My Retirement Journey by Marlene Bireley

Retirement, like the rest of life, is not a one- size- fits- all phenomenon. For some, it is a time of great anticipation (I can finally do those things that I have been putting off for years) and, for others, a time of dread (What will I do with all my spare time?). Universally, after a period of adjustment, all of my friends say that they don’t know how they ever found time to work since life is so full as it is.

I have been asked to share my own retirement adventures with you. It is only one story, not a how-to, but an example of the ways in which I have found personal fulfillment. Official retirement, for me, began at an early age. As a life-long Ohio resident and a public school educator before I came to the university, I was a contributor to STRS throughout my adult life. When the university offered the 1988 buy-out, I took advantage of it even though I was in my early fifties.

I would not recommend this for everyone, but several factors weighed heavily on my decision. First, I knew that I was facing some care issues with both my mother and mother-in-law and was concerned about fulfilling my work and personal obligations through that period of time. Second, our college was facing a difficult transition and that was becoming clear to me in the year when I was making the decision to stay or go. Third, I have discovered that I am what I call a “five year cycle” person. The status quo bores me and I have always tried to change up my work responsibilities about every five years. I have been very fortunate in being able to do just that—five years as a classroom teacher, another five as a school psychologist, then twenty years as a university professor. At the university, through adding programs and taking a stint as Associate Dean, then returning to full time teaching, I continued to reinvent my position in approximate fiveyear segments. I was nearing the end of the “teaching only” segment and was searching for ways to re-energize me and keep my productivity at a personally acceptable level. The buy-out proved to be the solution for each of these three concerns. “Retirement” proved to be a time of renewal and did, indeed, re-energize me. I like to write, but I write best when I have big blocks of time. I envy those people who spend thirty minutes daily and end up with many completed products. I start slowly and hit my stride one or two hours into a project. Consequently, as a full-time professor, my writing consisted of articles, not books. Hard to believe now, but I never used a computer until after I retired. One of my first tasks was to buy one and teach myself the intricacies of word processing. Once mastered, this opened a new world to me and I returned to the writing that I enjoyed, but had put on the back burner for many years. Within the first five years of retirement, I had co-edited two books on gifted education and completed what became a popular book on “crossover children” who are both gifted and learning disabled.

The latter book led to a contact with a retired professor from The Ohio State University who was doing research in “brain mapping” of the same crossover population. His early work in brain imaging pre-dated the routine images that are now used for all types of research and diagnostics and we enjoyed several years of collaboration on both the research and in a clinic that he founded in Columbus. As a licensed psychologist, I served on a team with him and others serving children with disabilities through the end of the century.

Lest it seem as if this is not retirement as you envision it, I also began to travel extensively making trips to Europe, Egypt, Australia and New Zealand, I continued to tick off visits to different states with a bucket list goal of making it to all fifty. That goal was realized about five years ago. Travel, for me, is like the rest of life. Some people have a “summer place” or other destination that they return to happily each year. Once having visited a place, I prefer to move on to new horizons, new cultures and new experiences. Each person needs to find that mix of the new and familiar that feels right for him/her. In addition to travel to other lands, my two children live in western states so I make frequent forays to Utah and California and have visited both of those states extensively.

It was in the mid-nineties that I was recruited to join WSURA. Both my mother and mother-in-law had completed their earthly journeys and I was open to more social experiences. I joined the retirees’ group at the invitation of two close friends and, with some of the proverbial arm-twisting, became president-elect immediately. The organization has become an integral part of my life since then. Passing acquaintances during our years at the university have become good friends and the service aspects of the organization have been fulfilling on many levels. I am not a person who needs to be surrounded by people all of the time, but I enjoy the camaraderie of the monthly Board meetings and the social activities. Others may find fulfillment in religious, civic or service organizations. The “what” doesn’t matter as long as one is engaged in the community of your choice.

To finish my own “five-year” cycle story, at the turn of the century, I was recruited by a former student to work part-time as a gifted coordinator in a local county school system and by another student to work as school psychologist in a local private school. I continued those part-time positions until I turned seventy when I decided to “really retire” from wage-earning work. I value those experiences as validation that I was not just an “ivory tower” professor, but one who could function and contribute in the modern education system. I knew when it was time to quit and, as I have told many friends, you, too, will know when it is right for you.

Now I spend my time with family (two great-grandsons spend nearly every weekend with me), support the arts- I am an avid movie, theater, art and classical music buff, and I continue to travel several times a year. And, I have learned, at last, the joy of doing nothing. This is a hard lesson to learn if one is a Type A personality, but I have discovered that there can be great joy in sitting and watching birds at a birdfeeder, reading a book or watching a favorite television show. Best of all, I enjoy just sitting and contemplating how fortunate I have been to have had both the professional and personal experiences that have made up the many cycles of my life. In closing, I would like to share the Vanderbilt University Wellness Wheel. This has been shared at a number of WSURA workshops for soon-to-be or newly retired employees. I find it a good summary of the areas that a retiree should heed when planning a meaningful retirement. The interpretation of each area can be very personal, but including each in your life can lead to a happy and healthy “third act.”


Wellness Wheel Wellness is broken down into six major categories.

PHYSICAL WELLNESS: a perception and expectation of physical health. Exercising regularly Eating properly Getting regular physical check-ups Avoiding the use of tobacco or illicit drugs

SPIRITUAL WELLNESS: a positive perception of meaning and purpose in life. Being open to different cultures and religions Giving your time to volunteer or participate in community service activities Spending time defining personal values and ethics and making decisions that complement them Spending time alone in personal reflection Participating in spiritual activities Participating in activities that protect the environment Caring about the welfare of others and acting out of that care

SOCIAL WELLNESS: a perception of having support available from family, friends, or co-workers in times of need and a perception of being a valued support provider. Being comfortable with and liking yourself as a person Interacting easily with people of different ages, backgrounds, races, lifestyles Contributing time and energy to the community Communicating your feelings Developing friendships Recognizing a need for "fun" time in your life Budgeting and balancing your time to include both responsibilities and relaxation

EMOTIONAL WELLNESS: possession of a secure self-identity and a positive sense of self-regard; also the ability to cope with and/or improve unpleasant mood states. Keeping a positive attitude Being sensitive to your feelings and the feelings of others Learning to cope with stress Being realistic about your expectations and time Taking responsibility for your own behavior Dealing with your personal and financial issues realistically Viewing challenges as opportunities rather than obstacles Functioning independently but knowing when you need to ask for help

INTELLECTUAL WELLNESS: the perception of being internally energized by an optimal amount of intellectually stimulating activity. Learning because you want to - not because you are told to. Doing the work assigned. Learning through varied experiences - reading, writing, sharing and exploration Observing what is around you Listening Finding applications for material learned in the classroom Staying current with world affairs/news Questioning Exposing yourself to new experiences (e.g. arts, theater)

ENVIRONMENTAL WELLNESS: the positive perception of the environment that one works and lives in. Finding satisfaction and worth in your work Ensuring your work environment and relationships are comfortable Being aware of the natural environment you live in Recognizing opportunities that lead you to new skills and acting on those opportunities Working to ensure the stability and longevity of our natural resources

Wellness Resource Center | Vanderbilt University