Retirement, associated as it is with aging and diminishment, can feel like a time of loss. But in his latest book, Picking Up the Flute, writer John Elder suggests it can also be a season of deepening and enrichment.
Elder retired in 2010 as professor of English at Middlebury College. Like all such endings, there was some sadness, but it was mixed with the excitement of beginning a new chapter in life.
Elder and his wife, Rita, had a developing interest to focus on as their retirement began. Both amateur musicians, they had begun learning to play traditional Irish music. They found its lilting, polyrhythmic intensity challenging and satisfying, and they practiced together daily, John on the Irish wooden flute, Rita on concertina.
The journey that music took them on is the basic subject and framework of the new book — essentially a memoir. But it’s a journey with many side trips.
In fact it might be better described as a piece of weaving with numerous strands that blend in, out, and around one another — threading the music through his own life story, along with American and Irish literature, descriptions of the landscape and geology of both Ireland and Vermont, teaching, maple sugaring, the social tensions between native Vermonters and newcomers, and even a contemporary look at a scholarly classical subject — Virgil’s First Eclogue.
Implicit in that poem is a sense of loss and letting go. Elder uses it as a springboard to show how the landscapes of both Ireland and Vermont are deeply scarred, and yet populated by resilient people who make the land spiritually self-renewing.
That all this and more fits gracefully into a 225-page book is a testament to Elder’s remarkably fertile mind. Even more remarkable is the book’s online addendum — in its pages, Elder invites the reader to visit his website to hear him playing recorded versions of the Irish tunes mentioned in the text.
Like retirement itself, Picking Up the Flute, is not all good times and laughter. When the Elders learn that Rita has a slowly progressive neurological disease, their story darkens. But music, literature, and a lifetime of shared experiences temper that undeniable reality and deepen the book.
Ultimately, Elder knows that we all age and die, that life is never one triumph after another, and that love itself — for each other, for the place one has chosen to call home, for the complexities of experience — can lead to resolution and, if we’re lucky, to wisdom.