This is the first essay in a two-part series, "He Said/She Said: The Two Sides of Retirement." This is my husband's story. Next up, my side . . .
Retirement: Diving into Danger by Howard Leaman
“What are you doing with your time, now that you’ve retired?” That was the question the Ski School Director asked me during our pre-season ski instructor orientation. My answer to him was not even close to adequate, especially when I realized that many of my friends have been wondering that very thing for themselves. What I’ve been doing is not so much a “list,” as much as a continuing process of calibration.
Initially, thinking about going from a busy medical practice to “retired,” I'd developed a sense of impending dread. Would I become useless, cranky and senile? Would my health deteriorate? Would I “fail retirement,” and become depressed with nothing to do, and have to go back to work?
No— I’d prove my continued vitality.
Much to the chagrin of my poor wife Debbie, I dove into refinishing our kitchen cabinets—all 600 square feet of them. Beginning in mid-June, and continuing well past my retirement date at the end of July, heavy work focused my attention.
Being in the house together for extended periods of time raised all sorts of issues for Debbie and me. She worried that her husband, unanchored and drifting, would not bring new life, but drain the life out of the relationship and the work she had developed over years on her own. The kitchen-in-progress, next to her writing desk, was a constant reminder of this threat. In addition to entreaties to “get a life,” we needed to negotiate “alone time” and “quiet time” so she could write without distraction. Discussions over space and alone time have been consistent throughout the transition, and continue, although with less intensity and duration.
When the cabinets were almost completed, Debbie and I took a trip to Quebec where I discovered Poutine and when I returned home, began a project to create the perfect Poutine (for Vegans, low carb, Heart Healthy, traditional Canadian-Americans, and anyone else who could stand it.) After that, there were endless spy novels, and of course, getting in shape and geared up for the upcoming ski season.
By now, you might have surmised that my obsessional nature provided intense focus which helped me avoid that peculiar, unfamiliar sense of uncertainty, purposelessness, and distress of the liminal or “in-between” period of my evolving life.
Six months after retirement, things had changed. I started feeling better about it all. There were classes, book groups and deeper connections with friends than I had time for when I was working. My college-age self started to re-emerge, and I re-discovered my creative side. Finally, there was time to focus and think divergently, write, and delve more deeply into questions that had been bugging me. Connecting the dots outside the box, I was beginning to “get” how my mindfulness practice connected to my other parts—skiing, learning, teaching, and accident prevention (which had been part of my past medical specialty).
What about retirement has surprised me? First, I could not believe how smart Debbie, my wife of 25 years, had become in the first months of my transition away from work—where was I all those years? Second, I found it difficult to know how and where to re-engage once I had left work. Solving that problem seemed easy enough—I did everything. Totally absorbing activities (travel, kitchen cabinets, spy novels, classes, physical conditioning, ski practice and teaching) refocused my energy and attention, and allowed a buffer between my old work persona and the new self I was creating. Getting lost in the busy-ness posed a risk, however, that I’d miss the creative benefits of that liminal period of early retirement. Strangely, I noticed that after six months I was regaining my footing.
Like “diving into danger” when skiing, I had to learn to trust that the skis would follow as I moved down the hill, and it would be okay. That has not been easy. The calibration continues. As anxiety provoking as it has been, it seems that I needed that liminal period for self-reinvention. Trust in my innate self-worth is gradually being restored. Finally, now that I’m retired, and for no apparent reason, I will even catch myself smiling.
Howard Leaman, MD is a retired Sleep Medicine and Occupational Medicine physician, and a ski instructor at the Alf Engen Ski School at Alta, Utah.
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