I was offered a job teaching kindergarten two mornings a week in the little village of Hammett, Idaho. I considered taking the job even though I’ve spent my career teaching older students, adults and teens. It was a thrill. It was a challenge. It was a nightmare. No, not a nightmare—it was a dream. My head nestled deep in a pillow, I’d dreamt about the Hammett job offer. It wasn’t real. I know some people still dream about their jobs, their careers, long past retirement: waiting on tables, writing reports in an office, dealing with co-workers. My farmer-husband woke up one morning this past summer and when I asked him over coffee how he’d slept, he said, “I worked all night.”
“No you didn’t,” I took a sip of my hot coffee. “You snored all night.”
“That wasn’t a snore. That was me grunting, trying to keep up with the farm (bailing hay, moving irrigation pipe, fixing the tractor). There was too much pressure. I had to wake up just to get some rest.”
Even though leaving our work identities behind after retirement can be both freeing and frightening, our careers, our work leaves marks on our psyche as deep and wide as Big Foot’s tracks on the forest floor.
This is why retirement for many people is such a dramatic sea change. It’s not just changing our behaviors, it’s changing how we think. In light of such a big transition, some of us choose to hang on to our jobs. I hiked with a friend in the foothills north of Boise, Idaho the other day, and she told me her brother, at 76, plans to keep his career as a communications professor at Portland State University, as long as he can. Sitting on a restaurant patio last week, I ran into another old friend, Fred, who’s been a practicing mental health therapist for at least thirty years. Fred told me he’d probably work until the day he dies. And like the great therapist he is, Fred didn’t want to talk about himself, he wanted to talk about me.
“So Diana,” he said, “I hear you’re doing a lot of writing these days…”
My husband and I have another friend, Bob, who has a decidedly different take on retirement. Bob said, “It takes guts to retire.” He went on to talk about the courage it took for him to sit with feelings of boredom and aimlessness—a perspective I found interesting. Some people say they’re busier than ever in retirement.
Still, Bob had a point. Retirement is often a process: binge-watching Netflix shows until you feel ready to move on to something else.
Ironically now, I remember what a drag having a job was when I was a teenager in the 60’s and 70’s. Maynard G. Krebs, the deadbeat beatnik on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis show expressed the sentiment of me and my peers on the topic of work. Whenever Maynard heard the word, “work,” he repeated it with a shout, like he had Tourettes and work was a dirty word. Then there’s the Civil War era poet, Walt Whitman, for whom having a job was—a distraction. Whitman’s family lamented his “laziness,” but Whitman didn’t want regular employment with its “usual rewards.” He preferred instead, to wander the beaches of Long Island and create great masterpieces of poetry like his collection, Leaves of Grass.
For many years, my job meant a lot to me. I liked the routine, the money, and the title: Dr. Hooley.
But when I retired, the veneer of self-importance fell away, and I was left with just me. Not the professor, or coach, or director, or committee member. Just me. And for most of us, that’s not such a bad thing. Retirement means we finally have the time to consider what we want to do, instead of what we have to do. And honestly, being a kindergarten teacher in Hammett, Idaho was never high on my list.