Monitor Board of Contributors: The Ten Best (and Five Worst) Things About Retiring
pen this early in the New Year, 2014, six months into retirement. Rather than try to hold onto remnants of my former career, I have sought new challenges. My wife, 10 years my junior, continues to work part time, but that leaves us several days a week to do things together. She is adjusting, as they say, to a life of “half the paycheck, twice the husband.”
Since July 1, I have been mostly up to my own devices, as far as that aspect of life we think of as “work.” With a modest income from decades of retirement saving, good health and neither aging parents nor grandchildren, my obligations don’t include the joys and challenges of caring for those unable to fully care for themselves. This will change I hope, with respect to grandchildren, and then my scope of freedom will happily adjust.
Today, I ponder how six months’ retirement measures up against 50 years of employment beginning, after graduating college 1963, as a New York City welfare department investigator, then as a Peace Corps Volunteer in West Africa, then a teaching assistant at the University of New Hampshire, and then . . . But this essay is neither my resume nor my obituary. I am fortunate in having the opportunity to choose to be unemployed, and I have the greatest sympathy for those retirees who are obliged to take low-paying jobs to supplement meager Social Security income.
I continue to view retirement as an ever-unfolding gift. When I chance to wonder what day of the week it is, I get a small thrill in realizing that it doesn’t matter! Things that I miss about being “an important person” pale in comparison to those I now delight in.
Sleeping late is not one of them. I arise as early as I did when I had an hour’s commute. And the first thing I do (well, actually, the second thing – I am, after all, a man in my early 70s and God has willed my prostate to expand even as my hair recedes) is to look out the window. In those early moments, as I watch the sun come up between the two church spires downtown, I am overcome with the grace to have such rich possibilities. Not so surprisingly, taking time to brew the perfect cup of coffee is one.
Allow me to list the 10 best things I find in retirement. I’ll add five less desirable ones, just for the heck of it. They are in no particular order – each day one or another rises to the top.
Creating Each Day’s Agenda, Based Largely on the Weather. The luxury of allowing the weather to guide my activities seems extravagant, a privilege that only the British Royalty might possess (but I bet they don’t have that freedom – there are always ship’s bows to smash with champagne, horse races to preside over, raffish lower nobility to keep in line). I can now actually plan to gather firewood when the sun is warm, or oysters in Great Bay on a morning when the tide is low.
Staying Fit By Doing Useful and Fun Things Outdoors. I’ve never been one for gyms or exercise machines. After a little thought I find something useful to do, like hiking on the Marjorie Swope trail, gathering and chopping firewood, shoveling snow, or walking briskly downtown to shop and thus exercise my legs and arms.
Planning a Vegetable Garden in the Woods. I never imagined how pleasurable it would be to plan out a garden, clear trees for sunlight (and firewood), construct raised beds out of local lumber, haul and spread loam, build a deer fence, order seeds and try to figure out how to start them early. All wonderful problems to solve.
Devoting Energy to the Arts (especially ones I don’t think I’m very good at). This one makes my heart soar. To take up my cello again and try to play baroque music, to begin again to paint with oils after 25 years, and to write a novel on a laptop, whether out at our camp (off the grid) or in a sunlit kitchen by a wood stove – these indeed seem like special compensation for a half-century of “work.”
Keeping a Reflective Journal. A different kind of writing. I never before had time to collect my thoughts and write carelessly (without editing) about the day’s events. To date I am at 70 pages and 40,000 words and haven’t yet looked back.
Learning to Be an Active Part of One’s Community (and perhaps making gentle mischief). This essay is a start. Stay tuned for the “mischief” part.
Planning Off-Season Trips and Recreational Jaunts. My wife is a genius at finding vacation deals. We plan one or two trips yearly to interesting places, at times when nobody else much seems to want to go there. Also, we can hop into the car for a mid-week day of skiing or hiking when the snow is fresh, the weather fine, and the trails are empty. Priceless!
Doing Repairs and Chores With Care. I can plan how and when to repair and clean a chimney, replace a few roof shingles, install doorknobs, etc., without having to squeeze them in on weekends.
Imagine hanging clothes outside to dry on a clothesline on a “work day”! (My wife reminds me she’s been doing that for years.)
Squeezing Oranges and Making Soup. No, these two activities are not connected. But who has time to squeeze fresh oranges for juice – on a weekday? Turns out it costs less than a dollar a glass, and there is no substitute for it in taste. Soup, again, is something to care for, lovingly, over the course of a day spent writing or doing other things around the house and yard.
Learning to Live More Simply. Making soup out of what’s left in the fridge is one way. Realizing that our family income is now substantially reduced and that I might live for more years than I imagined focuses the mind on Thoreau’s comment that “a man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.”
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On to more problematic aspects of retirement:
Not Feeling So Important. It takes a while to accept the fact that nobody is coming to you to make decisions, that the world (and your former job site) seem to be doing quite well without you.
Missing the Companionship of Professional Colleagues and of Students. I remember, as a yearly New Year’s resolution, the goal of having each day a genuine conversation about learning and teaching – and finding that on most days that actually did happen with colleagues and students. The solution is to find more local friends to meet and talk with. I’m working on it.
Avoiding the Temptation to Watch TV. Mortality is a ticking clock. Wasting time watching mediocre entertainment is a loss of what’s most precious. It’s like finding yourself with a piece of stale cake in your hand and wanting to stuff it in your mouth anyway.
Coming to Terms with Loss of Short-Term Memory. So, five times a day, you wander upstairs and then have to come downstairs again to where you started out, so as to try to remember why you went upstairs in the first place. Funny, you can remember heaps of things you have no desire to recall. But where did you place the damn car keys?
Having to Deal With All That Stuff. The oppressiveness of things we’re loaded down with, shoved into closets, stored in attic or basement, stuffed into file cabinets. Just imagine how your children will feel if you die and leave them that mess to sort through! Better get at it. Now!
(Robert L. Fried of Concord recently retired as director of the Upper Valley Educators Institute in Lebanon. He is the author of “The Passionate Teacher” and “The Game of School.”)