Writing

Four Stages of Retirement

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Seeing far and fog on a walk in the woods


I’m slipping into my next, the fourth, retirement stage or mindset. I call it Detachment.

First, there was the astonishment that I don’t have to be at a specific place, at a set time, to do a certain thing, and that nothing can be demanded of me by anyone. That was Relief.

Second was Disappointment. This was when Relief was awash with negative thoughts. No one needs me. What am I going to do with all these days stretching ahead of me? How can I fill my time so that I still feel needed, important, alive? This mindset began the stripping bare that’s happening even more now. But, as a courtesy to ourselves, this doesn’t happen all at once.

Third was Unretirement. Looking for activities (volunteer and paid) and get-togethers that made me think that I still have it, that I’m still the person I was, that I’m still good at the things I trained in and practiced for years, the things that, in fact, enabled me to retire early. This stage is when people often go back to work, escaping the freedom of retirement.

Interspersed amongst those mindsets is Escape. Travelling, especially when teaching, was hard during the school year. We all seemed to have someone determining when we could or couldn’t escape. Now, my schedulelessness is another bit of proof that I’m in control of my life and my time. This one also feels good when I hear about other people’s trips—it’s not just mine. There’s less envy than there may have been in the past. Now, it’s about appreciating that other people are cutting loose from whatever schedule they created for themselves and are setting out to have new adventures.

Two weeks into my Oregon sojourn, I realize that I have transitioned into the fourth stage, Detachment. This is me figuring out what I want to do without the imposition of external shoulds or shouldn’ts.

I’ve been spending whole days without anything to show for my time and it barely bothers me. When younger daughter asked what I did one day, I told her, without apologizing, that I read emails, watched lectures, viewed stories on Israel, napped, and took a walk. I can now spend my time productively for me without needing to have anything to show for it. Receiving—information, thoughts, observations, ideas, learnings—are just as important and necessary as output. The veneer of acceptability is being scratched through: I don’t need do something to prove (especially to myself) that I’m not lazy or that my life is of value. Every moment is to be lived and embraced as I need, and within every moment I am figuring out how to keep growing.

As I’ve been thinking about why I continue to write and what I hope to get out of it, I’m becoming aware that I don’t contain within myself all that I want to know and share. I’m ready to learn new things and be a conduit to others. But, and this is key, this is self-directed.

For years, I was fixated on needing to get a PhD to prove (to myself and others) that I know something, that I am an expert in something. But I never did it and now the idea of going back to school and spending years putting my mind under the scrutiny and assessment of professors feels like a waste of the time that I have left and a waste of what I have learned up to this moment.

This, too, is a shift in mindset. I realized that what I want—need—to know is not more detached information. What I need is as pertinent as breath: how can I keep improving as a person.

With no job that demands and drains my time, and adult children who don’t need me for their sustenance, I’m free to follow the path that leads me to be as me as possible, giving me the opportunity to fulfill my purpose as I understand it to be.


“This Thing,” Or Thinking about Death and Getting Older

Mt. Charleston
Mt. Charleston, Nevada

“I’m bothered about this thing with Sandy,” my mother said.

“You mean that she died? You can say that she died,” I responded, a little harshly.

The “thing with Sandy” was not just her discomfort with the word “died” (if you don’t say it out loud, you keep it away apparently), but Sandy, a woman she knew for over 60 years, recently died of lung cancer even though she never smoked. Who in their generation wasn’t exposed to second-hand smoke? So now my mother worries that this will happen to her, especially since both my grandmother and my father smoked.

There seems to be a lottery wheel constantly rolling around in her head with things that she could die of. Unfortunately, the wheel keeps expanding when she hears about yet another person’s death.

At 89, so much of her life exists in memories and then recounted in long phone calls with friends, where the focus is on taking turns to retell, to relive, but not to listen, because that’s not the point, that’s not what’s needed in the exchange.

Women in their 80s and 90s, holding on, rarely going out because of illnesses or fears of the dangers out there. Their increasing frailness and so few positive things to look forward enable trepidation to become a barrier.

Do they only look forward to seeing their children and grandchildren, and hoping for great-grandchildren? Are they done thinking of things to do? Are memories enough? Has life become a waiting game, even though the end is dreaded?

Looking at my mother, at her life that has been still for so long, I wonder what I want to be doing or thinking about if I make it to my 90s.

At 62, I have a hypothetical 30 years to go—not a pause or an epilogue, entire chapters, a new book, a lifetime. Looking at it in stark numbers terms, if I don’t want to regret my life as still life, I need to commit myself to more than I’m doing now. How should I spend the next third of my life (fingers crossed, tfu tfu tfu), so I don’t live with regrets for/in 30 years.

The other day I realized that I’m always searching for meaning. But I’m not content with that; I can simultaneously wonder and do.

With all the time I have to write, I realize that I don’t want to just sit and reflect. I need to be thinking about what I’m doing, gaining insights from living, not only remembering or observing.  

Lately, my focus has been on where I’ll live, but that’s not a cure or the core. That won’t satisfy my endless desire for purpose, to push beyond the borders of my life as it is.  

What will make me feel fulfilled? What new stories will I recount, animating conversations with as yet unmet people?

I’ve been retired for two years; enough time to know that I need something new; but not travel, or a hobby, or a relationship, or a pet. Studies and related work: to get me out of my meditations, not letting my concern for my mother overshadow concerns for myself.

I’m a busy person with two paid part-time jobs and two volunteer jobs: dogsitting, course evaluator for online courses, grant writer, and translator of Holocaust testimonies. Each of these jobs brings satisfaction, but none is enough. None animates my entire being and I realize that I want that: I don’t want to retire from contributing of myself.

In the past, I have often fallen into things. Now I need to be intentional, to get off the conveyor belt. I’m leaning towards expanding my knowledge in a chosen area that aligns with who I am and what I’ve done, so that I can express myself fully in mind, being, and actions. The direction is mine to determine.

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Blooming cactus on Mr. Charleston

New Blogging Opportunity

I'm excited to announce that I now have a blog at the Times of Israel. Some of my writing will be posted there (depending on the topic), rather than here. When that happens, I will post a link here.

Here's my first link, to my post, "Learning Not to Be Judgmental to Save the World." I hope you continue enjoying my writing.

https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/learning-not-to-be-judgmental-to-save-the-world/

 


Isolation Is Not So Alone

Dusk
Dusk

 

It is now Tuesday morning. Since last Wednesday afternoon, I have been living in a cabin in a rustic lake-side resort in a national forest in Oregon. This is where younger daughter and her boyfriend live and work. I’m here dog sitting while they’re on a two-week vacation in Hawaii with his parents. There are guests and other employees around, but I’m not here to engage, I’m here to completely disengage. I now see the impossibility of that.

Since I retired in June, I have been living with my mother in her one-bedroom apartment in Florida. That was quite the change after having been an empty nester for eight years in my own two-bedroom apartment in Northern Virginia after younger daughter went off to college and, like her older sister, only came back for the occasional visit. The transition seemed easy for my mother; after all, I did go to help her out and make her feel less alone after having been a widow for over ten years. I have found it challenging. I haven’t lived with a parent since I was 17—I’ve been the parent for 30 years!—so being watched over by my 87-year-old mother was jarring. Living with anyone after being alone for so long was going to be difficult for me; I didn’t think that I would ever live with anyone again. Which means that I really did look forward to this retreat in the woods.

A mental and physical retreat. A writer’s retreat.

I was going to focus on learning to be okay with myself as a retired person, not feeling that I should be filling my time with activities and interactions, and some kind of work. I was going to settle into my own rhythm, with four daily dog walks mixed in. Walks in a forest and along a lake surely fit into any type of retreat. What’s more, I had decided that I would use this time to see if I was a writer, where the only way to pass the test would be to work on a book and, in my brazenly optimistic moments, write a draft!

I did start the book. And start. And start. And start. Never pleased with the previous day’s direction, each morning I would start again.

Then Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur came, and with them the time to think. My religious practice is certainly not strict, but for a while now I haven’t worked on Shabbat (Saturday) and important holidays. The day of rest: a day when I don’t write or work. I also try not to shop, wanting to have a day when I am satisfied with myself and the current contents of my life. A day when I don’t critique myself and, when I was teaching, I didn’t critique my students either by grading their papers. It is a day when I don’t write, which inherently involves criticism. A day when I don’t think about the productive thing I should be doing. This has helped me perceive myself as a person, not just as a producer of something of “value” outside of myself. There is value sitting in the moment, as I have learned, not just on Shabbat.

My retreat was supposed to be a time to see how stripped down I could get into myself. No people around to interact with and no distractions. Just get my essential story inked on the page.

But this cabin is not minimalistic and, it seems, neither am I. There are meals to think about and being almost an hour to the nearest supermarket makes that a more thoughtful task than usual. There are my mother’s constant update emails and calls (even if the connection is so bad that we only hear half of what the other person says). There are emails and calls from friends and my daughters that mark my days—and are the only things on my calendar. These have made me realize that I am not a person who fully lives within herself—needs to retreat in, as I thought I did. Rather, this retreat has made me realize that solitude is a chapter, not an entire book. My life is enriched with connections, they don’t detract from contemplation-time. After each conversation or email, I realized that there were more things to think about. These are added dimensions—the interweaving of lives through shared stories, perceptions, concerns—not detractors.

I had the entire pandemic to realize this, but it has really come home here in the woods where the solitude that I thought I craved in its totality is neither what I need or want.

If I value others for their presence, their essence, then I, too, am valued for those same aspects of self. I don’t have to produce something to be valued as a person—to value myself as a person. But these friends do have expectations of me, born of my own expressions over time and their perceptions. They expect me to fulfill my desires for myself, even if those desires change. They will not let me cede my passions and skills.

Perhaps they are helping me see that I flourish in the space between expecting too much from myself and not enough. That to flourish means that I need not be alone and solitary, isolated. That to flourish means that I know that there are people who believe in me, as a person and a creator.

And now it is time for walk two of the day. The dogs are restless, as am I. It is time to get back to the freshness of mountain air and to moving my body that is tired from sitting on this wooden bench facing my laptop. It is time to move and observe, alone. An aspect of my day, myself, my needs. An aspect that I can share later, in some way.

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Back to Blogging: Writing, Thinking, Sharing

Forest walk
Forest walk

When I started this blog in 2008, I had just finished going through a contentious divorce from a verbally and emotionally abusive man, but I was still living with him—and the abuse—in the same house with our two daughters. (Note the date and the correlation to the tanked economy and real estate market—it would take another year to sell the house and finally feel divorced.) I can remember writing posts as he was banging on the door of the guest bedroom, yelling at me, my daughters angry at me for not quieting him. It was scary and intimidating. I would huddle over my laptop, feeling less alone in the writing and the posting, even with tears dripping down my face. The writing enabled me to focus on thinking and analyzing me, him, our daughters, the situation; it kept me detached enough to not crumble continually—only some moments, every day. Friends would tell me that they would read the blog to see how I was doing. Readers would comment, letting me know that I was not alone. I would feel strengthened by the connection that writing and sharing made—it was the most secular and heartfelt of prayers.

It took years to get through that experience with my dignity and a shred of humor intact.

At some point, my posts transitioned from internal pain to observing that the world outside of me does, indeed, still exist. It was fun to write and see where my thoughts went, rather than being held within the grip of needing to write as a cathartic experience. I started to write with less pain and more joy. I could write about the comedy of online dating (it may be funny after a failed date, but it was rarely funny during one) and the frustrations of teaching. I shed my main identity as an abused woman, as a divorced woman, and was able to write about life. Yes, the deep meaning of it all, well, as deep as I go. I came to see myself as an essayist, and that did bring me some satisfaction.

While I have always been anonymous on the blog, it is hard to strip all connections, especially if you link to it on other apps in order for people to find it and read what I have to say. Over time, a few students and parents found the blog. Parents complained to administration. I’m not quite sure what there was to complain about; after all, at the first “sighting” of the blog, I deleted the post about having divorce sex. Funny, parents complaining about an English teacher writing. Well, not so funny when you realize that they expect you to be fully committed to their children, more than them it felt like sometimes. I can say that now that I'm retired! And some students, well, they seemed to think that they had one up on me by letting me know that they found it. It’s not as if I was hiding my thoughts in a drawer, but it was uncomfortable.

In the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year, a parent spoke to my assistant principal who let me know that it would be wise to hide the blog from the public. For the first time a student commented on the blog, rather than just looking around silently and making a comment to me. This time I felt violated. So, I took the blog offline, until right before I retired in June. In that time, though, I also stopped writing. I wrote a few poems at the beginning of the pandemic, but I just wasn’t sure of myself as a writer, what I wanted to express and if I wanted to express myself in words.

I focused on retiring after 16 years of teaching and wondering what I would do after. I’m only 60 (wow, using “only” with that number), so I'm not retiring from the world, just a job that got increasingly difficult and unsatisfying, and at the minimum age to get a partial pension. There are things that I enjoy doing (especially baking and cooking in concert with eating), and while I might do something with that (I do make excellent veggie spreads!), I have felt a bit lost without writing. It really is true for me that I don’t explore my thoughts without writing. And now that I don’t have classes to teach, and students and colleagues to talk to, it seems that my mind is fluttering about. It needs to land occasionally.

At first, I thought I would write a book. But whenever I start writing a book, I don’t get anything done. (I will add in my defense that I have written a few books in the past, but the process was always an unsatisfying battle.) Each day I would rewrite what I wrote the day before, filling my “notes” document, but not my Chapter 1 document. When it comes to writing these shorter posts, personal essays, I get right to it. One sitting, one post. My body and mind sync with that. Why fight who I am and what I do best? Doesn’t being 60 and retired mean that I need to be honest with myself about my abilities, and my strengths and weaknesses. My truths! So, here I am, back here.

This blog has been home to me for longer than any physical home since I went off to college at 17. I still feel that I am a rebellious woman expressing my thoughts. I hope you will join me in this continuation of my/our journey and subscribe (Yeah! I figured out how to do that now that the app I used before is no longer supported), and even comment. I look forward to continue meeting here into the future.

Welcome!  

Laura