I Am a Retired…Me

§  I read an article claiming the importance of outside work, employment, to each individual’s self-concept.  I don’t agree!  §

Not long ago I read an article stating how important outside work, employment,  is to each person’s self-concept. People never, the essay claimed, say merely, “I am retired”.  No, the author asserted, these individuals state “I am a retired (whatever).” Architect, programmer, office support staff, police officer, pilot, teacher, activist, politician….

That’s not true! I thought to myself, putting down the magazine and never finishing the article. (Well, actually, what I thought was, “What a crock!”)

When asked, I tell people, “I am retired.” If they request more details, I reply that I worked for the State of Indiana for 37 years, and briefly for a few other companies prior to my career with the state. In response to those who are nosy enough to ask, “What did you do there?” (What business is it of yours? If  I’d wanted to say, I would have told you!) I tend to get a bit touchy and, yes, perhaps just a wee bit snotty. (Okay, a lot snotty.) Although I have been heard to snap just, “I worked!”, I sometimes reply, “Well, I was a file clerk, a clerk typist, a low level secretary, a high level secretary, an office-group Working Leader, a low level Administrative Assistant, a high level Administrative Assistant, and finally, an Office Manager.”

This usually shuts them down and me up!

The truth is, all those titles, all that employment, really had nothing to do with “me”. They were just jobs that I held to support myself and later my daughter—to put a roof over our heads, food on our table, clothes on our backs; to buy our cars and insurance and occasionally even a meal out or a movie, while still paying taxes and purchasing necessities and settling medical bills. Sticking it out in unpalatable jobs, working for often-unreasonable, difficult and sometimes downright obnoxious supervisors (and, in all honesty, a few really great managers, too), was the way I functioned as a responsible adult. My work was never a career, and, other than drawing upon my strong organizational skills and caretaking core personality, it had little to do with who I was, or am. Perhaps had I been able to follow through on my youthful desire to become an English teacher and a free-lance writer, I might have considered my employment a career. (Then again, knowing how schools and teaching have changed in the years since I was a child–then again, perhaps not.)

These days, this blog suffices as an outlet for the writing that I never found time to do while raising my daughter and working in situations that were sometimes humiliating and occasionally even soul-destroying.   The book reviews that I now write so continually also fill in that gap, too; I sometimes consider myself an unpaid literary critic (and probably am as much hated, and with as much justification, as most such critics are). I strive continually to educate myself, compensating for the higher education of which I was deprived, reminding myself that education is not something one gets, but a gift which one gives to the self.

But the simple truth behind all these occupations remains: I have not, will never, retire from the true work of my lifetime. My greatest life’s work was and still is to be a mother (and anyone who denies that being a parent is the most difficult and most rewarding job they’ve ever done, well, that person is simply not a very good parent). Over the years, though, my work has also been to be a wife for the time I was able to do so, before my spouse’s affairs and drug addiction put an end to our relationship. My job was to be a “working mother” (show me the mother who doesn’t work, whether she holds an outside job or not!) a good homemaker who also held an outside job to support my family. My work has been and still is to grow emotionally, to continually mature, and to become more truly spiritual. My work has been to constantly question all that I have been taught, all that I believe, and from that questioning, derive my own, firmer, beliefs; my morals, ethics and complete value system.

I am genuinely a work in progress—and from that, I hope, I will never retire, not in this lifetime, nor the next.

If you enjoyed this post, you might want to check the archives for
“The Retirement Guilt Monster”, from 01/12/2018, or
“Retirement Is…” , posted on 03/13/2019

Retirement Is…

Yet another acquaintance who retired at the same time I did recently said to me, “Retirement is not all it’s cracked up to be.”

Frankly, I don’t get it. I love being retired.  I gladly trade my moments of loneliness, occasional bouts of boredom, and finances that are sometimes on the edge, for my freedom—freedom  from the unending daily stress of rushing to and from the office and of being always at the mercy of petty despots in a faux totalitarian state.

In truth, when I received a cancer diagnosis, one of the first thoughts that entered my mind was, “Well, whatever else happens, I have had two wonderful years.”   Two years that would not have happened had I not been forced into the early retirement that I had never planned to take.  Two years for which I have been immensely grateful.  Two years in which I have had time.  Time, at last, for myself. Time to do all I want to do for others.

I wonder if what my retired acquaintances are truly expressing is actually just coming head-to-head with the reality of aging. Sadly, it’s true: I am not as physically limber as I once was.  Unexpected aches trouble me, especially at night; and although I have not yet experienced major physical limitations, I nevertheless find myself concerned about them in my future, as well as the ever-present reality of falls (such as the tumble I took last year down my own stairwell).  Recovery from such mishaps is no longer assured or quick. I discover that I look for ways to avoid dropping to the floor, since getting back up requires a touch of maneuvering and the inevitable “Ooof!” escaping from my lips. Growing older is frightening because the only way out of it is even worse.

The truth is, though, that I can’t remain focused on these minor physical problems, because I’m usually just too busy. I work constantly on this blog (and anyone who recalls writing  essays in high school is well aware of just how much work that takes).   I read all the books I never had time to read—and that’s a lot of books–and I write comprehensive reviews of each, as well as reviewing any product I buy on-line. I joyously babysit my little granddaughter and lend a hand  in completing household chores at my daughter’s home, knowing that every dish washed or load of laundry completed is time freed that she might spend with her own child.  In the warm months, I invade her garden to battle weeds and overgrowth like enemies of an evil empire; in bad weather, I crochet

 

and sew and join coloring groups

 

and catch up on household chores. I read the daily news from at least three different sources to be certain I’m getting a well-rounded viewpoint.  My home (always neat as a pin) is at last nearly both as clean and almost as organized as I like it to be, and I’ve even managed to accomplish some of my home improvement tasks. I use the expertise garnered from 45 years of office work to help a friend create flyers and manuals for the classes she teaches. I help out with sick friends, and, blessedly, when I fall sick myself, I don’t have to worry about calling in to the office, obtaining a doctor’s excuse, or dealing with unsympathetic supervisors.  I meet friends for yoga or meditation, creating vision boards, thrift shopping, girls’ home movie afternoons, flea marketing and antiquing.  I have coffee and breakfast with them as we discuss the state of the world, verbally trash all the world leaders, consign every politician to the nether regions of hell,  and rehash exactly the many ways in which everything would be SO much better if we were running the show.

I do, in fact, everything that I always longed to do during the weary years from the age of 18 until 62, when I worked full-time, cared for my home and family, and, struggling to meet all my responsibilities, never quite seemed to catch up or get enough sleep or have any time for myself.

I’m not certain how to respond when my retired friends claim that they are disappointed in the reality of their situation, for I fail to understand their mindset. The truth is, I’m having a rip-roaring good time.  Retirement isn’t all it’s cracked up to be—it’s better.

The Retirement Guilt Monster

On behalf of a friend recently retired, I dragged out this discarded post and decided to publish it after all…

As I mentioned in a previous post, when I took early retirement, I was prepared for others’ envy. Envy – but not resentment.  That reaction surprised, even shocked me.

But there was another reaction for which I was unprepared, and it was not directed at me by other people, but all my very own: guilt.

It crept up on me slowly. For the first three weeks or so of my retirement, all I experienced was a lessening of stress – which was, in itself, surprising, since I spent the first week of my new-found freedom sick as the proverbial dog.  I’d actually become sick on the weekend prior to my last day of work, which happened to fall on a Monday.  Had I not been retiring, there was simply no way I’d have dragged myself into the office that final day.  I’d a night of abdominal pain so bad that I’d laid moaning and sleepless, so normally I would have called in sick. But the rules for State employees required that an employee be physically present in the office on one’s last day, so there I sat, finishing the very last of my work while waves of pain rippled through my abdomen.

Not an auspicious start to my retirement, but as I kept telling everyone, after that experience, I had nowhere to go but up. The illness passed and I began the half-dozen projects I’d determined on as soon as I retired, while new projects proliferated like rabbits.  I found myself constantly busy.

But after about three weeks, I began to feel that my “vacation” should be over. It was hard for me to recall that this was not a vacation; it was the second half of my life.  And that’s when the nasty little bugger began to tiptoe into my consciousness: guilt.

Why on earth was I so lucky, so privileged? What had I done to deserve this peaceful existence?  Never mind that I’d worked full-time since I was 18, sometimes (often)  for bosses so awful that they should have had a starring role in their own sitcoms; how was it that I had been fortunate enough to merit this freedom?

As the fall ended and icy, biting winter days began, and I lay in bed, snug and warm, while the people I’d once worked with struggled into the office. Guilt.  I had all the time in the world for errands; I was rarely rushed.  Guilt.  I got terribly sick again, this time with a horrible respiratory illness, and I didn’t need to call in sick or worry about the work piling up on my desk.  Guilt.   A couple of former coworkers called or e-mailed me with office problems that no one else knew how to solve.  Guilt.

The guilt feelings gnawed at me, limiting my enjoyment of my newfound freedom, until I finally grappled with them and wrestled them into submission…usually. I’ve learned that the days when time hangs heavy on my hands—when I’ve run short on projects, when there are few errands to run, when I have no “Master Plan” for the day—then the shadow of the Guilt Monster will sometimes loom over me.  Those are the days I have to recite chapter and verse of my “why it is okay for me to be retired” manual.  And when that fails to do the trick, as it sometimes does, I call upon my Inner Caretaker and find something to do for someone else—something to support a person who is still caught in the endless rush of work/home/school/children, and needs a helping hand as necessary chores pile up.  The sort of helping hand that I would once have been so delighted to be offered.

Reaching out to assist another makes the Guilt Monster slide into submission, at least for a little while. I am retired, not lethargic.  Productive, not idle.  It’s okay, dammit, okay!

When I Retired

When I decided to take early retirement, it was not a choice that I made lightly. Actually, not to put too fine a face on matters, I waffled about the whole decision until my very last day – hours! – of employment.  A staff person at the pension office had sat down to a one-on-one with me, showed me charts, and explained my options.  But I was absolutely terrified.  I am the sort of person who can agonize for ten minutes over which of two tea towels to buy; how could I possibly make a decision of this magnitude, one that would affect the rest of my life?

The pleasant and efficient woman whom I saw at the pension office was succinct; displaying financial charts that demonstrated how much money I would lose by continuing my employment past a specific date, she said, “I really can’t advise you to wait.”  Yet still I equivocated.  I asked advice from everyone I knew, even people I really didn’t like.  With one exception, I was instructed, “Take the money and run.”

In the end, that was the advice I took – but not without serious preparation. Knowing that my finances were about to plunge for a long, stringent eight months before I could begin collecting Social Security – if I even decided on that option – I stockpiled.  I hoarded pet food and paper towels, toilet paper and tissues, shampoo and deodorant and toothpaste.  I stockpiled dish and laundry detergent, cat litter and coffee and canned goods.  If Armageddon had struck just prior to my retirement, I would have been prepared. I took my car into the shop and had mechanics repair everything that could be repaired. I bought new tires.  I ditched my outdated cell phone and bought a better one before initiating a much cheaper carrier.  I haggled with my internet service provider for a better rate.  I got rid of my overpriced landline and installed a service that carried a home phone over my wireless at half the price.

I prepared at the office, too. I was an Administrative Assistant for a large office, a job I frequently referred to as “Caretaker Personality for the Asylum”.  My coworkers had come to take for granted any number of tasks that I regularly performed that fell far outside the normal responsibilities for an AA.  And since I had inherited messes at several jobs throughout my career, I was determined to leave my own work in the best possible order for my successor.  So I wrote detailed job manuals, updated multiple databases, and cleaned out files.

And finally I partied, accepted cards and congratulations, and left.

Dickens already has a monopoly on that “best of times, worst of times” phrase. But it pretty much applied to retirement, I discovered.  I missed the camaraderie of my coworkers, but not the stresses of my job, nor the unreasonable demands of petty power despots.  For the first time in living memory, I felt rested. Personal errands no longer piled up like welfare babies.  And when family needed me, I was available.  I could help relatives pack to move and prepare their new home and walk their dog.  When someone was rushed to the hospital, I could be there quickly.  Retirement gave me the ineffably precious gift of time.

But, living alone, I was often agonizingly lonely. It took me months to become accustomed to the long stretch of evening hours spent solitary, and there are times still when my loneliness is almost unbearable.

A decade before my retirement, I’d ridden the morning bus to work on an absolutely horrendous winter morning, riding through plummeting temperatures and thigh-high snow, while a bus buddy spoke of her upcoming retirement. It would be marvelous, she said, to not ever again drag herself out to slog through a snowstorm to the office. The envy I felt for her was so strong I was surprised when no one asked me where I got the green face paint!  So now, taking retirement myself, I anticipated others’ envy.  Envy, but not resentment.

Resentment was the one reaction I hadn’t expected from my circle of acquaintances. The snide remark, the veiled insult – those came as a shock to me.  I’d worked full-time since I was 18, yet I was given to understand by some (not many) that retiring early on the pension I had earned over 37 long, weary years at just one of the jobs I’d held essentially made me a leech on the neck of society – an indolent and disgusting slug.

It’s hard to shrug off that sort of remark; guilt and shame are always my go-to emotions. Yet this time, just this once, I managed to dismiss the nasty remarks.

After all, I consoled myself, tomorrow morning those same acquaintances would be struggling through rush hour traffic to deal with unsympathetic supervisors and backstabbing coworkers…while I would be sipping my morning coffee on my patio, lazily penning words for my blog.