Post-Retirement Work: Finding the Right Balance

It’s been awhile since I’ve blogged (other than once about the election when I couldn’t help myself). The past few months have been extremely busy and, in hindsight, another period of adjustment. I haven’t felt much like writing, so I decided to simply take a break and not force myself.

After we returned from a busy summer of traveling, I went back to work (sort of) in October. I realized that we don’t have the money or inclination to travel constantly, and, when we’re home for long stretches, I often get bored. Last spring, I devoted substantial time to the non-profit organization that I co-founded, Alive and Well Women, helping to get our business infrastructure up and running. I appreciated being back in a work environment, using my skills, and even collecting a modest paycheck.

Besides an education in the non-profit world, my stint at Alive and Well Women was a good learning experience in other ways, as I discovered:

  1. The limits of how much and when I want to work (about 10-15 hours a week, and only in the afternoons so I can exercise in the morning); and
  2. My ideal arrangement is one where I can easily take off to travel and not be responsible for things while I’m gone (I don’t mind the occasional email or question, but I spent far too much time in my former career thinking about work and checking my old BlackBerry while on vacation); and
  3. If I provide services of more than a few hours a week to an organization, I want to be compensated fairly.

In other words, I want to be mindful about how I spend my time in retirement. I don’t NEED to work, so any part-time employment should be rewarding and enjoyable and not detract from the activities that I love. I certainly don’t want to find myself back on the proverbial work treadmill.

So, also last spring, I began discussions with a friend from church about potentially doing contract work for the organization she runs. Her company provides accounting and human resource support for non-profit organizations, and my background seemed like a good fit. After a couple of conversations, her proposal was ideal – I will simply let her know when I am home and available for work, and, if they have projects for me, I will be paid on an hourly basis. We agreed on compensation that was fair (more than Alive and Well Women could afford but less than I made pre-retirement – which is the price I pay for flexibility).  When I told her my first availability wouldn’t be until October, she didn’t bat an eye!

Fast forward to October, when I showed up for my first day of work. I was fighting an internal battle, part of me excited, part of me worried I might hate working again. Part of me wanted to be as accommodating as possible (since that’s how I was conditioned as a consultant for 25 years) and part of me wanted to set very strict boundaries so as not to disrupt my lifestyle. In the end, I decided to strike a balance. I emphatically announced on my very first day that I preferred working afternoons only, and that, for this initial trial period, I was available through the week before Thanksgiving, and then not again until after the holidays (i.e., January), and that I would not be accessible in the interim. I confess I held my breath for a moment, since being so unbendable in a professional setting is totally foreign to me. To my relief, without skipping a beat, they graciously agreed to my conditions.  In return, I made myself available every afternoon as needed, giving work projects priority over personal matters.workplace-clipart

For this first foray, I decided to set firm limits for several reasons. First, to give myself (and the organization) an easy out at the end of the initial period if it wasn’t working for either of us. Second, I wanted to clearly set expectations that I would not assume on-going responsibility for projects when I’m gone (see #2 in list above). The last thing I want is a full-time job in any shape or form, and I really need to turn off the switch and do other things in between work periods.

Given my unusual situation and extensive list of demands, I was curious how this grand experiment would work out. I was given two projects, one internal and one for a client. I was able to do much of the work from home, but I was project manager for the internal assignment, which required two or three in-person team meetings a week at the office (about a 15-minute drive from home).   This proved to be a nice balance, as my time in the office gave me the opportunity to get to know the staff and enjoy some office camaraderie, while working at home afforded me both flexibility and distraction-free efficiency.focusgroup20

All in all, from my standpoint, this first round was a big success. I learned a lot from work that was challenging and gratifying. Observing the strong, assertive, yet compassionate, leadership style of my friend has been an unexpected treat. The team is very competent, incredibly nice and motivated, and the clients being supported are non-profits and faith-based organizations doing great work in the world. And, of course, the extra money in my bank account has been icing on the cake.

When I left the office on the Friday before Thanksgiving, having handed off my projects before I left, my friend (and new boss) expressed enthusiastic satisfaction with the work I completed and optimism that we could continue to find opportunities to work together. In the two weeks since, they have respected my boundary and nobody has dared contact me (even though it was a running joke in the office that they had my cellphone and weren’t afraid to use it).

Now, the downside of working is that it leaves less time and energy for other things, such as lunch dates with my husband or friends, trip planning, blogging, or doing nothing. I suspect that it will be important, in the future, to schedule non-travel/non-work blocks to give myself down time at home.

I’ve learned that retirement, like the rest of life, is a journey of self-discovery. I am continually striving for the right balance of work and rest, service and enjoyment. I am grateful for partners along the way, from my Alive and Well Women co-founder, who has been ever patient and flexible and supportive as I navigate my way through an uncharted sea of ever-changing priorities, to my friend (and new employer) who has been so accommodating and encouraging.  Most of all, I’m learning, no matter how old I am, to never stop growing!

Lent: Making Space for Loneliness

At a church service for Ash Wednesday (almost 40 days ago), responding to a spoken invitation to forego something that would “open space in my life,” I rather impulsively (and inexplicably) decided to give up Facebook for Lent. I then extended the ban to all social media, other than my blog, since I felt otherwise would be cheating. That decision inadvertently kicked off a rather miraculous process, during which over the course of the Lenten season, through contemplative practices, complete with a few wrestling matches with God, I gained some powerful insight.

Prior to Lent, and starting after the holidays, I found myself in an extended funk. I just couldn’t seem to shake the bad mood. In hindsight, I see that I was adjusting to yet another new stage of life, with our son now post-college and truly independent, and mourning the end of our family’s active USNA experience.   I was also facing the prospect of several months at home before our next trip. My husband and I really enjoy traveling together, but I find being home for long stretches challenging.

But even more, I was feeling an unmistakable and aching loneliness. I found myself irritated, feeling stuck in a boring house with a taciturn husband (my take, at the time, on the situation). The downside of Empty Nest and Early Retirement seemed to suddenly loom large. I began to look for external targets to blame, the most convenient being my husband.  It was his fault, after all, that I was feeling lonely, since he wasn’t being a better companion.

My solution was, as it has always been, to stay busy, and to schedule more time out of the house. None of this activity was necessarily bad; however, the problem was that it was coming from a place of resentfulness and blame.

During the early days of the Lenten season, however, I felt God grab hold of me, smack me upside the head and speak to me, in truly unexpected ways. Mainly because I had made space to hear. Through daily readings from my yoga teacher, to random conversations and emails with friends, to the sermon series at church and my weekly women’s Bible study (we have been studying Exodus), I was hearing a consistent encouragement to walk into the desert, to move toward, and actually embrace, that which I was afraid of. I felt a small but discernible shift beginning inside me.

One Saturday night, early in Lent, my husband and I were home alone together, but engaged in separate activities in different rooms. I suddenly felt an almost overpowering loneliness wash over me. Without access to Facebook or other social media as my go-to tonic, my initial, almost automatic, reaction was to become angry, to look for someone or something to blame for my loneliness, and my poor husband (being the closest in proximity) seemed the most logical choice. I actually became quite uncomfortable. But, rather than continuing to look for ways to avoid my emotions, or pass them off in the form of blame, I thought about the inspiration I’d received, and halted the hot potato blame game and allowed myself to feel whatever I felt.

For the first time, I connected to a wound deep within me. Although frightening, rather than avoid it, I sat with it and simply prayed for healing. This might all sound far-fetched, but I truly felt a definite, and intense, sense of restoration begin inside me.

I recognized that my loneliness is coming from within me, that it is nobody’s fault, that it is part of whom I am, and it will be a process to embrace. I became aware that, although I am not a generally lonesome person, I have struggled at times with loneliness for years, even as a child. But, in claiming this lonesomeness as my own, in engaging it, I felt a sense of freedom – it suddenly didn’t loom so big or scary.

In a sense, in this stage of life, I have found myself in a foreign land, living with more space. I no longer have the hectic job and business travel, parenting responsibilities, care of aging parents, and other activities crowding my world and absorbing my energy. The absence of those distractions creates more opportunity to confront parts of myself that I have feared and avoided for years.

While on a Silent Retreat recently, I reflected and read extensively on the topics of solitude and loneliness, and their role in our life – the American poet Mary Oliver, the Irish author John O’Donahue, and this from April Yamaskaki in her book “Sacred Pauses”:

“Loneliness is such a common human experience that most people…will have felt lonely at one time or another. It’s such a personal experience that you can feel lonely even when you’re with other people. Even while apparently surrounded by others, the psalmist still felt alone: “Look on my right hand and see – there is no one who takes notice of me; no refuge remains to me; no one cares for me.” Psalm 142:4.

Even if we do all the “right” things – use the right toothpaste, develop a hobby, join a club or church, form good friendships, marry, and have children and grandchildren – we’ll still be lonely at times.

But in spiritual terms,…we might also say blessed are the lonely – not because it’s good, but loneliness functions as a spur toward God. Blessed are the lonely who are able to look beyond their loneliness. Blessed are the lonely who realize their own need and turn to God. Blessed are the lonely who develop a capacity for solitude.”

During the course of this Lenten season, I have felt a profound change within me. I now understand that the road to engagement and befriending of my loneliness requires acceptance and self-love. This means a gracious tolerance of myself, of my friends, of my circumstances, of my husband and of our differences. Finding companionship both with and without my husband is healthy if coming from a place of respect and genuine loving acceptance. I feel new freedom and delight in my life and marriage emerging from this authenticity. My current balance of activities, which now stems from healthier motivations, feels more joyful and genuine.

With the absence of career, and the addition of more quiet and space, retirement can trigger loneliness

With the absence of career, and the addition of more quiet and space, retirement can trigger loneliness

Befriending my loneliness means being comfortable with solitude. It means welcoming this space for God and my own spirituality. It means accepting loneliness as a natural part of life, not to be feared. On this Maundy Thursday, I think of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the loneliness he felt as his disciples slept. It also means recognizing that loneliness may be signaling a legitimate need – that it may be necessary to take care of myself in that moment. I believe that self-love, and connecting that to God’s love, is also key to healing my internal wound. As my yoga teacher Lucy said recently, learning to be open to our difficult qualities and accept them as a part of us is the process of loving and accepting ourselves.

Much has been written lately about the high incidence of “gray divorce” and difficulties adjusting emotionally after retirement, and I see how post-retirement can be a vulnerable period.  John O’Donahue writes, “As you age, you will have more space to become acquainted with yourself. This solitude can take the form of loneliness, and as you age you can become very lonely.”  It can also be frightening to confront those wounds and those parts of ourselves that we’ve spent a lifetime avoiding. It is often easier to blame others, especially our spouses, for our discomfort. But, with some intention and contemplation, it can also be a time to make peace with ourselves. For me, this process has spurred a spiritual reawakening that is both exciting and deeply reassuring.

I left the Silent Retreat with a beautiful blessing by John O’Donohue, from his book “To Bless the Space Between Us”:

When the old ghosts come back

To feed on everywhere you felt sure,

Do not strengthen their hunger

By choosing to fear;

Rather, decide to call on your heart

That it may grow clear and free

To welcome home your emptiness

That it may cleanse you

Like the clearest air

You could ever breathe.

Allow your loneliness time

To dissolve the shell of dross

That had closed around you;

Choose in this severe silence

To hear the one true voice

Your rushed life fears;

Cradle yourself like a child

Learning to trust what emerges,

So that gradually

You may come to know

That deep in that black hole

You will find the blue flower

That holds the mystical light

Which will illuminate in you

The glimmer of springtime.

I am grateful I accepted the invitation to make space during Lent. Through my amazing, contemplative journey through the space and darkness, I am blessed to be now seeing the glorious glimmer of springtime.

My Second Silent Retreat

Two years ago I posted about my My Weekend with the Monks at my first Silent Retreat. Still recovering from pneumonia, I missed last year’s retreat, and looked forward to returning this year. (Especially after being in Sin City earlier in the week.) I again enlisted my quiet buddy Louise as roommate, and last Friday we were off.

Although the retreat is always brief, there is no agenda, I expect very little and very little is expected of me, I find it astounding how much I am affected. I took my laptop, my Kindle, and several magazines, just in case, but barely touched any of them. Instead, God met me in unexpected, and completely surprising, ways.

My first shock was to find among my fellow participants at the retreat six young military veterans, three men and three women. Our church supports the Veterans Resource Center at Pasadena City College, and these six were given scholarships to attend the retreat. I found their presence puzzling, as they were about the same age as my son, and I could not imagine him attending a silent retreat.  (I didn’t get the courage or feel the need until I was well over 50.) One of the young men told me that one of the other vets attended the silent retreat last year and enjoyed it so much that he talked the rest of them into attending with him this year.

The first night, before we went into our silence, we each offered a word to express our hope for the retreat. My word was “space,” in that my personal work during the Lenten season has been to embrace the new space in my life, including loneliness and solitude.

Meanwhile, I hadn’t considered this when I signed up for the retreat, but Friday was the 14th anniversary of my stepson’s death, and I arrived with a heavy heart. In feeling pangs of sadness for my stepson, I also found myself missing my younger son who is currently out of state busy with his military training.

The beauty and solitude of the High Desert. Looking down on the Monastery from the Cemetery

The beauty and solitude of the High Desert. Looking down on the Monastery from the Cemetery

On Saturday morning, I decided to take a hike up to the cemetery and spend some time in quiet reflection. After making it up the hill, I arrived to find the young vets huddled together on a bench, solemnly looking out over the rows of cross markers. As I found a spot, nearby but a respectful distance away, to sit and contemplate, I increasingly felt a sense of comfort in being with these young people. I wondered about the buddies they no doubt lost during their deployments. Despite their youth, who else would understand what it felt like to suddenly and traumatically lose someone close to them, someone too young? In that respect, I felt I was with kindred spirits, even though not a word was exchanged between us.

A poignant scene at the monk's cemetery - one of the young military veterans resting on the "altar" contemplating the landscape in solitude

A poignant scene at the monk’s cemetery – one of the young military veterans resting on the “altar” contemplating the landscape in solitude

One of the activities for the weekend was the opportunity to paint a wooden birdhouse (they were tied to a theme for the retreat). On Friday, I picked out the one I wanted, and after lunch on Saturday, I headed over to the main room to work on it. When I arrived, I found the three young male vets sitting around the table painting their birdhouses! I briefly thought about setting up at a smaller table so as not to disturb them, but decided to join them. They graciously made a space for me, and I spent the next 90 minutes wordlessly but blissfully painting birdhouses with three strapping young men. I realized that God had lent me three “sons” for the day to soothe my yearning.

Because of the gracious provision of balm for my grief and aching, I was free to more fully explore my interior space during the weekend. I walked and napped and read, and found myself curiously drawn to books I found on Celtic wisdom and Irish poetry. The silence this time around felt like an old friend, welcome and comfortable.

My final love “wink” from God came on Sunday morning, when I headed back up to cemetery. I had previously noticed a grave marker for a monk whose birthday (month and day) was the same as my son’s. When I looked again, I noticed that the date of death (month and day) was the same as my stepson’s.

It was incredible how quickly time sped by over the course of the weekend. I didn’t experience any dramatic burning bush or road to Damascus encounters, but felt powerfully and deeply cared for and restored as I headed home. Once we could talk again, I tried to express my gratitude to the young veterans. I hugged them all and awkwardly explained to one (a former Army tank driver) how he and his friends had been such a comfort, to which he replied, “Thank you, Ma’am. Glad we could help.”

 

Fifty-Seven and a Half

This week I turned fifty-seven and a half. When I was growing up, our family celebrated half-birthdays. The half-birthday honoree was allowed to pick his or her dinner of choice, and I always chose hot dogs and chocolate milk.

My half-birthday dinner of choice. A plain hot dog.

My half-birthday dinner of choice.
A plain hot dog.

The half-birthday celebration was particularly important to me, since my birthday is in early August, a terrible time for a kid in a Navy family.   We were almost always either in the process of moving to, or had just arrived, someplace new. In either case, my hopes for a fancy birthday party with friends, which is all I ever wanted (that, and a new Barbie), were constantly thwarted.

Looking back, I’m pretty sure my mother concocted the half-birthday tradition just for me, mainly to mitigate her guilt over my lack of fancy birthday parties with friends, knowing how gypped I felt. My brothers didn’t seem quite as taken with the half-birthday idea as I was. And the whole family made, in hindsight, a suspiciously over-enthusiastic celebration out of my half-birthday. I suspect they were all in cahoots with my mother, forced to be cheery under severe threat of retribution.

In any event, I enjoyed my half-birthday hot dogs, and to this day, I still keep half-birthdays on my calendar – my husband’s, my son’s, and mine. Not that we do anything special, but I still smile when I see a half-birthday on the calendar.

My half-birthday drink of choice. Milk with Bosco chocolate syrup.

My half-birthday drink of choice.
Milk with Bosco chocolate syrup.

Until this year. I looked at my calendar this week, and saw that I am now fifty-seven and a half. Holy you-know-what!   I am not only halfway between fifty-seven and fifty-eight, but I am halfway between fifty-five and SIXTY!

In my mind, fifty-five was cool. It meant I was eligible for early retirement, and still sounded relatively young. And what could be more hip than a financially independent, relatively young woman? I couldn’t wait to turn fifty-five! But now the years are flying by and I am swiftly approaching SIXTY. Try as I might, I doubt I’ll feel as snug about SIXTY as I did about fifty-five.

Coincidently, this week I read a post entitled The Old Woman I Want to Be on NotQuiteOld, a blog I enjoy following. Nancy Roman, the blogger, recently celebrated her sixty-fifth birthday, and reflects on the significance of this milestone and how she wants to live her remaining years. A sentiment in her post that particularly resonates with me is her fear of wasting time. She writes, “I want to make the most of whatever time I have left – and to enjoy that time. Maybe that still means television and shopping. But maybe not.”

I’ve increasingly noticed in myself that urgency to use my time wisely. This week, during an Ash Wednesday service, I unexpectedly decided to give up Facebook for Lent (and I’m not even Catholic), partly because I often find myself wasting time on it almost reflexively, and I want to make space for more intentional pursuits. (I’ll see if I can link this post to Facebook automatically so I don’t blow my vow on Day Two and enter the forbidden land!)

When I was young, time seemed to be an infinite commodity. I had endless new adventures and new stages of life to look forward to. Not so the older I get.   Today I have the health, resources and time to do almost anything I want. I worked hard all my life to get to this point and I want to squeeze as much as I can out of every day. I am acutely aware that this stage is finite and I want to take full advantage of it while it lasts. This outlook may partly stem from my fairly recent experience as the child in charge of care for both of my parents at the end of their lives. I saw how quickly their lives changed when their health declined.

The flip side of this urgency to live as if I were on leave from death row is that, taken to its extreme, it can be crazy making. Not every day or moment can, or should be, filled with ultra-significant moments or experiences. Left to my own devices, I can easily fill our calendar with terrific events every day of the week, in the process wearing myself out and driving my husband mad. As Nancy quotes John Lennon in her post, sometimes “time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.”   It all comes down to finding that right balance.

With that, I think that I will go waste some time and make myself a hot dog and some chocolate milk. Happy half-birthday to me!

My New Favorite Yoga Teacher

Remember when I lost my favorite yoga teacher Diane?  An Homage to Diane, or, Life Lessons I Learned from my Yoga Instructor And I thought (1) my life was, so to speak, over, or, (2) I’d never ever find anyone that I like as much?

Well, guess what? I found my new favorite yoga teacher Lucy. Conveniently for me, Lucy took over Diane’s Gentle Yoga classes at the YMCA, which were my favorites, and still are. Lucy is not Diane, and there are some things I still miss about Diane’s classes. But Lucy does other things I love that Diane didn’t do. And Diane’s lasting gift to me was teaching me how to adapt to any yoga class or teacher.

Whereas Diane was calm and soothing, Lucy is loud and bubbly and fun. Lucy starts each of her classes with a short theme or message. She shares an idea (like when we “open and close”) and how this concept applies in her life and how it can apply in ours and in our yoga practice.   She also works hard on that upper back area where, at my age, we are starting to round and stoop. When I’m in Downward Facing Dog, she comes by and presses down on that sweet spot on my back, where I’m rounding, and then squeals “Yeeeeeessss!” at my straight backbone and her joy is infectious.

One of my "happy places" is yoga classes at the YMCA

One of my “happy places” is yoga classes at the YMCA

I am grateful I have a new favorite yoga teacher Lucy in my life. But even more, this yoga teacher transition came in the midst of a personal gloomy bout and taught me (or I should say “reminded me” since I never seem to permanently learn anything) a few valuable lessons:

Change is hard. I completely understand that transitioning to a new yoga teacher is not exactly a hardship situation. But, it was a reminder that change is constant and sneaky and disruptive. Even when change is good, it is still change and can cause anxiety and discomfort. My recent accompanying mini-funk, I realized, was tied to yet more life adjustments (don’t we ever just reach our comfort zone and stay there for God’s sake?!). Because of some recent health issues, I was rudely and unfairly reminded that I could no longer engage in some physical activities like a twenty- or thirty-something. At the same time, our son is post-college, entering a new stage and one step further along his path toward adulthood and independence. Now, this is a good thing and exactly what we hope for as parents; but the outlook of reduced time with him rendered me melancholy. It helped to acknowledge that I was grieving over life changes, including my loss of Diane.

Be open to new people. During my first yoga class with Lucy, I immediately disliked her, only because she wasn’t Diane. But I kept going to her classes, and gradually started to appreciate the qualities Lucy brought to her teaching. It was Lucy, in fact, who helped me recognize and understand my gloom. Another day, when I was feeling inexplicably detached and pissy, Lucy talked about challenging ourselves to “go toward that which you are afraid of” in her opening comments. That caused me to examine the root of my discomfort and to identify my underlying fears and needs, rather than to simply withdraw or avoid the situations.   Lucy is not necessarily saying anything I haven’t heard before, but being open to, and hearing new voices or perspectives can be powerful.

Be open to new practices. Diane did more breathing and meditative exercises. I usually left her classes feeling like I’d just returned from two weeks in the Caribbean. Lucy talks, then goes right to business, which at first seriously irritated me. Lucy proudly calls herself a “Yoga Geek” and loves to explain the mechanics behind poses. She also uses the wall extensively to strengthen our positions. As I let go of my annoyance and started really listening to and embracing her teaching, I found my understanding of yoga and the goals of our movement increasing. I became more of a partner, rather than simply a follower, in the practice. As much as I valued Diane’s gentle teaching style, through Lucy, I have gained an added dimension to my yoga practice. Outside of yoga, I was inspired to incorporate some self-care practices, like journaling and dance, to my everyday routine.

The Sun Will Come Out Again. When I get too deep in my Black Hole of Despair (as I affectionately call it), it can become a self-sustaining condition. I can begin to only see a bleak future that may never end, through my personal gray-colored glasses. One day Lucy started our class with a confession that she was feeling blue, and she wasn’t sure why. I found her transparency empowering. She then reminded herself and us, that it is normal and okay to be downcast at times, and the important thing to remember is that the sun will shine again. In yoga, we approach our practice as self-care for those times of darkness. In life, we put one foot in front of the other and trust that things will get better. And, in my case, that was true, and in part I can thank my new favorite yoga teacher Lucy.

 

 

Alive and Well in Retirement!

I was recently reminded of a blog post I wrote back in January of 2014, entitled Existentialism, Disenchantment and the Six Phases of Retirement. It was written about five months after I retired. A fellow blogger who explores retirement issues found my post and used me, in a YouTube presentation, as his comic example of someone bumbling through the early adjustment phases of retirement. As I watched the YouTube presentation (slightly discomfited, listening to a complete stranger talk about the antics of “Betsy and her husband” like we were Lucy and Ricky), I was stuck by how much we’ve evolved since then.

I am quite content with my life now. Looking back, I see it really took me about two years to fully adjust to retirement. Five months after my retirement date, when I wrote that post, I was clearly in the Disenchantment Phase (Stage 4). The Honeymoon Phase (Stage 3) had worn off and I was starting to feel some loneliness, boredom, uselessness and disillusionment.

Stage 5, following Disenchantment, is described as the “Reorientation Stage,” where the retiree moves on to build a new identity in retirement. It is described as the “most difficult stage in the emotional retirement process and will take both time and conscious effort to accomplish. Perhaps the most difficult aspects of this stage to manage are the inevitable self-examination questions that must be answered once again, such as ‘Who am I, now?’ ‘What is my purpose at this point?’ and ‘Am I still useful in some capacity?’ New – and satisfying – answers to these questions must be found if the retiree is to feel a sense of closure from his or her working days. But many retires cannot achieve this and never truly escape this stage – make sure you do!” (Mark P. Cussen, “Journey Through the 6 Stages of Retirement”)

I wasn’t always mindful at the time, but in hindsight it’s clear I did go through this reorientation process, often in fits and starts. It forced me to take a hard look at myself and make some deliberate decisions about how I was going to spend the rest of my life. After all, the rest of my life could be another 30+ years! If I were to summarize my acquired bits of wisdom (and I emphasize that these are MY conclusions) they would be:

Throw out the expectations (especially of your partner) – Retirement is a wonderful and terrifying marriage laboratory, where you get one last chance to finally work out those thorny relationship issues so often ignored during the busy dual-career and childrearing years. Especially for my husband and I, polar opposites in many ways. Plus, I realized that I went into retirement with some unrealistic expectations. In my imaginary retirement la-la world, my husband (already retired) and I would be happily spending 24/7 together, having lunch dates and play dates and going to art museums. We would have an abundance of extra time, and we’d joyfully split the housework and tackle all those long-delayed projects around the house, like cleaning out the garage. We’d do all this together, with any relationship issues magically solved by the absence of work pressures.

That rose-colored bubble pretty much burst the first few weeks of retirement. We never spent that much time together, even when we were dating, so it was bone-headed to think we would start now. And my husband doesn’t even like art museums. After about a week of being together in the house, we had nothing interesting to report to each other. Plus, my homebody husband has vastly different ideas on how to spend his time, and was unwilling to give up his established and cherished routines and household chores. As I noticed my frustration and resentment start to build, I had a choice to make. I could either try to change my husband to fit my expectations, or I could respect his differences, let him be him, and focus on what I could do to structure my own life. I ultimately chose the latter, and also found it works far better to ask clearly for what I need than to expect it.

There are of course some things I still wish were different. For example, I really wish my husband would clean out the garage. I wish we entertained more, and we watched less TV (especially sports). But I finally realized there is an excellent chance our garage will never be tidy, that entertaining can be pretty stressful for us, and that watching a good football game together is a great shared activity. I had to look clear-eyed at those areas where reality and expectations collide and make some choices. If there were deal-breakers for me, I had to address them. If they were not, I had to come to peace with them. Just because Mr. and Mrs. McGillicudy down the street, also retired, work puzzles and drink Moscow Mules together every afternoon doesn’t mean we should. This process of letting go of unhelpful expectations and accepting, even embracing, the goodness in my own reality, with a spirit of gratitude, has been very liberating and my path to contentment.

Look no farther than thyself – I don’t mean this in a self-centered or narcissistic way, but I am learning that I am the one responsible for my own happiness.   It is too easy, but not helpful, to look to others or go into blame mode when I am unhappy. As it is difficult, if not possible to do on my own, there is a spiritual component integral to remaining centered and open, in removing blame and extending grace.

Eliminating unhealthy expectations freed me to look pragmatically, even creatively, at myself, my husband (and our life together), and to craft a fulfilling life. If I need more social interaction, I have a wonderful network of friends to call on. When I need more physical exercise, I hang out at the YMCA right down the street. I have a women’s study group and a book club that provide plenty of regular female companionship.

I also gradually came to the conclusion that contributing to my disenchantment was a growing and nagging feeling of uselessness. Although I initially thought I would enjoy doing more around the house, I found I was honestly just as happy letting my husband keep his chores! (And I am, BTW, the envy of my girlfriends.) I found I need more time out of the house. I was someone who worked my entire life and was used to being the breadwinner in our family and a leader in the workplace. I missed the energy and camaraderie of the office, the business travel, and being a part of teams where we solved problems for our clients. I enjoyed all the fun I was having in retirement, but I began to feel that something was missing.

For me, a providential solution was my involvement with a charitable organization. A few months after I retired, I re-connected with a friend who was long interested in starting a non-profit. She enlisted my help and together we launched Alive and Well Women. Today I am the Chair of the Board and last year volunteered to take the lead on grant writing (something I’ve never done before).

My work with Alive and Well Women has proven to be a godsend. It gives me an outlet for using my professional talents, a sense of value and accomplishment, while allowing me to give back to the community. I love the women I work with and I’m learning new skills. We are in the midst of our first capital campaign and I’m finding it a joy to raise funds for a cause I feel passionate about. And since I am a volunteer, I work when I am home but still have the flexibility to travel with my husband.

Find some things to enjoy with your partner – when we are home, my husband and I find the ideal mix of together/independent time typically skews more toward separate schedules. We have breakfast and dinner together, and go for a daily walk around the neighborhood, but the rest of the day is typically individual time (often we are both home, but separately engaged.)

The danger with our natural parallel play tendency is that we can easily become disengaged. So, we deliberately look for activities that we can enjoy together. For us, our favorite joint activity is travel. Something special happens when we are on the road. We find we love being together 24/7, we work as a team, and we create amazing shared memories. These are the moments when I am overcome with gratitude. And as soon as we’re back from one trip, we start thinking about our next, which gives us something to dream about together.

We also try to do a few things each week while we are home. We rarely miss church and brunch on Sunday. We have at least one lunch or dinner out during the week, and we recently started ballroom dancing classes. We’re still more Lucy and Ricky than Fred and Ginger, but we’re having fun with our salsa!

"Eventually the new landscape becomes familiar, and retirees can enjoy the last phase of their lives with a new sense of purpose"

“Eventually the new landscape becomes familiar, and retirees can enjoy the last phase of their lives with a new sense of purpose”

The Routine Stage (Phase 6) of retirement is when “finally, a new daily schedule is created, new marital ground rules for time together versus time alone are established, and a new identity has been at least partially created. Eventually, the new landscape becomes familiar territory, and retirees can enjoy the last phase of their lives with a new sense of purpose.” (Mark P. Cussen)

You know, I think we might be there!

Breaking Up….Is Great to Do!

Last week my husband bought me a new Dell printer, making me ridiculously happy. I had no idea an inanimate object could bring me such joy. I find myself smiling at it, even singing to it, “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy”, “So Happy Together”, “You Light up My Life.” The Era of Good Feelings has once again come to my home-den-office.

My devotion to my new Dell is best understood by my dysfunctional, at times abusive, relationship with my ex, an HP. For over two years, since I retired and became wholly dependent on our home office equipment, I was victim to the dark moods and spiteful whims of this evil HP. It wasn’t that it didn’t print – it just didn’t print consistently.   It was always slow as molasses. But at times, it would grow inexplicably temperamental and stop functioning, usually when I was rushed or needed to print something important. Other times, it would print, but the colors would be whacky. Or, it would suddenly stop printing PDFs, or pages from the Web, or any number of other programs it would single out for punishment. Then the next day, all would be operational. It felt like it was playing me for laughs.

My husband has a higher threshold for this type of inconvenience than I do, mainly because he is responsible for fixing things and he didn’t know how to fix this thing. Since the HP did work sometimes, it never qualified as “broken” so he was not in favor of buying a new printer. And, most maddeningly, that little stinker would print just fine for his computer (which sat next to and connected to the HP). So, we resorted to increasingly irritating work-arounds, like me emailing documents to my husband to print from my his computer, turning the printer off and counting for 60 seconds and turning it back on, and (my favorite), smacking it on the side. After days of stomping back and forth between the den and the printer, turning it on and off, on and off, on and off, cussing and yelling at the HP, my husband would calmly say things like, “Hmmm, maybe I need to take it apart and fix it.” And I ‘d say, “Or maybe I need to take it apart and kill it.”.

One day I came home and my husband was doing printer brain surgery. He had hundreds of little parts spread all over the kitchen island. He had my late father’s loops (the magnifying lenses my dad used in his dentistry practice) on his head and an extra bright office light trained on the patient.   The surgery was temporarily successful, and the printer worked like a champ for a few months.

UNTIL, last spring, as I was preparing for my son’s USNA graduation week and planned to produce packets (including schedules, maps, and nametags) for all our guests. After spending countless hours designing, drafting and collecting materials on my computer, I began printing. The HP-from-Hell would print five of something, and then stop. Or one of something else, then stop. Then no more that day. It just refused, flagrant acts of insubordination. The next day, it would print three more of something and nothing of the other. There was one PDF that it never printed correctly. And all this after trying all the work-arounds – the turning on and off and emailing and smacking. I was mostly alone in the house those days and the swear words were gushing from my lips like a Roman fountain. I finally downloaded everything I couldn’t get that damn printer to print on a flash drive, drove down to Kinko’s, and had everything printed in less than 30 minutes.

In the months following the graduation, I felt myself pulling away from the HP. I was no longer willing to work on our relationship. If I encountered any resistance at all from that little nutcase, I took my flash drive and turned to Kinko’s. By the end of summer, HP and I were at an impasse. It basically wasn’t printing anything for me; meanwhile, my relationship with Kinko’s blossomed (and feeling the expense was worth every cent to my sanity).

And then a wondrous thing happened. Not having me to kick around anymore, HP started messing with my husband.   I began hearing a few swear words coming out of his mouth, and noticed that he was increasingly having problems printing. Now things were getting interesting!

In September, we decided to get a new laptop for me, so we’d each have a laptop when we’re traveling, and my husband said something incredible. At least, I thought he said, “Maybe we’ll get you a small printer to go in your office.” I tried not to get too excited, as these initiatives take time to come to fruition in our house.

Then that HP stupidly kept messing with my husband, and he began researching in earnest what might be wrong. What he discovered online was that an “update” pushed out by HP in the last few years basically destroyed some key part of the printer. That did it! Now he was angry! HP had just messed with the wrong guy. (A little slow, but glad he was now feeling my outrage.) He found a part on eBay that some claimed could be a DIY fix to the problem, which he ordered and it came last week, and then my heart sank. Now we might be in for another protracted period of “fixes” to that blasted HP.

The Good (Dell), The Bad (HP) and the Ugly (also HP)

The Good (Dell), The Bad (HP) and the Ugly (also HP)

But, last Friday I came home to a huge empty cardboard shipping box sitting on our living room floor. I went into my den/office and there it was…my new Dell. It was love at first sight.  The reign of HP oppression has ended.

Since then, I’ve been printing to my heart’s content. Color! Two-sided! PDFs! Webpages! That document from graduation that HP never printed! Everything is done quickly, cheerfully and perfectly, with no attitude. I may even be able to print my Christmas letter myself this year. It all just makes me want to sing. I love my new printer.