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Retiring in the Spring

Personal Perspective: What happens when my days are no longer defined by appointments?

When you arise in the morning, think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love. –Marcus Aurelius

Late March-May, 2024

Source: Annita Sawyer
Mourning doves
Source: Annita Sawyer

Two mourning doves are building a nest in a pine tree outside my sunroom window. For a model of hard work, they might serve well. However, as I encounter retirement, this isn’t what I’m looking for. Rather, I want to learn how to let myself go, but for the right season.

I’d meant to say for the right reason—seeking balance between an activity’s value and how much time it takes. Now I wonder if season might be a perfect Freudian slip—a message from my unconscious about how important spring feels to me right now.

I have so many plans for this new chapter in my life! Books to read, places to go, subjects to study, people to see. Yet, when I spend time outside in our small yard, my delight at watching plants waking from winter and beginning to grow overtakes everything—not much else matters.

I thought retirement would mean vast open swathes of time. Yet my days seem to evaporate, and I don’t know quite how. When I was meeting with patients as a therapist, hours disappeared. I’d begin at 9:00 a.m. and soon it would be 3:00 p.m. or 6:00 p.m. or whatever time that day’s sessions were scheduled to end. I’d marvel at how fast the day had passed. Time flies when you’re having fun, they say. I loved my work. But I also longed to take walks, to read novels, to write essays, and especially to wander among the various herbs, flowers, and bushes I wanted to nurture in hopes of making the side yard into a pollinator paradise.

Source: Annita Sawyer
Daffodils and hyacinths
Source: Annita Sawyer

I’m no longer meeting with people in sessions, yet I haven’t slowed down. I’m trying to give myself permission to "be retired" or to "figure out retirement" or to "do nothing," which, of course, is an oxymoron on its face but contains the essence of what I’m confronting: Is it really OK to just let myself go and flit from one thing to another on a whim?

I noticed recently that the rugs downstairs appear to lie under a cloud of white dust and cat hair, while crumbs of various sizes appear on the floor around them. This is especially evident when afternoon sun shining through the glass door highlights every piece. As days grow longer, and sunlight lasts into the evening, the call to vacuum grows louder.

Yet that same light intensifies my appetite for taking in the world outdoors. I need to see if anything has changed since my last visit, often just a few hours earlier. “Dust bunnies can wait; I have to check the peonies,” I say, heading out to tour the yard.

In the back corner, between the iris that stayed through the winter and day lilies already showing green sprouts, I examine a patch of ground where less than two weeks ago I saw the first sign of lily of the valley’s return—a barely evident pink bump with a pointy white tip peeking up through the dirt. Soon after that, more tips emerged to join the first. I’ve counted a few dozen new plants by now—they’ve increased every time I look.

Source: Annita Sawyer
Iris by the fence
Source: Annita Sawyer

I’ve decided these next weeks are for me to do whatever I want, without judgment. So I’m checking plants outdoors and reading online: political opinions all over the place, and philosophers and poets who catch my fancy—although the latest news often outweighs more thoughtful options. Feeling that I know what’s going on in the world, as disturbing as much of it may be, gives me perspective and sometimes hope.

It’s half past ten. The doves are still at work, while I sit in the sunroom in my pajamas. Dirty sheets and pillowcases lie in a pile outside my bedroom door, reminding me that they need to be washed. I’m taking my sweet time before I confront the day ahead.

My focus has flipped entirely from where it was only weeks before. Psychotherapy appointments no longer structure my days, although at times I might still wrestle with old notions about priorities. I chose to begin this morning by reading the political news site my high-school friend produces. “It’s OK,” I told the part of me ready to criticize. “I’m retired.”

I read an online essay about healthy aging that warned seniors of the Internet’s addictive allure. (Beware! Reading articles like this one will make you crave more!) So far today I’ve Googled “mourning doves” to learn about their nesting habits (nests loosely formed from grass and twigs) and “growing azaleas” for advice about fertilizer for a small plant I moved outdoors last year (they prefer slightly acidic—with less nitrogen). I’ve spent hours at electoral-vote.com and BBC. I have a letter I want to mail and two others I’ve long planned to write, yet continue to put off. I must replace my lost passport in case I luck out and need to travel to a distant artists’ residency.

Later, when I look out at the pine tree, I can’t find the doves or a nest. Perhaps the grackle I saw marching around like he owned the place discouraged them. Maybe it was the violent thunderstorm a few days ago. Oh, well, I sigh. I decide to tour the yard again.

I’m into my second month of retirement—although it feels more like a long weekend—and I still haven’t experienced any unfilled days. Compared with the endless clear skies I’d imagined, reality feels small, cluttered with little pieces of this and that—chunks of wood or tufts of grass and dirt scattered every which way. My daily life has become a garden metaphor!

Source: Annita Sawyer
Lilies of the valley
Source: Annita Sawyer

Again in the back corner, amidst their deep green lily of the valley leaves, slender stems of tiny white bells are beginning to show. Their fragrance is glorious! In the nearby raised bed, wine-colored peony stalks multiply, transformed from the buds that first showed as red dots. These peony plants gain height in the course of a day!

Isn’t this also why I loved being a psychotherapist? Every tiny increment of growth is cause to rejoice, never to be taken for granted. Bearing witness to the courage it requires for a person to move beyond old defensive ways of being, facing pain, acknowledging betrayal, honoring survival, and, in time, learning to thrive. It makes sense. My role was to pay attention, to hold the whole picture, to nurture the process, trusting our relationship. It makes sense for me to rejoice in the process of spring.

The lilies, the daffodils, the doves, the rabbits, and even the woodchuck who lives under the pool shed and ate early buds off the roses inspire me. It’s the promise of springtime: their emerging from winter slumber, their growing, their own determination to live and to thrive.

And I’m free to watch and marvel as often as I choose: I’m retired!

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