Monday, September 30, 2013


Back in the day when the clock rang at 6 am and both Cindy Lou and I groaned about getting up in the winter dark for showers, lunch making, and heading off to school at an ungodly hour, life had plenty of purpose.  We’d show up at our buildings with smiles on our faces to work with 100+ young people each every day, trying our best to lead them to writing, thinking, and academic success.

Following our retirement, though, purpose has been a bit more difficult to discern. 

For me, I must say, the transition was not too hard.  I’m a morning person who likes to get up when the sun does (well, not at 5 am in the summer!) to get my day going.  It usually begins with a glass of orange juice or chocolate milk and thirty minutes of personal time with the Dayton Daily News, sitting next to our lovely dining room windows, reading and watching the Natural world getting going for another day.  Pretty soon it’s off to my computer for another news update, catching up with email, and maybe getting going on a new blog entry or continued work on other writing.  Generally speaking, I don’t have trouble finding stuff to do.  

For Cindy Lou it’s been a bit more difficult.  She’s one of those folks who is a slow daily starter, but then by evening she might get a burst of energy and stick with a project until 3 am.  The other night she unpacked and photographed the entire collection of demitasse cups and saucers left to her by her mother.  Must be at least thirty sets, I’d say.  It’s easy to understand, then, why she likes to sleep late into the morning.  Besides, I am advised, her vivid dreaming is just kicking in about dawn and heavens, does she love getting involved in those and so many other fictional narratives. 

I’ve heard plenty of folks say that they don’t look forward to retirement because they are afraid they’ll be bored.  A month or so of sleeping late and they won’t know what to do with themselves.  I think some are concerned, too, that hanging out all day in the same space as their spouse will get on everybody’s nerves before too long.  And I’m sure that can happen. 
I offer these situations, including the lovely Cindy Lou’s, as case studies of those who somehow struggle with what to do with unassigned time.  Employment undoubtedly gives our day purpose.  No daily preassigned job equals a different personal equation. 

I don’t know that I have a definitive solution to this conundrum facing so many of us Baby Boomers these days.  Maybe what I have to say is specific to those morning types who love to engage with a new day, just because.  If one is not made up that way, I suspect it could be a perpetual challenge for later years. 

For me, though, it seems to resolve around the concept of zen.  Not zen meditation so much, though I’ve tried that unsuccessfully a handful of times.  For me it has more to do with finding some good thing to do today because it calls out for attention.  

Wikipedia says zen used as an adjective means ‘extremely relaxed and collected.‘  I suppose when one relaxes and considers the day, a zen purpose emerges.  Cindy Lou might use the term gestalt, since that is so big in her professional and personal background.  Wikipedia defines gestalt as ‘a whole, unified concept or pattern which is other than the sum of its parts.’  I like to think of it as being grounded in the moment.  

In any case, as a member of the working class, purpose might not be hard to define.  Answer the bell, do your work, and enjoy Reds games on summer evenings.  

But for those who struggle with unassigned days, I think taking time daily to stop and quietly listen for the voice or spirit or whatever the entity -- or non-entity -- can offer the insight needed to lead us into good work that the world needs, whether it’s holding babies at Children’s Medical Center or raising tomatoes in the front yard.  Some purpose surely has broader and deeper ramifications, but all daily purpose works toward the good of the one, which overall is beneficial for the whole community.  

As solitary as we might be, we’re all in this together.  Finding personal purpose and working on it makes the world in which we all live a better place and from what I can tell, is much better for one’s health.  

Today’s elder idea:  Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness.  It is not attained through self-gratification, but through fidelity to a worthy purpose. 

Helen Keller

image:  Scavenged from Google search at

Wednesday, September 25, 2013


for Jerry Thaman 

I said good-bye to him on Friday night 
and learned on Sunday afternoon 
he had lost consciousness.  
Such was drug induced but the only 
alternative to intensifying pain. 

I gave him a lucid week or more 
when I grasped his hand that night, 
looked into his eyes, 
and told him I loved him

and that there was much love present
to help in whatever happened next -- 
that lots of people were sending energy
for whatever was needed. 

His grip and his eyes showed something 
that seemed like understanding.

I walked out into that warm Florida night
and just stood by the rental car in the dark, 
not wanting to get in --
not wanting this next part --
my going away from him for what would inevitably be 
the last time on this plane of existence -- to begin. 

Next time I see him, I thought, 
he’ll be in an urn.  I cringed, 
but knew that it was true.  

I turned around in the palpable darkness, 
facing the porch-lit house 
to consider what was inside: 

a dying fifty year old man
with all three natural brothers at his side, 
or at least in the room.  A sister.  A sister-in-law.  A niece.  
The hospice nurse that everybody likes so much. 
And a wife, exhausted, crashing while the others
hold vigil before her shift, motivated by love, 
begins again. 

I don’t know much about death. 

I understand hospice practitioners refer
to the process of dying as a transition
a gradual easing from the world of the living 
into a place of unconsciousness where the body 
can let go of the life spirit, freeing it from matter
to become part of whatever it is that happens next.  

I only hope that when he began moving in that direction 
it felt at least as good as home. 

Tom Schaefer
23 September 2013
prior & post Jerry’s leaving

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Island time

Yow.  I know my goal is to write here weekly but that it’s usually more like once every couple of weeks.  I’ve never missed a whole month.  Until now.  Sorry about that.  

But know that life has been rich.  I was able to spend two of the last five weeks on stunning Hog Island in Maine.  Most of that time was spent scrubbing pots in the kitchen, but it was done with good people for a good cause:  feeding moms ‘n dads ‘n grandfolk ‘n kids that made up Family Camp.  That means about 60 folks for each meal, including the big lobster feast their last night on island.  

Lots of silverware and plates went through the Hobart.  I took it upon myself to sweep the dining room after every meal, which meant lifting a raft of heavy chairs first, then sweeping, then lifting them all down.  I almost always got help from one or two folks moving chairs, which was much appreciated.  And, it should be noted, my sweeping technique proved to be quite effective, if I don’t say so myself.  ;-)

Aside from the busy days at the Hog Island Audubon Camp, I did take time off from my volunteer responsibilities for some personal island meditation -- and came away a bit different from when I came aboard.  Islands can do that to you, I’m told.  Still, this was a special stay on Hog Island for me.  

It was thirty-two years ago this July when I made my first visit to the Audubon Ecology Workshop in Maine on Hog Island.  With a non-scientific brain in a very scientific atmosphere, I made some good friends and discovered a piece of Emily Dickinson history that would impact the rest of my life.  

As you know, I am writing a second book of Hog Island history, once again focusing on the family of Mabel Loomis Todd.  Miss Todd, as all Dickinson scholars know, is the person most responsible in the world for our being exposed to Emily Dickinson’s poetry and letters. She brought important pieces of Emily’s poetry into a public place where we all can grapple with their complexity and beauty.    

And, oh, some of those letters are as rich as the poetry.  We have Mrs. Todd to thank for saving them. 

Eighteen years after the publication of that first volume of Poems by Emily Dickinson, Mabel Todd went in with a friend from Boston to purchase huge tracts of Hog Island, which was said to be one of the largest pieces of spruce island wilderness left on the Maine coast.  She would come to build a compound of summer buildings on the west side of the island that she would call her Camp Mavooshen, a term celebrating Native American influence in the region.  She spent many summers there.  

Mabel Todd and her husband, David, spent time most every summer from 1909 on in the Hog Island area.  First they stayed at the summer camp of the other Hog Island investor, Etta Glidden, who had a summer place of her own at Martin’s Point, located on Bremen Long Island near Friendship.  Day trips on the water took the Todds to Hog where they climbed, hiked, waded, had lunch, and marveled at the beauty of the place. 

By 1910, the Todds spent weeks at the Point Breeze Inn and Bungalows, also located on Hog Island, but on the developed small, northeast peninsula.  The Point Breeze opened as a summer resort in 1908 and was the proud home of a small group of New York and New Englanders wanting a place out of the heat where they could read, listen to music, commune with nature, and find some peace in America’s vacation land of Maine.  

By 1915, the Todds occupied buildings at their family compound and took on the tasks of improving the property and living a comfortable summer life there.  And they did.  

In any case, on the two days when different groups of campers trekked the island, I asked if I could meet them at Camp Mavooshen.  There I talked with everybody about the family and what went on there.  I ended up going on a bit too much about Emily, as it turned out, but it felt so good talking about the Todds in that place that meant so much to them.  At another time that week I read aloud Mrs. Todd’s unfinished essays about the island, The Epic of Hog.  I concluded it was most probably the first time in decades that writing was heard in that place.  Felt pretty damned good.  

Near the end of my time on Hog Island, I found myself on a Sunday afternoon composing my eleventh new poem of this road trip.  I very creatively called it ‘Hog Island 11.’  

I leave it with you today.  

Today’s elder idea:

Hog Island 11

The most vivid memory of my first 
coming to Hog Island long ago 
is sitting behind the Fish House
on huge expanses of exposed granite 
watching a yellow orange sun 
rise over Bremen Long Island while 
the bay was still morning still at mid-tide.  
The only sound was silence
and the occasional lobster rig’s diesel 
and cawing American crows
announcing the day and direction overhead. 

It was transformational.
I remember.

Here I am again on the east side 
just south of the Slade cottage, 
only now on a Maine-cool August
afternoon thirty-two years later, 
loving how the sun spotlights Crow Island, 
while this side of Hog experiences
the first sensation of dusk. 

Little water traffic this blue sky Sunday.
Not many birds, either.
A second cormorant takes off, 
slapping water with wingtips 
as speed and lift build in the cooling air currents.  
No gulls, no loons, no warblers, no osprey. 
No seals. 

The lap of rising tide on granite
headdressed with sea wrack the nearest sounds.  
Crickets have begun their evening discourse.
Now a red squirrel rattles.  Other of Nature’s people, 
unrecognized, add to the Natural conversation.

I try to be grounded here in paradise,
wanting to know what new life is born 
of this visit:  
          the hope to be more prepared 
to tell Mrs. Todd’s story fairly and with color -- 
animating dear David & Millicent & Mr. Lailer -- 
seeing the Mother move about her island life 
seeking to shed New England tensions and find peace 
astride this spruce covered eruption of rock and soil

bringing loved ones’ lives to ‘God’s own heaven,’
where circadian rhythm adjusts all quieter
and, after a morning of hard work, able to savor 
an hour prostrate on a forest of moss 
or lying prone in the hammock behind the main house
bordering a universe of ferns, watching 
treetops dance in the afternoon breeze. 

Tom Schaefer
on Hog Island 
25 August 2013