A few weeks ago I was walking our dog around the neighbourhood, when I came across a woman pulling weeds from the flower garden in front of her home. I complemented her on her beautiful cottage which, with its thatched roof and ivy covered-walls, reminded of a Hobbit house, or an illustration from a Beatrix Potter book. We got to talking about gardens and the difference in taste between vegetables bought from a supermarket and those pulled straight from the soil.
She surprised me by telling me that she had never done a single bit of gardening before retiring five years earlier from a career as a pediatric surgeon. Her original plan had been to sell the house and spend the remainder of her days roaming the world with her dentist husband, an avid sailor. All this changed, though, when her husband died suddenly and unexpectedly of a stroke a year before they were both to retire. Out of the blue, she found herself facing her senior years alone. To make things worse, she had secretly been dreading the prospect of retirement. “So much of my identity”, she told me, “was wrapped up in my job. It was the place where I was completely in control of my universe, solving other people’s problems, caring about other people’s health. I was tremendously good at what I did, and in a sense that became my protective shell.”
Her father had been a merchant banker, and her mother had once been a concert violinist. They were, she told me, “intelligent and creative people, with a wide range of interests.” Her childhood was filled with visits to art galleries and music recitals and poetry readings. As an only-child, she also spent many summer days alone in the garden, collecting snails and beetles and classifying backyard plants. She got her first chemistry set when she was seven, and knew from that moment on that she wanted to be a scientist, “to explore everything, learn about everything. There was nothing, then, no type of knowledge, that wasn’t fascinating to me.”
This eclectic range of interests followed her into her freshman year at Yale, where she had studied, of course, biology and chemistry, but also art history, anthropology, political science, modern drama. It started to change, though, when she realized that she was getting A-pluses in her “hard science” courses, and B’s and A-minuses in some of her other classes. “Despite the fact that I loved everything I was studying, I began to feel the pressure to excel in order to make it into med school. I began to concentrate on those areas where I was strongest”. Like most professionals, of course, this narrowing of focus continued throughout the remainder of her education and, in her case, throughout her professional career until, “by the time I was middle-aged, I had become as specialized as the insects that I had collected as a child.”
In the months leading up to her retirement, she experienced a sense of anxiety almost verging on panic. At the same time, though, she was burnt-out and ready for a rest; simply too exhausted to continue. So she attended her retirement party, said her farewells, and “sat at home, twiddling my thumbs and wondering what exactly was supposed to happen next, what I was supposed to fill the rest of my life with now that I had nobody else’s life to save. It was the strangest thing to discover was that I really didn’t have any skills or interests outside of my career. I had rarely read a book or a magazine outside of medical journals. I didn’t know how to knit, how to sew, how to cook. My husband and I had spent so much of our lives working, that we had rarely sat down to home cooked meals. We had lived off of restaurant meals, and take-out, and boil-in-the bag entrees.
“Fortunately I had some close friends that I could lean on for support. One of them is a gifted gardener and her husband is a great cook, nothing gourmet, but lots of good comfort foods like meatloafs. They showed me all the basics about gardening and about cooking more interesting meals: how to prepare the ground in the spring, which bulbs to buy, how to take the time to prepare a satisfying meal. It felt so good to be grounded in that way. Just to pull weeds with my hands was such a tremendous feeling.”
In the months and years following, she began to stretch herself even more. Instead of hiring somebody to re-tile the bathroom floor, she decided to figure it out and do it for herself. She could certainly afford to hire somebody to do it, as she would have done in the past, but she says that she was driven, in a joyful way, to find push herself.
“I suppose I’ve always been a bit obsessive” she said, “about learning new things and challenging myself. Also, it was a great way to connect with my old friends and to develop new relationships with people. I took some adult education classes, photography and basic furniture making. I set up a dark room in the basement and made myself a coffee table. I began to go to the local library and take out books on everything I could imagine. For some people it may be second nature to have a variety of basic, useful skills, but for me it was almost a revelation that everything, from changing the oil in my car to perfecting a bechemel sauce, can be an adventure, even a sensual experience, and a way to engage with life.”
And what’s next? “I don’t know. I’ve got my eye on some watercolour paints and a canvas.”
I think I have a new role model.