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Figuring Out What's Next

The first time I ran a marathon, I was super organized about it. I got advice from more experienced runners, I created a training plan that matched my level of fitness, I mapped out when I’d do my long runs, I made sure to give myself some downtime, and I paid close attention to eating well and getting enough sleep. When the day of the race arrived, I was as ready as I could be and I ran a respectable race. Throughout the 26.2 miles, I felt alternately proud of myself and deeply sorry for myself, but that’s to be expected. When I crossed the finish line on Capitol Mall, I was thrilled. My planning and my work had paid off. What I didn’t do, though, was think about what I was going to do after the marathon.

I’m not great at sitting with the unknown, so just being content and patient with my own exploration is a first for me, and a great way to start my own, brave bucket list of adventures.

I had spent the last three months focusing my time and energy on getting ready for the run. Besides my teaching job, it was pretty much all I thought about and all I did. Every weekend meant a longer long run, and practically every weekday was mapped out with runs of various lengths and speeds. Now that it was over, I suddenly felt like I had no plan, no focus, and no goal. I don’t even remember what I ended up doing to get back to regular life, but the lesson about always having that next thing on the back burner has stayed with me.

I definitely thought about it the first time I retired. I knew I wanted to pursue my writing more seriously, so I enrolled in a low-residency MFA program during my last year of working and my first year of retirement. It was awesome, and it was exactly what I needed to help me make the transition. Or so I thought. What I didn’t consider at the time is that “being a writer” is a nebulous plan and one over which you have only so much control. As my primary goal, it meant that it was up to me to sit myself down to write every day in order to find value in my life. This turned out to be more stressful than meaningful. That feeling of continually needing to keep myself engaged and focused was part of what made it so easy to go back to work when there was a chance to do so.

This time around, I retired during the pandemic. Travelling is always on my list of goals and plans, but even that couldn’t happen when we were all forced to stay home. I also knew by now that writing could only be part of what I would devote my time to. Other people who retired before me urged me to just give it a year and see where life takes me. That is about as contrary to my personality as a thing could be, but I’m actually learning to do it. I’m writing regularly, but I’m poking around now looking for what I might like to do in addition to sitting at my computer. Like lots of people, I know what I don’t want to do, but I feel more excited about the possibilities than I ever have.

One of the best aspects of retirement is knowing that whatever you do, you don’t have to do it forever. There is so much to engage in, to learn, and to spend your time on, and there's no shame in doing one thing for a while, and then trying something else. If you’ve worked 30 or 40 years, you’re not exactly accustomed to being open to all of these possibilities. It takes intention and creativity to let yourself experiment and explore. These days, besides listening to advice from my retired friends, I’m reading other people’s bucket lists for inspiration. I’m intrigued by ideas like rafting the Amazon River and dog sledding in Norway, but I don’t think I’ll do either of those quite yet.

My biggest challenge right now is expanding my mind about what’s possible. I love this feeling of slowly realizing that I can do anything I want (within financial reason) and I can plan for it just the way I planned for that marathon. I’m not great at sitting with the unknown, so just being content and patient with my own exploration is a first for me, and a great way to start my own, brave bucket list of adventures.


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