On Aging: On the Nature of Work

I’m fascinated by my current “life stage.” I’m not sure what to call it. I’m sixty-one, so I’m not exactly ancient. On the other hand, I’m not fifty or forty, and the mindset that is the thirties feels like something that happened so long ago that I can’t quite remember it. (Weirdly, the years prior to thirty live closer to both the top and bottom of my brain. That’s an unexpected and fascinating development.)

Random Photo Series 2015

Random Photo Series 2015

Perhaps the most accurate way to describe the current stage is “awareness of an end.” The idea of death — the reality of death — is always present in a way that it never was at any other time of life.

Anyway. This life stage is, hands down, the most fun, the most interesting yet. The most rich in possibility. 

That’s not as comically contradictory as it sounds: These days my lodestar is “if I’m gonna do it, I better get busy.” Time’s running out.

Which brings me to my topic: Work. More precisely: rethinking “work” in old age.

I’ve been busting my ass “working” my entire life. A few weeks after I turned five, my dad tied an apron around my waist, deposited me on a step-stool, and told me to wash the dishes. (I had no idea how to do that, but presumably I figured it out. The next day, I also had a new brother, so I assume the two things were connected.) (And likely explains why this is the most vivid of my earliest memories.)

Random Photo Series 2015

Random Photo Series 2015

I’ve been working ever since. Childhood consisted of what felt like an endless round of lawn, garden, and kitchen duties. When I was fifteen, I got my first “real” job pushing cash register keys at a dime store. (Fun fact to know and tell: Back then, registers were mechanical, not electric/electronic.) In my twenties, I always worked at least two jobs and sometimes three. (I had a high school diploma and no talent; I needed multiple low-wage jobs to stay fed.) When I turned thirty, I decided to go to college. Three decades of butt-busting ensued, in the form of fifteen-or-more-hour work days, seven days a week. (Results? Three degrees, four books, and a bunch of miscellaneous essays.)

These days, I’ve got a new job: In the wake of the 2014 meat-book fiasco, I decided to write short essays that I’ll publish digitally for a buck or thereabouts. So far, it’s been intensely satisfying and exciting work: I know how to research and write a book, but I’ve had no experience doing the same for the “short form.” I’ve had to teach myself a new skill set, as the head-hunters call it. The first three essays are nearly finished, and my list of topics for the next however-many essays is growing at an alarming pace. 

Random Photo Series 2015

Random Photo Series 2015

But . . . I’m not muscling my way through this new job at anything remotely like the pace I’ve worked for past thirty years. I haven’t worked an eighteen-hour day for well over a year. This past weekend, I did zero “work.” Had I tackled this new task when I was, say, fifty, I’dve cranked out five or six deep-researched, 15,000-word essays in less than a year. At the rate I’m working now, the first three will have taken me a bit more than a year. 

Why? Because . . . there are so many other things I want to do and learn and try. For the first time in my life, “work” has competition. Last year, for example, and for reasons that aren’t worth going into, I developed an obsession with landscaping; this winter I’ve devoted hours and hours to plans for transforming our yard. Sometimes in the afternoon, I sit down and read a novel for an hour or two, something I’ve not done since I was in grade school. My work day now ends when it’s time to solve the daily “what’s for dinner” question.

Don’t get me wrong. I still work. But . . . I’m no longer addicted to work. It’s not my main obsession.

That shift in my outlook has provoked intense guilt. Deep-down, in-the-gut guilt. I suspect that’s partly for lack of role models: For most of my adult life, I’ve been a bona fide, butt-busting workaholic. And I’m still surrounded, online and off-, by butt-busters. So, yeah, feel guilty about not working all day every day. 

Random Photo Series 2015

Random Photo Series 2015

Odds are that most of you are now slamming your heads against the nearest hard surface, saying “Oh for fuck’s sake, woman! You know how lucky you are that you can enjoy this mental turmoil??” 

Yes, I do know. Even if I never earn another dollar, I’ll still have a roof over my head and food in my stomach. That’s an amazing gift. 

Nonetheless, it's a gift with a price and has given me as much turmoil as joy. 

 On one hand, my own in-my-face guilt clouds the pleasure of, say, planning the perennial garden that I’m building for my husband this summer. On the other hand: What the fuck? When do I get to stop feeling guilty? Is a day going to come when I can say “NOW I’m entitled to do whatever the hell I want to do without feeling selfish or entitled. God dammit.”

I don’t know. Wish I did because cutting out little circles to represent various shrubs and perennials and then pushing said circles around on a scale diagram of my yard would be waaaaay more fun. 

The upside, such as it is, that I’m so perplexed by this that I’ve added it to my list of possible essay topics: I’m thinking of researching humanity’s take on this situation over the millennia and then writing an essay about it. You know: Is this an American thing? If I were, say, Greek or Chinese, would I simply expect that at some point in “old age,” I’d be entitled to kick back?) 
(Yes, yes. I know what I did there. What can I say? Once a workaholic, always a workaholic.)

See what I mean? Guilt, people, guilt. 

NOTE: The "Random Photo Series" which which I've been illustrating my blog posts are one byproduct of the running-out-of-time thing: No time like the present for me to learn to use a camera and teach myself to "see" my surroundings.