Category Archives: Later, on retirement

Five Years On

As I begin my sixth year as a “retired” person, I can no longer claim that I am “in transition” between having a career and not having one.  The career ended and the transition is over.  I am unequivocally retired, yet I have continued to feel uncomfortable about being in retirement.

“Retirement” connotes something negative, something given up, a loss of position.  At the outset of my retirement, I worried about being no longer useful.  But as I look back at the last five years, I see that I have managed to be useful to others, though perhaps in a narrower sense than I felt during the last decade or so of my working life.

My work had a greater impact and affected more people than anything I have done since I closed the door on my career.  Admitted, it is merely my own perception about the significance of what I did for a living.  The fruits of my labor were under-appreciated at the time and are less than legendary now.  Those thirty or forty years of work that I call my career—did it matter?  By retiring, I allowed my life to become irrelevant to my career.

Or, to be more positive, retirement has made my career no longer relevant to my life.

I do not feel regret for choosing to end my career.  I feel grateful for having the choice.  My work—and my wife’s work—made that choice possible.  It is toward our younger selves that I now feel gratitude.

Gratitude is affirmative.  That was my first clue.  I now believe that there can be something deeply affirmative about retirement.  Retirement is an accomplishment, not a loss.  It is a new opportunity, not a final defeat.

The word “retirement” dates from the sixteenth century out of the Old French “re-“ (back) plus “tirer” (to draw), meaning “to withdraw.”  It has the sense of removing oneself from someplace and to someplace—often meaning to a place of privacy or seclusion.

It is that place of privacy that should be viewed affirmatively.  Retirement is a retreat, yes, but not a defeat.  The army, withdrawn from the field of battle, occupies its stronghold.  There is privacy within the castle walls.  There is a world of privacy in retirement.

In that period of transition into retirement, I found myself shaking off the twin sensations of the Never-Ending Weekend and Retirement Guilt.  At times, I felt liberated from a Monday-to-Friday work schedule.  I no longer had to maintain the delicate life/work balance between five-day job responsibilities and two-day weekends when my responsibilities were largely about doing household chores.  There was so little time left over for simply enjoying life that I almost convinced myself that household chores were pleasurable.  Career was at the center of my life.  Even on those weekends of more or less fun, work overshadowed me as Monday Morning Dread set in on Sunday afternoons.

When I retired, I was quick to discover that every day felt like a Saturday or Sunday and that the dread for Mondays was only a phantom.

The other post-career sensation—feeling guilty for retiring—was more pernicious.  It was the feeling that I had “given up” too early when I could have continued my productive working years.  There was something shameful about retirement.  I should not have thrown in the towel.  I had to justify myself to myself by claiming the right to retire at a youngish 63 thus sparing myself the nightmare of keeling over on the job.

Both of these feelings have faded if not completely vanished from my mind.  Retirement as a never-ending weekend remains an apt description in a technical sense, I suppose.  But I cannot remember the last time I felt Monday Morning Dread or Retirement Guilt.

My experience of retirement is changing.  A new rhythm has emerged.  It is as though, withdrawn from the ambient chatter of work and career, I have heard my life much better.  I cannot say that I am accomplishing much—but I am not obliged to accomplish anything.  Instead I am guided a lot by what I find enjoyable.

I did not face retirement as a task that I had to analyze and plan for.  When I retired, I did not know what would happen next, and I still don’t.  It is all a new piece of music and I am listening for the harmony of the moment.  One way or another, my days are full and not without pattern.

I have come to acknowledge the affirmative in retirement.  In a private way, this act of withdrawing is a gift that I gave to myself.  I am aware of the passing of time, and in whatever time I have left I want to celebrate that gift.

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Old Age

I am handling old age pretty well. Yes, I know that some people would say that sixty-eight is “not old.” Some would tell me with reassuring certainty “age is just a number.” Like hell. At sixty-eight, I am not a young man, that’s for sure, and I am pretty sure that I no longer qualify for the category “middle-aged,” though possibly some might quibble.

I feel that I have entered the terminal bracket of “old age.” I don’t know when that happened, exactly. I’ve had a creeping suspicion for the last year or so, at least, that I was getting there. Well, I think I’m there now, and I’m doing okay.

Someone asked me recently whether I was enjoying retirement. Yes. What do you like most about it? How do you spend your time? I can never think of an impressive answer.

I know that old age is not the same thing as retirement and that some people who haven’t retired find themselves in the old age category. I chose to retire five years ago, and old age happened more recently, but that is a technicality. When people ask me now how I am enjoying retirement they might as well be asking how I am enjoying old age. What do I like most about old age? How do I spend my old-age time?

Well, I am enjoying old age so much I don’t want it to end.

I have been taking a mental inventory of the things that I do these days. It is not an impressive list, and I doubt that anyone would feel inspired by my example. Still, I feel that I am doing pretty well. To some extent, old age offers liberation from the desire to impress.

Exposing how I spend my time may serve some educational purpose for those in or near the “old age” category who want to feel they are doing pretty well. To that end, the less impressive what I do with my time the better for others, who may be doing more interesting things by comparison.

This inventory is no doubt incomplete, but it accounts for most of my old age time:

  • I have acquired the habit of taking a walk every day, unless the weather is crappy with rain. I walk about two miles. It is my primary form of physical exercise, along with a morning jaunt on the treadmill and a weekly yoga class. In summer, I go on bike rides.
  • I have more time to read books in my old age. Detective novels are a favorite (James Lee Burke, Ian Rankin, Walter Mosley, Karin Slaughter, Liza Marklund, John Harvey and Tony Hillerman, to name a few favorite authors). I also have read several epic biographies (Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin) and other books about history.
  • I read the local newspaper (old-fashioned print version) every morning. I also follow the news on NPR and PBS—on television and online—and other news programs, such as Meet the Press. Sometimes I search the Internet for more information, and I have written posts for this blog on political issues that I care about. (See the “tag cloud” in the left side-bar for links.)
  • I have been teaching myself Spanish for the last nine years or so, and I spend time every day practicing the language. From time to time on this blog, I post translations into Spanish of earlier English language posts. (See posts in the “Later, in Spanish” category.)
  • Aging in place—in my case, in the house where my wife and I have lived for more than two decades—means time spent cleaning, shopping, handling bills and bank accounts, doing yard work, making minor repairs and so forth. We have done several home remodeling projects (this year we are remodeling a bathroom), and we do a lot of the work ourselves.
  • We take turns cooking dinner, but there is time in my old age to take my turn more often.
  • We watch an hour or so of television on most nights. Because American network television programming is so dreadful, we use streaming services (Hulu, PBS and Acorn TV) and DVDs from Netflix (now DVD.com). We have particularly enjoyed several excellent Swedish drama series (The Bridge, Beck, Rebecka Martinsson).
  • I volunteer some of my time each week in various activities at a community theater and at the local Unitarian Universalist Church. I have been involved with the theater for thirty years and with the church for about five. Two years ago on this blog, I wrote about my most recent acting role at the theater in a post titled Becoming Neil.
  • We have traveled a little bit in the last five years. I have written about our travels on this blog: Savannah, New Orleans, Costa Rica and the American West.

I suppose the point here is that there is comfort in the humdrum. For me, if not for others of old age, doing well does not require doing a lot. But this is not to suggest that the key to old-age happiness is retreat, disengagement and idleness. Old age can be a time of quiet but heightened awareness. It is a time to strip away the need to figure things out so much.

My yoga teacher has a phrase that she uses to guide the class into savasana—the final pose of rest at the end of the class. The purpose of savasana—also inauspiciously but misleadingly called “corpse pose”—is to relax the body and the mind after a series of more challenging positions. The idea is not to go to sleep, but rather to remain fully conscious but completely relaxed, to allow thoughts to flow in and out of your mind while becoming aware of the quiet conscious moments between thoughts. As our teacher says, it is a time when you have nowhere to go, nothing to do, and absolutely no one you have to be.

It is, I think, an apt metaphor for old age.

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Some other stuff for later,

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