The Clock at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris
Do you remember when you were a kid and the year between Christmases and birthdays seemed to stretch on forever? Or when a thirteen-week semester seemed so long you might forget the things you learned in the first three weeks by the time finals came around?
Time is very much a matter of perception. When you're 10, the next birthday is 1 in 10, but when you're 60, it's 1 in 60, and that turns out to be huge difference in how we perceive the time between birthdays. A child's life is also much less complicated, with home, school, and friends circling around in their heads competing for space. By the time you're an adult, you have a family, a job, friends, leisure activities and concerns about what is happening in the world whirling around in your mind, so there isn't nearly as much time to anticipate things like birthday presents. And really, after 40, who wants to keep counting?
It's hard to get your mind around the idea of retirement. There's the not working part which is fairly straightforward, but then there's spending money that you have spent your adult life thinking of as untouchable. To make that shift you have to begin to embrace the idea that your life is limited. On the one hand, we know that someday we will die. Yet the impossibility of knowing for sure when allows us to think of it in some hazy future place. The retirement planners tell us to plan to have enough money to get to 100. This sounds appealing because it seems like it's such a long way off so you can just go back into denial. It also means your money has to stretch a long way...oops, here comes the anxiety.
My grandparents were born in 1901 and 1906, so they were young adults during the Roaring Twenties, and struggled for survival during the Great Depression. Grandpa was a pharmacist and they owned two Rexall drugstores for many years. They were very frugal and managed to save a comfortable amount of money over the years. When they sold the drugstores and retired, my mother convinced them to take a trip to Hawaii. They arrived at the resort, and within 24 hours, checked out and found a run-down motel in a working class neighborhood. They spent two weeks eating in the same coffee shop for all of their meals, and making friends with the people who worked and ate there. My mother was aghast, but they proclaimed it a successful vacation. They could never be persuaded to take another vacation, though. Their later years were spent essentially paralyzed by two competing narratives: they were about to die and they would outlive their money. When they died, over a decade later, they left a large inheritance for my mother. They were never able to enjoy the money they had worked so hard for.
Now that we have reached retirement age, I have a much better understanding of what it was like for my grandparents. There is something disorienting about not having a paycheck and beginning to draw down on the retirement accounts. It feels a little like jumping off a cliff and not knowing if you will hit solid ground or just keep on falling. Of course, this is why we saved, but it still feels wrong somehow to begin spending the money. I suspect that most everyone goes through this during the transition from work to retirement. And I also suspect that some people continue working because they find it too scary to take the leap.
Time is a very complex phenomenon. When I was working, my life was tightly scheduled to allow me to fulfill all of my obligations. Over the years I developed a highly structured routine that worked well for me. Since I retired, almost four years ago now, I have definitely slowed my pace. One of the greatest luxuries for me is not having a rigid schedule. For over thirty years I saw patients every hour with perhaps five minute breaks. When I had breaks I had to return phone calls, or do paper work, leaving me no option of thinking about myself. Now each day I think about what I want to do that day and decide which of them I feel like doing. Sometimes I defer things from day to day, and I've actually gotten comfortable with that because eventually everything gets done. Before I wouldn't give myself a choice, because there was such limited time to do things. Now it's all about choice, and not feeling obligated to adhere to a schedule. Spontaneity feels like a real gift.