How I Reinvented Myself at 61

Child feet in red sneakers

The summer I turned 61, I was still licking my wounds from the day my boss called me into his office and said, “I’m sorry. We’re letting you go.” I was still fighting the urge every morning to get into my work clothes and start my day the way I had for years. I was still explaining to people who hadn’t heard the news that my ego had been bruised, yes, but I was hopeful something great would come along.

By autumn, it occurred to me that my severance package would stop arriving in my checking account in six short months, and although I’ve never worried much about money, I began thinking of ways to cut back, something I’ve never been known for. I tried not to surrender to my bent for the dramatic, but once in a while—usually awake in the middle of the night— I’d see a vision of me in the future, popping open a little can of gourmet cat food, spreading it on some crackers and calling it a day.

Then I had an idea.

I tried out my idea on my neighbor, who’d kindly wondered why he’d seen me home so much. I told him I’d lost my job and had been applying for new ones, but nothing was happening. Of course I didn’t say it exactly that way. I think I used words like “transitioning” and “turning point.” The phrase that was my actual launching pad, “letting you go,” was still coming to me regularly in my dreams,—the dreams where I’d show up at my office and everyone there would have to remind me that they’d already “let me go,” and, ashamed (and, yes, naked of course), I’d slump back to my car and drive home.

I’d just met this neighbor, so he was a natural tabula rasa candidate. “I’ve decided I’m going to write,” I said, listening to how self-important that sentence sounded wafting through the air.

“Really?” he said. “I didn’t know you were a writer.”

If he meant had I ever made a comfortable living as a writer—or even an uncomfortable one—the answer was “no.” If he meant had anyone ever heard of me, nope. I didn’t mention that I’d won third place in my sixth-grade short story contest, but it was one of the consequential events on which I was building this new career. It’s amazing how reality hardly ever has anything to do with being a writer.

Then I sat down at my computer every day and wrote. Nothing much at first, and nothing good. As I worked at my writing, I tried not to replay in my mind those interviews—the few I got—that had not gone well. The ones where I could tell I was being seen as an overpriced worker with a depth of experience that no one was particularly interested in. As I felt the mediocre handshake that ended each of those interviews, I wanted to scream: “Just hire me. I’m a hard worker. I can do this.” Then I waited for the emails that all ended with the same sentence: “Best of luck in your search.”

That search had ended. Now I was writing and editing and querying editors with abandon. I celebrated every little success, even the pieces that could get my writing “out there” but offered no money. I wrote harder. I got better. And I waited for a sign.

Sometimes, when nothing was coming to me, I’d walk out my back door and sit in the little park next to my house. I’d jot down what I heard or saw in the notebook that I carry everywhere. One day a boy, about ten, sat down next to me on the bench. His dad was off to the side, watching expectantly. I’d seen him nod in my direction and say quietly to his son, “Go ahead.” The boy cleared his throat a little and held out a stack of copy paper, mercilessly stapled down one side. The cover read ROBOTS in bold lettering and had an ambitious illustration.

“Hi,” he said. “I’m a writer. I have this book for sale. It costs $1 if you want to buy it. But just to warn you, it might be scary in some parts for your kids.” I loved that he didn’t have a clue that my kids are now in their 30s. I loved his confidence, even when his voice faltered a little.

I took the book in my hands and thumbed through. “Stay right here,” I said, and I ran back to my house and got a dollar. After our transaction was complete, he kindly showed me where the scary parts were so I’d be prepared. His eyes were bright, the way I wanted mine to be. He was putting it all “out there,” while I was still struggling to do just that.

“Is it hard to be a writer?” I asked.

“Not one bit,” he said. And he took off for the swings.



Linda Hummel’s work has appeared in Newsweek, Newsday, the Baltimore Sun, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and many women’s magazines. 


19 responses to “How I Reinvented Myself at 61

  1. Hi Linda,

    I thoroughly enjoyed your story. I’m a retirement consultant and author. (Yes, I too got up the courage to call myself a writer!) When I speak to audiences I encourage them to get in touch with their 10-year-old selves. I believe we can learn a lot from what we enjoyed doing as 5th and 6th graders, as well as from the confidence and courage we exhibited at that age, and use this to shape our retirement years.

  2. Im speechless at the moment. I worked as a secretary from 17, was fortunate enough to wind up in the music industry and became quite successful in something I loved. It all started because I was creative, a hard worker, had common sense, was quiet, but loved music and was so grateful someone gave me a chance. What I became provided me with the opportunity to help my family in many ways, mentor, and give opportunities to others. When there was new management and I was shown the door. I had no idea how very difficult it would be. How much of my identify, my confidence, my daily existence was part of my position. And when one is treated badly at the end by several sides, the level of hurt is overwhelming. I had other very important personal people and things that mattered deeply but in life nothing is perfect nor is the timing.

    It has taken way too long to figure some things out. As I turn 70, Im not going to become a CEO or climb a great mountain. I do read sometimes about Mt. climbing and I have thought about Mt. Hood, My youthful shyness led me to the library, and a great history teacher led me to love history. I read a lot in between living.

    Lets all stay healthy, smile, have someone to speak with when we need to, and I am learning I love my long time friends but Im making new ones too. How very unexpected and very grand. Stay away from toxic people, give yourself a break from the news once in a while but contribute when you can. And live.

  3. Things that are possible at 60 usually aren’t at 80, but the stories are still interesting to read. (Pleeeze: no superlative-laden reports of 85 year old CEOs or high altitude rock climbers!) I was fortunate enough to work in the nonprofit sector until I was 78. When I “retired”/got laid off after 40 years of service, I lost a big chunk of my life’s purpose and legacy. I’ve moved on but without much of a transition plan at this stage of my life. I volunteer and take care of our home and our 3 rescue kitties. Not sure where I could transition to–except perhaps to The Other Side or, more probably in view of my misspent youth, The Nether Regions!

  4. I don’t really see the point of this story. A little boy had less fear of failure than a 61 year old: no surprise there, you expect less fear from a younger, less self-aware person. His failure would be totally different than hers. Context matters. I’m happy the writer got some inspiration from this, but it’s a bit thin for me!

  5. I retired at age 56 from 38 years of being a registered nurse but just sitting home w/ a book or tv was not enough. I tried being a cashier at a restaurant ,carrying a tray for an elderly lady to her seat an her son gave me a quarter. Next I took a doll making course and made 4 dolls but not a life time experience. Then I got custody of my great great nephew, age 3 months. This was fulfilling but not enough to keep me busy. So I added another couple of children where the government was paying the mother’s to go train to get a job. You had to really keep good records for the government. Then a lady from my church had become a foster parent.. Could I do this? I have 3 birth kids an had always thought there was suppose to be a 4th. When setting the table I would at times put the extra plate or glass for the 4th child. I thought it was going to be a grand child..
    So I took the Foster Parenting Classes and ask for infants…….I would call every few days to see if they had an infant. Then one day I got my first one-2 months old, coming off drugs, someone who needed me and I needed him..Boy. I was in hog heaven. I had found my retirement place. I had 8 infants all over a space of time. Then one night I got my special one-6 days old, straight from the hospital, He was the most beautiful baby I had ever seen. At the age of 60,single,retired,I got to adopt him when he was 2years old an had been thru the court system to terminate his parents rights. Now he is 20 and I am 79 !! What a life we have had. Never a dull moment. So much for both of us to learn. He can be a handfull but when bedtime comes and he throws his arms around me and we both say “I love you” it is all worth it.

  6. It always takes so much longer than we feel it should though. After not getting any traction on my job search, I moved to Mexico to save money. Since then I’ve written two books, including one on learning Spanish after 50 (one of the best things to do for your brain BTW, even if you never go to another country) Kerry Baker, Ventanas Mexico.

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