Giving Back

On the way to the supermarket last week I passed a neighbor’s “victory garden,” across from our gate, just off the main road. I’m regularly impressed by how substantial a parcel that fellow plants each year, because he works it, lives, and eats the harvest all on his own. At the end of one recent season, he invited me into his garage where he proudly showed off the shelves of pickles, tomatoes, corn, and slaw he’d “put up”. He said he learned how to can produce as a little boy helping his mother do it.

That day what I noticed, as my car flashed past his garden, was that it wasn’t a dormant brown patch, as it usually is in January. It was green with a crop of low-growing, winter-hardy grass. Made me wonder if he hadn’t gotten the idea from our High Vista Community Garden, just a quarter mile up the road from his. This is the first year we had our entire garden area tilled in September and then over-seeded it with crimson clover and purple vetch in October. I smile whenever I go by the results of our hard work, knowing that we’re putting nutrients back into the soil in return for all that the garden gave us last summer. And that’s how one thing leads to another and I got the inspiration for this blog post on “giving back.”

“We’re seeing that retirement unleashes new opportunities to give that can positively impact the world,” said Andy Sieg, head of Global Wealth and Retirement Solutions for Bank of America Merrill Lynch. “Today’s retirees are in a position to make significant, lasting contributions and define their legacy. We’re going to see older adults contributing to society in new and meaningful ways.”

From “Giving in Retirement: America’s Longevity Bonus,” visit the complete study by Merrill Lynch Investment Services.

I’ve read and heard lots of people focused on “leaving a legacy.” Many of my friends are looking back over their personal and career life milestones like auditors working to assure an accurate accounting of debits and credits and come up with a final, hopefully positive, tally. Did they marry? Have a family? A big house, car, education, title on the door of the last office they occupied? Indeed, for some the measure of their personal success is simply how much money and consumer wealth they have amassed. Others are starting new ventures (creative and business) after retirement, as if the key purpose of life as we move from middle age into our elder years is to do a capstone project, wrap up one’s life’s work in a neat package, leave a final something or other for posterity to use and cherish when we’re no longer physically present to remind them how terrific we once were. Somehow I just can’t get into that “legacy” mindset. I don’t think that way; personal reflection reveals that I never did value product over process.

I remember being shocked and mildly offended when one of my cousins (knowing full well that I’d never given birth to a child) told me “the central reason for living is to have children. That’s the purpose of a human life, the reason we’re here.” Maybe a purpose, but surely procreation is not the purpose. If that were the case, what kind of purpose would there be for all the time beyond our childbearing years? Personally, I moved through my life focused less on concrete goals than by the relationship between what I was doing and what I was getting in exchange – I definitely wanted the means to live comfortably at all times, but there were other motivations driving my choices as well, other underlying values that defined “purpose” or “the meaning of life. Those had more to do with feeding my soul, less to do with feeding my bank account.

Now I read that our generation is in a quandary, finding difficulty in adjusting to life in retirement. With grown children, our roles and responsibilities as parents are gone. No longer standing in front of a room or sitting behind a desk able to measure our purpose by how many faces turn our way for direction. Who are we when we’re no longer wife, mother, boss, plumber, doctor, an important cog in the way things work? For a multi-level response to the question, “What is the purpose of life?” read what Rabbi Scheinerman has to say on this subject. According to his explanation, based on Jewish values, there’s nothing that precludes an aged or disabled person from leading a purposeful life; nothing that requires one to be working nine to five, raising children, holding a leadership position, measuring output against any standard except their personal/spiritual ideals.

That’s what the Rabbi says. I say, think of yourself as the winter crop. Holding the soil in place by being well-rooted. Adding a degree of nourishment to whatever comes next simply by being who you are, right here, right now. Not necessarily flowering, just thriving on resources as simple as the sun coming up each morning, the occasional rain (or snow) for an invigorating change, and the company of other blades of resilient grass around you.

It’s taken me ten years to finally feel content in retirement. To stop “should-ing” on myself but instead, give myself permission to get out of bed after seven a.m., sit for hours reading a chick-lit novel, or paint a watercolor landscape before doing laundry or going shopping. I volunteer in my neighborhood and community organizations, because these activities keep me on the familiar path of “you-never-know what’s going to come of this” adventures. But equally important to me, because in the process of being a winter crop, I’m giving back for the bounty I’ve already harvested from life. That’s what gives my life purpose. How about you?

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