The Best and Worst of Retirement
When I was working I got up at 5 a.m. nearly every weekday because I knew if I didn’t go to the gym first thing in the morning I wouldn’t make it at all. I joined a gym in 2006 and lost weight and toned up. I did not ever want to go back to the old flabby me if I could help it.
A result of my early rising was a constant sleep deficit and need for caffeine to keep going. I suffered from the malady of the desk-bound—wanting to doze off after lunch. I hated having to go to bed earlier than my husband. Sleeping late on weekends gave me what I called my “Saturday headache,” because I was so caffeine-sensitive that getting up (and having coffee) a little later brought on a pounding headache that sometimes lasted all day.
So, the very, very, absolutely best thing about retirement is being able to go to bed when I’m tired and get up when I’m not tired any more.
I love being able to stay up a little late to finish a good book, then wake up with first light and roll over and go back to sleep. I love being in the half-awake phase when dreams are remembered (and sometimes even written down). I look forward to going to sleep, wondering what new adventures my subconscious will take me on during the night, what crazy rides and weird encounters; returning, as I so often do, to Norwalk, Ohio, where I lived from age eight to 18 and consider my home town. And smoking—the one place it’s harmless to smoke is in dreams! (It’s been more than 20 years since I quit but it must get pretty embedded in our psyches to come out again in dreams.) Being jarred awake at 5 destroyed memories of dreams.
Now, getting up—between 7:30 and about 8:30 a.m.—feeling totally rested, I love padding around in my jammies, making coffee (decaf now that I no longer need the caffeine boost and no longer have headaches), stretching, writing for awhile before breakfast, eating and reading the newspaper.
No more 5:30 a.m. workouts. Our gym closed last year, so I bought an elliptical machine and a “Biggest Loser” cardiomax DVD (I like Bob the best and can’t stand Jillian) and, with these tools plus weights and walking outdoors, I have a pretty balanced routine of workouts throughout the week. (Ironically, my health insurance just changed and it includes a Gold’s membership, which I may try one of these days. Or not. One thing I like about the elliptical machine is I can read on it, and that’s how I keep up with the weekly onslaught of New Yorkers.) Some days I don’t finish my workout till 11:30 which, I admit, feels like the day is slipping away, but it doesn’t matter. If I have to be somewhere, I get up earlier—even sometimes using an alarm, which was my mortal enemy in the days of 5 a.m. wake-ups.
There are many other things I love about retirement. In the past two years I have had the gift of more time with granddaughter than I ever had with my grandson when he was little, and as a result I have a sweet, intimate relationship with her. The other day she didn’t have her blankie—her mother had asked me to pick her up at school, and blankie was in her mom’s car—and she was bereft. After her third meltdown, during which I told her I would be in the bedroom when she was ready to snuggle, she came in and said she’d had a lot of tears, and now they were gone, and why didn’t we get under the covers and tell ghost stories? So, with a flashlight under the comforter, I made up silly stories—she said she didn’t know any—that were just scary enough for a five-year-old, and I thought how lucky I was, even after her tantrum, to have these moments. There have been hundreds of moments like that I would miss if I weren’t retired.
Volunteer activities take up a lot of my time: I sing in the church choir; my husband and I are co-chairs of the church membership committee; I am on our condo board. These are quite enough.
The main things I spend my free time on are my creative interests, which right now are various types of writing, including poetry, and art. I belong to a poetry critiquing group and take occasional workshops.
A few weeks ago I did a workshop on poetic structure. One of the assignments was to write a poem about a painting by Klimt, and I chose “Judith I.” Later I researched the story behind it, and discovered that it was Klimt’s Art Nouveau interpretation of a story from the Old Testament:
Judith, Jewish Heroine (painting by Gustav Klimt, “Judith I,” 1901)
Haughty and calm, square of jaw,
one breast clad in sheerest gauze,
the other breast and navel bared,
scented for seduction,
she gazes from her gilded frame
through narrowed eyes,
her mission now complete:
to save her people,
using his sword as he swoons in drink,
she has removed the head of Holofernes.
I’ve participated in the Austin International Poetry Festival for many years and my poetry has appeared in various publications, including “Feeding the Crow,” published by Plain View Press, AIPF anthologies, several issues of the Texas Poetry Calendar, other anthologies and a couple of self-published chapbooks.
I do art—mostly painting and drawing—when I get an overwhelming inspiration. I don’t belong to any painting groups and haven’t taken a class since I got my art degree in 1988. It must be that I take the line of least resistance: it takes a lot less effort to sit at the computer than to get out art materials. Or maybe I am just less motivated. I have tried to help get my grandkids interested in making art and I hope that is something they’ll continue to do.
There are many other pursuits in my imagined future (when certainly I’ll have more time!). I want to buy a good SLR camera and get really serious about photography. I’d like to learn how to quilt. I love to knit and would like to get better at it, doing more creative projects than scarves, hats, slippers and baby blankets. Designing my own embroidery patterns for crewel work. Painting wooden boxes. A friend makes purses and I’m intrigued with the idea of trying it. I used to make macramé jewelry and still have supplies. Even scrapbooking is kind of fun. I made a scrapbook once, for work, when the members of the Medical Board asked me to make a scrapbook for the retiring executive director. The materials are really seductive; the array of papers made my mouth water. When I was working on it, I promised I wouldn’t become an annoying obsessive scrapbooker, and I’ve never picked it up again, but I can see the appeal.
Clearly I lack focus, or have a slight attention deficit disorder, and have difficulty settling down and concentrating on one project for long. I get restless and a little bored doing the same thing for hours at a time. But this came in handy in my job, when I was constantly interrupted by calls from reporters or requests from the boss. When I had a deadline project I would sometimes go in on weekends or stay late so I could work uninterrupted, and even now I sometimes get so absorbed in something—usually a painting or a piece of writing—that I abhor interruptions.
Other good things about retirement are having flexibility in setting appointments, going to the grocery store when it’s less busy, having lunch with friends, taking day trips, or going to movies or art exhibits during the week. Because most social activities are scheduled on weekends, we are so busy on Saturdays and Sundays that I look forward to Mondays to hunker down, stay home, catch up on household chores, and work on whatever project I have going.
What, then are the “worst” things about retirement? Nothing. I love it. But, and I’m surprised that this is surprising: there still aren’t enough hours in the day.
I made the common mistake of taking on too many activities at first—it’s so exciting to think you’ll have all this “free” time that it’s an easy trap to fall into. Church committees and choir, Texas Choral Consort, babysitting three times a week, have eaten up more time than I anticipated. I’m learning to say “no.”
One of my retirement fantasies was sitting in the rocking chair in our bedroom, next to a window and a pretty little skirted round table, reading for hours in the afternoons. Almost never happens. I love to read, and my “to read” pile never dwindles. Because I’m obsessive compulsive, I have to keep up with the local daily newspaper and all the magazines that arrive. The only magazine I subscribe to is The New Yorker (my husband gets a golf magazine or two), but we get a lot through affiliations: AAA Texas, AARP magazine, the UU church’s World, the Blanton museum newsletter, to name a few, and I read, or at least skim, every one.
But I always have a book going. I just finished Tina Fey’s “Bossypants” and have started “Sonata Mulaticca,” by poet Rita Dove, the story, told in poems, of Beethoven and George Bridgewater, a mixed-race violinist for whom Beethoven wrote what is now known as the Kreutzer sonata, and their falling out. Next in the pile are Ken Jennings’ “Maphead,” Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything,” “Ciao America” by Beppe Severgnini, Ann Patchett’s “Bel Canto,” a re-read of Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse,” Paul Auster’s “The Invention of Solitude,” two books about Shakespeare, a book on teaching kids about Unitarian Universalism, seven books of poetry and one book about poetry.
Two things I always have in surplus are yarn and books, so if we’re ever iced in I won’t lack for entertainment.
As far as I’ve been able to determine after a bit more than two years, there is nothing at all bad about retirement.