This post is for all you golden oldies out there at the point of retirement or over the edge and into the territory already, like I am and have been for the past three years. Can it really be three years already? Jeez, how time flies when you’re trying to figure out what you want to be when you grow up 🙂 Anyhoo, here we are in the year of our Lord 2018 at the beginning of summer, if you’re where I came from, or the start of the rainy season if you’re where I am now. My purpose in this post is to put forward thoughts that have been milling about in my mind these past few weeks about what the process of entering retirement was like for me and the challenges I face now as I engage the process of figuring out what to do with myself over the next several years. It’s an active process, to be quite sure, I’m permanently outside the box and have to come up with the plan myself. Falling back on the well-worn patterns culture offers me will go nowhere, fast. I’m not at all the type to buy a condo in Florida and spend my days swatting golf balls about before the evening’s bingo gets underway. I’d rather be comatose than play bingo. Not that there’s all that much difference between the two states, really, but still, being entirely unconscious while that ugglesome business transpires is the only way to go, IMHO. No, we’re way out on a limb here, Bridget, there’s no help for it, we have to use our heads and put on that thinking cap. So let’s get busy.
Mind you, I’m not being proscriptive here. You want cultural patterns to fall into like an old easy chair? Go for it. More power to you. Get that Florida condo and those golf clubs and have a blast with the bingo — and don’t cheat! In my case, however, the gods have blessed me with such a robust individuality that as soon as I get near a cultural box I get the heeby-jeebies and start looking for an escape route. It’s extravagantly inconvenient, if the truth be told. It’s vastly easier just to plop yourself through life from one cultural box to another so you don’t have to figure out the infrastructure thing. It’s standard practice, after all, just look around you. How many people you see are busy about the business of creating a life pattern from whole cloth? Only a few weirdos like … well, never mind. Let’s just say doing the cultural box thing is as common as the grass is green.
I did my job well as a working stiff and put money aside, etc. etc., but when the calendar finally punched the retirement button I found myself in the embarrassing situation of being all dressed up with nowhere to go. Hadn’t a clue what direction to take, really, since I was used to having my whereabouts and my daily routine defined by my job — and of course this went on for long years on end. Then all of a sudden the bird found itself outside the cage. Where to go? What to do?
Money being that crassest of bottom lines that it is, most of us find our retirement decisions influenced by financial considerations. The next biggest factor appears to be family connections, in my observation. But if you’re single, used to living a modest lifestyle materially and have been socking it away for a number of years, then the world becomes much more your oyster than if you have six kids to put through college and are still paying off that damned mortgage. Such circumstances as mine hardly evoke Joplin’s “freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose” — precisely the opposite, in point of fact. One finds oneself possessed of the means to create something different from what existed in the past, but that creation depends upon the self acting creatively to transform the means available into a new kind of life. There’s the rub.
I’ll confess outright that it took me months just to get a sense of myself apart from my former career. Old habits die hard, they say, and there’s truth to that statement, even if those habits caused one to long for their end well before the working life stopped. We have no choice, unless released from the obligation by financial independence, but to put ourselves inside the work box. Gotta get that cash, after all, and money doesn’t grow on trees. But once the work box goes bye-bye, you have the choice of stepping inside another box, as I mentioned above, or winging it. Since boxes and I have never got on well, winging it is the only option for me until I finally bite the Big One and it all becomes beside the point.
One of the critical elements in all this folderol is the matter of identity. At this juncture in my life, I tend to regard identity as dangerously box-like, as well, since it becomes attached to all manner of external things that really have nothing to do with the inward dimensions of a person. In a manner of speaking, my work became part of my identity, it defined me professionally and socially and gave me a sense of myself in the world that lasted for a very long time. But it disappeared the day after my last day on the job. No more was I an X who did Y, in a particular place on the Planet because I was doing Y as an X, I was now …. well, I didn’t have a ready answer. About the best I could do was say, “I’m a human being.” No great trick to that, is there. Almost all of us can manage that one without too much difficulty. But of course more had to come, since there’s still a show and it must go on.
Since that initial period of adjustment after the point of retirement I’ve come to realize that my sense of identity remains largely in free-float compared to the years when I was a career professional. I’ve refused to buttonhole myself with another box label simply for the sake of convenience or psychological security. I’m not “a golfer.” I don’t live for deep-sea fishing. My identity is not defined by volunteer work for disadvantaged youth as a basketball coach for after-school programs. (Like that would ever happen LMAO) So identity for me becomes now more about a state of consciousness than about a social category or a particular activity. I can do all sorts of things — cook, play music, write stuff, do organizational analysis, translate literature from one language to another — but none of those things seems to me a defining element of my identity, they’re all accoutrements I’ve gathered up over the course of my lifetime. My career went out the window and I stood there still, intact as myself, albeit in a somewhat stunned state. If any of the accoutrements mentioned should also suddenly go the way of all flesh, there I would still stand, intact as whatever and whoever I really am. Being differs from doing — that’s the thing, you see. Let’s be clear on that point.
So in my contemplations about the future after becoming a retiree I decided eventually that the most sensible thing was to have Being in the driver’s seat instead Doing. Sounds simple enough, don’t you think? Time to give the internal a fair shake after long years of the external calling all the shots. That strategy requires one, however, to know what one’s beingness is and in what ways it natively expresses itself. As luck would have it, I studied philosophy in my youth so I had some tools at the ready. I know my ontology as well as the guy next door, so why not give it a shot? Don’t worry, I’m not going to go all weirdo Frenchy on you and start quoting Alain Badiou or the Big Gun himself, Jean-Paul Sartre, whose tome Being and Nothingness is enough to give even me hemorrhoids from the strain of trying to figure out what he’s on about. Nor will I approach even by mention the works of Heidegger, which act IMHO like intellectual anti-gravity boots that send you rocketing out into the empty space between the galaxies in such a trajectory that you can be sure you’ll never bump into baryonic matter for the rest of eternity. Fear not, we are scaling no heights here or doing any interstellar flights of fancy, we’re getting down to brass tacks.
But — surprise, surprise — that’s easier said than done. Because you know what? The biggest thing that came up for me was: if I don’t have to do things by dint of necessity, I have to decide what is important enough to do. And here I discovered to my horror that over the span of some 40 years I had become little better than a slave, my mentality was that of chattel, hardly capable of imagining alternatives in the Big Picture, at pains to come up myself with something completely different from what had gone before. It’s all very well to decide whether or not you do your grocery shopping on a Tuesday or a Wednesday, but deciding what you are and what you will become before you die is a bit more complicated, trust me on that one, Bridget. And for forty-odd years I had somebody telling me who I was and what I was going to become: my employer and the texture of working life with its inescapable daily rhythms and its way of making most of your time not your own. The bits and bobs of life left after the workday were small potatoes compared to the years spent inside the cubicle. So the first question I faced was the hardest, not the easiest: who are you and who will you become before you achieve the grave?
Lord amighty, where’s that Shakespeare when you need him? Out traipsing about with some Bankside trollop no doubt — we’ve all heard the stories, have we not? — instead of writing down things that serve those in need of an ontological shot in the arm. No point in going farther back, you’ll just get preached at. No point in going too much forward, you’ll end up with some wacko spouting natural law or foaming at the mouth about the contrat social or some such nonsense. So, back to the drawing board. We are thrown back on our own devices, Bridget, that’s as plain as the nose on your face. So much for cultural legacy. Talk big and not deliver, that’s what we’re looking at here. Harummph.
Let’s scan the globe, then. We must go further afield in our search for the ontological assistance we require. And off we go, whoosh, all the way to … Asia. Hmm, let’s see what the Buddhist tradition has to contribute to the proceedings. If we pare away all the later add-ons and just stick to the basics, we can focus on the idea of mindfulness centered in the present moment — vipassana, if you want to be fancy and use the Pali word for it. I’d go for the Big Wow and use the Sanskrit term but then there’s all those pesky diacritics to deal with, so let’s keep life simple, shall we? The perception of beingness is part and parcel of the path to Enlightenment, so let’s take a few cues from our Buddhist pals and see where they get us.
The practice of mindfulness in this case is not turned toward reality with a capital R, it’s turned toward the self. A Buddhist might argue that they’re one and the same at the end of the day, but I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Westerner and individuality as one experiences it in the course of a normal lifetime outside a vihara seems to me cargo too heavy to toss into oblivion in quite so cavalier a manner. So one turns one’s mindfulness to the self and adopts that stance of observing without judgment, without interference. What is the self, and what directions spring natively from it? Those things are the legitimate objects of our inquiry.
Obviously the answer will be different for every person — there’s that individuality bugbear again. For me the practice of mindfulness of self led me to the awareness that there’s precious little going on in the world that I really give a fig about at this stage of my life. Shocked? Appalled? Do you find me one of those disengaged woowoo types content with contemplating my navel? Not a bit of it. It’s a matter of the hopeless bifurcation of the individual and the collective, which we’ve never managed to sort out (see my blog post on the subject if you are a glutton for punishment) and the fact that the individual gets left high and dry in the middle of that muddle. Mindfulness of the self in my retired state, facing the wide world and the final act of my own individual play, brought me face to face with the truth that when all the external necessities are removed — in my case all those things forced on me for years by the working world — the things that really matter to me are in the domain of consciousness, not in the domain of action. They were always there, from the get go. I got busy doing what I did as a career professional because I had to make a living. You can’t earn a living by being mindful of your own consciousness. At least I’ve never seen that in any of the position descriptions handed to me before the interview.
As I observed my self from that stance of mindfulness, however, I realized that it does have strands of consciousness leading out into the world. One of them leads to the natural world, where the mindfulness directed toward self can also be directed to the environment to excellent effect to expand the sense of self in a fully real way, since physically we are bound up with our natural environment in a very intimate way. There’s also the process of getting consciousness fitted into words, a devilish business that brings involvement with the ideas to a fever pitch in the attempt to make the words reflect something of the internal integrity and clarity of the non-verbal thought that spawns them. If I had the stamina for it, that in itself could be a full-time job, but I’m a lazy bugger and after a couple hours I just wanna watch stuff on YouTube 🙂
A second important awareness I gained from the mindfulness project is the notion of self as a process rather than a thing. This would be the perfect place to launch into a long side-spiel about Georg Lukacs and reification and all the horrors it produces in modern civilization, but we don’t want to drag down the high tone we’ve struck, do we, so I’ll stifle myself. (Lucky you.) In physics terms, the self is a wave, not a particle. No need to drag into the discussion Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, let’s not complicate matters, okey dokey? So, the self is like a wave in mid-ocean, ever moving and without a destination in any particular direction on any horizon. Its motive energy comes from itself, and it’s carried forward by its placement in the medium of its existence. Does that mean you just sit back, eat M&Ms and watch TV all day? Not necessarily, unless that’s what your wave is all about. If it is, carry on. Things could be worse — you could be playing bingo 🙂
As I’ve moved into the propagation of my own wave action over the past year particularly, I see that I’m finally becoming comfortable with the notion of having no particular destination to serve as the compass point for my activity. I don’t have to navigate anywhere in particular because there’s no land on the horizon to steer toward, it’s all just open ocean as far as the eye can see. I can change my direction 360 degrees and it matters not a whit in the Big Picture. This allows the moment to become a much better rudder than at first might seem to be the case, although in saying that I hasten to add that I have NOT become one of those flakes who shows up late for lunch dates without calling etc. etc. Perish the thought. One has been brought up properly and has one’s standards, thank you very much. But if you ask me at this point what I want to be doing five years from now my answer would likely be, “Breathing.” Beyond that, it’s all good. I’ll figure something out. Given the remarkable vicissitudes I saw occur in my life when everything supposedly was planned to a T, I expect even more surprises while I’m surfing The Wave. Beingness is infinitely potential, so who knows what might emerge as time marches on.
The trick, I think, is to hold focus on the ontology and just drop the teleology, an idea which runs counter to everything we Westerners (especially we Americans — OMG just chill will ya?) are trained to think of as the right approach to life. You don’t come across hot dog investment bankers being mindful of the self and allowing their actions to flow from that awareness LOL. But hey, it’s perfectly fine for retired old farts like me. Nobody gives a rip what I do now, anyway, since it doesn’t make anybody any money. I’ve become economically superfluous and therein lies my salvation. If you haven’t yet become superfluous yourself, eat your heart out 🙂
In the matter of activity it’s back to literature, and this time we have a hit: Baudelaire. I’ve become a flaneur. (Yes, I know, there should be a circumflex over the a, talk to WordPress about technological ethnocentricity, don’t gripe at me, thank you very much. Just use your imagination 🙂 ) And whoda thunkit, there’s even a Wikipedia article on the item (here), so you see I’m not just talking through my hat. I cannot resist a quote, it’s too yummy:
In the 1860s, in the midst of the rebuilding of Paris under Napoleon III and the Baron Haussmann, Charles Baudelaire presented a memorable portrait of the flâneur as the artist-poet of the modern metropolis:
The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world—impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito. The lover of life makes the whole world his family, just like the lover of the fair sex who builds up his family from all the beautiful women that he has ever found, or that are or are not—to be found; or the lover of pictures who lives in a magical society of dreams painted on canvas. Thus the lover of universal life enters into the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy. Or we might liken him to a mirror as vast as the crowd itself; or to a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding to each one of its movements and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life.— Charles Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life”, (New York: Da Capo Press, 1964). Orig. published in Le Figaro, in 1863.
Drawing on Fournel, and on his analysis of the poetry of Baudelaire, Walter Benjamin described the flâneur as the essential figure of the modern urban spectator, an amateur detective and investigator of the city. More than this, his flâneur was a sign of the alienation of the city and of capitalism. For Benjamin, the flâneur met his demise with the triumph of consumer capitalism.
A bit over the top, true, but in a pinch it will do. What a perfect job for an old fart like me. Not only does it accomplish in a rather highfalutin way the business of doing nothing in particular, it’s completely retro, since consumer capitalism knocked it out of the ring long ago. But I confess I’m still a bit off the mark, because when I go out and about I always pay far more attention to the flowers I see than to the crowds. Oops … That notwithstanding, it’s a good way to describe the free-float I mentioned earlier. One observes, one notices, one remembers. And in the activity arena, there are pleasures to be had in the course of daily life that one hardly has time to appreciate when pressed on all sides by working life. I have the entire afternoon to make the perfect marinara if I get the notion. I can fuss and adjust and taste test until the cows come home, I’m not throwing it together in 20 minutes after getting home from work so I can get dinner done and get the laundry going and answer those emails I need to deal with before bedtime. Flaneur inside the house as well as outside, enjoying the course of the day and filling it with pleasant things. The lifestyle has everything to recommend it. And since I don’t have a cook or a housekeeper, somebody better get their butt into the kitchen or it will be off to Burger King, and we certainly don’t want that now, do we. Perish the thought. What would happen to one’s trim girlish figure??
So life is perfectly fine outside the box. It goes on in ways I hadn’t expected, and there are more surprises coming round the next bend in the road, I have no doubt. The mindfulness thing has been a great help, so let’s give a big round of applause to dear old Buddha, he pinch hitted like a champ when that lowlife Shakespeare let us down. Even without him we’ve come out smelling like a rose (which I’m sure won’t be the case with Shakespeare, given the company he keeps). So let The Wave take me where it will, every destination is my oyster on the high and open seas. Onward!