She’s a gregarious person, snappingly energetic, this former teaching colleague of mine. We’ve met by chance in the bulk foods aisle of the supermarket, and her expansive gestures can fly around unimpeded here because the section sees only light traffic. Several minutes have passed in pleasant catching up with the doings of her kids and grandbabies, and now she’s just told me that she’s planning to retire at the end of next school year. I congratulate her, and she gets a little quieter. “You like it, then? Being retired?”
“Love it,” I assure her.
And then she asks The Question, the one I bet most retirees have heard a dozen times, always asked with genuine puzzlement: “But what do you do all day?”
Because there just isn’t time for the real answer when the frozen yogurt is softening in your shopping cart, I give her my standard reply for such situations: gardening, reading, hiking, a little writing. It isn’t a lie, certainly, but it doesn’t come close to being the whole truth, either. We part soon after, but later at home, enjoying some gloppy frozen yogurt out in the porch while listening to the flock of goldfinches in the maple tree, I am still thinking about her question. What do I do all day? I jot a list of some things I can recall from that morning:
- spent half an hour watching two turkey vultures at the top of the dead tree in my neighbor’s pasture, a noteworthy occasion because I’ve never seen this species here at the coast, though they’re common further inland in the farm lands around school.
- read an informative article on rose rustling and another on growing new shrubs from softwood cuttings.
- rescued before Gracie could hurt it a chickadee that had gotten into the greenhouse.
- picked slugs and snails off my irises and fed them to the hens, noting that Henny Penny has no trouble eating slugs, while the three younger birds won’t touch them, and wondering whether this might be because Penny spent far more time on pasture when she was young than the other three have done.
- noted that my peppers and tomatoes have started to bloom, and that the potatoes are getting ready to blossom, which means they’ve started tuber formation.
- triumphed over the slugs and chipmunks by getting to my one ripe strawberry before they did.
- exchanged emails with a friend.
- watched the hummingbirds fighting over access to the feeder, and wondered whether it’s true that they were once velociraptors.
- went online to check next week’s schedule for volunteer trail work up at Acadia National Park.
- looked up a couple of new vegetarian recipes so I can learn to use tofu in something other than stir-fries.
- noticed how much the squirrels who are chittering at each other and peeing on the bird feeder to mark it as their territory resemble a certain political candidate.
- went food shopping.
Now, you put those ‘activities’ on an hourly planner, and I’ll grant that the list is pretty paltry. It looks a lot like I wasn’t doing anything, but I was.
I was being Quiet.
I suspect that, like many another Quiet person, I felt liberated and vindicated when I read Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts In a World That Can’t Stop Talking. But I was 62 when that book came out, and I tell you truly that until then I thought there was something wrong with me because I couldn’t process stress well. When I was growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, nobody had any positive language for people like me. Shy. Bookworm. Mouse. You need to come out of your shell. Get your nose out of that book and go out and play. Wallflower. Guys don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses. You live too much in your own little world. Speak up–what are you whispering for?
Probably many of you heard these and worse comments, too. It tends to be a shared woundedness among us creative types. That’s the subject of a different post, though. What I’m thinking about today is how the underlying premise of the question “What do you do all day?” is so all-pervasive in the school culture where I spent 53 of the 60 years before my retirement, either as student or teacher or both at once.
If you’re a teacher or you’re partner to one, you know how it goes: an endless barrage of (mostly meaningless, repetitive) paperwork; assignments to design, photocopy in sufficient quantities to cover each student plus half-again-as-many if it is homework because many will ‘lose’ that piece of paper by the next time you see them; committee work; special work for special ed; special work for homebound students; special work for those in in-house suspension; grading; extensive editing, proofreading, and coaching on student drafts; faculty meetings, department meetings, special ed meetings, accreditation team meetings, meetings about standards, meetings about meetings; coaching athletics, drama, music, and advising clubs and homerooms; making out a budget in December for all the books, supplies, guest speakers, films and other materials you will need for the next school year, even though registration for classes doesn’t take place until March or April and the master schedule isn’t built until May, so you don’t actually know what you’ll be teaching until late May or early June, if then; and, oh, by the way, teach. I once said to a colleague that teaching is a performance art: you’re ‘on’ for four to eight shows a day, 180 or more days a year. No wonder so many of us spend at least the first week of summer break feeling shell-shocked. No wonder so many of us burn out.
Literally burn out, I suspect. New science is revealing why, as I learned in an article that floated across my Facebook feed this week. Entitled “Why Introverts and Extroverts Are Different: the Science,” the article centers on the differing effects of the neurotransmitters dopamine and acetylcholine on the brain. I don’t pretend to understand the deeper science, but from what I gather, dopamine, the full-throttle, fight-or-flight chemical that gets you ready to face a saber-toothed tiger or a rockin’, crowded music concert, is experienced as a pleasurable rush by extroverts, but as a punishingly over-stimulating avalanche of too much noise, too much bright light, too much everything by introverts. In contrast, acetylcholine makes introverts feel good when we turn inward in reflection, deep thought, and intent focus on one thing for long periods of time. Just a hunch, but I’m guessing those 53 years of dopamine overdose probably weren’t too good for me though I did actually love the job despite its inherent frustrations.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, the retirement I’ve fashioned for myself here in my little farmstead suits me to a T, with ample opportunities to bathe my brain with acetylcholine, apparently. For extroverts like my colleague in the supermarket, though, more zest will definitely be required. I predict her gusto will take her to new groups, to activities, to volunteerism, to travel, to engagement with lots of people in lots of new situations. She’ll be a poster child for active retirement.
Me, I’m content to hang with the chickadees and my cat and just be Quiet.