Aging and retirement converge in a geography of life with few landmarks. To navigate through this new stage of life, we need some sense of direction. Where do we begin?
Listen to Rev Johanna Nichols” sermon Trusting Emergence: Recalculating
Poppy Rees, Dir of Religious Exploration sang I Am Willing by Holly Near
And did the Time for All Ages
Kate Gridley and Chuck Miller played four hands together on our piano as part of our offering. Walter Deverell told us about our doneee this month Festival on the Green.
Bill Sessions and his grandson Hayden Bernhardt read You Reading This, Be Ready by William Stafford followed by Caitlin Gildrien who read her poem Purpose. You can read it here: Purpose.
Sermon Text: Good morning. Thank you to my colleague Barnaby and the Worship Committee for inviting me this morning. I feel the same butterflies of anticipation that I felt every Sunday for my entire ministry. What will we create as we worship together?
It is a joy for me that this Sunday landed on my father’s birthday – for those who remember Charlie. He would be as glad as I am for this congregation to be fulfilling your vision. Nine years ago, when I retired from parish ministry, I had a vision of my next step and a sense of direction. My life was mapped out. I didn’t need a GPS.
I have a brother-in-law who is smart and very funny. Dick installed a GPS in his car, and he gets a kick out of hopping on it and taking short cuts around town just to hear the GPS voice say with an edge of urgency, “recalculating, recalculating!” And that’s what seems to be the theme of this stage of my life: recalculating.
As you may have experienced yourself, the GPS can get you to the place you seek, or it can take you off course. You have to enter your location and the destination. When I retired from the ministry, I chose four destinations to become a director of religious education or a chaplain.
Well, the GPS took me to Montpelier to work at a center for healthy aging and lifelong learning, to Istanbul to be the nanny for my new grandchild, and back to Middlebury to work at a residential retirement community. Back where I began. On this journey, I had to cultivate resilience and flexibility. I can now say this with some experience: there is no GPS that can navigate us through retirement. We have to do it ourselves. You can head in the wrong direction if you don’t have the right questions.
Emerging from active ministry, I was asking myself: what gives my life meaning? How do I live a meaningful life? I was still focused on living a purpose driven life. I wasn’t getting anywhere. It was like entering the wrong location or destination in the GPS.
I think that society views retirement as a portal to aging. I see it on a continuum of aging. We are all on the continuum from being born to dying, but for me now, retiring and aging are converging. When I was writing the sermon, I found myself shifting between the two. They are more connected for me now than they would have been 9 years ago.
In creating the theory of the psychosocial development of human beings, Erik Erikson defined the tasks of the eight stages from birth to death. From ages 40-65, we “make our mark” on the world through creating positive changes that will benefit other people, that will outlast us.
And then, we arrive at the stage that begins at approximately age 65 where we are guided to contemplate our accomplishments and hopefully come to the conclusion that we led a successful life – what Emerson described as leaving the world a bit better. We need to stay healthy in mind and body, connected with others, and engaged with our community, said Erikson, but he said little about what our changing role within that community might be.
80 year olds are the wise ones on aging. What Mary Oliver had to say is not softened with humor: “There is something you can tell people over and over, and with feeling and eloquence, and still never say it well enough for it to be more than news from abroad – people have no readiness for it, no empathy. It is the news of personal aging – of climbing, and knowing it, to some unrepeatable pitch and coming forth on the other side, which is pleasant still but which is, unarguably, different – which is the beginning of descent.” (Upstream)
Parker Palmer takes aging a little more lightly: “Next time you think ‘I’m over the hill,’ say to yourself, ‘Nah, I’m just standing farther down the curve of the earth.’” (On the Brink of Everything) One thing about aging is discovering that gravity is real! When you hang out with older people you hear lots of humor about gravity. In fact, you hear lots of humor.
We have no shared collective articulation for what later life is for, what the value of living long is, except not dying. We are left in many ways to find ourselves again. I am asking a different set of questions. Who am I in relation to myself? Who am I in relation to others? Where do I belong?
Erikson assigns a central task to those of us entering the eighth stage: to walk through the “vanishing geography” of our past, through our memories, and to find meaning and value there. Each of us is shaped by our era. The first question is: Who am I in relaton to myself?
As a 23 year old, my mother saw her husband off to WWII and moved home with their baby. My sister was three years old when her father returned. As a 21 year old, I was protesting the war in Vietnam at UVM when the Kent State students were mowed down. I came of age when American cities were in flames from the murderous years that ended the lives of Medgar Evers, John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr, and Robert Kennedy. I emerged an activist.
On March 1, 1973, the Vermont legislature ratified the Equal Rights Amendment. I was in the House chamber for the hearings. It was thrilling! In 1986, Vermonters narrowly defeated an equal rights amendment to the state Constitution. This year, changing the Constitution has come up again. Change is a long haul.
I am still an activist at heart. With less time ahead, I want to focus on what really matters to me: the next generations, my daughters and my granddaughters – the air they breathe, the water they drink, a sustainable environment. It matters to me that they, and all women, have equal rights.
Who am I in relation to others? I find the richness and joy in life, the depth and meaning, in human connection. I have always experienced joy in relationship with people. Work has always been a way to serve as well as to meet my social and economic needs. Volunteering in the community has brought deep satisfaction and lasting friendships.
Now, primarily, I am a grandmother. It is the most honorific title I have ever held. Grandparents are the keepers of . . . the connective tissues between generations. Children need their grandparents, as I was blessed with my grandmother. But while my grandmother lived up the hill from my home, my grandchildren live across an ocean.
If technology is for anything, says James Williams, it is for helping us to achieve our goals, to be companion systems for our lives. It is technology that connects me to my weekly play date with my grand daughter in Istanbul and watching the new baby yawn, stretch, coo and snooze in my daughter’s lap on Skype, and video calls with my daughter in Hong Kong and with my scattered friends.
I am also as a Unitarian Universalist in covenantal relation to others. When I worship in a Unitarian Universalist congregation, I hope to experience a glimpse to carry with me into my daily life – what William Stafford describes as “breathing respect “–what I call radical hospitality.
I witness the resistance and persistence growing with the generations behind me. It fortifies me at a time in my life when I feel less empowered. Looking around at our shared world, its suffering and its promise, I see the courage with which so many serve the urgent needs of healing and justice. I have trust and confidence in the next generations that you can succeed in making the world a bit better.
Where do I belong? The Unitarian Universalist Retired Ministers and Partners Association is doing something generous for people farther down the curve. We are invited to join a “cluster” of retired ministers. I am in a group of nine people spread from Oregon to Arizona, Minnesota, Florida, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Maine. For 3 years, we have been meeting monthly on Zoom by video conference call.
We share with each other how we renew and regenerate ourselves, what or who affirms our spirit, what provides us with hope, our relationship to solitude, to loneliness, our sources of contentment, what brings us joy. We lose loved ones, face challenges with our health, and begin to imagine what David Whyte calls the “shape of our own absence.”
We offer each other solace and comfort. We commiserate with each other on the state of our government and inspire each other with our news of how we engage in our congregations and in our communities with the Black Lives Matter movement, the Women’s March, immigration and Climate Change. We acknowledge our vulnerability – not as a weakness but a natural state as we mature. We laugh – a lot. We belong together and through that connection, I have a place.
In The Book of Joy, the Dalai Lama quotes a Tibetan saying: wherever you have friends, that’s your country, and wherever you receive love, that’s your home. To love and to be loved is essential to our lives wherever we are on the continuum.
The solitude that has become a large part of my life – and I think is a fact of aging – does not necessarily mean living apart from others; rather, it means never living apart from my self. Yet even and especially in discouraging times, there is joy.
There is joy in my life that does not change with age. The lilacs keep blooming. The birds keep singing. The sun keeps setting. In the onslaught of pain and negativity in our society – in the world – we sometimes forget the healing effects of joy. On my bedside table are two reminders: one says: “turn down the heat” and the other says: “joy.”
“We have to keep the channels in ourselves open to pain,” May Sarton wrote. “At the same time it is essential true joys be experienced, that the sunset not leave us unmoved, for civilization depends on the true joys, all those that have nothing to do with money or affluence—“
Whatever else aging is, it is a time of exploration and discovery. To navigate through this new stage of life, it helps to have some sense of direction. I am learning that it is essential to get clear about what questions we ask ourselves – because the questions can lead us in different directions than we expect. We are each living our own questions.
“All is uncharted and uncertain,” wrote Florida Scott-Maxwell, in her memoir The Measure of My Days. “We seem to lead the way into the unknown. You need only claim the events of your life to make yourself yours . . . ” I trust that I will continue to emerge into wholeness of being – that is my aim. That has always been my aim.
Whatever stage we are at, at any point in life, I trust that we will navigate it the best that we can, and that we will find the place where we belong – in a community of love and respect.