What do we do when our best laid plans go awry?
I’m in the process of finding out.
In the run-up to closing my psychotherapy practiced, I had a clear plan for how I would spend my time in “retirement.”
I’ve had a taste of doing workshops in distant cities, and I wanted more of that. I would apply to conferences around the world, and several times a year present what I’d gleaned in two decades as a therapist to interested attendees. These working vacations would enable me to catch up on deferred travel in a way I found more interesting than being a tourist. Plus, the trips would pay themselves — never a bad thing, especially for a “retired” guy. Another plus: I might pick up coaching clients.
In preparation, I created an online course based on my book The Art of Balance: Staying Sane in an Insane World. I intended to use it to show prospective training and conference organizers what I could offer their attendees.
Serendipitously, the course spawned another post-retirement opportunity. I started to collaborate with a flight attendant to develop a tailor-made version of the course for her airline.
She told me my book had saved her life and her marriage. Flight attendants, cut off from their usual routines and supports, often lead very stressful lives. In her time in the industry, she had seen rampant depression and addiction, and several of her peers had killed themselves. The balance book had provided guidelines and techniques that had restored her life balance, and she believed that in course form, the same principles and strategies could help her fellow flight attendants. We outlined the course, and she started to run our proposal up her airline’s Human Resources ladder. Our hope was that we’d get funding for a prototype, refine it in Boston, and then teach it to Human Resources trainers around the world. More working travel, and possibly a new career path.
Let’s call all of the above Retirement Plan A.
And then came the pandemic. The flight attendant’s HR contacts lost their jobs, and not long afterward so did she. Most of the conferences I’d planned to approach shut down or became virtual. And because I have medical conditions that put me at high risk for a severe COVID outcome, travel itself became a potentially hazardous prospect.
Time for Plan B. Inspired by an artist friend’s cross-country trek in a 1950s Airstream, I decided to buy an RV, set it up as a miniature mobile home, and retrace the path I’d taken on a four-month hitchhiking trip across the country in the early 1970, then write a book reflecting on the changes in the country, and in me, over the five decades since the original journey.
And then came the economic collapse brought on by a bursting economic bubble, quickly followed by the Russian invasion of the Ukraine and its skyrocketing inflation and related problems.
So much for Plan B.
Time for Plan C. I might not be able to overcome my barriers to international or domestic travel, but I could still travel in time.
Sitting beside my desk were six large file drawers filled with more than four decades of unfinished nonfiction and fiction writing projects. I decided that Retirement Plan C would be another run at completing and publishing these books, starting with the first, Street People, which I began in 1975.
Because I had learned self-publishing, I no longer had to contend with the gatekeepers who had blocked the works of younger versions of my writer self. Yes, I would also have to promote and market these books, but that, I told myself, would just require learning another form of psychology, and I was good at psychology. I was confident I could master marketing when the time came and would finally achieve the readership I’d longed for since I first started to write serious fiction and nonfiction.
I threw myself into writing Street People, scanning thousands of negatives, unearthing reams of notes and interview transcripts, and re-inhabiting both the writing and my younger self. It really was like taking a trip back in time.
Retirement Plan C hummed along nicely … until I published the book. Although I commenced an intensive, in-depth study of marketing self-published books and invested more time and money in the process than I’d ever done before, what I learned was that finding readers was costing me considerably more, through advertising on Amazon, Facebook, and promotion sites, than I was earning from each sale.
This was not a sustainable model.
Still undaunted, I took more training, and eventually figured out that the problem wasn’t with my writing or with the techniques I was employing, but with what was marketable today: bestsellers by large publishing houses, and genres such as romances, thrillers, horror, fantasy, and science fiction, preferably in a series of three or more books. None of these matched the books sitting in my filing cabinet.
So, I ask myself, what do I do with Retirement Plan C? Finish these books anyway? Let’s call proceeding on this path Retirement Plan C1. If I follow it, will the satisfaction of completing the books be enough? Maybe, but writing has always been more meaningful to me when I know people are reading what I’ve created.
Alternatively, should I abandon those books permanently and instead try to find an intersection of “books people want to buy” and “books I am interested in writing”? Call this Retirement Plan C2.
Or is it time to scrap Retirement Plan C and its variants and open myself to something completely new?
In the past, when I’ve been at a metaphorical crossroads, I’ve taken long trips in the physical world. The first was that four-month cross-country journey, from which I returned with 25 cents in my pocket and a new vision of who I could become. The next was a motorcycle trek down the East Coast, across the Midwest, and back east to Manhattan, where I started my writing career. After I left New York, I spent a year in Europe and at artist colonies in the United States, which led me to the Boston area. My most recent vision quest began with the literal vision of a near-death experience and eventually to my becoming a therapist.
I don’t see lengthy travel on the horizon, nor am I planing another NDE.
The leap I am taking, this time, is a leap of faith.
But it’s a leap of faith founded on my track record.
On a recent walk at nearby Appleton Farms, I told a friend my tale of thwarted Retirement Plans A, B, and C. He thought for a minute and said, “You’ll figure it out.”
“Maybe,” I said. “But why do you say that?”
“Because you have a track record.”
It was a wise observation.
“You have a track record” is something I’ve told many clients who, when faced with an obstacle and no clear path around or through, were fearful it might keep them stuck in a difficult place. Until that moment, however, I hadn’t thought about looking at my own track record. When I did, I saw that my history is to arrive at a crossroads and eventually find a clear direction.
Instead of pursuing one of the Plan C variants or hurrying to create Retirement Plan D, I’m staying open to whatever feels right without, as the poet John Keats put it, “irritable reaching after fact or reason.”
The lyrics from the Pete Morton song “Another Train” come to mind:
There’s another train, there always is
Maybe the next one is yours, get up and climb aboard,
I’m moving from fretting about what I’ll do next to excitement about when that train will appear and where it will take me. I have faith that a clear direction will emerge this time, too.
How about you? When have you been at a crossroads, what was it like, and what guided you to your next destination?
Copyright 2022, David J. Bookbinder
Street People: Invisible New York Made Visible
Street People Portfolio: Invisible New York Made Visual
The Art of Balance: Staying Sane in an Insane World
Paths to Wholeness: Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas