Thinking About the Next Phase
At a party recently, I found myself standing next to a woman I didn’t know. In the grown-up version of “what’s your major?” I asked her what she “does.” Instead of following this with, “What do you do?” she asked, “Are you retired?” I went into a long diatribe about how I used to be retired and then I went back to work, but the whole time I was yammering, I was thinking about how easy it was for her to presume I am retired. In other words, I am in that group now. No questions asked. I know this has more to do with my own biases than hers, but I didn’t like the feeling I had when she so readily conjectured that I am an old woman who doesn’t work.
I find myself having reached a point in my life that I can’t yet define or explain.
The brief conversation we had has stayed with me since that night—again much more because of what I realized about myself than any hypothesis on this woman’s part. And it wasn’t my realization that I’m old. It’s that I’m not yet comfortable being in that group. This isn’t exactly news to me, but it makes me know I’m still trying to find my way. Granted, I’m back working again and I’m not really thinking of myself as “retired,” but this job is the only thing standing between me and just having to face where I am in my life.
I realize that not everyone feels the way I do at this point on their paths. My friend Dave loves being retired and is perfectly happy playing golf, doing chores and errands, taking up new hobbies, and hanging around with his wife and family. And even writing those words, I think, “Who wouldn’t be thrilled with that?” And there’s the dilemma. I just don’t seem able to do it—yet. But I have made progress. I realize that retirement does lie in my future and a huge part of me longs for open, relaxing time in which I can do anything I want with my days.
But I also know that, right this moment, I’m a little scared of that open field in front of me. All that time and all that space gets my head going. I worry that I should be doing more, that I might want to have more to show for my life, that I don’t want to live on past laurels. So I find myself having reached a point in my life that I can’t yet define or explain. Who am I without work? Who am I if I’m an age I’ve never been? What does it look like to be nearly 70, to have such a relatively short path ahead of me? What if my answer to "what do you do?" is simply, "I'm retired."?
As a person long connected to work and the meaning that comes from external validation, I haven’t spent much time preparing to add to my vision of who I am and how I see myself. I'm not sure if it’s a natural thing for humans, but knowing where I’m headed has never been my strong suit. I do a lot of prepping in my head, but I haven’t always given myself much chance to practice how or who I want to be next. When I graduated from high school, I hadn’t yet figured out who I was going to be in college. After college, I went to grad school, rather than create my next iteration. And now I find myself very happily working, several years after thinking I was finished.
What I’m getting now, of course, is that it isn’t ours to predict and prepare and plan things to a T. The road is supposed to have bumps and questions and highlights we didn’t see coming. It’s supposed to leave us wondering and feeling lonely and scared and positively delighted when we least expect it. When the woman at the party made it clear that I look like a late 60s retiree from a mile away, I felt like it put me in a box. But maybe that box is bigger than I am letting myself think, and that I can define it and furnish it however I like. I also know that the schedule and the rules for finding my place in this new phase of life are totally up to me. That thrills me and scares me all at the same time.