When my sister, Carol, called to wish me a happy birthday, we got around to talking about how our everyday lives had changed this past year. She recently retired after working for 45 years for the same company. I’d have thought the abrupt change would have been traumatic in many ways – something akin to a divorce. Though she admits things are different, Carol’s “lovin’” retirement.
I diversified, working for different companies over the course of the same number of years. One was a full-time position (a thirteen year job) that required my presence 8:30 – 5:00, unless I was traveling for the company. When the sameness of it all grew tiresome, I left for the nowhere-near-lucrative wages of a part-time teaching position at a university (sixteen years, my longest stint). Giving up the corporate life in favor of the academic one was a welcome change. I could choose the times I wanted to teach, as well as schedule my own office hours, and I could come and go from campus as I pleased.
But there was less time to do what I wanted than ever with a gazillion papers to grade every week. So after sixteen years, I opted out, reveling in the time I thought I’d have to read, write, clean out the closets, take up sewing again. Instead, I found myself more short of time than ever and getting almost nothing accomplished.
I toyed with mindless television shows. I went out to breakfast with my husband. I met friends for lunch. I planned lunches and dinners for friends and spent days cooking in preparation. I loved every minute of these activities, too – but I got nothing of consequence, nothing I needed to do, done.
While a few of my stories managed to get themselves published, my desired writing career was stalled in an unproductive retirement. I couldn’t find the right door for this new chapter of my life.
Each evening I promised myself the next day would be different, and each day proved the same as the one before. Sidetracked by recurring pitfalls, like the replay of a nightmare you dream over again as soon as you fall asleep.
Sitting at my desk in what was previously my granddaughter’s bedroom, I let the cloud of distractions envelop me. There was laundry to do, groceries to buy, and meals to cook. I moved my computer to the dining room table and considered doing a crossword puzzle, checking updates on the weather channel, watching the news in the family room.
One note of progress: I took the bold step of deleting Solitare from my computer’s hard drive to keep from playing it.
I relocated once more, to the kitchen island. Bad move. Now I was sitting in the middle of a room full of food and wanted to fix myself a cup of hot chocolate, a sandwich, maybe heat up some leftovers. These I took to the family room – didn’t want to spill anything on my computer – where I could watch those mindless programs while I ate breakfast, and later, lunch. I wrote sporadically, in bits and pieces, between other activities that were taking up my time.
Nothing real, nothing of intrinsic value to me, was getting done.
It took a while to understand what had happened when I stopped teaching. When I stopped having work to do away from home. I ceased to be strong enough to shut out all these distractions – but why?
Because I now could. I didn’t have to, really, do anything if I didn’t want to. It was incredibly freeing. And I was having difficulty reining myself in.
What I needed was an office located in some other part of town – maybe even somewhere out of town. Perhaps even out of the state. A place where there were no distractions. Every time I drove past an “Office for Rent” sign, I drooled and told myself I’d check it out.
As if I could afford that kind of luxury.
Plan B: Going to a coffee shop with a like-minded friend. Writing with her on a weekly basis. Discipline, I told myself. Commitment – my new mantra. I’d be ashamed not to keep up my end of our bargain.
And that finally worked. I get some serious work done with Jennie, and so does she. We’re both leery of saying “can’t make it today” and come even when we don’t want to.
Carol had been suffering from the same malady as I. The more time you have on your hands, the more hours you fill talking about what you should or want to be doing, or what you’re going to do – instead of just doing it. When we were working away from home, there was only so much time to get things done when we came home – and we didn’t, couldn’t, waste it. Like we tend to do now. Like
Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind we told ourselves, “There’s always tomorrow. After all, tomorrow is another day.” When you tell yourself something like that every evening, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
We’d fallen out of routines of long-standing but hadn’t replaced them with some other structure. When you stop working, you think you’ll be able to do whatever you want whenever you want – and, super! Won’t that be great! Well, it will, and it won’t. It’s the semblance of structure we give our lives that keeps us organized and moving from point A to B. Structure helps us get there.
When she worked, she had everything laid out before she went to bed the night before. Keys, purse, whatever, on the counter in a particular order and ready to go. It’s hard to forget anything if you’ve been doing it practically every day for 45 years. You do it without thinking about it. But not doing that anymore forces Carol to think about it now. She tells me even her dog, Dani, is disturbed by the disruption in the shape of their lives. She routinely took the dog out via the back door before she left for work in the morning – she did this for every dog she’s had because that door was on her way to the garage. She’d let Dani back in, head for her car, and leave.
But Carol doesn’t have to go anywhere now, so she tried calling Dani to the front door for her morning toilette. Poor dog. She looked up at Carol as if to say, “What are we doing here? I don’t know this door.”
It’s going to take time. Change always does. But once we all get our minds around the altered circumstances, demands, and pleasures of our new lives, I think we’re going to get a lot more accomplished. Tomorrow.
Tomorrow, after all, is another day.
If not, we might have to go back to work.