Why Work Optional Matters to Us

Two weeks ago, Angie and I were sitting on the patio contemplating the future. I had just started reading Work Optional by Tanja Hester (of the blog Our Next Life) and we were brainstorming a list of ideas for what we thought an early retirement might possibly look like for us.

We’ve never had a specific goal to retire early but we have always had a “work optional” attitude. Angie retired from formal employment in 2012, right before we moved to Florida, and I have worked only part-time for the past 3 years. We’re not high wage earners yet we still manage to live on only 63-65% of our current income. Ridiculously frugal. That’s how some folks describe us. (At this point, you might be thinking that those expensive ice cream bars we blew our budget on a few weeks back weren’t all that frugal. Well, guess what? We used a coupon! 😊)

Anyway, back to the point…

Though we’re not in a position to fully retire right now, we are in a position to start thinking about the next chapter of our own work optional story. This is exactly what we were trying to do that day on the patio, but life happened, and that is the real point of this post.

Our great-niece was supposed to stay with us for 3 days while her little brother had an exploratory procedure in preparation for open-heart surgery in July. He was born last December with a congenital defect called hypoplastic left heart syndrome and will require a series of three surgeries to repair his heart. The exploratory procedure last week did not go as planned and the doctors had to move up the timeline. On Friday, the little guy had surgery to place a shunt between his pulmonary artery and his heart. He is doing better than expected but will still be in the hospital for several weeks, during which time we have a very energetic 3-year-old house guest to entertain.

While this leaves little time to breathe, much less write a blog post, it has really highlighted one thing – if we were tied to normal jobs on a traditional career path, we would not be able to do this, at least not without the fear of losing our security. As a grant writer, my work is driven by deadlines but the work itself is flexible. No one cares if I write proposals before dawn, midday, or after dark…as long as the quality is good, and the deadlines are met. (I’m an early morning person, in case you’re wondering.) No matter what the next steps are in our work life, the one thing I know for sure is that I don’t want to jeopardize that type of freedom in any way. Work optional only works when the work is truly optional. (Say that three times fast!)

Angie and I will resume our brainstorming and planning when the time is right. Absolutely nothing needs to be decided today…except what to pack for a picnic at the playground, because that’s what a certain little one said she’d like to do today.

The Joy of Fixing a Bike in the Rain

Friday was a particularly difficult day for me. I don’t often talk about mental health, though it is a hugely important topic and one that effects more people than we often realize. Many of you know that we moved from Florida to Tennessee a few years ago to care for my mom. What I haven’t said much about is that, along with my mom’s physical health problems, she has long suffered from bipolar disorder. At the time she was diagnosed in the early 1990s, bipolar was still called manic-depressive disorder. I mention this because, though they are one in the same, she prefers the term manic depression.

There have been times in her life that she has gone into deep, deep depression, staying in bed for weeks at a time. And then there have been times when she’s thrown herself into a goal with such abandon that it seems nothing could stop her. And in the mix of all this, there have been many normal days, where you would never know that she had an illness at all. Friday was not one of those days.

For most folks, rainy days, temperature changes, and holidays are nothing more than just that. For others, they can be an emotional trigger. The persistent rain and chill of the last few days, along with the occurrence of Mother’s Day, acted as a trigger for my mom and when I popped in for a visit on Friday, I got more than I bargained for. She was in a very argumentative mood, wanting to “debate” a variety of topics ranging from sociopathy to dentistry. This would have been all well and good, except that when I refused to engage the way she thought I should, she said some very hurtful things – the most hurtful being that she did not feel loved.

While I don’t feel the need to list all the ways in which I love my mom, I am a human being and the first thought that popped in my mind when she said that was how hard it was for me to leave my life in Florida to move back to a place I never felt was my home. If that wasn’t love…but I didn’t say that. I didn’t want to argue, and I didn’t want to make her bad day about me when it wasn’t. She was feeling down and despite the fact that I sat through 5 hours being told I was distant, ungrateful, and never listened to her, I bit my tongue. She was speaking to me, but she was not speaking about me. I know this because I know myself and I know that she knows me too.

Though I know who I am, that doesn’t mean that her words didn’t hurt. They did. And I spent the better part of the next day feeling that hurt…until Angie and I went for a walk. We set out along a path that runs beside a beautiful creek, complete with wooden bridges and more blue herons than I’ve seen in a while. The sky was clouded but our weather app assured us that there would be no rain until 7 PM. It was 3:30 then. We had walked about a quarter of a mile when the bottom fell out of the sky and we found ourselves standing beneath a tree, contemplating heading back to the car. The rain stopped as suddenly as it started, and we opted to continue.

Within a few minutes, we came upon a mom and three young boys on bikes. They had stopped to wait out the shower under a canopy of trees and when they tried to leave, they realized that the youngest boy’s brakes were locked in place. We stopped to have a look.

“You never think to bring tools until you need them,” said the mom. “If I could just loosen the brake pads, I think it would be okay until we get home.”

I looked at the brake assembly. The nut that would release the brake cable and loosen the assembly was rusted. It seemed hopeless but then I had an idea. I started turning the pad itself until it came unscrewed. The wheel was loose, and the little boy was overjoyed to be able to ride again (albeit without front brakes). We chatted for a few minutes and wished them well, reminding the little guy to be extra careful. They continued in the opposite direction and we forged ahead.

We were in the middle of our return trip when the rain came back – harder than before and without any indication of stopping. We paused for a moment, reminiscing about the time we hiked 4 miles in the pouring rain to get back to our car. We laughed for a bit and started back, walking (sometimes jogging) in the downpour. It wasn’t long before we heard laughter that wasn’t our own. The mom and her boys were riding back – the long way – just as soaked as we were and 1,000 times happier than I had been in the hours before we set out on this journey. In that moment, my cup filled with more than just the rain.

On Sunday, we spent Mother’s Day with my mom. She was in a better mood and seemed to enjoy lunch. She talked some about her feelings toward my sister and niece (her other daughter and granddaughter) and it was clear that much of her upset lies with them. I can’t say that she’s wrong (or right) on the matter, just that she feels hurt by their absence from our lives. Because she couldn’t lash out at them, she directed all that anger at me. I’m not excusing her behavior. I’m just saying that I understand.

Caring for someone with mental illness can be hard, especially when they are unkind. I remind myself daily that my mom is not her illness (mental or physical) and for as much as I may struggle with it, she struggles even harder.

Running around in the rain was also a reminder – of the fact that people are waterproof. No matter how soaked we get, we aren’t damaged by the rain. Annoyed, maybe…but not at all damaged. The same goes for hurt. Human beings have an amazing capacity to love and to forgive – to dry themselves off from the downpour of other people’s emotions and move forward.

My mom is a loving person, someone I admire and am grateful to know. Like anyone else, she is going to have a bad day every now and then. She’s going to say things that hurt. More often though, she’s going to say things that are kind and wise; things that I will want to remember all my life, especially when she is no longer here. These are the words the I want to swim in. The rest, like the rain, I will just dry off with a towel.