Figure Out What's Next

Six Months Into Retirement

retirement sylvia bereskin May 22, 2009
woman on bench

by Sylvia Bereskin

photo via pixabay 

Six months into retirement, a teacher and writer from Toronto takes stock of her new life

It’s now been six months since I retired, and so I think it’s a good time to do a bit of a review and assessment on how am I doing. Not the kind of assessment that ends up ranking me against others who’ve similarly retired. Oh no, not that at all. Just a bit of a review of what I thought would happen, what happened, and what I’m thinking should happen next. This is an opportunity to revisit some of the “lessons” I think I’m learning. Which are still useful? Which are being applied? What am I happy with? What am I struggling with? How to move forward?

First, a little recap on the past six months. November was pretty much great; I spent a lot of time at the Y and a lot of time getting ready to journey to Antarctica. December—also great: It was more time away from reality as we traveled in South America and the Antarctic. January—real life started setting in and things definitely got more difficult. By February I think the “honeymoon” was starting to end and the bright light was the arrival of Freida. In many ways, although there have been some high points, it’s just become more and more difficult since then.

Let me try going at this another way; piece by piece.


Normally this isn’t what I’d think about first but these days it’s hard to not be thrust into thinking “finance” far too much of the time. Bad for global blood pressure I’m sure! That said, this, for me, is mostly an easy one. I have a guaranteed income from my pension and that’s what I’m living on. The fact that there’s a financial crisis swirling all around me is actually making it easier to be “trimming costs” because I have lots of company in doing that. Not consuming is “in,” not being wasteful is “in”—it seems like I set it up just right to live on 40 percent less. That said, I’m also doing a number of keynote addresses, workshops and some private teaching/coaching to supplement my pension. I think I can somewhat safely (if anything related to money is safe these days) say that this isn’t a big area of concern for me.  Even factoring how this crisis is affecting David we’re fine, and so really I have little to fuss about on this front. Whew! I’m grateful. This has in the end been a great opportunity to put into practice what I identified in Lessons #1, #2 and #12: Let go of any need to control; it’s an illusion at best. No matter what the circumstances, I can choose how I want to respond, and the world is constantly changing around you. Know who you are and where you stand, be joyous in watching things reshape themselves and remember that they will reshape again and again.

Logistics & Time Management

Slowly moving this one along. Having endless numbers of hours to structure (or not) is much trickier than I’d thought.

How easy it is to get nothing done at all when you’re not in a rush. Sounds crazy for sure but somehow it was easier to get a lot done when I had a lot to get done. I’m working on different schedules (sleep late/get up early, write in the morning/write later in the day, exercise early/late/not at all).

I am doing pretty well at what my dear friend Peter (and also Jung) refers to as “holding the tension.” After all, this is my Lesson #10: Stay open. Don’t let the urgent overtake the important. You see, my natural response when there’s too much uncertainty in the air is to push things to a conclusion; it’s what I’ve always called “premature closure” if you catch my drift. I’m struggling here—but not too worried about it. The next months, trying and evaluating lots of different time-management approaches, will undoubtedly provide me with a new framework of comfort.

Identity Drift

Now it gets a little harder. “The identity of one changes with how one perceives reality,” says Vithu Jeyaloqanathan. From the day that feels like it was so long ago when I realized in an after-movie discussion group that I could talk about how I really saw things in education and not deliver a “party line” (whatever the party may be) I have been conscious of my perception of the world around me changing. Changing back. The filters through which I see the world are slowly returning to be those that I choose as filters, replacing ones that I’ve had to live with because of my professional role. Making these choices—clarifying my goals in a way—is one of the biggest challenges at six months in. Most important is that I’ve come to fully accept that the key, for me, is that I need to feel that I’m contributing to making the world a better place in some small way. Gives me a sense of living out a purpose and that’s important to me.

Stephen Covey was “de rigeur” when I was in graduate school; nary a course would be taught in any department without mention of his theories about how we organize our time. The basic premise was to imagine that a great big bowl is the container representing your total time. Start with a bucket full of stones (some large stones representing the things that require a lot of time and are very important, all the way down to small pebbles which represent all of the little chores of each day). If you start moving the stones from the bucket to your bowl (or you can see this as from your “to do” list to your calendar) in a willy-nilly manner, just placing things into your “bowl” as you notice them, then you’ll run out of bowl before all the stones are placed. But—and Covey would always demonstrate this in his workshops—if you start by thinking about the big important things you want to be doing—placing the really big stones first—it’s a different outcome. You make your decisions about what’s important with some real introspection, giving consideration to both short-term and long-term goals, and you put those big pieces—symbolized by big stones—into the bowl first. Then you start adding the smaller stones to fit around—but not conflict with—the big pieces. Once all your stones (things you need to do) are in the bowl you can still add quite a bit of water to it; this represents the fun things you can do in a free-floating, relaxed, non-demanding way. In a way, I guess I’m just finishing up determining what the big stones are for now, recognizing that this can, and will, change over time. For now, what are the main areas that I want to devote more time to?

David and I were talking last night and I was telling him that I think I’d like to be spending more quality time with my mother. Not just running errands with her or taking her to doctors but more stimulating and interesting time. I’m going to hunt about and see what ideas I can suggest and see if she has more ideas to put into the mix as well. Ours is not one of those mother/daughter relationships that was always very close; but over the past years we’ve grown closer and closer and she’s really become one of my very best friends. Her health a year ago didn’t look promising, but she’s doing so well now and I see it as a real gift—and honor—to be able to have more time to hang out and enjoy life with her. David and I both agreed that this is important and that it is time spent that has real value. Okay—there’s one rock in my bowl: more time with my mother, and actually with family overall. More hiking and exploring and star-gazing and wine-sipping and book-reading and dancing time with David. More  trips to the zoo with Motti for long walk/talks. More lunches with Molly. Time to teach Miri how to sew pleats and to hang out with Elly and Shira and David.  More time in Ottawa with Nili and her family. Time on the West Coast to see Josh and Solomon and Laura (Solomon’s mother). Time in California with my loving family there: Fran, Ed, Cheri, Alec, Yoni, Tari, Boots and Danny. More dinners and movies with cousins. In my rather complicated life there’s so much great opportunity for family connections; I’d really just like to be able to spend more time with everyone in my family that wants to spend time with me. More time with heart-family too—the friends who’ve been there and cared and enriched my life in so many ways. And more time with myself. I guess in practical terms that means it’s time for me to go out and buy that trailer for my kayak so that this summer I can paddle upriver whenever the moment is right. This is a good thing. This is spending time in good way. This too is contributing.  

I just need to figure out what percentage of my time will feel right—the my family and myself time—and I’ll do that by moving in this direction and noticing how I’m feeling. This is Lessons #4, #6 and #7 in action for sure: Try to do the things you love to do, take the time to treasure the things that have really enriched your life, and honor the importance of what you choose to do. I’m hoping that over the next few months I’ll be able to figure out what else should be filling my bowl that will say—when I back up a bit and look at my bowl as a whole—this is me, this is good.

Loneliness, Isolation and the Blues

When I imagined my life in retirement there’s no way I could have known that the context for that would be the worst financial crisis of my lifetime. That’s had levels of impact on pretty much everyone’s lives and one of the things it’s meant in our home—and in many homes—is that David is working much harder these days with less office support. I have been pretty much beginning and ending my days alone; I get a coffee and good morning from David before he heads to work around 6:30 a.m., and at night—once we’ve had dinner and he’s finished the work he’s brought home—well, by then he’s exhausted and ready for dreamland.

Seems that most days I’m mostly pretty much on my own as well. Now don’t get me wrong; I’m a bit of a loner anyhow. But this is starting to feel like too much time alone and not enough time for meaningful interaction with others. My new friends—so far—are mostly on TV; how pathetic is that! Even knowing that this is a temporary state, that a few months from now the seeds I’ve been planting will start to grow and life will seem different (I hope) . . . doesn’t make the heaviness in my soul any lighter I fear. I read this on the web: “Retirement means an adjustment in your mindset. After you retire, you may experience anxiety and depression. You suddenly have all this free time with no commitments—but does that make you happy, or anxious? Oddly enough, all our working years, we wish for freedom. We can’t wait to be wild, happy and free in retirement. Then comes the day we walk out the proverbial retirement door—and what do we DO with the rest of our life?” I was really delighted when I read the very next paragraph: “Recognize these anxious feelings are normal . . . suddenly, nothing is the same. But that’s OK as you transition into your New Self, the Retired Person who is HAPPY with a New Life!” This is definitely the stuff of Lesson #3: Acknowledge what makes you uncomfortable, then put it into the background and focus on what makes you happy. Do you see the darkness or the moonlight on the field? Or both? It’s all one. This one continues to be a struggle for me.

It’s always a good time to remember Lesson #11: Remember how easy it was as a child to make a new friend, and make as many as you can; they’ll enrich your life in amazing ways. The good weather has returned and it’s time to get out and about and among folks and with people—meaningfully—again.

Boredom—but not Really

Now this is a bit tricky. As Syd’s sister-in-law points out in Retirement: A Full Time Job: “Well, I guess it’s not boredom I’m really afraid of—it’s laziness.” She’s worried that without deadlines and the structure and demands of a job, she might just sit around all day and do nothing.” I will confess. Far too many days I’ve felt like I’ve done just that: nothing. I have played a gazillion (that’s a new number now, right?) games of Solitaire and Sudoku. I’ve done a lot of cleaning (not enough) and cooking (enough). But somehow I’m feeling uncomfortable, like I’m what they used to call “letting myself go,” which is evident on days I’m in PJs until mid-afternoon. I feel a bit squirmy sometimes like I’m just not contributing enough. David and I have been really enjoying watching 30 Rock episodes, and the one we most recently watched (Season 3, Episode 18: Jackie Jomp-Jomp; I tried to load it for you here but unfortunately all of the sites that seem to have it are blocked to folks living outside the United States) has Liz on a short-term suspension from her job and finding herself lost without the stress of her work. Watching Tina Fey navigate her way from the life of working woman to the life of a retired woman—well, I couldn’t possibly tell the story any more clearly than she does.  

This show presents me with what I am, in the end, most afraid of. The easy possibility of life become one indulgence after another, one long day seeking out activity after activity just to fill the time, trying to find meaning in nothing at all. Nothing at least that means anything/enough to me. This is the nightmare: It sometimes just flashes (Chuck style, if you watch that show; I told you my life was quite steeped in TV) and sometimes keeps me awake at night.

I definitely need to start building routines again, carefully and with lots of space on the schedule for dreaming. Which brings me to . . .

Making Decisions

I’m starting . . . but little by little and with care. Clearly when I have the freedom to choose what I’m doing at most times of the day there’s no excuse for being anything but at peace with my life. I’ve been trying out different things (like watching a lot of TV) and now it’s time to start making some choices about what I really want to be doing each day, remembering Lesson #8: Carefully choose what you want to leave behind and what you want to keep—based on passions and personal goals; make sure what’s kept is manageable.

Aging and Other Hard Realities

Yes. I am aging. That is hard. What more is there to say? I am grateful that so far I’m not dealing with anything life-threatening or tremendously life-limiting. I do forget more than I used to; but even so I think this is a good place to remember Lesson #9: As I think about, and make decisions, don’t forget to ask the critical question: “Does this matter? So it seems unlikely that I’ll ever run a 10-kilometer race again, but does that matter? I can still trek in the snows of Antarctica and the trails of the Rocky Mountains. I’m never going to be truly svelte again and I do have to accept that I’m shorter than I used to be; does it matter?  

In Summary

For years I had to work with a notion of assessment that always seemed to me to be quite lacking. It’s defined (at least in Ontario educational circles) as “the process of gathering information from a variety of sources that accurately reflect how well a student is achieving the curriculum expectations of a course. As part of assessment, teachers provide students with descriptive feedback that guides their efforts towards improvement.” So, rather than totally turn my back on this, let’s see if I can actually apply the process here. I have been gathering lots of information from a variety of sources (reading, observing, thinking, meditating, walking, dancing, dreaming, writing) for sure. The comments that you submit—your voices of experience and wisdom and good humor and kind encouragement—they provide feedback that helps me to hone my focus. That’s the process part.  

Then there’s the judgment part; the evaluation. Here’s where the quality of work is “judged on the basis of assigned criteria and then given a percentage grade that reflects the value assigned to the work”—all based, of course, on provincial criteria and achievement levels. Oh oh—no, no, no—not going to happen here. First, there are those assigned criteria that I think are worth shunning, as noted in my own initial lesson #5—there’s no quicker way to disappointment than having expectations; those expectations will get you every time. However, with the benefit of more thinking since I first drafted that lesson I’d like to update it: Lesson #5, version 2.0—there’s no quicker way to disappointment, in experience and result, than being tied to inflexible expectations; they’ll limit your experience and joy every time. I have been choosing, and hope to continue to choose, to let the criteria evolve as my understanding of this new part of my life deepens.

Critical for me, I think, is to avoid the result (in life as well as in education) of long lists of expectations that must be reached, which, I believe, is a kind of ossification (the process of becoming set and inflexible in behavior, attitudes and actions) worth avoiding as, to me, it’s synonymous with a kind of death.

So—with no judgment insinuated—I think I’m doing alright. Not great; this is harder than I’d thought. There are also many days of pure joy. It’s more confusing, and the redefinition of identity (or just the gradual transformation) is more daunting than I’d anticipated. I’m glad that I have this space to think out loud, and I’m so thankful for the support of your comments as I work my way through this.

Now . . . on to the second half of the first year of my retired life.


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