Finding meaning in retirement is no small task. That meaning can come from some very unexpected sources. Generally, Rookie Retirees look in the usual places: activities related to their employment or obvious needs in the community. My retirement planner contains two of the most important commitments of my retirement life: goats and sheep, and hoses. I have one weekly appointment to feed six goats, get those goats and six sheep out to pasture, and sweep out their poop-laden barn. My second weekly appointment, is to work as a volunteer at a famous, local display garden. Currently this work involves watering six beds for 2-3 hours in a large glass conservatory, with enormous hoses embedded in the floor. In the summer, I add an extra morning working outside in the Idea Garden. Who needs to go to the gym?
Taking the Time to Look in a Different Direction
When it was time to think of including some new elements in my retirement life,
I did not look for the more common opportunities: food banks, tutoring, or hospitals,
although the pandemic brought me to a weekly food distribution for agricultural
workers. Being an educator and a longstanding member of one of the biggest helping professions for 34 years, made me take my time. I only added each activity after great thought and only when I felt I needed something new in my weekly routine. I was not looking to be busy all the time. I craved time for reflection and doing all chosen activities, including the mundane, at my own pace. The animals and the gardening turned out to be a way for me to begin seeing my life aligned with the natural world, one of the most helpful and comforting insights I have had in my new retirement.
A Steep Learning Curve
The goat and sheep task was fairly straight forward, but a real challenge for
me. Tie up the two older goats, and place down three dishes of food, so all six could eat without being challenged by the elders. After all have eaten, open the door to the back room to let the sheep out to pasture and get all the goats outside, closing the barn gate. Sweep up the barn and lock everything tight so the animals can’t get back in or get out on the road.
Suggestions were made by the professional staff, and I attempted to do this job on my own. My previous experience with animals was limited to the care of a small turtle and a hermit crab. I quickly saw the need to ask my husband for help. Luckily, he had some farm animal experience in his youth. My life experience was more in the area of Excel spreadsheets and lesson plans.
Every week, this job is different. If you don’t do things exactly right, the goats butt heads and try to eat any food they can get their hooves on. The goats can get in the sheep room if you don’t perfectly time the opening of the backdoor. The sheep can eat the goats’ food if you don’t remove the dishes. The biggest goat can butt you in the butt if you’re not looking. Goats can eat dangling items from your clothing, and refuse to leave the barn, adding to your sweeping task as they digest their breakfast and make deposits in areas you just cleaned. Sometimes sheep go into heat and mistake a lady goat as a romantic interest with some embarrassing consequences.
Knowing your Limits and Speaking Up
Working at the display garden is equally taxing. There was a gentle suggestion to work a four hour shift, beginning at 7:30 AM, even in the extreme summer heat. Early in the season, there was a combined effort of professionals and volunteers to lay mulch in about 10 huge beds in just one morning, followed by a late season planting of hundreds of bulbs in the four hour shift. Although my retired body was in good shape, it was in no way as seasoned as the professional gardeners who ranged in age from 20-60. I soon learned to speak up for myself when the young professionals ask more than I can deliver. This is an ongoing challenge. The winter season is just as taxing in the indoor conservatory, where I lug mammoth hoses from their concealed housing to water the dazzling displays which are changed every few weeks. Three hours is my absolute line in the sand. My superiors also know that I cannot manually water the huge hanging baskets 20 feet in the air, or drag a heavy, portable hose to a remote location.
The Most Valuable of Life Lessons
What is the benefit of such hard work? For the first time in my life, I am aligned with the cycles of nature. I am not getting a view of the world through the windshield of my car. The garden has shown me, in its predictable yearly rhythm, that everything is ephemeral. The plants which we tended as lovingly as children, are yanked out when it is time to change a display or winter arrives. I’ve observed, in awe, how the gardeners, despite their ages, show up every day for decades, when my one and only 2-3 hour stint lands me in a hot bath each week, in order to survive. I’ve been amazed how the gardeners accept the continuous planting, growth, and decline process, never bemoaning all the work they’ve done which eventually results in barren beds and compost piles. I’ve also learned that a magnificent garden is somewhat of a miracle, but it depends on buried hoses, frequent fertilizer, tender pruning, and many, many pairs of hands.
The goats and sheep have also taught me their own lessons. They have distinct personalities. Some are agressive, some are passive. One of the sheep, who I call Newsybody, always keeps watch as soon as I get there through a space between the planks of the fence which separates the sheep from the goats. She doesn't take her eyes off of me before I let her buddies out.
The goats live very independent lives. Although there are volunteers who take care of them in 14 shifts throughout the week, they are free spirits. There is no rushing goats to go outside. This was learned after almost a year of luring them outside with food, making loud sounds, clapping and pushing their butts. When they are ready, they will go outside. They always meander outside when they’ve finished eating and exploring their caregivers. They will happily poop exactly where one of us just swept up. The lady goats gracefully pee on the way out, looking like they are curtsying and lifting their dresses. They love to brush up against you, and have their backs scratched with a rough brush. They defer to the one male goat, and quickly get out of his way.
In Sync with the World
How are these lessons for a retiree? It feels reassuring to see where one fits into the natural world: to accept where one is in the human life cycle, and to be proud at having arrived at this place.
Watching animals and plants encourages me to rip up the old “to do” lists and be more spontaneous and go slower. The changes in seasons in the garden encourage me to celebrate the uniqueness of each time of the year, and align with it: being more energetic in the warm seasons, and hunkering down when the chill arrives. There is something deep to learn from the goats and the gardeners, who seem to have childlike qualities. They hold no grudges and accept what nature offers up each day. There is no drama if the garden is under a cloud of fog and all the plants are soaking wet, but still need tending. The goats don’t make a fuss if there is a change in location to where they are sent to graze.
Working outdoors makes me more optimistic about our world. Nature seems to know what she is doing. I’ve taken to removing my wristwatch. I like living on goat time. So much of my working life seems inconsequential when a goat gives you rough snuggle and there is a new season of flowers coming.