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Retirement: Where to 'Be'

Joined: 12/3/2008
Posts: 1

There’s a theory (mine) that the seismic activity on Vancouver Island is the result of the accumulated weight of translocated retired Albertans pressing down on the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate, causing it to dive under the North American plate in an imminent and nasty subduction. I think we can expect the whole kit and caboodle to undergo a major shakedown and tsunami rinse in the near future. Yet the retirees continue in their mass migration like lemmings to the cliffs.

Not having been to Victoria in 25 years, a recent visit opened my eyes to the draw of the Island. Spectacularly beautiful, quaint, hip, and r-e-l-a-x-e-d, there is no denying it’s paradise. But after two days in LaLa Land I was conscious of an eerily purposeless vibe to the place. I wanted to shake these people by the lapels and ask them “Come on, what have you accomplished today?” Nobody appears to be working, and the coffee shops and restaurants are full of chatting retirees and hipsters by mid-morning. I saw one guy in a suit the whole time we were there. (A local told me they burn their suits when they move there).

Lots and lots of relaxed chatting. About what? I overheard (ok eavesdropped on) a morning conversation in a local pool between three retired guys while they pretended to water-run. The topic of conversation was medical marijuana side-effects. One guy complained that he’d wolfed down three bowls of potato salad the night before in a full assault of the munchies. The second fellow complained that he was forced to go out at night and find snacks (a problem because the whole town is shut down and asleep by 9:00). The third guy said “Why would you bother going out? - just use the restaurant delivery app and they come to your door.” Apparently it’s the same with booze.
What?? First of all, I didn’t know liquor stores delivered, and second of all, is this the only place on Earth where I could have overheard this conversation? Surreal.

Clearly this was not my Edmonton where conversations often center around who you are, what you do, Big Oil, the Evil NDP, the plague of Proud Albertans, and escaping interminable winter. All of which I’m rather bored with. Instead, locals in Victoria seem to be stuck in the here and now, busy ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’. Preposterous. Utopian. Intriguing.

Surely there is something to this. Our religious and ethnic work ethics ask us to work, build, and accumulate. It is not a priority however to actually enjoy the fruits of that labour. By enjoy I mean those moments when you stop ‘doing’ long enough to allow your brain to flood with the neuropeptides of happiness and feel contentment and pleasure.

While we can’t change the programming of our upbringing, we can face the reality that unless the Hindus and Buddhists are right, we only go around once. Waiting, waiting, waiting, for that time when you allow yourself to consciously enjoy the ride may be the definition of squandering a life. I often wonder, if God were to comment on modern life, would She say “Keep up the good work” or “What the hell are you doing?”

Not many folks on their death bed would lament the taxes they paid or wish they’d spent more time cleaning house. What they might regret is not spending enough time with the sun on their face, smelling a child’s skin, savouring that good cup of coffee or glass of wine with a friend, being astonished by the beauty in nature, reading that wonderful story, dancing that dance, playing that game, laughing their guts out, and spending time around the table with people they love. Maybe these common denominators of joy aren’t the treasure chest at the end of the journey, maybe they are the journey.

It’s possible that older people spend a lot of time just hanging out not because they’re useless but because it’s only after living a fairly full life that it occurs to you that it’s all about the now, about enjoying this moment, not necessarily stocking up points for the after-life which let’s face it, is a long shot.
I confess, I’m not good at this. My brain is rarely ‘here’ - it’s usually evaluating the past or planning the future. Running, meditating, carving clay, or playing with my grandchildren are/were moments when time stops. But it doesn’t come easy.

I hear you say that the concept of enjoying life is a luxury; that illness, poverty, bad luck, bad decisions, and grief can blanket the brain with sadness, snuffing out the possibility of joy. True enough. But, given that bad stuff has been part of human experience since the beginning of time, we are programmed to find moments of bright light in darkness, moments of surprising humour in grief.
It’s something I’ve noticed in our travels. Even the poorest of the poor can smile. Given the sometimes horrendous conditions that people might live in there are still some common denominators that give joy: love, something beautiful from nature to look at, a good story, a funny joke, a touch, a child’s laugh, a beautiful melody.

For most of our life, work makes up at least half of our waking hours. Most of the time we’re ‘being’ at work. Stimulating interaction and acknowledgement of achievements flood the brain with neuropeptides inducing feelings of competency, of exhilaration, of identity within a group. In retirement, in the absence of work, it’s a lot to ask of a spouse, friend, family, dog, grandchildren, work-out, or garden, to fill that gap. We have fewer outside influences to direct us, to grab our attention. When all is said and done you are left with yourself to find contentment. Or not.

Recently I was complaining to a newly retired cousin about the hard transition from purpose and identity to a gnawing restless feeling of purposelessness. He suspected that the key is to a) think of every day as Saturday and b) find or maintain ‘communities’ - networks of people you share something in common with and perhaps work towards common goals with. We all crave contact – electronically through email or Facebook, in community, neighbors, or even chance meetings. We all need identity – to belong to a tribe or tribes.
Fortunately, older people are generally quite good at this. We’re more likely to strike up a conversation in a grocery store, in a café, on a walk, in an exercise class. We’re more likely to know our neighbors than the youngsters in the breeder burbs do. The fact that older people do this is, I think, less a sign of an addling brain than a hard-wired adaptive response to stay connected, supported, and functional.

It also bodes poorly for older people who’ve been cut off from interaction by illness, loss of mobility, grief, or fear. Community can be lost in a second. It was less likely in the past when people lived in villages/towns, where there was support, people visited, and mobility wasn’t as big an issue. Furthermore, putting people in monoculture aging institutions doesn’t guarantee community or make people pals simply because they’re all old.

In this respect it’s possible that my family, always the core of who I am, is not enough. My potting studio is full of interesting people. While we create we talk, share, support, and laugh. The community of people who practiced with me at the yoga studio (when my knees were still cooperating) had the same role. My neighbors, some of whom are known to me only by their dog’s name and our shared love of living where we do, are part of that network too. My church, that I take for granted, is made of people that regardless of how little I see of them, will always be my community.

I think of relocating along with all the rest of the lemmings to the shores of Lala Land. Abandoning winter to the people with knees, to the stalwarts whose parents landed here and accepted winter as a minor inconvenience rather than the stifling blanket of cold and dark it has become for me. The promise of warm winters, beautiful oceans, forests, year-round gardening, and a population that knows how to ‘be’, is clearly inviting.

However, striking out at this late date - not to follow a job but to purposely choose a certain kind of life - is not as easy as it sounds. It would mean starting over, re-building community, re-building the connectivity that gives life meaning, and leaving behind the loves of my life save my husband. Yet, people do it all the time – as the hoards of ex-Albertans on the Island show. How brave they are.

And yet, impossible. There is one identity I cannot shake, and that is the joy of being grandmother, mother, daughter. It is for me a job, a community, a climate all in one. And for better or worse, it’s where I live now. No amount of greenery, no call of the waves, no promise of medical marijuana induced rapture is going to hold a candle to the joy of rocking a warm little body and watching those little eyes flutter and close.

For now, that’s where I ‘be’.
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