I gave him the name of an excellent psychologist who practices in Pasadena and answered his question about my new life with a quick "Oh, just fine..." which he heard immediately as less than enthusiastic.
And I realized that it would be impossible -- and probably not desirable -- to try to explain to this young man, in his twenties and struggling to establish himself in a career, that life in retirement is like life while working -- with its daily joys and challenges, the inevitable ups and downs. I told him that retirement was terrific but that it was a big life change. I told him that while I missed some aspects of my life in California, I was thoroughly enjoying life here in Arizona. And then I directed the conversation back to his immediate concerns.
After I hung up, I started thinking about life nearly three years into retirement, remembering a conversation Bob and I had had just that morning about how retirement has ceased to be a dream and is now simply life. And, being real life, sometimes it's positive and sometimes not.
When we first moved here, we were living a dream: marveling at the miracle of not having to get up, commute through clogged freeways and go to work every day. We delighted in the gym and the friendly group of exercisers we came to know well. We luxuriated in long afternoons in the recreational pool making new friends and enjoying our neighbors. And, oh, the neighbors. After years of knowing few of our neighbors in California, we were thrilled to be friends with everyone on our street, sharing dinners, parties, outings, pet-sitting duties, long talks and the joy of connecting with new people in a new place.
Three years later, life feels a bit more familiar -- a good life somewhat short of a dream.
There are times when Bob misses being "The Pump God", a well-known expert in his hydraulic engineering field. There are times when I think wistfully about how I enjoyed seeing patients back in my practice in California. Yet neither of us really wants to go back to work at these pursuits. We're busy with other interests and goals now. And yet there are times when we look back with a wistfulness we never imagined would happen.
There are times when going to the gym just feels like a daily routine and spending an afternoon in the lovely recreational pool seems a drain on time that could be better spent. And, after an initial burst of uncharacteristically frequent social activity, we've regressed and settled into our more familiar introspective, introverted behavioral patterns.
I smile when I remember conversations we used to have in the pool during that magical summer of 2010 about the first people to move into our community, residents who had lived here for three years before we moved in. We agreed that they had major bad attitudes, weren't that friendly and were curiously reserved about the joy of life in an active adult community.
Now we are them.
While there are some friends and neighbors we still enjoy greatly, reality has intruded on other neighborly relationships that have become less friendly, merely cordial, over time. Some neighbors have moved away already. Some have disappointed us...or have found us disappointing. So our neighborhood has ceased to be like an old television comedy -- with everyone dropping in and out of each others' homes -- and more like real life: distance with some, varying degrees of closeness with others.
While we still sometimes marvel at living in a resort community, the drawbacks we didn't anticipate when we bought our home nearly four years ago moderate our enthusiasm. We worry about the proposed copper mine that refuses to go away despite a series of resolutions passed by the town of Florence against in situ mining in a residential area. Some neighbors, initially charmed by our wide-open, rural location, now fret about our community's distance from shopping and movies and good restaurants, wondering if civilization will creep closer by the time they can no longer drive great distances.
In short, the retirement honeymoon is over.
In so many ways, it's like other phases of our lives after the thrill of novelty began to fade.
I remember a long-ago dinner party I enjoyed with six or seven journalism classmates about two years after graduation, when we were still quite new to our varied careers in the business. We were so enthusiastic, so idealistic, so excited about what we were doing and the directions our lives were taking. As the years went by, we still largely enjoyed what we did for a living, but reality had intruded: office politics, professional limitations, massive changes in the newspaper, magazine and book publishing industries. We all had our disappointments and battle scars to add to our work lore.
It's not so different with many marriages. Some people panic when the passion of their early love seems dimmed by the responsibilities of daily married life. I've seen clients in marriage counseling come close to giving up when they feared that love and passion were gone... when, in reality, their relationship was merely in transition, having one of those "distance then renewed closeness" phases that happen in long relationships.
It's not so different when some of the excitement fades from living one's retirement dream.
People have different reactions to this reality. Some put their homes up for sale and hope to live a dream anew elsewhere -- only to find, more often than not, that life elsewhere is pretty much the same. Some withdraw in disillusionment and disappointment. And some seek make the best of what is.
We're among the latter.
Realizing that constant happiness is an impossibility, even under the best of circumstances, we're making the choice to stay positive, to accept current reality and to make peace with what is.
A big factor in this is gratitude. We are living with gratitude at having lived long enough and having the resources -- no thanks to recessions, bursting housing bubbles and decimated 401Ks -- to retire.
We keep warm memories of the past and good times in the present closest to our hearts. This means that Bob's memories of being a technical whiz at his workplace make him smile and give thanks for those moments in his life. It means that I look back with wonder and gratitude as I remember the patients who allowed me into their lives and the moments we shared together.
And we take joy in the best of the present -- a moment of clarity with a dear friend, wonder at the beauty of this new and very different place, the joy of being physically active and those wonderful days when nothing hurts.
We've come to understand that happiness comes most readily not from getting, but from giving, not from hedonistic pleasures but from doing what gives our lives meaning. This meaning can cover a wide area of daily life -- from tenderly cuddling an aging, arthritic pet to helping someone in need to pursuing activities that make us excited to get up in the morning. And then there's the comfort and joy of sharing pain and hope and new experiences with each other.
Life is good.
Having a sense of well-being and contentment as this next phase of retirement unfolds comes from acceptance of what is, appreciation for what is positive and good in our lives and a growing sense of peace with what isn't.