So here’s the thing about retirement. Somehow in thinking about it when I was still working I saw it as a monolith; just as work had meant a steady plan of start/stop times and work days vs weekends, retirement would also have an ongoing, solid shape and direction. But it doesn’t. It has been a journey – 8 years now – that’s had more twists and turns and surprises than any other part of my life. Just to make my point, I’m writing this post on a train from Kochi City, Japan to Tosa-Irino on a very hot day in late June. What’s a nice Jewish girl from London, Ontario doing on an express train in Japan? That’s the tale I’m here to tell you.
The day that I handed in all the paperwork for retirement was a landmark day for me. I had worked in education for over 30 years. I’d always planned to retire as soon as I could but honestly I’d never given much thought to what I would do once I retired. So 6 months before retiring I started writing down my thoughts in a blog; I didn’t even know what a blog was before I began; my sister does web development and walked me through it all. I was a bit surprised to find that there were lots of things I was very concerned about.
The last month of work was the hardest. Every day I met with Ministry colleagues to review one of the projects I’d been working on and pass it over to them. This was almost like giving a child away every day; my heart and soul had been in the work and now I was going to leave it behind. As retirement day grew closer I found myself remembering all the times I’d heard someone say “have you left the office yet?” about other colleagues and now it was about me. Scary!
Some of you will remember these lyrics to the Simon & Garfunkel song Hazy Shades of Winter. Just hum along if you know the words.
Time, time, time
See what’s become of me
While I looked around for my possibilities
I was so hard to please
But look around
Leaves are brown
And the sky is a hazy shade of winter
Retirement is a wonderful time in life – at least so we’re told and so I’ve come to believe. Time. It’s the gift I was given in retirement and it’s also the thing that frightened me the most. Think of all the ways we characterize time. We “spend” it. We “kill” it. We “do” it – if we’re criminal. We “pass” it. We bide it, plan it (or hire people to plan it), take it, give it, use it, waste it … and on and on it goes. What was I going to do with all of this time when work didn’t take up most of my waking hours? So I signed up for a retirement workshop.
If you’ve attended any retirement planning workshops as I did some 5 years before my planned retirement date – as recommended by my employer – you likely spent most of the workshop time talking about financial matters. I knew when I attended those 2 long days that I was experiencing an enormous misplay – definitely time wasted. If there’s financial planning to consider we should be attending those workshops in the first 5 years of employment and not in the last years when it’s clearly too late. Too late to cut back on expenses and save enough money to make much of a difference. Too late to invest wisely and revel over our cleverness in making choices that would harvest a striking return. Truth be told, at that point the only result of those hours and hours of reviewing financial planning and the ins and outs of Old Age Security was to either conclude that (a) with the help of what we’d receive in pension cheques (yes, I’m among the lucky ones who had a healthy pension plan) – we’d be okay financially-speakng in our golden years, or (b) that our dreams of early retirement were just that. As Sebastian says in Act IV of Twelfth Night: “If it be thus to dream, still let me sleep.” Or – paraphrased – guess I’ll have to keep working after all.
Finally on the second day we spent a quick one hour talking about what we’d do with our days once they weren’t devoted to jobs. One hour. Not much time, which reflected that the presenter didn’t think that talking about our lives was worth nearly as much as talking about our finances. That’s when the penny dropped for me; I’d thought a great deal about whether and when I could afford to retire but I’d given no thought at all to what I’d do or who I’d be. Given my proclivity for writing, I worked on my new blog, posting almost every other day. I launched a website – which called For The First Time because, as soon as I started thinking about it, I realized that for the first time in my life I would be able to do whatever I wanted. I was old enough to need no-one’s permission. Children were all adults and responsible for their own lives. Mother was still able to live on her own with the company of a caregiver. Husband (had one then – have a “partner” now) would be working all day. Ah! As the old song says, I was free to be me. But was I really? That’s where anxiety popped in for a visit and had more than a few questions to torment me.
Did my husband expect that I’d pick up the chores he’d been doing since he’d be going to work and I wouldn’t? The marriage didn’t last long after I retired (a story for another time but also a forewarning of what it means when only 1 of you has retired) so the answer to this was moot – I’d be taking care of all of the chores it seemed.
Did my mother think I’d spend each day with her? Devoted to her as I was that wasn’t my idea of having a good time either. Many years earlier I’d heeded the words of playwright Tom Stoppard who said that if you carry your childhood with you, you never grow older. Any quick glance in the mirror shows that I have indeed grown older, so going back to childhood and sitting at my mother’s knee wasn’t in the cards.