I don’t watch much TV but at the odd times I see it in doctor’s offices or hospital rooms, there’s an assumption that we Americans all have the same lifestyle: rushed off our ass, working long hours with plenty of money to spend on whatever-the-advertisements-are-selling. Gym membership. New jeans. Hair dye. Stocks and bonds. Shiny vehicles.
Implied (by its absence) is that any other lifestyle is abnormal, unacceptable, weird. Maybe even un-American. Yet, more and more people are ditching careers, busyness, extra vehicles, stress, discretionary income and even their bricks-and-mortar house for the “simple” life. YouTube is bursting with videos showing how to turn a van or schoolbus into a fully-equipped home with kitchen, bathroom and yes, even a washing machine. And every one of those tiny home owners who live on almost nothing have a copy of Walden in their frayed thrift-store jean’s back pocket as they strum a guitar by the campfire and croon a tune they wrote themselves.
But no one talks about the retired workaholic I described in Part 1 of this article, with his perfectly kitted-out tiny-home-on-wheels biting his fingernails on the fringe of the campfire because it’s just feels so wrong. He must be missing something, neglecting something, forgetting something. A life lived properly should not include this much free time! He literally can’t sit still because, well, Good, Responsible Adult people don’t live like this! His lifelong dream of retirement on the open road has come, but unexpectedly, it’s a nightmare.
That may be you. It certainly is me. Heck! I remember listening to a narcissist sneer at my grandfather behind his back for relaxing and enjoying himself in his well-earned retirement. Those kinds of lessons stick. Lessons that come in the form of little ditties. There was one at my Baptist school: “Only one life will soon be past. Only what’s done for God will last.” It literally ruins every moment of every day that isn’t spent in Bible-reading, praying or proselytizing. (It’s also not in the Bible!)
Or maybe, we’ve got the wrong end of the stick. I remember the first time I learned that busyness equates with “having a life.” Her name was Rachel and she was a Junior while I was a sophomore. One day in the locker room, I heard her respond to a friend’s gripe, “I don’t have a life!” with “Ugh, I’m so busy I don’t have a life.” Hmmmmm. I wasn’t busy at all. Not at all. Home. School. That was the extent of my life so apparently, I didn’t have a life either.
It wasn’t until my first real job that I was busy. Finally busy!
Busy = Having a Life
Busy = Being Somebody
Busy = Responsible Adult
Busy = Good Person
Busy = Self-Esteem
Retirement = Oh shit! Losing all of the above.
This is only exacerbated by all those stories from the fiction known as The Good Ol’ Days. You know the kind. You’re trying to relax from a hectic, exhausting day at the office and an old-timer drones on, “People nowadays are so lazy. When I was a kid, I had to walk five miles through knee-deep snow to school, uphill both ways!” (Not helpful!!)
Yes, we’ve definitely got the wrong end of the stick. Think about it. From the time you were out of diapers, your day consisted of leaving your lovely home, donning uncomfortable “good clothes” and going out. Out there. School or work, you were working for someone else eight or more hours per day. Coming home, exhausted, and trying to pack all your personal living into a few precious hours in the evenings and weekends is tough. Whether it’s school, college or work, we’ve all been taught that the 9-to-5 is the only way to live and we have the debt to prove it.
Hello! Something is wrong with this picture. That’s not gainful employment. That’s a kind of slavery. The old song goes, “I owe my soul to the company store” and it’s still true today. Dolly Parton was absolutely right when she sang…
No matter what they call it
And you spend your life
Putting money in his wallet
Oh, what a way to make a livin’
Barely gettin’ by
It’s all takin’ and no givin’
From the time we fill in worksheet after worksheet in elementary school, we’re being trained to be workhorses. And if we workhorses choose to kick over the traces and live small, live cheap, live free…we feel somehow wrong — especially if we’re a workaholic.
I know how to work. I don’t know how to be happily retired. That wasn’t part of my education.
I know how to please my boss. I don’t know how to live a happy life where every moment of every day belongs to me.
I know how to make money. I don’t know how to enjoy time that is not traded for dollars and cents.
I know how to make my family proud. I don’t know how to live where I’m not doing anything to impress anyone. Nothing I produce now is Kitchen Refrigerator Magnet worthy.
I’m just living and it feels really weird. Even stranger is how much energy it takes to be happily retired.
At a job, you can count on your boss, his/her boss and all their bosses to keep you so busy that you’ve no time to think. They drive you.
After retirement, that’s all on you, baby. If you want to get something done, you have to drive yourself. The fear, anger, adrenalin and sugar-highs of the office are gone. It’s down to you and your raw work ethic. (That’s when I discovered I was hypothyroid. When all the fake stimulis went away…I discovered I didn’t have any energy after all, but it took years to discover hypothyroidism and even longer to accept medication for it. )
In retirement, there’s plenty of time to think with no office chatter to interrupt. You’ve time to wax philosophical and ponder the deeper things in life. That’s not always a good thing, especially when there aren’t any clear answers about The Meaning of Life. (I trust God knows because I certainly don’t!)
But even though retirement is initially uncomfortable for the recently retired workaholic, it’s right. Our time, our lives are ours. We don’t owe them to The Company Store. We’re not somehow lazy or irresponsible for leaving the hurly-burly of the 9-to-5 for a trailer and an Adirondack. Those who want your money (and a lot of it) want you to think so but it’s not true.
When my husband was on walkabout as a young man trying to outrun the pain of his upbringing, he found himself, sick and footsore, in Louisiana. A kind family took him in and nursed him back to health. They were so poor, they couldn’t pay their water bill but they worked hard and made enough money each day to buy bread and hamburger. Most importantly, they were a strong family unit and they were happy. They welcomed Michael into their family like a long-lost son, treating him better than his family had ever treated him.
There were many families just like them in the Deep South. They lived in tar paper shacks and made delicious biscuits in a Dutch oven each morning. They may’ve lived in poverty, but they were happy, friendly and hospital to the “Yankee,” as they called Michael.
He tells me they were incredibly relaxed and healthy people, living well into their 90s and 100s because they embraced retirement. Oh, they toiled a little, spun a little, but the almighty buck didn’t rule them. They weren’t trying to prove anything by being busy-busy-busy or trying to have a big, beautiful house and the latest car. They simply enjoyed their lives and Michael never forgot the lessons he learned down there. He credits his own longevity in the face of very poor health to Staying Calm. And coffee.
Maybe Thoreau was right after all — all that stuff about “living deliberately.” But I wish he’d added a footnote for workaholics. Something to the effect: “Living Deliberately will feel like crap for the first few years. No, you’re not a lazy slob. It takes time to learn how to live. Stick with it. You’re valuable just walking around in your stocking feet. You don’t have to producing or impressing. Just live.“