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With a Little Help From My Friends

I’ve always relied on experts for navigation advice. When I was in my early 20s, I spent a small fortune on self-help books, perpetually searching for some professional opinion about how to be happier, thinner, or richer. I dutifully followed the advice given (which, oddly, was similar despite the goal), and kept my fingers crossed for a positive outcome. Whatever the situation, things usually improved, primarily because I was doing something—not just worrying about it or agonizing over it.

Today I’m looking closer to home, mostly to people I know, for that same skilled direction. In fact, I'm a little obsessed with wanting to know how folks are managing the transition from a life of work to one in which they can essentially determine for themselves the quality of each day. Very soon, I'm sure, people who are 50 or older will begin to run when they see me coming, tired no doubt of me grilling them about what they plan to do in retirement or what they’re already doing. I'm interested not because I want to write about it, but more because I realize they are my best guides for this new road I find myself exploring. Fortunately for me, they kindly share their experiences and even a bit of philosophy about how it feels in this new territory.

Just last week, a friend wrote me a note about her view of retirement from a few years ahead of me on the road. “It took me over three years,” she said, “to unwind enough to not feel the need to do everything I ever in my whole life wanted to do, and get it done all at once before the miraculous bubble of Free Time burst and sent me back into the Rat Race.” I honestly hadn’t thought of it that way until I read this and realized how much this resonates with me. I start every day feeling that, now that I’m retired, I need to do everything that I ever put off—today! It was nice to realize I’m not alone in this feeling and that pacing myself and focusing on what feels most meaningful at the moment is probably my best approach.

My friend Margaret had a different experience. She was delighted to retire and happy to travel and relax at home. She’d had a long career in a senior strategic position in a government-operated child welfare program in Leeds, England. And yet, she remembered back to her teen years when her friends all got jobs in small stores to earn pocket money, while she had worked instead delivering newspapers.

When she retired, Margaret remembered that shop-girl dream and considered revisiting it, but couldn’t imagine commuting and then working long hours each day. When she saw a flier saying that the local hospice was looking for volunteers to run its 12 charity shops, she thought this could be the answer. Now she works a few hours one day each week in a shop that specializes in children’s goods. This way, she gets to live out several dreams: helping others, contributing to her community, and becoming the shop girl she always fantasized about being. I like this idea, taking a little from my past reveries and mixing them with newer ambitions.

I feel so strongly now that, without the advice and guidance of the people I know, I’d be lost. Even on the days when I'm a little freaked out about where the next turn in this new adventure will take me, I'll remember a story or a fear or a victory from a friend, and it's good. No matter what we do, there is great peace knowing that our friends are here with us, shining their lights where they can.

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