Time and Aging

Dear Yolanda,

You had asked how retirement was going and how I’m spending my time.  An even more pertinent question might have been: how are you dealing with time.  Well, it’s confusing.  It seems to be moving very quickly.  My memory seems to pass through decades instead of weeks.  It’s slow, too.  The day doesn’t move along through well-ordered meetings and projects.  It ambles.  These experiences of time are  both welcome and disorienting.

Take this morning.  It was 10:23 and I had been up since 6:00.  I had read the newspapers and some magazine articles, written in my journal, gotten up to date on my emails, and was preparing for a walk.  “But,” I thought, “maybe I should do a little more with my blog before walking.  Maybe I should prepare for this afternoon’s Board of Director’s meeting.  How come I’ve done so little in four and a half hours?”  Crazy, right?  I was worried that there wouldn’t be enough hours in the day to do all that I wanted to do.  I was racing.  I was still on work time, where I had to fit in my private pleasures between the demands of my job and family.

It isn’t quite vacation time, either.  In fact, when I left for my recent vacation in France and Spain, I couldn’t figure out what that meant.  What’s a vacation when I’m retired?  Vacation from what?  Vacations used to be extended versions of the private pleasures fit between work demands.  Was I on permanent vacation?  Should I just be relaxing?  Should I now figure out new ways to order my life?

During all the years that my children lived at home (about 27), I had spent a great deal of time with them.  I loved that time and feel very grateful for the opportunity.  But it’s also true that, for years, I worried that I wasn’t putting in the time at work that others did, and that my professional ambitions would suffer.  When the kids leave for college, I promised myself, I’d work as much as I want.  And I did.  I filled the hours I’d spent with them on the work I did to support the family and added things like writing and pro bono activities.

Don’t get the wrong impression.  I wasn’t a workaholic.  I always spent time in the mornings meditating and writing in my journal even before I greeted the children on my big, beige easy chair.  I rewarded myself for a good morning’s work with a mid-day run or game of tennis.  And I spent most evenings with family and friends.  But to include all of these good things, I had to schedule myself tightly.  I got used to moving from activity to activity to activity.

That isn’t necessary anymore, but it feels like it is.  My internal clock still sets off signals every hour or so.

I’m probably over-simplifying.  That internal clock was mostly built before I began to work and have children.  My parents were up and about by 6:00 at the latest.  They were both efficient, moving from one task to another.  They never lectured us about using time well.  There was no Ben Franklin-like invocation of “time is money.”  The pressure was in the model they set, in the looks they would give us when we seemed lazy, and in the sarcasm they offered up if ever we complained about too much to do.

There is no doubt in my mind that one of the greatest challenges of retirement is to turn that old clock off.

It’s hard though.  I’m fighting not just force of habit but some sense that I haven’t achieved enough in my lifetime—maybe there’s more I can do.

I’m fighting the abyss, too: the feeling that any day now may be the last.  I don’t have the “bucket list” that other people talk about.  What would I like to do in the remaining years.  Where would I travel.  What hobbies, long put off, would I take up.  True or not, I feel that I’ve done most of what I’ve wanted to do in my life.  But I am vividly aware that there will be an end, and I would like to make these years rich with experience.

If I had my druthers, I’d live in Buddhist time: the present.  Time would slow down.  As one disciple said of his Zen Master, when he eats an apple, he eats an apple.  In other words, he is so focused, so lacking in distractions, that time concentrates into the moment.  There is only the moment.  And by living so completely in the moment, away from scheduled activities, time also expands.  The present is all time.  And if the present is all, death is nothing to worry about.

That’s a wonderful idea and, for decades I’ve dreamed of achieving that state but I know now that it’s not going to happen for me, at least not completely.  Still, I am determined to turn off the clock as much as possible, to experience the freedom of these long, long days.  I remember summertime as a child.  The days seemed endless.  We played baseball and basketball and tag.  We swam.  We played card games.  Yet there always seemed like there was more time.  I’d like to relax into that.