Retirement: Just Another Rite of Passage

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Image by fred1st via Flickr

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.  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. 

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. This is such a beautiful post. I “retired” when I quit my job, sold my home and moved to West Virginia with my now-husband 13 years ago. He retired a couple of years ago. It’s been both interesting and challenging for both of us, individually and as a unit. Thank you, Fred.

  2. Enjoy it Fred!!

    Glorious Freedom. So many of us are striving, plodding, anticipating, to get there!!!! Yes, there is life ahead!!



  3. Wow and congratulations! My father is also retiring this year after over 40 years with the state of NC. I’m a little worried how he will entertain himself as his job was such a big part of his life.

    I would like to think that I would travela and audit a few interesting classes when I retire (I never want to take another test again!). Here’s to wishing you and your wife the best of health, and because you have a curious mind, I’m sure you’ll have many more adventures.

    PS Curious as to why you say “what passes for insurance”? My father has Medicare now and it’s supplemented with private insurance. He also stated that he doesn’t know how people live on only Social Security as it’s incredibly little.

  4. Congrats, I guess, but don’t stay with the wait for the monthly check to come in the mail. Sign up for direct deposit, now. You don’t have to worry about the weather, theft of the check, illness keeping you from the bank, it just appears in your account.

  5. I envy you your beginner’s mind, although we both have that older body to contend with. My mind seems to be too lazy to tackle any new challenges. I am enjoying the pleasures of familiar, simple activities, mainly gardening and a little (very little) cooking. Right after I retired, I took the H & R Block tax return prep course, and enjoyed it very much. Working for them was the pits, however, so after one year I offered my time to the free tax prep for seniors program run by the AARP. I did that for three years before my eyesight got too bad. I should probably find a stimulating substitute, but so far, mindless activities have been satisfying enough. We have all read here how many things you will be involved with, Fred. You are off to a flying start, and there is absolutely no chance that you will find time heavy on your hands.

  6. Wow, Fred! Are you allowed to retire, young as you are? When I met you, I figured you for maybe a couple years older than I am, and I’m nowhere near retirement. Anyway, congratulations!

    I’ve always thought I’d love to retire, and I’ve had three careers, myself. At least you won’t have any difficulty coming up with a day’s worth of great activities.

  7. And I’m the retired lady via Julie – except that I’m not. You have to work just as hard in retirement as anywhere else – you just have more time in which to do it!
    I’ve retrained, started new work, returned to old work three times, retired again and developed a whole new life.
    Well, you just have to!
    I’m really enjoying your blog, and wish you all the very best in the future.

  8. Thanks, all, I learned (after waiting for the literal post man to put the notice in the actual mailbox (for the pure physicality and symbolic significance of the act, though the actual $$ was to be directly deposited in our bank acct) that the money was there since June 9. I thought I’d at least get a notice of deposit. But it would not have as significant a marker to register the deposit as to see the mailman put it in our box. Anyway, the deed’s done, and we’re into that new era of unknown challenges and possibilities now that I’ve been promoted to the next grade.

  9. Good for you, Fred! Your magnificent post was exactly what I needed to read this morning as I joust with the same issues here, and I thank you for those fine words. This retirement thing is really a beginning, and NOT an end. I particularly like the bit about “older body and beginner mind”.

  10. A very nice and accurate post, I think in old age only money can help you when your closer ones leave you alone…..I shall send the link to a my uncle who is, himself, now in retirement.

  11. How to reinvent your retirement years is a topic that is close to this Boomer’s heart. Your story is a prime example of how to rmany people are rediscovering and redeploying their gifts, passions and purpose in their “unretirement” years.