Going nowhere in a glass ship? Disturbing anomalies in retirement

1950 glass model of the sailing ship Charlotte Jane in the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch. Careless amateur snapshot by retiree Rachel McAlpine.

1950 glass model of the sailing ship Charlotte Jane in the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch. Careless amateur snapshot by retiree Rachel McAlpine.

What’s it like to retire? Is retirement a great and noble adventure? Or do you feel confused about your place in the world? Has the world changed almost too much in your lifetime? Do you feel stuck? Or do you feel transported into a finer, more spiritual phase of life? A glass model sailing ship stirs up ambivalent feelings about life and old age.

I saw this extraordinary 1950 glass model of the sailing ship Charlotte Jane last week in the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch. I snapped it, but not literally. So superb, incongruous, ethereal, solid, fragile, almost as if it was knitted in glass. Not sailing but stuck in a safe dry place. The model is wholly itself, and yet (for me) it quickly morphed into a metaphor for human beings growing older and leaving the world of work for retirement.

I felt the glass sailing ship was volunteering to stand for a thousand experiences involving muddled motives or mixed feelings. And I wonder what ideas it triggers in your mind…

In 1950 the myth of the doughty British settlers still dominated the discourse of New Zealand history; I was 10 and we learned our history from the colonists’ viewpoint. 69 years later, our history is not so one-sided or so glorious.

View photographer Fiona Pardington’s superb photograph of the same model ship.

20 thoughts on “Going nowhere in a glass ship? Disturbing anomalies in retirement

  1. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/community/2014/12/17/our-lives/hitting-60-japan-offers-chance-start-dont-waste-time-looking-back/#.XRB4SpMzafc I like the Japanese approach….my semi-retirement is glorious…feel so blessed to have shelter and food and modest finances as a foundation for the rest of my life. Yoga and meditation are my current big focuses as I retrain my body to accept my arthritis but to also be the best body and being I can be. Time to go to classes every day…wonderful. Time to learn as much as I can. Myra xxx

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Sounds good to me. Yes we are hugely privileged, I so agree. I like the sound of your classes.

  2. Cathy Cade says:

    Retirement means adjustment. Without our jobs to define us we have to rediscover who we are.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      It’s a strange time, isn’t it? Some find it harder than others.

  3. franklparker says:

    The last company I worked for had a program for retirement: 26 days off during the last 6 months of work during which you were supposed to attend “retirement preparation” classes. I got my manager to agree to let me leave 5 weeks early and never attended one of those classes. I (thought I) knew what I wanted to do in retirement: paint, write and garden as well as continuing with voluntary work in the community. I’ve been doing that for almost 13 years now and loving every minute.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Sounds like there was no glass ship in your life then! Perfect.

  4. retirementconfidential says:

    I’ve been retired a little less than two years, and I love it. My interests include reading, writing, experimenting with art, walking, hiking, golfing, swimming, cooking and just hanging around enjoying simple pleasures. I feel like the best is yet to come.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      And I celebrate your delight!

  5. Although I still carry around a few “shoulds” in my retirement (should volunteer, should have more to show for my time, should, should, should…), I have enjoyed pretty smooth sailing since I left work over five years ago. I enjoyed work for the personal fulfilment, mental stimulation, sense of teamwork, and easy social structure, but I don’t think it ever defined me. As beautiful as that glass ship is, my retirement vessel is much more sea-worthy.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I like your list iof things you gained from work: big benefits seen clearly. And if you look more closely you may realize that you do give times and effort voluntarily to others and you do have plenty to show for your time

  6. mpardi2013 says:

    In my twenties I dreamed of having a sailboat large enough to live on and sail the seas. In my thirties I realized being out at sea, with no choice but to keep going, would probably drive me crazy. Careers can be the same way. They may look glamorous and secure at first but can then turn into a yoke we must bear until the end. And in that end we may look back at paths never taken and wonder, How did I get here? Now what? Sadly, some choose to scuttle the boat, going down with it in a variety of ways. And some, like me, choose to write our thoughts and put them in a bottle, to be read wherever and whenever they reach a distant shore.


    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Many readers will recognize a truth in what you say here. Isn’t it satisfying to have lived long enough to see the pattern of our life –and to know it is still far from complete? Message in a bottle: always loved that idea as a child and still do.

      1. mpardi2013 says:

        The pattern in my life is undeniable. How it got there, by whose hand, is still a mystery.

  7. Elizabeth says:

    Thank you for the link to the photograph because the commentary on the piece was also enlightening. I think that there is a change between early retirement(this is wonderful, now I can do whatever) and many years in. I think at 72 I have begun to really understand that life, including mine, is finite. That may seem obvious, but I understand it in my bones now in a way I never did before. So fragility is there.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Elizabeth, you’re so right : retirement is a very big chunk of our lifespan, almost a third in many cases, and so we change and change again during that time. But this awareness of fragility is another precious gift, don’t you think? Not just our own fragility but that of others.

      1. Elizabeth says:

        I agree that awareness of fragility is a gift. I certainly take more pleasure in the moment than waiting for the future.

  8. Albert says:

    I like your photograph better. There’s a sun shining on and through the ship.. Hopeful. And what an amazing piece of art! I’m thinking of many “meanings” for me. Permanent fragility is one.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I was surprised at the flood of feelings and thought evoked by the glass ship. Thank you for liking my photo. I had lingered by it and then began to run after my sister when I turned back to catch it on camera.

  9. Sometimes an image catches me and takes my breath away. Such was the case as I met this ethereal, complex, floating being. Life’s fragility, uncertainty, sometimes feeling unmoored, have all been part of my retirements. Plural. I’m coming up on my fourth in September. The glass ship has remained whole despite its seeming fragility – partly, I imagine, because it has been carefully curated all these years by loving hands. I think my retirements – and my old age – have been much the same. Fragile but handled with love; complex but so often beautiful; uncertain but creative; and stronger than I had imagined. Thank you for sharing this and inviting us into the awe.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      And sometimes a comment stops me in my tracks, like yours. Thank you, Martha: it’s a joy to read your thoughts. After going through the process four times you are surely an authority on retirement. Your conclusions are more than encouraging –they’re inspiring.

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