Thursday, May 16, 2013

Retirement - if it's so easy, why did I nearly flunk it?

As seen through younger eyes retirement looks like an easy thing. My grandson is convinced it must be “the sweetest thing ever.” And why not, when I “can play computer games all day and all night,” if I’m so inclined? But I know better.

I was not surprised to read that a recent study at the London-based Institute of Economic Affairs concluded that retirement, and the life-altering changes it creates, can contribute significantly to a decline in health and an increase in depression. I’ve been there, experienced the frustration of a new and unstructured lifestyle. After years of looking forward to that magic time when work, with its sticky, always demanding tentacles, would no longer dictate the shape of my day, I  learned that retirement is not easy at all.

We spend years dreaming our dreams of that special prize waiting at the end of our employment journey. “The Golden Years” we call them, the ones I’ve labeled the October Years. We paint glowing mind-pictures of how it will be---the things we’ll do and the places we’ll see, The fortunate happenstance of being born into the “pension plan” generation, with its generous payouts, can even make those dreams financially feasible, as long as we can agree on which dreams to follow, and stay healthy long enough to enjoy them. 

Beyond the economic and health implications we are likely to face a more elemental set of choices---deciding how to use the time that retirement provides. It may seem like that is the least of our worries. In fact it can be a serious challenge. The fortunate ones began their preparation years before---cultivating interests and capabilities to help them ease into that time when the structure and strictures of employment are removed and they are face to face with empty, unscheduled days.

In a matter of weeks at the most, the giddy exhilaration of being past the need to  be up and off to work wears off, and for at least some of us the real test begins. For those who are not prepared it has the feel of a clean slate or, if you are a writer, a blank page. However you describe it, your new job is to fill in the blanks. Unless your are willing to settle for couch-potato-hood the abundance of unclaimed time is a challenge that demands your attention. Chances are if it doesn’t, your spouse will. You have hours, days, and weeks to fill with some activity. But how?

As I started my own search for a viable retirement project my guidelines were vague at best. I was looking for a means of creative expression I had never found in my work. I told myself it was time to be bold, to take a chance, even risk failure. That too was not part of the work-a-day school administrator I had been. But this time I didn’t need to satisfy anyone else---only myself. If, at the same time, my work pleases others, that’s fine. But in the end I intend to be the sole judge of what is acceptable and what is not.

That I stumbled onto my storytelling, the thing that worked for me, was primarily a matter of “try, try again.” The wife’s gardening didn’t suit me. I just couldn’t be interested in woodworking. It was hard to get excited about something as pathetic as my golf game. Not until I came across a thirty year old manuscript, a story I had written and set aside, did I sense that I had found my retirement project.

Take if from someone who very nearly flunked retirement---it is a big change, one that requires serious attention. We begin with grand ideas of how it will be, but little experience in actually living that new life. For perhaps the last time in our life we have the opportunity to choose our future. The goal is simple enough---to settle on a life and lifestyle that suits us, something that will hold our interest, perhaps even help us grow, for years to come. After all, it’s the rest of our life we’re talking about.

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