April 5, 2015 by Jean
This morning I woke up to snow coming down fast and furious outside my bedroom window; but by the time I got out of the shower, the sun was shining. All morning, snow alternated with sun, until the moment when I looked up from my reading to find sunshine and snow happening simultaneously. I began to wonder if this changeable April weather was some kind of metaphor. Is retirement part of life’s winter or a kind of second spring?
I think the metaphor occurred to me because I’ve been reading Threshold: The First Days of Retirement by Alan H. Olmstead (Harper & Row, 1975), a memoir of retirement as experienced in the 1970s. Olmstead was a journalist who had no intention of ever retiring, but was forced out by new management taking his newspaper in directions he could not abide. These are circumstances which, according to research on retirement experiences, predict a rocky transition to retirement. The dust cover of Olmstead’s book shows a gray-haired man standing in an open doorway and looking out on a bright, sunny morning; but there is little sunshine in the first third of the book that I have read so far. Olmstead seems to feel that retirement is the first step on a path to death, and he includes chapters with titles like “Is there life before death?” and “Is there life after death?” (Hmm. Maybe that sun low in the sky on the cover is meant to be setting, not rising.) Olmstead’s account fits a very common understanding of retirement – that leaving work marks the end of joy and growth and the beginning of life’s winter.
But there are other discussions of retirement that focus on this stage of life as a kind of second spring, a time of reawakening and new beginnings after the heavy responsibilities of parenthood and work end but before the physical limitations of old age set in. The concept of the “third age” popular in Europe (see, for example, Peter Laslett’s A Fresh Map of Life: The Emergence of the Third Age) or Mary Catherine Bateson’s concept of “second adulthood” in Composing a Further Life (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010) are examples of this perspective, which sees retirement as an exciting time of life in which all kinds of new things are possible.
My experience of retirement thus far has definitely fallen into the “spring” category. This may be partly a function of personality. (I often describe myself as a “glass three-quarters full” person.) But it is more than that; I am finding that the gift of time now that I am no longer putting in 60-80 hour weeks at a job makes all kinds of new ventures possible. Despite the hassles involved in remodeling my house, turning this little house in the woods into my dream house and planning my new front garden feel like making dreams come true. And, especially in these recent weeks of participating in my singing workshop and my first Senior College course, I am exhilarated by the experience of opening new doors in my life, meeting new people, and learning new things.
Most likely, retirement is like our changeable April weather, a mixture of winter and spring, of snow and sun, of the excitement of new beginnings and the frustrations of aging. For now, I’m just going to enjoy my second spring.