Alexa, a tomato, and mindfulness

For Christmas, Chris and I received an Amazon Echo. At first we weren’t sure what we would do with it. Now we get a kick out of asking Alexa, the Echo’s virtual assistant, both serious and silly questions. She told me “42” was the answer to the question “What’s the meaning of life?” — a reference to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

But when asked, “How do you have a successful retirement?” her answer was “Sorry, I don’t know that.” I wasn’t surprised she didn’t have the answer. Most of us don’t.

The difficulty for many people approaching retirement is too many options. The sheer number of possible ways to spend our time once we stop working can be overwhelming. That’s why I constantly encourage clients to have a plan. But that task, too, can seem overwhelming. The majority of boomers approaching the possibility of stopping work have no idea how to gradually downshift our lives. Most of us go from full throttle careers to first gear or stop as we transition from working to not working. This creates the same kind of result we would get if we took our car from fifth gear to first – we strip our inner gears in the process.

For decades we went to work and did what we needed to do to receive a paycheck. Rarely, if ever, were we encouraged to explore our innermost feelings and desires about how best to utilize our innate skills and abilities or to explore in depth what additional skills and abilities we might want to develop to fill the 40 – 60 hour per week hole in our schedule once we stop working.

Our worth was tied to what did for the company to help it run more efficiently and make a profit. The unspoken mantra, “fast is good, but faster is better” influenced every aspect of our work experience from the daily rush to get out the door and fight through traffic to get to the office on time to inhaling our fast-food lunch at our desks. Perhaps that’s why stopping working is such a soul-jolting experience for so many.

In our haste to achieve, we have lost sight of the sacredness, and seeming slowness, of everyday life. Our post-employment phase of life is an opportunity to reclaim that awareness. But how?

My husband and I are passionate about cooking. However, more often than not we focus on the mechanics of creating the recipe and not marveling at the ingredients. Mindfully preparing a meal is a totally different experience.

Truly seeing a ripe tomato — the smooth, red, exterior flesh, the green, shriveled, remnants of the blossom that became the tomato, the earthy, pungent, smell of the stem – is a feast for the senses. Slicing open the flesh with a good, sharp knife and exposing the interior pockets of seeds and juice is revelatory. Have you ever counted the number of seeds in a tomato and thought about the inherent abundance of potential tomato plants contained within? I doubt it.

Taking time to think about all of the people involved in the growing, harvesting, transporting, and selling of that tomato adds a whole new level of sacredness to the process. That tomato didn’t just magically appear in the grocery store. A farmer planted and tended to the tomato. A worker harvested and packed that tomato for shipping. Another person transported that tomato to the store and yet another person took it out of the shipping package and put it on a display so I could purchase it. Finally, unless I did self-service checkout, a checker weighed the tomato, inputted the UPC code, and bagged my produce. At least five people were involved in getting that tomato from farm to market. Until this moment have I ever thought about them? No, I haven’t.

The anonymity of these people, and our lack of curiosity about them, creates disconnection and depersonalization. We can change that by expressing appreciation and gratitude for the contribution each person makes which enriches our lives. And then there’s the tomato. When we appreciate its form and substance, the life energy contained within it, and the sensory experience it provides us, we can’t help but appreciate its form, flavor, texture and the spectacular nutrients it provides to us.

When we slow down, we have time to observe the tremendous activity that goes on around us to which we are completely oblivious. By being aware and appreciative, we make a difference and if that was “all you did” in your third phase of life, it would be a remarkable experience and a life well lived, indeed.

Kathryn Avery

About Kathryn Avery

When Kathryn Severns Avery’s husband, Chris, began contemplating retirement in 2014, she knew they had to quickly come up with a multi-faceted plan. They spent the next year discussing, sometimes heatedly, what they would do once he stopped working. On paper their plan looked exciting. They would head from Colorado to the 1891 sea captain’s house they bought and renovated in Rockland on Maine’s midcoast. But the reality of planning and implementing retirement was much different than expected. Kathryn has worked in radio, television, marketing, and public relations. She is the author of five books and has written articles on interior design and crafts for national and regional publications including Romantic Homes, Log Homes Illustrated, The Rocky Mountain News and Colorado Homes and Lifestyles.