Putting on a cufflink

Spaces add up to environments, and we dwell in and with environments. We make them, in part, by negotiating our stances and interacting with spaces and those within it.

When we dwell successfully, we may be graceful.

The question of the Second Act is in no small measure a question of finding a new grace in a new space, since the dislocations of retirement are largely a matter of where one dwells and with whom one interacts. One cannot be graceful in the same way everywhere, since grace relies on the circumstance of space.

A recent New Yorker cover illustrates the current state of grace, at least as far as dress and “self-presentation” go. The December 7, 2020, issue shows a woman in a white blouse, martini in hand, and wearing hooped earrings. She sits in Zoom posture — her laptop atop a pile of books. Behind her stands a fashionable partition, white but a little bland. Beyond the scope of the Zoom, the other realities of life dominate. A cat is curled at her feet, another stares out of the litter box obviously in a moment of necessity. While she hold up the martini in her right hand, her left manages a smartphone, thumb posed for scrolling. In various places beyond Zoom-view stand other matters of life: yesterday’s Chinese take-out, chopsticks protruding, lurks behind her laptop. Elsewhere on the floor sit Amazon boxes, piles of papers, discarded masks and gloves, hand sanitizer, half-consumed Cheetos, a paper coffee cup. The sink is filled with dirty dishes

It’s a familiar pose. The Zoom frame pleases whoever is on the other end of the connection, but beyond the little view box lurk other realities. The woman on the New Yorker cover is between two worlds, one involved in a digital search for love and the other that surrounds her. The cover is titled “Love Life” created by Adrian Tomine.

Matters of grace have been made complex by the digital representations of daily life, especially at work or, as in the magazine cover, in relationships. It’s strange to choose one’s bearings when interactions are restricted so that they can be staged, indeed must be staged. There is a reason why Zoom and other video conferencing tools have backgrounds; they allow a digital veneer to cover our other realities. Certainly, our staging of pandemic life is a matter of respecting our acquaintances, colleagues, or customers, but it’s also driven by a desire to establish connection and an environment where we feel confident and assured. We communicate that sense for the sake of nurturing connections with others, too. That is a form of grace.

Peculiarities of Covid life notwithstanding, a transition into retirement presents its own challenges, at least for me. I delighted in “dressing up” for work, even though my employer had few requirements for dress. (My work was in academic information technology and scientific research, two fields that are not well known as hotspots of fashion.) For my staff, I had one rule for dress: If you go to a meeting, you cannot be the worst dressed in the room — or, I imagine, in the Zoom frame. That seemed to work to keep everyone presentable. I don’t know if we ever achieved grace, though.

Habits of dress no doubt will haunt me, and here is an example of how pandemic isolation is a kind of practice for retirement. I have a closet filled with Oxford shirts, most of them French cuff. On my dresser, I have a wooden box filled with cufflinks I’ve acquired over the years. Hanging in my closet, a row of bowties. These have been less useful, and when I have donned them for my work-from-home, I’ve felt as though I’m in theatrical costume, not just dressed for work. And yet, I must say that costume or not, the way that I have dressed, even in pandemic isolation, has been a curious consolation at times. A bow tie can do wonders!

Fashion, of course, is a small element of grace, but I think that it’s instructive because it is so visible. Fashion — really how one appears — functions to negotiate our relationship with our environment — the circle of space and the other humans moving within it. The grace part appears as an accomplishment and a success, weaving an identity that befits and that respects and that elaborates upon the spatial and the human surroundings.

The challenge became visible to all of us when we retreated home in March. It touches us as we prepare “to zoom.” Dislocation of space challenges those seeking grace in retirement, too.

At least that’s what I’m thinking now, before I actually step into that new life.