- By Jill Smolowe
Aging has never been a tender subject for me. When I look in a mirror, it’s still all about the hair, not the accumulating wrinkles or cellulite. Turning 60? Piece of cake. Granted, my Millennial daughter’s horrified reaction to an invitation from a 35-year-old-woman — “But Mom, she’s so old!”— left me biting my ancient lips. But it was laughter I was suppressing, not tears.
I thought, in other words, that I had this aging thing under control.
That is, until a recent exchange brought me up short. I was at a meeting of my writers group, which has been gathering monthly for almost 20 years to share ideas, contacts and encouragement. “What are you up to?” a friend called to me across the circle. I ticked off my current endeavors: writing essays, running a writing workshop, editing an anthology and coaching grief and divorce clients. “But the work comes and goes in waves,” I said. “At the moment, I’m not feeling busy enough.”
Mention retiring, and my brain rushes in with a slew of unappealing synonyms. Shrinking. Disengaging. Backing away. Withdrawing. Shutting down.
My friend, whose own writing life is on an admirable roll, responded cheerfully, “Are you and your honey retired?”
What, Me Retired?
Oof! I felt like I had been kicked in the solar plexus. “I’m sorry. What?”
“Are you and your honey retired?” she repeated.
Tingling with a welter of emotions that I’m sure she hadn’t intended to ignite — confusion, embarrassment, diminishment — I muttered, “God, I hope not.”
Until that moment, I hadn’t grasped how much I hate the word, the idea, the very concept. Upon reflection, I realize that I hate any variation of the word.
Retirement? For me, that conjures images of decrepit people slumped in wheelchairs and quasi-dazed elders aimlessly trying to fill an excess of hours. Mention retiring, and my brain rushes in with a slew of unappealing synonyms. Shrinking. Receding. Disengaging. Backing away. Withdrawing. Shutting down. Bottom line: living a life of minutia and boredom, devoid of purpose and meaning.
You may be thinking, Hey lady, take a chill pill. Retirement. It’s only a word. Sheesh.
In a Word
I hear you — and you’re not wrong. Still, why that word? Why, when seeking to describe the calmer phase of life that follows the three-ring circus phase (kids, career, household management), did some bard dip into the inexhaustible well of words and emerge with the one we associate with ending the day and sinking into slumber?
OK. Deep breath. I know I’m being a bit ridiculous. After all, I did take a corporate “retirement package” in 2013, eager to move on from a journalism career that, after affording me challenge and pleasure for more than 35 years, had come to feel more stale than energizing. Technically, I did, in a word, retire.
But even as I signed off on salaried work and onto retirement health benefits, I never for a moment thought of myself as entering a state of retirement. Rather, I thought of myself as embarking on something new and different. Something that would enable me to explore areas that had gone unexamined while I was commuting and meeting deadlines.
Seemingly, my retirement package was designed to promote that very idea. Below the calculation for X number of weeks pay for X number of years worked was a sum labeled “retraining allowance.” I wasn’t being encouraged to go home and put myself out to pasture. I was being encouraged to find some new endeavor that would interest and excite me.
I did just that. I trained to become, then was certified as, a life coach. For the first time in my life (save a three-year period as a freelancer), I was in business for myself. It’s not an easy course. Unlike the steady assignments and paychecks I enjoyed as a magazine employee, the coaching life is unpredictable. There are weeks when my client roster is full; there are others when I wonder if I’ll ever again sign a new client.
But even on the most dispiriting days, I don’t think of myself as retired. Instead, I think of myself as a not-so-young entrepreneur who is navigating the dual challenges of riding out a tough economy and learning how to market myself in a world oversaturated with noisy look-at-me messages.
I also don’t think of myself as a retired writer, despite the shrinkage in my words-per-week output. Hello, you’re reading these words (and thank you for that). I’m still here. These days, I also teach and edit, which is to say I make time to help others with their writing. These opportunities to share some of what I’ve learned are proving more of a joy than I anticipated.
Time Well Spent
Still, it would be dishonest to suggest that there haven’t been changes.
Where I used to routinely put in 10- to 14-hour workdays, I now clock five to seven hours at my desk— though, that’s pretty much every day, seven days a week. Absent commutes and deadlines, Tuesdays and Saturdays feel a lot alike. The separation between my workweek and my weekend has evaporated.
I also spend more time at home. Yet I don’t feel retired from the world. Where I used to parse news developments with colleagues, I now turn to my husband to discuss the ISIS agenda, the uptick in heroin use and the never-ending presidential campaign season.
Speaking of my husband, he is retired. Six years ago, when recession-driven closures in the engineering field unexpectedly knocked Bob out of his job at age 60, he tried hard to find another position. He discovered that his talents were no longer sought. Within his specialized field, he was regarded as too old (translation: too expensive) to employ.
Since then, I’ve watched him evolve into, and make peace with, his idea of retirement. Where once he struggled against feelings of inertia, Bob now embraces his retired life, happy to be involved with volunteer work of his own choosing. (Bob, by the way, has a message for my friend: “I am not a honey!”)
Perhaps in another six years, when I reach Bob’s current age, I’ll feel as he does now. As it is, I already like the part where I say no to assignments that don’t appeal to me. Pick and choose when I will set work aside to travel. Lie down on the couch in the late afternoon to read a novel (and, full disclosure, play some Words With Friends).
But at 60, I give you fair warning: I may bite your head off if you hurl the dreaded R word at me. I prefer to think of myself as retooling. Rebooting. Reimagining. Reinventing. Rethinking what constitutes time well spent.
For the moment, please, let’s just leave talk of retirement out of the conversation.