During the last 20 years a lot has been written, reported, spoken about being our authentic selves.  When the idea of living authentically first entered my head space, I was working.  I wondered then how that might be looked upon in our rule based society where fitting in was a job requirement for most of corporate America.  Different ideas were often met with, “but that’s the way we’ve always done it”.  Rules and policies reigned. Employee manuals included everything from acceptable behavior to dress codes. Group think or face the wrath assigned to anyone not perceived as a team player.

Going further back in time I grew up in a very conformist household.  My family was, like many other families of the era, rule based.  Rules for inside the home and rules for school, church and social activities.  Rules for speaking and rules for dress.  Rules for daily living and rules for thinking.  The rules were there to ensure that we did fit in, were accepted and belonged.  We had to act the part and look the part and sound the part.  We’ve all heard the saying, “Go along to get along.”  

From an early age I was always the odd girl out among my siblings.  I didn’t do sports or fishing or deep sea diving or horseback riding or going to the stock car races.  While the kids in the neighborhood played baseball in the empty lot, I reveled in books, dance, theater, music, art and anything avant-garde.  The Sizzling Sixties rocked my world and I enjoyed the ride.  Growing up an hour train or bus ride to New York City, I was smitten with the anything goes in the city that never sleeps.  Back in my little borough on the Jersey Shore, it was rules, beliefs, fitting in and being normal.  Anything I did that was different from the perceived normal was shamed and ridiculed ending with the refrain, “We don’t believe in that” or “We don’t do that” or my mother’s favorite, “Kathleen, how could you?!”.

From home, church and the school yard we move on to the work place.  Here’s where not fitting in can hit us in the wallet.  The job or career where we have to fit in, go along to get along and work, work, work to achieve more and more in order to gain higher levels of prestige, money and success.  We create goals to satisfy our egos and our supervisor’s annual review.  We burden ourselves with more tasks which, comes with more stress, perhaps competition, and sometimes jealousy, from co-workers, then more hours, education and experience grabbing to do the same thing over again.  We dress to fit the role we play.  For this t-shirt and jeans type, hands-in-the-dirt gardener, the designer suits, acceptable hair style, perfect makeup and well heeled look grated.  It wasn’t dress for success to me; it was a strait jacketed uniform that helped pay the bills.

Throughout our lives for any number of reasons we often strive to fit in, so we will belong, suppressing our very authenticity.  We self-edit our ideas and desires to become someone else’s version of normal, acceptable, to meet their reality.  It may be for family or societal pressure, to bring home a paycheck, to be liked.  For me, that always chafed as if I were wearing a pair of ill fitting slacks.  Retirement is a cathartic release of all the above.  As poet Mary Sarton said, “We have to dare to be ourselves, however frightening or strange that self may prove to be.”  Retirement is the opportunity of a lifetime to be truly authentic.  Whatever identity we wore in our previous two-thirds of life, we can now create an identity of our own making.  

Today I don’t have one designer anything in my closet.  My wardrobe consists of many pairs of my coveted jeans, t-shirts and sweaters.  I rarely wear jewelry, not even earrings.  I let my hair go gray years ago.  I write, read, paint, draw, listen to music, garden, of course, and plan solo travels like my upcoming trip to Italy or building my new house.  There will always be people who tell us we should do this or should do that.  They are thinking what works for them must surely work for you.  Listen to them, politely, if you can, then do whatever the hell you want!  You have nothing to prove to anyone.  You don’t need anyone’s approval.

To an extent we will always need to follow some rules as a society without rules is a mass of chaos.  I see this time as choosing to live my reality built upon my dreams.  I see it as I need people who support me, who may disagree with me, but people who accept my authentic self.  I see it as this time in my life is irreplaceable and it belongs to me with open arms for those who love me and I love in return.  I see it as wanting people in my life who see me as amazing as much as I see them as amazing.  In this moment I realize the gift of retirement is freedom to be who I am, where I am.  I no longer have to fit into someone else’s idea of me.  That’s my new reality.  That’s my rule now.


It was sitting in a restaurant watching a large group of retirees when I decided to stop dying my hair. The group was so large a half-dozen tables had been strung end on end so they could all sit together. I guessed the ages to range from early 60’s to late eighties. Quite a stretch. A bus outside told me they were on some type of tour and all seemed to be having a great time. They were laughing, talking and very loud, so boisterous they were hard to miss. As I watched them I noticed all the men and most of the women had some variance of salt and pepper. It was the women without gray who stood out. And, not in a good way. As my eyes searched the table, they rested on a woman who looked to be about 80. She had blond hair, the new gray. I’m not getting older; I’m just getting blonder. But, there was a disconnect. The deep lines of her face and her softly wrinkled neck and arms didn’t mesh with the blond hair. Looking at her gray-haired counterparts, I realized she looked like a caricature while the women in gray actually looked more fresh, more real, more attractive. As they departed, one woman sporting brown hair was helped from the table to a walker. Late eighties, at least. Big disconnect. My mind was screaming. As I sat there, I decided gray. I want to be authentic as I age, not a weird shadow of my youth.

That was more than two years ago and I’m still happy with my choice. Even before the restaurant encounter, there were a couple of things moving me in that direction. First, my hair was not color friendly. I’d gone from coloring every six weeks to every 5 weeks to every 4 weeks and finally, my stylist suggested every 3 weeks. Every 3 weeks!?! Why don’t I just move in with you and you can touch it up every day? Secondly, I loathed the process and the way I looked for the next couple of days until dye stuck to my hairline faded away. With every stylist I’d ever gone to, nothing irritated more than their telling me to put a little more foundation around my hairline before leaving the salon. Pancake anyone? Foundation is not hiding this stuff! The idea of spending yet more money to keep up appearances while going through an experience I didn’t find pleasurable in the least was, in my mind, just plain nuts. A friend suggested I color my own hair. Been there, done that, I told her. It was cheaper but even more unpleasant than having someone else color it and the color faded quicker than a New York minute, revealing shimmering strands all over my head within the first week.

My decision, however, affected others in ways I didn’t anticipate. I didn’t expect the reactions a gray-haired woman can invoke in our youth obsessed culture. Take, for example, the women I hardly know who continue to insist after two years, I am “too young to be gray”. Aside from the minor annoyance I feel along with biting tongue to refrain from telling them it’s really none of their blankety-blank business, I think their constant objections reveal more about them than it does about me. Does my decision threaten them as in does my gray head remind them of their own fading youth? After all, they are also gray. They’re just pretending not to be and thinking covering it up makes them look younger. Well, for a while it does.

Or, take the day I sat at a major intersection in the right lane which, while it went straight across, disappeared on the other side. As the first and only in line, I was betting my Mazda-3 could out accelerate the delivery truck to my left before the driver, whose lane didn’t disappear, even crossed the intersection. The lane on my right was a turn lane only. As I sat there, I noticed a BMW pull into it but not take the opportunity to turn right on red. You can imagine my surprise when, as the light turned green and I shot out of the gate in my little zoom zoom, from the corner of my eye, I caught sight of the BMW crossing the intersection next to me! What? And, just imagine as I zipped forward and into the left lane, how shocked and amused I was to look in my rear view mirror at the two young men in that car, trailing me, waving fists in the air and giving me the finger. Well, guys, I’m the one with the right of way. Then, I thought, did they think my gray hair meant I was slow? Did they think they could beat me across the intersection because I was old? Ha!

Conversely, I’ve also received lots of compliments on how good I look with gray hair. A little off-handed but, hey, a compliment none-the-less. I also receive more “yes, ma’am’s”, doors held for me by both men and women and carry out help. I shop a big box store where help lifting 40 pound bags of compost used to be hard to come by. Sporting a gray head gets me plenty of muscle these days. I do get some double takes and questions when someone checks my license against my new look. But, at least I know they’re really paying attention. There are also the complete strangers who ask me about my gray hair as they wonder out loud to me about how gray their own head is. With lots of brown still to be seen on my head, I’m not totally gray. I can tell by the look in their eyes and the wistful sound of their voices, they’d like to be free of the color continuum, too.

So, going gray has revealed some interesting moments. I could almost do a study about the social impact of aging with a gray head. Nahhhh. But, seriously, ditching the dye was a very personal decision. I decided the time was right for me at age 59. The right age for someone else may be 65 or 70 or 80 or never. Or maybe you’re one of the women who decided to never spend a dime on color right from the appearance of that first strand of gray hair. Lucky woman. You’ll never have to look in the mirror and wonder if it’s time.