Little Gold Stars.
“I wouldn’t say it’s the ‘winter of my life,'” he said with a smile.
Though our 1,300 mile long conversation was connected only by waves bouncing around the atmosphere, I knew the smile was there. Like I know the rain is wet. That math is hard. My name is Katie.
“It’s probably more like late summer or early autumn,” he laughed.
I laughed, too. I had to. After thirty-one years, my dad, goobery as my grandpa before him, still makes me laugh. Despite all of the hard stuff.
“What I mean is that I’m still making plans for the future, but it’s too late to make any major career changes. I’m just counting down to retirement.”
In all fairness, his words were intended to be rife with encouragement. My time might have passed, but YOU are still young! You can still live your dreams!
That sort of thing.
And they were encouraging. Until he said the retirement thing.
Danny used to say the retirement thing. Danny, with his cushy government job and the calendar tacked next to his desk with a bright red X through all the days gone, like those ones didn’t matter, didn’t count, because they weren’t THE day. Retirement Day. The one with the big circle around it. The one that meant he’d finally get to go on vacation. Learn a hobby. Spend more time with his family.
Then one day, one X day, too far away from the day with the circle to make any real difference at all, Danny turned yellow.
It was pancreatic cancer, you see, the kind that got Patrick Swayze but hadn’t gotten him yet, and in Danny it had already spread, his liver was dying, and Danny was dying, and there wasn’t a thing any of us — or any of the X’s on any of the days — could do for him. He was gone before we knew it, and after that it was rough at the office with the cold neon lights, and the drab gray cubicles, and all of those Xs.
It’s important to note that my dad is not Danny. He doesn’t have pancreatic cancer, he’s traveled where he wants, he’s made changes that he wants, but still. “I’m counting down to retirement.” It’s the complacency of the phrase that dug a hole in that place, right under my ribs, and burrowed its way through my diaphragm and my gut and made a nice little nest amongst the circuitry of my spinal column.
Complacency, it turns out, makes my back hurt.
Complacency is resistance.
Because life is change. And if nothing else, it’s consistent in that.
And so, like everyone else, I say waiting for retirement is a dangerous thing. The biggest risk for non-risk takers to take. But unlike everyone else, I also say that it’s not about dropping your security blanket and making a beeline for a solo trip across Isreal. (Though that’s totally cool if that’s your dream.)
It’s about refusing to accept complacency as a natural or acceptable way of life.
If you’re reading this, you’re living a life of privilege. A life beyond mere survival. And if complacency is how you choose to reward yourself for winning the global jackpot, fine. That’s your prerogative. But if you long for more — if you’ve always wanted to learn how to cook; to play an instrument; to physically challenge yourself in what might seem like a ludicrously impossible way based on your current physique — you can’t let a little thing like age stop you from improving. From gaining knowledge. From earning strength. From evolving your spiritual beliefs right along with your new growth.
Look. We all have our limits. But half the fun of this whole living thing is finding ours. And figuring out ways to push them.
Whatever you choose to do, you don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to be the best. Mediocre at everything is better than a mind-numbing, resistant, refusal to change.
Little by little, you can learn. You can grow.
It’s embarrassing sometimes. Adding new little wrinkles to this well-protected noggin of mine often makes me feel like a child. Except I could wait around all day for that little gold star and a pat on the back — an applaud for my efforts — but it’s never going to come.
Yet despite a serious shortage of gold stars, I sit down to practice that second-hand guitar Justin scored for me at Christmas. I have a hard time balancing it on my leg, and transitioning from chord to chord, and I mess up the strumming pattern no matter how slowly I play it, and I actually drop the pick inside the guitar. One of my dogs emits an exasperated sigh. A flabbergasted human sigh. Like she’s relieved that the madness and buzzing of strings has stopped, for a frustrating few minutes, while I jiggle and worry the pick from the hole. It’s like even the pick doesn’t want me to play it.
But I want to be one of those people who can strum a few notes around friends without making them cringe.
It’s gorgeous and sunny outside my protected little tomb, so I open the windows, and I play. Loud. And very, very, badly.
Prodigy I am not. But the thing is, I know, it’s me who has to get past the cringe. The witnesses don’t matter. Like an overweight jogger panting heavily around the track — shuffling one leg past the other — what I think of me and my effort to improve is the only thing that counts. I get over the embarrassment by facing it head-on.
To me, it’s far more embarrassing to admit complacency than to try big and fail.
The “winter of life” is an abstract excuse. You don’t have to like everything. You don’t have to stick with everything. You just have to try everything that big spine of yours wants to try — those things it would do if the complacency wasn’t trying to bury it alive.
And that’s not really so hard, is it?