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Illustration by Erick M. Ramos

Later, much later, I realized it had been that day in the country that made the difference. My friend, Erika, had needed some grunt labour to help with the new siding she was putting up on the house and I had the time – on a Wednesday in early October – to provide that help.

Now that I was no longer working, I had all the time in the world. I just didn’t know how to manage it.

Contrary to what everyone had told me, I was not enjoying the early days of my retirement from college teaching. I felt unmoored. I found it exhausting to have so much time on my hands with nothing specific to do, no expectations to meet, no boss to report to.

I was driving my partner crazy and I was feeling confused by my lacklustre response to my new-found freedom. What had I done by leaving my career voluntarily at age 61? I had been a communications professional, a freelance writer and editor, and, finally, a college instructor. All good titles to have and easy to throw out in response to that mother of all questions, “What do you do?” – so often shorthand for “How important are you?”

But who was I these days? No longer a professional and yet not ready to embrace the “retiree” label, either: I don’t golf. I don’t yearn to travel. I don’t have grandchildren. Maybe the classic retirement profile of family and leisure activities doesn’t fit everyone, but it sure didn’t fit me.

In my unsettled state, all I could see ahead of me was decades of time without purpose, without anyone needing me as a valuable contributor and I did not like it. I didn’t want to fill my days with chores and I didn’t want to drift through time contemplating my navel. Even more than needing something to do, I needed to figure out who I was in this new stage of my life. Despite the Freedom 55 veneer of retirement promoted by the investment industry, I had some serious work to do figuring out how to be and who to be in this new stage of life. If I did not embrace “retiree,” then who was I?

I was unprepared for how psychologically and emotionally difficult it was to no longer be receiving a paycheque. To no longer be actually earning money in return for providing a service someone deemed valuable in monetary terms. For me, this was among the most challenging changes I found myself dealing with. While I have always known that I am not the money I earn, earning money for my knowledge and skills had been a fat thread in the tapestry of my identity for more than four decades, so why wouldn’t it be challenging to lose it? It seemed reasonable to me, but I found little if any conversation about it in the public discourse on retirement.

That day in the country was beautiful with early-fall warm sunshine and hard work, but that day made clear to me that I didn’t want to fill my time volunteering, no matter how fun or worthy. Shlepping boards and painting boards and generally being the go-fer girl for my highly skilled friend helped me see that this post-career life is a whole different animal than the 9-to-5 routine of my former work life. While the point is to have the time, finally have the time, to do what is pleasurable on my own timetable rather than squeezing it into weekends and precious holidays, the point is also to own that time and harness its potential for my own priorities. But what were my priorities these days?

I needed to retrain myself, to establish a routine that felt good to me, that did not rely on someone else’s agenda, and that would help me discern my own priorities and purpose. This meant finding a happy medium between being busy (a state I abhor) and being without purpose (a state I equally abhor). Eventually, I created a collage in the form of a six-piece puzzle, each piece a reminder of what I could do to embrace time rather than resent it: Be creative. Do a chore. Do some desk work. Make a decent meal. Be active. Have fun. It worked. After a while, I no longer needed the puzzle pieces to shape my days. I had found my new rhythm, and out of that new rhythm, I wove a new identity.

I knew I didn’t want to identify myself as “former” anything: Hello, I am a retired college instructor. I wanted to be something recognizable and “retiree” wasn’t going to cut it. I had loved teaching and was now delivering writing courses through a community classroom attached to our local independent bookstore, so I now identify myself as a community educator. I went so far as to make a prototype business card (not that anyone asked me for such an old-fashioned identifier). I printed it out and pinned it above my desk. This visual reminder helps solidify my resolve and my new sense of self. It’s taken a full year of post-career living for me to come even this close to understanding my new self and to be confident to name it.

We each have one life but many stories to live. My formal career was one story; the work I am now doing is another. Retirement is not the end but a new beginning. While I no longer regret leaving my career, I do regret one thing: That day in the country. I should have skinny dipped in the river. It would have been the perfect baptism for the new me that was evolving.

Amanda Le Rougetel lives in Winnipeg.

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