It’s strange to watch your parents age. I’m not around my mom and dad too often, just a once-per-year visit home for a few weeks to check in and enjoy each others’ company for a bit of time. To be reminded of the beautiful, natural fallibility of the people we love is a cyclical and progressive lesson in love and family dynamics.
During this past year, this transitory stage of life called Retirement really seems to have scooped both my parents up and dropped them in places like Rejivik, Hamburg, and Lechlade. They’ve definitely caught on to the holiday part of retirement no problem! Yet, this transition is like a wad of bubble gum, it can stretch out a long time and things can get a bit sticky if you’re not used to having so much time on your hands. It can take months, years for some, to adapt to not having that thing to get up in the morning for anymore (besides breakfast of course) when it was the reason you set your alarm and pushed the covers back on those dark, cold, winter mornings.
And for some, this phase of life happens not long after the children have left home. Double whammy. All of a sudden, a new purpose must replace the old ones. How does that happen? What do you DO if you’re not going to work all day, there aren’t any children to take care of, and you’re in between holidays? What once was an attractive and anticipated dot in the distance now smacks of a cold-hard reality fraught with uncertainty and the uncomfortable state of Too-Much-Time. But time is relative. As my mom-in-law points out, at retirement age there are more years behind you than there are in front of you.
My dad decided this past year, his first year of real retirement, that he wants to learn to play guitar. I think there are far less cool things than my dad at 65 wanting to learn how to play a musical instrument. Of course, age shouldn’t matter with such things but I think it’s more impressive when older people learn new shit because they’re not as well programmed anymore to do so. Children learn new stuff all the time because they are biologically wired to. But those synapses begin to short circuit as most people age. Retired folks are wired, and socialized, to start slowing down. The adage, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks does have some weight.
But that doesn’t have to equate to everything slowing down. Keeping different parts of the brain and emotion powerhouse constantly stimulated by having to reconcile new information everyday, not just once in a while, can certainly help kick such silly old adages in the balls. A hobby can be instrumental in, not just filling time, but keeping the faculties active and vibrant and staying connected to yourself in a new phase of life. It may just take a little more patience and attention than it did in the thirties.
What makes me an expert on retirement? Certainly not my drought-like RSP account or my age for that matter. I am still too young to fully understand the intricacies and challenges of this stage of life. I’ve had phases where I’ve swam the waters of empty time, long open days, insecurity about my purpose in life and indecision about what to do with the rest of it. Those phases have presented questions about my identity that is no longer tied to an impressive sounding job title or the things I own. And what I’ve come up with is that the perspective we have–not our net worth–at any phase in life, through any transition, in any environment or circumstance is the culprit behind our happiness or misery, which eventually filters through to our overall health.
But money, oh money. Yet another threatening wasp that buzzes around retirement and any stage of life that hosts a major change. My dad and I sat on the beach late summer having just spent an hour kayaking and paddle boarding in the Pacific Ocean. As we ate a picnic and drank beer and basked in the late summer sun he confessed his number one worry: an exit-only bank account for the first time in his life. I know that feeling well, and with much less money attached to it.
Leaving a full time job and cashing in on the equity of an expensive home years ago was terrifying. I went from being a well-educated university instructor with a promising academic career before me and owning an expensive home in a nice neighbourhood to earning a sub-par wage doing something completely unrelated to my field of study but more personally rewarding. And I essentially became a bit of a vagabond.
When I reduced my needs and eliminated the materialism beneath many of my desires, those dollar signs stopped procreating like throbbing, horny rabbits, and they exited my chequing account much more slowly than ever before. I consumed much less than ever before, with greater consciousness. Suddenly, my money had intangible value. It reflected not what fancy kitchen appliances could line my cupboards but the time I had to do the things I wanted to do. The experiences I could dive into. The landscapes I could see in real time. The cultures I could taste, smell, and touch. But that’s a privilege when you’re not quite 40 because time, both the time lapsed and the time still available, is still a luxury rather than an impediment.
So I wonder, what haunts someone most at retirement, if there are such ghosts for some at all? Is it money or is it the grand allowance of time finally bestowed upon us? Unscheduled days to fill with something that keeps an untamed spirit alive? When the big, obvious purpose is part of the past, still yet to be discovered, or simply not an ambition at all, what meaningful thing do we devote our time and energy to? Maybe it’s a combination of things. Watching the grandkids grow up. Learning to paddle board. Taking pole dancing lessons. Giving into a natural slowing down as decadently as possible, by tasting the all the sweet, exotic fruits after years spent planting and watering. By rediscovering parts of yourself or creating new ones. By getting to know the person with whom you’ve shared a bed for 45 years like you’re on a first date. By becoming better acquainted with a different kind of uncertainty. By picking up a guitar and learning a few chords just so you can sing a few of your favourite songs.
Photo: My dad learning to drive a scooter during his first-ever trip to Thailand to visit me this past winter. Never have I ever admired this man as much as I do now.
Originally published at ESL101.com.