Retirement has been much on my mind lately, for though I have not, nor do I intend ,to retire from work completely, I have walked away from hospital nursing, which has been my profession for 40 years. I found that the aquifer of compassion and patience and diligence that had kept me green all those years had run dry. My temperament did not suit the modern hospital with its corporate ethics, its money centeredness , its exploitation of the dedication and the decent hearts of its nurses. My musings have led to these thoughts and this little essay on retirement.
To paraphrase one of Shakespeare's Great Clowns: "Some are born Retired. Some achieve Retirement, and some have Retirement thrown upon them".
Considering those of the last sort, who has not known or heard of the Company Man, loyal to his employer for decades, faithful to his employer's projects, who none the less finds himself discarded by a layoff or forced to take early retirement at an awkward time of life. For years he has headed his department, glad handed his way through his work days, been famous for the way, as he walked the halls, that he picked up stray pieces of paper or forgotten tissues. And then one day, he is no longer there-exiled from his work home to his street address. And then, within weeks, the people who knew him will be attending his memorial service, for he has had a heart attack and died.
Picture a small country store at a junction near Springville,Tennessee. Old men frequent it, and if by chance you stop one day to buy a barbecue sandwich after a morning spent birding at the Big Sandy National Wildlife Refuge, one may let you take his place in line. He wants you, who are going somewhere to see something,to get your fried fruit pie and sandwich first.
"Go ahead, Young Lady", he says, "I'm retired ,and I've got nothing but time". He says it as though time is his prison, to be endured by hours spent fishing, and mornings spent at the Old Man's table at the local McDonalds. He, in his minor way, is akin to Tennyson's Ulysses, who laments:
"How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life!"
As though the fishing pole or the golf club were sail enough to steer our way through the last years of our trek toward Eternity. Are they? I cannot say.
Then let us look next at men who are born retired, whether they are real men such as Henry David Thoreau or Jack Kerouac, or fictional alter egos of their creator, such as John D. McDonald's boat bum detective Travis McGee.
McGee, with his Boodles gin, his" broads", his house boat, the "Busted Flush", worked salvaging and returning lost valuables to desperate people . When the job was done, when he had the cash, he laid up, saying he was taking "another piece of my retirement.Instead of retiring at sixty, I'm taking it in chunks as I go along". While he was young enough to enjoy it.
Work was anathema to Henry David Thoreau, who did not want to own useless things or pollute his soul getting and spending. Even the work of reading a clergyman's biography, recommended to him by an aunt, was too much, leaving the old lady complaining "He stood half an hour today to hear the frogs croak, and he wouldn't read the life of Chalmers." A man who writes "Now I yearn for one of those old, meandering,dry, uninhabited roads, which lead us away from temptation" will not last long working at the pencil factory or the GM plant. He will never stab or claw his way to tenure, for he was born retired.
As Dionysian as Thoreau was temperate, Jack Kerouac preferred the wandering, Beat life to settled work, as did his friends Neal Cassady and Alan Ginzburg. He made Experience and Experiment his household gods, and being retired from birth, he pursued them, and drink, to an early grave, stopping along the way from time to time to write "On the Road" and "The Dharma Bums".
The work of achieving Retirement ,and finding in it a happy estate, fell to Charles Lamb, the English essayist. Never was a man happier than Lamb, when in his fifties, the counting house that had employed him twelve hours a day, six days a week ,fifty one weeks of the year since he was fourteen, gave him a pension and set him loose to wander a London he had known only on Sundays. Now rich in Time, Lamb feared squandering it. In his essay, "The Superannuated Man", he writes "I wanted some steward, or judicious bailiff, to manage my estates in Time for me". But he required no steward. He found that" that is the only true Time, which a man can properly call his own,that which he has all to himself". He called himself "Retired Leisure", and was content writing his essays and reading his beloved folios.
And even today, in a chance encounter at the Firestone Tire shop, one can meet a happy man of "Retired Leisure" who has his freedom , yet finds that the world still wants him. Wants his advice. Wants his experience, and is willing to pay him to drive from Charleston, where he worked for the police department all his life, to Nashville- to work as a consultant. Here he sits at Firestone, waiting for a blown tire to be repaired. He is a sparkling little old man in a brown leather bomber jacket. He wears an old time golf cap. He is 85 years old, and "They just won't let me stay retired", he says.
And perhaps we should plan, if we are lucky, to be like him. Retired, by all means, but still free to be out in the world seeking purpose and work that matters to us.