I am marveling these days at the number of skills, experiences, opportunities and states of mind I packed tightly into boxes and stored high on a shelf when I started working full-time all those many years ago. And as much as my jobs required a certain kind of creativity and included lots of opportunities for innovative problem solving and pleasurable connections with other humans, I lived in a limited state, to say the least.
To be honest, I’ve always been a perfect candidate for a life of order, routine, and restricted spontaneity. As a result, there was something numbingly comforting about getting into the groove of a career and just propelling forward, with very few glances toward the glistening sun peaking out of the trees to the east or even questions about what else might have been possible when I was trying to fall asleep at night.
This kind of living isn’t even painful if you’re enmeshed in the work that has to be done and, of course, in making a living. There are moments of daily angst, certainly, and weeks of torture when nothing seems to align, but everything falls back into place after a long weekend or a summer vacation and years fly past before you look up again. And then, you retire. I find myself now with open days and a clear schedule—a bit out of sync with my still-working friends, but not at all unlike a college graduate who has the world ahead of me. I have all the choices now and way more of the money that compelled me to work in the first place. I can do anything I want to do. Even limitations that present themselves are surmountable if I turn them upside down and use my creative brain.
On most days, I’m ready to walk out onto a new road
with a new vista.
And this is where all of those packed boxes come in. In my new life, the one that is actually now more than two years old, I am longing for those skills and tools that I haven’t needed much for the last 30 years. I want to live more fully in the creative part of myself, but I’m not even quite sure how to do it. I yearn for the sense of getting lost in something fun or silly or imaginative, but my sense of reason and decorum, my go-to responses for all of those years of working, kick in before I know it. “Oh, I can’t get in my car and drive to the mountains this afternoon,” I think, when I find myself wondering about the color of autumn in the Sierras. “That’s way too irresponsible.”
But as I said, I gravitated toward a career of rules and order in the first place because I wasn’t particularly good at living impulsively or losing myself in things that felt random or unplanned. As I'm sure I've written here before, I came from a family in which there was, just under the surface, the feeling that emotional chaos could overtake us at a moment’s notice. I did my share of riding my bike seemingly with abandon as a kid, but the need to get home and make sure that everything was okay was always at the edge of my thoughts.
And so, in many ways, I’m creating my world now from the ground up, letting myself imagine as much as I possibly can. In the process, I’m also embarrassed by my lack of inventiveness. My first answer to “What do you do?” is still, “I’m retired,” or “I used to work in community colleges,” neither of which actually answers the question. I even keep one foot in my old world, doing projects now and then for one college or another. I justify that it’s a way to earn some mad money, but when I drive onto my old campus, there is a feeling of comfort and relief that I don’t feel when I am wrangling around with how I want to live in this third third of my life.
When I recently read two self-help books in a row, something I haven’t done since I was in my late 20s, I realized that I am definitely in the building phase and that this is good, not a sign that I am a rigid, scared individual. When I think about how long I did the same kind of thing with my hours and my days, it makes perfect sense that there would be a few challenges on my way to deciding for myself how I want each of these new days to look. The romance of retirement—complete with images of putting up one’s feet and reading all afternoon on a porch—is lovely. And maybe that porch is in my future. But I’m just not completely sure yet. I don’t want to spend huge portions of what feels like a somewhat short 30 years ahead of me just figuring it out, but I need to move more slowly than I would have guessed.
I fully understand that “figuring it out” is the antithesis of enjoying it and playing with it and seeing what happens. But I’m still me in this world, whether I work or not, and that means that I bring my own anxieties and fears with me to whatever I do. But I also know that I’m still carrying a few of those apprehensions when they no longer serve any purpose, and that some of the playful, excited, inventive versions of me are lying dormant in those packed boxes. I’m ready to unpack now; I know that. And on most days, I’m excited to walk out onto a new road with a broad, endless vista. I’m prepared to pay attention to the smallest details, the tiniest noises. Just last night, a flock of geese called to me from overhead in the dark when I took the dogs out before bed. It was a sign, I thought, of moving forward, a change of seasons, a new time.