The first week I was retired, and maybe even into the second, I stayed in my bathrobe until 9 a.m. – absolute luxury for someone who used to be up, dressed and out the door by 7 a.m. every morning, ready for work.
By the third week, the bathrobe’s charm was wearing thin. I wasn’t sick, and I sure wasn’t on vacation – the only other reasons for such sloth. So I moved into soft clothes, my version of sweat pants, and I’ve been loathe to give them up ever since.
For 40 years, I wore business suits. I dressed for success. I dressed business casual. I wore dresses when I was young – and could navigate on spike heels with the best of them – and dress trousers and flats as I got older and my knees got creakier. We had a dress code in the newsroom where I worked, and my closet still reflects it: more suits than jeans, more dress shoes than sneakers, more sweaters than sweat shirts. Those clothes were as much a part of what I did and who I was as the reporter’s notebook I carried.
But it’s been seven years – seven years since 13 of my friends and colleagues and I were given the boot, downsized and early-retired on the same day from The Muskegon Chronicle’s newsroom. I’ve been lucky enough to free-lance, blessed still to write for this magazine, the newspaper and other publications since then – but in a far more casual work environment than I once inhabited; in other words, at home, no dress code enforced, suits gathering dust.
In these retirement years, my joke has been that I’ll only go someplace if I don’t have to wear makeup, nylons or dress up. I imagine it’s akin to men saying they’ll never wear neckties again, not even to church or funerals, after they leave the office.
But sometimes, a necktie isn’t just a necktie; and dress clothes are not just fabric and well placed buttons. Sometimes, they are cause for self-reflection.
When I first started fiddling with this column, thinking out loud, kept awake at night by unwritten words, I intended to write about a decision a friend and I have made. Once a month, we are going to get all dressed up – jewelry, makeup, good clothes – and have lunch.
We’ve gone out once, all gussied up, and we had so much fun. We decided we’re going to have themes around which to plan our outfits, some of which haven’t seen the light of day since we retired. What a shame, we said in unison. What good is that ring in its box? Those clothes shoved to the back of the closet? Those earrings, saved for good?
That blush, waiting to be applied?
Put that way, it sounds pretty shallow, doesn’t it? Well, as I was thinking through how to tell the story of topaz earrings (hers) and an amethyst bracelet (mine), I realized this isn’t about fashion at all.
It’s about self-esteem and identity – and at the risk of sounding like an Oprah moment: grief. I wasn’t ready to retire seven years ago, and in retrospect, not only did I feel invisible without my job, I worked at not being seen. Ours was such a public job, intense and demanding, full of deadlines and days that changed by the minute. It was all I ever wanted to do, and be, the most noble thing I could think to do with my life: a calling more than a profession, humbling, heavy with responsibility.
I think I’m finally ready to emerge from the sorrow of leaving before I was ready. In January, I retired my newspaper column, the last connection to the business I love, knowing it was the right time, the right decision.
The truth is, I’m finding myself again, as we all do along the way, working from past to present and staying there. Some day, I’d like to write more, in-depth, about just how much jobs mean to people, how our identities are all tangled up in them, and how hard it is to land on our feet – emotionally and financially – when we lose them.
But for now, it is enough to say it out loud; to get the conversation going; to take the first step into what comes next. For me, it means dressing a little better for an afternoon meeting scheduled – not because it’s expected, but because I want to, because it makes me feel better – and just maybe, because this is who I am – now..
Susan Harrison Wolffis is an award winning writer known for her engaging writing style.