Sunday, February 24, 2013

Holding the Thread

Where did this idea come from that the good life was a perpetual Hawaii vacation? No schedules, no responsibilities, no work? That our jobs were merely to be endured until the bliss of retirement? Then golf every day, naps when you want, a perpetual bridge club party, preferably in Florida (or Hawaii). Of course, those of us caught in a deadly daily commute, bone-weary at the end of the day, watching the clock tick in boring meetings, might be thinking, “Sounds great to me!”

But statistics and friends I know retiring say otherwise. Retirement might look from afar as step into the Golden Years, but the doorway to it is an often harsh and difficult farewell to the life that has been our constant companion. Whether we loved our work or hated it, looked forward to it each day or merely endured it, were energized or exhausted by it, our jobs provided a thread that connected the days. For some of us, work was our chosen thread that nourished our passion, for many (most?), work was bread and we looked elsewhere for our deeper fulfillment—family, travel, hobbies, a separate life cobbled together in the evenings, weekends and summer vacations.

But whether thread or bread, the newly retired often feel a bit adrift, directionless, tossed about it in the choppy seas of deciding whether to do this project or that one. With the freedom to fill the hours however we choose comes the responsibility to fill the hours. And lost in that sea without a thread, there are suddenly a lot of hours to fill.

Maybe it’s time to change our attitudes about both work and retirement. Work, when it’s the work that suits us, uses our capacities and helps us feel useful, feel needed, feel connected to the world, feel threaded into a greater fabric that would be more dull without our particular texture and color. When we’ve paid our dues and put in the years, we do feel a yearning to follow some of our deferred passions, to lighten the load, to re-balance the schedule. It seems like the most successful transitions come from this gradual lightening that allows us to keep ahold of our thread, but also start to weave in some other ones long left neglected. My wife, now in her 39th year teaching art at the same school, is down to three days a week at school and four days off— plus a 10 week summer. Not bad! I’m four days a week, but with three months off each year to write, travel and teach. And three more in summer. Equally sane! Of course, not everyone can do that (thank you, SF School!), but I see that friends who leave their workplace, but keep connected in their field consulting or teaching one day a week or volunteering their time, get the best of both worlds— the freedom of naming each day and the pleasure of feeling useful.

I imagine the latter is the most difficult transition for my retired friends. We spend a lifetime contributing and perpetually preparing for how we are needed and then we are suddenly not needed. Especially in a culture where our identity is tied to our work, to stop our work is to lose a big piece of ourself, to become superfluous to society and shooed off to the retirement community in Arizona (or Florida or Hawaii—note the pattern. No big exodus to upstate Minnesota!) And while it’s lovely to go on a cruise, sleep late, meet friends for afternoon coffee, I imagine some miss that thread of feeling useful and needed and valued. Maybe that’s where babysitting the grandkids comes in! In fact, that’s the perfect metaphor. The pleasures of child-raising without the full measure of responsibility. The pleasure of following our passion and keeping our skillset sharpened without the exhausting ambition, dull meetings and relentless schedule.

What brought all this on? Is this a backdoor way to announce my retirement? Absolutely not. But I see my newly retired friends struggle to hold on to some kind of thread to give a shape to their days. Serendipitously, someone sent me the poem below by William Stafford that has something to contribute to these thoughts. I’ll give him the last word and take off for a Sunday walk. With my thread in hand.

The Way It Is

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change.  But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

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