December 31st annually begs the question: Who am I? Or the inverse, implied in the annual search for New Year’s Resolutions. Who is it that I aspire to be? What current imperfections do I intend, through thoughtful list-making one day a year, to slough off? Usually, it is the resolutions themselves that are quickly sloughed off…

It depends, of course, on the stage of your life the depth of your questions. The list repeats throughout one’s life and mine may have (more than once) included:

  • Exercise more
  • Lose 10 pounds
  • Stay in touch with friends/reconnect with friends
  • Read more
  • Watch less TV
  • Don’t worry so much about things over which you have no control
  • Actively engage to make positive change

As I near the traditional age range of retirement, these questions take on more significance as I consider who I may become, once untethered from a job title. This follows unwilling untethering from my marital partnership. I shared with my friends Bob and Susan today a few of the wilder ideas for the “after work life” that I’ve been riffing through in the idle times of the holiday season. Their eyes collectively grew wider on the zoom screen and then they both started laughing about the desperate need to chat with me separately and at length. To save me from myself.

After our chat, the WhatsApp channel we use for our interstitial weekly commentary lit up with advice:

Please check with us before signing papers of any kind or giving away large pots of money or vital organs 😆

Too late! Gave the vital organs away the last time I renewed my driver’s license!

Speaking of driving, traveling is an excellent time to observe the swirl of humanity and try to imagine new representations of self. I always find something to reflect on while traveling, through downtime, visits to museums, etc. I saw this funny advert in the airport on my way out of D.C.

What’s wrong with this picture?

The incubation process is vital to all of us in imagining paths forward in our lives. I’d planned on attending several museum exhibits in Washington, D.C., where I was visiting my Dad and his wife. (And no, I didn’t see the advert at the airport). Thursday, I attended four exhibits at the National Building Museum with my friend, Allison – all themed around our relationship to the ideas of House and Home and equality of access to those concepts. There’s an ongoing exhibit entitled just that: House and Home, but there were two other exhibits: A Better Way Home: The Housing Affordability Breakthrough Challenge, and a general exhibit, Justice is Beauty: The Work of MASS Design Group, the architecture firm founded by Michael Murphy and Alan Ricks. Their inspiring work is influenced and embodies many principles of recently deceased anthropologist and epidemiologist Paul Farmer – designing and implementing hospitals and housing with locally sourced materials and artisanship based on scientific principles about creating healthy spaces. All the exhibits we attended were powerful reminders of the abilities of people to make positive change and were extremely up-lifting. We ended our outing with steaming bowls of veggie ramen at a nearby restaurant, Daikaya, which we would heartily recommend.

My week in Washington was just what the doctor ordered: minimal activity, including a regimen of daily jigsaw puzzles and meals, watching episodes of The Crown, watching the fox kits in the back yard, and taking long brisk walks in Rock Creek Park. Oh, and not to forget the best panettone I’ve ever encountered courtesy of my brother, Larry. Travel was broadening in more than one way this season.

On the flight home, I stumbled across the perfect show for a theatre professor on vacation and ruminating on later life paths. The Rehearsal, on HBO, written and directed by magician/comedian Nathan Fielder. The show is hard to describe. I recommend it highly.

Nathan Fielder gives people a chance to rehearse for their own lives in a world where nothing ever works out as expected.

I watched all six episodes of The Rehearsal on the Boeing Dreamliner between Chicago and Los Angeles yesterday afternoon, riveted by the weird and hysterical precision of his methodology and the show’s logistics but it wasn’t until this morning when I was on the zoom call with my friends that I realized what I really craved was a similar opportunity to what this HBO series offers – to try to imagine/rehearse my “after-life.” The planner’s plan for foiling life’s foibles.

My wise friends talked me off the ledge-leaping strategy I’d been thinking about a lot lately, i.e., changing lanes, rather than exiting the highway. They counseled a year off after retirement, to allow the space and emotional impact of ceasing full time work. The attainment of stillness, and yes, boredom, allowing the lack of activity to influence the direction and shape of one’s future. I’ve looked for synonyms for retirement and the page practically made me weep.

Synonyms for retirement (link to page above):

  • The action or fact of leaving one’s job and ceasing to work
  • The period of one’s life after retiring from work
  • An act of moving back or withdrawing
  • A state or act of seclusion from others or society
  • An act of resigning from a job or office
  • Cancellation or cancelation
  • A period or time free from engagement
  • The end or final point of something
  • The state of being no longer in employment, or being made unemployed
  • A remote or uninhabited place
  • (British) A demobilization from service
  • Quality of being secret

What we need a new way to capture is not the off-ramp meaning of retirement, but the straight and curvy open road to the unknown, which is about opportunity and adventure, creating new community, not about the cessation of, or superannuation, pullback, or “a remote or uninhabited place.” These are words all about endings, not beginnings. As a culture, we value work so much that to imagine a time without work has become collectively a negative notion. Why do we think 60-somethings are so terrified of it if that’s the definition?

As my friend, Susan, described, we are, in life after fifty, looking for community, for engagement, for mission driven meaning in our lives. Or, maybe we just “want to hold babies,” as one of Bob’s friends chose to do in her retirement. We might not know while we’re still “in it” what the actual manifestation of “holding babies” is. Having the time to consider those things is a gift, not a bereavement, as the definitions of retirement would seem to be. And really, rather than the moment by moment anticipation, preparation, flowcharts and rehearsals scripting every alternative direction (as is the Fielder Method), maybe what we need is the raw, free fall before we pull the chute’s cord and land, exhilarated, in uncharted territory of exploration and discovery. That sounds better, doesn’t it?

Anyway, those are my reflections on and resolutions for 2023. The ones above as well as trusting to have the courage to not know the future, and the confidence that whatever it is I will be able to manage. My friend, Allison wisely framed her newly found philosophy as (forgive my muddling) not “taking a risk,” but “taking a chance.” At any rate, I heartily commit to further incubation on the matter.

Here’s to a smooth landing for you in 2023! Happy New Year!

9 thoughts

  1. I once asked a retired professor what retirement was like. «  It’s not the occupation I miss, it’s the preoccupation. » I thought that was profound and expected, after 50 years of teaching, that I would have the same experience. I did not. In fact, as much as my identity was connected to teaching and I feared losing my moorings, I have missed neither the occupation nor the preoccupation. I was born again: I felt- and feel- like a kid. When people ask me what I do now that I’m retired, I tell them that I go down rabbit holes and ( with a nod to Kurt Vonnegut)
    fart around. I coast through most days and am surprised how the lack of structure makes me happy.
    Your reaction will probably be different than mine but I wanted to let you know that there’s no predicting how you – and I dare say anyone- will feel once they have actually retired ( or as my friend said, “ once you’re untired.) As Milan Kundera wisely wrote, we live on a planet of inexperience. We leave childhood without knowing what youth is, we marry without knowing what it is to be married, and even when we enter old age we don’t know what it is we’re heading for: the old are innocent children, innocent of their old age. In that sense man’s world is the planet of inexperience.
    I couldn’t have predicted my reaction to being retired but it’s been a gift and a joy. I wish the same for you, dear Els.

    1. Oh, Carol, how exquisite you are and I can’t tell you how much your comment means to me. Your wisdom has stayed with me since you took me outside the classroom when I was performing a speech from three sisters and you asked me, “what is it that you really want, Els?” Earnestly, I answered, “I really want to be an actress.” Then you told me to go in and substitute that for the word Russia and I did, and it was the best acting I think I’ve ever done. Also the last! 😂
      I love what you said about not knowing what it’s like to be married when you get married, and not knowing what it’s like to be old when you’re old. Thank you for taking me out in the hall again I love you and happy new year!

      1. Els,
        I wish I could take credit for the comments about marriage and old age. I should have put italics around the whole quote up until “planet of inexperience”- the words and wisdom are Kundera’s.
        I’m amazed by what students recall from classes! Was this hallway memory before or after you played god in Everyman? I have such a vivid image of looking up into the choir loft in the University chapel and seeing you there. And now, reading these posts of yours I’m still looking up to you.
        Happy New Year. I love you too. ❤️

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