Balancing the Forces

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It has been a year now since I have semi-retired. Friends ask how I’m doing, what it’s like.

The truth? I’m a living science experiment. My semi-retirement is an example of centripetal force and centrifugal force.

Centrifugal force is that force that pushes an object away from the center of a rotating object. If you’re on one of those carnival rides that rises and rotates, it is centrifugal force that pushes your chair away from the center pole as you spin. My retirement is my centrifugal force. It makes me step away from the center, reluctant to involve myself in things that aren’t worth my time. It keeps me inoculated from office politics, and places me in the middle of huge swaths of solitude. It makes me grateful that I will never have to willingly spend time with a twit again.

Centripetal force is what pulls things toward the center of a rotation, keeping it neatly moving in a circle. Back to the carnival, it is centripetal force that keeps you in your seat when you’re suspended upside down at the top of a roller coaster loop. It’s the “semi” in my retirement that keeps me coming back to the center of action, getting involved in writing groups, taking cooking classes, taking an interest in local politics. Perhaps it’s ego, but the sting of answering “Nothing” to the query about what I do for a living keeps my calendar filled.

But here’s the key. If you read about these forces, there’s an important clue in the definition: “In a properly rotating part, such as a wheel, both forces must be equal. If the centripetal force is overcome or ceases to exist, the wheel will ‘explode,’ the parts flying off in all directions.”

So what is semi-retirement like? It’s trying to find the balance so the parts don’t fly off in all directions.

Carnival swing

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Bored? Good!

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When I decided to (semi) retire, besides being afraid I’d run out of money and become a bag lady, I was afraid of being bored. I preemptively researched places to volunteer, concerts, restaurants to try in my new city.

Because I have had some kind of job since I was 15, I could not even imagine endless days of not working.

I’ve been afraid of boredom since I was a girl. After all, when I’d complain to my parents that I was bored, they would quickly warn me they had an endless number of chores with which to fill my young hours. So boredom was something to be punished.

Even today, anything is better than boredom.

I fill my inbox with subscriptions and, in the rare moments I don’t have the mental capacity to read, I play endless games of Dots or Minesweeper on my mobile devices. Because I’m afraid that if I don’t fill my mind with activity, it will be the beginning of mental and emotional decline.

I recently read an article that has me rethinking that notion. In it, British psychoanalytical writer Adam Phillips, defines boredom as it starts in childhood:

“Every adult remembers, among many other things, the great ennui of childhood, and every child’s life is punctuated by spells of boredom: that state of suspended anticipation in which things are started and nothing begins, the mood of diffuse restlessness which contains that most absurd and paradoxical wish, the wish for a desire.”

Phillips argues that boredom serves a purpose:

“Boredom, I think, protects the individual, makes tolerable for him the impossible experience of waiting for something without knowing what it could be. So that the paradox of the waiting that goes on in boredom is that the individual does not know what he was waiting for until he finds it, and that often he does not know what he is waiting… Clearly, we should speak not of boredom, but of boredoms, because the notion itself includes a multiplicity of moods and feelings that resist analysis; and this, we can say, is integral to the function of boredom as a kind of blank condensation of psychic life.”

Phillips posits that boredom is full of possibilities because it challenges us with simply “being.”

And that can be terrifying.

When my mother was dying, she couldn’t focus on a book or even on the television.

“This is boring,” she said from her hospital bed.

Who knew that dying could be boring? And yet, maybe it has to be. Without filling time with activity, it allows the mind to open, to cast about among possibilities, to settle on what it is one wants to do, ie let go of life.

When you are bored, often it is because you are tired of your own company. But at the important times of life, whether it is dying or crisis, you had better be able to spend time with yourself.

I may need to practice boredom, just as I do meditation, although it seems the opposite of meditation, in which I focus on my breath and a chant. With boredom, it is the very lack of focus that brings possibilities.

So maybe my new retirement goal – although I still don’t want to run through my money and be a bag lady – is to leave space to be bored.

Boredom

STOP AND SMELL THE BURNT TOAST

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There are times when life tries to teach you a lesson.  Maybe this morning was one of those times.

 After several days of flat-on-my-back sickness, I woke up feeling almost human again. I decided to celebrate by making a full breakfast for my also-back-from-the-dead husband. Omelet, bacon, toast, coffee. Bacon perfect, eggs almost done, toast made from those little end-of-the-loaf scraps because I am trying to be frugal. Only they stuck in the toaster. And burned – just a little, honest. But you would think I had started a blazing inferno. Smoke alarms began shrieking throughout the house.

 I threw open the windows, propping them up because our house is crooked, so the windows don’t stay up. Waved a towel. Put on the kitchen fan.

 Meanwhile, the little dog, the crazy one, head-butted the screen door and bolted out to the yard, a grim look on her face that said, “Save yourselves, suckers!”

 With memories of fire trucks screaming up when something similar happened in northern Virginia (I promise I don’t burn food on a regular basis, no matter what it sounds like), I frantically called the Charleston fire department. Where I was reminded once again that this isn’t the high-paced metro area I came from.

 “Thank you for calling,” the soothing recorded voice said with maddening slowness. “Our office hours are…..if this is an emergency, call 911.”

 As I called the alarm company to cancel the fire trucks that surely would be turning the corner any minute, my husband called the emergency number – 911 – to call off the emergency.

 Surprise. The smoke alarm connected to the alarm company never went off. Apparently the screaming demons in our ceilings were not hard-wired, they were just to alert us to smoke. So, no fire crew had been dispatched.

 What had seemed an emergency – wasn’t.

 I’m pretty sure this was one of those moments intended to teach me a basic life lesson. Slow down? Stop and watch the toast? Keep perspective amid chaos? Not sure. Still trying to figure out the lesson and resist the urge to slip a little booze into that morning coffee to slow down to a Charleston pace. Now to coax the dog back inside.   

 

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Won’t You Be My Friend?

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It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood,
A beautiful day for a neighbor,
Would you be mine? Could you be mine?

                      –Fred Rogers, from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood

I know I am in the minority, but I always thought Mr. Rogers was kind of creepy. I mean, really…what was he thinking, coming right out and asking us to be his friends? Sure, that kind of direct demand is cute in a child, but in an adult, it’s a little off-putting.

It’s like people who attend networking events and quit after a time or two, disappointed that their grip-and-grins didn’t result in hard business leads.

For grownups, it just doesn’t work that way.

It takes shared experiences, commonalities, time to build trust.

Which is why it’s so hard to figure out how to make friends in my adopted city.

I no longer work in an office every day, and writing is a solitary pursuit, so I don’t have the luxury of building up those daily contacts that lead to friendship.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I’m lonely. I’m an only child, so being by myself suits me just fine. But I have met a couple of people here whom I like. I’ve had coffee with one, gone to a play with another, dinner with a couple.

But after, I find myself like an anxious date. Will they call again? Should I end the evening with plans for the next time? How long before I can call them without seeming pathetic?

I can’t just turn to them like Mr. Rogers and say, “Won’t you be my friend” without seeming like some kind of stalker.

So the question I have is…what are the rules for grownups for making friends?

Friendship when you're older...

Friendship when you’re older…

STILETTOS NOT REQUIRED

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I bought a black leather motorcycle jacket, so trendy that the fashion magazines have nicknamed it “moto jacket.” It makes me feel badass whenever I slip into its soft embrace.

I do not ride a motorcycle. But I have begun a new journey: semi-retirement in a new city.

What to wear on this trip? I know stilettos are not required, but neither am I ready for Birkenstocks or Crocs. No one knows me here in my new city, and I have the chance to reinvent myself.

It is a much smaller house in Charleston, SC, a funky 1840s single with a tipsy porch and an appalling lack of closet space. Back in northern Virginia, in my big, walk-in closet, I felt like Heidi Klum on Project Runway. Spike heels that drove spikes of pain into the balls of my feet? They’re out — can’t walk on cobblestones in those. Well, maybe just the metal-and-blue ones that always get me noticed. Beautifully-cut business suits in funky colors? Out, save for a couple of tweed jackets that pair well with jeans.

A few hours later, it was clear that I wasn’t just shedding clothes, I was shedding layers of my identity; some of them stung, and some of them clung. Would I really never stride into a client meeting clad in power colors? Would I even need power colors in my new life? Yes, I am retiring, but I am still young. I’m not ready for sensible shoes and a large purse.

So, although I need the closet space desperately, I bought a black leather motorcycle jacket. Because what I needed most of all was to land in my new life feeling badass.

The badass moto jacket

The badass moto jacket