Benched: Ruminations on a Quarantine Retirement | Essay | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Benched: Ruminations on a Quarantine Retirement


Published March 31, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.

  • Matt Morris

After more than 40 years in interesting and mentally stimulating jobs — first as a lawyer at the Attorney General's Office, then as a judge on the trial bench and Vermont Supreme Court — I retired. I knew that leaving public service would challenge my perception of my place in the world, but I underestimated how brutal I would be on myself. And while I planned to give myself some time to sort out next steps and my next identity, 2020 had its own plans.

In theory, I retired on September 1, 2019. But until Gov. Phil Scott named my replacement in December, I continued to make myself useful on the Supreme Court, hearing cases. I enrolled in a Spanish course at the University of Vermont and began class in September, but I dropped out after two weeks because I could not handle four days a week commuting to Burlington when I was still working. I told my kids I was taking a gap year.

I kept busy in January, teaching at Middlebury College with my buddy, Justice John Dooley. Then in February, once our grades were in, I commenced serious pondering: What was next?

Bartending was my dream. But in March, when I expected to begin practicing the fine art of mixology, COVID-19 came swirling around the streets and slamming shut barroom doors. Alas. Finessing a bar rag whilst engaging in witty banter with alcohol-infused patrons would have to wait.

Had I known that the self-isolation resulting from the pandemic would rule my life for more than a year, I might have pulled it together, created a schedule and seriously worked on my novel. The one about the judge who, presiding in a particularly egregious child murder case, must exclude critically important evidence from the jury's consideration because the rules of evidence required it, and the defendant is acquitted, and the judge goes rogue when she learns the state will be returning another child into the care of the absolutely, no doubt about it, guilty perp, and she kills the disgusting piece of... Well, you get the drift. I might have finished that book, but I didn't. (She gets away with it, by the way.)

Still, I had other ideas. I would perfect the art of doing beautiful henna designs and open a booth at the farmers market. This really excellent plan for my future employment failed, in part, because I live alone. I could replicate the classic patterns on paper, but having only my own two legs, one arm and one hand on which to practice proved unsatisfactory and messy. However, it did provide an excellent reason not to go out in public.

I'm not even going to discuss my attempts to groom my dog.

Between retirement and COVID-19, I was being erased. My lack of purpose gnawed at me. I woke each morning to a worrisome void. What would I be doing if I could be doing something besides taking extra-long hikes with my dog? I didn't need to be essential, but I wanted to be something.

Not one to fester in a sewer of my own making, I threw myself into Swedish Death Cleaning, or döstädning, as it's known in Sweden. It is a process of removing unnecessary things to make your home nice and orderly when you think death is coming. Good times.

My attic laughed at me. The basement wondered who I was. My cupboards are now practically empty. (Note: Oldest "sell by" date was October 2, 2011, found on a box of Island Pineapple Jell-O. Why I ever bought a box of Island Pineapple Jell-O remains a mystery.)

Then, to keep busy, I made a time capsule to commemorate 2020. It holds the shot glass I bought at the Vermont Book Shop in Middlebury to symbolize both my teaching and my dashed dreams of pouring libations. There are several masks and one pair of sweatpants. A petrified slice of lime reminds me of all the vodka tonics that provided solace. There's a tube of Bengay in memory of the sore necks caused by Zoom meetings. A ball of yarn represents the four baby blankets I knitted while exploring the wonderful world of Netflix. Now I must decide whether to bury the time capsule or blow it up.

I wrote poetry about murder hornets and hurricanes. While these diverse activities helped the days lumber by, they did not elevate my mood.

Seeing myself as being of no use to anyone was difficult. Having nothing to do that I thought had real value left me feeling like I had no value. Those were the hard days, when the first thought I had upon waking was, So what?

Then I gave myself a stern talking-to and began to reframe my viewpoint, looking for that elusive silver lining. I cannot help it; I am an optimist. Eventually, I came to realize that a year of magical thumb twiddling gave me months to forgive myself for not immediately moving on. An excuse, if you will.

I am trying to be a little more tender with my ego. I have forgiven myself for sloth. As one friend said when I whined about being of no use to anyone, I made him laugh. That's a good enough reason for my existence for now. I'll figure something out.