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Reflections On My Retirement: Year One

By Jerry Ziskind

Retirement. Putting aside financial concerns, does the thought of your retirement fill you with excitement and anticipation or concern and worry? For some of us retirement beckons with thoughts of travel, golf, and leisure time. For others, especially those of us who have gotten much of our personal fulfillment and self esteem though our work, retirement opens a door to uncertainty and the unknown. My career, teaching, provided me the opportunity to do something useful and good. It was a source of pride and personal satisfaction, the focus of my life. It defined who I was.

I always vowed I would not retire on the job. In my early fifties I began to notice signs that I should consider ending my career, on a high note, while I was still doing a good job. I did not want to be one of those teachers who people whispered about behind his back, "He used to be a good teacher but he should have retired years ago." I was becoming cynical about the everyday non-teaching activities around me: I had been through too many administrative changes, sat through too many in-service workshops where I felt I knew more and could do a better job than the presenter, and had seen too many ballyhooed reforms that I had already implemented once or even twice earlier in my career. I just didn't seem to have the energy I needed to keep up with my first grade students and have any energy left at the end of the day.

I began to look at my life as similar to the top of my desk. My desk is covered with papers and piles of things to do. For over thirty years of teaching my work has occupied the top pile on my desk. In fact, my work has covered my desk. When I retired that top layer would no longer cover my desk. What would I find under that top layer of work that has preoccupied much of my adult life? What piles would remain?

Rosemary, my wife, and I began to attend workshops to prepare for retirement. Due to a combination of luck, thriftiness, and life style our financial situation was not our primary concern. The issue was what I would do when I was no longer teaching. My notion of retirement, like many of my age and generation was not to sit on the rocker on my porch but to engage in something meaningful.

The most helpful activity we did at one of the workshops was to independently plan a typical day in retirement --hour by hour - in as much detail as we could. When Rosemary and I compared our results, it was clear that I would spend most of a typical day in retirement left to my own devices. Neither of us was ready to do extensive traveling and she had many interests that she wanted to continue pursuing.

Retirement advisors often suggest that a successful adjustment to retirement is more likely to occur if you have a plan. My plan was to take six months "off" and commit to "nothing", and then see what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I knew I could return to teaching if I wanted. I initially considered taking a part time job as a way of easing into retirement, but soon discarded that idea as postponing the inevitable adjustment I would need to make. Part time jobs have a way of filling up your day and I wanted to discover the "real" me, the me undefined by paid work.

I knew that my family would continue be a major priority as it has been all my adult life. But our younger son would be off to his freshman year in college the year I retired so that layer would no longer be quite so important to my everyday living. Neither of our sons would be living at home. My aging parents live forty-five minutes away and I knew helping meet their needs would be important to me, but I was determined not to let their needs fill up my life. So what else would I find under all those piles? What else was important to me? After six months of making no commitments, what piles would I find still on my desk?

I have always had an interest in writing so my plan called for me to write very day. I would write about my teaching experiences. This would give some structure and routine to my daily life, which I prefer. Writing would allow me to share my teaching experiences with my sons, and to clear my head of residual thoughts about work. By August my schedule for a typical day of retirement had me awake at 7:30 - a pleasant change from the 6 AM rising to get to school on time. I had time to exercise and walk; instead of a hurried half hour workout I now could take time to stretch, exercise, and walk a couple miles. By the time I showered and had breakfast, it was mid morning - 10:30. Then I would go down stairs to the computer and write for a couple of hours. After a late lunch I would tackle all those jobs on my "to do" list - hang that ceiling fan, fix that flickering lamp, run errands. Hopefully I would take an hour to read as well. After dinner I would have the evening - no papers to grade or lessons to plan. I would use this time to develop some new hobbies and interests, another goal for the first six months of my retirement. Ideally I should have done this before I retired as the experts recommend. However, like many of my generation who are committed to their profession, I usually was too tired at night after my day of teaching and my parenting responsibilities to do more than relax a half hour in front of the tube or on occasion read a mystery novel.

Now almost a year has passed and I can reassess my plan and see what I have learned. First, having the plan was important. The week before the school year began in September I was asked to substitute for an ailing colleague. I was relieved to see that my initial reaction was not to grab the chance to get back to work. However, for a variety of reasons I agreed to substitute part time for three weeks. Since I already had started my writing, working part time meant I had little time to write those three weeks. This experience was fortuitous in that I realized I did not want to teach full time any more and that I wanted to complete the writing project I had begun.

When the substituting was over I felt that my retirement really began. I returned to my original plan and began writing most mornings for about two hours a day. After a while I felt I needed to do something to help me grow as a writer. I had been given a book as a retirement gift, Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. Each day before I wrote I began to read a few pages. I followed Goldberg's advice of keeping a daily journal as a warm up to writing. Then I did my daily writing. My plan initially was to write about my teaching experiences. Gradually I expanded that plan to meet my needs and interest. This was another lesson about retirement I learned. I have no one to answer to other than myself. I can let my interests take me where they will. I can be free to learn and grow in ways I could not anticipate and plan for.

After a few months I decided to start interviewing my ailing father and record his life story. My intent was to provide a stimulating regular interlude in his life. Inspired by the book Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom (retirement has provided me the time and energy to read more widely), I would drive the forty five minutes to my parents home each week and tape-record my interviews. The following couple of days I used my writing time to transcribe his thoughts and turn them into his story. While that left fewer days for writing about my teaching, for many reasons it turned into a wonderfully worthwhile project. In a few months I tabled my initial plan of writing about my teaching and focused my writing entirely on my father's story. It became such a satisfying experience that I plan to begin writing my mother's life story as well. I never could have planned for this eventuality but it has proven most meaningful and satisfying. I am sure I will in time return to my initial effort of writing about my teaching career and possibly expand that into writing my own life story.

With writing filling my mornings, I have no trouble filling my afternoons. Life goes on even when you are retired so the "to do" list continues to grow and prosper. However I now have the time to actually do some of these things instead of saying: "I'll do them in the summer." In addition, I substitute teach on occasion, if only to remind myself of why I retired in the first place. I also tutor a local child weekly.

As part of my original plan, Rosemary and I agreed that we would take a weekly outing. So every Wednesday Rosemary and I visit a museum, walk in a park, visit an historic site, go to a movie, or in inclement weather, read a book or do a picture puzzle. In addition, we try to regularly work on a joint project, such as clean a closet or prepare for a yard sale, that requires our joint effort.

I have been pretty good about keeping my evenings for relaxation. Old habits die hard and at times I have to force myself to let the chores wait till another day. At first I used my evenings for reading or watching television that I never had time to do in the past. Then at the suggestion of a friend I started a new hobby. I took to needlepoint instantly. I look forward to my evenings doing needlepoint, sometimes watching TV, sometimes listening to music. I even signed up for a needlepoint class.

The specifics of my retirement are only relevant in that they suggest just a hint of the possibilities that await a retiree. There are an incredible number of opportunities and choices out there - more than one can do. Art, music, and writing, service and charitable activities, education: the list of possible activities and interests is endless. It is wonderful to have the time to do some of them.

I am discovering interests that have been buried all these years under the work pile on my desk. I was relieved to find that I have interests and satisfying things to do when work does not occupy ninety per cent of my time. Yet I still have a lot of choices to make. I still struggle with priorities, putting the work part of my retirement day in prime time, leaving the play parts to the evening. There are still many chores I have not gotten to which I should. I know I want to be doing more in the area of volunteering or otherwise giving back to my community.

One thing is clear. My plan has gotten me over the initial hurdle of adjusting to life without full time paid work. When I tell people I am retired I think I mislead them. No doubt they have a view of me leading a life of leisure. Maybe someday, but for now being retired means much of my day is filled with unpaid but meaningful activities. That is my new work. I am not paid in dollars, but in satisfaction. While my work is unpaid, it is what I chose to do, what is meaningful to me.

I now realize that retirement is another developmental phase of life, particularly when you retire fairly early in life. Perhaps when I am older I will take more time to relax, but for now I see retirement as more opportunity to grow and change. The world is open to me. I will be interested to see what opportunities and choices I make.

Next: Reflections On My Retirement - Year Two | Index