Sunday, July 27, 2008

Meaningful Aging and Creativity

Nineteen years ago, when I first started working as a psychiatric social worker for the New York State Office of Mental Health, the longest I had held a job was for three years. Imagine my shock and chagrine, when I found that so many of my new co-workers were lifers. Many had been there since barely out of their teens and would spend their entire adult lives there. It was these workers, whether they had been there twenty eight years or eight, who seemed to be living for when they would retire. And there I was, just settling into my new career at the ripe old age of thirty eight, having decided that I needed to earn my living in a "meaningful" way. Spending my days writing, and earning my money in a meaningless way, seemed like too much time going to nowhere and nothing. I needed at least some guarantee that something I would do during the day would have a positive impact on the world around me. Certainly, there was nothing like that happening with writing. Sure, I felt gratified while writing, but then the fact that little of it was seeing the light of day left me feeling empty and without purpose.

Thus, began my career as a social worker and gadfly: I was appalled witnessing the workings of the quintessential bureaucracy, as well as the effect said bureaucracy had on its employees. No matter what age they were, they were all looking forward to one thing: Retirement. "But you are wishing your life away," I would argue. "Don't you see? When you are able to retire, you'll be old."

"Uh, yeah," they said. but ultimately, who cared about getting old. What mattered was not having to work anymore at that damn job. They even crossed days off the calendar. How can you do that!? I exclaimed. It's like wishing your life away.

Now, it's nineteen years later, and I am one of those counting the years, months and days until I can retire. Among my co-workers, many of whom are in a similar position of having anywhere from one to ten years until that blessed day, it is the most frequently discussed topic. Like prisoners getting paroled: how long do you have? And then, what will you do? Last week, I must have heard from at least three different people, "Oh, I imagine you'll do something more creative, Denise. You've got that artistic leaning." I just nod my head and say, "Oh, yes, definitely."

But in my head I'm thinking it's much more complicated than that. For example, they don't know the daily struggle I've gone through every day of every year I've been there, with regard to writing. At least at this stage of the game I've learned how to write creatively every day and go to work too. But in terms of retiring, when I no longer have to dedicate eight plus hours every day to the job, what does doing something more creative mean exactly? Assuming I'll still have to earn some money, even if on a part time basis, I tend to think I'd like to work in an aesthetically pleasing environment, if only just to counteract the many years of the opposite. Selling jewelry or clothing, bookstores, antique shops, botanical gardens: these are the environments I think of. For in addition to meaning, I crave beauty.

I actually think I've got the meaning thing licked. Writing and serving needy people: together it's the magic formula. Perhaps I'll continue that formula when I retire from my job, and just not have to deal with the trappings of the bureaucracy and the nasty aesthetics. Whatever I decide, I have to admit, all those state workers over the years were right: thinking about retiring does make aging a whole lot better. But I promise you one thing, I will never, I mean NEVER, cross days off a calendar. Uh, maybe I'd better not promise.

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