“What are you doing now that you’re retired?” my friend asked me across the lunch table. “Are you writing?” This friend, who is a writer herself, knows that I had planned on writing when I retired. I imagine she was wondering why she hadn’t seen any of my writing yet and how I was spending my time now that I’m no longer working. “What does a typical day look like for you?” she asked.
“Um, er,” my mind went into panic mode. “Well, I get up, make my coffee, and read for an hour or more.” Scrambling in search of a response that wouldn’t make it seem I was wasting my life, I continued, “Then I think about what is on my ‘to-do’ list and do whatever the day demands.”
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Friends who know that I had a busy and productive career often ask the “retirement question” assuming I must be busy doing interesting things. I believe they are expecting to hear about my volunteer efforts on behalf of children, or the golf lessons I have taken up, or the many boards I serve on. “People often say they are busier in retirement than they were when they were working…” they reply, providing me with a ready-made answer, escaping the uncomfortable lull in conversation.
“Are you traveling?” they ask.
“Yes,” I reply, “Some.”
What I don’t tell them is that my days are quiet, always full, but I am always struggling to find greater meaning within those days. Based on the longevity in my family I imagine that I will have 20 or more productive years. I often ask myself, “What will I regret not doing when I am 90 years old?”
I remember talking to my Dad who retired at age 62 — way too early for a man who was strong and active and deeply dedicated to his work. I once asked him what he was doing in his retirement. His response was to say that he filled the time, but “It is all meaningless.” When I think of his response, I understand it deeply. He built a city; I built an organization. Each of us was dedicated to a greater cause, and when work ended, it was difficult for each of us to find new meaning in our retired lives.
When posed with the question of what I would do if I knew I were dying, my answer always is that I would write. I would capture the stories of my life, the wisdom of those who have gone before me, and share them with those I will leave behind. I am certain of this. If I were dying, I would write! So why then do I feel that writing is only to be done when everything else is done: no dishes in the sink, no laundry waiting to be folded? Why then do I feel it is so unimportant?
When I retired, I looked forward to participating in OSHER classes at Fresno State — especially those relating to writing. Thus far, I have taken five memoir writing classes and, bolstered by the encouragement of my teacher, I applied and was accepted into Summer Arts in the Creative Non-Fiction Writing course in July 2018. I was both ecstatic and unsure if I could keep up with the experienced writers of all ages who were in the class. But, when the time came, I put life on hold and powered through two intense weeks of writing. Exploring the craft of writing and the challenges of publishing, I entered a new and exciting world. It was an experience that changed my thinking about the importance of writing — especially the importance of my writing. Interacting with the students in the class, receiving positive feedback from the course coordinator, and learning from the guest writers who came to share their experiences and approaches gave me the confidence I was seeking to go forward in a meaningful way with the stories I need to tell.
At the conclusion of the two weeks in Summer Arts, I resolved to see myself as a writer and say with confidence when the “retirement question” is asked: “I am writing.” I continue to nudge myself to “get with it” and tell the stories I want to tell, but the passion I now feel about my writing has given purpose to the work I am doing and new meaning to my life.
Summer Arts is a gift to our community — hosted by Fresno State but sponsored by the California State University system, it focuses on all the arts through intensive hands on programs coordinated by Cal State professors from around the state who invite successful guest artists to participate. Summer Arts is open to artists of all ages and all levels of experience. It has enriched and changed many lives — mine included.
Marion Karian of Fresno is the retired executive director of Exceptional Parents Unlimited.