Retired Section Editor:
Reflecting on Retirement
Bruce C. Appleby
Having been retired for two years now, I find I'm still contemplating what it means-to me and others-and how different my life is now. I've been talking to many people the last two years about retirement: those who have already done so and those who look forward to it with widely varying attitudes. First and foremost, I have found that retirement is not for everyone and that my joy in the experience is not shared by everyone.
I've come to the very tentative conclusion, based on anecdotal information and observations, that those who don't enjoy retirement and who wish they were back in the classroom are often those who had no sense of self outside of their job when they were still working. Most often male, these people so thoroughly self-identified as "teacher" or '18th century scholar" that removal from this daily source of being means they see themselves as removed from the world-as they have defined it and as they saw themselves in it. An attorney friend showed me a photograph of her father, also a lawyer. He was sitting in an easy chair, with suit and tie on, reading a newspaper. She explained that this was her father on his first day of retirement, just before the time he usually left for work. When 7:30 a.m. came and he didn't leave for work, "Mother's hell started."
I've talked recently to two women who retired mostly because their husbands were retiring and they wanted to share the time. These two women were widowed within the first or second year of retirement and both have gone back to work, at greatly reduced salaries. Both were highly successful before retirement (one a highly published secondary teacher, the other a research biologist) and both found that without their husbands, the void could be filled only by work. What I find most interesting about this reaction is that both led professional lives independent of their husbands before retirement, yet found retirement wasn't ". . . enough to fill the time." Another woman I have talked with doesn't enjoy retirement because "there aren't enough challenges in my life."
The extension of this tentative conclusion is that how one uses (or "fills" or "occupies") time before retirement is often going to be a major clue to how one will enjoy retirement. If you have interests other than your work (for me, my gardens and friends and home and reading and travel, to begin the list) before you retire, then you will only amplify on these when you retire. Again, the old adage of I don't know how I had time to work" comes to bear.
A friend recently loaned me The First Year by John Mosedale, subtitled "A Retirement Journal" (Crown Publishers, 1993). Mosedale was, for 30 years, a writer, most often of news or sports, for "The CBS Evening News." He's a man with whom we English teachers can identify, as he tells us that "Writing is hard work and writing under a deadline is harder" (2). Mosedale is most unusual for someone not an English teacher: "Not a day of my life passes that I don't think of Shakespeare and it is a rare and wasted day when I do not read something by him" (42). Mosedale's journal is a fine testament to the keeping of journals and to why we are so correct in asking our students to keep journals, as ". . . [o]nly a journal catches the diurnal beat of life" (150).
Mosedale reinforces what I say above about time, as he comments "I cannot find the time, just looking and listening, for all there is to do" (26). Since retirement obviously denotes the advance of years, Mosedale also concerns himself with health. His observation that "We are always healthy on sufferance" (113) is particularly apt and points out the irony of how, in retirement, many people become concerned for the first time with their health and the condition of their body. As with the observation that how one constructs time before retirement will determine how one handles time in retirement, how one takes care of her or his health before retirement will determine health in retirement.
One of the joys of retirement and of being in charge of one's own time is that you can decide to do something when you feel like it, rather than when someone else tells you to do it. "Retirement meant that we could base important decisions on whims" (178). I'm going to "reward" myself for finishing this column by going to a movie tonight: a Sunday night, the night when, for 36 years, I started to get a nervous stomach about being prepared for classes and whether or not I'd evaluated that set of papers from that class.
". . . [T]here is no more a typical retired person than there is a typical retirement year" (241). In Mosedale, I have found someone who agrees with, my positive and happy feelings about retirement. Like Mosedale, I, too, ". . . do not know how I ever found time to work for a living." (241). In fact, I think that one of the major reasons I enjoy retirement so much is that I have been totally self supporting since I was 17. After 40 years of working, it seems a delightful and almost sinful luxury not to have to go to work. Again, Mosedale captures my feelings well when he points out that "So far, the reputed great monsters of retirement-angst, despair, boredom, aimlessness-are phantoms" (241). Retirement is not freedom from burdens, concerns, or irritations. It is having the luxury of time to attend to them without panic.
Mosedale points out something you may find surprising. ". . . [T]he computer now seems to play a role in what many retired men [sic] do. They fool around with their computers, sometime plugging into elaborate networks." (244). I sit at my computer, knowing that I need a new one so I can do email, as so many of my friends around the world now "chat" on almost a daily basis via e-mail. I want to be a part of that. Surfing the Internet is not an activity exclusive to those under 30. The computer industry has yet to discover the large market of older people who understand computers as the tools they are and who represent a buying public.
Mosedale reflects, after an afternoon with his daughter and grandchild, that were he not retired, he would not have been able to have that visit and not been outdoors in the sun. Ignoring his sexism, he is quite accurate in his reflection that 'Weekdays are the times for mothers and babies and gentlemen in retirement" (200). They are also the time for retired ladies-and for some fathers, but not for mothers who work away from home.
Visits with friends and family. Being outdoors when you want. Reading what you want when you want. Not having to account for yourself to someone who is lover" you in a crazy bureaucratic hierarchy. All are part and parcel of the joy of being retired and the joy of reflecting on retirement.
© 1996, The Women in Literature and Life Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #1065-9080). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.
Reference Citation: Appleby, Bruce C. (1996). "Reflecting on Retirement." WILLA, Volume V, pp. 5, 36.