Wading in the Water

St. Augustine Beach, Feb. 4, 2015

St. Augustine Beach, Feb. 4, 2015

So here we are, both newly retired, wading in the water of St. Augustine Beach in the Florida sun. Today the beach is peaceful. It was not always so quiet on these white sands.

Barclay in cold Minnesota

Barclay in cold Minnesota

Back home in Minnesota it’s cold. This photo of Barclay looking out the window into the world of white arrived this morning. Barclay knows where he is. We’re not sure we do.

Away from home and all familiar routines here on the white sand beach,  we’re getting our feet wet on the very beach where national news coverage pushed the Civil Rights Act over the top in 1964.

Kay and I each wondered what the world beyond work would feel like. Now we know. It’s weird. The world is still very much with us. Every day I talk with  some of those arrested on St. Augustine Beach who gather next door to our rental home in St. Augustine. We’re all still wading in the water.


Father and Son – the Audi

2005 Audio A4 2.0 AWD Quattro Wago

2005 Audio A4 2.0 AWD Quattro Wagon

Anxiety wears many masks. Sometimes it looks like a car shopper. Sometimes the car shopper is like his Dad.

I’m at a new stage in life. Our income will be cut by 40% in 27 days when we are both retired. We are excited by the freedom to enjoy life together without the obligations and distractions but are also anxious about finances and the unknown.

So what am I doing at a car dealership, trading the 11 year old Toyota Avalon for a nine year old Audi?

I rationalize laying out $9,000 with reasoning that I “know” is convoluted and self-defeating. It goes like this.

We’ll be on the road for two months. The Avalon has 120,000 miles on it. Can we trust it?

The Avalon needs $1,000 worth of body work to repair the damage done when it’s getting-older driver swiped the side of the garage.

But… we could leave the scrape the way it is and save the $1,000. After all, it’s 11 years old, and we don’t even know whether we will need two cars in retirement. We could sell the Avalon and pocket the $7,500 to add to our small nest egg.

The Audi has only 83,000 miles on it. It’s All Wheel Drive, great for driving in winter conditions. It gets better gas mileage. Sure it takes Premium fuel, but that’s only 30 – 40 cents more than regular.

But it is an Audi. I’ve never owned an Audi.

It’s confusing for a guy who loves cars, a guy addicted to car shopping. My brother does it too. It runs in the family.

Dad's 1983 Buick Skylark

Dad’s 1983 Buick Skylark

When my father could no longer walk without a walker and long after my mother had (sort of) prevailed to stop him from getting behind the wheel of the 12 year-old Buick Skylark, Dad continued to insist he could still drive. He suffered increasing dementia as the Parkinson’s wore on. He also continued to insist he could still play golf. “Ken,” Mom would say, “You can’t even stand up. How are you going to swing a golf club?” “Just take me over. I can still hit the ball.” He also never gave up his role as a Minister of Word and Sacrament, wanting to preach until a few months before he died.

Despite the very limited financial resources which my mother managed like a cookie-baker who hides the cookie jar from kids on sugar highs, Dad always wanted to buy a new car. “Skip, let’s run over and look at that new Buick. I saw it on TV. It’s a beauty!”

Dad dropped by car dealerships as naturally as a sex addict drops by the adult store. Maybe there’s a relationship. The both sell toys.

Tom, the Audi dealer, is a very nice guy. No pressure. “Take it home and show Kay. She’s going to love it. It’ll be the perfect fit for your retirement road trips. Keep it overnight. Just bring it back tomorrow. We can finish up the paper work in the morning.” I leave the Avalon with Tom and leave with the Audi.

Driving the Audi home I begin to notice that the suspension is sportier, which makes for a great driving machine – the Germans make the best – but also means that the ride is stiffer. I remember how I’ve always come back to an Avalon because of the seat and the soft ride. But this is an Audi. I’ve never owned an Audi, and it has all at the bells and whistles. Like the Audi guy says, “You’re retired; you deserve a great car! You goin’ to feel really good in this.”

On the way home, it dawns on me: “So…that’s what this is about.

As of November 10 I no longer have a position. I no longer have a public roll. I am no longer capable of confusing public standing with personhood. I’m anxious, unconsciously fearful. “Retirement” means old age. Loss. Hearing loss. Teeth in a cup. Memory loss. The road to the loss of everything.

The next morning, I take the Audi back to Tom.

Buying an Audi has its own kind of logic, but it makes no good sense, given our finances.  Even with an extended warranty. Because we, the drivers, don’t have “extended warranties”. Getting older can also mean getting wiser. Getting more comfortable being ourselves without status or position and their sex symbols. It’s time to practice what I’ve always preached: We don’t own a thing. We wear out beyond repairs and maintenance. It’s all about anxiety.

I chuckle and imagine a smile on Dad’s face. God doesn’t need an Audi or a Buick. Neither did Dad. Neither do I! I’ll ease on down the road in the Avalon.

– Gordon C. Stewart, Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 27, 2014

The Throes of Creation – Tomorrow I write


The Throes of Creation – Leonid Pasternak

I’m newly retired.

Today was rough. All day.

Didn’t want to get up, semi-awake, my mind become a subatomic particle collider of memories, facts, people – confused, whirling, disoriented.

Got up, had coffee, but couldn’t write. Didn’t want to. Didn’t want to do anything.

Searched the emails, rummaged through the morning paper for something of interest. Nothing.

This house is dark in the morning. Not just at 5:00 a.m. It’s dark all morning. No sun. And the skies are cloudy. Gray. Like my spirit. Purposeless. Alone. Disinterested. Blah.

It’s the first taste of retirement. The congregation is gone, or, rather, I am gone from them. I miss them. I am without role. Without work. Without routine. No longer a shepherd. Nor am a sheep within a flock. Adrift. Aimless. Dead to what was. Unclear about what is or will be. I am alone.

Except for Barclay who doesn’t get it. He want’s to play. It’s just another day. Go out. Come in. Get the ball. Drop the ball at Dad’s feet. Play ball with Dad, eat food, play some more, go out, wonder why Dad isn’t paying attention and why we’re not getting exercise when there’s such nice snow outside.

Barclay drove me nuts today. Not his fault. He’s a dog. He knows nothing about retirement, nothing yet about aging, about hearing loss, about depression.

Barclay knows nothing about the Mayflower, the Pilgrims, the Puritans, the Congregationalists or the Presbyterians. He’s lucky. He carries no existential guilt, no multigenerational trauma, only the Now. Only the present. Sit. Roll Over. Get the ball. Heel. Treat. “Good Dog.”

I realize that today is Veterans Day and I think of my father, the Chaplain who shipped out for the South Pacific when I was a year-and-a-half old. I hear the train whistle near our house here in Chaska and remember being on the train with my mother after his ship left Los Angeles, the horror of being alone hearing and watching my mother’s inconsolable sobbing in the birth of the night train on the cross-country trip home to Boston. I hear the whistle and feel forlorn.

I remember years later being in the Lebanon Valley Hospital at the age of 14, two hours from home, and 15-minutes from losing a kidney from a football accident. It didn’t strike me as strange then that my parents weren’t there. Strange that their absence didn’t strike me as strange. I just thought they were busy. Now I wonder why they were not there. My mother didn’t drive. Why did my father not come until he arrived a week later with the ambulance driver to take me home? I was alone, forlorn, and thought it was normal. What could have been more important at the church or in the family than being there for their son who was in serious condition in a distant hospital?

The role – his robe – defined my father until the end of his life. It defined him. For most of my adult life it defined me. Until the sullying of the robe and the eight years without it at the Legal Rights Center. At LRC I learned to live without the robe among the criminal defendants and the lawyers and community advocates who pled their cases before the court. I lived the life of a “retired” pastor, a shepherd without a flock.

It’s that time again. I am not unprepared for this thing called retirement. But I realize tonight: I’ve been there. I need no robe to be the person I am and always was. A Stewart, a Titus, and an Andrews with a long ancestral history of dealing with life and death, flight and fight, denial and courage, faltering faith and faithfulness, cruelty and kindness, beheading blocks and pardons.

It’s time for the pardon. Time to let go of the past. Time to let go of the robe. Time to be open to the freshness of a life as it was at the beginning: naked and glorious, crying out for meaning and the wonder of anything at all.

Tomorrow I write!

Woke up this morning with my mind

Rainbow over the IL prairie.

Rainbow over the IL prairie.

A song was singing in my head again this morning.

I don’t invite the songs. They come like old friends arriving at the door without explanation.

This morning the old friend was a Civil Rights Movement song, but I wasn’t marching.

“Woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom.”

The marching song my generation sang with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has a different feel this morning. It feels personal. Soothing. Joyful.  Like relief. Not so much aspirational as descriptive of the less ambitious, less burdened, less anxious state that sometimes comes with age. I still pray for the greater freedom, but my step feels lighter this morning. No marching boots. No climbing boots. Just a pair of slippers to go with the freedom of retirement where aspiration for mountain-climbing surrenders to appreciation of the rainbow on the sun-lit plain.

Woke up this morning with my mind
Stayed on freedom
Woke up this morning with my mind
Stayed on freedom
Woke up this morning with my mind
Stayed on freedom
Hallelu, Hallelu, Hallelujah.

I’m walking and talking with my mind
stayed on freedom
I’m walking and talking with my mind
stayed on freedom
I’m walking and talking with my mind
stayed on freedom
Hallelu, Hallelu, Hallelujah.

Ain’t nothing wrong with my mind
Stayed on freedom
Oh, there ain’t nothing wrong with keeping my mind
Stayed on freedom
There ain’t nothing wrong with keeping your mind
Stayed on freedom
Hallelu, Hallelu, Hallelujah.

I’m singing and praying with my mind
Stayed on freedom
Yeah, I’m singing and praying with my mind
Stayed on freedom
Hallelu, Hallelu, Hallelujah.


Existential Questions – Retirement

Fifteen days from today I officially retire.

The new pastor has been appointed to the office that has provided definition, boundaries, routines, anchors, and the vocational sense of purpose and meaning that come from a job and being part of a team.

I’m saying to myself what poor Alice said to herself in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

“‘But it’s no use now,‘ thought poor Alice, `to pretend to be two people! Why, there’s hardly enough of me left to make one respectable person!…for it might end, you know,‘ said Alice to herself, `in my going out altogether, like a candle.‘”

Whenever retirement happens, it raises big questions – scary questions. About whether and how we will manage to live on reduced income, for instance, but, more profoundly, about what one’s life will be without the roles that have partially defined us. Who are we without the roles? What gives life meaning? Why are we here? For what do we exist? Existential questions.

There are moments when the pending retirement – the next chapter to which I’m looking forward – feels like jumping off a cliff into an abyss. I n those moments, the question becomes whether there is life over the cliff. Is what feels like a leap into oblivion a leap into nothingness, or is it a leap onto a trampoline we didn’t know was there before we leaped? Don’t know. Haven’t done it. As my dear retired friend in the memory care center said last Friday about my pending retirement, “You’re going to love it and you’re going to hate it. But eventually,” she assured me, “You’re going to love it!”

Worries about finances and can quickly turn me into Alice, plunging down the rabbit hole. Anxiety. Fear. But money isn’t really what’s unsettling.

Walking Barclay along the lovely wooded paths of the Jonathan Association yesterday, I remembered seeing a mole several years ago while walking our dogsMaggie and Sebastian (since deceased). The blind little mole seemed to be waddling aimlessly along the side of a dark tunnel. It was alone and kind of putzing along, oblivious to our presence, going who-knows-where for who-know-what reason. Fear feels like that. I sometimes feel like that. But the real fear underneath it all is death. For death is the obliteration of the self as we have come to know ourselves (the masks, the roles, the social networks, the reasons for living that come from outside ourselves).

Retirement is not death. It’s a precursor to death, but it is not the end of life. It’s a new chapter, a chance to finally BE and do what we want to be: the one and only person we have always been.

Aging doesn’t stop. It keeps going. Health is not forever. It declines. So, in part, the questions for me are what we want to do, what we “should” do (i.e., service to others and making a difference in this world), and what we can do to age gracefully, meaningfully, and joyfully.

In the year ahead my vocation will take the form of writing. Addressing the deeper questions. The existential questions. The faith questions. What Chaim Potok once called “the 4:00 in the morning questions”. But even more, I pray, retirement will bring a greater appreciation and enjoyment of the wonder of it all. As William Sloan Coffin put it at the end of his book Credo,  I want to live “less intentionally and more attentionally.”

So, in 15 days I turn the keys over to Dean, a wonderfully gifted colleague in ministry, confident that Shepherd of the Hill won’t skip a beat, and that Shepherd of the Hill, Dean, Kay and I are each and all in the good Hands of the unseen Trampoline just over the cliff.

If I second guessed

the decision to retire November 7, this sermon by guest preacher Tabitha Isner last Sunday at Shepherd of the Hill convinced me my time is up. Wonderful sermon.


I may have to get arrested

“What are you going to do in retirement?” asks a friend who knows I will retire from active pastoral ministry in a few weeks.

“I’m not sure,” I answer. “I may spend the rest of my life getting arrested to help stop the rush to the cliff that is climate change.”

I won’t, of course. I’m a chicken. But being in large groups and protest marches have always made me squeamish. I’ve had the sense of losing my self. I’m uncomfortable with crowds, even the best of them. At this age, I’ve come to realize that I’m an introvert, an outsider, more observer than activist. Observing…reflecting…writing…preaching…connecting the dots are my thing.

Yesterday an estimated 300,000 ordinary citizens like you and me gathered in New York City for the People March on Climate Change. This week the Secretary General of the United Nations will convene a group of international leaders for a one day Climate Summit.

The problem with standing at the edge observing is that, without action at the lowest and highest levels of society across the world, the Earth as we know it will go over the edge, over the cliff to massive population displacement, mass starvation, mass death, extinction of species, death of nations and peoples, and an exponentially worse wealth disparity between the one percent and the 99. I tell myself that publishing what I observe is its own kind of action. As a minister of the gospel, I believe in the power of the Word – the power of speech.

But I may have to rethink and act on my off-the-cuff answer to the questioner. Climate change is the overarching issue – the developing dark global spiritual and moral cloud – under which all other ethical questions fall and pale by comparison. Everything else must be examined under this umbrella. To think otherwise is to be distracted and out-of-touch with the Lord and Giver of Life. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,” wrote the psalmist. It does not belong to the one percent, big oil and coal, or any one nation. While greed reigns, I just may have to get arrested.

Verse – Dreams of Failure

Why now, in my retirement, age 70,
have I a vivid dream of being at mid-semester
in a college American History class
and not even knowing when the class meets?
I dream I like the teacher, even the subject,
but I had been sick some, otherwise occupied often,
and absent always… I know I cannot catch up.
Where has the class been meeting?
Who will loan me their notes, and why should they?
Do I even own the textbook or have the syllabus?
The mid-term exam is over; the term paper
for the semester is due soon; the extra credit
readings form a mountain of unread pages;
I don’t know where the library is…

(Am I afraid of a Last Judgment
by God? Have I been truant from life?
Have I spent whole days with trivia, with trash,
with momentary pleasures?)

Then I dream of dying in a head-on car crash.

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, May 2, 2013 having a bad night at 70 😦

A Retirement Obsession

on-line Scrabble

The game’s computer keeps the score,

so we don’t  have to add.

Its dictionary tells us clearly:

 words are good or bad.

Yes, on-line Scrabble, Words-With-Friends,

that is the game we play.

My iPhone held up to my face

a hundred times a day.

I play my brothers, nephews, niece…

a guy who’s in my choir.

A don in England always wins

–he probably reads Shakespeare!

My fingers cramp, my eyeballs hurt,

my thumb is even sore,

but Scrabble keeps my mind alert

and keeps me from the bar.

My spouse complains, she feels left out,

but I play just the same.

How can she bitch when it turns out

Sudoku is HER game?

Nadja’s game – on-line Sudoku

-Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, Oct. 30, 2012