have an acquaintance who when I see him talks only about retirement. He’s my age, a child of the 1950s, and has spent a lifetime in a family business he now runs. Until a few years ago he spoke proudly of the business and its place in the world.
But that’s changed lately, as his car had suddenly blown a tire and he’d never considered the idea that such a thing was even possible. Tires are forever. He felt betrayed.
The betrayal overlapped into his family, whose shortcomings he began exposing: entitled son, self-indulgent daughter. From this anxiety came concerns about the state of world, which was imperiled if not falling apart, run by terrorists and thieves. That led him into strange political badlands whose heroes were muckraking mudslingers familiar only with the broadcasting of animosity. Politicians he once disliked or disapproved of he now hated. That word, hate, acquired emphasis and primacy.
His vision of retirement as a rebirth of sorts grew from that resentment. He now hates what’s around sufficiently to crave an escape — the sooner, the better — with luck to a place in the woods, where he’ll fly kites (his passion) and occasionally play golf.
This place he imagines as surrounded by neat shrubs and gentle birds. It will have a big porch or a deck, where he can rediscover solace. He’ll leave behind the loathed world and get a dog to go with his wife’s two cats. In this place, perhaps in Montana, or California, or even some southern state, he’ll finally rid himself of his dislikes. The world will begin to make sense again.
But getting to a magical topography means planning for retirement, a process that can create its own abacus of worry. When exactly can he make the move? Where will he and his wife settle? What about prices: can he afford his imagined oasis of trees and songbirds? He speaks to me angrily about taxes and obligations, family crises and nagging clients. “If I could leave tomorrow, I would,” he says.
The act of leaving will free him, he insists, even if looking forward to leaving has become a purpose in its own right.
My father often warned me about the illusion of geography. I was allergic to school. I dreamed of moving to a place that didn’t have them. But such a place, said my father, would present its own challenges. My escape would possess its own allergens. There was no retiring from the world until it retired you, no songbird-full destination that soothed let alone solved the accumulated displeasures of being.
The illusion was to think a trip from Italy to China could repair heartache, or that trooping from Maine to Missouri could alleviate grief. All deeply held sentiments, unrequited love and rage included, traveled city to city like chafing rucksacks.
But my acquaintance would ignore this little speech.
Instead, he presses toward hatching a transformation in place that he’s certain will transform his identity. If only daily drudgery weren’t so distracting. If only his country weren’t going to hell so quickly. If only these things and others he would have already identified the signpost with an arrow pointing him to where burdens fall away and days are colored in sunsets.
Yet geography knows nothing of human yearning. Tell it you’ve come to escape and start again and it knows better than to reply. The only arrow it in its precincts points to a landscape bereft of illusions. But go tell that to those on a mission.