Well, this is it. It's ten days now since that marvellous farewell in Durham Cathedral. Then and since, the kindness and generosity of so many friends has left an afterglow that I find intensely moving. It's been 'a time of gifts'. And this is what retirement will be, say all of those who've trodden this road before us. Maybe there are some who haven't found it to be all that they'd hoped for, but if so we don't know of them and they probably wouldn't own up to it anyway. Apart, obviously, from those who have encountered health problems or been bereaved out of time.
I began my first Woolgathering* blog in the new year of 2012. My first post was about taking a preliminary canter into the blogosphere, trying it out, seeing what happened. Here I am again, setting out on a new blogging journey. But no longer in the role of a 'Northern Dean'. This time, it's just me, Michael, wool gathering in North East England from our home in the South Tyne Valley in Northumberland, the much-loved county we used to live in and where I was a parish priest in the 1980s.
I'm sure you don't want to read overmuch about the journey into retirement, so I am not going to obsess about it in the future. I expect that many of my themes will be the same as before: Christian faith and spirituality, life and times in North East England, literature and art, music, politics, photography... and whatever else takes a fancy. Maybe retirement is a time to stop apologising for being an eclectic dilettante and start celebrating the joys of inhabiting our 'hinterland' (to use a word beloved of the late great and lamented Denis Healey).
For now, we are settling into the rhythms of life in Haydon Bridge. It sits astride the River South Tyne, its two halves connected by its elegant 18th century eponymous bridge. It's a large village upstream of Hexham, tucked in between the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty to the south, and Hadrian's Wall and the Northumberland National Park to the north. We live close to the left bank (which makes it sound a bit like Paris). Within a couple of hundred yards or so we have shops (including a Co-op, pharmacy, newsagent and butcher), community library, railway station, level crossing, bus stop, doctor's surgery, garage, chippy, two churches (CofE and Methodist) and two pubs. There is a blue plaque in honour of Philip Larkin's frequent visits to spend time with his lover Monica and a heritage trail celebrating John Martin, the famous 19th century painter of apocalyptic canvasses. On every side lie the beautiful wooded valleys and lonely fells of Northumberland.
It's a good village to settle in. Like the village we have just moved from (aka The College, Durham Cathedral's intimate and charming close), the human texture is warm, welcoming and companionable. This of course is what matters most in any community, but especially, perhaps, in retirement. Our neighbours have been extraordinarily kind and helpful. Contractors are unfailingly pleasant and do their work well. We've been warmly received in the parish church across the road (dedicated to St Cuthbert, so we feel at home). If you want a job doing in this village, someone is bound to be able to tackle it or knows someone nearby who can. There is a brilliant village bulletin, The Haydonian, crammed with news, small ads, activities listings, parish council reports, church information and local history. It's less than a week since we completed the move, but we feel at home here. The house is lovely to live in. Boxes and packing cases are gone, our furniture fits the odd footprint of this Victorian end-of-terrace, books and pictures line the walls and make it feel like home.
So the Big Question now is, how to fill the days and weeks and years that stretch ahead; and in the present, how to establish new daily rhythms, create a new shape for a new life. It will, I'm sure, be a case of not being afraid to try different things; find out by trial and error what works and what doesn't. 'If we're spared', that is, as the quaint phrase has it. Thanks to the Diocese of Durham, I have been given three months of sabbatical leave to reflect on a lifetime in public ministry and how I can be useful to the church and the wider community in the North East in the coming years. Prayer comes into this. The advice has almost universally been: don't make decisions too quickly, maybe not for several months until you have sloughed off the tiredness that forty years of full-time work can bring. You need to be mentally, physically and spiritually refreshed and reinvigorated to face positively and with expectation a new and utterly different future. Verb sap. I am taking my time and trying to be wise and sensible about it.
Meanwhile, there is something else I need to sort out. When I'm asked, as you are when you're new, 'who are you?' 'what do you do?' I'm not clear what to respond. I don't want to become an Imperfect Man ('I used to be a cathedral dean') and certainly not an Aorist Man ('I was once a parish priest'). The Perfect Man would reply 'I've worked in cathedrals for much of my life' because at least that is 'past with present consequences' as grammarians say. But it feels important not to define myself in terms of what I no longer do. So I'm wary of using the 'R' word because it feels past- and passive (I know that's not true of retirement but you'll know what I mean). Do I reply 'pilgrim, priest and ponderer'? as on my Twitter profile? Or 'writer', 'photographer', 'spiritual guide'? None of these quite captures the whole truth. Ideas welcome.
So I'll report from the front line of the Third Age from time to time as it settles around us, like this new home we live in. As before, I look forward to your company and conversation in cyberspace. I'm particularly open to insights about how to cross this life-threshold safely and well, how to begin a new life all over again, and not least the spiritual dimension of it all. (And my thanks to those who posted on this topic in response to my last few Decanal blogs about retiring.)
*My 'Northern Dean' blog site http://decanalwoolgatherer.blogspot.co.uk is still live if you want to read posts from a previous era.