Off the Clock: Deborah Paul on Retirement

I quit my job because I wanted to be free.

Before I retired from full-time work, two years ago this month, I grew accustomed to friends and colleagues asking, “What are you going to do?” Frankly, I had no idea. I knew what I was leaving, just not what lay ahead. I took comfort in the advice of a professional woman I respect, who said I need not retire to something; I could just be proud of what I accomplished. I did that, and now it’s time to move on.

I spent 35 years in the workforce, starting with a first-grade teaching gig. I was 21, the perfect age to assemble bulletin boards, yank off snow boots, and convince 6-year-old boys that reading was fun. I loved the kids and was grateful for the $6,800 (!) annual salary, but I don’t miss the job. Then came mothering; a stint back at college to earn a new degree—this time in journalism, a lifelong ambition; and, finally, a position writing, editing this magazine, and, ultimately, directing the content of five more. Those years were rewarding as hell.

But I needed air. I felt like my Aunt Rose, who, during bouts of heart failure, would venture out onto her condo balcony to catch her breath. Even in the best of circumstances, Father Time is relentless, and his call must be heeded. A friend remembers me saying I retired because I wished to be alone. No, I tell her, she must have me confused with Greta Garbo. I retired because I wanted to be free. There is a difference.

The annoying refrain has changed from “What are you going to do?” to “What do you do?” I usually answer that 5 p.m. rolls around the same as before. I get up when I want, a motivating factor for those considering retirement. This provides time for additional weird dreams, like the one where Reggie Miller convinces me to play for the Pacers. I’m back at work in a lot of them, but my office no longer overlooks Monument Circle. The small room is windowless and dark, tucked in a corner. I’m never busy like I was in real life, and my co-workers are strangers.

I rush to breakfast so I will be hungry again in time for lunch. My 2015 New Year’s resolution was to shed the 10 pounds I have picked up these past two years, to no avail. Spending time at home, in proximity to the kitchen, leads to excessive deliberation about what you might eat next. My weakness at present is dark chocolate–covered pretzels, and one is never enough.

Recently, my husband hinted at how much he would enjoy ironed sheets.

Unfortunately, house matters fall to the one who spends the most time there, which is the only part of retirement I resent. Nothing humbles a person more than waiting all day for the washer repairman or figuring out whom to call when saplings begin to grow from the gutters. Recently, my husband hinted at how much he would enjoy ironed sheets. I advised him that such bed linens can be found at any Courtyard by Marriott. Likewise, there is more time to cook, and I have tried my hand at some unusual fare, such as Tuscan chicken and zucchini flan. Nothing I’ve made, however, comes close to a fellow retiree’s intimidating five-course dinner-party menu, which included coquilles St. Jacques, home-baked bread, and crepes suzette. Time, apparently, is no substitute for talent.

I have not joined a gym, but I take daily walks, preferably outside. Even without stressful business on one’s mind, nature has a way of setting things straight. I used to swim before going to the office, as early as 6 a.m., or squeeze in a workout over my lunch hour. A lengthy stroll, with no set beginning or end, is a luxury. I’ve read more novels, folded more laundry, watched the occasional episode of Dr. Phil, and revisited some favorite movies. Remember The First Wives Club, Clueless, and Overboard? They don’t make them like that anymore, especially on rainy afternoons.

If retirement sounds lonely, well, it can be. Absent constant contact with workmates, one tends to form relationships with whomever is around. I have not resorted to telling my troubles to the supermarket clerk, but I got to know the fellow who directs traffic at my neighborhood McDonald’s so well, I gave him $20 for Christmas. When your pace is leisurely, you’d be surprised at the lovely people you meet.

What I haven’t done but planned to are organize a trunk of family photos, compile my mother’s cherished recipes, bake pies, foster a senior pet, line the bathroom drawers, and learn to use Apple TV. (I did join Facebook, which I despise for its insipid premise but can’t figure out how to disconnect.) I haven’t unpacked my boxes from work, piled eye-level in the basement— reminders of what cannot and should not be reclaimed. A young, energetic editor sits behind the desk in my old office, which is difficult to observe but necessary to accept.

Warm hugs greet me when I visit former colleagues, but there is nowhere to plant myself, place my bag, relay my thoughts. I interrupt their tasks with small talk, so, for the most part, I stay away. Consulting and writing provide enough creative stimulus and connection to what came before.

When you reach “a certain age,” your activities tend to suit your stamina. Some retired friends recently flew around the world to out-of-the-way destinations, which sounds buggy and exhausting. I waited on enough tarmacs and lost enough luggage in my career to last a lifetime. I now go to fun adult-education classes—euphemistically labeled Lifelong Learning—such as “The Pursuit of Happiness: A Trap?” and “Wild and Wonderful Animals of the Everglades.” If I never sit through another PowerPoint budget presentation, it will be too soon. I don’t wish to write a novel, complete crossword puzzles, or tweet.

To the next person who asks me how I like retirement, I will say I like it fine. What do I do all day? Plenty, or nothing at all. Having a choice is the ultimate gift of freedom.


Email Deborah Paul here.


Illustration by Andrea Eberbach