Our dog was an opportunistic, lovable rascal. She would often take herself off for walks, as dogs did in those days, and in her sorties managed to endear herself to countless neighbours. Although they knew full well that she belonged to someone else, in the hours she was away she would go into some of their houses and receive favours. And the odd thing was that while we, her ‘owners’, knew her as Daisy, we learned that the people at number 5, for instance, knew her as ‘Smokey’ and those in a house round the corner as ‘Missie’. Same dog, multiple identities, and all legitimate.
Like Daisy, I have lots of identities, each taking over according to circumstance. And last week I saw a rather ugly side of the business. On this particular morning we had a replacement teacher at the French class so, for starters, it was a quick journey around the students for introductions. When it was my turn I found myself saying that I had been a doctor, that I had retired, and that now I was a nothing (a ‘nul’).
Two of the more demonstrative students – a one-time lawyer, and a former civil servant – nodded to express a shared sentiment. Then it was on to the next in the class. At the coffee break, sitting round the table we slipped into English. Felicity, an octogenarian happy to speak her mind, asked what I had meant. She had never had a paid job in her life and felt happy and fulfilled, more so now than ever. When I had described myself as a nothing, she asked, what exactly was I suggesting about her and her life, and the lives and achievements of others like her? Immediately I realised how tactless I had been and there followed much heartfelt apologising and feelings of guilt. Despite the difficulties, at a personal level my position contained important elements of truth. The way I expressed myself had simply gone wrong.
In almost every way my retirement has been a delight and a revelation. Being my own master, not being beholden to anonymous forces at work, having the time and the drive to explore new ventures, enhancing and/or developing contacts with those close, discovering new aspects of myself – have all been exhilarating.
Even so, problems regularly arise when I am pressed into describing my position. Put another way, when I am asked to define my identity, I am happy not being a doctor, teacher, researcher, editor etc, and don’t regret the change. But in the days when I worked it was so easy to use any of these descriptions when people asked me for a label. Moreover, these labels described respected and familiar activities that required no elaboration.
Now, no labels work. Perhaps more honestly, no labels appeal. When asked “What do you do?” I can’t come to terms with simply saying, “I am now retired.” Partly, I suppose, because this expression can have such negative connotations – “I was doing something, now I am not.” In other words, I am now a ‘has been’. Simply saying that I am retired does not convey at all what I actually do, how I fill my day. I could list the realities, such as ‘writing’, ‘learning a foreign language’, ‘taking physical exercise’, ‘travelling’, ‘gardening’. But none would suffice. And surely, one of my favourite pastimes – ‘pondering’ – would be seen as trite. All are true but somehow none seem worthy, particularly bearing in mind comparisons with what I would have said ten years ago.
It was into this void that my misplaced ‘nul’ was blurted out. But I love my present status, so it must now be time for me to embrace my retirement fully and to realise that comparisons with the past are passé. My next task is to find a simple label that works. That particular excercise, with any luck, will have a point in it!