I expect any day now to find in our green mailbox an official-looking envelope from the federal government. It will mark both closure and commencement.Â The message it brings will lay before me a kind of life-stages symmetry, a bell-curve, this notice punctuating the far right end, the final period on a long yellowed page of paragraphs called my career. And it will be the capital letter at the start of a new unwritten page.
This future monthly feeding from the crumbs that my paychecks have dribbled under my own table over the past forty years will mark the end of my participation in the work force. It will not mean I no longer have a force of my own. It will represent the end of my working life. I have life yet ahead. It will be an anticlimax, a whimper, not a bang. And maybe a bang as well.
My movement towards this end of the working curve has been by gradual degrees, intentional (mostly), and anticipated for years. I’ve not given it much care until now when the date looms large on my calendar. Huge, actually. Dang. Is the party over or about to begin? Retiring minds want to know! I need to wrap my head around this thing. My personal rumination here may in its generalities already have been or soon be your own.
To see the pattern in this bigger-picture of a life, I have to think back to my highest hopes after grad school. Even then, trapped temporarily in Birmingham in our mid-twenties, my pharmacist wife and I both weighed more heavily the WHERE of our future, the ambience and natural amenities of our life-setting, than our career tracks. Our first almost-home was in Helen, Georgia–in the mountains. In 1975 we found Wytheville, which was perfect for the location in (or at least near) the mountains and fair for the teaching job. In 1989 we moved to Sylva, NC because it was in the Smoky Mountains. It was a great location for my field botanist and photographic interests. And so-so for my first job as a physical therapist.
And when our nest was empty (is it ever, really?) as we entered our late 40s, from all the places our marketable professions could have taken us, we chose a place where we’d be happy in retirement, a decade or more ahead of need, and before we lost the will or the strength to make that place ready for the day on down the road when we’d get our first social security checks . We’d already be living in Floyd County, where we’d be content to retire. Now down the slow road, here we are, waiting for the mail man.
The beauty of this is that no transplant shock has been required. We are well watered here as we come “of age”, deeply rooted, and thriving in the sunshine of this place called home. The retirement facility here, and its grounds, are familiar and comfortable, and it is paid for. We’ve worn paths in our soil here, literally and figuratively, and this placed-ness eases the transition considerably since this piece of ground has become what at least one of us here does “for a living” now.
I should be quick to point out that I have pre-retired my wife, who, bless her soul, carries our regular income stream for a few more years (not to mention what passes for health insurance) until she too wakes every morning to an unstructured (or at least self-structured) day. Thought bubble: the two of us at home all day every day is a matter ripe for non-fictional speculation whose mental cinematography waffles between Alfred Hitchcock and Woody Allen with a faint hint of Gary Larson. But that, for another time.
I thought my working life had ended forever in 2002. I’d burned out on health care and couldn’t imagine myself back in the classroom again 17 years since I put away my chalk-dusted tie and biology lecture notes. My retirement angst–the sudden loss of self-identity, purpose and structure–happened with some ferocity those first few jobless months that year. It was tough. I started writing it out to make sense of it. And I got the worry and perplexity over with at 54. And to my great surprise thereafter, I re-entered education, teaching for a few semesters at RU and returned part time for five years to a physical therapy clinic who stopped needing me only in the fall of 2009.
So when that check comes any day now, I will think of it as a kind of grant, a small reinforcement to do what comes from the heart, to use life skills from here on for other purposes than paying the bills, and to live in an older body with a beginner’s mind. ï»¿