Sydney M. Williams
Essays from Essex
“Retirement Ain’t All It’s Cracked Up To Be!”
October 6, 2016
Retirement is being tired twice, I’ve thought,
first tired of working, then tired of not.”
Richard Armour (1906-1989)
American poet and author
Three weeks will mark one year of retirement. It’s an odd sensation – not working – when you’ve been laboring for over fifty years. One day you have a place to go. The next you don’t. Easily, a quarter of one’s working life is spent on the job. That leaves a lot of hours to fill.
When young and prospects of retirement spun through one’s mind, they were of scenes of palm trees, white beaches and daiquiris, or they were of vistas of snow-peaked mountains, crystal-clear lakes and fine wines. In mind’s eye, one saw perfect villages, like Marie Antoinette’s Hameau de la Reine. We pictured ourselves hammock-bound in our own Arcadia, with grandchildren seen but not necessarily heard, a book and a beer within reach.
When young we had no idea of limits age imposes. We could not envision hips not working, or knees without the resilience of youth. Or the mind not functioning with the alacrity of yore. We never thought stairs could get steeper, or that the walk to the mail box would be longer. Pills, diet restrictions, glasses, incontinence and hearing aids – those were for the “old,” something that could not happen to us. We lived ignorant of the march of time. Now, trees we once planted have grown to full height, and the dog is our third, or is it the fourth? What happened to those beautiful, adoring children? They once looked up to me as the fount of all wisdom. Now they look down on my white head with what appears to be compassion.
We visit our children now and cannot understand why they are not as free as are we. We love seeing our grandchildren, but school, sports and iPhones occupy so much of their day. Where has time gone? I think of Harry Chapin, and those last lines from “Cat’s in the Cradle:”
“‘When you coming home, son?’
‘I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then, Dad.
We’re going to have a good time then.’”
Like paper towels, time unrolls slowly at first, then at ever increasing rates. When we were young, days were endless – and so were long nights. The roll of paper seemed barely to budge. But, as time marched relentlessly forward the paper came off more quickly and its size became visibly smaller. We now know the past is longer than the future. We find ourselves talking about the “new” generation, their music, noise and lack of respect for their elders. It is the circular pathway of life. We forget our own indiscretions – the complaints of our parents now come from our mouths. We yearn for past days when time moved slowly, unaware that it is us, not “youth,” that has changed. Like the dray horse that has been put out to pasture, after spending a lifetime of monotonous work, we dream of friskier, coltish days when anything seemed possible – and was.
Yet, in spite of all this. my “retirement” was easy, as for the past few working years I had spent most of my time writing, including essays that had little to do with the work of my firm. It was self-indulgent, and I was indulged by those with whom I worked. Nevertheless, it helped my transition. I spend my time much as I did before, but now working from home, and seeing more of my wife than at any time since we were married. It has strengthened my love, but my dependency has increased.
While each generation subscribes to the old Chinese adage that we live in the most interesting of times, what doesn’t change are characteristics and emotions that make man man – love, happiness, respect, euphoria, compassion, apathy, grief and their opposites, hate, anger, jealousy, depression, envy, passion and joy. It is why reading Dickens, Austen, Shakespeare, Tolstoy and the Bible are as relevant today as when they were written. In doing so, we learn more about ourselves – the past, present and future. Still, there are times when,
“I’d like to get away from the earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.”
The words of Robert Frost shimmer through my mind. But the poem brings me back to reality, in lines further along:
“earth’s the right place for love
. I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.”
The fact is I don’t want to live my life over. I consider myself fortunate. I was born at a fortunate time and have been happy with the life I have lived.
I am as busy as ever. When not writing, I am reading, traveling, visiting grandchildren, or going for a walk – an opportunity to think about what I am writing. Usually I bring with me a note pad and pen, stopping every now and then to jot down some word or some thought, knowing that my memory is not what it was. Because I mostly write about current events – politics, the economy, education, climate, global affairs – I like to stay current. And since the media is so biased, I find I must read four or five newspapers every day. But, since I would rather get my news from the papers than TV, I save gobs of time in the evening. I also enjoy reading history – at times thinking education is wasted on the young! – and I recognize the value of reading classics, because of the eternal truths they relate.
So, while retirement may not be all it’s cracked up to be, I have found the transition quite pleasant. But no one should expect retirement to live up to its hype. While advice is not part of my purpose (“Chacun a son gout,” as my mother-in-law used to say), keeping one’s self busy is the secret. I should not, and will not complain – at least not any more than I already have. I am happy. I have been lucky in love. Caroline and I are still together after fifty-two years, and we both have our health. The future will bring what it will. I get pleasure from the thought my genes will live on, as we have three children (all happily married) and ten grandchildren. God willing, I will be part of their lives as well.