Letting Go: the unbearable lightness of retirement

Joyce Wayne’s outlook on life after retirement and how not to plan it.

When I decided to retire four years ago at sixty-two, rather than at sixty-five, I turned into a nervous wreck, repeatedly questioning the wisdom of my decision. When you are lucky enough to have a full-time teaching gig at a college, leaving early can appear to be the height of recklessness. Staying on, as long as possible, means a bigger pension with each year adding about $100 a month to your yearly payout. Some professors remain into their seventies, particularly at universities where the teaching load is much lighter than at the community college level where I spent twenty-five years.

To those without a pension, all this must seem like entitlement and indeed, I must agree. In any case, I chose to leave the college and pursue my career as a writer rather than as a teacher, and it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

I was energetic enough to put my shoulder to the wheel and try hard to develop the commercial value of my writing. During the first year of retirement, I was kicking myself for resigning early and exiting the security of a bi-weekly pay cheque. But contrary to my early misgivings, during the last four years, it’s worked out. Partially luck and the patronage of one brilliant contractor, and partially good old-fashioned hard work and diligence.

Today I’m cruising the Mediterranean with my new husband, but the question of spending money on something as frivolous as a long cruise still nags at my more prudent self, that cautious self who refused to approve of taking early retirement.  Isn’t travel capricious, a luxury most of the world will never be able to enjoy? Wouldn’t the financial pundits back home in Canada advise against it?

Most likely, a financial advisor would look at my bank account and shake his or her head. At the same time, I’m beginning to learn to let go and navigate my own retirement journey.  If I’d listened to the deluge of advice in the business press, I’d still be teaching at the college, I probably would not have embarked on the adventure of a new marriage, or the cruise of a life time with my husband.

Without taking some risks, my retirement would be clouded with fear. Fear of running out of money, fear of not downsizing, fear of not finding writing gigs, fear of not having my novels published, and fear of traveling. Travel is expensive, it’s risky if you have any health concerns and it engenders a taste for more vacations in increasingly exotic locales.

When our cruise ship docked at Palma de Mallorca, a few days ago, I picked up a book by the French nineteenth century writer George Sand. She and Frederic Chopin spent the winter of 1938-1839 on the island, mostly in rented quarters in a Monastery high up in the mountains at a remote place called Valldemossa. In the book, Sand asks, “When you travel dear reader, why do you do it?”

Sand’s own reply is: “I travel for the sake of traveling. I well realize that travel is an end in itself; but still, what impels you to this costly, exhausting and sometimes dangerous pleasure that seems always strewn with innumerable disillusion?”

In this couple’s case, Chopin sought warmer, dryer weather than in France, in the hope that he would recover from the consumption that plagued him.

As for the novelist and essayist George Sand, she admits that “she set out to satisfy a need for a rest I so desperately needed. Since time is very short in this world that we have made for ourselves I believed that I should find some remote, quiet retreat where there would be no notes to write, no newspapers to read, no visitors to entertain; where I need never remove my dressing gown and the day would have only twelve hours…

“Who among us,” she continues, “has not at some time selfishly dreamed of forsaking his affairs, his habits, his acquaintances and even his friends, to settle in some enchanted island and live without worries, without responsibilities and above all, without newspapers.”

After reading Sand, it all came into focus for me. Why I had insisted on letting go, for a time, of my every day life and embarking on this long, lovely cruise.  Letting go, I believe is the ideal of a happy and enriching retirement. It was time for me, to worry less and enjoy more.

Things didn’t work out well for Sand and Chopin on the island of Mallorca. The November weather on the island turned wet and chilly and the islanders disliked the Bohemian couple, the opinionated writer and the consumptive composer and piano virtuoso. Chopin suffered terribly in the northern mountains of the island, without heat or a healthy diet to sustain him.

My concerns are much simpler, or so they seem. I must convince myself that life can’t be planned. Even Chopin and Sand got it wrong. There is so much we can’t control.  There is no insurance policy for happiness or good health or compatibility.

At least for today, I’m comfortable with some uncertainty and that probably means worrying less during retirement and spending more time enjoying life.

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