Several years ago I attended a retreat for leadership coaches at a beautiful resort in Utah. I was assigned a roommate, someone I had never met. My roommate was Mel Szarek, and the thing I remember most about that weekend was staying up late with Mel, laughing so hard we cried. We had a bad case of the giggles all weekend, and we’ve been friends ever since. Mel is one of the most sincere and upbeat people I’ve ever met and her energy will brighten any room. I’m excited to share Mel’s story here, which is our first 5 flat tires story about retirement.
The first thing you should know is that Sadie is a horse. The second thing you should know is that I am not a “horse person.” I did not grow up with horses, or ride or work with them, and didn’t even live near any horses.
But one horse, Sadie, holds a very special place in my heart. I am forever grateful she came into my life to support me when I was down and helped me learn what I needed in my life for my wellbeing.
I first met Sadie in June of 2004, about two months after I retired from 35 years of service in the federal government. Working was all I knew my whole life, even as a child. I worked as a teenager while still in high school. I worked my way through college. I got a full-time job as soon as I graduated to pay off the school loans and put a roof over my head. In those days a job was a job to pay the bills and had little to do with making a career. Fortunately, my work did become a career, a good one, and I accomplished work I loved with people I liked and respected.
As my eligibility for retirement approached, I did all the appropriate planning for transitioning to a limited income and an open calendar. In April 2004 I officially retired from employment. A second career was always in the plan but I decided to put that on hold for 12-18 months. For the first time in nearly 50 years I was going to NOT WORK. I called this period of time off a “sabbatical” of sorts.
As soon as I retired, I quickly signed up for a 3-day workshop in California. The course was titled “Leadership and Horses” offered by the Strozzi Ranch. I knew nothing about horses but as a leadership coach, I thought this would be unique way of learning about leadership. Sadie was there, along with Cowgirl and Superman and several other horses. The workshop did not involve any riding. Instead we worked with the horses from the ground, not the saddle. Sadie and the other 4-legged trainers taught us much about ourselves by responding (or not responding) to our leadership energies. It was an awesome experience.
For an entire year following that trip, I enjoyed my freedom from the structure, pressure, and performance demands of a full time job. However, the following June my emotions became somewhat volatile. I couldn’t pinpoint it exactly, but I knew there was something going on in my psyche. I had signed up for two more courses in California that fall. One was a repeat of the “Leadership and Horses” workshop scheduled for September.
I loved being back at the ranch with the horses. The humans in this class were mostly students specializing in equine assisted learning. Two of us, Russ and I, were not equine experts but were permitted to attend because we had previous experiences with this workshop. During the first day and a half, all of the learning activities were useful, but they would pale in comparison to what I would learn at the end of day two.
Ariana Strozzi, our instructor, asked Russ and I if we would volunteer to do some work in the round pen. The round pen is a circular space about 50 feet in diameter enclosed with steel pipe fencing. It was located outside one end of the huge covered arena. Russ and I were individually tasked to be in the round pen with one horse while we spoke to the other workshop participants who sat and watched from outside. We were told to talk about anything that was on our minds and to notice whatever happened with the horse.
Russ went first. The horse in the pen was Cowgirl. Russ spoke about his desire to create a consulting business and the hopes and fears he held about that. Quite frankly, I cannot remember what the horse did as he talked or what his insights were from that experience. I was too consumed by preparing what I was going to speak about.
When my turn came, I could feel the emotions welling up in me even before speaking. I began by talking about my retirement and the dramatic crash of depression I had experienced after 18 months of leisure. Cowgirl began eating thistle weed near the fence which prompted Ariana to ask me what thorny issues I was chewing on.
This prompted me to describe my mixed emotions about my retirement. I liked being out of the rat race but I also missed the work I loved. Tears welled up in my eyes and my words began to stick in my throat. Cowgirl then began digging her front hoof into the ground, inviting me to dig deeper into my own heart and soul. I began to cry harder and I choked out my feelings of loss, of not being needed, of feeling rather empty, of not doing anything important.
As I spoke through my tears, Sadie, who was in the larger area at the opposite end of the arena, began walking with intention to the round pen. When she got to the entrance she started pounding her hoof on the gate. Ariana remarked, “Look! Sadie-the-Healer, wants to come into the pen with you.” Sadie is a huge horse, about 1,000 pounds, and bigger than Cowgirl. After Sadie entered the pen I had two horses in the pen with me.
I watched them both for moment or two and then began speaking again about my sadness. Then with deliberate but gentle movement, Sadie came over and stood behind me with the side of her body about 2 inches from my back. She stayed there quietly for several long minutes. Lost in my emotions, I hardly noticed Sadie until she moved away to interact with Cowgirl.
I continued to speak about how I was feeling and I couldn’t stop the tears from flowing. Again, Sadie came and stood behind me, her shoulder and ribs only an inch from my back. This time Ariana spoke up. “That’s the second time Sadie has held your back. She’s standing by you, Mel.” This time I felt her presence strongly and I reached my hand behind me to touch her chest and shoulder. She was strong and steady and reassuring.
As I continued my story I began to realize just how lonely I had been feeling for 18 months. I mentioned that in my previous work, I saw and spoke to at least a dozen people in and around the office and another 10 or so people by phone–each day, every day. Now, at home, the phone didn’t ring, and people didn’t pass by my office or stop to talk. For 18 long months I saw very few people and only when I went out for errands. Most days I saw and spoke to no one.
As the feeling of loneliness flooded over me, there was movement out in the fields adjacent to the pen. Several horses were coming in from the field toward the round pen. Sadie stood beside me as 4 or 5 other horses came in from the field and stood around the pen, somehow knowing I needed their company. I was touched by the gesture and grateful for their presence. The participants who were watching all this unfold sat there in complete amazement. Time stood still, and we all remained silent, taking in the moment with profound awe.
There are some experiences in life that stand far out from others because of their poignancy, tenderness and magic. This was clearly one of those moments for me. What I learned from Sadie that day was how important the social aspects of work are. I had prepared for the financial adjustments in retirement and even for the absence of structure and activity. I had not prepared for the absence of social connections that work provided. We forget that work is essentially a social activity, and the human-to-human contact it provides is profoundly important nutrition for our wellbeing.
That day in the round pen with Sadie was my own 5 flat tire experience. When I finally allowed myself to cry and acknowledge my retirement loneliness, my emotions shifted. After I allowed Sadie and the other horses to support me, I was able to begin reconnecting to other people again.
During the months that followed that session with Sadie, I started participating in professional conferences and networking events. I reconnected with former coworkers in addition to strengthening my connections with family and friends. I began to make new professional contacts that would ultimately provide rich ongoing interactions. These days my retirement is no longer lonely.
Even though my second career as a leadership coach is mostly done alone from home, I have learned how to fill in the social space of my professional life. The gift I received from Sadie has benefited my clients as well. I have been able to assist them in understanding and appreciating the social nature of work. Everything I learned with Sadie has helped me make my work and my life more effective and more fulfilling.
You can read more about Mel and her leadership coaching at her website: http://melszarek.com/