The leaves are turning, the thermometer is dropping and school buses have transformed easy summer routes into stop-and-go traffic. School is now in full swing for many throughout Western New York – but not for everyone. For some, packing up the classroom last spring was for keeps; the decision to do something different with the autumn meant that the school year would start without us.
A word like “retirement” implies that there are only backward looks, a separation from the world as it was. Instead of a dynamic week, broken up only by each weekend’s treasures, many conjure the week of the retired as a lake’s calm surface, with no need to stuff all errands into two days. How we spend our time may depend in part on who we were, but for those of us lucky enough to make the switch while healthy, our time is also determined by what we choose to do.
It is time to invent a new word, a new way to think about what happens after a lifetime of work. I offer this new image, shifting gears in life, along with the image of two gears working together, with thanks to for the basics of gears. The big gear, pre-retirement life, works with any small gear, the things introduced into our lives during the new era of life – retirement.
If you turn the small gear, the big gear goes slower. New small gears are the parts of our lives that we insert, opportunities we had only limited time for, during our working lives. We gradually change the way we live, because the big gear (who we were) is no longer driving us. Many people bring their grandchildren into their lives, and they get new ways to participate in “Grandparents Days” at school, or helping their children with routine after-school care. Some of us take up new hobbies – photography, in my case – and find that “who we were” lessens, while “who we are” evolves.
There are other small gears that can control us – health crises, home repair necessities, financial concerns leading to a return to a new kind of work. Each of these moves us, to bring who we were into focus in a new way, as we draw upon our old lives to help us with the new. If you turn the big gear, the small gear goes faster. Shifting gears emerges from our lifetime of interests, curiosities and requirements. One good, new experience leads to others.
Recently, I participated in amazing bus and walking tours of Buffalo. Along with visitors, local people were exploring their roots. For some, the tours involved a return to the neighborhoods where they once had lived. For others, the tour visited parts of the city where they once had worked. But the pre-retirement self was guiding an awareness of the history, culture and art available here in Western New York. Each tour was led by an articulate, well-informed docent – someone whose gears were bringing together past, present and future.
The slow one has more torque (it can push harder) and the fast one has less torque, but more speed. New times in life require choices. We must decide how to prioritize, to generate options, to spend time with people who really matter. What is more important? We can either have strength or speed, not both. Ideally, we choose, and with each choice we make, we are distancing ourselves from who we were, and deliberately, consciously, moving toward who we will become.