“How did I ever find time to work?” I often hear friends who no longer spend their hours at a regular job lament. “What did I do when I had to do all this – and work too?” My calendar is filled with regular tasks and events – haircuts, dental cleanings, yoga classes, book group, writing group, errands, social engagements. But I did these when I was working. I thought it would be different without a full-time work assignment. For one thing, I thought I would have more time to write!
I sit here in front of my computer, looking at the gaps between blog postings and shake my head. I imagined that, once I gave up full time work, I would have hours each day to fill pages with words. Writing gives me a purpose and a sense of accomplishment. My intention, when I began this blog, was to post every two weeks. That commitment still pops up on my calendar every other Wednesday, although, clearly the posting hasn’t happened nearly so regularly. What is it that keeps me from those long leisurely days that I imagined would be my reward for those many years of labor?
(In further defense of my absences from this blog, I am also working on a memoir and sometimes I let that take priority. One of the nice things about not having deadlines imposed by outside forces is that I can let writing instincts and interests – and other compelling pursuits such as staying with a grandson while his mom is away on a business trip or of accompanying my spouse to important doctor appointments – control my schedule rather than self-imposed deadlines. I see this as one of the blessings of “retirement.”)
Nevertheless, I feel a certain urgency to complete my writing tasks. In some ways, writing compulsion replaces work deadlines, for, when I am not writing, I worry that I am not at my computer. I have much that I want to say, and, at my age, I am aware that time is not endless and I have much that I want to say. What keeps me from the things I want so badly to accomplish? Where does time go?
I wondered if my experience with time or lack thereof was common among others in similar circumstances. I took a survey of our dinner companions on Saturday night (n=2) and found that their current life narratives mirrored mine. Our friends reported that their days are full. They had recently returned from a trip to New Zealand, they are active leaders in an international non-profit network, one of them is in the final stages of writing his second book, the other takes regular classes at the local seminary, they both own houses and manage the upkeep, they visit their children and grandchildren … I could go on, but you get the idea.
I investigated further, asking friends whom we met for lunch a day or so later, how they experienced retirement – if they had time on their hands. Neither of them reported empty days, although one of them expressed activities like reading and exercising in a tone that seemed more leisurely than my own circumstances. Our second lunch friend, who has had several health problems since retiring, described her days as filled with more doctors and medical issues than she had anticipated. Still, she recently published a book of poetry and she travels back and forth between her home in New England and her newly acquired little retirement cottage in Florida, managing both properties by herself.
Many of my friends are writers and devote as much time as they can to finishing, publishing, and distributing books. Other friends assist immigrants with deportation issues, involve themselves with political issues, care for grandchildren, serve on boards, and find homes for rescued animals. Spiritual pursuits are followed. Many have hobbies such as horseback riding or gardening that consume them. Travel is on the list of many friends. My take on the responses of my confessedly small sample and my observation of others is that for friends roughly my age and circumstances, in the still-active time of later life, days are filled with productive activity and few are looking around for things to do.
It is true that, for me, and for several other of my friends, health issues absorb a growing number of hours. My list of doctors grows longer with each passing year. It is not just the number of appointments, however, that fill up my days. Each activity also takes longer than it used to. I allow more time to get places. People rush past me on the street; I rest halfway up subway stairs; I need extra minutes to get in and out of taxis; if the subway train is too full, I wait for the next one where a seat might be more forthcoming.
I also think more slowly, not necessarily because my brain is slower, but because I have more options to sort through based on years of experience. If you ask me a simple question, like which airline I prefer, I have to think through years of flights and decipher whether ones I liked a few years ago have fallen in my estimation. I have to consider whether I am influenced by the services of the airport they fly out of (I hate going to Newark airport!). I have to sort through memories of first flights and happy and frustrating trips before I can answer.
Moreover, mornings are often slow. Partly because of my Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA), it takes me time to get my hands and mind moving in the morning. I don’t attribute my slow start mornings entirely to my auto-immune disease, however. I like being able to watch the local channel as I drink my coffee so that I can advise Rosemary about the traffic and the weather as she heads off to work. Another friend, a few years younger and without health issues, recently explained that she also takes more time to wake up. “I just need more time to sit still and drink my coffee and wake up slowly,” she explained. Perhaps we always did.
I enjoy the luxury of not hurrying. The world moved too fast for me when I was younger. I didn’t have time to assimilate experiences. (This is one reason I have so many file drawers and cartons of paper; I wasn’t able to deal with them as I was living them and saved them for later – for now!) As a young mother, I was always rushing Shannon, poor baby, onto the next activity, as I tried to fit it all in: succeeding at work, cleaning the house, getting to soccer games, taking the cat to the vet, visiting parents, attending book group, socializing with friends– our lives were a tornado of activity. “Come on, Snookie,” I would urge her, as we hurried past bulletin boards filled with colorful drawings, past store windows of shoes arranged around chiffon, past playgrounds with brightly painted swings and slides, “We have to be in Hartford by three.”
Life now is more meditative, more manageable. When I read, I can stop and think. I move in a more Zen-like manner, being mindful with each task, which I wasn’t able to do when activities were flying by me and I was running to catch up. The last seventeen years of my work life, I had my own consulting business, so I had some leeway about when I worked, but, of course, I was still jumping out of bed to attend meetings, travel, or be on conference calls. Now I have the flexibility of not moving when I don’t feel up to it, of seeing friends during the day, of napping, of reading the assigned memoir for my book group. I rest more, often napping for ten or fifteen minutes between activities. I am very appreciative of this privilege of being able to listen to my body and do as it commands in a way that I couldn’t when I was working. These are the things that fill up my days.
In summary, I am resentful of the multitude of medical appointments but grateful for the health that allows me to accomplish the activities of daily living like grocery shopping and repotting plants; I am appreciative of this slower life style that is imposing itself on me; and I am thankful for this passion to get down on paper the ideas that ramble in my head.
Life, I guess, is a balancing act at any age. I try to balance writing about life with living it. When I get to the end of the day and wonder how on earth I wrote so few pages, I think of the enjoyment of a joint evening crossword with Rosemary and the good time I am having (even as I write this) watching movies or eating Indian food with our teenage grandson in California, and I remind myself that this is the life I looked forward to. As that grandson frequently reminds me, “It’s all good.”