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My Endless Pursuit of Discipline

Updated: Oct 16, 2023

One of my retirement projects is a book which I have tentatively entitled, The Zen Imperfections, reflections on the Paramitas, generally translated as “perfections.” I don’t know much about perfection. I have a lot of experience with imperfection. One of my favorites is Sila Paramita, Discipline. I keep plugging away.

When I was approaching retirement, I called my friend Richard Guarasci for advice. Richard had retired the year before as President of Wagner College. He had been an important mentor to me as we built ICS.

Richard warned me, “The biggest danger is to find yourself wandering around the house with nothing to do.”

He advised me to make a schedule. I didn’t have to follow it, but it would be there to fall back on. I took his advice. I put my retirement schedule in my calendar.

I began the day with what we had called in inpatient psychiatry the “activities of daily living,” toiletry and tidying, zazen, breakfast, morning pages and a walk. Then two hours of writing, quick lunch, two more hours of writing, an hour of reading, a second walk, a second period of zazen. That would get me to dinner. I put the schedule in my calendar to repeat every day forever. It was my security blanket. I would never have to wander around the house wondering why I had retired.

I have pretty much followed the routine that I laid out through the morning walk, except when weather interfered with walking — over the first year, birthday, Christmas, Valentine’s and Father’s Day presents included lots of outdoor gear, snow sneakers, hooded sweatshirts, a waterproof rain jacket — so that weather would be as minimally disruptive as possible.

The first months of retirement, I walked far more than expected, – I was averaging 15,000 steps a day — rarely found time for a second period of zazen, generally managed one writing period a day and was reading not nearly as much as I had hoped. I was feeling very good about retirement, was reasonably happy about my schedule, “more honored in the breach than the observance,” and laughed a lot about it with my friends.

This summer introduced a new discipline. It grew from my first real, “retired” vacation. A year earlier, one week after my final day as CEO of ICS, we had set out on a road trip to Canada, Maine and New Hampshire. It was a great vacation, but it was like other vacations, a vacation from work.

Last January, we went to Sint Maarten, where Dee and I had gone on our first vacation together, but it was, I realize now, still a vacation from work. I had continued to consult at ICS two days a week through the end of October. Six weeks later, we were into the holiday season. I really hadn’t settled into retirement before we were off to the Caribbean.

But this summer was different.

We had the vacation of a lifetime planned, a river cruise from Budapest to Amsterdam, celebrating Dee’s retirement and Morrigan’s 25th birthday. But was this really a “vacation” for me? Wasn’t I on vacation all the time?

Well, it was. It was a vacation from my retired life, from my writing-walking routine. I didn’t bring my computer to Europe. I took different books to read but didn’t read that much. We had a great time. I came back refreshed and energized.

When I left, in addition to my weekly blog, I had been actively working on three big projects, all imagined as potential books: a kind of how-to memoir about the building of our charter school network, The Zen Imperfections, both projects already imagined before retirement, and surprisingly, a novel. How I got to be writing a novel is a long story.

The abridged version: I would occasionally write something for a blog which it turned out could not be told. Too many people would be hurt. Maybe the stories which could not be told as fact could be told as fiction. One story, almost behind my back, was morphing into a novel.

I came home energized and eager to get to these projects. Even as we traveled, a troubling question was bouncing in my head, “Could I get these three books finished in five years?” This led me to an anxiety-laden follow-up question, “Would I be alive and in good enough health to be writing in five years?”

As on so many occasions in my life and particularly noticeable during the building of ICS, the Universe came through with the answers that I needed. For a while before vacation, I had been looking for Stephen King’s On Writing. Something was telling me that I needed to reread it. I owned a copy of King’s book but couldn’t find it. We left for Europe without finding it.

In Europe, King was calling to me. I decided that I didn’t need to be so damn miserly. Sure, the book was probably somewhere in the attic. When we got around to decluttering the third floor, it would probably be there. But I didn’t have to wait. We ordered a new copy online.

When it arrived, I gobbled it in a couple of days and have been rereading sections ever since. There’s a lot of good advice.

Here’s the big deal for me right now, the big new discipline challenge. King advises writing 2,000 words a day every day. He’s done the math. He figures his novels which are longish at 180,000 words. Writing 7 days a week, he can finish a first draft in three months while the idea is fresh and the energy is flowing. Otherwise, he says, his mind begins to wander, and he forgets where he’s going. King says that for a beginner like me it’s ok to start with 1,000 words a day. He says 6 days a week is ok.

Reading this, I think I can do 2000 words a day, but I’m retired. I’m not working 6 or 7 days: 5 days a week when we are not on vacation. I figure out how many words I need to write. My books are going to be shorter than King’s. I’m figuring 180,000 words could get me through all three of my book projects. But I also need to keep up the weekly blog, 1500 words each. I figure 4 weeks for vacation, no writing. (The blogs for the vacation weeks are in the can, ready to post before we leave town).

It’s going to be tight, but I’m energized. I’m overestimating the number of words that I need to generate, but I think I can get all three books drafted while keeping up the blog by Christmas 2024. It’s only a target, and it’s exciting. It’s a new discipline. And look if I don’t meet the target, the sky doesn’t fall. I’m retired.

I’m eight weeks into the new routine. Many weeks, I’ve actually ended writing every day, almost always on six days. My goal was 10,000 words a week. I’m averaging over 13,000. The first draft of the novel is in the homestretch and is already over 80,000 words.

King has told me to put that draft in a drawer and not look at it for at least six weeks. I think I will be able to finish the first draft of Imperfections while the novel is in the oven. I am way ahead of schedule.

I am loving the new discipline.

This may not be the routine for everyone but it is feeling fun and magical to me. And it’s taken the edge off the worry about what I’ll be up for in five years.

The worry is still there, but it’s lost some of its edge.

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