If that title is not an oxymoron then I don’t know what is. It’s related to the fact that I did something rather remarkable a couple of weeks ago – I went back to work. At least to a small extent I did. Admittedly I am only working two hours a week for next 5 weeks before reviewing the arrangement and I am not taking any payment for my labour although I could have charged the school. I think they were a bit puzzled that a consultant – for that is what I am – should not charge a fee but I had a number of good reasons for not wanting to be paid. First, after 18 months out of work or retired I should say, I really wasn’t sure I could do the job again. Second, I wanted the freedom to work only short hours and to work flexibly. Finally, I wanted to see the return to work as an experiment because I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy the experience and I wanted to be able to say no, this isn’t working for me, let’s call it quits. All this I explained to the school who had contacted me to ask about my availability.
You have to laugh, as I’ve written elsewhere, after some significant difficulties in being retired, allied to that feeling of being a bit worthless and having the low self-esteem that goes with it, I had just about come to terms with all of this and started to feel comfortable with my new identity. Then 18 months after retiring with not a hint of any work related to my previous career, along comes the email request, delivered to me via a professional website that I thought I had closed down. The professional website was intended to be the vehicle by which I would generate some part-time consultancy work when I retired. To my surprise and irritation (have they forgotten how brilliant I was?) no work was forthcoming – nothing, until now that is. It came via something called ‘Foxyform’ which I assumed must be spam and I nearly deleted it. Glad now I didn’t, at least I think I am.
I could have waited until the end of this ‘contract’ to write about this experience but I have a reason for writing about it after only three weeks (including my introductory visit) that is to do with my immediate context. Leave it for another three or four weeks and the experience might feel quite different and I wanted a version of how it felt now. So here it is. I have hinted at the fact that we are going through some difficult times. Without going into detail these relate, in large part, to my mother (about whom I have written unkindly in the past) being in hospital and, according to the hospital at least, very close to dying. We have had three phone calls telling us to get to the hospital quick as she is ‘on her last legs’ only to be told shortly afterwards that, and I quote, “she is now sitting up chatting and drinking a cup of tea.” This last was a day after we visited her when she was practically in a coma, never said a word to us (couldn’t), never made any eye contact, seemed completely unaware that we were there at all and, as far as we could see, was unlikely to make it through the period of our visit let alone beyond that. I suppose it was her ‘rattly’ breathing and the periods of not breathing at all that gave us this impression. With her in this state and her on/off death situation we’ve been driving down to Nottingham twice a week. The uncertainty, the travelling, the thinking about making arrangements to empty her house and other death-related tasks, had left us quite drained. Thursday, after the Wednesday of our last visit, was particularly trying. And then came Friday as usual, except not as usual at all.
Friday is the day I’ve been driving to Doncaster to work in the school to support them in their efforts to improve their approaches to managing children’s behaviour. So what to do? I felt exhausted, would working in this way simply add to my stress levels or would there be something about the restorative effect of work that would at the least take my mind off our troubles and, at best, have a positive impact on my self-esteem? As I’ve written in previous blogs making the decision to work in a school again was one of the most difficult retirement decisions I have had to make so far. Going or not going to the school this particular Friday was another tricky decision.
Anyway to cut this part of the story short I decided to go. The only thing I changed, in an effort to be kind to my battered self, was to make the journey to Doncaster on the train. It would take longer and be more expensive but I like trains. When things were tough this last week I vaguely thought about buying myself something to cheer me up, who would have thought my present to myself would be a train ride to Doncaster. I digress, I used to enjoy that part of my work that involved train travel; it felt glamorous, particularly travelling first class and being paid to do so. So this aspect of my job was one of the bits I felt deprived of. Somehow less of a person because I didn’t travel by train. Having the pups hasn’t helped either, in fact our senior railcards have felt like something of an extravagance. So I would go to the school and I would treat myself to the train (although not to first class given I was paying the bill). Kindly Mrs Summerhouse and the pups delivered me to the station, train from Leeds (see above) to Doncaster, taxi to school, what felt like a very productive two hour meeting and review of classrooms in the school, taxi back to station (driven by a man from Kurdistan – a country to him – and that’s another story), cup of coffee on station, train journey back, picked up by Mrs SH and Ps and back home with that feeling of tiredness and a job well done that seemingly only some form of work can deliver.
And apart from enjoying the journey I also liked, heaven help me, being among working people again on the train. There were even two young people seemingly being interviewed for jobs on the train. I can only hope that the young man who admitted, unbidden (you can be too honest), that he didn’t know which way the train was going when leaving Leeds station, wasn’t marked down for this confession of ignorance. But yes, it felt a bit like being back in the world of the living in a way that driving, although infinitely more convenient and cheaper, had not. As had, and I’m a bit ashamed to admit it, dressing up in my work clothes (which still lurked in the wardrobe) even if they were simply a matter of smart(er) trousers, proper shirt and nice jumper and best brogues. Pathetic as it may seem, all of this, and not least the feeling of doing some good in the school, made me feel like a real person again.
So, and the big point of this story, I had reasoned, after some agonising, that going to work at this time of stress would take my mind of ‘things’ and, as a bonus, make me feel better about myself and what do you know, it did. Now some people would suggest that I have taken a backward step. Just when I had nearly broken the addiction, I’m back on that drug they call work. You might well say, you were getting into retirement and now, with this return to work, you’ve blown it. You’re once again chasing the dragon. Now you’re going to have to start all over again. Well, that may be correct, only time will tell and I’ve got three more weeks of this ‘contract’ to go. As I’ve said before, retirement is an unfolding story, who knows where it might lead.