Many questions people have about retirement have nothing to do with finances. Ida Offenbach Abbott ’69, author of Retirement by Design: A Guided Workbook for Creating a Happy and Purposeful Future—a Wall Street Journal pick for best book on retirement—talks about some of these concerns and how retirement today is very different from what it used to be.
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Now, Not Never!
For years, Lori Tharps ’94 held on to her dream of moving to Spain to write. A transformative Smith Reunion prompted her to finally follow her bliss. Her story and others like it might inspire you to do the same.
In May 2019, I was exhausted. I was on a train heading toward Northampton from my home in Philadelphia, and all I could think was that I’d made a mistake coming to my 25th Reunion.
For the previous six weeks, I’d been in a special kind of hell, extricating myself from a failed experiment in intergenerational living with my parents. We’d bought a large house together, but things hadn’t gone as planned. My parents ended up moving to Florida, leaving me, my husband, and three children to pack up, sell the house, and then move into a small rental where we could lick our wounds and figure out what went wrong and what should come next.
This was the first time in over 15 years when we didn’t own a home and didn’t have a plan for getting ourselves back on steady financial footing. I felt as if I’d failed in so many ways. The last thing I wanted to do was explain to my college classmates why my life was in this unexpected state of limbo.
When the train pulled into the depot, my mind was in turmoil and I seriously considered checking into a hotel to decompress and then catching the train back to Philadelphia the next morning.
But as I started walking through the streets of Northampton, a feeling of nostalgia lifted my mood. By the time I arrived at the Alumnae House and checked in for the weekend’s festivities, I was feeling optimistic that Reunion wouldn’t be a total failure.
Little did I know that the conversations I would have over that extraordinary weekend would literally change the course of my life.
It’s Now Or Never
What I discovered during Reunion was that I was not alone in my uncertainty about the future. Many of my classmates were occupying a similar limbo space. But we weren’t talking about failed real estate plans or bad investments. It was much deeper than that.
Most of us were just shy of turning 50. Many of us were at the pinnacle of our careers. We were stable financially and secure in our relationships. We were comfortable. But a nagging question pulled at all of us: Should we continue on the same path straight into retirement, or take a chance and do the one thing we’d always talked or dreamed about? For some people, that dream was running for office. For others, it was starting a business. One person I spoke with still yearned to get married and have children. Over and over I heard it said one way or another, but it all boiled down to this: “We can still do something bold if we want to, but pretty soon it’s going to be too late.” Underlying that decision was this: Do I want to play it safe, or am I willing to take a risk on my dreams?
“I discovered that for the second half of my life, I wanted to pursue my passion for creative writing.”
Back in Philadelphia, I reframed my “life in limbo” as a gift. A gift of time where I could decide if I wanted to play it safe—continue my life as a tenured professor until it was time to retire—or if I wanted to take a risk. Considering how hard I’d had to work to achieve the trappings of success I’d acquired, it felt like a betrayal to allow myself to even consider taking a different path. But I started to do the self-assessment that some of my Smith classmates had already done—asking myself what I’d always wanted in this lifetime—and a certain dream kept bubbling to the surface.
I’ve Always Wanted To Live Abroad
Ever since I traveled to Morocco as an exchange student in high school, I believed I would live a global life. I became a writer because I knew I could write and travel the world. I studied Spanish throughout school, and at Smith I spent my junior year in Spain. And while I married a Spaniard and did a good deal of traveling in my early 20s, I never quite managed to have that global life I’d envisioned.
So, a few weeks after returning from Reunion, I told my husband that I was going to apply for a sabbatical so we could live in Spain for a year—just to test the waters of living abroad. After my sabbatical came through, we started taking the necessary steps to put our lives on pause for nine months. He asked for a leave from his job. We found schools for our two younger children to attend in Spain. But then COVID hit, and everything fell apart.
By the late spring of 2020, I figured the opportunity for a sabbatical was over. Friends tried to console me by suggesting that we could have our adventure abroad the following year, but that didn’t seem plausible. My son would be a senior in high school in 2021–22, and I was hesitant to yank him out during that critical year. Like the rest of the world, we went into quarantine, our plans for 2020 ruined and our spirits crushed.
It’s Now, Not Never
It was at that point that I remembered the stories from classmates I’d heard at Reunion. Did I want to stay comfortable, or did I want to have one more adventure? Perhaps it was the backdrop of the pandemic coupled with the civil unrest ravaging the nation, but I felt certain that I did not want to die without at least trying to live abroad.
And so I said to my husband, “What if we stop tiptoeing toward moving to Spain and just walk boldly into it?” Just hearing the words come out of my mouth set off my internal alarm bells, but my husband, always the co-conspirator in my crazy dreams, said, “Let’s do it!”
So, for the rest of 2020, I spent a lot of time asking myself if this was what I really wanted or if it was some COVID-inspired crazy. I even took an online class on cultivating clarity to ensure that a move to Spain was really in line with my life goals. What I discovered was that moving to Spain wasn’t just a bucket-list item for me, it was serving a greater purpose.
Through taking the clarity class, I discovered that what I really wanted in the second half of my life was the opportunity to pursue my passion for creative writing, instead of it taking a back seat to my academic career.
Because Spain has a lower cost of living, socialized health care, and affordable college costs, I knew I could pursue my creative passions without fearing that our health would suffer or that my children would have to forgo higher education. By the end of the summer of 2020, I felt confident that my plans were grounded in thoughtful consideration and not some irreverent flight of fancy. And my husband was really excited that he’d finally be able to see his parents and siblings on a regular basis. We were both ready to make our plans a reality.
Corralling Courage and Making the Leap
Once the decision was made to move abroad, we made an aggressive timetable to leave the country so we could arrive in Spain with ample time to find schools for the children and housing before the summer tourism wave. That gave us just about six months to turn our dreams into reality, so we knew we had to get hyperorganized.
My husband and I made lists about the lists we needed to make. We made budgets and spreadsheets. Then we had to attend to the business of extricating ourselves from our lives in the United States. Resignation letters were submitted, furniture and cars were sold and donated. We barely had time to say goodbye to friends and family before we boarded an airplane heading toward the unknown. It all happened so fast, I still have whiplash from the experience.
Waking Up Happy
As I write this, it has been two months since our arrival on the Iberian Peninsula. After a hectic month of searching, we found a lovely apartment to call our home. The boxes containing our most prized possessions—my daughter’s stuffed animals, my antique typewriter—finally arrived, and we finished enrolling the kids in school.
Getting all of those critical tasks done means I can finally exhale. It means I can stop and appreciate what we have accomplished. We turned a lifelong dream into reality, and I’m loving every minute of the adventure. It is not an exaggeration to say that I wake up happy each morning, incredulous and grateful that I have landed in a city where palm trees line the streets around my house and the Mediterranean Sea is mere footsteps from my front door. I wake up early to work on my novel and other writing assignments. In the afternoons, I take my daughter roller-skating by the ocean.
Make no mistake, it’s still real life. I still have to do the laundry and go grocery shopping on Saturdays. But even those mundane chores bring a smile to my face because I’m doing them in Spain, a place where I’ve always wanted to live—before it was too late.
‘Radical Change’: Alums Share Their Stories
‘I Was Ready for Something Different’
by Gael Levin-Simon ’94
I was an educator in children’s television for more than 20 years in New York and then Philadelphia and truly loved what I did.
Throughout my early and mid-40s, I foresaw my own radical change coming as my industry changed. Children’s television production mostly left the East Coast, and the shift to working for companies based on the West Coast didn’t work for my family life.
THE RISK SHE TOOK
I was ready for something different. I wanted to do something local, hands-on, and outside—the opposite of screens. So, I left TV and started my own floral and nature craft microbusiness, Meadowflowers.house, when I was around age 46.
HOW IT AFFECTED HER LIFE
Launching Meadowflowers.house allowed me to separate from habits that no longer served me and incorporate people into my life who educate and surprise me. It has opened up my weeks to new rhythms. I’ve gotten to know family, friends, and people in my community in new ways.
When you make a radical change, people’s responses often have to do more with their lives and fears than with yours. I found that creating a flexible mission statement and then trusting it helps keep me oriented and open.
‘I Needed to Reconnect With My Creative Self’
by Una Pett ’94
I worked full time as the grants manager for an art museum. As an artist and writer, I felt stuck professionally as I kept finding myself in what I thought of as “midwife syndrome.” I was helping birth other people’s babies—their projects and dreams—but postponing my own.
THE RISK SHE TOOK
My spouse, who is a French citizen, and I quit our jobs, sold our house and most of our possessions, packed up a single crate of belongings, and moved to Toulouse, France, with our then-5-year-old son, Luca. This was in 2016, when I was 44. We’ve been living here for nearly five years.
HOW IT AFFECTED HER CREATIVE LIFE
I wanted and needed to reconnect with my creative self. I am still defining what that means and looks like, but the time and space to dedicate to that process are invaluable. Until COVID hit, I was playing more music than I had in years. I received an artist residency in June 2021 and am thrilled at what that symbolizes for me.
I genuinely think we know inside [what path to take] and can trust our own inner knowing, especially at our age!
‘I Went to Space Camp, and It Was Awesome!’
by Karen Zaks ’94
For the past 21 years, I have been a veterinarian, and for the last nine years, I have also been a mom. These careers have provided a full and happy life.
A DREAM DEFERRED
Ever since I was 10 years old, I’ve dreamed of going to Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama. My parents sent my older sibling, but I was too young to go. My parents promised when I was old enough I could go too, but it never happened. Over the years, I’ve continued to dream about Space Camp, talked about it, said “someday” to myself, but someday never arrived. I blamed my busy schedule, but I was also just too shy and scared to do it.
DOING IT SCARED
In 2019, my husband said, “You should go. You should just pick a date and sign up.” So I did it. I went to Space Camp on March 13, 2020, at age 48, and it was awesome! I did everything that was offered even if I was scared.
Going to Space Camp may not seem very radical, but the simple act of doing something I wanted, just for me, reminded me of myself. There is a permanent change in me now. I feel braver and stronger, and I’m more apt to do things that I want to do, on my own or with my family.
It is very easy to get bogged down in the work of the everyday, so I have to remind myself that life is for living. I want to die with nothing left on my bucket list. I’m going to do it all.
This story appears in the Fall 2021 issue of the Smith Alumnae Quarterly.