I thought I learned a lesson about retirement when I visited my grandparents in Miami Beach when it was still a retirement haven, long before it became the hip place to party.
By the shuffleboard court (with nary a pickleball court in sight), a neighbor of theirs told me, “I have a list of books that I told myself I’d read when I retire.”
“How long have you been retired?” I asked, thinking that he would say a few months, settling in before tackling Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and War and Peace.
“About five years,” he responded. Then, he went on to talk about all the volunteer activities that were keeping him busy.
A person doesn’t change who they are when they retire, I thought at the time. I even used this as an anecdote when talking to people about my perception of retirement. Recently, I learned that I was wrong.
A friend, another former high school English teacher, and I talked about how our main hobby is reading. It’s our “activity” of choice whenever we have downtime. So, I expected to luxuriate in my reading hobby in retirement. And I did, I do. But a funny thing happens when your wish is granted—or when I got unlimited time to read—I realized that it’s not enough to live for or focus on.
It’s not that I don’t have good books to read, especially since my list of recommendations is always growing and I got over the mental hurdle of reading on my phone, but I feel uncomfortable giving in to the couch and a book in the middle of the day, especially weekdays. Friends have told me, “You’ve given of yourself for your entire teaching career and as a mother, you’ve earned it. You can relax.” But I can’t. It feels too selfish, like I’m just taking.
Reading was always an escape for me; it was how I learned about the world and the people in it. In college, when I decided not to major in Political Science, I wavered between switching to literature or psychology. Literature won out because it felt truer to me to learn from stories that people create based on their lives and perceptions (and I stayed awake reading novels, except for the Victorians), while psychology, with its dense textbooks that put me to sleep, was too detached and dry.
When I was teaching, not only did I get to read for work, but when I read non-school books, it was both an escape and the source of insights and lessons that I could share with my students and daughters. My reading served a purpose outside of myself. Now, it’s just for my own entertainment. Which doesn’t sit well with me.
The other day I overheard two men talking. One commented that he was feeling old at 60. The other said that a relative of his just turned 101, noting that if the other man lived that long, “you have almost a whole life ahead of you.” The preternaturally elderly 60-year-old, thanked the other man for the perspective, as did I, silently. Just because I have accepted certain things about myself in the past doesn’t mean that they should determine my future.
It seems that the question I need to ask is “What do I want to get out of my reading?” since a few hours of retreat into a book’s world makes me feel that I should be doing something productive. Then the question reframed itself: “What do I want to do with the things I learn and absorb in a day?”
Which immediately made me think of how we interact in real life: in conversations. I thought of the two main types of conversations we have. There are the details conversations, where you hear (even if you don’t want to) about what a person did and said and ate and bought. Then, there are those which are an exchange of ideas and experiences, where questioning and receiving support are integral, raising a conversation into a productive activity.
Now, I see that my conversations continue to be fruitful because of the words I read on the page. It’s as if I come forward—across a table, a phone, a Zoom screen—bolstered by the stories and insights I’ve gleaned from a supporting cast of characters and authors. This is especially true in retirement when I don’t interact with many people. Rather than a way to retreat from the world, books enhance the way I engage with it.
Which means, that, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to hit the couch (or beach), book in hand. We can talk later.