Stepping Out Of The Shadows: Does Retirement Come at the Wrong Time of Life?
Here I am, half way through a group tour in China. Taking this particular journey started when David came home some months ago and said he was going to China. He’d heard about a trip from one of his locker room pals and he wanted to see China. I’ve been to China twice before (see end of post for more details), so wasn’t initially very excited about another trip there, but David’s enthusiasm washed over me and since we’ve always had such terrific adventures travelling I decided I’d join him. The friend who told him about this trip, and his wife, were going as well, so we’d be a little group. As we’d “landed” a few gigs with our Great Trials that Changed The Course of History course we didn’t really get into high enthusiasm because we were focusing on starting to develop new material. By September we had made three commitments to teaching in 2017: San Miguel de Allende, Mexico in February (that class is full already), George Brown College in the spring, and in the fall at the University of Toronto. We were on a roll.
China adventure #3 (for China Adventure #1 and #2 see the end of this post)
Why did I include the back-story at the end of this post? I wanted to you have a glimpse of my past history in China and why I wasn’t initially as excited about this trip as David was. Now – on to today’s story.
In early September David started buying Chinese beer and we began watching films about the history of China. Okay, you’re still with me here? Hang on! Three weeks before we were to leave for China David announced that he was finished with this relationship and stormed out; no conversation, no explanation, just the parting words “good luck”. As someone once said, you learn more about someone at the end of a relationship than at the beginning. My initial shock and sadness was quite overwhelming. What about our love for each other? What about China? What about Mexico, and George Brown College, and the University of Toronto? What about … ? What about … ? What about … ? Once I had caught my breath I recognized how diminished I had come to feel in this relationship and, bit by bit, came to the realization that we would both be “better off” on our own. Mostly we’d had a wonderful 4 years together and, as they were the years where he moved into his 70s and I was looking that particular landmark in the eye, we both felt truly blessed by finding each other. But when things started to go off the rails – as they seemed to do every 5 months or so – we hadn’t been able to find a way to sort issues out. Being able to talk openly and deeply with your partner and then hear what they are saying and find a way back to the joy is the foundation of a loving relationship I think. And try though we both did it just didn’t quite work. One week after the demise of our relationship we were to attend an orientation meeting with the tour company taking us to China and by this point I had decided that I would indeed follow through with the China plan even if he didn’t. His friend and his wife were going to be on the trip so I knew I wouldn’t be entirely on my own. I’m not crazy about group tours and the idea of going without David was agonizing. Five days before flying off I found out that there had been a death in the other couple’s family and they’d cancelled their trip. Still, with support from family and friends, 10 days later I left on my own for China – not really on my own since I’d be with a group of other travellers who were on the same tour, or so I thought. I needed the time away to reboot, and I wanted to see parts of China I hadn’t yet visited.
In the usual rush of a group tour we were led quickly – by our lovely and very talented national tour guide leader Miranda – through highlights of Beijing in 1 day. Next day we went to the Great Wall where I did indeed climb right to the top this time although I hadn’t been strong enough to do that 10 years earlier. There should be a certificate of some sort for that achievement as there is for climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. A small cheer of “way to go” would be appreciated. We flew to Xi’an and I was absolutely gobstopped when I saw the Terracotta Army with over 8000 warriors unearthed in the most massive excavation I’ve ever seen. Then it was on to Shanghai. Wait a moment. The flight is cancelled? There’s a typhoon in the south of China which had already reeked havoc in the Philippines. We were taken to a hotel that I’m quite certain is part of the Bates Motel chain for a few hours then back to the airport and we finally arrived at our hotel in Shanghai around 2 a.m. An hour and a half later, after the hotel had figured out how to fix the heating so that my room wasn’t at 18 degrees I was finally able to go to sleep … until our 5:30 wake-up call.
By this point I was thoroughly exhausted which is not a good way to heal a heart or to stay healthy, and my arm was hurting more and more each day. Every day I sat by myself on the bus, and at each and every meal I sat at a table with 4 couples who talked mostly among themselves. They are lovely, caring people I’m sure, and sometimes even fun to be with. An aside to anyone who takes group tours with their partners. If there’s a single person on your bus or at the table welcome her/him into your journey. Don’t ignore them. No hairy eyeballs please. Don’t walk right by them when you’re going out for dinner; invite them to come along. Women travelling alone should not be treated as pariahs. I struggle each day to put on a happy face as the tune goes.
So you can imagine my utter delight when I had a long conversation with a couple who were on the same Huangpu River trip in Shanghai. We talked for most of the trip. That was the first engaging conversation I’d had since leaving home. I’d asked them if they had voted before coming to China – they were from the Washington area and well educated so I took a chance that they weren’t Trumpunatics – and we talked about philosopy and science and their daughter who was one of the first women to be ordained as an Orthodox Rabbi. At some point I told them about the work that I’d done over the year in the area of social justice in education, and they started talking to me about possibly coming to their community to speak and maybe even teach something at Pardes in Jerusalem. I was happier for that hour than I’d been for weeks and I spent some time afterwards realizing that at some level I was blaming myself for the behaviour of my bus/table mates much as I’d blamed myself for David’s behavior. Not okay! That’s when the light went on and I paused long enough to look at myself with both the strengths and gifts I offer and the struggles I experience.
From Shanghai we flew to Wuhan. The next morning we spent 3.5 hours on a bus to Jingzhou and before you can say Mao Tse Tung we embarked on our Yangtze River cruise. That’s where I am as I write this. At 6:30 this morning I did Tai Chi followed by a lecture on traditional Chinese medicine. Then I went on a short hike to the White Emperor City on the north bank of the Quang Gorge which has existed for over 2200 years … since the Han dynasty. I knew I could find a way to get my newest grandchild’s name into the story! I went out on the open deck when we returned from our hike and met an absolutely fabulous woman from England who just oozed strength, determination, individuality and humour; all characteristics I enjoy. We agreed to meet in the bar at happy hour, but I didn’t quite make it. This glorious day ended in the office of the Chinese doctor who gave the morning lecture (after getting pre-approval from the travel insurance folks) because a cold that’s been running through the group had laid me low and was now apparently affecting my right lung. I had an intravenous antibiotic treatment that night, and another one the next afternoon. I’m still not feeling anywhere near 100% but better that I was. I’m drinking hot water, lemon and honey by the gallon. I’m hoping his treatments will have banished the cold and that I’ll feel much better in a few more days.
To summarize: What’s my thinking today about life after retirement?
This trip has so far been fabulous and I’m having a great time despite moments of wrenching sadness and considerable arm pain.There are an awful lot of retired folks out here – and some who are still working – who are fortunate enough to be having a wonderful time seeing the world. Dick Gephardt, former House Majority and House Minority leader (Democrat) said that “those who have prospered and profited from life’s lottery have a moral obligation to share their good fortune.” I couldn’t agree more.
Most of the people that I’ve spoken to about their transition to retirement had followed a similar path. First a period of sleeping in late, dawdling over coffee and a newspaper in the morning. Then cleaning cupboards and sheds and planting gardens. Trying several different kinds of volunteering until they found their niche. Finding a way to contribute the strengths and talents they had nurtured and honed during their many days – and nights – spent working working, working. Because we’re still mostly pretty healthy and eager to learn about the world as it changes and then changes and then changes again.
And some of us have accumulated a fair amount of knowledge in the years we’ve walked this world.
And some of us are prepared to say that they are truly sorry for errors made (whether with spouses, children, friends, or ourselves).
This – our retirement years – is an age of reconciliation I believe. As computer graphic artist Zero Dean said: “not everyone will understand your journey. That’s fine. It’s not their journey to make sense of. It’s yours.” For some of us, and maybe even many of us, we have to become reconciled to the fact that the life that we have actually lived is not the life we had imagined. There’s a great disappointment in that which must be faced. I thought that I’d marry once and have a partner who would love me and stand by me for the rest of my life. I thought that I’d have children and grandchildren who would sit around the table with me on Jewish holidays to celebrate, but mostly we would share our lives with each other. Don’t get me wrong. I love all of my children and grandchildren with my full heart, and I think that they have all turned out be pretty wonderful adults who I am very proud of. They’ve chosen their own paths and sometimes that has taken them far away from me … and that’s fine because they are living their own lives. I’m blessed, of course, to have one son who lives right here in Toronto and with whom I do share life’s journey closely. I thought I’d be a doctor (I was inspired by an Australian TV show I watched as a child – The Flying Doctor) and ended up becoming a teacher because I needed to be able to support my children independently and medical school was too long a journey for that; also the demands of medical school would mean I’d have little time with my children as they were growing up and that was my priority. I loved being a teacher, and I still do.
I thought I would be healthy until my “older” years, and that was mostly true – with the exception of a broken finger from a horse-riding trip in the Kluane Mountains (in 1992) and a fractured rib or two from a car accident in Scotland (in 1995 I think); both of which I quickly recovered from. And then things changed. A massive sub-arachnoid brain haemorrhage in Sept. 2013 was the first blow. I recovered … mostly. Then in Jan. 2015 I went skating and the demolition of my right arm was underway. I have a great surgeon … and I’m not just saying that because he’s about to cut into me once again. And yet, 5 months after the first operation 2 screws came loose and had to be surgically removed, followed by an episode a week after that with another screw and another surgery. Sept. 2016 I had a bone graft which should have been the final touch on this, and then – 10 days after that – we were rear-ended on the highway, my elbow was rebroken even though it was in a cast, and that meant another major surgery, 7 weeks with an external fixator (should be able to see one in the hall of horrors), and another year of physio and training and here I am facing another surgery just a week after I come home from China. That’s a lot to accept with magnanimity, but I am trying.
In between medical disasters I spent months taking care of my sweet mother and was with her when she died peacefully in her own bedroom. For those of you who have lost a mom – my dad had died a number of years earlier and that was hard too, but nothing prepared me for losing my mom – I’m sure that you agree that it is an enourmous blow. She was my anchor. She was the only person in my family that I could count on to sit at my Shabbat table or holiday table with me and with friends each week. She loved me and I loved her. We spoke on the phone several times each day for years, and then in the last few months I spent every day with her. I miss her every time there’s a beautiful sunset or I smell cookies baking or I have an idea I want to share.
I think that retirement for those of us lucky enough to experience it is a great thing. I also think that it would be better if we could do it sooner, before our health starts to deteriorarte and the losses start to accumulate. I remember reading a theory some years ago that we should complete our education, have a 10 – 20 year retirement period (I guess government funded) and then start working so that we’d be vitally engaged right through to our demise. That sounds better and better to me. I also recall a Star Trek episode about a culture where everyone lived in perfect health until the age of 80, and then threw a big party to celebrate their life and – like Socrates – ended with a cup of hemlock.
Our guide on this trip to China – Miranda – shared some wise words with me. Indeed, I have found that wisdom abounds in China, and I think it’s because people have fewer expectations of what their lives might be and that when they are able to meet those expectations they are happy. Our guide on the Yangtse river yesterday has to walk down the mountain at 4 a.m. each morning to get to her job and then walk 2 hours back up the mountain after her work day. She loves her husband and her daughter who will begin university next year. She is happy. In the western world – where depression abounds – I’m not sure we’re ever really content with what we have. Trump promises a return to a world that no longer exists (and I can’t begin to tell you how much I wish that he didn’t exist … or at least the hatefulness that he feeds on and nourishes didn’t exist). With no plan for how to get “there”, he espouses an image of the magic he can perform and curries favour among those who are struggling to live what they still hold as the American dream. PLEASE DON’T VOTE FOR HIM!!!!!! I don’t want Canada to have to build a wall, which of course the U.S. will pay for since that’s his plan, just to keep overt racism at bay.
Miranda’s advice. Get out of the shadows! Don’t let the losses and missed opportunities and the realities of life leave you cowering in the dark. Live life with an open heart and your face turned to the sun. I think that’s wisdom in a few words.
For those of who interested here are the tales of my earlier visits to China
China adventure #1
The first time was with an organization called Trees For Life Canada which partners classrooms in Canada and China; each child involved receiving what appeared to be a very small milk carton with a surprise in it: a little wee tree sapling. Schools in both countries then planted their trees and tended to them while corresponding with each other about the growth of their trees and beginning to explore why some did better than others, what trees need to thrive etc. It was a beautiful way to introduce environmental awareness and the children grew to understand that what we do to our air in Canada has an effect on China, and that what they do to their air in China effects us. I was asked to join a team going to visit the Trees for Life China schools. My three most vibrant images of that trip? Arriving at an elementary school with about 2300 students who were standing outside in the cement playground lined up – military style with lines that were perfectly straight both up and down and FIND RIGHT WORD. We were marched onto a stage (there were 5 of us representing Trees for Life Canada) where we sat and sat and sat while speeches – in Mandarin – were given by what I could only assume from their pomposity were local politicos of some ilk. I began looking closely at the faces of the children, trying to spot one who was squirming even a little. I started making eye contact and smiling at them – no reaction. I even tried little waves with my hands dangling at my sides – no reaction. This went on for about 40 minutes (I was likely the squirmiest one attending) and they stood perfectly still … and I can’t imagine how long they’d been standing already because it takes time to get 2300 little people out of a school and onto a playground. I visited classrooms in Beijng and young teachers flocked around asking me to please teach them how to do group learning; they’d heard about it but had no training in how to do it. At this point in China students sat in rows, feet on the floor, backs straight, standing to respond to questions, and then sitting back down with their hands under them unless they were working. By the end of the week in Beijing I had promised those exuberant teachers that I’d be returning to Beijng in a few days and would be pleased to introduce them to what could be an earth-shaking change in approaching learning. I left them with one warning. They were opening a Pandora’s box. The quiet, orderly classroom they were used to would never be the same again. Children sitting around tables working collaboratively was absolutely the other end of the spectrum; noisy chaotic, messy. But wonderful! We left Beijing and flew to Chengdu where we were to see the pandas. When we arrived at the hotel in Chengdu I was told that my son Joshua had left a message to call him immediately – and I did. My father had died. I never made it back to those teachers, although our group leader expressed my sadness that I hadn’t been able to work with them. From Beijng I flew to Thailand and then on to Israel where I met my father – in a coffin – and once he was buried on Har Hatzofim just outside of Jerusalem later the same day – early evening really – I flew home.
China adventure #2
My second trip to China was in 2006 when I was sent by the Ministry of Education to inspect 3 schools in China that gave students a route to getting an Ontario Graduation Certificate. I am a bit fuzzy on all of the rules they had to meet, but basically these schools were certified as private schools – just like other ones in Ontario – and so students had to meet all of the same requirements as our students here at home. 80% of their teachers had to be Ontario qualified, and students had to pass the same English Proficiency Test that students in Toronto would take. Entire extended families in China would pool their resources so that 1 child could more readily be accepted into a Canadian or American university. As a private school they also had to be inspected by someone from the Ministry every 2 years (relax, at their expense not Ontario’s taxpayers) and I was fortunate enough to be asked to go to China. This time it was up to me to organize the trip itself which took many many days. I flew to Hong Kong and had a weekend there to get over jetlag and on Monday morning I flew to school #1 where I spent the week sitting in on classes, talking with administrators and teachers and students, and reviewing student portfolios; ensuring that the marks and the student work were a match. Then back to Hong Kong where I met my husband – at that time – and we had a week of hiking together around Guilin. First thing Monday morning he flew home and I flew on to school #2 and then on to school #3. I spent a weekend in Shanghai to complete my paper-work and then I flew home.