Franny and I just returned from five days in Florida. We had wanted some relief from the New England winter and a break from routine. Admittedly, the idea of a vacation defies credulity since I’m retired and on permanent vacation. But we like new places and time to explore.
As it turned out, the Florida temperatures—high 90’s every day—were oppressive and less conducive to outdoor play than 50’s in New England. Still swam and walked in the relative cool of morning. We read for hours and explored the “new south” in an air conditioned car. Since childhood, Florida has ranked high on my list of places not to go—too crass, too humid—but we wanted to give it a chance to redeem itself, which it did. Sarasota, Venice, and other coastal cities were filled with art museums, quirky town centers, and beautiful beaches with diverse and intermixing ethnicities.
We chose Sarasota primarily to explore Pelican Cove, an idyllic community of about 1200 elder refugees from the intellectual and artistic centers of the north. Residents had created their own “university,” with classes taught by renowned experts and recent enthusiasts. There are self-organized groups for yoga, gardening, folk music and jazz—you name it. The housing is comfortable, unpretentious, and gloriously set on the Sarasota bay, with sunrises and sunsets welcoming and wishing farewell to every day.
Friends of friends, who had just purchased a PC home, showed us around. Michael, the founder of TV’s Nova programming, and Lynn, a psychologist, spent a couple of hours singing PC’s glories, as if they were paid—and brilliant—sales people eager to line their pockets with gold. But no. They were Pelican Cove lovers and we paid close attention.
For a couple of years now, I have been writing about what I think of as the next-to-last period of life. That period, sometimes brief, sometimes long, begins with the realization, deep in our bones, that our time on earth is limited, and ends with dementia, disability, or death. Generally, our culture paints this period in shades of gray, impressed mostly by diminished capabilities and grumpy moods. I’m impressed by its intensity and vibrancy. David Milch, creator of NYPD, puts it this way: “There’s an acute sense of time’s passing. Things are important. You don’t want to be inconsequential in your perspective on things…everything counts.”
Pelican Cove looked to me like an active experiment in making the most of this extraordinary period. It seems to be built for people in their 70’s, who are still physically capable and seeking to suck the marrow of the time remaining. A morning walk, a little yoga by 10:00, some reading or a seminar in the early afternoon, a nap at 3:00, sunsets and twilight, ideal for contemplation and meditation. A place and a time for relaxation, maybe even a hint of wisdom in the offing.
And yet, except for maybe a month or two in the winter, the Pelican Cove life seems a little premature for Franny, who isn’t yet 70, and for me, too. We aren’t ready to cut or limit our ties to our children, grandchildren, friends, and even old colleagues. We’ve both retired but remain more or less connected to our professional communities and, with them, our ability to contribute to fields whose goals we still feel committed to: Franny to children, through early childhood education and policy; me to equity and diversity through the education of nonprofit leaders.
Neither of us earn a living any more but neither have we made complete transitions into what is generally considered retirement. There’s too much energy and opportunity remaining. Sure, the kind of work we have done throughout our life can never be completed, but maybe I’m waiting for a sign that says you’ve done what you can. Be gone? Nope. Not yet. The connections I feel when working are too deep and satisfying to give up entirely in order to relax or to pursue “interests”—all the time.
I know how simplistic that declaration sounds. And I know that it’s important to avoid black and white distinctions: working and retired; professional and volunteer; active and relaxed; letting go and holding on. There are all kinds of mixed, often complex balances that can be struck. Even while living in a community like Pelican Cove.
But for me there’s something about Pelican Cove that feels like withdrawal, like a radical break from ways that I have been engaged during my entire life. Having family and friends and colleagues 1500 miles away, feels like divorcing myself for the natural life cycle. My imagery about this phase of the cycle includes close, visceral ties to the people I know and love. They have been so much a part of my life that, in a way, they are me. Or the relationships we have formed is a essential to who I am. Distancing myself from them feels like distancing from myself—a kind of alienation.
Pelican Cove seems like an admission that I’m not yet willing to make any more than I might choose a monastery to pursue my spiritual development with greater intensity. For now, it says that I will stop being a citizen of the larger world, that I will stop striving, and begin to focus almost exclusively on amusing myself.
My objections don’t hold for everyone, of course. Franny tells me, for instance, that she has always held service to community as a sacred act. Particularly service that isn’t directly reciprocated, isn’t even well known. And she yearns for a time when she can devote herself to it. She might not be any more ready for Pelican Cove than I am but she can see the pathway there. I admire, maybe even envy her for that.
But it isn’t exactly me. Too much of me still faces outward, towards the greater world, even though I do precious little to help it. And I have too many internalized injunctions against a life of leisure and a life focused entertaining myself. I do wonder whether the injunctions have begun to wane, whether I need to work harder to diminish their hold on me, in order to be free to fully enter the leisurely stage of life promised and promoted by American culture.
The near perfection of Pelican Cove amplifies these questions. It makes me uneasy, as though I should make decisions, as though I should move on with my life and not cling to what some people might call the past. What is clear, though, is that Franny and I are not going to make a decision now. It is premature. And I, for one, remain mostly comfortable and enlivened by the uncertainty. In that way, Pelican Cove has been exquisitely clarifying for me.