Sticking with What Works or Starting Anew?

Catching a Big Fish at Post Lake, Wisconsin, about 1955 (looked big to me)

I remember as a child waking up in the morning to a day fresh and new, filled with possibility. Something exciting was waiting to be discovered, maybe just around the corner. All I had to do was get dressed, scarf down a bowl of cereal, and walk outside. Sometimes I rode my bike around the neighborhood, looking for something interesting. Other times I’d try to find a friend to join me. I’d walk to my friend Carole’s house, and from the street, I’d call “Oh, Carole.” If she could play, she came outside and off we’d go inventing on the way. If not, her mother opened the door and said, “Carole can’t play right now.” In that case, I’d wander to the park or go home and read a book of my choosing. I was between five and ten when I experienced my life this way, the unadorned curiosity of a young girl.

          Idealized, of course, but I remember that time seemed to stretch on forever (especially when I was bored at the end of summer).  Bored or not, I didn’t look outside myself for something to do, rather, I acted from within, indulging my moods and curiosity. My notion of work was uncomplicated, something imposed by adults, “Practice your clarinet, finish your homework, do your chores.” It was before I learned that work was ubiquitous to living, any and all work, jobs, housework, yard work, volunteer work, and meaningful work, however it is defined. I had not yet assimilated the byproducts of work, productivity, success, and accomplishment, as guideposts for adult life.

          I remember telling my son, out of college and frustrated because he couldn’t find a job, “don’t worry about it. You won’t escape working. You will spend basically your whole life working.” At the time, I believed that the necessity of work had absolute power over my life, what I called the “tyranny of work,” because I saw work, too often, as something that needed to get done. I’d lost the inner direction that had, as a child, given so much impetus to my daily living. I didn’t see my work in context, as a necessary part of life but also, if completed purposefully, as an expression of my authentic self. I had not yet come face-to-face with the question of what life would be like without work—retirement, if you please.

And Then It Came. . .  Retirement

          On December 11, 2015, I retired at age 73. I woke up that first Monday, after the retirement toasts at the bar on the previous Friday, feeling that overnight the ground had become unsteady. I was prepared to shower, get dressed for work, fight the traffic, and get a good parking space, but there was nowhere to go. I knew I could sleep in, hang out in blue jeans. . . but then what? Unlike my fellow blogger, Karen Rose, I had not taken a phased retirement. I simply decided that it was time to step aside for someone younger with fresh enthusiasm. I worked on soft money, and I was tired of chasing it. As for getting “busy with something that looks a lot like work,” (Falling from Grace, posted 7/8/2019) I thought it would be easy. Finally, I would have the time to sit at my desk doing the creative writing I’d longed to do but had put off throughout my life.

My Facebook posting with the caption:  This is where it ends. . .

Writing, however, didn’t happen. Ideas suddenly went dormant. Rather, I spent three months having panic attacks until I read a book about how to overcome them. But overcoming them wasn’t the same as addressing the root cause. That little girl who once welcomed a day of possibilities had lost the ability to not only see those possibilities but also to act on them. I was caught in the conundrum of living from within or living from the cultural and societal norms that describe work—I’d fallen from grace and had no idea how to catch myself. . . .

Part 2: One Big Step for Karen-Kind                                           

I shared my angst about adapting to retirement with friends—and I mean “adapt.” I saw it more as forced obsolescence. Friends said to find a new routine.  Do the things you’ve been putting off—like cleaning closets. Find a new direction. I bought into it and muddled my way into a sort of routine, cleaned my desk in lieu of the closets, and started searching for that new direction. I grew a ponytail—I’d never had long hair. It was something I could accomplish.

          I started tutoring fourth graders in math at my local school—I wanted to be productive, feel useful, and there’s nothing as regenerating as being around ten-year-olds. I taught a couple of classes as an adjunct professor, and I joined a research project in my field as a consultant. Writing ideas resurfaced, and I found myself at my desk again. Whew, finally those panic attacks waned. I was in safe territory—work ( I cut off the ponytail).

          Then, as life will do when you’re ready for it, I was thrown a curve, albeit a pleasant one. My husband and I and Karen R. and Dan went on vacation to the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Alpine, Texas http://texascowboypoetry.com/. For two days we were immersed in a culture different than upper midwestern city life. A culture of cowboys, in boots, bolo ties, Ariat shirts freshly pressed, creased jeans, and wide belts with polished silver buckles, standing for over an hour reciting new and classic poems. These poems were about life on the range, around the campfire, under the stars, and the meaning of life when everything slows down and you feel the immensity of our world beneath that naked night sky. Corny poems, sometimes, but poignant, nevertheless, and framed by the big questions we all grapple with—is there someone who watches over us? What is the meaning of our time on earth? Do our lives matter? Turned out, there was more to cowboy poetry than campfires.

          Thinking about the poetry gathering on the plane home and later as I went about my routine of teaching and tutoring, a glimmer of something started to break through. Experiencing the cowboy culture reminded me that there are multiple ways to live and know the world. I was living retirement like my former work life, with never-ending assignments where productivity ruled. I was judging my life through the lens of work, and that’s why I had found retirement wanting, a time for panic, and a need to find something, anything, new to do and quickly.

          I’d crossed that demarcation between work and retirement, and I’d found it painful, so I kept trying to go back to what I knew and had valued for some fifty years—working, doing something meaningful in the eyes of the world. Yet available to me was the life of that young girl who awoke every day to possibilities, unless, of course, I chose to clutter it up with the detritus of those fifty years of working. I realized that I didn’t need to “find a new direction.” I was free to have no direction. To wake up and follow my curiosity. To read a book of my choosing.  To call a friend and hang out at a museum. Even to go to Wales and live (something I’ve dreamed of doing). To sit on the deck and stare at the stars, unless of course, the mosquitos got me first. The point was, I didn’t need to have an agenda, unless that agenda was relearning how to be this person who allows the day to unfold as it wants to. Retirement wasn’t so much the end of work as it was a challenge to “start anew,” to just be and to awaken with curiosity about what the day will bring, and to rediscover the joy of that young girl, which, hopefully, is still in me.

From Anthem

So mornings now I’ll go out riding
Through pastures of my solemn plain,
And leather creaking in the quieting
Will sound with trot and trot again.
I’ll live in time with horse hoof falling;
I’ll listen well and hear the calling
The earth, my mother, bids to me,
Though I will still ride wild and free.
And I ride out on the morning
Before the bird, before the dawn,
I’ll be this poem, I’ll be this song.
My heart will beat the world a warning—
Those horsemen will ride all with me,
And we’ll be good, and we’ll be free.

Buck Ramsey

FALL FROM GRACE?

…..retirement isn’t an event, nor is it a one-size-fits-all proposition. It’s a process that takes time, especially as we look toward post-career lives that are likely to last as long as our working lives…Whether it is through a new line of work, service, learning, or other meaningful activities, Encore Transitions emphasizes post-career engagement as a foundation for vitality, happiness, and healthy longevity (Encore Transitions Program, University of Minnesota).

To fall from grace is an idiom referring to a loss of status, respect, or prestige (Wikipedia).

The University of Minnesota, where both Karen Rose and Karen Martha worked, is busy developing initiatives to support “the successful transition” of their employees and others in the community to the world after retirement.  As we boomers arrive en masse to a time when we are expected to retire, an emerging cottage industry acknowledges that:  (1) most of us won’t die before we are 80; (2) we are terrified of settling in to a life that consists only of golf or babysitting for our adorable grandchildren; and (3) we, apparently, need to be taught how to retire.

At first, the idea of retirement struck me as simply unthinkable.  I would be like Pablo Picasso, who completed his most massive sculpture—the “Chicago Picasso” —  when he was in his late 80s.  I would continue to become a slightly quieter, but significantly more reflective version of what I had always been.  But then I began to observe what happens to most people – perhaps not Picasso or other artists whose creativity seems to expand with age – but most of us.  We just get a little slower, a little more tired.  Perhaps irritating features of work that we overlooked because we were enthusiastic about most of it begin to annoy us more.  Maybe we began to annoy our colleagues more.  Time to think about leaving before people started to hint that it might be time….

The Reality: I loved the external validation that came with being an “expert” in my work life – someone whose wisdom was sought by younger colleagues and whose insights were considered important on various “strategic planning committee” assignments.  It was not as if I didn’t have a life outside of work – an adorable husband, good friends, two adult children who gratifyingly produced grandchildren who were also lovable.  But, I was reminded of the time when my children were young, and I would be introduced as “Erica and Margit’s mother” – it didn’t feel bad, because I knew that was would follow shortly was “she is a professor at the U”.  If retired and introduced as “Margit’s mother,” it would end there.   Unless I became something else.  A new identity is what the “Encore Transitions” program at the U promised to provide – is that promise a shield from invisibility?

If that doesn’t feel like a fall from grace, I don’t know what else I could call it.  Hang up those academic robes.  Remember that every book you have every written ends up on the publisher’s remainder list at about 10 years after it comes out.  Remember that you haven’t kept in touch with people who were good colleagues but who retired a few years before you.  No office.  No one to fix your computer for free. 

What is at stake? Conventional ambition…a desire for visibility and influence?  An inability to be imaginative about the present, much less the future?   I could get a life coach!  But wait, I am a life coach. Oops.

Parker Palmer (who is not retired…although he is nearly our age) writes about this compellingly in Let Your Life Speak (Jossey-Bass, 2000).  Chapter III of his book is titled “When Way Closes”.  He goes on to say,

As often happens on the spiritual journey, we have arrived at the heart of a paradox:  each time a door closes, the rest of the world opens up.  All we need to do is stop pounding on the door that just closed, turn around – which put the door behind us – and welcome the largeness of life that now lies open to our souls…(p 54)

That is the good news.  But it took Palmer a decade to figure this out.  And he was in his 30s and 40s when he confronted losing his first career and finding something else.  And I just re-read a book that is nearly 20 years old and still selling well.  I probably don’t have a decade to figure it out.  Ok – stop wishing that you were Parker Palmer instead of Karen Rose Seashore. 

The less good news is the rather depressing list of course topics included in the U of Minnesota’s “Encore Transitions” classes.  They do not reflect soul work, but approach the topic of retirement as figuring out how to manage the logistics (money, health care, etc.) and get busy with something that looks a lot like work  — but different in an indefinable way (even less definable when it is posed as designing a third act career….). Many people have raved about this program, so I know that the discomfort I feel is in me…

And I am left with a puzzlement.  How often does retirement feel like a fall from grace?   Consider the sad “retirement party” syndrome, where many people stand up to celebrate who you WERE, and add a few vague phrases about what YOU MIGHT DO.  I think that I should ritually burn my academic gown and hood instead!  Except I found it on the back of a door when I moved to a new office after several years of using the cheap rental robes the university provides for people who don’t have their own.  A kind person left it there.  I added a zipper.  Maybe someone else should have it.  Is that falling into grace in this instance?