“The story continues, but we’re no longer the main characters.”
It’s a line from a novel. But its truth speaks to us—to our retirement from work, to our exit from the stage, to next things.
During the past few years, my occupation has shifted from corporate consulting to writing blogs and books. Almost 250 weekly blog posts since 2013, three non-fiction books published, a novel in final edit, and a novella under contract with a publisher.
Is this retirement?
It is if you define retirement as leaving the corporate payroll. I cashed my final salary check in 1995.
I have done my best work in the twenty-two years since then, as principal of Executive Media, my corporate communication agency, and now as an author—my third career.
So what has me wondering that I might no longer be a main character in society’s larger, continuing story? Maybe it was reading James Salter’s 1975 classic novel, Light Years. The quotation that introduces this post is his.
Or perhaps it was a New Yorker essay I recently read by Victor Brombert, professor of romance and comparative literatures emeritus at Princeton.
He talks about reaching the age of the “permanent sabbatical,” the period between formal retirement and death:
Of course, even the permanent sabbatical must come to an end. There was a time when I feared that I would not make it. Now I am distressed that I will have to give it all up. Better not to linger on the thought. According to Freud, we are really unable to believe that we are mortal, for we cannot conceive of ourselves as being absent.
As our permanent sabbatical nears its end, we find ourselves finally accepting our mortality, and wondering—with newly found seriousness—what’s next.
Here’s a scene from Light Years in which Lia, in the prime of her life, returns home one day to find the eighty-year-old woman who cleans Lia’s apartment weeping helplessly. She is facing death. She asks:
“Do you think there’s anything after? I’m afraid.”
“I’ll tell you what it’s like,” Lia said, calming her. “It’s like being tired, very, very tired and just falling asleep . . . A sleep which only those who have worked a long time deserve, which does not end . . . a lovely sleep.”
The old woman wiped her eyes. She was quieter now. “Yes,” she agreed. “Yes, that’s it. Still . . . how beautiful to wake in the morning and have fresh coffee.”
I haven’t yet started to read obituaries with my morning coffee, as old folks do. But, yes, I have begun thinking about my epitaph.
Like a “pitch” line that sells a movie idea to a Hollywood producer, an epitaph distills your life into eight words. That’s a lot of pressure for a writer, because people expect me to come up with something brilliant.
One comfort about my current residency on Cape Cod is that I am engulfed by people older than I am. A 2010 report found that one-third of Cape Cod’s population is older than 75. Which makes me feel downright boyish.
To conclude, let me quote Light Years one last time, a thought I would not have understood when I was a “tender and callow fellow.” But now I do:
Life is only appetites until the teeth are gone.
If you enjoyed reading this, you will like my newest book, Saints and Poets, Maybe: One Hundred Wanderings, available at: Amazon