From my home office window, I can see the line of cars headed north into the downtown area along the road I used to travel every workday for more than forty years. This year marks the fiftieth since I arrived in Kansas City with my brand-new college degree in hand and sat down to my job as a writer at Hallmark Cards. I guess that worked out all right.
One rainy day at home way before my actual retirement, I wrote the poem below. I was imagining the sense of loss or emptiness I might feel at the end of all the productive, structured years. The picture in the poem is pretty bleak.
Actual “retirement” isn’t like this at all. I put “retirement” in quotation marks, because it’s such a misnomer for what occurs when you give up corporate office hours for the freedom of setting your own schedule. If you’re not careful with your “yes” and “no” regarding that “free time,” plenty of people will jump in to fill it for you. Life gets busier than ever, even as I vow to preserve my contemplative time.
At a discussion event the other night, we were invited to pose our own “most essential” question. (This is your assignment for today!) I suppose my question, as always, boils down to this: What am I here for? As I become acutely aware of the flying years, how little time there really is for the individual me to make a difference, I look to fill my days with activities, engagements, studies, and thoughts that keep me connected with the biggest purpose I can think of for human life. I find my answers–provisional answers anyway–in theology, art, poetry, and in relationships arising from these pursuits. I can only make a difference by joining hands, as my friend Veda would say. So I join hands, not only with the people around me, but also with the people before me and, in whatever ways I can, with those who will come after. I’m not alone with my questions. And neither are you.
The day after the send-off of her friends
and colleagues after almost forty years,
the weight of freedom instantly descends.
She tweaks the puzzled cat behind the ears
and pours herself more coffee. Still undressed
at ten o’clock, she feels the grind of gears
against the drag of useless time. The rest
of Wednesday is eternity to her,
the old routine undone, the new unguessed.
She hears, from blocks away, the muffled purr
of cars and trucks that have somewhere to go.
She gazes at the empty calendar.
She was, as Human Resource records show,
dependable, a model employee.
New hires could always count on her to know
procedures. She would rarely disagree
with bosses, though it happens, when it came
to better job or bigger salary,
that no one influential knew her name.
And so the work she did so well remained,
from start to finish, pretty much the same.
You’ll be secure, the counselor explained,
with years of income from an IRA
and interest that your prudent saving gained.
The antique clock they gave her chimes its way
toward noon. It’s raining. Summer thunder booms.
She wonders what to fix for lunch today.
The carefree life she never longed for looms.
She’ll never finish picking up her rooms.