Thoughts on ‘buttoning and unbuttoning’ now that I’m retired

I’m retired now. A man of leisure. All my time is my own. So why is it that I have so little of it to spend?

Lord Byron knew the answer to that, even though he never got to retire. He died in Greece in 1824 at the age of thirty-six. Eleven years earlier, he wrote this in his diary:

“Went to bed, and slept dreamlessly, but not refreshingly. Awoke, and up an hour before being called; but dawdled three hours in dressing. When one subtracts from life infancy (which is vegetation),—sleep, eating, and swilling—buttoning and unbuttoning—how much remains of downright existence? The summer of a dormouse.

Lord Byron 1813 – cited in ‘Life, Letters, and Journals of Lord Byron: Complete in One Volume, Chapter 29: 1813, Date of Entry: December 7, 1813, Quote Page 213, John Murray, London.

At sixty-five, I don’t have much of my dormouse summer left and yet, even in an age of zippers, I seem to spend a lot of my time on the ‘buttoning and unbuttoning’ of life that Byron was bemoaning.

Of course, in the same year that he wrote these words in his diary, Lord Byron met his half-sister, Augusta Leigh, for the first time in four years. The rumours that he was the father of Augusta’s daughter, Medora, (born in 1814) contributed to his self-imposed exile from England in 1816, so maybe he’s not the best person to turn to for life lessons.

When I was working long hours, travelling too often and spending too many nights away from home, I used to imagine retirement as unbounded freedom. No more emails to reply to, no more teleconferences to host, no more nights in hotel rooms that I saw more of than my own home. I could do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted.

It turned out that that was only partially true.

My imagination hadn’t factored in the amount of work involved in moving back to England after being away for nearly two decades. Nor had I foreseen that Brexit and COVID between them would trammel my ability to do almost anything beyond the boundaries of my own home.

Yet these constraints are not the main drivers of the gap between my wistfully imagined freedom to do whatever I want whenever I wanted and my daily life.

The freedom that I imagined was defined as a negative. It was all about the things I would no longer have to do rather than the things I would now be able to do.

Retirement is not a holiday. It’s not a short decompression from the pressures of work, a breather that allows me to spend time with my wife, to read my books and to seek out new places and new experiences. It’s how I will spend every day of the rest of my life.

When he was seventy-five, John Mortimer, he of ‘Rumple of the Bailey’ fame, wrote an autobiographical book about being old called ‘The Summer of a Dormouse’.

Taking as his title Byron’s famous description of what life is (a mere “summer of a dormouse”), John Mortimer describes what it’s like to be 75 but feel 11. He has all the afflictions that his father had at this age, but retains all his youthful enthusiasms. Mortimer describes the last couple of years which involved plenty of hilarious public duties, like chairing the committee to decide who should go on the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square, but also private matters like having to be in a wheelchair at glamorous New Labour parties. A paradoxically cheerful and cheering book about growing old gracefully.

My knowledge of the book comes only from quotations (Why? Because it’s only available in print and I no longer have eyesight good enough to read it – a circumstance that Mortimer would have smiled at) but here are two of the quotes that made me think:

“The ageing process is not gradual or gentle. It rushes up, pushes you over and runs off laughing. No one should grow old who isn’t ready to appear ridiculous”

 “The real trouble with old age is it lasts for such a short time”. 

Although, now that I am sixty-five, the medical profession defines me as geriatric, I’m fortunate to be fit enough and strong enough not to feel old. I stayed at a B&B recently where the woman running it was two thirds my age, height and weight, looked at the very large and very heavy suitcase I was manhandling up the stairs and said, ‘Can I help you with that?’ I wasn’t sure which I found stranger, the idea that she could easily lift something that heavy or the idea that she looked at me and saw someone who needed help. I’m sure there’s a lot more of that to come.

So, I don’t yet feel old but I can see it coming and I want my retirement to be more than waiting for my physical abilities to decline to the point where I no longer have the energy or the inclination to do anything much at all. I won’t sit here and wait for ‘death’s winged chariot’ to make its final approach.

Which gets me back to buttoning and unbuttoning.

Unlike Byron, I quite like to spend my time buttoning and unbuttoning, as long as it’s not all I do. Once I understood that life as an endless holiday would, for me, be a manifestation of Purgatory (I’m imagining spending an eternity trapped on a cruise ship with nothing to do but eat, drink, walk the decks and go to shows. Doesn’t the thought of that make you shudder?) I started to think about the routine things in my life that bring me pleasure.

I like to cook. Initially, that was mostly because I like to eat but. over time, I’ve learned to value the rhythm of cooking – the mise en place, the done-by-eye assessments of when things are ready, the sequencing of tasks so that I’m always occupied but never too busy, the plating and presentation.

I enjoy being able to get up when I want to get up, sometimes at dawn, sometimes partway through the morning and know that I have the time, if I choose to spend it, for an unhurried shower and a leisurely breakfast.

I am soothed by the weekly rhythms of picking up my Click&Collect order from the supermarket and driving to the dump to get rid of the vast amounts of cardboard and plastic and unrecyclable waste that we produce.

These ‘buttoning and unbuttoning’ things aren’t what I do instead of living, they’re part of my life.

Of course doing the washing up, finding emergency plumbers or electricians or dealing with the endless forms and mindless, ineptly automated, impersonal to the point of rudeness, never right first time processes used by utility companies, banks, and insurance companies are never anything but chores that blight my day. Life is like that.

I’m looking for a balance that I haven’t quite found yet. A life where I spend maybe a third of my time doing fun things with my wife – travelling, eating together, visiting friends and relatives, finding new places and people, talking about everything and anything, a third of my time in my head: reading, writing, satisfying my curiosity, and a third of my time on all the buttoning and unbuttoning stuff – even the ones I don’t enjoy.

Life’s never that tidy of course but I’ve found that, for me, the absence of intent leads to an absence of action so having something to aim for helps.

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