Painting in my Vermont backyard, sometime in the early 1990s (photo by Jonathan Sa'adah)
Unlike many people whose working life has been in institutions or businesses, I've always worked for myself, or in partnership with my husband, which is pretty much the same thing. My career has been in graphic design, communications, and publishing, first in print and then on the web, for a long list of corporations, institutions and non-profit organizations. It was challenging, demanding, and well-paid; now, that part of my life is pretty much over. I still have a publishing business, which is also challenging and demanding, and not well paid at all. In addition to the design, editing, illustrating and marketing for the publishing business, I sell some artwork or do a design job from time to time, and I write words and make music, both of which sometimes feel more difficult than the work for which I was paid during the past forty years.
Because of these lifelong interests, I can't imagine "retiring" in the traditional sense, and hope I won't have to. But the transition is significant when moving from paid work to unpaid work; from externally-imposed deadlines to those I impose on myself; and from clearly defined goals to work that may never be "used" or even seen, other than maybe sharing it with a small online audience. I have greater freedom now to decide what to do with my time, how to structure my days, and to what purpose. Although the concept of that much freedom once seemed like paradise, in actuality I haven't found this change particularly easy, though it's getting better. What's helped is trying to become more clear and intentional about what really matters to me, and who I am now.
A lot of my sense of self has always been about accomplishing something or learning something, but for many years the primary expression of that was through being responsible to other people and to organizations with which I've been involved, and meeting their expectations. My writing and artwork, reading and music, including taking piano and voice lessons, were "on the side," though it was crucial for me to keep doing them to whatever extent I could; sometime I felt like I was living two lives at once, plus being a wife, daughter, friend. I'm obviously happier if I'm busy; less happy when I feel aimless or scattered, and fortunate to have been pretty self-motivated and self-disciplined since childhood. What I'm revisiting now is the question "Why, and for Whom?" because the answer to that has shifted, both because of the big arc of life-changes, and because of much faster-moving shifts in the way we share creative work online and in real life.
How do we find a balance in later life, when we are no longer "needed" or even "wanted" in the same ways, or when we can't (or don't want to) keep up the same pace? I don't think the answer lies in becoming more self-centered, although we may have to adapt to being more alone, but actually in being more discriminating and focused about our choices. I want to help others, to be a mentor and friend, to teach, share, and give, and, equally, to learn from younger people, to stay engaged and in touch. I don't have children or grandchildren, so having contact with younger people requires an intentional effort.
But part of being a mentor is actually to be more and more ourselves: to keep doing our work, and living our truest lives. From the older people I've admired and learned from in my own life, it's clear to me that one can continually learn and grow, even with limitations that come with age or infirmity. And for that, one needs the freedom to concentrate, to experiment, to explore -- and also to do nothing, because out of that "no-thing" often comes clarity, peace, and genuine contentment in spite of the chaos of the world at large. That means saying "no" more often, both to myself and others, without guilt. It means not wasting time reading books I don't really want to read, or absorbing negative energy from other people, or losing hours on social media. I want to shed everything material that feels burdensome and unnecessary, and to travel these next years as lightly as possible, but still with focus and purpose.
This period of life is about acceptance of reality, and setting new priorities. Work-for-pay is less central. So is the striving to "be somebody" -- and thank God for that. Time opens up a little -- there are more uncommitted hours in each day -- and yet, the total is finite; the hourglass is starting to run out. Is that a tragedy? Only if we give up, abandon the search, step off the path, or decide we've already arrived. I need to remind myself sometimes, because it's impossible not to get discouraged or tired, but I do know the answer, at least for myself.
Who are we meant to be, in the end? So many people never seem to find an answer to that question. The answer for me is that we are meant to discover our true nature, which some might say "lies in God" or, to put it differently, in our interconnection with, and love for, all life. Discovering myself has always been an inner journey, through creativity, thinking, and being in nature, with the companionship of my beloved partner and a few close friends; for others, it is a different path. However, if we don't find our way into that primary relationship with our own true self by later midlife, we may remain mired in superficiality and materialism and what others think of us, as well as worrying about losing what we think we deserve or have hoarded up. Worse, our most constant companions will be fears, regrets, clinging, and bitterness. Take a look at the difference between the current First Family, and Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter at age 92; could anything be more obvious?