BEYOND RETIRING: RETHINKING, REINVENTING, RENEWING OURSELVES

By Paul

Having stopped work some seven and a half years ago now, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on what retirement actually means, and to an extent how to do it, at least for myself.

But before discussing it in detail, I should probably admit to being a little uneasy with the term retirement itself. After all, if we take a look at the etymology of the word and note its history and where it comes from, we see that it first entered into English back in the 16th century, coming from the Middle French “re” and “tirer,” meaning “back” and “to draw.” So, the sense was to draw back, to separate oneself from, to retreat, to withdraw to a place of safety and seclusion. Later on, it took on another specific meaning, that of going to bed. People in the nineteenth century, for example, might well have said, “I think I shall retire now,” and everyone understood that they wished to leave the company and go to their bedroom in order to sleep. Even today, the emphasis seems to be on the leaving of something, on separating oneself from, on pulling out, or absenting oneself from what had come before. Is that, I wonder, what I was thinking of when I retired?

Well, to an extent, I suppose it was. I knew I was leaving a job I’d had for almost twenty years, in a profession I’d practiced for more than forty years. I knew I would no longer be following that same regime of getting up and going to an office each morning, arriving by 7:00 a.m., or so (I always got there early), and dealing with all of the managerial and supervisory issues that once filled my day, to say nothing of a host of policy concerns, as well as the rounds of endless meetings, the official visitors from universities abroad who frequently came by, and numerous other tasks that it was my duty to perform. From all this, I knew, I was in fact withdrawing. And I was quite happy to do so. As much as I had once found it all interesting and even stimulating, by that time I’d really had quite enough of it.

So, it was clear that retirement meant putting the emphasis on my departing from something. It did not, however, say anything about my stepping into anything new. But in fact that was exactly what I was looking forward to. I felt much more as though I were entering into a new phase of life, rather than merely ending an old one. I certainly did not feel as though I was withdrawing from the world, or retreating into a place of safety and, except for the usual hours of slumber, I definitely didn’t feel like I was stumbling off to bed. In fact, I still often get up before 6:00 a.m., perform my daily meditation, eat breakfast, and then go to work on some project or other.

Before discussing what I do, I want to make sure not to be misunderstood. I’m not one of those people who believes that they are wasting their life if they’re not constantly “busy.” Busyness, in and of itself, has never been a goal of mine. I’m not sure what that even exactly means, but I am often quite content just to sit and read a book, or occasionally go out into the backyard and look at the beautiful flowers that my partner and I are growing there: lilies of several different varieties, orchids, snapdragons, pansies, petunias, freesias (depending on the season, of course), as well as irises, roses, and so on.

Even so, I still have things that I want to do, tasks I’d like to accomplish. I suppose I could say one of them was thinking about what this notion of retirement means. It may seem odd that thinking about what you’re going to do could be considered in someway akin to the actual doing of it. But let’s remember that most actions have their genesis in thought, and without prior contemplation and reflection we risk those actions coming off as half-baked and ill-conceived.

Which brings me back to the notion of life-after-retirement. Rethinking, reinventing, renewing, these are, or ought to be, the first occupations a post-retired man or woman ought to spend time considering. I’ve already spoken about the rethinking part, but it is the essential starting point. Or not. Maybe you don’t need to spend a lot of time thinking. Maybe your interests are already perfectly clear. I know they were for me. Long before I retired, I knew that I wanted to spend a lot of time writing. And I have done that. I never promised myself that I had to be “successful” at it, that I had to find a publisher and get it out there in book form. Of course, it would still be nice, but I always felt the most important thing was to continue writing. In fact, so far I’ve written dozens of short stories, some poetry, a novella, a post apocalyptic novel and, of course, more or less weekly essays on our blog. Between my blog partner, Kevin, and myself, we now have 147 essays posted on this site.

That, I suppose, was in essence the rethinking part of it, followed by action, by getting into a rhythm, a kind of regime, sitting down each day and writing. You do it, even if you don’t always feel like it, or feel inspired, or if you’d really rather take a nap. All writers, whether they are successful at it or not (that is, whether they’re published or not), know that writing is a discipline. Of course, not every reinventing of oneself in retirement necessarily demands such a marked degree of self-regulation. As I’ve already mentioned, self-discipline itself also needs to leave room for just sitting back and musing, and on sometimes doing nothing at all.

In some ultimate way, retirement also gives us the opportunity to both renew and to reinvent ourselves. Those who are successful at it do so in ways that deepen, enrich, and reinvigorate their bodies and their psyches. Although not the only approach, one way to do this is to take on something completely different from what you had done at work in the past. If you were an engineer, for example, begin a process of learning about poetry or film or painting; if you were in business all of your life, spend time with little children or teaching reading to adults who have never learned how to do so; if you spent your life with the principal aim of making money, spend your retirement helping the poor; if you managed an office or taught literature, become impassioned and learn all you can about theoretical physics and the great mysteries of the cosmos. There is a great deal to be said for this kind of renewal and reinvention of the self in different and potentially fascinating arenas of life that played no role in your earlier professional world. I’m not saying that this is right for everyone, but consider the benefits in terms of the expansion of one’s horizons and of the sheer joy and reinvigorating energy of learning and doing something entirely new.

And let us not forget our bodies. Human beings are not just minds, or psyches, or emotional or even spiritual beings. We are also corporeal ones. We have bodies and we owe it to these bodies to take care of their needs. Get out there and exercise! If you’ve never exercised before, of course, don’t go crazy. Be smart about it and begin reasonably. Start with a short walk every day. Fifteen or twenty minutes are enough, but keep at it. The key to exercise at any age, but especially when one is older, is to do it regularly. And gradually build up so that, after a while, you are walking half an hour each day, and eventually forty or forty-five minutes. Add other calisthenics, as well, a few easy sit-ups, some jumping-jacks, and as you get more and more fit, you can even add push-ups. If you have never exercised on any kind of a regular basis before, this too is part of renewal in retirement.

And I have nothing against television, but keep watching it to a minimum. If contemplation is best (and again here I include both reading and the appreciation of nature), constructive and energizing action is second best. Leave TV watching to a distant third. People sometimes get stuck in retirement because no one is there to organize and construct their day, the way the demands of work once did. So, be that organizing person for yourself. Make a schedule, stick to it, vary from it when it seems right, and do nothing when that’s best.

One way or another, don’t just retire from something. Consider it an opportunity to rethink, reinvent, and renew your life. In so doing, you will greatly benefit, and play a role, however large or small, in making the world a better place – surely for yourself – and perhaps for everyone around you, as well.

POST HOLIDAY POST PARTUM POSTPONED

by Paul

Is there such a thing as post holiday blues?  If there is, I suppose I could understand why.  After all, the holidays are filled with fun and family and fine food, aren’t they?  They’re supposed to be at any rate.  That’s the myth, and that’s the Disneyesque picture: lots to do, lots of people gathered round the tree in sweaters, drinking steaming cups of hot chocolate.  And don’t forget the presents, too!

Of course, the truth of the matter is that most of us don’t have families that align very well with this storybook picture, even though we’ve seen it umpteen times on any number of holiday greeting cards.  Thomas Kinkade hit on a similar and familiar formula, and made a fortune doing so, churning out painting after painting of happy homes nestled in the snow-covered dell next to a sparkling stream.  You’ve seen them before: the light is streaming out of the curtained window, and it lands in a comfy, gleaming rectangle on the glittering, freshly fallen moon-lit snow.

It all sounds wonderful, and I actually don’t mean to sound overly crass or cynical about it.  I love Christmas, as a matter of fact, and am more than happy to indulge in all of the loveable lore and all the comforting myth-making I can get my grubby hands on.  But what about afterwards?  What about taking Christmas down?  What about putting all the decorations away for another year?  I mean, for one thing, who knows what Christmas 2013 will bring?  Will the world be a better place?  Given what we’ve seen of human history, I’d have to say that the chances of that are slim, and I’ll be happy to settle at least for a not-worse one.

So, come January 1st each year, I have to say that I’m ready.  I’ve drunk all the eggnog I can take, gained the two or three pounds I always gain from all of the luscious food that I’ve been eating, and seen enough of the glittering angels and the twinkling lights, and I’m ready to move on.

But believe me, it’s not a fun job taking the tree down.  At our house, at least, it’s a major undertaking, because we decorate it pretty lavishly.  We’ve been doing it for over 30 years, and that’s more than enough time to have built up a store, to have accumulated season after season of ornaments and trinkets and doodads, all of which have to be wrapped up in their own proper paper and put away in boxes for safe storage.

Still, maybe post partum (as in the title of this piece) is a bit too strong of an image.  It is a term, after all, that translates to “after birth.” But while Christians celebrate Christmas only as the birth of Christ, I think of it as a combination of things.  Let me say right off, too, that I am a great admirer of Christ, the Avatar of Love.    It’s what some of his followers have done in his name that I have a beef with.  In fact I think that, if he were around in a body today, he’d be pretty displeased with an awful lot of them.  For me, though, Christmas is a celebration of Christ’s birth, and it’s a joyous acknowledgement of the Winter Solstice, a way of bringing light and warmth and joy to a time of year when the sun sets early, and even in Southern California there’s a chill in the morning air.

But the question arises, would I want to – I will use the word – prolong Christmas?  Would I want to keep the decorations up and continue the music and the sipping of eggnog all year long?  Or even until springtime comes round?   And the answer has to be that I would not.

As difficult as it is to put away, there’s something cleansing about taking everything down for another year and stowing it away safely in the closet.  There’s something refreshing and renewing about bringing the house back to the simplicity, or at least the relative simplicity, of its pre-decorated state, of clearing things away and starting afresh.  There’s a reason why nature, and human beings in imitation of it, likes cycles.  Cycles have an end, a time when things have run their course and need regeneration, revitalization, reinvigoration.  We break things down into sections and seasons, into pieces we can handle.

Night gives way to morning, and morning to the brightness of the afternoon.  The evening then follows, with its time for rest and restoration.  Early January is like that, too.  The coziness of Christmas is over, and the world takes a deep breath again and plunges back into its ongoing business.

That business is often bullying and brutal, granted, but it is what we have, and what we make of it.  There’s a part of me, I’ll admit, that secretly longs for the next Holiday Season, that counts the months and looks forward to the beauty of next year’s celebration.  In the meantime, however, it would be a mistake not to recognize the loveliness of January, too, with its chill and its rain and snow.  After all, every season has something to celebrate, and I’m ready for the new year.  What that year will amount to is yet to be revealed, and maybe I’ll live to eat my words.  But I hope not.  I hope that it will bring its own brand of creativity, and its own experiences that I can learn from.

There’s a reason why people say that hope springs eternal.  It’s because we need that new thing to look forward to, that next adventure, that fresh challenge.  And if taking down the old, and clearing things out in order to create a clean space for what is to come is what it takes, then so be it.  I’ve been around long enough to know that the old will come round and become new again, and I’ll look forward to unpacking those boxes once more and to the celebration of the cozy and comforting Christmas of 2013 to come.