I'll take a short break from writing blogs about the EU. This is the sixth month of my new life in retirement. When I started blogging under this new Woolgathering brand, I promised (threatened) updates from the front line of the Third Age from time to time. So here goes.
When we left Durham Cathedral in early October, it was in the afterglow of a marvellous farewell. You live off these heart-warming events for a long time: they are always with you. It was hard to leave behind such a uniquely beautiful place with its rich spirituality and wonderfully genuine community. But we landed happily across the hill in the South Tyne Valley. Haydon Bridge has proved to be a great village to retire into and become part of. We soon felt at home in a welcoming community, the parish church across the road and the lovely landscapes of Northumberland that we can walk from our own front door.
When you first retire, it's like being on holiday. You're full of expectations, keenly aware of the gift, as it feels to begin with, of lots of time to call your own. To enjoy your family, fresh air, music, books, photography, yes and social media, and not have to feel guilty about it (even if I'm tempted to) still feels like a decidedly odd feature of this new life. But I have also been aware of how tired I have felt and how long it takes to slough it off. I guess that's not surprising after forty years of working life. Others who've trodden this path before me have said it just needs time.
A colleague who came to see us recently asked if I had any "projects" in retirement. I've thought about this a lot. The almost universal advice at first was: don't make grand plans and big commitments early on. Don't make undertakings you might later want to get out of. Think carefully about what you would like to do in retirement. I've tried to do this. It's helped to keep a journal to soliloquise to and try ideas out on. I began it six months before retiring, and intend to keep it going until six months afterwards. It's a great help as I try to retire in a reflective way, and not find myself jolted roughly from one kind of life into another. Going into retirement is like coming up after a deep underwater dive. If you surface too quickly, you risk getting the bends. That as we know is highly risky.
One of the things that's become clear is that while I certainly want to be useful to the church and wider community, I don't want to spend however many years I am granted before I die simply perpetuating my working life by doing more of the same. I want to explore new involvements and learn new things. I'm especially keen to put something back into North East England, the region that has given so much to us over the years. So I'm having conversations around the place to see what possibilities there might be. We shall see. It's a discernment process, as important as it was when I first explored my vocation to ordained ministry. And at times, as unclear and as puzzling. And certainly a matter for prayer.
All this may sound as though these first few months have been placid and uneventful. Far from it. In December, our second grandchild was born, Madeleine, a sister for Isaac. Two days later we were hit by Storm Desmond. The village suffered badly as the normally benign South Tyne became a ferocious torrent tearing through peoples' homes. Our cellar was flooded to a depth of six feet, writing off the new and expensive biomass boiler we had just installed there. Without power and hot water, we were out of the house for nearly a fortnight. Wonderful neighbours who hardly knew us took us in. The support and kindness we found in the village were deeply moving. I won't pretend it didn't feel like a devastating crisis just when we had settled into our new home and were enjoying living in it. We learned then that there's no better way to arrive in a new community than to lay on a disaster. You make friends extraordinarily quickly!
Life has stabilised since then. The rains have subsided and the cellar is dry again. A new boiler is being constructed in the garage. We have got back to a rhythm of life: going across to church for weekday morning prayer, shopping in Hexham and attending evensong in the Abbey each week, frequent walks on the fell above the village, and a little further afield by Hadrian's Wall, listening to Radio 3 for most of the day other than when it's time for The Archers, meeting up with friends we're lucky enough to have nearby, and a lot of reading. (I've been working through Anthony Trollope's Barsetshire novels and loving them; currently well into The Small House at Allington with just The Last Chronicle to go. He is a great novelist and so easy to read - on which I feel another blog coming on soon.)
Meanwhile, the EU referendum has become an all-consuming agenda item. If you follow this blog, you'll know that a short time ago I launched "Christians for the EU" with its Twitter handle @Xians4EU. My hope was to stimulate thought and debate about a Christian case for the UK to stay in the European Union, something that I believe in with all my heart. It's taking up a large amount of time, and the official campaign hasn't even begun yet! But I've learned a great deal by the research I've needed to do, and have been glad that our efforts have been noticed by the national media. I couldn't have done this a year ago when I was still in office, not primarily because it might not have been appropriate to, but for the more pressing reason that I would never have found the time.
It all sounds very pleasant, I hear you say, and yes, it is. But there's this nagging question about what my life is now meant to be for. I blogged a few months ago about the dilemma of how to describe myself when people ask what it is I do. I said I didn't want to be an imperfect man (past continuous: 'I used to be a Cathedral dean'), nor an aorist man (past and done with: 'I practised as a priest in the C of E'). Maybe a perfect man (past tense with present consequences: 'I've been an ordained minister in theological education, parish and cathedrals and here's what I've become now').
But best of all, I'd like to be someone living in the present and even the future tense ('this is what I am, and what I hope to become'). I'm reticent about using the R-word because that seems to be haunted by those past tenses. As Kierkegaard said, life has to be lived forwards and understood backwards. Retirement is certainly time to seek understanding, reflect on the past and draw the threads of a life together. But it's now and tomorrow that I need to keep in view if I am to remain truly alive in any sense that matters. What, who, am I in this new stage of my life? That's the question. A writer? Speaker? Photographer? EU campaigner? Priest? Dilettante? Couch potato?
This, I guess, is an aspect of the spirituality of retirement. I said it was work in progress. But I firmly believe it is opus dei, the work of God. Liminal time at a threshold makes for strange days and mysterious ways. But "God is his own interpreter and he will make it plain".