I was still a year out from retirement when I first read Dr. Francine Toder’s book The Vintage Years: Finding Your Inner Artist After 60. At the time, I thought it was a great idea—for other people. I already knew what I was going to do and I could easily locate my inner artist. I was clear I wanted to write and I had gradually honed my skills throughout my years of teaching it to others. I even did an MFA in writing to strengthen my abilities and hopefully develop a few more. If anything, I was excited by Toder’s book because it validated my decision to pursue something creative when I stopped working. She is a retired psychologist, educator and writer—she knows what she’s talking about.
Then I ended my formal career, graduated from my MFA program, even went back to work for a while. Generally, I felt like a person with a million good ideas, lots of open time, and absolutely no internal structure experienced enough with this phase of life to figure out how to manage the lack of externally determined structure. This sounds strangely whiny and self-indulgent to my friends who are still going to work every day, but to me it felt surreal.
I know I can just sit down at the computer and write and make myself stop fretting about the changes inside and outside of me, but it’s not quite that easy. It’s like being in a really fast car, stuck in the slow lane, or driving a clunker and being challenged to a drag race. Nothing quite fits the way it used to when I left my house every morning at 8, interacted all day with a variety of people at pre-determined meetings, completed paperwork that was due at a certain time, and came back home around 6 each evening. I find myself looking around my house and yard for answers, at the natural cycle of the birches in my backyard, at the rhythms of the lazy dogs as they sleep, stretch, doze, eat, nap. Often I’m standing staring at my bookshelf, looking for a clue, a hint, a guide. And there, naturally, I found Dr. Toder's book again, a balm, an explanation.
And now, of course, her words and stories are touching me in a way they couldn’t have until I arrived at this point. Partly it’s just comforting to read about her own plans to write the book and to take up the cello, but it’s mesmerizing reading other people’s stories—people who have happily become musicians, painters, sculptors, and much more. At this moment, though, it is Toder’s research that is helping me to see what all is happening to me. “Since I’m someone who enjoys structure and learning it wasn’t a huge stretch to consider starting to explore research on a subject that interested me,” she says about writing the book in the first place.
Much of the book is about the brain and its development and the phases we experience at different points in our lives. She cites the work of psychologists and brain researchers and in many ways she presents a much richer and deeper view of the process of retiring and progressing to the next phase than I have read anywhere else. What is striking me on this read-through is the necessity involved in moving on to new work at this point in my life. “The end of a career is a starting point, not an ending,” Toder says. I think I have been focusing much more on the ending, the freedom, and not the fact that I’m starting something new, which always has its own hurdles.
Toder also reassures readers that these challenges are what will keep us growing and developing. In her research she’s found what she calls a “magic triad”—novelty, complexity, and problem-solving. If our activities and interests involve these three elements, she says, our cognitive skills and functioning will increase.
In some ways, I realize that my own brain skills probably got a little rusty by the end of my career, mostly because of the lack of novelty. The newness is definitely here now, though, and I think that’s a lot of what I’m getting used to. I feel so glad to have come upon Dr.Toder’s book again, like finding a pair of shoes I forgot I bought, ready to take a long walk on a new trail.