Are you someone who does not feel old but has awakened one day to discover you are old? Do you know you’re entering another phase of life but don’t know what to think about it? Are you facing life with no career plan after living a life filled with plans?
I hope if you’re like me, in the retirement years of life, that those questions jolted you a bit. They did me. A few weeks ago, we were on an ocean cruise to the Baltic countries. I took two books along to enjoy for those leisure times at sea. After a long interest-grabbing day cruising into the beauty of a fjord in Norway and, along the way, pigging out on scalloped-edged waffles topped with whipped cream and strawberry jam, posing for pictures with a so-called genuine Nordic Viking, getting drenched while nosed tightly into a waterfall, observing incisive glacier-made cuts into the fjord’s rocky walls, and discovering the famed Pulpit Rock amidst the clouds, that evening, after dinner, I burrowed under my thick crisp cotton sheet, my husband already asleep at my side, and reached over to the nightstand for one of the books I’d taken along.
Prepared lusciously for an hour of quiet reading while listening to the smooth rolling splashes of the waves through the cracked-open veranda door, I started reading the introduction to the book I’d grabbed. And therein ended any luscious hour of quietness.
The book? Joan Chittister’s The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully. In the Introduction, she presents what she intends to write about. I wasn’t even into the real deal yet when I started to feel unsettled with questions like those above that I was taking from the material. What rang familiar was when she asked, regarding aging, “What is the meaning of all of this?” (p. xiv).
On vacation or not, I don’t need anyone prompting me to think about the meaning of life. For years, my sisters and I would perseverate on the meaning of life, work, retirement, and death. And now, ironically, after two of my three sisters have died in recent years, my remaining sister had recommended this book to me. And here I was on my comfy bed swaying gently on the Baltic Sea, no land in site, being prompted once again to consider what life is all about. Specifically, life in this post-career stage.
I’d been thinking about that anyway, of course, as I’d started musing on my life at one year after our move from a Chicago high rise to a Sioux Falls twin home, from a city of three million to a city of 175,000. So I began a list in my head of things I liked about my new home. I’ve had to confront those questions above during my major transition of starting over with no career, no identity, and no plans, in strange surroundings, to be closer to our daughter and family.
I’ve written extensively here about that adjustment under a series titled The Move. So, here’s a one-year update. We’ve found a church, an important foundation for our lives. It has all the things I like—a 9:30 service (caters to my life-long Sunday morning 9:30 habit), a minister who challenges my thinking, a soprano soloist who sanctifies each service with O Lord hear my prayer, O Lord hear my prayer, When I call, answer me. O Lord hear my call, O Lord hear my call, Come and listen to me, dynamic organists and pianists, and a core group of friendly parishioners.
Also, I’ve found my niche with the OLLI courses I’ve explained before. This session I’m again visiting retirement villages for fun, taking a Sioux Falls Issues course so I can learn more about my new city, and attending a series on John Calvin, the reformer underpinning the two denominations of which I’ve been a member. And, nicely surprising to me, there are all the advantages here of living in a large city, but on a much smaller scale. We have a symphony. We have multiple sources for attending plays. We have a convention center; we even have Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood here this month for nine performances!
No, I’m not going, but will be babysitting, so our kids can go.
I’ve learned to love my home at street level on grass! I still love my high-rise living, of course, but I love hearing birds in the morning after 11 years of the hum of street traffic 17 floors below. I love looking out on low rolling hills of grass in shades of green, a sort of complement to my years of looking out on Lake Michigan with its ever-varying hues of blue. I love having a cross breeze which you can’t have if the windows in your city condo only face east. And, believe it or not, I’m getting used to the quiet…the intense quiet of my neighborhood that sometimes makes me wonder if my husband and I are the only inhabitants.
The thing I miss the most, of course, are the friends I left behind. Chittister addresses that too. She says her book “will look at what happens to us as our old relationships end and shift, change and disappear in favor of the many new people and new challenges that come to take their place.” (p. xv).
That night on the Baltic Sea, I finished the Introduction and decided not to read the rest of the book on that vacation. I wanted something lighter, so I read a lighter, though not light! book instead. But I’ve read more since we got home and am encouraged by how Chittister reminds the reader that each stage of our lives, the joys and the challenges, prepares us for the next stage. So we come to this stage with years of preparation. Then she says, “These are the capstone years, the time in which a whole new life is in the making again. But the gift of these years is not merely being alive—it is the gift of being more alive than ever.” (p. xvi).
I’m grateful for the marvelous God-granted “gift” of these later years. I hope to continue making them as “alive” as I can, accepting inevitable physical declines, but following Chittister’s optimism that it’s up to me to determine how I approach this stage of life. She says, “We can decide to live with joy. Or we can allow ourselves to live looking back with bitterness.” (p. 29).
I choose joy! And I hope you can too.