Watching a woman smoking a cigarette and walking down the street in Montreal, I am struck by the number of harsh habitual behaviors to which humans subject themselves. You wouldn’t see a dog walking around smoking.
I have been wanting to write about intention. By this I mean a life by design, not accident; a life in which you actively choose where to put your attention, your money, your time. Annie Dillard notes:
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.”
For me, working meant built-in purpose, a schedule, a routine. My days were interesting and full and fun. I rarely had to choose – I could spend indiscriminately, I could multi-task, and I believed I was doing it all. I was the embodiment of “more.”
Annie Dillard also wrote:
“There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by. A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading — that is a good life.”
It is that life of the spirit I grapple with now that I do not have a built in schedule. Without work to distract me, I can see clearly the culture’s drive to commoditize the human spirit. I stand apart and observe how we deftly we are pulled into the life of sensation – though our increasingly intelligent devices, targeted advertising, food and medical options presented through traditional venues. “More” and “faster” are the dictates of this drive.
I also observe more people now who are choosing to live an intentional life. They are opting to live less expensively, to do without or to live in a rural environment, so that they can be free from work earlier in their lives. I’m not sure if these folks have always been there and I didn’t know them, or if this is becoming a movement. In any event, as I get further from the noise and drama of working life, I see more options than ever before. Options for good days and a good life.
I really enjoy watching the You Tube contributions of Dr. Sarah King, PT, DPT, who is a Parkinson’s physical therapist (and owner of Invigorate Physical Therapy and Wellness). She wrote a letter called Things I Wish I Could Have Told You the Day You Were Diagnosed with Parkinson’s – the letter is here; the video here. I recommend it for everyone – it could have been written for anyone recently diagnosed with “aging.”
To believe we are not broken, that a future is still ours to create, and that we can get where we want to go with small changes applied with urgency is important for everyone.
Your colleagues are not your friends.
Your boss is not your family.
Even if they have been to your home.
Even if they have met your wife.
They may remember you.
For the stand you took, a battle fought.
For your authenticity.
But they aren’t going to stay in touch.
Regardless of what they say at your retirement party.
A few words exchanged with a stranger at a coffeeshop.
A dramatic storm coming across the lake.
The screaming, yipping celebration of the local coyotes.
That’s what I’ve got now.
Here are nine things that I see differently from this perch called retirement, now I have been here a while:
- Building a New Life. Think about retirement as the chance to build a new life from scratch, and this goes doubly if you are moving to a new part of the country. This is an opportunity to be yourself fully, so think about not just the stuff you want to start doing, but also what you want to stop doing. You will still have constraints, of course, but how you maneuver around them is part of who you are.
- Giving. What you give to others in retirement is a mindset and attitude as much as knowledge and time. Help others be better.
- Money. Unless you have really saved “enough” money, you are going to need a budget. Get that spreadsheet ready. Also, there is nothing like a 30 minutes, once per week, discussing with your spouse what you spent and why.
- Organizing. Retirement requires just as much, if not more, administration and project management time as your working life required.
- Living Space. If you move to a new area because you believe it to be cheaper, give it a year or so before that cheap kicks in. There is always a period of settling into a new home and new community that requires resources.
- Time. Take responsibility for yourself and the time you have. Don’t drive your spouse crazy.
- Parents. Your parents and your spouse’s parents are going to need attention. You basically have four parents now (more if you have a multiple marriage situation), and you are going to have to help attend to all of them at one point or another.
- Health. Your health belongs to you – not your doctor, your spouse, your friends, or your trainer. If you aren’t in the habit of moving around most of the time, of eating mindfully, recognizing when you are stressed, then your health is already declining.
- The Future. You cannot know what is to come. Don’t believe every thought that pops into your mind.
From an article on the glamorous grandmas of Instagram in NYTimes this week:
“Our collective understanding of what later life looks like remains woefully outdated,” Marie Stafford, the European director of the JWT Innovation Group, wrote in her introduction. “Age no longer dictates the way we live. Physical capacity, financial circumstances and mind-set arguably have far greater influence.” (Emphasis mine)
My mindset around the idea of retirement has evolved over the past two years. I share this thought with you because it took me some time to learn it, and these words might provide a shortcut to you.
Retirement is a blank canvas on which we build our new life, and our legacy. It’s a fresh chance to lean into the habits, interests, and activities that are most true to ourselves, listening to the ideas and hopes that give us juice, within the circumstances that naturally constrain us.
I have alot of experience with life at this age. I have some sense of how I like to spend my time. The last few years of my working life felt like a pinnacle; it may have just been the culmination of a career trying on likes and dislikes and finally knowing what I like best. Now I am retired, I have time to build my best self from scratch. This is the person whom others meet today – not the decisive executive (also bossy), or organized administrator (also rigid), or thoughtful team leader (also sometimes thoughtless) that I was in my career days.
If I do it right, my best attributes – built over years in those roles – shine through and mix with what I’m learning now into an authentic and true self. This is what I bring to this thing we call retirement.
I like the way Chris Ballard wrote about the basketball great, Brian Grant, in this 5/2/18 article on SI.com:
“the disease is both everywhere and nowhere, because while 60,000 people are diagnosed every year, and roughly 10 million live with Parkinson’s worldwide, most do their best to hide it. Until they can’t. Then they hide themselves.”
Some years ago, I read a magazine article that said you could summit Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the contiguous 48 states, without any climbing equipment, that it was one of those rare mountains on which you could essentially “walk” to the top. It sounded easy. An uphill stroll.
At the time, I had done some backpacking in Big Sur and Yosemite and I thought this would be a good next challenge. A couple of my friends said they would join me on this endeavor. At 22 total miles, in and back, with total elevation change of 6,100 feet, we thought we would just go slow and make three days out of it. We secured the necessary permits and in early September, my friends David and Bobbi joined me, driving first to Lone Pine, California, where we stayed at a motel for the first night, then through the Inyo National Forest to the portal, where the trail begins at 8,374 feet above sea level.
In retrospect, we had a lot of gear. Big 50 pound backpacks, with a tent, a stove, sleeping bags and cushions, freeze dried meals, and probably too many clothes. A camera. Lots of peanut M&M’s that I had read were good at high altitudes. It was all light and modern compared to what John Muir climbed with, but compared to today, another 35 years along the technology trail, it may have been pitiful.
The Whitney Trail begins in a high Alpine forest, beautiful, serene, with streams and boulders. A felled log was the bridge to cross the first stream we came to. There was about a three foot drop to the stream bed, and maybe six inches of water flowing through the stream. For some reason, I could not bring myself to venture out onto the log with my pack. Both Bobbie and I were suddenly afraid of falling off that log and into the water. David had to carry his pack across, and then return for each of our packs, and then for each of us. We walked across under our own leg power, but it took coaxing. There were at least six of these kind of stream crossings before the trail took us above the tree line, and I don’t remember David ever complaining about the time-consuming method we used to cross every one of them.
We continued to climb, crossing above the tree line, now following the cairn trail markers. We arrived at the base camp area later then planned but still managed to set up our tent, boil some water, and make some food before it was completely dark. All afternoon, the wind was picking up. I will never forget that wind. That night it blew so hard I was afraid to go out to pee because without my weight, the tent might blow off the mountain with my two friends in it. Between the relentless noise of the gale, and my imagination about the ferocious wild animals assembling outside, I don’t think I slept for a full hour.
Day two dawned clear and cold, and we assembled the smaller packs we would carry just to the summit and back. Relentless is too mild a word for the slope upward that morning. The cairns that marked the trail through our route’s infamous 97 switchbacks were difficult to see, and sometimes we would find ourselves 30 feet off the trail, climbing an imaginary path from which we would need to back track.
Sometimes the path would narrow as it snaked alongside the mountain, becoming just a walkway, a path maybe two feet wide with a 1,000 foot drop. That was kind of scary. It was absolutely terrifying, and also kind of impressive, when the trail was just a bridge with maybe a 1,000 foot drop down one side and 500 down the other. We inched forward over these, all the while conscious that we would have to revisit them again on the way down.
At some point, another climber on his way down told us that last year’s ice hadn’t melted near the last, steepest part of the climb and that we should “be careful.” I’ll tell you, that focused our minds.
Nearing the summit, we spent more time on our hands and feet, doing more of a big rock scramble than a hike as I had envisioned, or that promised stroll. Finally, however, we scrambled over the last stone and snow and ice and emerged onto the mountain top. It was surprisingly large up there, and flat. A big plaque said the elevation was 14,505 and we took some photos. A careful descent and we were back at basecamp and our tent and packs we had left there. That night, the wind was quiet, the wild things had dispersed, and I slept much better.
On day three, we got an early start down the mountain, and ran into several climbers coming up the trail, carrying just a small day pack, and maybe a hiking stick. When we talked briefly, it turns out that many people climb the mountain in just one day, all the way up and back. That was a revelation.
Bobbi and I crossed the log bridges we had to be coaxed over on day one in just three or four big confident strides. The contrast with the rest of the climb made these crossings seem so easy. The forested part of the trail seemed doubly lush and beautiful.
Back at the trailhead, we got into the car and headed home, feeling victorious and really proud of ourselves. We didn’t have social media then, so we just sat with our accomplishment, savoring it, turning it over amongst the three of us.
About 25 miles from the trailhead, we saw an A&W drive in restaurant. Perfect for three hungry, dirty, climbers; we wouldn’t even have to get out of the car. We pulled in and ordered and when the waitress returned to the car with our food, we burst out with the news that we had just climbed Mt. Whitney! “Uh huh,” she said, snapping her gum, “what’s that?”
In my mind’s eye I still search her face for signs of irony. Did she really not know?
In subsequent years, I traveled extensively and learned to love everything about hotels – rooms, lobby bars, and restaurants in complex urban spaces – and until recently I’d forgotten about this adventure from my youth. It was a good one.
A poem in 28 hashtags, curated from Instagram