An Ode to the YMCA: Exercise to the rescue

I HEART the YMCA.  It has been a lifesaver.  Following the conclusion of our 5-month post-retirement travel blitz, my subsequent mini-meltdown over what to do with myself, and my husband’s almost tactful suggestion that I get a life, I turned to the YMCA for refuge.  Regular exercise is one of those activities that previously fell into my “Something I’ll Do When I Retire” category.  I’m finding many of those pursuits were not ignored solely due to lack of time.  They are still not appealing now that I have time.  Exercise classes at the YMCA, however, have proven to be a godsend.

Every weekday morning I now spring out of bed, excited about walking the short block to the YMCA.   I comb the schedule and try a variety of classes.   Before retiring, I was never able to make it to classes after work so I was thrilled to try some. Admittedly, I got off to a rough start with my first exercise class, on a Monday morning, called Body Works.  The class description read “The ultimate muscular challenge. This class uses hand held weights, bands, step, body bars, and resistance balls. The focus is muscle strength, endurance and body definition by using proper alignment.”  Now, at one point in my life I was an aerobics junkie, which I credit with getting me through the summer of my Bar Exam.  Obliviously assuming I have the same stamina and abilities I had in my twenties and remembering my doctor’s suggestion that I incorporate weight training in my regimen, I decided this class would be perfect.

For the livelier exercise classes, the room is brimming with mostly female energy

The Body Works class – a room full of women and barbells

The class was not perfect. It started off well enough. The room was full of women, several I knew from around town, and bustling with vivacity.  I was absurdly giddy to be out of the house, surrounded by females and the loud beat of music.  For the first 10 minutes, I jumped and hopped and lunged and ran in place with the best of them. But it soon became clear I had bitten off more than I could chew. I was gasping for air.  As the class progressed, I felt like I was going to die. I decided to dial back and go at my own pace.  I replaced jumps with toe taps and lunges with baby steps. Fortunately for my ego, there was an 80-year-old woman (who I think wandered into the class by mistake) that was having more trouble than me.  If nothing else, it was a class in humility.

Next I checked out Yoga.  I’d never done yoga, which was another thing on my Retirement List. So that Tuesday I decided on the Yoga Stretch class – mainly since, after my class in humility, it had an “E” for “Easy” next to the title. The class description read “Emphasizes physical and mental relaxation, controlled breathing, balance, proper posture and alignment and flexibility. Develop a keen sense of body/mind awareness.”  Great!  It was certainly easier than that damn Body Works class, but it was still challenging to achieve and hold the poses, particularly since I am one of the least flexible people on the planet.  But, after just one class, I could feel improvement in my joints, posture and relaxation.

My set-up for Gentle Yoga class at the Y.  Ninety minutes of bliss.

My set-up for Gentle Yoga class at the Y. Ninety minutes of bliss.

Then I tried Gentle Yoga  (“Focus on releasing tight muscles, increasing range of motion and stress relief”) with an instructor named Diane.   OMG!!!!  It was an hour and a half class, which flew by, of pure bliss and when it was over, I felt like I’d had a spa weekend.  It was divine – Diane’s soothing voice, the focus on breathing, the gentle stretching and poses, aromatherapy with lavender oil, culminating in an extended time of relaxation and mediation.  The worst part was when Diane said it was time to get up and leave.

I also tried two Zumba classes.  One was a regular Zumba class and the other Zumba Gold, which is supposedly lower intensity. The class description read “Zumba fused hypnotic Latin rhythms and easy to follow moves to create a cardio experience that is exhilarating and energizing.”  The description I would’ve written was, “Impossible to follow moves, requiring too much hips and swiveling and coordination, excessive jumping around and a cardio experience that was alarming and exhausting.” I’m certain my heart rate reached 300 and at one point I glanced around for a defibrillator.  I knew I was in trouble when I noticed women wearing Zumba belts, which are apparently designed to accentuate all that hip swiveling.  The Gold class was less jumping around, but had more complicated dance moves, and I wondered how the Zumba instructor was able to watch me without laughing.  I was that clumsy aging celebrity who is the first to go on Dancing with the Stars.

When I saw the Zumba belts I knew I was in trouble

When I saw the Zumba belts I knew I was in trouble

I have since stayed with the Body Works class on Mondays.  I’m determined to get better, and this week I kicked butt the first 20 minutes, which gave me a false sense of competence. Then the [drill] instructor barked orders to go from plank position to standing to plank position to standing, over and over, until I saw stars and heard birdies. I literally came within a resistance ball of passing out in the middle of the class.  The first week I learned humility.  This week I learned to eat breakfast before class and not show off.

What I have really fallen for is yoga.  After I get through Monday and the damn Body Works class, I love, love, love going to my yoga classes.  Yoga relaxes me, helps with my stress level, posture and flexibility.  It feels so much kinder to my body and psyche than the faster aerobic-style classes.   The meditation included gets me centered and calm. I really wish I had discovered yoga when I was working!

The YMCA provides a welcome haven brimming with positive energy.  My exercise classes give me incentive to get up and go, get me off to a good start and they impart structure to my day.  They offer a social experience where I see friends from the community and I’m meeting new ones.  Most importantly, I notice my higher energy levels, improved disposition and a decrease in various aches and pains.  I feel better, both physically and mentally.  I leave the YMCA after one of my workouts and I’m ready to take on the world. Interestingly, my husband has taken my lead and he is back at the YMCA, too.  He even came to a Gentle Yoga class with me.  Why didn’t I do this before?  When I REALLY had stress in my life?

Help Wanted: Sisters to Get Me Through Life

The sweet Valentine my niece Megan sent to her sister Tamra

The sweet Valentine my niece Megan sent to her sister Tamra

Oh, how I wish I had a sister!  This has been a life-long refrain.  A recent Valentine post on Facebook between my two nieces, Megan and Tamra, stirred my envy embers anew.

As a little girl, I regularly begged my mother to make one more trip to the hospital to bring home a little bundle of pink sister joy.  Getting no results from her, one Christmas I elevated the request to Santa, still to no avail.  As the youngest of three siblings and the only girl, I tired of the never-ending rough and tumble of boys.   At home, my brothers used me as unwitting pawn in their sinister boy games, setting booby traps and ambushes that left me in a perpetual state of suspense. One brother abducted my paper dolls, snipped off their heads, and hung them on the clothesline.  And when they did invite me to play with them, it was usually a physical game in which I invariably turned up injured since they were so much bigger than me.  One game of ball tag ended with a head-on collision between my older brother and me.  He remembers the sensation of being momentarily slowed by some minor turbulence.  My recollection is of being flattened by a Mack truck. That same brother enjoyed fabricating and telling chilling stories designed to scare the bejeezus out of me.  One particularly complex tale told of the origins of a mole over his lip, recounting a terrible accident in which his lips were pulled off his face after they froze on a car door outside, and ending with the startling revelation that the mole was anchoring his lips.  (He did get in trouble for that one after I ran screaming to Mom begging her never to remove Tom’s mole lest his lips fall off.)

Me with my brothers and Mom.  Notice how my mother seems to be protecting me from harm.

Me with my brothers and Mom. Notice how my mother seems to be protecting me from them

My brothers especially enjoyed the nights my parents went out and left them in charge of babysitting me.  They were then free to wreck havoc unfettered by parental interference.  I still remember my attempts to fall asleep looking pained, sure that when my parents returned they would look in on me, see my look of torture and then give my brothers hell.  That never worked either.

Of course it wasn’t all bad having brothers, and one benefit was that I had my own personal goon squad.  My brothers could torment me endlessly; however, if someone else looked at me cross-eyed, my older brother wanted the name and address of the perpetrator, and he was off to take care of business.  There were few repeat offenders.  But I was convinced my life would have been perfect, or at least calmer, had I had a loving sister as a companion.

Then I grew up and married a guy who came with a son.   I later gave birth to one more male and no females, and again found myself grossly outnumbered.  Further, none of the males in my nuclear family are particularly sensitive types. There are no art lovers or musicians or writers.  My husband’s favorite pastime is watching sports, any sport, preferably contact.  My son played just about every sport, and in his free time enjoys grisly video games, like Call of Duty and Halo, that I can’t even watch without getting nauseous.  There were many days I came home after work to find football on one TV, COD on the other, and dirty sweat socks hanging in every bathroom. I did insist my son take piano lessons, but his complaining was so incessant that I finally let him quit and he never went within six feet of the piano again. But my upbringing was good training for this environment, as I know the rules to just about any sport and I know how emotionally simple guys really are.

Throughout my life, my mother was a calm island of estrogen in my vast ocean of testosterone.  She and I were close, and we did girlie things together as time and money allowed, although neither of us was overly girlie, and probably out of convenience I developed into a tomboy anyway.  She told me repeatedly how happy she was to finally get a daughter after being surrounded by males the first 8 years of her marriage, and as I grew into my own version of token female, I understood the sincerity of that statement.  I really miss her. Since she passed away, I find myself the only surviving female from either my family of origin or my nuclear family.

Oh, how I wish I had a sister!  I know people who have sisters they wish they didn’t.  I know sister relationships can be rocky and emotionally fraught. But some shining examples of sisterly love abound in my extended family.  They have an emotional bond and deep DNA understanding that seems fundamentally different from the brother-sister connection.  Women tend to be more natural caregivers and nurturers, and when you have a best friend who is also your sister, what a blessing!

My friend Sue and her little sister Kathie

My friend Sue and her little sister Kathie

One early “sister act” that made me think I was missing out was my childhood friend Sue and her younger sister Kathie.   I met Sue in 6th grade math class and before long I was spending time at her home.  The Warrens’ house, unlike mine, was clearly matriarchal with a definite female sensibility.  Sue’s mom ruled the roost, along with Sue’s grandma (Sue’s mom’s mom lived with them) and there were no brothers.  I only vaguely remember Sue’s dad  – usually sitting in the living room watching football games by himself.  Sue and Kathie adored each other and their house was like a sorority.  If I had a problem I need to talk over, I could go to Sue’s and have a ready female support group of four available for consultation and advice.

My lovely nieces.  Clockwise from left, Alyssa and Kelsey; Genoa and Carey, Megan and Tamra

My lovely nieces. Clockwise from left, Alyssa and Kelsey; Genoa and Carey, Megan and Tamra

My two nieces, Megan and Tamra, probably love each other more than any two sisters I have ever met.  My husband’s sister Judy, their mother, once told me that Megan fell in love with her little sister Tamra the day Tamra was born and they have been best friends ever since.  They have supported each other through thick and thin, and are now facing a serious health issue together.   But in the midst of everything, they laugh, they talk, and they love being together.  My husband’s brother Rich also has two daughters, Genoa and Carey, who share a similar bond of love and affection.

My brother Jim was rewarded with two girls of his own.  Besides his two daughters, he has a severely disabled son, which has complicated and challenged their family life.  Yet my nieces Alyssa and Kelsey are growing into gorgeous, gracious, capable young women who support each other and their parents and who inspire me with their adaptability.

Don’t get me wrong – I wouldn’t trade my husband, son or brothers for anything.  I love them all to death.  I adore them.  I enjoy hanging out with them.  I love sports!! I just wish I could inject a close female relative into my nuclear world.  I often crave that female perspective and hug in those situations where the guys either want to “fix” me or just get that clueless befuddled look.

And more than just wanting a close sister/friend I can talk to at Thanksgiving, there’s a practical side to this problem.  One that is picking up more urgency the older I get.  Who will take care of me in my old age?  One thing I learned, in caring for my parents during their decline, was that either a sister or, more commonly, the oldest daughter in the family is typically the caregiver.  That was me for my parents.  Who will be that for me?  My son wanted nothing to do with visiting grandma in her assisted living facility and he found her rather disturbing once dementia claimed her mind.  One day, during my Sandwich Years, when I had him as captive audience while driving to school, I went on an embarrassing (in hindsight) rant that went something like this:

 Me:  [out of blue]  “When you meet a girl that you think might be The One for you, I want to meet her right away.  Right away!!!  You need to understand – this girl is going to be very, very, important to me.  Why?  Because when I’m old and Dad is dead and I get dotty like Grandma, who do you think is going to take care of me?  Not you!   No, hopefully your wife!   She’s going to tell YOU where to go and what to do, and she’s going to decide what to do about ME.  If she doesn’t like me, I’ll get parked in some God-forsaken Looney bin, and nobody will even visit me.  If she likes me, maybe it’ll be a nice place and you guys and my grandkids will come visit.  If she loves me, maybe I’ll even live with you.  So, [picking up steam] I get veto power over this girl that you are getting serious with.  Understand?!!”

Son:  “Mom, I’m only 14.”

Me:  “I know that!   Future reference.”

 Oh, how I wish I had a sister to discuss all this with! But the sad fact is, I don’t have a biological mother, sister or daughter.  I do have wonderful sisters-in-law, nieces, cousins and aunts, but they mostly live in other cities. I have noticed, particularly in the past few years (once I started slowing down in anticipation of retirement) that I have instinctively put more energy into friendships, particularly my female friends.  Furthermore, I’ve increasingly reached out to long-standing friends and family members, in some cases renewing connections that had been dormant for years.  I am finding these relationships to be deeply comforting and rewarding.

What is it about sisters and close female friends that are so impactful? For answers, I did a little research, and my findings confirmed what I’ve already discovered from my own non-scientific experience.    The need for community with other women is biological.  In The Tending Instinct, by Shelley E Taylor, (as described in the article “The Girlfriend Instinct – The Value of Female Friendships” by Debbie Haupert) a variety of studies lead to the following findings:

 Longevity – Married men live longer than single men, yet marriage is not a determinant of life expectancy in women.  Rather, women with strong female social ties (girlfriends) live longer than those without them.

 Stress – Women don’t have the same ‘fight or flight” response to stress that men do.  Rather, women under stress have the need to ‘tend and befriend.’  We want to be with our young and our friends.  Time with our friends actually reduces our stress levels.

 More stress – When we’re with our girlfriends, our bodies emit the “feel good” hormone oxytocin, helping us reduce everyday stress.  By prioritizing our female friendships and spending time with these friends, we take advantage of a very simple, natural way to relax.

 Even more stress – One study show that prairie voles, a monogamous rodent, have a similar response to stress.  When a male vole is put in a stressful situation, he runs to his female partner.   Female voles, when stressed, immediately run to the females they were raised with.

 Health – Women without strong social ties risk health issues equivalent to being overweight or a smoker!

So, now it all makes sense!  I have instinctively been assembling a close network of “sisters” that will support me and nurture me, friends that I can talk with and laugh with, who know me well, and that I can discuss my feelings with. My lunches with friends are actually inexpensive therapy sessions and important emotional work.  (In fact, I wonder if I should write them off as medical expenses?  I’ll ask my CPA – who’s a man. Never mind.) And hopefully, someday my “sister-friends’ will visit me at the assisted living facility (in case that future daughter-in-law thing doesn’t work out.)

Cleaning out the Closets

I’ve been mulling over the term “spring cleaning” lately.  I’ve decided it’s a helpful metaphor for me in my current life stage.

The phrase connotes a seasonal aspect, like my new season of life, as I leave behind a 25-year corporate career and begin early retirement and my next life phase.   Spring suggests renewal, a time of new life and new discovery.    The expression also refers to a process of cleansing – washing, scrubbing, scouring, and dusting  – that is necessary after a winter of neglect.

It’s now been six months since I retired.  The first few weeks were akin to waking up in the Recovery Room after surgery.  I was ecstatic to be done, but felt groggy and needed rest and time to heal.  In mid-September we embarked on a hectic (some say manic) travel schedule, including a dream trip to Paris and multiple visits to the east coast.  Then came the holidays and one more trip east in January.

Now we are home for a spell.  I’m rested and relaxed.  I can’t imagine returning to my former corporate job.  And it feels like springtime – besides the unseasonably warm weather we are experiencing on the west coast, it’s as if my sensation of the world around me has sprung back to life, after what I now realize was a prolonged period of stress-induced numbness.  I’m enjoying the exploration of new activities and hobbies.  Every morning I wake up excited to experience the events on my calendar.  On weekday mornings, I walk to the YMCA, filled with gratitude, and participate in exercise classes.  I’ve particularly fallen in love with yoga.  At my first yoga lesson, I could barely touch my toes and had no clue what a downward facing dog was.  Now I do a kickass cat/cow pose and I find it unbelievably relaxing. On Wednesdays, I go to golf lessons.  Sure, I hit the guy next to me on the driving range (ball to shoulder) with an errant swing, but then I occasionally drive a shot straight and clean and bask in my moment of awesomeness.   I’ve joined a Women’s Bible Study on Tuesday evenings and we are doing a study on the book of James.  I like the women in the group and the Beth Moore curriculum feels like it was written just for me.  On Wednesday evenings I plan, cook and serve dinner to my husband.  I’ve had not one culinary disaster and we are both enjoying this new tradition.  I’ve reconnected with my good friend Cissy from my women’s prayer group 20 years ago, and I’m helping her start a nonprofit corporation.  I see this as a good way to learn the nuts and bolts of nonprofits, while having regular lunches with my very entertaining friend in the process. Finally, I’m still getting kicks out of all the adult education classes I signed myself up for.

But in the midst of my excitement and renewed energy for my current and future life, I’ve realized there is some “spring cleaning” needed following a long winter season.  When I stopped and really thought about it, I was stunned to realize I endured a 12-year-long winter, that only just ended with my retirement.   It started in 2001 when we put our townhouse on the market and then bought a fixer-upper house in a new town  just a few miles away.  In the midst of the moving process, we suffered the death of my stepson.  After we moved to our “new” house, I returned to a full-time work schedule (I’d happily worked an 80% schedule for 10 years beginning when my son was born).  Soon after I went full-time, I was offered and took a challenging new leadership role with my company. I was given 2 big promotions and increasing responsibilities in the next four years.  Within a year after taking the leadership position, my father was diagnosed with cancer, which was especially tragic given he was the caregiver for my mother, who was suffering from dementia.  My father’s cancer diagnosis began an incredibly challenging five-year period (my Sandwich Generation years), ending with the death of first dad and then mom.  I was strained to navigate end-of-life issues with both parents (with minimal help from my siblings who lived afar) while balancing career and my own family.  If there was ever a time in my life I came close to cracking, it was during my Sandwich years.  And somehow, somewhere in the middle of all this, we remodeled our house, requiring us to move into a rental for 14 months, and my uncle and father-in-law also passed away.  I am shocked now as I write all this, but at the time I just tried to put one foot before the other and not think too much about what was happening in my life.

Following my parents’ deaths and the conclusion of our home remodel, I was left feeling completely disorganized and very out of control.  We moved many of our things to off-site storage during our first move in order to clean out the townhouse for showing, and then decided to just leave belongings in the storage shed until after our remodel.   Over time, possessions of my stepson and our parents were added to the mix.  Our garage was increasingly filled with clutter.  But, I still had a very stressful work life that was sapping my energy, and I was too weary and beaten-down to address the mess.  At some point, I just decided to defer cleanup to retirement.

Our garage, which is the most egregious, but emblematic of other messes in my life

Our garage, which is the most egregious, but emblematic of other messes that need sorting out

Now that I’ve retired, and our initial travel blitz is over, its time to start the cleanup!  My husband and I have taken some baby steps in the past couple weeks to attack the garage, which we’re finding a highly unpleasant and disagreeable job.  (No wonder people don’t clean out their garages!) But more than the physical cleanup, I’m discovering there’s emotional tidying to be done.  It seems I am now constantly opening closets and pulling up rugs and finding messes that I’d left for another day. The deaths of my stepson and parents recently bubbled up.  (See my  post about how these losses smacked me anew.)   As I was going through my parents’ boxes, I opened one containing my mother’s favorite china.  A rush of wonderful memories flooded me, followed by my still-confusing range of emotions surrounding my mother’s descent into dementia.  The other day I walked by my son’s empty room (he’s away at college) and felt a weighty sadness about our empty nest and my son’s absence.  Now that my husband and I are together 24/7, we’re adjusting to new rules of engagement and it’s harder to skirt those pesky relational issues we’ve artfully ignored for over 25 years. And then there are questions of my own sense of worth and ego.   If I’m not bringing home the bacon, am I still important?  My springtime renewal seems to include the entire range of emotions.

Make no mistake – this is all good stuff.   I see my heightened awareness as a positive sign that my heart, mind and body are engaged and ready to start taking on not just the good stuff but the messes.   God has faithfully placed incredible people and experiences in my path to guide me toward healing and I welcome the process, although I know I will never be “done” and I need to remember to pace myself.  I am blessed with a husband who is willing to slog through the mud with me.   I have wonderful supportive friends. It does make me wonder, however, if what I’m experiencing is common for those who slow down and experience a place of relative calm.  Could this be why some purposely stay on the hamster wheel – to avoid the messes? I believe I will be stronger and wiser as I get my house in order.  I just wish sometimes that messes weren’t quite so messy.

The Manic Self-Discovery Phase of Retirement, or Finding What I Was Born To Do

I haven’t had much time to write my blog posts, as I’ve been busy finding myself.   As you may recall, I recently experienced the first “adjustment anxiety” of my fledgling retirement, triggered by the prospect of extended time at home with (horror!) nothing specific to do.  That in turn sparked a flurry of activity designed to thrust myself into and through the next phase of retirement (the “re-orientation” phase) as quickly as humanly possible.  Being the goal-oriented girl I am, my objective is to get to the “completely comfortable and enjoying retirement to the hilt” stage in record time.  I am completely aware this may not be sound strategy and I may need to be patient and contemplative, but that’s not my strength and I can’t really help myself.

My partner Sandy and I with our Chicken, Lemon and Olive Stew at my cooking class

My partner and I with our Chicken, Lemon and Olive Stew at my cooking class

So, this week found me in a state of manic self-discovery.   I signed up for eight adult education classes over the next two months.  The first, last Saturday, was a seminar entitled “What Were You Born to Do?”  The second, a five-week series of golf lessons, began on Wednesday.  The third, a cooking class called “Winter Soups and Stews” was on Wednesday night.  I also scheduled exercise classes every morning at the local YMCA (including two yoga classes, which is new for me).  Last Saturday, before my adult education class, I met a friend at a Paint Your Own Pottery studio and painted a plate.  On Monday, I drove an hour to visit my college roommate who was in town visiting her mother.  On Tuesday, my husband and I had a dinner and theatre date with another couple.  On Friday night, I have my monthly Book Club meeting.  On Saturday morning, I’m driving to San Diego for the weekend to visit high school friends.   I fully recognize the overexcited, Energizer Bunny quality of my life right now, and I don’t think I can or should keep this up forever, but it has been invigorating!

Getting back to the seminar on Saturday (“What Were You Born to Do?”), I was intrigued by the description in the class catalogue, but wary it might be crackpot. “You were born to make a unique contribution to humanity.  Progressing toward this purpose brings joy and abundance. Straying from it causes stress and emptiness.  To accomplish this mission one of the 33 Natural Talents is wired into your DNA.  It’s so subtle, you rarely notice it; yet so powerful, it’s the source of your highest potential.”  I was hoping my Natural Talent was something lucrative.

The class proved to be surprisingly effective and energizing. The instructor, who reminded me of an older version of the Professor on Gilligan’s Island, began by describing his own life story and how his recurring dissatisfaction with the jobs he’d held had spurred intense self-analysis. This led to recognition of his own “Natural Talent” and its under-utilization.   He eventually quit his job and began giving seminars, helping others to recognize their Natural Talents.  He has fine-tuned the process and the list of Natural Talents through extensive research and working with “thousands” of people at the seminars he’s conducted over the past twenty years.

Materials from the What Were You Born to Do?  class (coming to a community college near you!)

Materials from the class (and coming to a community college near you!)

During the course of the 3-1/2 hour class, through listening to descriptions of the Natural Talents, completing questionnaires and quizzes, class discussions, and reflection on my life and activities, recurring behaviors, likes and dislikes, I concluded that my Natural Talent fell under the general category of Creative Arts, and more specifically, Writing.   During one class exercise, I recalled that some of my favorite activities as a young girl were reading, especially biographies of famous women; writing stories, letters and diaries; and making up elaborate stories regarding my dolls and other toys.  I also remember winning writing contests, especially short story fiction. In college, unlike almost every other classmate I knew, I loved writing research papers.  In law school, I made Law Review based on the strength of my “Comment” (a research paper on a topic never before published).  In fact, I was named Law Review Comments Editor, and the next year edited others’ Comments.  As I reflected on my favorite part of my business career, it was the writing – letters, presentations, reports – that I enjoyed the most, and it was always important to me to “tell the story” in my writing.  And most recently, writing my blog since retiring has been a source of great satisfaction for me.

It all seemed to resonate, and gave me a sense of both calm and excitement.  Calm because it provides a direction to focus on.  The endless possibilities for the rest of my life can seem overwhelming, and having a narrowed focus feels more manageable. It is also exciting to think of doing something I truly enjoy and that will utilize my God-given talents.  Of course, I immediately flew into What Exactly Can I Do With This and How Can I Make Money Writing mode.  The instructor gently reminded us that making a change into a new field or activity is a process and will not happen overnight.  He advised us to always take steps in the direction of our Natural Talent, but to also let it simmer internally and let our subconscious work on the exact fit for ourselves. Another indicator I’m on the right track was the list of other classes I’d registered for, before the seminar on Natural Talents.  It was interesting to see I’d chosen “Writing Your First Book,” “Publishing Your First Book,” “How to Give Seminars and Workshops,” and “Blogging for Fun and Profit.”

The beautiful thing about retirement is that I no longer need to consider earnings potential when picking an activity.  I would love to parlay writing into an enjoyable AND lucrative second career but there is no rush or imperative.  In the meantime, I can dream about the possibilities.  Novel?  Humor?  Travelogue? Researched nonfiction pieces on politics, or history?  A biography?  An expanded blog?  All I can say is, now I’m down with the re-orientation phase!

Existentialism, Disenchantment and the Six Stages of Retirement

I suppose it was inevitable, but I must unhappily report I’ve suffered my first post-retirement existential crisis.  Following a whirlwind (or manic) first five months that included a dream trip to France, multiple football weekends in Annapolis, several road trips to the Bay Area, and then the holidays, I now find myself at home, alone with my husband in our empty nest, no job, and no big trips planned for awhile.  So now what?

My detailed retirement plan

My detailed retirement plan

Before I retired, I recall seeing articles counseling prospective retirees to plan not only for the financial, but the non-financial and emotional aspects of retirement.   I planned the financial aspects down to the penny, but I was so busy working, parenting, traveling and everything else that I didn’t spend time thinking about the rest.  I just knew I (1) didn’t want to do THAT job anymore, and (2) would go to Paris and other places and maybe learn to cook and play golf and eventually do some volunteer or part-time work.  Beyond that, I reckoned I would figure it out when I got there.  And since I was the primary breadwinner in the family, I never allowed myself the luxury of seriously considering what I would do if money were no object.  I therefore had zippo in the way of a detailed plan or burning desire or vision for retirement. But, seriously, how hard could it be?!

One of the many things I failed to sufficiently appreciate while I was busy concentrating on my career was that my already-retired husband had basically taken over the house.  He was home, happily cooking, shopping, doing laundry, and watching really loud intense action movies in Surround Sound in the middle of the day.  And his daily routines, for the most part, did not include me.  So, my 24/7 lurking in his territory and my newly enthusiastic plans to start cooking or reorganize the house or rearrange the kitchen has not been met with enthusiasm.  I did not expect to be the intruder in my own house.  And I certainly never imagined I would be battling my husband over who gets to do chores. (“Aw c’mon let me do the dishes tonight!”)

Then there are issues of loneliness, self-worth and meaning.   It can be lonely around the house, even with my husband around.  It brings back foggy memories of my 4-month maternity leave, when I was so starved for adult conversation that I found myself chasing down other mothers at the playground. Even though I’m not an extreme extrovert, while I was working, I was accustomed to the hustle and bustle of the office and being around people.  Now it takes effort to socialize, and the further I get from my working days, the less I have in common with my working friends.  I also know that I’m easily bored and can get restless without the daily urgencies of the job that kept me on my toes. I find that without a “job” – whether chores or paid job or volunteer work – my self-worth suffers.  I miss that sense of purpose and accomplishment.  I have not yet identified what I want to sink my teeth into next, but I feel an obligation to find activities that use my skills and talents to give back to my community and I would like them to be meaningful to me.

Another issue I’ve discovered is that unstructured days can lead to an ADD-type existence.  There are so many things I can or should or want to do, and it becomes disorienting and overwhelming.   Paralysis sets in and I feel like I’m spinning when I don’t know what to do first.  And then entire days go by and all I can remember doing is emailing my cousin or researching wine racks on the Internet.  At this rate, I’m not going to make any significant contribution to society!

Which all led to my first post-retirement (and post-holiday) existential crisis.  Looking forward to months at home, with “clean up the garage” the only major item on my calendar for February, I felt anxious for the first time about retirement.  Damn those article writers!  They were right!  I should’ve had a plan!  After I finish the garage, what the hell am I going to do with myself?!  And will my husband and I even survive the garage?

Since I was in a state of blissful denial, I obviously didn’t do my homework pre-retirement.  Yesterday I googled “emotional adjustments to retirement” and was shocked at the volume of resources. Among them I found an article that describes the stages of retirement and was relieved to see that my own existential crisis was quite normal and actually fit the description for the “disenchantment” stage, which follows the “honeymoon” stage.  The author described the disenchantment phase as similar to the stage in marriage when the emotional high of the wedding wears off and the couple now has to work on building a functioning relationship together.  After looking forward to retirement for so long, many retirees are faced with a feeling of letdown. Retirement isn’t a permanent vacation; it can also bring loneliness, boredom, feelings of uselessness and disillusionment.  The stage 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.” And it gets worse!  “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”)

Oh, for crying out loud, even retirement is going to be hard work!  I probably understood this deep down, but I had successfully convinced myself retirement was going to be a piece of cake.  But I also know from experience that major life changes, even good ones, cause anxiety and require adjustments.  I appreciate now that I need to take charge of structuring my own post-retirement life, that it will take work and courage, and nobody is responsible but me.

My recent existential crisis manifested itself in some heated and ridiculous exchanges with my husband where I accused him, among other things, of chore hogging; frantic searches for adult education classes to swiftly learn new hobbies or explore new career paths; and an urgency to expand my circle of friends to provide companionship and sounding boards as I discern next steps for myself.  I also recognized there is a spiritual aspect that compels me to renew my spiritual disciplines.

Thanks to my “disenchantment” stage (now that I know what ails me), I am now signed up for seven (yes, seven!) adult education classes over the next three months, ranging from “Winter Soups and Stews” and “Golf” to “Blogging for Fun and Profit.”  I’m trying out three different women’s small groups at church to find the best fit.  I’ve scheduled myself to participate in group exercise classes every weekday morning at the YMCA – we’re members, it’s right down the street, and I now have no excuse. After intense but fruitful negotiations, my husband and I agreed that I will make dinner on Wednesday nights (a major concession I am proud of).  And today I attended my first Lectio Divina gathering at church (a traditional Benedictine practice of scriptural reading, meditation and prayer) that really fed my soul.  I briefly considered setting up a Doodle poll with every friend I could think of to schedule lunches for the next six weeks but rejected the idea as giving the appearance of desperation.

Who knew retirement could be so exhausting?  Here’s looking forward to Stage 6!