The beginning of retirement, like the first day of kindergarten, is often abrupt.
Some years ago, my mother reminded me of waiting with her for the school bus on my first day. I clutched my lunchbox in a small fist as the huge yellow bus rolled to a stop at our driveway. The doors clattered open; I approached the steps, grabbed the handrail, turned and said, “Bye Mom,” then climbed aboard.
Retirement starts that way for many when they say goodbye on that last day and walk out the door. That is how I retired, and I now realize it helped me know a special kind of freedom.
One Man’s Story
When I quit working, Barbara, my wife, was still employed, so unlike kindergarten, my first retirement experiences were not social. That first Monday I rose early and had breakfast on the deck, cereal, toast, and coffee, with two newspapers. I read everything of interest and had two or three cups of coffee.
Then I went for a 20- to 30-mile bicycle ride in the country. No hurry. Once home, I showered and had lunch. Memories of the afternoon as well as succeeding days have faded, but I do remember impressions and themes.
Since Barbara still worked, I was alone most days. I walked, rode the bike, swam, worked in the yard and woods, and read. So much reading to catch up on.
I felt little need to seek companionship. The solitude was pleasant and rejuvenating.
I sort of remember a growing awareness that retirement lacked structure. Each day seemed unconnected to others. I had one commitment left over from work, but it was an outside project, independent of the university. Otherwise, I had not made commitments before retiring, and I was unaccustomed to not having them. ‘What do you want to do today?’ I remember thinking day after day. I had no goals, few due dates, and a calendar with large open periods.
Recreation occupied those initial months. I was euphoric at first. Yet as the months rolled by, I grew somewhat anxious and sad—it was subtle. The phone didn’t ring; professional information no longer flowed automatically across my desk. Students and colleagues couldn’t pop in as they did when I was at work.
At the same time I began to realize that although I suffered loss from leaving work and wanted something useful to do, I was also experiencing a rare freedom, something people seldom encounter in other stages of life.
As small children, our parents set our agendas. We toddled along. After starting school, and continuing on through work life, we were expected to show up every day, perform tasks, and meet agendas and goals. During school, summers were sometimes a reprieve, but for many in our generation, summers involved work. Showing up, studying, working, aiming high, meeting goals—for 50 or 60 years—from kindergarten through a career.
Gradually I grew stronger and more passionate about having left the goals and duties behind. I didn’t yet know what would fill the years, but I knew I had hold of an unprecedented time of wonder and possibility, like dandelion seeds before the wind. Retirement became an adventure, yet without apparent danger; it was something to discover.
Freedom of Mind
Leaving work abruptly, starting retirement without commitments, and being open to solitude all helped clean out my mind and empty my life of work-related stuff. Yet I still had years of experience, years of physical, emotional, and intellectual practice, unlike when I started kindergarten or my career.
Now, 10 years into retirement, I have a set of commitments and activities. This blog is one, and there are others. I keep in touch with my brothers, other family members, and my friends, especially friends from high school. I walk nearly every day in our neighborhood, visiting along the way, and I am learning digital photography. I still enjoy working in the woods around our house, cutting firewood, transplanting trees, and maintaining trails.
It turns out I’m comfortable with a life of small, day-to-day accomplishments, a life that is totally ordinary. This acceptance of things as they are may well constitute a profound freedom of mind that is available to all. That’s what I am thinking tonight.