Last evening a friend came for dinner; Sophie retired as of January 1st. Though she beamed when she made the announcement, after a glass of wine, she asked me, "What do you do?"
My activity report probably sounded prosaic: some writing, a good deal of reading, walking, the gym, housekeeping, seeing friends and family. The occasional exhibit or concert, the eternal French classes. I recently learned how to make lipstick.
I could see that she thought, That's it? If one's work life has included a front-row pew at the Shrine of Productivity, if one's performance has been measured by deals or bonuses or awards, suddenly there is neither the focus of goals nor the glow of achieving them. Sophie had gone, from one day to the next, from intense, draining work to leisure, and the shift had caught her by surprise.
A productive person who retires thinks she should replace work with other engrossing activities, from Day One. She forgets that at twenty or twenty-five she was sorting out her work preferences. That's when she learned she is happiest working in a team, or hates offices, or is more entrepreneurial than she thought. She may have chosen an occupation, only to find years of training only confirm what she had hoped to ignore: she's just not engaged by law, or the family business, or teaching biology.
Forty years later, we don't permit ourselves that re-assessment when we leave work. Some become anxious, some stick with jobs they don't enjoy because they wonder what else to do. (And some like their work so much that they simply sidestep the whole concept.)
There's concern about boredom. As I used to tell my sons when they were around nine and would sometimes whine, "I'm bored", "If you're bored, it's because you are boring."
At sixty-plus, no one is going to spread Legos on the floor for you; you have to go out and sample things. You can still learn practically anything, from programming to t'ai chi, and you'll be the better for it—but you have to go back to being a beginner. I always wanted to know how to string pearls and I have yards of bloodstained thread to prove that it is harder than it looks.
And it takes time to shed the deep wiring of being the one who Gets It Done. I still have a visceral sense of tension on Sunday evenings, as if my nervous system is still gearing up for the week; I dream about my work—not quite nightmares, but the level below, where things are not going well and it is my fault.
It is only in the past year, after five years of retirement, that my brain is starting to realize, You don't have that stress anymore.
So I recognized that slightly stunned look Sophie had, that tentative sense of excitement mixed with honest worry. Love and work, we have long been told, are the cornerstones of life. Without work of the paid-employment sort, the identity wobbles, the ego starts to question self-worth and competence.
I haven't left all aspects of my work identity behind. My professional writing background morphed into blogging. When I worked part time for six months of last year, I saw that I had a lot more "general" left in me than "grunt". I tried to take orders graciously and present ideas as "suggestions", which Le Duc predicted that would be out of character, and he was right. You can take the woman out of the corner office, but...
There is no one left to lead but myself, no one to whom I must answer, and no one telling me how valuable I am to the enterprise. I don't miss that validation, but realize I am responsible for finding meaning, and that is what is dawning on Sophie.
So, back to the mindset at twenty: What calls? What could I be?
Perhaps it is finally making a better habitat for her beloved birds, perhaps it is organizing self-care classes for women in shelters (Sophie was an aesthetician), perhaps it's attending every interesting lecture at the Blue Met Literary Festival, after years of only being able to get to one.
You carry your work history into retirement, and some of hums away in the background. But an interesting thing happened to me in December: I lost decades of work I'd stored digitally, due to a Bermuda Triangle of IT issues. At first I panicked and considered expensive data recovery services, but then I realized, It's the past. One of my colleagues marvelled at my equanimity. "The sand covers your footprints pretty fast", I replied.
And as long as I can keep making new footprints, on new paths, there is no regret.