I’ve been re-reading Joan Chittister’s wonderful book, The Gift of Years. I blazed through it quickly several months ago, picked out a few statements that seemed relevant, then quickly moved on. This time the book is touching me as though I’m personal friends with the author, and she is writing exclusively to me . I’ve highlighted so much of each page with my pink pen that basically the only words UN-highlighted are the “a’s, and’s, and the’s”.
The book is aimed at the “older” generation, and Chittister separates that group into three stages – the young old (65-74), the old old (75-84); and the oldest old (85 and older). I have to admit it’s been a long time since I’ve been called the “young” anything, so I was immediately uplifted to find myself still solidly in the young old group. The book focuses a lot on what we do with – and for – ourselves after retirement. I love this particular line: What am I when I am not what I used to do? Our society is so tied to who and what we are during our working years that it’s a big change when we are suddenly not working and can no longer identify ourselves by our careers.
Until recently I never gave that question much thought. As soon as Ted and I retired, we immediately jumped into buying a summer home on Mackinac Island and began to live two lives instead of one. For six months we were Georgians and enjoyed ri’vah life, and for six months we were summer residents of Mackinac. We filled our days in both places with volunteer work, meeting/dining/visiting with friends, exercise, and reading. We were retirees – very happy and busy ones.
Moving to Florida has been like retiring all over again – only this time I suddenly understand how many people feel when they first leave the work force. There’s a sense of “what next?” What do I do now? How do I define myself if I not only don’t have a career, but I’m also separated from everything and everyone I love in both Georgia and Michigan?
As Floridians, we find ourselves beginning to make progress. We have a beautiful house across the street from the Atlantic. We are near family, and we are making friends. We are visiting churches. Once again we are reaching out because to do otherwise is to give up the joy of what lies ahead.
Crittister says it like this: We have the joy of immunity from propriety now. Like children on a beach, we can decide whether we will wear sandals or go barefoot through life from now on. We can decide to walk gently through this last great stage of life when everything begins to come together for us, to make sense, to have new meaning. We can simply sit and watch a sunset, since we are not rushing home through traffic as the sun goes down. We can walk across the lawn in the morning dew, smell the grass and pick a dandelion, because, like the glorious rose, it has a beauty of its own, as do all things, if we will only learn to look for it. We can be happy to be sixty or seventy or eighty – to be where we’ve been, to know what we know, to have today to do even more. We can decide to smile at everyone we meet, to play with children, to talk to seniors, to ask questions of youngsters – and this time to listen to their answers. We can determine to pursue something new today, become a learner again, and feel the excitement that begins to rise in us when we do. We can decide to give ourselves to those who have no one else but us to count on for quality of life themselves. Now we have it all: opportunity, freedom, and the sense to know what those things demand of us. We have a chance to be the best self we have ever been. And we have the chance to help others do the same. We can wake up one morning and find ourselves drunk with the very thought of being alive.
As the days march on and the ripples of our lives here in Florida begin to widen, I look forward to all that is before us. On my calendar this week in big letters: FIND A PLACE TO VOLUNTEER! To be clay, soft and pliable – open to possibilities, to new beginnings. I can’t wait to see where this will lead . . . . .