What it Means to be Retired

Living as I have been in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, as a retired person for the past nearly eight years, I’ve often felt I was living in one big beautiful retirement village. Perhaps this is because I’m out and about in the city during daylight hours, when most younger people are at work, and it’s us older residents who are most visible and recognizable – along with tourists of all ages, of course. So the subject of retirement and the way we live it day to day is often uppermost in my mind.

What does it even mean to be “retired”? This, I think, is a question worth exploring — well beyond the financial aspects of it — whether you’re already retired or you’re only in the planning stages. But before I plunge ahead, I’ll back up a bit:

Blogposts are by nature Opinion pieces. My WOW “View” posts, such as this one, always only represent my point of view on a subject. They’re mini personal essays, and as with essays in general, they’re never meant to be the last word.

The word “essay,” in fact, comes from the French verb essayer, which means “to try.” So in the English sense, an essay is an effort to try to understand a subject by writing about it. Essays are meant to spark thought and discussion. They’re invitations to conversations that might lead to wider understanding.

So in this post I’ll try to express what retirement has meant to me so far. At the same time, I invite readers to chime in by sharing their thoughts in the Comments section below, answering the question: What does retirement mean to you?

Many people avoid using the terms “retire” and “retirement,” feeling they imply something unpleasant – the beginning of the end, a withdrawal or retreat from the real world where all the action is. But that’s not the case with me. I don’t see these terms as less-than at all.

To me, being retired means being free – no longer caught up in the ultracompetitive American rat race – free at last to be completely who we’re meant to be and to do what we’re meant to do before we shuffle off…. This is a time to reevaluate how we spend our time and begin spending it to the best advantage, a time to formulate perhaps new goals and purposes, and to find exciting new directions and pursuits.

These days, here in my new apartment in Colonia Independencia, I wake with the rising sun, which I watch from my bedroom windows (one whole wall is a window facing east), as thirsty hummingbirds arrive for their breakfast at my terrace feeder.  No jangling alarm clock. No rush to get to an office by 9 a.m.  I feel happily, gratefully, luxuriously free – after having been a miniscule part in the vast, cold, (dare I say soulless?) machinery of U.S. industry and commerce for roughly five decades. This to me is bliss.

Dawn from my bedroom windows here in SMA

And this freer time is the furthest thing from idleness or boredom.  Especially here in San Miguel, where there is always plenty to do and see, particularly now that COVID is mostly behind us:  classes, lectures, concerts, plays, art exhibits, literary events, movies, tours, to say nothing of sampling the many world-class restaurants in this glorious old city.

For myself, a diehard homebody on a tighter budget than most other gringos here, I cherish the time I can stay home in my new apartment and read more books than I ever had time to read before, to write as my muse dictates to me, to walk miles in the Mexican sunshine each day, to meet with a friend for lunch in town or afternoon tea here at my place once a week, to continue my watercolor practice every evening, and to think more deeply about everything – especially our role now as “wise elders” in this crazy, mixed-up world.

This freer time has allowed me to give back, which is a vitally important aspect of our retirement years, I 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 greater community. Among those I’m most familiar with because I have at times participated in their efforts are: Hats and Scarves for Campo Kids, Ojala Niños, Feed the Hungry San Miguel, and So Others May Eat.

Retirement is also a time to have fun – to allow the long-suppressed child inside to play freely. For the past couple of years I’ve been following YouTube tutorials on watercolor painting (especially with Lois Davidson Art), in an effort to improve my perennially amateurish skills. Just this week I started my sixth three-ring binder containing my small, nightly efforts. Am I improving? Slowly, slowly, yes, I guess. But that’s not the point for me. I’m not in competition with anyone. I paint for the joy of it only:

Oh, and are my Spanish language skills improving? Also slowly, slowly yes, gracias a dios. I study and practice a little every day. But it will take me forever to become good. Well, I figure, there’s no rush. I’m not going anywhere. And I have time now. I’m retired.

Are you? If so, I invite you to share your retirement story below.

47 thoughts on “What it Means to be Retired”

  1. Good one Bonnie. I call it “refirement” or “freetirement.” I can explore the world with fewer expectations, fewer constraints, and a more open mind. I’m happier than I’ve ever been.

  2. I particularly enjoyed this discussion. When my agency did its every eighth year purge to reduce staff by 35% to replace it with cheaper untrained staff, I decided I would leave that job before they “gave” me a cardiac arrhythmia. I had had that happen twice before under job duress, but I was no longer that young, and these jobs are not worth your life. That meant retiring ten years before I had planned to do so. It was a great blessing in disguise. It takes time to transition mentally, physically, and financially. I am so delighted that I no longer sell hours of my life for so little. I am rich, but not in ways others define “rich.” You understand that a simple life can be wonderful. That is my life, too. Your watercolor binders inspire me to do better with regard to all of the things I wanted to do, but did not have time for, earlier in my life. Thank you for the kick start, and for helping me to remember to seize each day in this new part of my life.

    1. Thank you, Bri, for sharing your experience and your thoughts about retirement! I so appreciate your starting our meaningful discussion on this important topic. — BB

  3. Wonderful post !!!

    I retired to Guanajuato City in 2018 but rather than living alone I moved into a room with bath & 2 meals a day, in a Family’s home. The Family owns/operates a small Hotel next door to their home. My Room offers a lovely View of the La Bufa range with the Governor’s Palace below. I also enjoy the Colibris (15-20 in Summer, 5 or so in the winter).

    I wish I had written all that you said as it depicts a lot of how I feel about my retirement (Freedom) here. Except my watercolors are taking photos. I really agree with you on learning Spanish. I do a little of both each day.

    One enormous difference between our experiences is that I have been living with a family – Birthdays, Deaths, Anniversaries, watching Ninos grow up and new ones arriving on the scene. There are several Mariachis in my host famila, so any party is a very joyous event.

    I have enjoyed your blogs and have forwarded several of them to friends & relatives in the States. Please keep them coming.

    1. Muchísimas gracias, Mike, for sharing your retirement experience and for your kind words. I’m so happy to know this post resonates with you. And how wonderful that you live with a Mexican family and share in their joyful life celebrations. Lucky you!

  4. Yes, I agree with all you said. Also retired in SMA, I often tell people “Everything I’ve done in my work and personal life prepared me to be a retired person. This is was I’m meant to do.”

  5. Bonnie, I loved this post!!! Although, I do not live in San Miguel, I’ve been there many times! I can truly appreciate the beauty that you’re experiencing while living there! I also have many of the same beauties at my home in San Clemente, California. The art of retirement is realizing what beauty you have in your life and appreciating that even if it’s a small ounce of what you consider beautiful. “Each day is a gift, that’s why it’s called the present”.

      1. La Bonnie! We are doing great, gracias. Just wanted to share that I had loaned a copy of your wonderful book How to Cook a Crocodile to a friend who was interested in joining the Peace Corps. She read (and gave the book back to me, gracias a Dios!) and she already started the process to join.

        1. Querida Te — what wonderful news!!! Thank you for letting me know. I’ve often wished that were the case — that a reader would decide to join the PC after reading my Crocodile book. At least she will now know what to expect! 🙂 — Please give her my best wishes. — BB xx

  6. Dear Bonnie
    Everything you said about “your retirement” resonates with me, despite my not being there yet.
    It should be about being able to do all the things, time at work prevented you from doing. Going to sleep late because you want to finish reading that book; taking advantage of a gloriously sunny day to impulsively go for a walk on a beach; learning new skills- a language and a musical instrument. Writing and collating my backlog of digital photos. Joining a group whose interests are mine. Making new friends and reviving old ones. Gardening EVERY day and not just when the weekend allows me, in between chores. Going on long walks through nature and spending some time on a river in the warmer months to do some relaxing fishing.
    All of it, a time of enrichment!

    1. Yes, dear Loula — it looks like you’ll have a very busy and exciting schedule when you retire! You certainly have the recipe. 🙂 Thank you for sharing it. — xx

  7. Thank you for sharing your words of wisdom.
    I am newly on the retirement path and your essay resonated and inspired me this morning!

  8. I can relate to it all – and certainly am grateful to be here during this phase of my life…each day is a gift.

  9. WOW to your WOW! Bonnie, I could have written every single word and line but two about my retirement a twin would. Me, 25 years (retired early first to Montana then here for 19 years). The Zest for and love of SMA still after 19 years. Returning to my drawing and painting…yes watercolor. almost every afternoon. Same approach to rekindle my abilities and learn so much more…same way. My favorite YouTube tutorial is with the watercolor artist emma lefebvre and her book “Watercolor Lessons” (Amazon)

    I too live in Colonia Independencia in an apartment. Would love to me you someday as I said, our similarities are almost unbelievable.We are individuals but girl I think we were separated at birth….just uncanny My biggest quest after I retired was to get my life simpler…almost there. Thank you for you for your wonderful story. Best, Lee

  10. I rather prefer the Spanish word for retirement – I am “jubilada,” a word that evokes jubilation.

  11. Actually, “retired” could mean replacing the old, work tires with new, fun tires. I learned that it is best to retire to a passion that you have and not from your work. I worked as an attorney for for thirty-five years and enjoyed it. However, I have always had a passion for photography. In 2009, I gave up my law practice to devote full time to my photography. I have been a professional photographer since then, including photographing and teaching photography in Yosemite for the Ansel Adams Gallery and the Yosemite Conservancy. As much as I loved my law practice, I have had much more fun and satisfaction with my photography. (Bonnie asked me to include a link to my website, so here it is: http://www.riccapics.com.)

    1. YES!!! Thanks so much, John, for sharing your re-tiring experience. And I hope WOW readers will visit your website to see your magnificent photography. — Abrazos, BB

  12. Hola, I wanted to write something meaningful, serious and sobering? Nah

    When I heard the word essay I was reminded of living in northern new mexico that pronouncement there was from the cholo’ calling for their amigos…oh well like Mustache that’s another story. ( Irma la Douce)

    So for me there are so many negatives about retirement , such as:

    No multi tasking
    No air kissing or glad handing
    No debt
    No pressure/stress unless you opt in.
    No social obligations

    More fo sho which means onto positives, nah don’t have to, you all know all these already.

  13. I came to San Miguel de Allende (SMA) in 2009 as a retiree to resurrect my high school Spanish and to avoid the harsh winters in the northeast of the U.S., and I am happily still here almost 15 years later.

    I echo many of Bonnie’s points, such as, “…it is the furthest thing from idleness or boredom” and “…there is always plenty to do and see,” and “…to give back…,” but the one I most identified with is her “This is a time to reevaluate how we spend our time and begin spending it to the best advantage, a time to formulate perhaps new goals and purposes, and to find exciting new directions and pursuits.”

    During all of this newly free time, my biggest accomplishment, my surprise (to me) use of time, was writing and publishing four books, two of which are about being a retiree in San Miguel. Photography has also been a passion, and I managed to meld the two in my books. During this process, I had the help and encouragement of the SMA Literary Sala with their annual Writers’ Conference, and many, many fellow local writers, including Bonnie.

    I invite you to visit my website, http://www.cynthiaclaus.com and to check out all of my titles, but particularly the most recent two about SMA: “A Lifetime to Get Here: San Miguel de Allende” and “Is This My Life? San Miguel and Beyond.” Maybe you, too, will want to discover this perfect place to practice the fine art of retiring well.

    Cynthia Claus

    1. I’m thrilled that you’ve shared your retirement experience with us, Cynthia, and I’m so glad you’ve given the link to your website, where readers can learn more about your wonderful books! Thank you so much for sharing. — BB

  14. In the North American context, retirement is a kinda social death, a state of not being, tied to a more or less forced separation from employment which automatically restricts folks in their ability to participate actively in other areas of society. If one does not have sufficient resources, retirement either does not happen or leads to a forced isolation, a second “career” or some other form of neither death nor life at the margins of the very society that extracted socioeconomic surplus from the previously employed person. We saw it in the huge numbers of deaths during the pandemic that disproportionally impacted that demographic.

    Other societies value greatly the participation of retirees in many activities and celebrate the experience and knowledge retirees can bring to the table. Mexico is, generally speaking, a welcoming place for retirees due in part to their respect of persons with significant life experience. There’s little or no sociocultural downgrading associated with retirement in Mexico in the way it is prevalent in North America. To feel one’s sense of self-worth enhanced as you describe in your essay is a powerful antidote against many of the so-called diseases of age. I’m willing to bet a year’s pay that if research was conducted among retirees in Mexico, it’d be clear that their quality of life is significantly improved compared to that of their peers in NA. Sorry about the rant.

    1. Thank you for this, Carl. And no need to apologize. I agree with everything in your second paragraph, especially this: “I’m willing to bet a year’s pay that if research was conducted among retirees in Mexico, it’d be clear that their quality of life is significantly improved compared to that of their peers in NA.” I appreciate your contribution to the conversation! Best wishes, Bonnie

  15. Dear Bon,
    I just read aloud your post to Michael. He and Tony are spending a few days in the Berkshires, and I joined them for a few days. Right now, appropriately, he is making gazpacho for dinner. We have been talking about the fun of spending time with you during the Bonnie Fare days, not just observing and learning from your culinary skills, but inspired by the great love you brought to everything you created. Now that you are retired, this same great love inspires the arc of your new life. Your painting is one delightful example of this.

    Being only two months retired, I have little experience to offer to your discourse. I am grateful for the position I’m in and look forward to determining the path my future will take.

    Michael, Tony, and I send you lots of love,

    1. Dearest Paul — This note from you has made me teary-eyed. We had fun, didn’t we, doing Bonnie Fare Catering. And the fact that we’ve stayed loving, devoted friends all these years (35+!) after is an incalculable blessing. Please give my love to Michael and Tony as I send mine to you of course as well. And have some gazpacho for me! — xoxoxoxox

  16. Bonnie, as always your writing touches my heart. You are wise! My “retirement” is still too full of striving (why is this??!) and I am constantly reminding myself to slow down and enjoy the moment. I so enjoyed meeting you and getting to know you on our visit to SMA this past Feb. It was a magical several weeks. Made all the more poignant by my 92yo mother’s unexpected death while I was there. I’ve linked to my [B]OLDER podcast as a possible resource for your readers who want to “make the most of growing older.”

    1. Dear Debbie — So good to hear from you! And I do hope WOW readers will go to your podcast and be enriched by it. As you no doubt noted in my newest WOW, Isabel Allende calls this the era of “emboldened grandmothers.” I know you would agree! — BB

  17. 100% agree. I retired this past June at 55 and people say “well you’re not really retired cause you still need to earn money.” Yes, to live my dreams of travel I do. I could sit at home and do nothing but that’s not what I want. The HUGE difference is that now I am free. Terribly busy working on an interior design project and my own travel blog. The difference is I don’t chase money. I live creatively. I actually kick myself that I didn’t retire 20 years ago!!! [insert smiley face icon] See you in SMA in November!

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