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Retiring to Follow Your Passion

Insights & Ideas Team •  January 20, 2016 | Enjoying Retirement

After 33 years teaching in a rural school district in Wisconsin, Mary Reilly-Kliss made the decision to retire. "I wanted to leave while I still enjoyed my career,” she says. Her school district’s retirement system would allow her to step down, with benefits, after at least 30 years in the classroom.

Her decision was also driven by her desire to pursue a new passion: gardening. Several years prior to her retirement, Mary signed up for Master Gardening training through her local university extension. She eventually earned a Master Gardener certification.

Now, ten years after her retirement, Mary spends her time during the growing season in an acre-wide community garden that she manages for her county. It’s a jumble of 78 small garden plots, each reflecting the tastes and creativity of those who lease them. Okra grows in neat rows in one garden. Cabbages fill another plot.

Mary advises people who grow crops in the garden. “This is teaching in a different way,” she explains. “I have moved from teaching reading to teaching science. I am sharing what I know with people who love plants and who love growing things. I am going somewhere I have never gone before.”  

Mary’s own journey has become instructional. She believes there are five themes that helped her transition to her second act.

1.  Be ready financially, emotionally and psychologically. The financial part was actually the easiest for her, she said. A self-confident grandmother of four, Mary feels that emotional and psychological readiness can be a tough challenge for some. “Is your social circle entirely made up of people with whom you work?” she asked. “When you are no longer in this circle, how will you feel?”

2. Know the activities you want to do. Hobbies, volunteer work, travel—plan for how you will use your time each day, perhaps setting goals that involve learning something new or going somewhere you have never been.

3. Let yourself relax. You are no longer on a schedule. Mary enjoys acting on a whim. She grabs the chance for unplanned fun. A recent example of that: getting into her car at dusk with her camera and taking a slow drive, stopping to snap pictures of the scenery, the sunset—anything that caught her eye. “I could write a book in praise of passing time this way,” she laughs.

4. Take care of yourself physically. Mary is a trim, energetic woman. Yet she readily admits she can no longer pull weeds and work soil for eight hours a day. She plans frequent breaks for herself while working in the garden. “I know I can’t do it all in one day anymore,” she says.

5. Know when to cut your losses and move on. Not all your activities will turn out to be completely pleasurable, Mary explains. You will meet negative people who will drain you. Leave them behind. Learn to say no to those people and organizations that see you, as a retiree, as someone they can use. Choose to do what gives you enjoyment, she explains. When something is no longer fun, move on.

Mary has found her fun spot, and it happens to be a spot in the sun. She was a farm girl turned teacher and has evolved into a farm girl again. “When gardening season opened last year, I stood looking at the plots and started to cry,” she said, explaining these were tears of joy. A single growing season at the community garden yields a total of almost 7,000 pounds of food for Mary and the others who tend their small plots. She buys no additional green goods at the grocery store when her garden is fully producing. Saving on the food bill is nice, but Mary cites a greater benefit of her new life: a sense of purpose and accomplishment. “I don’t know what I would do without gardens,” she says. Did she get the life she wanted after she left teaching? “Yes,” Mary said emphatically. “I have it. And more.”

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