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Early Retirement


I’ve been dwelling on the idea of retirement recently. I found myself feeling sad that retirement is pushed further and further into elderhood, leaving potential elders little time for exploring elderhood and the role of old-age in our society. This leaves us with people who retire from responsibility, longing for rest and enjoyment that have been postponed through adulthood.


I feel a strong lack of elders, by which I mean people who have lived a long life filled with conscious learning, introspection, societal study and who know well the gifts they hold and what their people and local ecologies need. We need elders to guide us into healthy adolescence and genuine mature adulthood (what Bill Plotkin would call the ‘healthy generative adult’, compared to an adolescent who goes to work and has a mortgage and children). To retire has come to mean to step away from responsibility. A hard-earned time of pleasure and recreation. Often we forget old people. Their wisdom is less welcome in a society that changes so quickly as it has in the past 200-years. This leaves a hole in community and a group of people who are elderly, but not necessarily elders.


So how does a society grow elders? Perhaps there is a need for spaciousness through life for tending to the above needs. Perhaps retirement needs not be about relaxing into hard earned time off but about moving one’s work and gifts into answering questions of what does the world ask of me, in this particular form, time and place? Of this unique person with gifts, passions, wounds and purpose? We might name this a ‘calling’, or a ‘mythopoetic identity’.


In a system that squeezes us and the land hard for fruits that do not feed the people, perhaps there are roads to elderhood that are not so much earned through grit, stoic determination and cog-like living. It is a privileged question to sit with, but only within a busy system that lacks wide asking of such questions through squeezed living is it truly privileged. Indeed, most societies that lack the material gains, technological magic and myriad conveniences we seek to obtain instead ask such questions, and they find answers. What does this earth ask of me, in this time and place, in this particular form? What do my people need? I feel it is a privilege of the earth and her people to hear these questions being asked.


The requirement to monetise our answers pains me. It is one of the realities of these times. I have a strong sense of what the world asks of me, yet I must also find a way to be paid for the response. This is part of my personal determination to live in voluntary simplicity. My desire is to retire not from the world but from this unsacred bond. Even in golf-riddled cruise-liner retirement it is a similar question; how can I get to the point where money doesn’t tie me to unsacred work? I really do not know how to advise all people in all places in the direction of elderhood (this, surely, is the work of the elders?) but I have a strong sense that voluntary simplicity supports the journey well. Lessening our unnecessary financial bonds, to any degree possible, opens the space for three questions I hear the world asking;


now, where can you place money that supports regeneration?


And what is it that calls you, that the world asks of you, that your people ask of you, that makes your heart sing, that you will offer as a gift if you can retire (fully or partially) from work-for-moneys-sake, from hyper-materialist bonds?


What is the sacred work you are called toward?


I believe that community investment, in money, time, emotion, energy, commitment, contribution, is the greatest step toward witnessing abundance outside of monetary bonds. I trust that a life spent this way is the pension pot that pays the greatest dividends. I trust that it is more secure than a pot of money and that it expands the ecological-self in a way that bonds me to the human and more-than-human ecologies of place such that I earn a seat of belonging. This is the seat of an elder, not a home-of-elderly. I pray less for the security of my own future seat but more to see that seat offered up by society. I’ll give up my train seat to an elder not for their ailing bodies but to sit at the feet of their wisdom and ask questions of this good life, in reverence to their gifts.


I cannot help but think of a Mary Oliver poem here. She asks the right question. Dwell on it for fun, but also feel your answer as the earths need of you. This is a call for true elders, for a new and ancient retirement.


Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean—

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don't know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention,

how to fall down into the grass,

how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?


—Mary Oliver




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