“Weekend? What is a weekend?” the line is impeccably delivered by Maggie Smith in the querulous voice of the Dowager Lady Grantham of Downton Abbey. It’s a great line because it sums up the sheer poshness of a woman who has never had to alter the rhythms of her life to accommodate work. And now those of us who have reached a certain age find ourselves in the same boat – if you can compare my leaky dinghy to her three-masted schooner with the billowing sails and scurrying underlings swabbing the decks.
It’s what many of us have longed for, especially on a Monday morning, regretting that third glass of wine, while we shoo the kids out the door before noticing the vital-assignment-that-has-to-be-in-today is still on the kitchen table. The cat throws up in someone’s bed, the car won’t start, it’s only 7.30, but you’re already late for work. The idea of going back to bed with a second cup of coffee and the paper seems like the insanest kind of bliss you’ve ever imagined.
So now you have your wish. You can go back to bed for the whole day – week if you want to. The kids must be getting their work in on time because they haven’t been fired, the cat is now in vomit-free cat-heaven, and if the car doesn’t start it doesn’t matter because you have time to ring the man. The time you have longed for is now yours, but in a curious time dilation, it turns out more is less. The things you squeezed in between bites of a lunch-time sandwich – make a dental appointment, pay the Visa, mark some drafts, chat to a colleague, email your sister – now take all day, and in my case, spill into the next one…and the next… the Dowager Lady Grantham had generations of breeding and a lifetime of privilege to learn how to run her own day, but we deck-swabbers might need a few lessons for our long, long weekend.
So what was it that made weekends so wonderful? The ads would have us believe they consist of us going off –road with our airbrushed blond families eating healthy but Frenchy-looking chic picnics (chicnics?) blinding each other with our expensive super-white smiles. Not a pile of dirty laundry in sight, no kids wallowing in unmade beds, no racing round to sporting venues trailing hair ribbons and shin guards, no endless traipsing round the bloody hardware shop! Suddenly Monday morning’s not looking so bad.
No, it’s the concept of the weekend that is vital because it’s the pain that creates the pleasure. It’s actually the perceived drudgery of the working week that gives the weekend its lustre, and without some contrast life becomes beige. Don’t get me wrong, beige can be very restful, but I think you can probably die of beigeness. The question is how do you get some vermillion in there without going back to work?
Two people in our street have retired this year, and within six months have been invited back to “consult” and have accepted with alacrity. Both are guys and their relief is palpable. Pussies! You have to work through the sheer awfulness of daytime television, and of lolling about pointlessly googling nothing at all in order to break into the post-work bliss-zone. It’s not really their fault…men of a certain age were encouraged to treat work as their life, and it was often the place where they were highly regarded, and important. Good luck replicating that at home! And for all of us relevance deprivation is something to be reckoned with. If you still love your job, put it off as long as possible. But one day you’ll have to face it and you need to be ready.
The happiest retired folk seem to be the ones who keep working hard at being alive. They join stuff, they play ball games, they volunteer, they go out of their way to keep up with friends and family, they offer their time to help their neighbours and their community. They go on outings, visit galleries, go to the movies, join the bowls club. They are so busy they scarcely have time to repeat the mantra I’m so busy, I don’t know how I found the time to work!
But what if you haven’t been much of a joiner? Exactly when does it become a good idea to put on a white dress and white shoes and start rolling balls down a green for fun? My theory is that retirement doesn’t change you, it just gives you time to do the things you already love and be the person you’ve always been, only a bit older. So don’t expect not being at work suddenly to create a sparkling new life. You have to be doing that yourself – just like the Dowager. I can’t imagine her joining the Tai-chi group in the village, or enrolling in computers for oldies at the local TAFE College. Not because there’s anything wrong with it, but because she didn’t have to create a whole new persona once she turned sixty, she just went on being the same imperious, self-centred old bat.
So take a leaf out of her book. Take some you-time before you and time become an inseparable couple. Indulge yourself, make time for your passions, and develop a life outside work while you’re still there. Join things, play sports, learn the piano, start writing the great novel, throw a few pots (on a wheel, not at the nearest family member) nourish your friend-and-familyships, do that cooking course, take up rock-climbing. Don’t wait – try before you buy. It’s a bit late to decide you don’t like golf after you’ve retired to that little villa in Golftopia, miles from anyone you know.
Indeed maybe don’t move anywhere. I know the brochures are seductive – those gracefully ageing model oldies walking hand in hand along the beach. But if I’m not already willowy and sporty and elegantly grey, and if hubby isn’t mature-handsome with crinkly laugh-lines and spotless deck-shoes, and if neither of us dresses like a Ralph Lauren fashion shoot, moving to “Oldies Sur la Mer” retirement resort won’t make it happen. If you are lucky enough to have the health and the means, consider staying where you are. Sudden absence of work won’t alter your neighbourhood, your shops, your friends, your familiar territory. In fact it gives you time to enjoy them.
Now, having told everyone else what to do, I have to confess we’ve decided to ignore my own (really good) advice and do the opposite! We’re going to sell the house we’ve lived in for thirty-three years, and move to a small beach town. I’m scouring the second-hand shops for cast-off Ralph Laurens and trying to get hubby to practise crinkly laugh line-inducing facial expressions, but I am filled with trepidation that it could be the latest wrong turn in a life full of roads coulda shoulda taken. The Dowager would have no such misgivings. If she is doing something it must be right. I wish I could be so sure!
Note: I’m well aware that I’m pontificating about something I’ve only been doing for about a year! Any advice/experiences/cocktail recipes/fashion tips that you can offer will be very gratefully received.