Carol Lee Morgan
Retirement for anyone is stressful, but more so in my case because I deserved respect for my 40 years of service, not its opposite. On my last day, I turned in my papers to the personnel department, took candy to the people who had been courteous in my years of working, and bid good bye. In the weeks that followed, I took solace in reading poetry. Over the years, I collected a bookcase of poetry but read only a few poems. Now I indulged. I loved Emily Dickinson’s line, “I’m nobody. Who are you?” and her poems that rejected religious conventions. It was thrilling to read Paul Zimmer’s poem, “Zimmer Imagines Heaven,” where Ellington chats with Mozart among the roses. I enjoyed the word picture Gerald Stern painted as he and his parents danced the dance of Old Ukraine in their tiny living room on Beechwood Boulevard in Pittsburgh in “The Dancing.”
While poetry did not have answers to my immediate problems, it assured me that many, many other people felt as I did about loss, beauty, eternity, hope, and despair. I also began voice lessons with a woman who had been a Metropolitan Opera star. I wanted to improve my speaking voice. Her lessons were the antidote to the physical losses I found that came with aging. I cherished her maxim that “a low voice is a sexy vice.”
As I read poems to my voice teacher, I developed my voice. She suggested I read poems in the Georgetown Retirement Center and helped me negotiate a tiny honorarium. For the first time, in that half hour of reading once a month, I felt poetry come alive. The group was made up of 10 to 15 people, some in wheelchairs, some on walkers. I felt joy when Hilda, a slight lady with a hearing aid, said she never liked poetry until she heard me read. I loved to see Mr. Sherman smile when I told my stories. He had a PhD in history, was descended from an American general of the Civil War, and always wore a suit. In particular, I saw his shy smile appear on his long, distinguished face when I told the little story about the man who fell drunk in a ditch where there was a pig, and then the pig got up and left in disgust. The readings gave me an immediacy with my work I had never known before. I saw the attendees heal as I had healed myself in reading poetry.
My preparation took me further afield in many ways. I discovered a cache of Chinese poetry from 400 A.D., written by cave dwellers along the yellow river, which I shared with the group. I found quotations and funny stories, bits from the Bible, passages from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. I felt my face grow hot and shining during the readings, and when I walked home afterward, my feet tingled over the ground, hardly touching. I came alive in that half hour. The few years I spent in reading poetry at Georgetown Retirement Home was one of the best periods of my life. It sealed off the ugly past of rejection at work and helped me move ahead, enlightened and empowered.