I get such a thrill when a stranger does you a big favour so here is the story of our postman who made my day this week. With so much happening at work, so many long-standing colleagues being made redundant and so many leaving presents for everyone to buy I thought I could slip quietly away in to retirement without anyone noticing. But my lovely and generous colleagues had other ideas and sent me a retirement present I will always remember, a beautiful Italian leather album with beautiful cream textured pages interwoven with tissue. This is such a lovely thing to own and perfect for creating a memento of sketches, postcards, tickets and other memorabilia from our next big trip. But how this perfect retirement present reached me is a tale of a postman who went above and beyond the call of duty.
You may recall I have been working from home since the summer and I have clearly continued to provide such efficient administrative support from my home-base that some of my colleagues never even noticed the change. I work for a national organisation and my colleagues are dotted around the North-west and the Midlands so communicating by email and telephone has always been the norm. This week I received an email from a colleague in the West Midlands that mentioned I should expect a parcel that day; however when I checked where it had been posted to found it was on its way to the ‘old’ office that is now closed up and empty. After an initial panic, he emailed me the receipt and I could track the parcel and so could see it was on its way to this abandoned office. Armed with the receipt I walked to our local Royal Mail collection depot to see what would happen with the parcel. After a long back and forth negotiation with supervisors they were happy [or at least satisfied] that I could collect the parcel from them, even without the failed delivery card, if I provided ID and headed paper from the old office [thank goodness I have been using this as scrap paper].
Back at home there was a knock on the door at lunch time. The ‘old office’ is near to my home and we share a postman. I often pass the time of day with this postman both at home and at work and he had noticed that I was one and the same person [I have an unusual second name]. He had arrived at the shuttered and deserted office with my parcel, noticed who it was addressed to and put the parcel back in his bag to bring round to our flat later on his round. He presented the parcel hesitantly, clearly worried about whether he had done the right thing, but I was over the moon. I am so grateful for his thoughtfulness and quick thinking and amazed that even in a big city like Salford it is impossible to be completely anonymous.
I am now winding down from paid regular work and looking forward to the days when I can spend my time watching the red squirrels scampering around the trees, stopping to gaze at every beautiful sunset and chatting to every cat I meet and not feel I should be using my time more effectively. I am looking forward to being able to sleep until we wake up and spend the day reading a good book if we want or heading off for a walk just because it is a sunny day. All these things got a bit closer as this week Mr BOTRA (Mr Back On The Road Again) told his boss at work that he will be leaving in March 2017 and now there is no stopping us! His boss, who clearly knows him better than mine, wasn’t surprised that we were planning an early retirement and more travelling and was only disappointed because she had him in mind for a promotion when a colleague retires. While a promotion might have been nice it is nothing compared to have the time and space for walking up craggy mountains, sitting on warm sand on a deserted beach or kicking dry leaves along a woodland path and these [and more] are all things we will soon be enjoying.
Of course, we have lots of plans to do all sorts of wonderful and helpful things during our retirement but one that I am really looking forward to is doing very little. I am looking forward to knowing there is no reason why I can’t spend half-an-hour watching the wren from our dining room window as it potters around the bushes or sit and feel the warmth of the sun on my skin or even [if I want to] just while away the day reading tweets on Twitter!
As one of the workers, my working day has a structure and I am expected to produce things and be available. This means that evenings and weekends are precious periods of relaxation when I try to cram in all the other good stuff. I know that our retirement will be more than just evenings and weekends 24-hours a day and it will certainly give us time to improve ourselves in lots of way, by giving our time and learning and exercising and … so on. But I hope it also gives us the space to have time to slowly linger.
MRS ONL did a thought provoking post recently that highlighted how many people don’t get to retire when they would choose to. The post was very timely as the small charity I work in has been going through difficult financial times. I have told you about these problems before but things have become considerably worse since I gave notice of my impending retirement [these things are not related]! Every week communications are sent out about someone else who is being made redundant; people who are skilled and dedicated workers who have given so much to the charity and each one of them brings me pain; to say that I feel I am leaving a sinking ship is to understate how fragile this organisation feels at the moment.
Mr BOTRA commented that if I could have hung on a month or more I might have been made redundant too and he is right, I am sure they will move on to the lower grade post when they have finished getting rid of the management tier. And yet I feel pleased that I got in first, not only to save the charity I work for having to find the few weeks salary they would be obliged to pay me as redundancy pay but also for my own dignity; everyone knows that I am leaving to retire and it is my choice; I haven’t had the stress of ‘consultation’ interviews and competing for the one remaining post. Other colleagues have not been so fortunate, are not leaving out of their own volition and will be going straight in to job seeking, a particularly tough activity during the festive period.
I don’t want to criticise the work of the charity, the services it delivers are extremely high quality but unfortunately the higher management took the somewhat reckless decision to grow and spend beyond the secured income a few years ago and individuals are now paying the price for that over-stretching. The new management is taking control of the situation but many good people are being thrown out in the process.
This all really brings home how important having some back-up savings are for those times when employment let’s you down. I feel privileged to be choosing when I can retire and I am very sad that I have colleagues with an insecure future. I don’t intend to sound self-pitying, as I realise how fortunate I am, but leaving a despondent and bruised organisation means that certainly none of them will have any interest in joining my retirement party and there will be no one left to care enough about buying me a retirement present. I will be able to slip away quietly and I think that is most appropriate in the circumstances.
A recently published map of life expectancy in Greater Manchester had a bigger impact on Mr BOTRA than it did on me. Whereas I have long had a sense of my own mortality and tried to live every day as if it might be my last, this hasn’t really rubbed off on Mr BOTRA. It took these figures from the University of Manchester for the short time we might have left to hit home. The pictorial depiction of life expectancy using the Greater Manchester Metro tram map is a good way to demonstrate how deprivation affects life expectancy. Our nearest tram stop is Anchorage and the map suggests that while I might survive until the grand old age of 74 years, Mr BOTRA will pop his clogs when he is just 69.
Of course, as a scientist, he understands that life expectancy is an average and includes all those who die shortly after birth or as young adults and the figures do not actually represent the life span he can expect to achieve. This map and the figures are useful for public health campaigners but it doesn’t really help us plan for retirement and if we really expected to die at 74 and 69 we would have retired long ago!
As a non-smoker, cyclist and hill walker and certainly not poor, Mr BOTRA can expect to live longer than those who live a less privileged life and yet how these lifestyle choices and genes interact to decide a life-span is complex. These thoughts of mortality got us thinking about how the urban area we live in where the air quality is poor might affect our health. We love the vibrancy of living in the city and just hope that our regular forays to the hills and the countryside mitigate this air pollution. Of course, we might be misguided, only time will tell.
What is a tragedy is that in England the wealthy continue to have considerably better health outcomes than the poor, as the map below shows:
Men and women aged 65 years in Manchester have the lowest life expectancy compared to other areas of the UK – men 15.9 years; women 18.8 years. This compares to 21.6 years for men in Kensington and Chelsea and 24.6 years for women in Camden. Healthy life expectancy (years of life in good health) can be as low as 54.4 years old for women in Manchester, compared to 72.2 years in Richmond upon Thames.
My working life started when I was a child of 16 years old; 40-years ago you could leave school at 16. In those years I have slaved for wages in at least 25 different roles [see below]. I started work in the mid-70s with no computers and when the best technology could offer was a calculator. I managed to move haphazardly through different jobs [my working life could never be called a career] keeping pace with changes through continuous learning and finishing in a role where I work remotely.
Some of these jobs have been wonderful and rewarding and I have felt I was making a difference, whereas others have been demeaning, boring or really just pointless. The shortest period any of these jobs tied me to the nine-to-five was one month and my longest time in any single role was five years and six months. There were times when I was working three jobs at a time to maximise income and savings for our travelling plans.
In all of these roles I have grown; I have benefited from gaining skills and knowledge and each new role has helped me to understand something more about who I am. The period from being a Community Development and Health Worker until I left my role as a Community Centre Manager was what you might consider the apex of my working life. As a Community Development Worker I was an independent lone worker and my ‘team’ were the inspiring residents of the area I worked in. These were people who were outside the focus of many public services and they taught me about resilience and the importance of never making snap judgements. My next job in a small charity put me in a supportive team of two other skilled and knowledgeable co-workers and an inspirational and caring manager who fostered a learning environment where it was safe to be creative and make mistakes; consequently we achieved great things. I attempted to take everything I had learnt to my next role as a Public Health Manager, where I was lucky enough to be able to recruit my own team of 20 staff and worked tirelessly to support, nurture and invest in those people so that we became a close-knit team that produced fantastic public health work and gained national recognition.
My paid work in chronological order:
Receptionist at an opticians – first full-time job.
Waiting staff in a hotel
Payroll clerk [at 5.5 years this is the longest I have held any job] – this was the late 70s, I was working in the private sector and encountered my first computer.
Payroll clerk – I twiddled my thumbs for two days a week, tough in the days before the internet.
Administrator sorting and filing microfiche and plans relating to a submarine.
Registrar of Births Marriages and Deaths [the best job] – no computers here just ink and fountain pens, I used to come home with blue-black ink splattered up my shirts.
Customer Service clerk [after being a mum for a few years].
Community Development Worker – [after a break to complete some qualifications] my first experience of working in the charity sector.
Cleaner [while at university and I graduated at the age of 35].
Chef in a Mexican restaurant – while studying food preparation.
Youth Hostel assistant warden [in the Lake District and the Peak District).
Community Development contractor (carrying out training and development sessions with community groups].
Community Development and Health Worker in the NHS – my first NHS role, supporting community action across two areas.
Community Development Worker in voluntary sector development – back with a charity and an inspiring and supportive team who I learnt so much from.
Public Health Manager [I also achieved a post-graduate diploma].
Community Centre Manager
Public Health Co-ordinator
Public Health contractor [carrying out consultations with the public].
Public Health administrator [after our gap year].
Hospital medical secretary – a very small cog in a big wheel.
We visited the Yorkshire Dales National Park recently and met a group of volunteers working on one of the paths while we were out walking. We chatted to the group for a short while about the work they were carrying out and as we walked away we both agreed that we could do that.
Once I have retired fully it is my intention to give some of my time for free and I have started to think about the places I could do this.
I am already the Treasurer for a small charity and I give my time freely as a minute taker to the management board of our flats but not working will free up more time to do some good around Greater Manchester.
I am keen that my volunteering is enjoyable and I am thinking about conservation and environmental organisations where I could do some good for now and the future. I would also like to volunteer locally and support an organisation in Salford. Fortunately, we have plenty of excellent organisations around us.
In addition, I plan to spend time every week [when we are at home] picking up litter and tidying up the bushes around our local area. I used to collect litter walking to and from work every day and I want to spend a bit more time making the area where we live more pleasant to live in.
So I have done it! My boss now knows that in three months time I will be retiring. How did that go? I work for a caring charity and my boss is a lovely person. She trusts me, knows that I am reliable and understands that I don’t make decision lightly … she also understands my need for a good work-life balance to stay happy and healthy and respects my desire to work in admin, rather than as the manager I used to be … but when I told her my news it was clear that it wasn’t something she was expecting.
Mostly she was upset that she was losing a reliable member of staff. She argued that I wasn’t anywhere near old enough to retire [I know]. I [possibly unrealistically] wanted her to be happy for me and so kept reminding her that my retirement is wonderful news and that perhaps she could be pleased for me.
We were meeting at our head office and later we went to tell other colleagues who were equally shocked and also envious. This broadcasting of the announcement helped me to really absorb the reality of it in my heart, as well as my head [this might sound silly after so much planning] and the inner joy I felt was almost overwhelming. I was able to fly the flag for the power of saving and how being frugal and strict with outgoings can pay off. Of course, everyone wanted to know what our retirement plans are and became misty-eyed with envy at all those forthcoming long trips to sunny places in our campervan.
I was feeling happy and relieved to have got this conversation over and then the mood flipped. As you might have read, the company has been through various re-organisations recently and just after I had given my news the information came through that the company is implementing an immediate recruitment freeze. A stab of guilt pierced through my joyful state as I realised I was leaving at a time when they won’t be able to replace me, but honestly this only made a small chip in my elation.
Back in April I deliberated about when to get this conversation out of the way. At that time leaving was eight months away and it was certainly too soon to tell. But after the months of waiting I feel so relieved for a number of reasons; I was feeling very awkward having being part of a number of conversations recently regarding additional responsibilities and new projects that would continue beyond the festive period and so beyond my time with the company and I also prefer to be honest and open and I was uncomfortable not sharing my plans with colleagues. Of course, that niggling guilt will keep returning because that is the person I am, but I know that I am not dispensable. Now the company has three months to plan where my workload will sit from the New Year and I feel satisfied that I have treated them fairly.
I don’t expect a big fuss when I retire as working from home I won’t leave a desk-sized gap in anyone’s office. There will be no surprise bunch of flowers, no card signed by everyone in the building, little joking about how lucky I am to be retiring and no cake baking for my last day at work. I feel a mixture of gratefulness and sadness about this, I don’t like lots of fuss but I am someone who likes to mark occasions … I think I will need to find a way with family and friends to mark the ending of my office-bound working life, after all it is now over 40-years since I walked in to my first workplace [an opticians] as a young and naive 16-year old.
I have now been working at home for over a month, so I thought it was a good time to review and look at the things I was worried about and the questions I was mulling over when I was still based in the office.
Do I miss other people and have I lost all my social skills? What I have learnt is just how comfortable I am with my own company. I do miss my previous co-workers and wonder how they are doing but I find it is quite enough to communicate with colleagues by email and phone and occasionally attend meetings.
Do I miss the office banter? It is quite hard to laugh on your own [unless it is to cat antics on FB] . I have the radio for company and occasionally this makes me laugh, although just at the moment the news is mostly distressing or annoying. Perhaps I am losing those social skills.
Do I sit in a local cafe using their WiFi? I thought I would do this but up to now I haven’t felt the need to get out and be with people. Maybe the winter will encourage me out of the flat.
Do I enjoy the freedom? Absolutely! I was used to structuring my own day but working at home is so much more relaxed. I do try and give my day some sort of structure, with brews at particular times and a regular lunch break, otherwise I get to the late afternoon and realise I haven’t eaten or even got up from my desk. I use my breaks to do some quick household chores or exercises while the kettle boils; I am here when parcels arrive and I can wear what ever I like. In the office we didn’t have space to have a room for eating lunch and we all ate at our desks; now I can sit with a view of the gardens and my book (and I never have to worry about forgetting to bring my packed lunch to work). And shoes … now I spend my days padding around in bare feet I wonder when I will wear so many of those work shoes, it might be time to have a clear out.
Am I more productive? Most definitely! I am getting so much more done without those interruptions.
Do I enjoy the view? Yes! Every day.
I am truly grateful to have been allowed to work from home and even after this short time, I am not sure I could go back to the constraints of working in an office, as is often the case, it was only when I was out of a situation that I realised how oppressive it was. I even find that having to attend meetings (something I thought I would enjoy to maintain contact with co-workers) is feeling a bit of a hassle.
The only thing I miss is my brisk walk to and from the office and I do find I often need to get out of the flat to stretch my legs as soon as I have packed away the work laptop at the end of my working day.
I have been working through The Real Good Writer’s DNA lately, exploring what I can do to improve my writing skills. Having been ‘to the deep, dark places of [my] brain’ one of the themes that has emerged is how much joy I get from being with my friends and I have been following the exercises through and reflecting on these friendships.
I’m not ashamed to say that I need my friends and in many respects the Real Good Writer’s DNA exercise didn’t tell me anything I didn’t know. Times with friends are lots of fun, they make me laugh, they introduce me to new experiences and perspectives, they keep my feet on the ground and my friends have gifted me with a large bundle of happy memories. However clever and resourceful I occasionally think I am, friends have helped me get through tough times, put things in to perspective when I have lost the plot and when I put myself down my friends will point out my strengths.
I was aware of how much I enjoy being with my friends but I hadn’t realised how deep this went and I was surprised how strongly this came out of the Real Good Writer’s DNA exercise. I am not a woman who has lots of friends; my ‘best friend’ is certainly Mr BOTRA and I am comfortable with my own company but the friends I have I truly value. The workbook encourages deeper reflection on themes and I also started to explore how and why I always keep something back from my friends and try not to smother them and make too many demands on their time and energy.
That said, I don’t hang on to friends no matter what and I have no time for ‘toxic’ friends. We all know who these are and we sometimes hang on to them for commendably loyal or sentimental reasons. These might be judgemental (rather than critical) friends, negative friends and friends I cannot trust. These sort of ‘friends’ sap my energy and I have learnt it is best to let go of them.
As a child I learnt about friendship through books, including AA Milne’s Winnie the Pooh [a firm favourite] and what better place to learn about love and friendship than in those beautiful stories:
‘I knew when I met you an adventure was going to happen.’ AA Milne
This article on sleep and how important it is for our well being and good health caught my eye recently. Sleep has been in the forefront of my mind recently as I haven’t been getting enough of it [of course, when we are getting enough sleep we don’t give it a thought]. Every night since we returned from our holiday has been notable for the dark hours I have been awake.
When we were travelling in our motorhome for twelve months we basked in the luxury of waking up when we were ready, rather than relying on an alarm. One friend had joked that we would gain years on our life expectancy just from taking a year away from the call of the alarm clock and she might have been right. I always sleep really well in the campervan and find our weekends away help me to catch up on my sleep.
Fortunately, it isn’t anxiety that is keeping me awake, just hormones. I have had menopausal hot flushes since 2008; these have varied in intensity over those eight years but it is always the night when they are worst. HRT bought on migraines that were too regular and painful to make it worth taking but I found that Gabapentin helped. No one ever told me this menopause-malarkey could go on for eight years but earlier this year I was optimistic enough to feel ready to be drug-free as the symptoms appeared to be easing; however, this last few weeks have been trying. I currently sleep for about three hours and then wake up feeling so hot I can’t bear to have the duvet touching me as I fear either me or the duvet will combust. I throw off the duvet and [not surprisingly] then get cold, pull the duvet back on and eventually drift off back into dreamland until the cycle starts again; this happens about three times a night.
We always have the bedroom window opening and its not even that warm in the UK at the moment! Alcohol doesn’t seem to make much difference and eating spicy food [many websites suggest you avoid this] has no impact at all.
In the scheme of things, of course, this isn’t so bad but I am a person that struggles without sleep and a lack of it can make me a little irritable. I am remaining happy and contented as I am grateful that I don’t have to work shifts or start work very early in the morning and working from home is much more relaxed than being in the office. Goodness knows how others cope; it is often those low paid staff who get the worst deal when it comes to getting enough sleep; early morning cleaning rotas, night shifts and disturbed sleep patterns will have a negative impact on health. But I am impatient for either this eight-year long phase to end or retirement to allow me to sleep until I have had my full quota of shut-eye.