Retirement or Re-routing?


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When I was in my twenties, the idea of retirement seemed a death sentence. Anxious to establish a place for myself in the professional world, I found the prospect of unstructured time terrifying and wasteful.

Now, in my fifties, I find the prospect of retirement seductive, even compelling—not something to be pushed to the end of one’s life like an afterthought, but something that must be planned for, actively pursued while there is yet time.

However, when I made the announcement that I would be taking an early retirement from my teaching profession, I was not prepared for some of the comments I received. “What will you do with your time?” ”Are you happy?” another colleague asked me six months into my retirement. ”Are you truly happy?”

The question misses the point— retirement is not so much an issue of happiness (in the way Freedom 55 ads would like us to believe) as it is an issue of integrity. The decision to leave the professional world is just as serious as the decision to work till one’s dying breath. The question ”Are you happy?” I fear, comes from the bias of our highly production-conscious society. Work is considered legitimate only if it produces something tangible. And a good life is one that is obviously productive, defined by traditionally external measures of success such as schedules, visibility, profit and status. How can one who opts out of the professional life be happy?

Perhaps an answer can be gleaned from Impressionist Artist Claude Monet whose life shifted in a somewhat new direction when he turned 50. At 21, Monet was conscripted into the army. His father bought him out of military service on the condition that he received formal art training in Paris. Every fiber in Monet resisted classical training; what he wanted most was to paint outdoors. Rejected by the Salon in his early career, he persisted in painting the way he saw, insisting that his eyes were all he needed. Refusing to allow theory to eclipse his sight, he traveled extensively, to the outlying shores of France, London, Holland, the Mediterranean Coast to capture the dramatic and exotic in landscapes.

It wasn’t until 1890, when his art generated tremendous enthusiasm in New York that he became financially secure. 1890 was a watershed year. Monet turned 50 and the property at Giverny which he had leased a few years before, became legally his own; he was able to purchase it outright for 22,000 francs. Instead of continuing in the same vein as he had through most of his life,– traveling, painting exotic landscapes that were highly lucrative on the market– Monet retired to his country cottage at Giverny and started a flower garden.

What were the reasons for this dramatic change? Financial security was part of the answer. The other part, I think, had a great deal to do with Monet’s sense of integrity about what he wanted to do with his life. Released from bread and butter issues, he could finally pursue a path that he could call his own. ”My garden is slow work, pursued with love and I do not deny that. What I need most of all are flowers, always, always.” And flowers he grew—a whole feast of them—tulips .lilacs, marigolds, dahlias, nasturtiums, all arranged with an eye for color and light.

It was a self-contained world—the paintings mirroring the garden, the garden mirroring what he perceived to be the incredible mystery of light and atmosphere. Yet by no means was it a trivial world; in pursuing what he loved, Monet had entered what most of us yearn for but deny ourselves because of lack of time—the deepening of spiritual experience. He had begun to answer the need that surfaces when our bodies begin their dissolution (usually around 50)—the need to deepen ourselves, move down into the earthy layers of our psyche and take root.

This rooting is most evident in Monet’s later series of paintings on grainstacks and water-lilies, paintings that he replicated laboriously at different times of the day in order to pursue the subtle nuances of change that accompany perception in time. These subjects were, from the perspectives of market in the late 1800’s, very limited and compromising because of their ordinariness. But passionate about this work, Monet delayed several times to honor requests for more profitable and exotic pieces he had contracted to various art dealers and journals. What was his excuse? Working on the grainstacks. Money was no longer important now, but the integrity of his passion was.

A friend once told me that retirement should be more appropriately called “re-routing,” that is, taking a different route, a more personal route, a route less traveled but no less rewarding. It is a re-routing to the unlived life that has been pushed to the periphery by the demands of livelihood, parenthood, ambition: the kids need to be fed and you have to prove yourself to the world. Paying attention to our dreams and yearnings takes time. Listening to the voice of inner guidance, working to connect with spirit–all these take time. To a world consumed by schedules and productivity, re-routing might seem like wasting time. But it is only within the luxury of time that roots can grow.

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