In Praise of Downtime

I wake with the morning light, without the jangle of an alarm, to begin a new day in which I am happily, gratefully, and luxuriously free. I’ve begun to call this last stretch of my life my “downtime” – a time to relax and enjoy each day, after having been a miniscule part in the vast, cold (and I might add, soulless) machinery of U.S. industry and commerce for roughly five decades.

No more stress (Will the new management fire me?), no more anxiety (Will the car start in this freezing weather? Will I be late for work?), no more nerve-jangling predawn alarms. In my view, retirement – especially for those of us who have retired outside of the U.S. — is bliss. An earthly form of paradise.

And this freer time, I’m finding, now that I’m nearly five years into it, is the furthest thing from idle. Especially here in beautiful San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, there is always almost too much to choose from to do: classes, lectures, concerts, plays, exhibits, literary events, movies, tours, to say nothing of countless world-class restaurants.

For myself, a diehard homebody on a tighter budget than most other gringos, I cherish the time to stay home and read more books than I ever had time to read before, to write as my muse dictates to me, to pay closer attention to the news and world events and make better informed decisions, to walk miles in the Mexican sunshine each day, to meet with a friend for lunch once a week, and to think more deeply about everything.

I read, on average now, a book a week (four times more than I ever did before), and these brilliant books take me, giddily, to other places and to other times in history, to walk in others’ shoes. The book I’m reading now is a biography by Ronald McNair Scott of Robert Bruce, King of Scotland in the early 14th century. Physically, I’m reading this book in my cozy bed here in Mexico; but spiritually, I’m swept back in time to the land of my ancestors, rooting for this brave warrior-king against all odds.

Last night, for example, I read that 426 years before America wrote its Declaration of Independence from England, the Scots drew up a comparable document known as the Declaration of Arbroath, declaring Robert Bruce the king who would “defend our liberties [against England] … for it is not glory, it is not riches, neither is it honour, but it is freedom alone that we fight and contend for …” Ah, freedom, I thought; priceless.

This freer time in life is also a time to give back, I strongly believe. Almost everyone I know here in San Miguel is involved in one or another of the many volunteer opportunities helping out the NGOs that aid the people.

Among those I’m most familiar with because I have at times participated in their efforts are: Hats and Scarves Campokids ( ), Ojala Niños ( ), Feed the Hungry San Miguel ( ), and So Others May Eat ( ). (SMA Friends: Please feel free to add links to your own list in the Comments section below.)

And downtime is a time, too, to have fun — to allow the long-suppressed child inside to play freely. I like to combine this impulse with my volunteer teaching once a week at an afterschool program, where I teach English. This semester the kids are in their early teens, but I was happy to discover they’re not too old to enjoy my puppets’ performances. To date, I’ve made ten puppets, who come to class (one by one) to teach the kids their “specialty.”

The week before last, for instance, my puppet Zorba the Zebra told them about Africa and his wild animal friends there. And this past week Phil the Fish gave a brief lecture on nutrition, comparing what fish eat with what people eat:

One side of Phil’s worksheet
The kids completing Phil’s worksheet

I don’t know yet which puppet will accompany me to my next Wednesday-afternoon class or what she or he will teach the kids in English. I’m not worried about it. I have some time.