A month or so ago, I received an email from long-time TGB reader James Wallace Harris who blogs at Auxiliary Memory. He has been retired for awhile now and is feeling restless from what might be too much unaccustomed freedom:
”Doing whatever I want, when I want, is like a habit forming drug,” wrote Jim. “Want to kick back and listen to Van Morrison for two hours – cool. Want to watch the Oklahoma Kid, a western from 1939, sure, why not. Want to put off lunch until 2:30 to keep reading my science fiction novel, that’s a-okay...
“The trouble is, I’m writing less, letting the house go, ignoring things on my to-do list, and losing all sense of discipline.
“I don’t know if this is because I’ve gone eighteen months without working, or because I gave up junk food January 1st, and don’t have enough brain fuel to keep me energized. However, I don’t want to get a job just to force a routine on myself.”
Jim also mentions that some tell him he is going through a well-known phase of retirement and he wonders, he says, if some older people with more experience can help him work this out (as he notes, I am 10 years older than he is).
First, let's look at that notion of “well-known phase.” There are plenty of so-called retirement experts who will tell you this is true. They will especially tell you this for a good-sized fee that might include email or telephone “retirement coaching” sessions.
(I've done the calculations and discovered that there are precisely the same number of retirement coaches as there are people who tried and failed real estate sales in retirement.)
Okay, that's my personal prejudice – stages of life, including retirement. That's way too neat and tidy to be human and from the people I've known over years, few fit into the pigeon-hole categories pop psychology books like to lay out for us.
Even as we share some similar experiences, there are so many variables in our backgrounds, sensibilities, habits and personalities – moreso in old age than when younger - we can't be reduced to pre-digested ranks and classifications.
What I mean is that Jim is asking really hard questions for which there are no easy answers. There is not even a Chinese menu list with items to choose from columns A, B and C.
The fact is, one person's schedule is another's freedom. Some crave structure, others abandon it altogether and follow their whims each day. Undoubtedly, most of us fall somewhere in a spectrum between the extremes.
I understand completely how Jim has fallen into a kind of sloth (if he doesn't mind that description). I've been there.
It is my habit, after feeding the cat first thing in the morning, to read the news online and answer overnight emails with my coffee. Early on after I retired, that period gradually expanded from a couple of hours until I found myself still at the computer in my granny gown at noon and beyond.
Finally a day arrived when I saw what I had become and I was appalled with myself. After all, if you make it past noon without showering, why bother at all? And if it seems too much work by early afternoon to dress – well, there must be an old can of tuna in the cupboard that can work for dinner.
(As I write this, Jim, it strikes me now that structure or lack thereof is only one kind of issue people confront when we no longer owe most of our time to the company store. I've known plenty of people who happily cruise into retirement without a backward look or thought.
Me? I discovered that I need to impose structure on myself or it all goes to hell.
Seven or eight years have passed since I pissed away half of every day and now it is my habit to be washed and brushed and fed by 7:30 or 8AM, a schedule that includes plenty of time for the news, email, exercise and meditation that prepare me for the rest of the day.
On the other hand, there must be plenty of people who are completely relaxed about sitting around in their pajamas for many hours. If they are not bothered by it as I was, it's not a problem as far as I can see.
This blog takes up a large part of my time and I like it that way. Many elders volunteer, some work at paid jobs and others have one or more interests in their lives, as ageing is for me, that are so compelling there is no question where they will put their energy.
And that brings me back to where I started. There is no objective answer to Jim's question. There are only individual, subjective answers – and anyone who says differently is wrong.
What I do know that has always helped is hearing how others have handled such dilemmas. The particulars don't necessarily match our own but there are similarities of place and time and experience that give us new ideas on which to ruminate.
So, dear TGB readers, this is a crowd-sourcing day for Jim's retirement restlessness. I know for sure that others have wrestled with these questions.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Marc Leavitt: The Tea-Baggers Manifesto