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When I told my family physician I would be retiring, he told me it would most likely take me up to two years to adjust to this rite of passage. Really? How much adjustment would it take to lead a charmed life of leisure? To stay up late and get out of bed whenever I felt like it; I had always been a night owl. To read the newspaper at a snail’s pace after breakfast; never to be rushed again, with only time enough to scan the headlines at the end of a busy day. To take long soaks in the tub each morning instead of my 30-year habit of two-minute showers. To stop rushing on weekdays or suffering through weekends jam-packed with errands and chores I did not have time to do during the week. It sounded like pure bliss to me. I was looking forward to enjoying every second of what appeared to be a very pleasurable stage in life and anticipated no adjustment period whatsoever.
I couldn’t have been further off the mark. After just a few weeks of retirement, anxiety slowly started creeping into my day. It was pleasant to be able to read the newspaper from front to back, which helped kill time, but what else could I do for the other seven hours, when nothing else was planned? The vastness of time spread out in front of me on the horizon like an ominous-looking black lake on a moonless night.
It was only after I signed up for classes and other activities that I discovered I had no aptitude for anything. My attempts at painting were abysmal. I painted dreadful abstract after dreadful abstract. I really tried but discovered even abstract is a bit more difficult to do than one might think. I became discouraged by my lack of talent and the fact that I couldn’t even master a paint-splattered Jackson Pollock knock-off if I tried.
My attempts at writing were no better. I took a course in creative writing at a local community college but started to dread attending when the students were asked to read samples of their work. I was nowhere near as good as they were and, since I was quickly becoming demoralized, I gradually missed the odd class and then dropped out altogether. I even wrote a good-sized novel in my spare time, but no one wanted to read past the first few chapters. And these critics were my best friends! I also approached several publishers but never heard back.
I was starting to dread retirement as even more dissatisfaction set in.
I did not miss work, since I had cooled on my career in my later years as a social worker, but I did miss the camaraderie with my peers a great deal. So, I became a social animal going out for far more coffee klatches and two-hour lunches with friends and ex-colleagues than I could afford on my reduced income. As time passed, it became boring and purposeless to do this several times a week anyway.
Then, I hit the gym and ended up hurting myself as I tried to pump too much iron too fast. When had I become so impatient? Was I always like this?
I should have counted myself lucky while I still had my health, but then my body started betraying me, even though I still felt relatively youthful inside. At first, there was the depression, which can occur in retirement. Then came a major operation and an autoimmune disease to boot. I always thought I would work, then retire and eventually die many years later at an advanced age like both my parents. I never expected to have, potentially, 20 years of poor health wedged in there somewhere. This was the hardest thing to accept and by now I was really miserable.
This realization forced me to take stock of my life and – most importantly – slow down. I joined a mindfulness class and tried living in the “here and now,” not always fretting about the future or agonizing over the past. This helped with the depression somewhat and it started to lift; albeit slowly.
I then began concentrating on the things I did do well and enjoyed doing. I could read more and spend more time researching and preparing plant-based meals, which became a new interest. Walking down to Granville Island to buy fresh ingredients proved to be a satisfying pastime, as did going for picnic lunches on the beaches of Vancouver.
I went back to the gym and, with the help of a personal trainer, I was able to exercise without hurting myself. I walked more and took fitness classes in the community pool. My health slowly began to improve with this saner, slower approach. I also exercised my brain each day with word games and Sudoku. It wasn’t an exciting life, but a quiet, stress-free one that made me feel content. And for the first time in a while, I felt that my days were full.
Finally, I started to count my blessings in life. And I eventually took up painting again studying colour, texture and composition, with much better results. I accepted myself and my limitations. I would never be the next Picasso, but I could certainly die trying.
Louise Dwerryhouse lives in Vancouver.