Retirement Isn’t About Losing Identity

Posted by on Apr 13, 2016 in Articles, Uncategorized

It’s a chance to create a ‘second act.’

When my friend Lowry was 87 years old, she happened past a neighborhood travel agency in Glendale, California, a city where she’d lived for more than 20 years. She noticed a young man standing in front of the window, peering in. He looked to her like a man who was burning to go in and buy a ticket to a faraway place, but something was stopping him. The fleeting moment was so profound for her that she took it as a sign to make a change in her life.

Lowry, a grandmother who taught business for nearly six decades, packed her world atlas and her old typing manuals, and began a chapter in travel adventure that included a Greyhound bus trip across the United States, and celebrating her 88th birthday in Bangkok.

At the time, I was in my 20s, deeply involved in the world of work, not thinking at all about getting older, retiring, or what I might like to do in my second act. Lowry’s adventures registered most for me because she was a friend of my family, and was using my parents’ house as home base at the same time I was there, getting ready to fly the coop.

Lowry lived to be 98. Now that I am 64 and in my first year of retirement after a career as an English teacher, I miss her. I wish Lowry were still around so I could talk to her about getting older, about adventure, about identity after work, and about how we approach this next phase of our lives.

Many people consider retirement to be a blissful payoff for a lifetime of hard work. Without the confines of a job, you wake up happy each day to an empty calendar, infinite choices and no work stress, the thinking goes. I am not unappreciative of the free time before me. Yet as much as I enjoy making my own schedule each day, it occurs to me that there’s actually a formula for doing retirement right if you want a successful second act like Lowry.

I believe it goes something like this: Retirees who seem to have no trouble going from working to not working did not identify themselves mostly by what they did for a living. Even if they did call themselves accountants or physicists, they no doubt also relied on other self-definitions. Next, either add to your circle of friends or re-educate those you have about your new endeavors. You have to spend time with people who identify you in this new way. It’s easier to let go of an old identity and craft a new one if you have relationships with people that match what you envision for yourself.

For me, I always saw myself as more than a teacher, but it still feels odd to go from being one thing to not being that thing at all. I am replacing it with both travel and exploring my youthful dream of becoming a writer.

To ease my transition, I enrolled in a writing grad program while I was still working to get myself ready for the shift. But I’m still struggling with seeing myself in an entirely new light.

When I was talking to a fellow retiree recently, she asked why I couldn’t just call myself a writer. It’s a logical question, but one that makes me think of buying a trendy hat or pair of shoes you’ve been coveting and then feeling foolish when you wear them. Everyone else could think they look great, but you just haven’t quite gotten there yet, haven’t grasped that sense that you are a person who would wear them. After a week or two, if you’re brave and you keep wearing that fedora, you realize you are that person now; it’s in your playbook, part of who you are.

That’s how I feel in my retirement. I’m building and rebuilding, letting go of some old concepts about myself (that I’m not a risk-taker) and taking on some new ones (being a risk-taker). I dreamed of being a writer when I was in my early 20s, but opted instead for the seemingly less risk-taking task of teaching writing to college students.  I know now that the step back to that dream is larger than it looks. Although it’s essential that we claim who we are and who we want to be, there’s more to the transition than changing our answers when someone asks us what we do for a living.

For one thing, you have to do the thing you want to do. A woman I used to work with started out as a painter, attending art school when she was young. She eventually gravitated to a profession that was more secure and lucrative but now, in retirement, she paints every day. If she were still sitting on the couch dreaming about the intensity or hue of a particular acrylic that someday she might put onto a canvas, I imagine she would struggle to call herself a painter.  Although it wasn’t part of my goal when I enrolled in my MFA program, I understood the value of being seen as a writer and not as a community college English professor. That helped me to be a writer when I was with there.

Another part of the formula is letting go. When you celebrate your last day on the job and you’ve packed your gold watch, you have to close the door to that world. You can have lunch with your former co-workers, but you have to expand your social circle. You must spend time with people who hike if you’re going to be a hiker and you have to let go of being central to your old circle. If you’ve worked someplace for 20 or 30 years, this is easier said than done. This is the world you’ve known and, like it or not, you have to be done with it to a certain degree if your plan is to move to a new one.

Lowry loved to tell stories about her years as a teacher, but the tales were more for entertainment than holding on to that vision of her self. She definitely became a traveler and a student of the world and she saw the value of having a whole new crew of friends who perceived her that way.

I’ve dreamed of a life as a writer, with open time, an opportunity to create, and outlets in which to do it. But, I can’t keep standing outside this life and looking in at it like that young man at the travel agency. I need to come in, pull up a chair and make myself at home with this new iteration of me. It’s a little scary, but there’s a thrill at the idea of exploring life on a schedule I created rather than one that ensures I’d get to work on time.

And who knows – maybe I’ll end up in Bangkok when I turn 88.