November 6, 2015 by Jean
Recently, I got into a conversation about retirement with an old acquaintance I ran into at the Sunday farmers’ market. She is contemplating retirement and was curious about my experience. As we talked, she asked me what the “one thing” is that I am focusing my energy on now that I am no longer working. Her question contained an assumption, that retirees need a central focus to take the place once filled by paid work. This assumption is not unusual; some writers on retirement advise new retirees to identify the “one thing” that will give purpose to their lives in retirement.
But a little over one year into my own retirement, I am not feeling a need for a central focus. The truth is that my life is not centered on “one thing,” nor do I want it to be. But as I tried to explain to my friend how I am spending my time, I realized that my answer sounded lame. I could not clearly articulate how I can live an engaged, fulfilling, purposeful life without a central focus. This post is my attempt to explain.
I loved my work as a college professor (well, most of it – not grading), but I was frustrated by how time-consuming it was. Yes, there were school breaks when the pace was more relaxed, but during semesters when I was teaching three different courses (most of the semesters I taught), my work week was never less than 60 hours long and was often more like 80-90 hours. This left no time for anything else in my life; just keeping one day free to get grocery shopping and cooking and house cleaning done was a major effort. Forget about having time for recreation or relaxation or civic engagement or learning about things outside my area of expertise. I didn’t want to live without time for those things; thus the all-consuming demands of the work provided the biggest push out of work and into retirement for me.
Recently, I’ve been reading Jimmy Carter’s The Virtues of Aging (Ballantine 1998), written when he was in his mid-seventies. This sentence particularly resonated for me: “We should consider our life as expanding, not contracting….” (p. 51). I have powerfully felt that sense of life expanding since my retirement, and a big part of that feeling is the expansion of possibilities created when I was freed from the need to focus on just one thing.
To say that my life in retirement does not have a single central focus or a big overriding purpose is not to say that it is without focus or is purposeless. I tend to organize my day and week so that I focus on one thing at a time, shifting sequentially through the range of interests and activities that currently engage me. I love having the time and energy to devote weekday mornings to challenging intellectual reading and to writing. Much of my reading takes me outside my area of expertise and provides an exhilarating sense that my brain is expanding almost to the point of bursting. In offering a course at the local Senior College, I am also drawing on the expertise I developed during my long academic career and continuing to hone my teaching skills. In the afternoons, I often spend time focused on homeowner chores (e.g., getting my firewood stacked and my garden prepared for winter). And I have projects waiting in the wings that will require focused attention when I get to them. These include getting my old study cleaned out and transformed into my new guest room and sewing room. And once that is done, I am looking forward to taking up the creative work of sewing clothes, something that I loved when I was young but had to give up in the 1980s when the demands of my work left me without time and energy for the kind of intense focus sewing requires.
Having interests and activities that focus my attention and energy is one thing; having a purpose in life is something different. Perhaps because my spirituality is centered in natural cycles and in the circle of life, I don’t think of my life as having a purpose “out there.” Instead, I feel that living every day is its own purpose. By this, I mean that the purpose of my life is made up of myriad small daily things – being engaged with and attentive to the world around me. Taking time to walk slowly around my garden each morning, breathing in the changing scents of the seasons and marveling at the beautiful coppery color of beech leaves in November provides joy in being part of this natural world and gives my life meaning. Part of my sense of purpose also involves trying to leave the world a bit better in some way. Opening up young people’s minds to new ways of seeing and understanding the world was certainly a big part of what I found meaningful about teaching. But I can also participate in making the world a better place by doing small things that make life easier for those around me and by being intentionally climate-friendly in my lifestyle and gardening choices.
I may find some day that I need a single focus or a single purpose for my retirement living, but that is not true now. I am very happy to be living an expansive life that includes a variety of foci and purposes.