What is in Retirement: A Memoir and Guide?
- Preparing Financially
- Preparing Emotinally
- The Importance of Place
- Discovering Your Passion
- Slowing Down
- Being Present
- Meditation is helpful for some; I show you how.
- Be careful of expectations.
- Happiness and Gratitude
- Learning and Growing
- Relationships with adult children and others
- Living Abroad
- And more
Dealing with Loneliness
As I do not currently have a spouse or partner, loneliness looms as a major challenge. Even those who have a spouse or partner cannot rely on their spouse for all of their companionship. Married people must have friends, or their marriage or partnership will suffer. Partners may die or leave. It is important to have a supportive friendship network in place. As an introvert, I detest interfacing with groups of people I don’t know, and I don’t make friends easily. Many retired people share my problem.
Loneliness is a common complaint of retired people. Different people need different amounts of alone time. Some people have a problem ever being alone. Some truly enjoy a lot of solitude. I have experienced both extremes. For most of my life I feared being alone—undoubtedly one reason I foolishly married three times. Now I enjoy a lot of alone time, but sometimes I am lonely.
Of course, in reality we are all alone inside our heads. Nobody can join us in our minds. The degree of discomfort we feel from being lonely relates to what we tell ourselves that it means. If we realize that everyone is lonely from time-to-time, and that it is simply a circumstance that bears no relationship to who we are or our value as a person, it does not feel so uncomfortable. What makes it severely uncomfortable is if we feel that loneliness means that we are inadequate, that it is our fault that we don’t have enough friends, that we are inferior. These kinds of thoughts pervade our minds when we feel lonely, sometimes on the surface, but sometimes deep within, and it is difficult to purge such thoughts.
After my third divorce, I felt lonely, despite the fact that I had four children to visit and friends, including several that I was close to. I was used to having a wife at home when I arrived from the office. Even when she kept to herself, her mere presence kept loneliness away. When we separated, I suffered from the belief that I needed to be the most important person in somebody’s life, and as a single person, that wasn’t going to happen.
I remind myself that loneliness will not last forever; it will pass. In retirement loneliness occurs most markedly when I am home, especially if I have not been out and about for a day or two. I find something to do out of the house. Of course, visiting a friend or family member would be the best cure, but they are not always available. Some of the things I do to resolve feeling lonely include:
• I keep a local paper that announces what is going on in town each week. There usually is something going on that interests me enough to get me out.
• Often there is a movie I would like to see. For me, watching a movie in a theater is much more likely to relieve loneliness than watching one on TV at home. When I go to the theater, if I’m feeling lonely, I indulge myself, have some popcorn—with butter.
• I haven’t joined the local senior citizen’s center, but I could if loneliness became a serious problem. I remember that participation in a senior citizen’s center relieved my mother of loneliness after my father had died.
• Nighttime is usually when I am most likely to feel lonely. I try to plan some nighttime activities: take a class at the local adult school; schedule exercise for the evening if that is practical; look at the local newspaper and see what is going on at night in my community.
• I get out of the house and do something; I try not to be picky. There is something of interest going on somewhere. If I keep an open mind as to what might be enjoyable, I usually find something. Sometimes if I’m feeling lonely and have difficulty finding something that sounds interesting, I try something anyway, even if it doesn’t sound appealing. Often, I am pleasantly surprised. The worst thing to do is to sit around home and mope.
• If it’s daylight, sometimes I go for a hike in nature. Although it is solitary, the natural environment and just doing something sometimes makes me feel less lonely, like I’m a part of something else. I walk on the beach and sometimes stop at a restaurant for a beer.
• Most cities these days have live music. That is often my diversion from loneliness.
• I’m not a golfer, but, if I were, I would go to a golf course or driving range. I know that there often will be a threesome delighted to have me join them. Or I would practice at a driving range. Similarly, if I played tennis, I would seek out tennis partners.
• Sometimes I call a friend. Some of my best friends live far away. Sometimes calling them relieves my loneliness. Call as many people as you can think of. They may not have the time to get together, but they might take a few minutes to talk on the phone.
• Just going out to dinner helps. I don’t sit at a table and stare at the other people enjoying each other’s company; I sit at the bar and strike up a conversation with somebody else at the bar or the bartender, if he or she is not too busy.
• I go to a baseball game, if the home team is in town; even a college or high school game is good enough. Baseball is my game, but, of course, basketball, football, soccer or any sport works just as well.
• I go to the horse races once in a while. I don’t bet much, but I try to strike up conversations with people I sit near.
• I go to some type of event that I have never been to before—a polo match, a flea market, a cat show?
• I write letters to my friends and family, old-fashioned letters, not email.
• I go for a massage.
• I exercise. I don’t like gyms, but they do get you with other people.
• I go to a lecture or class, or browse a bookstore.
• I attend Meet-Up Groups of writers.
• I go wine tasting and talk to the other tasters.
• I take a train somewhere, anywhere, and go to the bar or café car and strike up a conversation with someone.
• I go to a park, and watch a kids’ soccer game or Little League game.
• I go to a play or concert or visit a museum, anywhere that there are people. Even if I don’t talk to them, it feels less lonely just to be around people.
• I converse with people in online groups such as Linked In and Yahoo Groups. I joined writers’ groups on the Internet and participate in lively discussions about writing, publishing and promoting books and articles. That not only relieves loneliness to some extent while I’m online, but it may eventually result in face-to-face interaction.
• Occasionally, when I’m lonely, and nothing works to alleviate it, I just feel it. I consciously focus on how it feels to be lonely. I don’t cry from loneliness anymore because I don’t feel like it, but I used to, and if you feel like it, cry. Then think about how that feels. Sometimes if I focus on my loneliness in a meditative state, eventually it passes.
I avoid taking any medication for loneliness. Clinical depression is another story, and requires professional intervention. If my efforts to overcome loneliness had failed and my feelings of loneliness had become frequent and extreme, I would seek professional help to determine if I were clinically depressed. That has not happened. If I did receive such a diagnosis, I would get a second opinion, and if my therapist or doctor recommended antidepressants, I would get yet another opinion. Medications can be helpful if one is chronically depressed, but, in my opinion, they should be a last resort. Sometimes, in a misguided effort to “do something,” doctors are too quick to prescribe antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications. They are addictive or induce dependency, which is dangerous and detracts from experiencing life at its fullest.
Loneliness is closely related to episodic (as opposed to chronic) depression. It may feel the same. In the book Flourish, Martin Seligman, founder of the Positive Psychology movement, discusses the ineffectiveness of antidepressants for episodic depression. He also provides a strategy for curing episodic depression. (It is important, too, to distinguish between depression and sadness. Everybody experiences sadness, and it will dissipate in time. Depression lingers.)
A fulfilling retirement, especially if you do not live with a partner, requires comfort with solitude. After a walk on the beach, I’d lie on my back in the sand listening to the rhythm of the waves coming and going and the squawking of the gulls and felt linked to the matrix of the sea. I finally began to enjoy quiet, a confidence in my solitude, a rapport with nature: what birds possibly feel, the blessing of water, the rhythm of weather, what might hurt me and what would not, building upon nature’s calm.
Writing helped me to feel I was doing something worthwhile, something that mattered. That played an important role in helping me break free from the loss and loneliness that I felt. Good relationships with my children and friends, and the practices discussed in this book overcame my loneliness to a great extent. I still feel lonely occasionally, but it passes. It is not the overwhelmingly sad feeling that it once was, despite the fact that during the past few years I have moved to three cities where I knew either nobody or only one person.
How I Found My Passion
Once I had worked through learning who I am, I was confident that I would find my passion. If I had been passionate about my work, I probably wouldn’t have retired, but I wasn’t. I realized though that just because our society says I am supposed to retire at 65 doesn’t mean I should do so without questioning it.
Some people know before they retire what their passion is. If they do, they should pursue it, but I didn’t. Finding my passion took a lot of time and effort, but I never considered giving up. I understood that when I found it, it would mean a new life. What a great opportunity!
Once I thought I understood a lot more about who I am, I honed in more specifically on what I might be passionate about. Some of the things I did were:
• To consider what I often Googled for fun or information, or what I looked up in an encyclopedia, what in the newspaper interested me, what I wanted to learn more about.
• To consider what I liked to talk about and what I gravitated toward in a bookstore.
• To think about what I am good at and what comes easily to me.
• To think of examples of good work I had done in the past.
• To try to remember what I was doing during my life when I felt most creative.
• To do some things I hadn’t done before and traveled to different countries. I did not play games or watch much television.
• To try to be patient and have faith that my calling would come to me; I felt I would know it when it happened. If I had doubt, and it didn’t pass quickly, I kept searching.
I tried to be more spontaneous than I had been, not planning as much in advance, just letting life take me with it. In pursuing my passion I learned to give up control and let things happen. We plan to get control, but realistically we never have it, so I gave up trying to have control. I felt that I couldn’t force a choice. By exploring, thinking, keeping an open mind, my passions would come to me, I thought.
At 63 I had no passion about anything I could pursue during retirement. I knew I had to find something, so I was searching and open to what might come my way. I started searching before I actually retired, an important step, but it is never too late to search for your passion.
In 2004, shortly before I turned 64, a publisher interested in publishing a book that I had the expertise to write on malpractice by lawyers contacted me. I decided to write the book because to be a published author in my field would promote my law practice, and I thought it would be fun. Writing was one of the few aspects of practicing law that I enjoyed. At the time I didn’t think about it having anything to do with retirement. It was an opportunity to do something different that would benefit my law practice.
I thoroughly enjoyed the writing and publishing process and finished the book on legal malpractice in early 2006, except for proofreading and final submission to the publisher. Finishing the book was fulfilling and I was proud of it—Boyd Lemon, the author. It sounded good to me. I thought it would be fun to write fiction, still not thinking about it as something to do during retirement. I told a friend, who happened to be a writer, that I wanted to try writing fiction, but that I didn’t think I had any creative ability. The response was all I needed to push me forward:
“Everybody has creative ability. It’s just a matter of developing and expressing it.”
I had heard that novice writers should write about what they know. So without knowing anything about writing fiction, I sat down and started a short story based on my experience taking care of a baby to help her mother, who was the daughter of a close friend. I intended to add fictional twists and turns to make an interesting story. I finished it in a couple of weeks, enjoyed the process and was astonished that the writing process made me realize how attached I had become to the baby girl. A writer friend critiqued it, and I rewrote it several times. I didn’t know it at the time, but the two most common criticisms of novice fiction writers stood out: create and resolve tension, and show, don’t tell. In the months to come I would read those two principles many times, as I read books on writing fiction.
I bought a book, Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. I read it and was impressed by Goldberg’s technique of writing practice. Sit down with a notebook and a fast writing pen, think of a prompt or topic and write whatever comes into your head for a timed period—10 minutes, 20 minutes, best to keep it short at first. Don’t attempt to write a book for two years. I bought two other books on writing that Goldberg had written and devoured them. Goldberg’s website announced that she gave workshops. Attending Goldberg’s workshops settled in the back of my mind.
During the following two years, I read many other books on writing, and I wrote a dozen short stories. I connected with writers on the Internet and learned from the critiques of other writers. I also formed a group with two other writers who met monthly, wrote and critiqued each other’s work.
I attended two of Natalie Goldberg’s week-long writing workshops in New Mexico during 2007 and continued to write short stories. In class, which is set up as a Buddhist Zendo, in addition to sitting and slow walking meditation, she gave us prompts for timed writing. “I remember…. Go for ten minutes.” Thirty minutes is the longest, but usually the timed writings are 10 to 20 minutes. We were encouraged to keep our pens moving and not cross out anything; write whatever comes into our minds. We read aloud what we had written, but no comments were allowed. She wanted us to be free to write from deep within and not worry about what we or others might think of our writing. We did other things, but the meditation, timed writings and reading aloud are the core of her teaching. The object is to slow down our minds so that we dig deep and write our personal truths. I learned from Natalie Goldberg that good writing must be true, simple and from the heart.
Natalie’s method, to some, may sound like New Age baloney, but for most of us it works. My writing is better and more focused during and for a while after one of these workshops. The difficulty is finding the self-discipline to keep up the writing practice and meditation outside of the workshops. Sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t. I’m only human.
Someone told me that drawing would help develop the right side of my brain, the side primarily responsible for creative activities. I took drawing lessons and read books on drawing by Betty Edwards.
Although I reduced my work hours, I continued to practice law, worked on my short stories and made drawings. In March 2007 I moved to Boston, a writer’s city that I had enjoyed as a visitor. By this time, I knew that I had found my passion. In retirement I would be a writer.
Writing provided an unexpected bonus. My first book was a memoir about my journey to understand my role in the destruction of my three marriages, Digging Deep: A Writer Uncovers His Marriages. I found that writing a big part of my life story and putting it out there for others to read was scary, but in the end liberating and healing beyond my wildest expectations. In the process of writing from the heart about who you are, you find out more than you ever would have by just thinking about it. To me, writing life story is the ultimate therapy. Everyone has a story, and more and more so-called ordinary people are writing theirs. You don’t have to publish it. The process of writing it is reward enough.
In Boston I wrote short stories and still practiced law about half time. My early stories had a basis in my own experience, and the protagonists were either patterned after me, or at least were male. I finally wrote a story in which the protagonist was female and then a young man who was not at all like me. I began submitting them to multiple literary magazines for publication. As I had learned to expect, I received multiple rejections, until finally I received an email that my story, “Some Things Are Better Left Unknown,” a story about a young woman who learned that the man she always thought was her father might not be, was accepted for publication by the magazine, Down in the Dirt. I was thrilled. I felt like a real writer. This was my story, that I had created, and it would be out there for other people to read. Eventually, three more of my short stories were published, and a poem I wrote was published in a calendar. I was hooked. I was a writer.