My actual (as opposed to official) retirement began the day I walked into Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago and asked to volunteer for a few hours each weekday. I’d had a couple of rough years at my final payroller job and I thought volunteering would help lift me into a new way of thinking. Or, more precisely, I wanted a time-filler to keep from obsessing over the aftermath of the soul-crushing previous twenty-four months of my life.
Oh churches! There seem to be so many cries for help, until they try to find a job fit for you. I grabbed the first one offered and plunked myself down in front of a computer in the cubicle next to Vince, a friendly volunteer who was out of work but not yet retired. Our job: clean up the database.
The database. Every pensioner I’ve met since my stint who looked to the church to help fill the first year’s lonely unproductive hours says the same thing.
“I started with the database.”
Vince knew what he was doing and in fact devised a formula and matrix for our work. I suppose it was simple. If you could pay attention. I couldn’t. At the end of each of my four hour stints, he’d spot-check my work and stay an extra hour or more to correct everything I tried to accomplish. Vince had an advantage—he was good at the game Concentration. He could spot a misspelled name in seconds-flat with his highly industrious mind.
The room next to the dreaded cubicles had been cleared of all furniture. It may have been the size of a football field. For about a year, having been diagnosed with PTSD due to the aforementioned job, my perception of size, space and time was like science fiction, all out of whack.
One day, I heard an old Frankie Valli tune, “Sherry Baby” seeping under the door from that huge room. Of course I learned all the words—they’re pretty simple—as a teenager and never forgot them.
“What’s going on in there?” I asked Vince.
“Sher-er-ree, Sherr-ee, Baby… ”
“Oh, that’s the old people’s exercise class,” he said.
“Yeah, ya’ know. CLL. The Center for Life and Learning.”
I didn’t, in fact, know. The church bulletin had notices about CLL but I never thought they were meant for me. Within the next few weeks, each day I grew grumpier and grumpier working on the database.
“Vince,” I said, “No offense, but I’d rather be in that room dancing around to “Sherry Baby” than sitting in front of a computer.”
“Aw, yes, Regan,” he said, “But would it be as rewarding?”
Rewarding. Now there’s a loaded word. Did I really need to feel rewarded for the hours between sunrise and sunset? How about satisfied? Couldn’t I just feel satisfied?
“Vince. I’m logging out today and joining the exercise group tomorrow.”
And that day, that neutral day, is the day I turned old.