When I was in my forties, I went to dinner with a group of professors at a conference. A friend of mine knew that another person at the table would be turning 65 this summer and innocently asked, “So, are you thinking about retirement?”
The guy clapped: “I don’t play golf so why should I retire?” His tone stopped all further conversation, but I remember thinking, “I don’t play golf either. Does this mean that I will not retire? Until then, I had never thought about retirement. Still, I then started thinking about retirement, and when I retired two years ago, I was glad I did.
Last month, a longtime friend and I zoomed in to catch up. At one point, the person mentioned that they were going to teach a class in the fall. They had retired a few years ago, and with the same innocence as my longtime friend, I asked, “Why are you doing this?” My friend abruptly replied, “Because I’m bored to death. That’s why.” End of conversation.
These two interactions explain how I came to think about retirement. I’ve often advised harassed graduate students and early-career professors not to give up on exercise. I liked that raising young families and trying to get a job often meant they had too little time in a busy day. “When you’re feeling overwhelmed,” I would say, “that’s exactly the day you need to exercise. Nobody wins if you get sick.
I tried to follow my own advice. And I now recognize that the habits I’ve created along my journey to tenure have served me well in a new stage of my life. Here are some of those habits.
- Meditate/pay attention. Meditation helps me ground myself in the morning before I start. I am able to slow down the urge to jump from one task to another and make sense of the day ahead of me. Periodically throughout the day, I pause for a few seconds before starting a new task, focus on my breathing, and start again. I find that I am able to concentrate better and am less frantic. There are many good apps available to help you do this, but I use Waking Up.
- To memorize. I had an English teacher in high school who had his students memorize poems. He said it added “a rose to the garden of your mind”. We all felt sick to our stomachs about the task because it wasn’t cool, but secretly I liked memorizing a poem. I started to memorize again the work of great poets – Yeats, Neruda, Angelou – not only because I like the pleasure of the sound of the words, but also because it helps to facilitate my memory.
- Quick. When I was in college, a movement called Fast for a World Harvest happened. For a number of years thereafter, I fasted periodically, the longest being eight days. I now try to fast two days a month. Fasting has nothing to do with weight loss. When I fast, I am brought into a greater sense of being in the world. Just as meditation allows me to be more reflective, fasting allows me to be more connected.
- Exercise. The pandemic has been helpful in grounding us in our homes. My husband and I couldn’t go to the gym, but we could walk for about two hours a day. I stretch every day and my diet gets longer as another part of my body starts giving me trouble. We continue to walk. I run and we walk a lot. Being outside, like fasting, brings me closer to contact with nature.
- Lily. It’s not just about reading, but reading with someone else or in a group. Last year five of my friends and I had Zoom chats about James Joyce Ulysses. This year a different band reads the novels of José Saramago. I took a course at St. John’s College in Santa Fe last year The Karamazov brothersand this summer I will take another on that of Kazuo Ishiguro When we were orphans. I complete all of Dostoyevsky by reading demons with a friend. Literature makes me think, and reading in communion with others helps me think through difficult questions that I might not have thought of.
- To be involved. Democracy is in danger. The climate is in shambles. Fascism is on the rise. Inequalities are increasing. Homelessness is endemic. The racism is all too obvious. Gun violence is endemic. I am completely comfortable giving voice and authority to those who are younger, but not participating in any way is simply accepting inequalities rather than helping to eliminate them.
- Experience and experimentation. I tried new adventures that I never had time to do when I was teaching. I regained my interest in chess. I learn more about jazz. We travel two months a year, which involves a lot of visits to art museums, classical music concerts and hiking. What I try to do is avoid wasting time scrolling through Facebook, watching the latest news of the day, and pursuing other inconsequential activities.
- Face death and die. I lived as a homosexual during the AIDS crisis. I must have started struggling with thoughts of death and dying at a young age as I watched too many friends die. At my age today, we all know relatives, friends and colleagues who have passed away. Of course, death is inevitable. Reaching this stage in life should allow us to reflect on what life means and what other people mean to us. When I look back on my life, some of my most meaningful conversations were about those who were dying of AIDS. In those moments, I not only supported the individual, but also understood what I wanted out of life. The same is true today.
I offer these thoughts on how to prepare for retirement if you are a faculty member, not as a recipe with a list of required ingredients. We will all have our own recipe. I think it’s a mistake, however, to be so attached to our work that we think the only alternative is a round of golf or that retirement is boring. If we develop habits early in our careers, we will be better prepared to develop them in retirement. We will be able to see retirement as a different stage of life, but one that is still full of hope, challenges, and the ability to continue thinking about many of life’s big questions.