Technically, I’m still working a little bit, but I’m finally starting to feel retired. And it mostly feels…weird.
I started working in the fall of 1980. I was fifteen, and I got a job at our public library as a page. (It might be the best job I ever had.) The only time I haven’t worked regularly since then was about 4 months in late 1983/early 1984, my first terms in college–when I lived off money I’d saved from my high school job. I did get 6 or so months off when I was on medical and parental leave to have my kids, but even then, I still had a job (which occupied prime mental real estate) and I picked up some freelance editing work.
For 42 (whaaaat?!?) nearly-continuous years, I’ve been exchanging hours of my life for money, and it now feels so damn strange to just…exist. I’m still laboring every day, but I’m usually not getting paid for it by some outside entity, which means that my time belongs to me in ways it never has before, not even when I was a child. I have more freedom and independence than I had then. The thoughts/feelings this has been raising are…unsettling.
Yes, that’s the word. I do not feel very settled lately.
Maybe that’s why I haven’t had many words to share here. The few I have (such as these) I’ve forced out, hoping that the words will beget more words. That I will find my groove, or get it back. It often works that way, especially after a pause, but that’s not been happening. So many things are not working the way I am used to them working.
I am not complaining. I am also not celebrating or savoring or cherishing or regretting or wanting or wishing. I am not feeling any kind of judgement about this state–that it is good, bad, or otherwise. I suppose I am simply being and observing: Life (both internal and external) feels foreign, some place I’ve never before been. Can one be an ex-pat in their own life?
Perhaps I am just detoxing, still. I don’t expect this floaty state to last forever. (Everything passes. That’s one thing I’ve learned.) But this is where I am right now.
A few weeks ago, I had a weekend visit with a cousin I hadn’t seen more than a few times in the last three decades. Despite our 10-year age difference, she is someone I felt close to when very young. For a few years as she transitioned into adulthood, she lived in the town our parents grew up in, where our grandparents still lived, and we knew each other in the ways you can know someone you see often. She painted my nails with polish from her extensive collection and gave me ice cream cones during her shifts at Baskin Robbins (the coolest job ever, even better than my Grandma’s job at the Sears candy counter). When she was living with our grandparents, she let me sleep in her bed with her when I came to visit, and as we talked late into the night she shared stories about her own childhood, which was different from mine in important and eye-opening ways. She was pretty and kind and treated me like a real person, not just a kid. I adored her. (I still do.)
After she married in her later 20s, she moved to another state; it was years–decades?–before I realized she wasn’t moving back. It was even longer before I realized what that would mean for us, and what my own move to another state would mean for my relationships with everyone in my family. For the longest time her move and mine felt temporary to me, like something we were just doing for awhile until we returned to our real life with the family we’d been part of growing up. I didn’t understand that we were each already living our real lives, that we were living them right now, every day, and that each day we lived apart was taking us further away from the time and place where we were young and our grandparents and aunts and uncles were alive and we were all part of each others’ lives in ways that would become impossible to recreate or relive even before the generations ahead of ours began dying.
As she and I sat talking at her kitchen table in the state she moved to more than 40 years ago, sharing stories about our lives past and present, she suddenly interrupted herself: “Where have the years gone?” she asked, and the question wasn’t rhetorical or musing. It was real. It was a genuine wondering, full of bewilderment.
“I don’t know,” I said, and we were both quiet for a moment. I thought about how, in my own 20s, I understood neither what I was exchanging nor what I would (and wouldn’t) get for it. And now, so much (but not all, not all) of what once might have been can now be nothing more than what was. We’ve had the marriages and children and careers we’re going to have, and she missed much of mine and I missed much of hers. Still, she is as important to me now as she ever was, and in my two days with her time was malleable and stretchy and I floated between past and present in ways that are perhaps only possible when the present isn’t so insistent on being our most important reality.
My days are quiet enough for me to see such things clearly now, and perhaps what I am feeling most is curious.
For the first time in 42 years, I don’t have to exchange my life for money. What does that mean? What might it mean? What will I use my life for now, now that I have more choice than I’ve ever had?
I think before I can answer these questions, I need to come to greater understanding of and peace with the exchanges I made for so long they didn’t even feel like choices. (Maybe they weren’t?) I probably need to do some grieving. I for sure need to do some healing. Maybe then I can come to feel more grounded in what remains and in what remains to be seen.