Retirement Reflections: Week #2

HammockThe second full week of Not Working has felt much like the first. I’m still chagrined by the amazing freedom to do stuff in whatever sequence my mood dictates, and to interrupt whatever I’ve started doing with something completely unrelated, knowing that there’ll be Plenty o’ Time to get back around to the initial task.

About mid-way through the first week, I realized (but forgot to record) that part of this first phase of my retirement delight has to do with the fact that, at long last, I’m taking that stay-at-home vacation everyone dreams about taking, but never gets around to because the lure of going out of town with one’s meager portion of one’s pathetically limited vacation leave is irresistible.

Part of the pleasure is lolling about surrounded by the conveniences and comforts of one’s own familiar domain. But the other part is undertaking tasks that one actually has time to finish (or make impressive headway on). Nest-feathering is a lot more fun when there’s time to consider, at leisure instead of hurriedly or haphazardly, how this or that might be improved. Dragging furniture around, for example, is a lot more interesting when the ticking clock is just another background sound  rather than a depressing portent of one’s work schedule coming around to interrupt one’s domestic activities and experiments.

Speaking of clocks, can it be that it’s time now already to wind the grandmother clock in my living room, like I do every Sunday? Seems like I just re-wound the thing day before yesterday, rather than a week ago. This is really the only new thing to report about being retired: time goes by faster than I thought possible. The month of March is almost gone, and soon it’ll be time to take a trip I planned a while back. Surely this racing-clock phenomenon will dissipate soon? After all, I’m getting up before sunrise as I always did, so it’s not that I’m sleeping more so there are fewer hours in the day to experience. Strange.

Actually, I suppose I am sleeping more, as I am now taking naps! Almost every day! One day this past week, two naps! Ah, bliss, bliss, and double-bliss! I’ve already decided to try to find a place for a hammock outside, so I can take some of those lovely naps  outdoors…the better to hear the birds chirping. (Who knew there were so many in Candler Park?)

Because of the steadily improving weather, outside is where I’ve spent a good portion of this past week. The patio fountain’s up and running again, I’ve completed the dreaded annual task of dragging my over-wintered plants from the sunroom onto the patio, and restored the sunroom to an inhabitable state.

During the rainy days when I was forced to stay inside, I began the tedious but necessary chore of merging the electronic files I brought home from work with the files on my computer at home…and I began the onerous chore of sorting through 32 years worth of paper files imported from the office, deciding which ones to keep and which ones to toss. If I can have those four boxes of files disappeared from my study by the end of the summer, I will be a much more contented retiree. (I’d take the boxes to the attic, but there’s no more room up there, for files or for anything else. In fact, once I take care of those files, I want to tackle the attic and get it cleared up – ideally before year’s end.)

Meanwhile, in between restoring the patio and the sunroom to their proper spring-worthy states, I’ve finished two wonderful books, watched a couple of videos, had a two-hour (and very reassuring) planning session with my financial advisor,  and signed up for a square dancing convention that will happen in July.

Finally, although I’m excited by two upcoming trips I’ve planned, I’m also looking forward to the time here at home in between the trips: spending more time both in the garden and inside this light-filled house, and taking some extended walks around the about-to-burst-into-bloom neighborhood to punctuate the various errands that (thanks to the warmer weather) I’m now running on my scooter again. (Retirement) Life is (Still) Good!

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Retirement Reflections: Week #1

retirement sign #2My first full week of full-time nonemployment has been marked by several psychological surprises. (I’m hoping there won’t be any major financial surprises, although the fact that the arrangements for my “retirement income” taking up to two months to kick in has made me acutely aware of the rate at which I’ve continued spending money on various things – everything from what-suddenly-seems-more-expensive-than-before groceries, to purchasing expensive stashes of birdseed for the birdfeeder and potting soil for the garden, to booking some tickets for two upcoming trips, to paying for someone to clean and re-start my patio fountain.)

The biggest surprise of Week #1 has been the time-warping effect of subtracting a full-time work schedule from my daily routine. I’m constantly re-realizing the bliss of being free to choose to do various household chores or nest-feathering projects in any order that strikes my mood (rather than according to the limited number and always-narrow time-slots previously available to do these things).

I’ve also come slap up against one of those Paradoxes of Retirement that other retirees had predicted I would discover: that, although one suddenly has All The Time in The World to Do Stuff, time actually seems to pass more quickly rather than more slowly.

For example, despite the fact that I continue to get out of bed each morning at approximately the same time as when I did in order to get to work across town by 9 A.M. on weekdays,  I keep being surprised at how quickly noon can arrive! Apparently I am either slowing down – taking more time than is absolutely necessary to do each thing I decide to do – or I am allowing myself to become distracted by doing additional things than whatever it is I set out to do. I haven’t quite figured it out, but I do know that each day seems like it has fewer hours in it instead of more, and that this past week came and went a lot more quickly than any work-filled week ever did.

Another surprise dawned on me in the middle of my most recent Tai Chi class – the first one I’d taken with a full week’s worth of showing up for class without the backdrop of work behind it. Throughout the class I kept having the sensation that it wasn’t my body that was going through the usual qi gong exercises – this was someone else’s body, someone else’s more relaxed and flexible body, instead of the often-knarled-up body that I’d punished by, say, sitting too long in front of a computer screen at work. I finally realized that the only factor that had changed between those previous three years’ worth of t’ai chi classes and last Thursday’s class was the subtraction of the 40-hours-per-week work routine.

True, I still sit for long spells in front of my home computer, but those home computer spells are interrupted more often: I’m forever getting up to walk to the other end of the house to fetch something, or searching for or filing something in a filing cabinet, or just wandering out onto the patio to investigate something that’s caught my eye out there. The very clear difference in the way I felt during t’ai chi class this past week has made a believer of the Work Stress Can Definitely Affect Your Body school of thought. And I’m not just talking about the debilitating effects of screen-staring time: surely it’s the sudden subtraction of chronic preoccupation with multiple work-related matters that was responsible for the suddenly relaxed body I found myself inhabiting in this week’s t’ai chi class!

Another work-relinquishing-related surprise: because I’m no longer exposed daily to a work environment, I haven’t been able to spend even a moment this past week worrying or even wondering about work-related matters. This became clear to me the two times this past week I checked (from home) my work email account to see if there were any stray “good-bye and good luck” messages from colleagues that had arrived in my in-box after I’d left on March 12th. I’m glad I did check my work email account, as there were some of those messages. But scanning the subject lines of those work-related emails also made me realize how freeing it has been not to feel any longer responsible for addressing, resolving, or responding in any way, shape, or form to any of that stuff!

In addition to the awareness of the disorientingly different way time flows for me now (at least in this initial week of being retired), I’m also noticing how it’s The Little Things that are bringing me the most pleasure:

  • Being in my house when sunlight happens to be streaming into it! This is becoming an almost-daily occurrence, when before it was an infrequent one. Because the house I live in is so congenial to my needs and temperament, I’d been looking forward to the spending-more-time-at-home part of retirement, and, sure enough, it is wonderful to be here more often when it’s the light instead of the darkness pouring in through the windows! (This particular enjoyment has also alerted me to how much more thrilling this experience will be once I get around to washing my windows! In fact, just knowing that I will have the time now to finally wash every window in my house is totally exhilarating!)
  • More opportunities for extended bird-watching, or cat-stroking, or simply sitting out on the bench in the back yard staring at my tiny yard and deciding – with lots more time to decide – what I want to change about my modest little garden.
  • Scootering over to the house of some also-retired friend to visit that person in the daytime. And not only arriving for that visit unencumbered by the sometimes spirit-sapping exhaustions of work, but feeling like the distance between our houses – because I am traveling in the daylight instead of after dark – makes the distances seem shorter than I’d previously believed them to be.
  • The wonderful luxury of not being forced to use my time “efficiently.” Not only is more of my time actually mine to use, but the sudden ability to change my mind about when to tackle some chore or project, or to interrupt it with another chore or project – or with a nap! – or to actually have the time to finish a chore or project – or not! – this is the single most glorious – and most unexpected – aspect (so far) about Being Retired.

Has my first week been completely free of mini-panic attacks obsessing about How Shall I Structure My Time Without That Full-Time Job, as I did for 32 consecutive years? Well, there have been a few fleeting moments of free-floating queasiness, but such moments were short-lived, and I am able to regard them as the transitory reactions to change that a person like me who finds comfort in routine and “being useful” was probably bound to experience after making such a sudden, radical, and irreversible change in his daily patterns.

Overall, having reached the end of the first full week exploring the unfamiliar country known as RetirementLand, I continue to feel confident that:

  • My notorious low threshold for boredom and my habit of constantly seeking balance in terms of pleasures vs. obligations will carry me toward a new daily routine that will feel sufficiently interesting, positive, and sustainable.
  • Many of the minor retirement-related surprises that lie ahead will be pleasant ones.
  • Whatever major retirement-related surprises that lie ahead will include some Really Good News rather than the Other Kind.

Crossing Over into RetirementLand

retirement party 005Yesterday was my final day working for the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System.

My 32 years doing library work was a second career: I spent the first seven years of my working life toiling in the vineyards of the  mental health treatment (and mental health services administration) arena. And although since earning my library degree I’ve worked nowhere else except AFPLS, my career there unexpectedly zigged and zagged among several very different assignments in that sprawling institution.

I started out at the Central Library, hired into the system’s telephone reference service (this was before the Internet era), then earned a promotion into the Humanities Department, was then transferred (in one of several reorganizations of Central’s services) into the sciences/social sciences/business/government department. By then I had come to realize that improving library collections (rather than, say, answering reference questions or planning programs or supervising other employees) was by far my favorite part of the job. (A close-second favorite job responsibility was creating procedures and publications aimed at making libraries easier to use.) Although working directly with library users had always been a common thread in every library position I’d occupied up to that point, I was gradually persuaded to seek a promotion into the library system’s collection coordinating office;  I ended up working there for five years. I found that figuring out ways to make selecting library materials and more convenient and/or efficient for the hundred of so people throughout the library system who did that job was even more suited to my temperament and talent than serving customers was.

That satisfying responsibility came to an abrupt end, however, when the library’s trustees decided to begin micro-managing the library’s operations and another “reorganization” of the Central Library – this one, unlike the earlier ones, definitely fueled by the racist agenda of its orchestrators. This same raft of trustees hired a sociopathic library director and deputy director, who began systematically eviscerating the organization’s ability to function rationally, humanely, and efficiently. (Up until this institutional crisis and its decade-long aftermath, most of us working at the library had plenty of evidence that working conditions and services for library users were incrementally improving; from that time forward, working conditions and customer service became increasingly more dysfunctional, and the institution has yet to recover from the damage done to its administrative infrastructure.)

In any case, I was one of many employees who found themselves obstructing the agenda of the havoc-causing trustees and their henchpersons. Before a successful but polarizing and energy-sapping multi-million-dollar discrimination lawsuit ended the reign of nonsense, I (along with many others) was exiled from the Central Library to an assignment in a branch library, and my fantasies about a career path at Central were permanently demolished.

The next nine years I spent as the assistant manager at the Ponce de Leon Branch Library (the branch that serves the neighborhood where I lived then, and where I still live). For various reasons, that involuntary transfer turned out to be a Very Good Thing for Cal – mostly because the smaller scale of the place presented me with a do-able (vs. a thankless and no-longer-doable) job, and a work arena well off the radar screen of the principal actors involved in the toxic dramas going on at the Central Library. Ponce was, however, a challenging work environment – gone forever were the days of a quiet cubicle and my five-year break in coping daily with the relentless needs and demands of The Great Unwashed Public. Nevertheless, I felt very productive at Ponce, and would have been very happy to have spent the rest of my working life as assistant manager there.

But that assignment, too, was not to be my final one: the county government’s hiring freezes resulting from the meltdown of the national economy eventually forced library administrators to begin a round of involuntary transfers of librarians to libraries whose managers were retiring otherwise exiting the institution. One spring day three years ago, I found myself uprooted from my Perfect Job at Ponce – perfect in the sense of being allowed maximum freedom to do collection development projects under the supervision of a supportive and talented boss – and plunked down at a branch across town whose manager had suddenly retired.

Which is where I’ve been working for the past three years – and in a job I never, ever wanted: managing a library. That final involuntary transfer to the Peachtree Branch Library, however, also resulted in some unexpectedly pleasant circumstances: a smaller facility and collection (and therefore one easier to make rapid, visible improvements in), a smaller staff to supervise, a new and interesting set of neighborhoods to serve (and explore). True, my daily commute was twice as far and the people I was serving were not my own neighbors, but the reduced stress and the other employees’ team spirit (and openness to certain changes I felt necessary to institute) were certainly features of the new assignment that I have enjoyed.

So much for the outline of the unexpected trajectory of my career as a library worker. The main thing I wanted to record here is how odd the leave-taking has felt. Even yesterday’s send-off retirement party wasn’t enough to completely dissipate the sense of unreality that has surrounded my decision to retire, and to leave behind my full-time work life sooner rather than later. As one of the people at yesterday’s send-off said to me, for some people retiring is sort of like graduating from college – you know it’s a major turning point in your life, but you have very little inkling of what the Next Chapter is going to bring, or what it’s going to feel like. (And as another person told me recently, leaving the library yesterday can’t feel very different from all the times I’ve previously left it temporarily: only after I’ve not returned for a bunch of days in a row is it going to dawn on me that this hiatus is not just another day off or just another vacation: the full reality of retirement can’t sink in at least for several weeks.)

In any case, for someone who routinely dreads most social occasions, the send-off ritual that my staff planned for me yesterday was full of pleasant surprises. Almost every one of my Favorite Colleagues or Favorite Former Colleagues dropped by, and their making that gesture was very touching, as were the emails I received once the official word had gone out about yesterday being my last day on the job. There was a cake and a huge, impressive, and delicious spread of homemade food, there were decorations, cards, even presents! I realize that these are the usual things that are done at these events – but never before has it been me who was doing the leaving, so I was quite astonished by everyone’s generosity.

Aside from the continuing surreality of the retirement-commencing experience, I have remained intrigued with (and, yes, at times a bit anxious about) the prospect of The Shape of Things to Come. Meanwhile, I’m trying to focus on enjoying the affection from and gratitude I feel for some of the library folks I spent so much time with over the years.

I’ve also been mindful these past few days of the affection I feel for the profession I was so fortunate to stumble upon all those decades ago. It was probably not until about the middle of 1979, as I was earning my library degree at Emory University, that I realized that I might have found a congenial (vs. a spirit-depleting) life-long calling. It is wonderful to have been part of a collective institutional effort that does so little harm in this world, a profession that manages to consistently bring so much help and joy to so many humans, and in so many different ways.

All things considered, I have been one lucky wage-earner, both in the amount of work I was able (with the help of some gifted and integrity-possessing colleagues) to do, in terms of the achievements (and personal satisfaction) that some of those efforts produced, and in the rewarding relationships with some of the folks I worked alongside during that hugely important chunk of my time on the planet.