As of late I have struggled with my latest label: unemployed. It is not a label that I particularly like. In fact, this period of unemployment is probably the longest of my life. The truth of the matter is that I enjoy working. Retirement was never my life‘s goal, never viewed as reward for a life well-lived. Now, having lived the life of a retiree for over a year, albeit not of my choosing, I’d rather be working. Mom didn’t retire until she was 80, and Dad still works part-time. Work is in my blood. So, this period in my life has been quite a challenge. I’m in limbo. Past jobs are no longer viable, and probably will never be available to me again; a hard pill for me to swallow. While certainly not the first time I’ve been in the position of “recreating” my life, it is still a daunting prospect, especially at my age. The what ifs have definitely set in!
What if I never have another job in my life as long as I live? Horrors! Truthfully, this thinking is a self-indulgent act of self-pity, and I know it. It’s just that some days I fear that I am in a permanently unemployable zone. When I reach that point, I indulge myself in a pity party for a while. So far, I can honestly say that entertaining this particular what if is totally useless, not to mention an extremely wasteful expenditure of the valuable gift of time. Fortunately, I don’t stay in this frame of mind for very long.
What if future employment is, at best, sporadic, minimum wage, mindless, boring, dead-end tasks with little redeeming value? This what if is a bit more difficult to subdue. The work world has drastically changed in the past few years, and getting hired is not so easy. I really feel my age on this one. I am no longer that perky, vibrant, energetic, quick-thinking young woman who got whatever she wanted. Even though I have gained a lifetime of experience and wisdom with the jobs, travels, joys and vicissitudes of life, in this fast paced world it is simply more difficult to get hired when one is past the vim and vigor of youth. Oy vey…. What’s a woman to do?
What if I grow old, lonely, poor, living by myself and forgotten by the world? Ahhh, this is the one what if that has haunted me my entire adult life! My biggest what if of all! In considering my deepest fears, this what if ranks at the top. To be honest, I am pretty sure that this what if has held me back from more adventure, risk-taking, dreaming and visioning than any one thing in my life. Wow! This is a pretty powerful what if! So, what if I de-mythologize this what if? What would that look like?
First, I know that in order for me to continue in life I will grow old. That fact is undeniable. The alternative is simply not an option. So, what’s so bad about growing old? Yes, there are aches and pains that I didn’t use to have. The hair begins to thin and to lose its luster and bounce. The mid-section thickens and one moves at a slower pace. But that is not all there is to an aged life! Some of my favorite people in all the world are old people. Old people know a lot. Most of the ones I know also happen to be relatively happy. Even as a child, my best friends were peers of my grandparents. I’m not exaggerating.
Miss Mary was a woman I befriended when I was five years old. We had just moved to Marion, Louisiana, and the church held a pot-luck dinner to welcome us to the community. During the course of the evening, as I held on to Mom’s skirts, I was introduced to Miss Mary Hopkins. In my eyes she was very old, and the moments of introduction were the obligatory moments all children endure with dread. Miss Mary asked me questions about myself. I was too shy to talk to this “old” woman, so I nodded my head “yes” or shook it “no” in response to her queries. After one or two questions, Miss Mary placed her hand on my head as she spoke, and although I thought this was rather odd, I continued to nod or shake the appropriate responses. After what I felt was an unbearable amount of time, I asked to be excused to go play with other children. Later that night, Mom sat down with me and explained that Miss Mary was blind. Since I refused to speak, she could neither hear nor see my responses to her questions and that is why she placed her hand on my head…to feel my answers. I remember feeling pretty awful at that point. The following Sunday when we arrived at church, still feeling remorseful for not having spoken aloud to Miss Mary, I timidly walked up to the third pew from the front of the sanctuary and asked her if I could sit with her during the service. Miss Mary was delightfully surprised, and thus began a life-long friendship. From that time on, my place every Sunday morning was in the third pew sitting beside Miss Mary. Additionally, many Sundays after the morning service concluded, Miss Mary invited me to walk home with her and her companion, Miss Deedie, for a traditional Sunday lunch of fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy. Miss Mary would read to me from her braille books, and even attempted, albeit unsuccessfully, to teach me to read braille . I would play piano for her, or she for me, and I even had a room of my own in her southern style plantation home where I could nap. When my parents were out of town and I needed to stay with someone, Miss Mary was my top choice. She was full of stories and personal history about growing up in Louisiana. Miss Mary never married or had children, but she did complete college and taught school before totally losing her eyesight. However, never having been known to express bitterness, she was a beloved figure in the community. There are many wonderful memories with Miss Mary. I even named my youngest daughter after her. When I am old, I hope that I can influence some young person as Miss Mary influenced me. There are other old people who influenced my life, too. The more I think of it, old age is a special time, a time to truly reap the harvest of what was sewn during one’s lifetime. As I reminisce, the “what if I grow old” fear has more to do with illusions than with realities. In reality, growing old can be enjoyable and rich if I choose to make it so.
The next part of that what if is the part about being lonely. Objectively speaking, I know that loneliness is a choice. A wise woman once taught me that the feeling of loneliness is truly a gift in disguise; feeling lonely is actually a nudge to reach out to others, to think beyond ourselves, to connect with another soul, or, should we choose to ignore the nudge, to forever suffer. When feeling lonely, it is time to call a friend, visit a neighbor, volunteer at the hospital, sew for a charity, join a book club, cook a meal for a shut-in or a new mom, etc. All these years I have associated being old with being lonely. Thinking more critically, I realize that this dreaded fear is nothing more than a myth of my own creation, and that the solution to loneliness is easily within my grasp. Old and lonely do not equate, nor is either to be feared.
What about the old, lonely AND poor? Well, I’ve been poor a lot and that is one thing I know how to do….and do with grace! So really there is not much to fear. Besides, how does one define “poor?” I am rich when it comes to love of family and friends. My basic needs for food, shelter and clothing have always been abundantly met. Too much emphasis has been placed on the dollar amount or material possessions and not enough on the richness of spirit, mind, body and soul. In those areas, I am truly a wealthy woman! Now I’ve done it. I’ve banished the fearsome what ifs in a few short paragraphs, but there’s more.
For instance, what if I truly trusted my instincts, and did something daring, something off the beaten path, out of the box, really really cool and wonderful? What if I had no doubts, only the belief that G-d truly does have a plan and that I am smack dab where I need to be at the moment? What if I was fearless in pursuit of my dreams? What would life look like then? These what ifs are the what ifs that have propelled inventors and theologians, dreamers and artists, builders and teachers, movers and shakers to change those things that needed to be changed, to inspire those who needed hope, to repair what was broken, to be co-creators with G-d in forging new paths in whatever their field of endeavor. These are the what ifs that excite me as I contemplate the direction I will take going forward. I don’t yet know what that will look like. I’m still refining the defining of my dreams. The details are not in place, but they are being molded as I write! Being unemployed has opened a door for me, and I’m discovering that the world, even at my age, is full of possibility!
My questions to you: What are your what ifs? What is your most daunting fear? How can you de-mythologize that fear? When that fear is shelved in its rightful place, what dreams do you dream? What would it look like to follow your passion? What is it that holds you back, boxes you in, or restrains you from moving forward with enthusiasm and passion? Who inspires you? Who believes in you? Is it time to change your what if questions? How have the what ifs affected your life and motivated your decisions? Feel free to comment. I’d love to hear from you.