Where Can We Live But Days?

There’s a poem by Philip Larkin that I used to reflect upon often during my early retirement days (Entitled, as luck would have it, “Days”!)

What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?
Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

I used to muse over this in my mind when the days turned colder and I’d find myself on a Tuesday afternoon, standing at the radiator in my kitchen watching a sleety rain patter against the windows. I’d have already been to the gym that day, walking there and back wrapped up against the cold. The freezer would be bulging with dishes I’d cooked up to fill previous hours, and the Monday shop in Lidl had already been done. I’d not be in the mood to read books. I pretty much have never watched much telly, so I certainly wasn’t going to sit down in front of Loose Women. I’d be alone in the house and conscious that my wife would soon be coming in from work and looking for her “me time” – the last thing she’d be looking for would be my hangdog company. I’d slurp my tenth cup of tea in the day and try to resist the temptation to have another biscuit. What to do with the rest of the day? And what if the rest of the week was going to be similar?

I can already sense some readers swooning with the thought of having a day like this. Or more than one. Really? “Be careful what you wish for”, is what I say, and I’ve been there and got the T-shirt. My old dad used to tell me not to wish retirement on because “It will be there soon enough”. I used to think that what he meant was that “old age”, being 65, left you wondering where the time had flown to, but I was starting to wonder? Was he bored with it? His big hobbies were the garden and the golf, not exactly British winter pursuits. Were his retirement days stretching out? Was he finding them a bit repetitive? Was he missing his work? I was young and just starting out on the employment ladder and I looked on his comments in the same way as when he told me “School days were the happiest days of your life”. Yeah, right Pop. If retirement was all I thought it was cracked up to be, then he must mean something else. Perhaps it was going too quick for him, or maybe it was ushering the Grim Reaper in a bit too quickly. But surely he couldn’t be bored?

You can’t associate boredom with retirement, can you? It’s not allowed. “Only boring bastards would get bored with retirement”, as one of my mates said, when I told him I was having trouble filling my days. I agreed, and fretted about my inability to find something fulfilling to fulfil myself with. If it wasn’t Philip Larkin haranguing me in my mind, it was Bruce Springsteen:

Stay on the streets of this town
and they’ll be carving you up alright
They say you gotta stay hungry
hey baby I’m just about starving tonight
I’m dying for some action
I’m sick of sitting ’round here trying to write this book…..

I’m not really sure what The Boss was referring to when “Dancing in the Dark” but some retirement days it felt like this summed up how I was feeling. I wanted some “action” too, you know, but for me (given I was beginning to suspect I was really beginning to annoy my working wife) this would be a project, an objective that was set outside of myself. Something that involved other people, working with them, persuading them, cajoling them, or even doing what they were asking me to. Taking direction, following a leader. The kind of challenges my work used to supply on a daily basis.

Setting goals and objectives for yourself is all very well, as is having hobbies, pastimes and all the hours in the day to pursue them. Ermine waxed lyrically, as ever, over this subject on his blog this week, and posted examples of how you might fill your day in retirement. Yes, okay, but once you’ve considered all of them, and more, and found you’re just not in the mood or in the position to tackle any of them, what else are you going to do? Read another book? Go another walk? Build a radio set? Surf more FIRE websites telling you to follow your dreams? Well, what if your dreams merely taunt you about your inability to take steps toward them? For a time, I thought my dream job would be to be a writer. Seemingly it’s a lot of people’s fantasy job. There’s a cure for it: take a week off work; sit at your desk at a time of your choosing and write. Oh, and “Just write anything!” as the books and blogs advise. See how long it takes you to (1) become seriously bored (2) run out of things to write about (3) find yourself weeping at the sheer crap you’re producing (4) if you think it’s quite good, wonder how you can commercialise what you have written and then wonder if that’s not, like, a job? (5) Get up every day and repeat the process.

Listlessness affects everyone, and there’s something about having every day to fill – that’s every day – that seems to make you more prone to it. I seriously underestimated how little I could achieve between the hours of seven in the morning and eleven at night and often wondered where they’d gone and what I’d done with them? I knew I wasn’t alone. In his book “Fit, Fifty and Fired Up”, Nigel Marsh wrote:

I knew all too well the dangers of sitting at home with not enough to do. It’s easy to become soft and directionless without a focus – a “park bencher” as one of my friends calls it. You can even find yourself reading junk mail or writing To-Do lists comprising of things like “Clean teeth”. I remember an occasion during a previous hiatus from work when I’d only one thing to do in the day – buy pork chops for dinner. As I ran to the butcher in my pyjamas at 5pm before he closed, I was thinking “I haven’t got time for all these jobs! I mean I’ve got to clean my teeth and then there’s the pork chops!”

Well, Nigel wrote a few books about his experiences and hats off to him for that. But, make no mistake, writing a book must be one of the hardest things you can do – unless you find that it’s one of the easiest. I suspect there’s not much of a middle ground. If it’s the former, I suspect you might want to be paid for it and…wait… isn’t that a priest or a doctor, in a long coat, running over a field toward me?

27 thoughts on “Where Can We Live But Days?

  1. A nakedly honest—and depressing—piece. So you lament the lack of meaningful things to do in the time you have to yourself and your answer is…to give your time to someone else to fill? I can’t believe that this is the best answer for you. Rather, it seems to be the “easy way” for you: to pick something you are comfortable with (working) which, in turn, permits you to put off the question of “what the hell do I do with myself” for a later date.

    Wouldn’t you be better off tackling that question now? I foresee a problem if your new gig decides that they no longer need you (again) and then you are right back to where you were a year or so ago. (But you will be older, and it will be harder to run from the doctor and priest)

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    • I don’t think there’s anything wrong with taking the ‘easy way’ – Jim was made redundant, tried a year of ‘early retirement’ and has found that he’s not quite ready for it so has decided to go back to the ‘comfort zone’ of working again.

      As it’s not about the money, it’s about all the other benefits that work can give you.

      It remains to be seen how Jim will fare in this new job, now that he has made the conscious decision to work for reasons other than money.

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    • Sorry for the negative tone of my post above. I think it was a knee-jerk reaction to the fact that you decided that a situation we had in common (early retirement) was something you “wanted out” of.

      You left the tribe behind.

      Those of us still in the tribe (or, at least, me) are left to wonder if maybe you are right….

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  2. “the last thing she’d be looking for would be my hangdog company”

    “I was beginning to suspect I was really beginning to annoy my working wife”

    Seems like you never agreed your early retirement “[semi-]plan” with your wife and this may have been a big part of why you are now heading back to work

    There was another (now-defunct) blogger called Mr Squirrel who similarly opted out of early retirement for the same reason several years ago

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    • It’s true, I probably worried more about what my other half was possibly thinking than what she actually was thinking! You’d be daft not to discuss your plan with your partner and family, but have to remember that “plan” is the operative word.

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  3. This really makes me think. I worry that if I get the freedom to really think about what I want to do with my time, without any demands on that time from work, it will lead to some unpleasant conclusions. By working my life runs on autopilot – that’s a kind of escape from existential thoughts.

    I am grateful for you honest post – no one is in any position to criticise. Who has the right to tell another person how to live their life?

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    • I’d say more “uncomfortable” than “unpleasant” conclusions, and you can work on getting different outcomes. I wasn’t – despite the tone of this post – too worried about my position, but I did feel challenged in trying to change it.

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  4. Very thought provoking post. I often wonder myself just what I’ll do post-ER.

    What I do know is that I have turned 2 different absorbing hobbies into careers so far and it has taken all the enjoyment out of them, so I don’t want to do that again. I can’t help thinking though that just doing hobbies for themselves will be a bit directionless and unfulfilling. I forsee problems ahead….

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    • I thought that about writing. I enjoyed it, but worried that if I tried to force it, or felt I was forced into it, then that enjoyment would cease. The blog seemed a halfway house, but sometimes even writing one page a week can seem like a “have to”! I’m glad I didn’t try to force any more in that direction….

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  5. Very interesting post. I had exactly the same feelings after a year off at the age of 42. I have now been back in work for a year and have to say I am happier now than I was in my year off.

    There is something to be said for having the challenge of a job to keep you on your toes intellectually and emotionally. I value my free time much more now, and appreciate the good parts of working much more than I used to!

    Keep up the good work with the blog.

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  6. Man, I seriously value your blog. It is a real antidote for all the “life will be perfect when I retire” writing I come across on blogs, like they’re staring ahead to a beach-y paradise where nothing bad, or not much of anything, happens.

    I was suddenly without a job for a few months ten years ago, and it was great in one way, but also I got so little done. There was just so much time and no pressure to do anything. Conversely, I had every other Friday off for years, and I got SO MUCH done on those days because there was a limited amount of time and usually a bunch of things I set aside to do during that time.

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    • I agree, Norm. SHMD is one of my favorite blogs because it sends a unique message to the FIRE community, explaining that the risk of boredom is real. In my case I don’t think it will happen too soon (my job is literally preventing me from spending time on my hobbies right now), but it’s great to keep in mind that not everything is rainbows and unicorns, even when you have enough money

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  7. For me this is one of your best posts Jim, lyrical in really honest and thought provoking way. So pleased your planning to keep blogging, you have a good way with words and whilst your POV is a little different to the rest that to me makes it all the more valuable ! Good luck with the next chapter on your journey look forward to following it here on your blog.

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  8. While we are Larkin about:

    Walking around in the park
    Should feel better than work:
    The lake, the sunshine,
    The grass to lie on,

    Blurred playground noises
    Beyond black-stockinged nurses –
    Not a bad place to be.
    Yet it doesn’t suit me.

    Being one of the men
    You meet of an afternoon:
    Palsied old step-takers,
    Hare-eyed clerks with the jitters,

    Waxed-fleshed out-patients
    Still vague from accidents,
    And characters in long coats
    Deep in the litter-baskets –

    All dodging the toad work
    By being stupid or weak.
    Think of being them!
    Hearing the hours chime,

    Watching the bread delivered,
    The sun by clouds covered,
    The children going home;
    Think of being them,

    Turning over their failures
    By some bed of lobelias,
    Nowhere to go but indoors,
    Nor friends but empty chairs –

    No, give me my in-tray,
    My loaf-haired secretary,
    My shall-I-keep-the-call-in-Sir:
    What else can I answer,

    When the lights come on at four
    At the end of another year?
    Give me your arm, old toad;
    Help me down Cemetery Road.

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  9. Very refreshing read and good advice to take some time out to follow your obsession and see where it takes you. I’d go further and say don’t stop with one thing, keep trying things.

    It’s probably not a coincidence that I’m freelance and sometimes have gaps of a month or two between periods of work.

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  10. As usual I can relate to some of your thoughts but some I can’t (mainly as I haven’t been there yet!)
    I just can’t see me being bored without a job. Not ever but certainly for the next 5-10 years. We are of course in much different situations, so maybe that is all there is to it!

    I totally relate to that making a hobby work makes it, well work which is a synonym of boring for most people. That’s happened to me a few times. That’s why I don’t have a publishing schedule on the blog. I tried that a few times and just found it onerous. Now I just write when I feel like / when I have time and am enjoying it much more (and ironically probably posting more often). I used to write electronic music way back when but when it got too serious I got bored of it quickly, I can see myself going back to that at some point for fun though, if/when inspiration strikes.

    The poem reminded me a bit of this post: http://waitbutwhy.com/2013/11/life-is-picture-but-you-live-in-pixel.html which is well worth reading. I probably completely missed the point as I didn’t get the bit about the doctor at all though 🙂

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  11. Financial independence is in my view a necessary but not sufficient condition for early retirement. If your needs were not being met apart from the working environment you obviously made the right decision to get back into harness.
    When my wife and I decided to retire I reminded her of my long running advice about work – do it until you’re sick of it then get out and don’t go back. She was a French teacher and in Canada she could probably work part time into her 90s if she wanted to.
    We retired together, moved from an area we didn’t really want to stay in to a beautiful small town near where we both grew up. We are close to our daughter and son-in-law plus our grandkids, it’s an hour’s drive to the airport or to the US border if we want to go there. We got away from the temptation to keep working because her old principal was desperate that day.
    Now as I approach my dotage I am grateful for FI above all else. I don’t imagine all the seniors I see stocking shelves in the local Walmart or manning the counter at Burger King are there for the intellectual pleasure. That’s about all I’d be good for these days. Who else would want to hire me?

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