Retirement is a new beginning
Cameron Wyllie: Faffing is glorious, and to do so without the guilty feeling that you should really be working is more glorious yet
Here’s a thing I found out recently – the Spanish word for retirement is ‘jubilación’: it is not a great feat of translation to make that ‘jubilation’ – a feeling of great happiness which overwhelms one. For some people, of course, that will just confirm their prejudice about workshy foreigners, who, oddly, mostly have higher productivity figures than we do, even if everything is done ‘mañana’.
Here in Scotland, with its old Presbyterian work ethic, it’s ‘retirement’: just sliding off to the side of life, stopping work just as you begin to feel slightly crumbly, the end of employment signalling the onset of oldness – minding the grandchildren, winter holidays, the free bus pass, reduced prices, and thoughts about funeral planning and sheltered housing; even when most of us have twenty or thirty years of life ahead. The attitude is ‘home art gone, and ta’en thy wages’: no longer are we golden boys and girls, if we ever were.
I retired about fifteen months ago now, from a job I liked, a job it was an honour to do, but I had previously done a job I really loved. When I started teaching English, I didn’t like the long summer holidays, sitting around reading in rainy Edinburgh, penniless for most of August, having spent my ‘double salary’, as then happened, on my fortnight’s holiday in July. I wanted to be working, standing in front of classes and telling them about books; I would have done it for nothing, at least for a while. So I didn’t ache for retirement, but at the same time I didn’t fear it. I knew I would miss the collegiate environment of a school, but I also knew that I would see those colleagues who wanted to see me, and so it has been.
Here is what I have done. I am involved with five charities, mainly as a trustee; people think this takes up ages, but it probably averages out at about six hours a week. I am, through doing this, seeing life in a way I never did running an independent school. I write (obviously) and blog what I write, but I have not yet started the book I intend to finish in 2019, because ‘there is so much to do’. Often I walk along the prom in Portobello with a friend or friends; I spend too much on lunch, and cake. I see lots of people, though you have to be careful not to expect too much from people who are not, themselves, yet ‘jubilant’. I am learning to play the ukulele (a splendid retirement gift) taught by a former pupil who is a brilliant teacher; I have almost mastered ‘Me and Bobby McGee’, and I sing along as I agonisedly find the next chord (G minor very hard for a left hander). I take classes in the history of Scottish Art. I go to the cinema. I read. I garden. I intend to clean the house. I make puddings for Mr F. I visit the sick and elderly and worry in a way characteristic of gay men of a certain age, about my own health. I have time to remove the hair in my ears. I can sleep as long as I want. Honestly, it’s great, even if I sometimes miss the chatter of the children. And my PA.
Things are different. I am much more aware of the weather and the length of the winter; this unusual February warmth has affected me almost viscerally. People say two things – ‘how well you look’ (of course I do, everyone who stops working looks better, often a decade younger in a year); and kind parents say ‘you must miss teaching’, which is true, but I have missed it for sixteen years. I have lived in the same house for thirty years this year and I have never known my neighbours better. One lady, to whom I have said ‘hello’ all that time, stopped me recently and told me her name – she had, she said, realised I must have retired, for here I was fetching my paper at 9.00 am on a weekday. I look at things differently – the landscape, the trees, the pictures on my wall and on the walls of galleries. I hear the music in my car. I concentrate. I am, I suppose, more ‘mindful’ though I do not have the time to spend 30 minutes thinking about the texture of any sultana.
I prefer, instead, to faff. Faffing is glorious, and to do so without the guilty feeling that you should really be working is more glorious yet. I can spend hours moving from one unexpected little task to another. Where is that blue scarf? I should text Jimmy. Where is my old address book? Why is this drawer full of crap? Why is the shelf dusty? The flowers need new water. There is that poor old man again, walking down the street – someday I must be nice to him. And so an hour, or three, can pass without you doing anything you intended to do, even if that was just picking out the chords for ‘You Are My Sunshine’. I feel no shame in faffing for after all, it is at least more productive than golf.
So let’s try to start educating people young and old, about ‘retirement’, and let’s stop using that word as the beginning of a reevaluation of this time of our lives, which for people aged 20 now may prove to be the longest time of their lives. We have a time when we are young and being educated, then we work, then we have our third age – stopping work is an ending, yes, but, much more importantly it is a beginning. Jubilation.
Cameron Wyllie is the former head of George Heriot's School
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