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Retirement Talk for Boomers, Seniors and Retirees

 What to do with the Rest of Your Life?

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Episode 018: Retirement without Guilt

She was dressed in black and sitting in a rocker. I tried to think of what she must see; her neighbors walking slowly down the road, carrying this coffin to the grave – and then this big American Express bus with American tourists. She must wonder - as to making sense of the entire thing. We had rounded a curve at the edge of a small village and the road was blocked by this small knot of perhaps fifty citizens walking behind a coffin. We slowed and respectfully followed them to the where they turned into the cemetery. I remember so vividly looking out the window at this procession and then at that older woman sitting on a tiny porch.

We were 15 Americans and Europeans, dressed in shorts, t-shirts, and sunglasses, sitting in an air-conditioned, tinted windowed, American Express bus thousands of miles from home and traveling down this small twisty road. We were in Greece; on our way to Epidaurus, a famous ancient Greek theater, to see a play by Euripides.

This happened more than thirty years ago, but I can see it as if it were yesterday. The woman dressed in black had probably spent her entire life in this village, rarely venturing far. We, in contrast, were born to ramble. Travel to the four corners of the earth. See and learn; take pictures and get diarrhea. I’m not sure who had the better life.  My education or culture had taught me little about the benefits of sitting still.

 Many of us approach retirement with the idea that we must keep busy. We must continue to be “active”. We must get another job, volunteer, golf, or travel. We believe that we must “be up and doing” as long as we live.

What of those that wish to sit down, enjoy life’s moments, breathe deep, walk the beach, rock in the chair? Are they to be scorned, distained, or smiled at as plain fools? Who speaks for those who wish to let go? One of my favorite quotes by Thoreau, that I’ll get fairly close is, “As I lie, idly drifting on Walden Pond, I cease to think and begin to be.”  Here is a classic example of one who learned the pleasure of pausing – and not feeling guilty about it, but actually, proud of it.

“Why don’t you get up and do something with your life?” was one of my Dad’s favorite sayings. My sophomore English teacher, Mrs. Caukins, required that we memorize these lines from a Longfellow poem:
 
Let us, then be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labour and to wait.

Unchecked this notion can create a giant sense of guilty. Work becomes the elixir of life. We must always be “productive”. And what of life during retirement? Must we continue being productive, or “busy”?

I recall standing in the door to my classroom years ago. Classes were passing and I was talking to a younger teacher who taught next door to me. He was worried about his contract being terminated. The pipeline boom had ended in Alaska and people were leaving the state. The staff had to be cut.

My wife and I liked our jobs. But we didn't need the job. Not anything like the teacher who worked next door. I decided to look seriously at the money. We were not rich and really did need to provide for food, clothing and shelter along with basic amenities of which we had grown accustom. But that was all.

We did not have need for nearly as much money as we had imagined. We would only need to provide for basic expenses, taxes, insurance, etc. Our children were now either in college or beyond. It was time for them to become financially responsible for themselves. It would probably be better for them, and us, if they were to achieve financial independence. We needed to let go. They needed to go on.

What would we do if we retired? I was 44 years old. Brenda was 41. Everyone told us we were too young to retire. We could, or should “feel guilty”. We had to work – it was a given. But we did not want to work at a job and on top of that we did not want to feel guilty about making that decision.

Sometimes I think we need to slow down; not because we are older, but because we are wiser. We have learned the beauty of not “rushing about”.

Alaska is a big place – the mountains, valleys, and distances.  Whenever we were going hiking or skiing, an old neighbor of ours use to advise us, “If you want to get there quick, you’d better slow down.”

The picture of that older, silver haired lady sitting on a porch in Greece keeps coming back to me. Perhaps there is nothing wrong with sitting on a porch - practicing the art of being.