Aah, Retirement…Wait…What?

Almost a year ago to the day I was faced with a new normal…my job of 29 years had been cut in half. Time that is, not the tasks. When my boss sat me down and told me the grim news, I thought it was the worst day ever.  I loved being a school librarian. I had spent a lot of time, brain power, and sweat to build up my library and it was truly a part of me. The students – current and past – were my kids and held a piece of my heart. Spoiler alert – they still do. To be summarily dismissed as expendable (and I wasn’t even wearing a red shirt that day), and feeling very much devalued, I felt lost and more than a little heart sick. I prepared to leave for the summer break with a heavy heart and an overwrought mind. I purged the clutter of 29 years before I left and took all my belongings with me. Not because I truly thought I would not return, but rather, when I returned, it would involve carving out a new vision for my altered reality and I wanted to literally start from scratch.  Over the summer months I had time to calm my brain, let go of the year that was, and evaluate. Making the decision to leave was difficult, but I made it.  After 29 years it is called retirement rather than simply quitting. Unplanned, unprepared, freaking out, retirement. It looked nothing like the financial planning ads on TV or the brochures of early retirement freedom. It felt like the act of a desperate woman. Moments after the resignation it felt like the best day ever. I was shocked at my response – I was prepared to grieve. Instead I felt like I just given myself a gift. And I still feel that way, every single day. I did not look back, I was too busy looking forward.
When I left my job, I would quip, “now to decide what I want to do when I grow up!”. I wasn’t joking. I wasn’t yet 65 and although I did have retirement savings, I knew I wasn’t done. I felt the world was now laid out for me not unlike after graduation, only now wise enough to grasp what that really meant. The original dream…travel, travel, travel…seemed outdated and archaic even as I took my last pay check. Realistically it was a dream imposed upon me by years of media conditioning. Friends shared fabulous trips on social media and I really thought that I would follow blithely in their footsteps. While I had entire summers, and other school breaks, my husband only ever had a few weeks vacation each year. Our holidays were planned accordingly. Some years not at all. So while I was working it was difficult to imagine 52 weeks a year of time off and, well, it became readily apparent that there was going to be a lot of weeks left over even after planning vacations. Cuddling cats can only take up so much of a day, although the cats would argue differently as they now saw my lap and my newly expanded time at home as a permanent nap station. I garden…but here in Northern Alberta…that covered three months – tops. The first retired winter revealed that cleaning and decluttering wasn’t as high on my list as I had hoped, I was not about to write the great Canadian novel, nor had I managed to pick up or finish any one of the myriad craft projects that I had begun over the busy work years, or diminished the pile of fabric awaiting my hand at quilting, not that I had really ever quilted before. That meant a long Netflix winter. Nope, that wasn’t going to happen another year. At the rate I found myself googling and scrolling Facebook, it was clear I would finish the internet before I even reached retirement age.
After retirement, I decided to try and market my photography – both on-line and at Farmer’s Markets and craft fairs. I learned how to set up this blog and a website, and a Facebook page.   Farmer’s markets were so much fun and having the interaction with people and the ability to share my passion for the night sky felt good in my heart. I  reached out to the school in my neighbourhood and started volunteering – assisting in a pre-K classroom two mornings a week –  playing with 3 year olds was just plain fun. I helped out in the library, and then was added to the casual list and managed to sub for a few days now and again. I volunteered with the local arts society and began readying props for a big show. I was helping another organization plan a folktales festival. In short order I wondered how I ever found the time to work. And then Covid struck.
With the schools closed and the arts shut down, all my volunteering gigs ground to a halt. And today, I am grateful for that. I started my retirement by getting busy. I was well on my way to becoming a human doing again instead of a human being.  I found gaps in my day abhorrent. I did not take the time to get to know myself and learn what I truly wanted. I had thrown myself at retirement projects with the zeal of the newly baptized but finished not a one.  Covid forced me stop (not slow down – full stop) and take stock. When I was honest with myself, I realized that even with just volunteering in a school, I once again found myself counting the days until June and that the schools closing was something of a relief.  Perhaps it had simply been the case  of embracing the all too familiar.  Photography was, and is, my hobby and my passion. That hadn’t changed. Farmer’s Markets were closed and with zero online sales after almost a year I had to look at evaluating where I planned to go with this. Farmer’s Markets provided me with an outlet for my creativity and was a wonderful social experience, but the reality is that most weeks I do not make back the table rent. Thankfully the human interaction and sharing pays much more, if not lucrative, dividends.  With the world shut down, being at home was not a choice, it was an edict. In the early days of the pandemic, even venturing out for essentials brought anxiety levels to their peak. Days were long and my brain became weary and my body lethargic. I read a lot of books, but concentration was lacking. I tried to understand online marketing but the words in the book would not stick. With the world at my fingertips to learn anything I could possibly want to learn, the only thing I seemed to learn was from the Tiger King and Carole Baskins that I was far from being a crazy cat lady.
On the deck one morning, enjoying a quiet coffee contemplation, I knew one thing for certain. When the world was back open for business, I needed something to get myself out of the house on a regular basis…something that wasn’t in a school, something that did not involve books or the supervision of children. Something that was concrete and not just voluntary. Voluntary means choice and I needed something that implied less choice. I needed a raison d’être. The world was beginning to re-open…slowly. The market was starting up and I found myself looking forward to reconnecting with fellow vendors and familiar faces who came to browse. I knew that part of my life was a keeper.  It occurred to me to look at the local want ads. And there, glowing with promise, was someone seeking an assistant in a photography studio. It seemed like destiny calling. Should I? Could I? Did I really want to rejoin the work force? Seriously? Was I mad? Had I, in fact, ingested too much tiger drama and was somehow impaired? 
I was reminded of Monty Python’s “and now for something completely different”. I sent an email detailing my interest in the job and what I could offer, based on the criteria outlined in the ad. No resume…just a note.  My resume would be short, 29 years at the same workplace and my vast knowledge of the Dewey Decimal System would not be required in any situation involving photography and regular office routines. Just matching my skills with  the criteria was cathartic – laying out in writing what I had to offer. I quickly hit send and let it go. If nothing else I had cemented in my mind that I had value and whether or not this particular employer wanted what I had to offer did not matter. A year after being told I no longer held value, I was ready to stake a claim that I did. I had my first job interview in 30 years. I felt confident and self-assured…a far cry from my last interview. I enjoyed every minute, I felt comfortable in the new surrounding and there was a vibe that I was already embracing. During the 20 minute drive to the interview  I wondered about re-entering the work force and consoled myself that I would not have to actually accept the job if offered. Driving home, I knew that I would be disappointed if I was not. Happily, I was offered the job the next day, Thursday, and would start on the Monday. 
What a difference a day makes. I woke up smiling the next morning. I felt a sense of purpose. Waking up was a lot more than just opening my eyes. I had not really seen the rut I was in. And I was in pretty deep. I would catch myself smiling throughout the day. I headed out to purchase some new clothes like a school-kid in August. Apparently clothes shrink when left in the closet during a pandemic – who knew? I already had my first post pandemic hair cut booked for the morning of my first day at work, which worked out just fine because my work day starts at noon. There is not much I can’t fit into that schedule. It affords me plenty of time to stay up late with my aurora paparazzi gig and still get enough sleep before my work day starts. After 29 years in the field of education, I felt like I had finally joined the adult world.
I had often thought about people who went back to work after retirement or people that worked well into their golden years and figured it was because of poor planning and lack of saving. It had to be because in my mind who would want to work past when they had to? Now the shoe is on the other foot and my thought is who would want to work to retirement in a job that has lost its lustre and that doesn’t bring you passion?  What if retirement simply gives you a chance to try things you never thought of? What if returning to work doesn’t signal failure after all, but rather a new beginning? To boldly go… 
It’s been a few weeks now and I’m hooked. I am grateful for the opportunity afforded this older woman as society often overlooks our wisdom and skills (and our ability to distance ourselves from our cell phones). There is a resident dog in the office who greets me at the door every morning (which makes my animal loving heart so happy).  We once showed up to work wearing matching shirts which might be the basis of another blog or a therapy session…or quite possibly both. 
Starting again after retirement might not be right for everyone but it feels right for me. I’m not looking at another 30 year career, but I am looking at the possibility of rewarding days in the weeks and months to come just as a sunset signals the promise of a new day…

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