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What Happens When It Gets Quieter

I remember a particular moment in my last semester of college before grad school. It was the start of an organizational communication class and the professor was reviewing some basic interpersonal principles. I think she just casually mentioned that, if a person feels shy or intimidated in a social situation, the sooner they can speak up and participate, the easier it is to keep doing it. Since it was still so early in the term, I tried it and, sure enough, she was right. Once I’d put myself out there, those scary things I’d dreamed up—looking stupid, sounding like I didn’t know what I was talking about, being wrong—all disappeared. It was a basic, quiet truth, but I swear it felt like one of the first important things I’d ever learned, like I was being handed a brand-new version of a tool that I could put to use immediately.

Somehow, with more open time around me, even the heaviest problems weigh less.

Even though I'm in fewer social situations now that I'm retired, I'm still using that tool when I feel reticent in a crowd, and I'm still enjoying the way it makes me feel more present. The great thing about retirement is that it’s filled with new things to learn, mostly about ourselves. A colleague of mine, who is also newly retired, told me last week that she loves all of the different things she can think about now that her head isn’t full of work deadlines and conflicts to resolve. One of the biggest lessons I’m learning is how much I like being quiet and mostly alone. I feel like I could poke around my house for hours without speaking to another human and feel rejuvenated by it. I’ve always known I was an introvert, but this is the first time in more than 30 years that I’ve actually gotten to really feel myself getting restored just by lying on my couch and reading.

I’m also learning a few problem-solving skills that I didn’t know I had—because I’ve had time and quiet space to try and fail and try again. Nothing big—tiny house issues—but it’s reminded me of an important lesson about time. Working all those years—almost always on some kind of schedule—I learned to fit the task to the amount of time I had to do it. It turns out that most things take longer than we imagine they will. If I can give something a little more time, I can actually try a few solutions or approaches. Doing it this way, I have met with a bit more success and a lot more confidence. Not always, of course—and that's been another big reminder. Sometimes things make sense, work out, and end well, and sometimes they don’t. With more open time around me these days, even the heaviest problems weigh less.

In the midst of the new meditation habit I’ve developed during the pandemic, I’m also learning that it’s easier to ground myself than I would have thought. What it takes, of course, is intention, but I didn’t know that until I had enough time to practice it. I’ve always had a long list of things I wished or hoped I could do or have—a calmer brain chief among them—but I had so many other tasks and chores I needed to accomplish that I didn’t really understand what it took to sit quietly with myself.

In case I sound too serious, I am also learning more about what I like to do for fun. I am remembering the pleasure of cooking, of having a good, authentic conversation with someone who really knows me, of going for meandering walks, and of planning adventures with Jodi. I think all of what I’m taking in comes down to clearing out the noise in my head and in my life to see what there’s really room for. What I like mostly is the fact that there’s always something new to learn. The world is full of ideas and people with nuggets to share that end up changing the whole direction of our lives—like that professor did for me in college. Getting quiet in these days has been like a balm. In a weird way, it makes me feel young and open again—at least in my head.

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