Years ago, I lived in a house with two concrete steps leading up to the front door. We eventually replaced those cement slabs with three, brick-covered steps that formed a half circle in front of the doorway. It was lovely, but I tripped over it at least twice a day for nearly a month. It took that long for my brain and foot and whatever else goes into the habit-making process to lose their familiarity with the height of the old steps and to make a new, comfortable connection. Before that, I had probably only barely noticed the cement steps, but in their absence, I felt as if my basic security had depended upon them.
Since then, I think of that entry to my house when there is a change in my life, when I have to take a bigger step than I’m used to, or if I'm required to pay closer attention than I might want to at the moment. And I’m struck, every time this happens, by the way I cling to familiarity.
When I was in my 30s, I lived in a one-bedroom apartment that was so small it almost seemed like it was all one room. I was delighted when I gathered up enough money to buy a house, and yet the first few nights in my new place were awful. I longed for the comfort of that tiny dwelling, the tables placed exactly so, the pictures hung where I was used to seeing them. I actually fantasized about calling my old landlord to explain that I’d made a big mistake.
Of course I didn’t call, and the discomfort I felt in my new surroundings quickly faded, but even today, two houses and nearly 30 years later, I occasionally drive down the street where that apartment is located. I’m not even sure why, except that it is a known, a place I can still almost recreate in my mind when I think of the years there. I felt the same way when I left an adjunct teaching job I’d had for six years and moved to a different college and a tenure-track post. There’s no denying this was an awesome opportunity, but it was a different set of people, a new office, dissimilar systems. In the first few weeks, the unfamiliarity sometimes outweighed the joy and possibility.
It has been more than three decades since I have goaded myself to the perimeter of the known.
Comfort and familiarity are addictive, regardless of how much better the next step might be. The safety we feel when we are acquainted with a place or a routine is as compelling as a huge meal when we’re famished. And that sense of ease we feel lulls us into not having to think about what might come next. I know this because it’s what puts a bit of an edge on this transition to my new, retired life. For every part of it that is exciting and new, there is constant learning, large doses of the unknown, and a continual searching for a new kind of order.
I get it that this isn’t true for everyone who retires, or those who make a big change in their lives, but it’s definitely so for me. Even though I love the idea of discovery and newness, I find myself leaning toward a schedule, a routine, a plan. I am lucky to be old and to have lived a big life, though, because I understand that a new familiar will emerge. And, I’m also learning that this discomfort I feel is good for me. It has been more than three decades since I have goaded myself to the perimeter of the known, and this new experience is teaching me that I am more resilient and creative than I felt when I first retired. In fact, I am feeling lucky these days to have the luxury of finding my new notion of comfort, even a little thrilled at the truth in “who knows what will happen next?” I like it that I’m not as stuck in the mud as I once felt, and that tripping and falling as I explore the tenuousness of not knowing is much more interesting than I would have guessed.