Of all the artists I’ve described on this blog, most have been driven in old age by a passion to do what they’ve always done-make art. As I read Ronni Bennett’s column in Wednesday’s Time Goes By, I began to wonder if artists are in a privileged position. They don’t retire, unless they’ve always had a day job and retirement means they can finally do their real work full-time. In my case, even when I wasn’t self-employed, my day job was never confining and always creative, so that retirement mostly meant that I got a Social Security check every month which, since I hadn’t paid much attention to my increasing age, seemed like an unexpected piece of good fortune.
I’ve never known quite what to do about the word “retirement.” It doesn’t describe what I do so I don’t like to use it label myself. On the other hand, it’s a simple way to fill in the blank on a form. I don’t have to explain anything. The reader of the form, the questioner, whoever, will just chuck me into the category of “retired” and I can go on about my life.
Ronni and several of her respondents were discussing what retirement means to them-”growing, learning, individuating, becoming all that we can be” – sounds good! – except that for some people it doesn’t seem all that wonderful. There are the physical problems of old age that are so much worse for some of us than for others and, of course, money problems and, as Ronni puts it, “a culture that does everything possible to marginalize old people.” Including, I might add, chuck them into the aforementioned category of “retirement.”
And that was when I realized what was bothering me about the column: the word “retirement.” As if we were no longer involved in life, no longer active, no longer contributing, as if we were finished …. That certainly isn’t true of the artists I’ve described in my posts. I suspect that it’s not true of many “retirees.”
Of the people Ronni Bennett quotes, one worries that “I find it often hard to just relax and enjoy and validate myself in retired activities.” She describes what she does and it all sounds useful and worthy, and some of it even fun, but then adds, “I still worry if I’m doing ‘enough’ with my energies.” Then, finally: “My question to those who’ve retired a decade or more is: Does it get easier to define yourself in internal, retired-type endeavors as the years go on?”
That’s exactly why I started writing this blog. I don’t want to do “retired activities.” Artists don’t have to; they just keep on going. I suspect that there are other people, not artists, who have something they need to do in “retirement.” Something that drives them. I can’t live without a purpose. I may never publish a good book, I don’t know. I just know I have to keep writing.
Of course, there are people who love a long holiday. More power to them. This woman doesn’t sound like one of them. She sounds like someone who needs to work.
Which reminds me of something else Ronni Bennett discusses: the importance of simply being, of being identified by something other than our jobs, an anomaly in the United States where we start conversations with strangers with the question, “And what do you do?” I spoke about being in my last post, or at least about some people who, as Jesse Jackson said about Dorothy Height, “beeeze.”
But, you know, not one the people I described there ever stopped working for what mattered to her or to him. Not one of them “retired.”