COLUMNISTS

A birthday wish for us all: Laugh, sing and live large regardless of the years

I have nothing against those who welcome retirement. But me? I still have too many things left to say.

Six years ago, I laughed out loud at a friend’s joke. I have no memory of what she said, but I do recall a woman I barely knew pulling me aside to warn me about the hazards of such a big smile.  

“After a certain age, a woman’s eyes turn into squints when she smiles,” she said in her best ghost story voice. “It makes our face look fat.”

I was 59. God, I laughed. I’ve always had a full face. Think Charlie Brown’s sister, Sally, but brunette. When I was 16, I once stood in front of my parents’ dresser mirror and complained about the width of my face. My mom would have none of it.

“When you’re 40 you won’t have a single wrinkle on your face,” she said. “You’ll be a grape among prunes.” That was Mom’s version of a pep talk.

No, I'm not retiring. #toosoon

In recent days, I turned 65. Still wide faced, still laughing, especially as I give the same answer, over and over: “No, I’m not retiring.”

There are many good reasons to have friends of all ages, and never has this seemed more vital than now, as so many people I love and respect retire. One minute you’re in the trenches together, united in the cause. Overnight, you’re standing alone in the ditch as your Instagram feed fills with former comrades’ posts about starting their day any way they want “because I can. #retired.”

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I’m not saying they’re rubbing it in. I’m not saying they’re not, either.

I have nothing against those who welcome retirement. I am especially mindful of those who have worked in jobs much harder than mine. Long list, that one.

Stop counting years. You're alive.

My first column , in 2002, was about my father’s lunch pail. For 36 years, he was a utility worker for the local power plant, and he always used the same metal lunch pail. After he retired, I wanted to set it on my desk as a reminder of how hard he worked to build a better life for my three siblings and me. He thought this was a ridiculous idea and threw it away.

Sixteen years since his death, I have an 11-pound wrench he used on the job. It’s propped against a bookcase in my home office, next to his dirty yellow hard hat – gifts from one of his supervisors after I had toured his abandoned plant. They remind me that, on my worst day, I’ve never worked as hard as he did. 

Connie Schultz keeps in her home office the worn hard hat and 11-pound wrench her father used as a utility worker at a power plant. The items, gifts from one of his supervisors, are on a low shelf so her grandchildren can see them and next to her books as a thank-you to her father.

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My mom was a nurse’s aide and, later in her life, a hospice home care worker. She died at 62. After I turned 62, I wasted 161 days anxiously awaiting the morning when I had lived longer than my mother. What a dreary way to waste the gift of life. I am not unique in falling for this gloomy endeavor, and I’m here to encourage others to resist. We are alive, which is exactly what our parents would have wanted. So, let’s act like it.

I was raised to be useful. This lifelong endeavor comes into conflict with the cultural mandate for a wind down at age 65.

Taking my own advice

I wish I were one of those people who, having reached a certain age, had words of wisdom for people who can still take their leg muscles for granted. Certainly, I’ve learned from my mistakes, but sharing those stories would only embarrass all of us. What I can say for sure is that having surpassed my mother’s age of death by three years, I’m not going to waste another moment worrying about when my time might come.

Connie Schultz is an Opinion columnist for USA TODAY.

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I’m remembering when my friend Gaylee was about to enter medical school at age 40. She worried aloud that she’d be 50 before she could be a doctor. “You’re going to be 50 anyway,” I said, “so you may as well be 50 and a doctor.” I’m going to take my own advice and keep making plans.

When she was 76, British novelist Penelope Lively told The Guardian, “In old age, you realize that while you’re divided from your youth by decades, you can close your eyes and summon it at will. As a writer it puts one at a distinct advantage.”

Sing your anthem, even if it's a grudge

So here I am, mining long-ago memories as I write my second novel. So many missteps and hard lessons to draw on. So many grudges, too. If you’ve betrayed me in the last 40 years, you should probably be worried.

Kidding, I’m kidding. (But am I?)

Now that I’m 65, I do have one piece of advice: Change your soundtrack every so often. You know what I mean. That song that plays in your head? Mix it up once in a while.

Right now, I’m all about Dorothy Norwood’s Gospel song "Victory is Mine." I belt that out like the warrior I still am, deep inside. I highly recommend this, particularly when driving. Don’t worry, you don’t have to be singing about Satan. Any ex will do.

More from Connie Schultz:

►Samaria Rice wants us to remember her son Tamir. I've watched her fight to make sure we do.

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►'Praying for myself too': Parents struggle with goodbye after another school shooting

USA TODAY columnist Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize winner whose novel, “The Daughters of Erietown,” is a New York Times bestseller. You can reach her at CSchultz@usatoday.com or on Twitter: @ConnieSchultz