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Wide Open Spaces Ahead

When some people talk about retirement, they liken it to the greatest fantasy they have ever had about their lives. They imagine long hours lounging in bed in the mornings with The New York Times and an unhurried cup of coffee. They picture the stacks of books by their reading chair and relish the idea of methodically making their way through them. They describe naps with the same kind of energy they might display when detailing the most amazing meal they’ve ever eaten. They show itineraries for trips they’ve planned in their minds for decades. For these people, retirement is heaven—the thing they have waited for all of these years while they’ve plugged away at jobs that were sometimes great, but often super stressful or even boring. And mind you, I am right there with them on most counts. There are few things as alluring as a clean slate—an open road, an untraveled path, hours upon hours open for thought and reflection.

To be honest, though, it also scares me to death.

For more than 40 years, I have had some kind of a routine. It has changed as my jobs have changed, but with the exception of working from home for the last 15 months, I’ve kind of done the same thing every day for a long time. Even when I retired the first time, I started working in interim roles fairly quickly—as soon as the anxiety of all that change really hit me. It reminds me of conversations I used to have with my students, who often told me that the reason they waited until the last minute to write their papers was because they “worked better under pressure.” I always wondered to myself if they had ever tried it any other way in order to truly determine what worked best, but I rarely suggested such a big change to their methodologies. That’s a little how I feel in this new retirement of mine. I know what I’ve done that has made me feel at least a little bit comfortable and, on some very primal level, I’m not excited to change it.

The last thing I want to lament on my death bed is that I didn’t take risks or test my resilience or scare myself just a little bit here and there.

Despite those fears, in that part of my brain and heart where I am drawn to terms like “wide open spaces,” I feel excited. I’m cheering for that scared, routinized woman inside of me who has felt most comfortable in the face of a systematic, habitual approach to everything. I really do want her to enjoy being a beginner again, to like the surprises that wait around each new corner. I want her to feel inspired to learn some new skills and be completely engaged by the idea of totally open days in front of her. I would love it if she was looking forward to laughing at herself when she realizes she doesn’t really want to read that whole stack of books and just wants to just binge-watch something she has already seen.

But I also know myself pretty well. Just typing that sentence made me nervous. Halfway through the first episode of that hypothetical TV spree, I know I’d be wondering how I would feel if my former co-workers could see me now. But of course, like most people my age, some part of me thinks, “Who cares what people think? I’m retired and I can do whatever I want.” The other part of me is rolling my eyes and asking deans I know to consider letting me teach a class next spring. As I say, it’s what I know.

The weirdest thing about being nearly 70, though, is that I know—more than I’ve probably ever known any other thing—that this part of my life is going to go very quickly. And given that fact, I also know that I do not want to spend it doing what I’ve always done. The last thing I want to lament on my death bed is that I didn’t take risks or test my resilience or scare myself just a little bit here and there. It turns out that being “pretty good” at a few things in life isn’t enough for me. Despite the thousands of hours I’ve spent in careful planning, conflict avoidance, and the prevention of every terrible thing that might happen, I want to have a life that includes a little more messiness, unknown paths and silly mistakes. I don’t need to check off any more boxes or pat myself on the back for any more predictable outcomes. It may not be the stuff of fantasies, but I can’t help but see it as a chance to break through a lifetime collection of protective barriers I’ve built for myself. It’s time.


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