By Elizabeth Langosy for Talking Writing
It has been two months since I accepted an early retirement offer from Harvard University in order to focus on my fiction writing (my optimistic starting point is described in “An Awfully Big Adventure?”). Since then, life has swept me along on its merry (and sometimes not-so-merry) path.
Did I begin working on my writing? Yes, I did. As planned, I reviewed three stories awaiting final edits and decided which one to work on first. I was both giddy with the prospect of writing days stretching ahead and terrified that I’d made a huge mistake in leaving my job, but on my first workday, I identified—and, more importantly, saw how to resolve—a critical problem with the opening pages of my story. I knew then that I’d made the right decision.
What happened next? I regret to say that I was completely distracted by an overload of paperwork and obligations. These fell into three categories:
Money: My post-retirement to-do list held 22 items, ranging from “Cancel subway pass” to “Submit final Flexible Spending Account receipts.” All of them had to do with funds I could receive or funds I could avoid uselessly spending—but only if I submitted a specific form and associated documentation. When I realized that I was in danger of forgoing money I was owed while continuing to pay for things I no longer used, I knew I had to set aside time to complete the paperwork.
Mom: My mother is 87 years old and has congestive heart failure. She’s now in an assisted living facility, but her doctor suggested that she move to a higher level of care. This prompted my siblings and me to begin simultaneously researching long-term care options and finalizing a partnership agreement a lawyer had drafted several years earlier to preserve and protect a summer cottage we’ll inherit. Many phone conferences and email exchanges ensued, some of them contentious. As the longtime family peacemaker, I ended up revising the partnership document to reflect our conversations while running interference between my siblings.
Mayhem: Well, not literally mayhem, but how many things can happen at once? Between the time of year, happenstance, and things I’d neglected to do over the summer, my calendar listed appointments for nearly every day in September and October. Many of these involved family and friends and others had to do with medical appointments I’d been putting off. At one of these appointments, my annual physical, I learned that I was one inch shorter than I’d been the previous year.
One inch shorter! How could that be? “That happens when people get older,” said the medical assistant as she left me in the examination room. Well, yes, it happened to my 87-year-old mother, who now looks tiny standing next to me in photos. But I thought I had many years to go before I started to shrink, which—face it—is what is happening. Since that appointment, I’ve used up even more time in researching this phenomenon. I’ve learned that height loss can sometimes result from poor posture or a lack of stretching exercises, but the results of my planned experimentation with that will not be known until my next height measurement.
In the meantime, I’ve identified a hidden benefit of decreased height. I was walking a familiar route the other day (the route of my twice-daily walk to and from the subway during my working years) when I realized that things looked subtly different. What could have changed so radically in just a few weeks? I indulged myself in imagining that my newly expanded focus on writing was enabling me to notice much more about my surroundings than I’d seen before. But the truth is that I’ve always noticed what’s around me, storing away images and overheard conversations for future stories. Then I thought of my decreased height. I’m used to seeing things at a flat height or at one or two inches higher, depending on the shoes of the day, but I’ve never seen things at a lower height. Could it make a difference? To test this theory, I tried walking a few steps on tiptoe and suddenly everything looked “normal.”
So now here I am. My calendar is mostly clear for November and December, and I’m back to revising my story. I’m trying to get in at least five hours of solid writing each day and have been reading a lot more fiction than before. I’m also making sure to get in a daily walk, ruminating on the day’s writing conundrums, collecting snippets of conversation, and viewing the world from one inch shorter.