The curtain is about to drop on my 40-year journalism career and I’m practicing my curtsey before the standing ovation. Ever the nervous understudy, I’m searching for tips to make a graceful exit. A week away from my last day on the job, I need advice on how to cope with temporary insanity—while recovering from a broken right arm so I can get through the finale with aplomb.
Buried under a litter of books by my bedside, I fish out “How to Retire Happy” and leaf through it—again. There are sections on money, healthcare and real estate matters, practical advice. But, the author asks pre-retirees to consider this question first: “Am I really ready to retire?” There’s not a word about staying calm through the last day or the wisdom of continuously whispering the “Serenity Prayer” to stay balanced, which seems like a gyp since it’s a 12-Step book.
But, honestly, I haven’t seen a self-help guide yet that talks about how to respond to my adult son greeting me at the front door yesterday, a week before I quit my job, with news he has brought home a ginormous Doberman pinscher. The owner no longer wants it because of barking and biting issues. My son says the dog‘s a perfect companion for a confused pre-retiree like me, one prone to tears and toppling over at 3 a.m. and breaking her arm. I ask about the pony saddle.
With no help from the experts, no cunning strategies for handling the bump and grind of saying goodbye to one life, one identity, and hello to a new self, I’ll just put my boxes of dusty office ephemera, and the orchid from Christine, in my car, and pull out of the company garage one last time. The particulars of my last days on the job have me feeling like a frog stuffed in a blender after I hit “frappe.” In other words, I’m feeling fractured and churned. Let’s just say grace and peace have never been on my smoothie menu.
On Monday, my last Monday after 17 years as a staff writer, I will turn in 4 stories, work on a magazine feature, write a procedural memo on how to produce the magazine’s book section and respond to a dump load of emails. I told my boss I wanted to work up to the end, not shuffle papers or get the bum’s rush out the door. He took me at my word, unfortunately.
A wise friend who has shepherded many a creative type down the path to their next gig responds to my inquiry: “How do people actually retire. I mean gracefully walk out the door?” Her answer? Depends. Some keep the decision to themselves and just slip away. Some are gleeful and want to celebrate, others are sad to leave friends and work they love and can barely conceal their depression. I translate this to mean—no party, big party or sprinkle sesame seeds in my mouth and set me on fire. In my ambivalence, I haven’t decided what feels right.
I’ve been asked menu preferences for my goodbye luncheon, settling on a healthy combo of enchiladas and shrimp burritos, hold the salad. I’ve heard shrimp has fewer calories than steak so I’m good on that score. And, I’m told there will be cakes, one delectably made of sponge cake, lemon curd filing and frosted with whipped cream. The other cakes are currently of unknown delight, but I will be there to sample and smile, praying I don’t bust a seam in my worn-work slacks.
Cards and congratulatory emails, invitations to dinner and ice cream socials are pouring in. I’m being asked endlessly about what I’ll be doing in retirement, besides writing. Those who know me even slightly know I’m a writer, an occupation as fixed in me as gender. I explain about my novel’s narrative that won’t budge, my languishing short story collection and the poems that need spit polish. Oh, did I mention the essay collection?
Back at home this week, the phone has been ringing. Like sharks circling blood in the water off Stinson Beach, home improvement predators smell the meat and have been calling about free or nearly free ways to fix the roof, fences, outdoor sprinkler system, air conditioning, attic insulation and clogged drains. I ask about a severe yard clean up and, with smiling telephone voice, they tell me they just happen to have a discount offer on that, too.
A writer friend helpfully recalls meeting the author and anthropologist Carlos Castañeda years ago. She said he gave her several pieces of advice, including if she wanted her life to keep opening to wider horizons, she had to approach the world with love, instead of fear. Castañeda has also been credited with this advice: Before you embark on any path ask the question: Does this path have a heart? If the answer is no, and you will know if it’s true, then you must choose another path. The trouble is nobody asks the question, he said.
I’m reading literary journalist Janet Malcolm’s essay collection, “Forty-one False Starts,” while contemplating my last days before retirement. I’m pretty sure there’s some pointy-headed guy out there in a tweed jacket with elbow patches and dandruff on the shoulders who would recommend I approach the final day with deep breathing, hydration and Metamucil to get through the worst of it. Makes sense, but lacks a certain Zen glow.
In Malcolm’s title essay “Forty-one False Starts,” she writes in crots—long and short bursts—to create a mosaic of her interview subject—American painter, printmaker and stage designer David Salle. At the end of the article, Salle remarks, “Has this ever happened to you? Have you ever thought that your real life hasn’t begun yet?”
I can’t speak for Malcolm, but my answer is: Yes. My new life is supposed to begin very, very soon. It’s crunch time, the shift from old to new is on. I’m looking forward to creating a happy retirement in years to come. I just don’t know exactly how at the moment. And, to answer the first question: Yes. I’m ready to retire, to open myself with love, instead of fear, and follow my heart path, to let my real life truly begin. I don’t see any other way to survive.
I was told there would be cake. No one mentioned gifts and flowers, wine and love. If retirement is anything like the launch party, it’s going to be fun! Here are some snaps from the party.
Photos by Dave Kranz, Manager Communications/News, California Farm Bureau Federation.