I spoke about deciding to take a Gap year after turning sixty in my previous blog on AuthenticWebs. I made a conscious decision to stop work for a period, to carve out time and space to explore my experiences, skills, passions and philosophies; to think about how I wanted to spend the final decades of my life – my third age.
I was quite literally unprepared for the tumult that swamped the space made by holding the door to a different life ajar. The catastrophic Queensland floods occurred as I ended work. Any philosophical thoughts were swept away in the aftermath. My son and heavily pregnant daughter-in-law’s house was inundated. My first grandchild, a beautiful girl, was born soon after. My other son’s life was turbulent as he and his partner returned from travel to help, trying to find accommodation to finish their study. My teenage daughter was inexplicably barred from a course at university due to a computer error. My mother’s care needs suddenly escalated. A planned trip was cancelled after my passport was lost in transit at the last minute. And of course, I fell sick when the immediate needs of family had been met. I was grateful to have had that space to be able to be there with those I love as they dealt with life.
As the mud settled (dust seems an inappropriate metaphor), I lifted my head and looked around. Without work filling the days, there was potential space to think, but it was constantly eroded by everyday minutia. Already retired, my husband had an established rhythm to his days. But, it wasn’t my rhythm. I was weary of decades of alarm clock awakenings and loved hovering between slumber and waking, capturing wisps of dreams to draw into my days. He loved the early mornings and wanted to keep the alarm routine to escape into the shed or bush while it was still cool. Falling into his routine and into other people’s expectations of what a sixty year old does seemed the default option.
After a few months, I decided to reclaim my intention of using this year to explore creative possibilities for living and working, before choosing my husband’s life, the life of a doting grandmother or of a lunching dilettante. I knew I didn’t want to return to the pressure cooker world of fully engaged professional life, but I didn’t want to settle into a retirement that stretched in an amorphous vacuum unto death without exploring other options. The word ‘retirement’ has negative connotations of withdrawal from life and disengagement from contributing to a larger purpose. Yet many work activities, particularly arduous administrative tasks, seem pointless and don’t make a positive difference to anyone’s life. I also felt that my ability to do what I enjoy most – to enthuse, support and connect people with each other and with creative ideas – is muffled and dulled in the all-consuming world of conventional work.
On a gut feeling, I enrolled in a two courses. One was an academic course that explored the process of Life Review or guided autobiography in helping people make sense of the past in order to move forward – perfect for this transitional period. The other was a Life Writing course in Bali that I had lusted after for years; I’d wanted to be a writer all my life, but had only written as an academic or in my journal. They were expensive – but I figured I could go back to work at the end of the year to pay off the debts. A dear friend in her fifties had died the year before I tuned sixty and her words about making the most of life kept replaying in my head.
As soon as I’d made this decision, I was amazed at the people, ideas, connections and opportunities that flowed towards me. For once in my life, I let go of making firm decisions and aiming for concrete outcomes (it was only for a few months I figured). I began to explore and pay attention to what inspires me, lights me up and sustains rather than drains my energy, passion and spirit. I read Jung, studied more about Buddhism, attended writing courses, began dancing in a contemporary dance company for mature aged women. I talked with friends, met wonderful new people of a similar stage, walked with family, meditated and did yoga. There are lots of things I intended to do but didn’t quite manage. I’d always thought I wanted to be an earth mother when I had time – but somehow writing and dancing were more attractive than vegie growing and patchwork. Even though I would dearly love to be that women (and might, in my seventies), there were too many other enticing people and ideas to connect with and explore.
I’m back at work now, although it’s only casual part time research. I love the connection with people and ideas that comes with the job, but still hate that dratted alarm clock. In these winter mornings, it screeches through the dark before the kookaburras. I’m playing around with new monikers for what I might do over this next decade that allows time for my dreams as well as being with those I love. Titles such as ‘writer, facilitator and researcher sound good. Or maybe I don’t need a title.
As I explore this transition between working life and lifework, I’m trying to practice mindfulness. Although I’m gaining a lot through exploring my past experiences and imagining possibilities for a future, I try not to get lost in these reveries by coming back to the reality of the now. I’ve talked about mindfulness in a previous blog as wide-awake awareness, paying attention with openness, curiosity and flexibility. There are connections between mindfulness and philosophies that have inspired me over the years, from Aristotle’s notion of eudaimonia or ‘human flourishing’, through Existential ideas about authenticity to Buddhist teachings about contentment.
I’m enjoying being alive. I feel well and am a lot healthier. I’m playing with blogging, reading interesting research, trying to distil philosophy into everyday writing, and rediscovering dance, design and day dreaming. I’m deeply grateful for the past experiences and current opportunities in my life, knowing how privileged I am in having had this space. And I’m hoping – trusting – that I can draw on this year to contribute something of value to others.