I’ve been retired now for ten years but remember that in 2004 I was worried about whether I had saved enough and invested enough to make it into “old age,” which, by the way, keeps leaping about ten years beyond where I am at any given moment. It turned out that I had no financial worries and needed instead to concern myself with how I would spend my time in the most productive and entertaining ways. My alarm clock became a physical anachronism whose digital dial began to glow on my night table in a much friendlier way than it had during all those years that I had to get up at five every weekday morning.
The hobbies of painting in oils, playing piano, reading, cooking, gardening, and travel were all wonderful ways to pass time in meaningful ways, but it has been writing that has given me the most pleasure and pride over those ten years. One of the greatest fears that people have is that they will not be able to fill all that “free time” in fulfilling ways, but I believe if there’s a secret to having a good retirement, it may be to try new things, have creative outlets, and simply not to worry about not doing what others think is necessary in being “free.” Nobody said that you have to win a Nobel Prize, climb Mount Everest, or save a third-world country by yourself. It’s really about following your heart and not being afraid to take a different path once in a while. Make new friends, and nurture your old friendships.
Being a responsible citizen in terms of going to a traditional job for eight to ten hours a day for forty years is wonderful, but retirement changes that ethos by allowing more choices and liberty to make your life mean whatever you want it to mean on a daily basis. You aren’t locked into anything. Hedonism becomes only one of many possibilities after retirement, and no guilt should weigh you down, even for a moment about all those doors you want to open. One of my favorite anonymous quotations is, “Life is filled with doors we haven’t opened, and rooms we can’t go back to.” Have no regrets.
I’m not sure that anyone has captured in a more amusing or meaningful way the significance of retirement than the poet, David Wright, whose poem for his friend on this topic I’d like to share:
Lines on Retirement, after Reading Lear
by David Wright
for Richard Pacholski
Avoid storms. And retirement parties.
You can’t trust the sweetnesses your friends will
offer, when they really want your office,
which they’ll redecorate. Beware the still
untested pension plan. Keep your keys. Ask
for more troops than you think you’ll need. Listen
more to fools and less to colleagues. Love your
youngest child the most, regardless. Back to
storms: dress warm, take a friend, don’t eat the grass,
don’t stand near tall trees, and keep the yelling
down—the winds won’t listen, and no one will
see you in the dark. It’s too hard to hear
you over all the thunder. But you’re not
Lear, except that we can’t stop you from what
you’ve planned to do. In the end, no one leaves
the stage in character—we never see
the feather, the mirror held to our lips.
So don’t wait for skies to crack with sun. Feel
the storm’s sweet sting invade you to the skin,
the strange, sore comforts of the wind. Embrace
your children’s ragged praise and that of friends.
Go ahead, take it off, take it all off.
Run naked into tempests. Weave flowers
into your hair. Bellow at cataracts.
If you dare, scream at the gods. Babble as
if you thought words could save. Drink rain like cold
beer. So much better than making theories.
We’d all come with you, laughing, if we could.