taken aback: that’s personal information. But, for some reason, I tell him. What? That’s not nearly enough! You need at least a billion dollars for health care expenses alone. My heart drops. Too late now. And if that weren’t enough, after the workshop leader—it’s an anti-racist workshop—looks over my responses on the questionnaire, he tells me, you’re a racist.

A couple nights later, an important American poet (I can’t quite place him, but I know he’s important, at least he carries himself as if he is), seated next to me at a craft talk, complains about the presenter, another poet, throughout the talk. In a voice just loud enough for me to hear, he quotes one poem after another, each to show how ignorant the presenter is. Of course, I know the poets whose work he recalls—I know the poets, their anthologized poems, not the poems he knows by heart. Does he assume that I know them, too, and others that I can say on the spot to further prove his point? I’m trembling, cowering, terrified that he’s going to expose me for what I am: a fraud.

Somehow, I attended this talk before checking-in to the conference. Now that the talk’s over, I need to check-in, drop my bag in my room, and get ready for the next session. But I can’t find the registration desk. Everyone in the lobby seems to know where they are, where they’re going. I’m afraid to ask for help. When I finally get the courage—it’s an act of desperation, really—to ask for help, a friendly staff person at an information table tells me my room is about a two-mile walk from where the conference is being held. It’s raining outside. I lost my baseball cap somewhere in the last hour. I should look for it so that at least my head will be covered. But it’s pointless. I’ll never find it. I look in the direction I’ll be walking. I think I’m in Boulder, a city I love. Boulder or not, I’m lost, helpless, afraid.

I’m not dreaming. I’m in trouble. As I write this, there are two weeks left in the semester, my last semester at the university where I’ve been on the faculty for more than thirty years. Lately, I’ve been dreaming vividly, night after night after night, more than I ever remember dreaming before. As I live through this profound transition, “worker” to “retiree,” I’m trying to pay close attention to my experiences, including, now, to my dreams, if only just to record them. Even those that shake me to my core, startling me awake.

I’m not dreaming. I’m watching the Nightly News with Lester Holt. Jack Hanna, the Columbus Zoo and popular wildlife expert, is stepping down from public life at the age of seventy-four because of dementia. I’m sixty-seven. How long will my body (when I say “body” I include “mind,” for what is “mind” if not another feature of “body”?) do what I would like it to do after retirement? Will it afford me a decade to deepen my devotional practices: art, sacred texts, marriage, parenting and grandparenting, caretaking of home…? Two decades?

I’m not dreaming. I’m reading. I don’t expect to touch the sky with my two hands. What a relief to read this now, this fragment of Sappho, translated by Jim Powell. A human body can only do what a human body can do. I don’t expect: how about working with that as a practice when I lie down at night and in the morning when—if—I rise again? Why not begin now, while I’m still living a life I’ve known from a very young age when I first sensed the trajectory of a life: school, work, retirement? What if I were to practice letting go of expectations that there will be a next stage of life?

Still, I have a few desires, a few plans slowly coming into focus. I want to touch the sky with my two hands. I don’t expect to touch the sky with my two hands.

Sappho, again: I don’t know what to do. I have two thoughts.

I’m lucky in loss. The loss of the poem from which this fragment survives. Context might have distracted me from the essence of the experience enacted in this line. I don’t know what to do. I don’t need to know about what. I have two thoughts. I don’t need to know the content of the thoughts. Nor do I need or even want to know what comes next, what decision she arrives at and how she arrives at it, what action she takes. Sometimes life is like this: I don’t know what to do. I have two thoughts. I don’t choose one thought over the other and act on it.

For nearly seven decades, I’ve been defining myself: good boy, good student, good son, good employee, good educator, good husband, good father and stepfather, good friend, good leader, good man, good Jew…. The story of myself in my dreams of late? I’m a failure, I’m a racist, I’m a fraud, I’m helpless, I’m incompetent, I’m lost…

I don’t know what to do. I have two identities: I’m good, I’m bad. These stories of self, of my self, tossed up, at this hour, in stark relief.

What’s next?

I don’t expect.

O dream on your dark wings
you come circling whenever sleep descends on me,

sweet god, and by your power
keep off the cruel memory of pain.

O, Sappho, dear poet whose lyrics hold the full bittersweetness of eros, I will not call upon the god of my dreams to protect me from pain. Without the fear, the terror that opens in me at night, my life would be incomplete, unfulfilled. I am dreaming myself whole.

Here, on the eve of retirement, I’m dreaming myself awake. The long beginning of my life is coming to an end. The end of my life is just beginning.


Richard Chess directed the Center for Jewish Studies at UNC Asheville for 30 years. He helps lead UNC Asheville’s contemplative inquiry initiative. He is a board member for the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. He’s published four books of poetry, the most recent of which is Love Nailed to the Doorpost. You can find him at