June 14, 2014 by Jean
I am a person who thrives on structure. It makes me happy to have rituals and routines to structure my life. For example, my morning tour of the garden occurs at about the same time every day and involves taking the same route through the various parts of my garden to see what’s in bloom, remove spent flowers, and identify problems that need to be dealt with. What some people would consider being in a rut feels to me like having a comfortable routine.
One of the challenges of retirement for me is figuring out how to take advantage of the freedom of retirement without feeling aimless, how to structure my time so that my days feel both relaxing and productive. One model for this was the way I spent my days during my summers off from teaching. I would get up early and use the first part of the morning for exercise, tasks like running the dishwasher or doing a load of laundry, and getting showered and dressed. Then I would make a pot of tea, taking my first mug of tea with me as I toured the garden. This ritual would then be followed by breakfast, usually on the deck and accompanied by pleasure reading (e.g., a novel). I might spend the rest of the morning out on the deck, reading and relaxing, and continue this activity through lunch. After lunch, I would settle down to get some work done – research or course planning or gardening or errands – until it was time to fix dinner. The evening would be unstructured time; I might watch television or a movie borrowed from the library. Or I might read blogs, or curl up with a novel, or talk with friends on the phone.
In many ways, the structure of my days three weeks into my retirement looks a lot like it did during those previous summers, but with important differences. One big difference is how I spend the second half of my morning. When I was teaching, I felt like I had to cram as much relaxation as possible into the summer, fuelling my body and spirit for the heavy work commitment that would follow when school began again. This summer, however, I’m no longer feeling that sense of urgency about relaxation. Instead, I’m feeling a need to make sure that every day includes some intellectual stimulation (something that I took for granted during my years as a college professor). Since morning is when my brain is sharpest, these days I take a book of intellectually meaty nonfiction, instead of a novel, out to the deck with my breakfast. (Currently, I am reading The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks by Jeanne Theoharis.) I read for about an hour and then devote the last part of the morning (1-2 hours) to another intellectually stimulating activity, writing.
Afternoons are still set aside for whatever tasks are on my to-do list for the day. But these days, those tasks are seldom intellectual ones (as they often were during my teaching years). Instead, I’m likely to be engaged in change-of-residence tasks or in chores that are part of getting my house cleaned and organized. Or, on sunny days, work in the garden.
Because I often resented having to devote evenings and weekends to work when I was teaching, it is important to me to keep a sense of unstructured freedom about my evenings. But I am finding that, when I don’t have to work in the evening, I sometimes want to. So I am more likely to use some of that evening time to continue the work of the afternoon.
I like having a structure to my day. But I also like having the freedom to let go of that structure when I want to. Yesterday afternoon, when it was cold and rainy, I found myself wanting to curl up with a pot of tea and a book in the afternoon instead of working on cleaning my study. So I got out a novel that I had received as a Christmas gift (Tracy Chevalier’s The Last Runaway), settled into my favorite chair (snuggled under a fleece throw and with a mug of hot tea by my side), and began reading. I read through the afternoon and the evening, continued the book this morning, and finished it just after lunch. The freedom to read a novel in one go is one of the luxuries I’ve been looking forward to as part of retirement; taking advantage of those opportunities is as important as structuring my day.