Gaining Altitude Excerpt

“RETIRE??? Are you kidding? Why would I want to do that? I love my job!” I sputtered.

My retired friend Susan was visiting from out of town. She and I were having lunch at our favorite haunt—Bread and Chocolate on Connecticut Avenue—on a wet summer Wednesday afternoon in 2010. 

The previous year, Susan—a fellow therapist who had been talking about retiring for a long time—finally did it. After thirty-five years of practicing as a psychotherapist, she decided it was time to find out what else she could do with her life. Over many months, she said goodbye to her clients, sold her office furniture, and finally closed the door of her practice. And then, much to my surprise, she announced that she and her husband were moving to Maine and leaving behind their old lives completely.

She told me about her new life in Maine, her new pursuits, the difference of having so much open time, her excitement over the changes, and what it felt like to be so free. And then she suggested it was time for me to think about retiring.

Hence my sputtering retort  “Retire??? Are you kidding?” And I went on… “What would I do with myself?”

 “It isn’t that I haven’t struggled with all the unstructured time,” she said as she stabbed at the leftover leaves of lettuce on her plate. “It just takes getting used to, and, once you do, there is finally time to do stuff you’ve never had time to do or never imagined doing.”

I thought about this. What would it be like to have more time? Idly stirring my by-this-time cold coffee, I began to complain. “You are right that there never seems enough time, outside of work, to do stuff I want to do—like exercising or reading the newspaper or a good book. I never remember birthdays, and it’s hard to find the time to plan a trip to someplace far away. I don’t even visit my kids as often as I’d like.” I stopped listing all the things I might do if I found the time. It was too depressing.

Her eyebrows knitted together as she fixed me with a serious look. She tapped the table with a knife. “You should be thinking about retiring now! It’s time. There’s so much more to life once you get done doing what you have always done.”

She sat up straighter and gestured with her fork, her speech accelerating with enthusiasm. “Look at me! Look at all that’s changed since I retired. I have a dog. I do yoga every day. I’m a lot more patient. I’m interested in stuff I haven’t paid attention to in years. I’m learning more about classical music and how to change the oil in my car. I’m taking a class in proprioceptive writing—I didn’t even know what that was before this! And I think I’m much more interesting, at least to myself.” Breathless, she finished with a flourish of the fork for emphasis. “You really should try new stuff. It’s great! But you have to retire first.”

I could feel sweat bead on my forehead as my stomach lurched. I’m happy in my work life, I reassured myself. Why would I retire? For the last thirty years, I had loved being a psychotherapist—helping people sort through the challenges and problems life threw at them. I had always been up for work-related discussion, seeking out new approaches, training groups, and new referrals. I was still healthy, and, freed up now that my kids had fledged, I could spend more time at work rather than less. This was my chance to enjoy what years of experience can give you—that sense of accomplishment and ease in knowing what you are doing.

Furthermore, I thought to myself, how can I stay in Washington D.C. and be retired? To people in this city, what you do for work is everything. Being retired in Washington meant being identity-less and is not looked on as a happy, viable place to be. To be without a job, no matter how old you were, meant something terrible had happened. Susan had moved to Maine and didn’t have to explain herself and what she was doing with her time the way I would have to in this work-obsessed, career-oriented city. The idea of giving up my hard-won professional life and identity didn’t seem like even a remote possibility. Not a chance!

The very thought gave me the heebie-jeebies.

“I’m not ready to do that.” I squirmed in my seat. “That would mean I would be designated  ‘over the hill,’ done with, relegated to the sidelines.” I waved my hand across the table as if to ward off the bad juju associated with the idea of retiring. “And, even if I did want to quit being a therapist, I haven’t got a clue what else I would do if I gave up my job. I need to know what I’d do next before I make any changes.”

She paused and looked at the middle distance beyond our table as if she were seeing into the future. Then, her gaze swiveled back at me.

“You are much more ready than you think.”

I raised my chin and sat up straighter. “No, I’m not.”

I was firm, decisive, sure.

“You’ll see.”

She knew me well.

And she was right. I just didn’t want to admit it to anyone yet, including myself.