“I was scared about retiring and what I’d do, but it hasn’t happened. Retirement hasn’t happened. I’m lucky if I sit down at 9 o’clock to watch the TV. I’m on the go the whole time.”
To escape the pouring rain hammering overhead, I sat down with Zanna Foley-Davies in her home.
She sat snuggly in her conservatory, walls lined with thriving foliage, as the wind bent trees behind her; she strikes me as a woman of grace and perseverance and, through her clever planning, insulated from the elements battling outside.
“What do you want to know?” she asks, after making us a pot of tea and telling me about her weekend; it had been a double theatre weekend and next week she had a triple theatre weekend lined up.
(“On Saturday we went to the Apollo and saw Everyone’s Talking About Jamie – you need to go see it. I cried, cheered, whooped – the whole audience gave a standing ovation!” She tells me, thinking back to the atmosphere only two nights ago. “The noise! The love, the tolerance, the acceptance!”)
To start with, I ask her about her career and how she’s spending her Life 2.0:
“How do you fill your time?”
She cackles. “What time? I’ve never been busier!”
Her goal for Life 2.0 had always been to grow old colourfully (“never beige!”) but that was hardly a plan. Indeed, Zanna credits people she’s met in pubs or cafes for directing her towards her next act. Spontaneous conversations opened doors she hadn’t known about - but raced to explore in Life 2.0.
She tells me that she never wanted “to look back and say, ‘I wish I’d done that.’” Instead, she jumps in: “just open your eyes and do it!” is her philosophy.
With regards to her career, she prefaces her story with a warning: “some people get a job and they do it for years, but their heart isn’t in it.” This was something Zanna strived to avoid. She pursued her passions exclusively, travelled to chase them, and later combined her dream careers into her own business and lifestyle.
Her first career began in her twenties when she taught in a primary school– and she loved it. She progressed to deputy head and began to think about her professional future.
She grimaces. “The more I looked at Headships the more I realised it was nowhere near children. It was all going to be managing people and phone calls and stuff, which is not me.”
She contented herself with teaching and initially looked no further.
When her partner moved to Ireland for work, Zanna followed, veering away from an unsuitable promotion. By the time they returned to England, Zanna had specialised in improving adult literacy and working with students with learning difficulties.
“But then we had the imposition of the National Curriculum which completely destroyed my creativity. Couldn’t teach to a test, I just couldn’t do it. I was very unhappy. So I left teaching altogether.” After over two decades in one industry, I asked Zanna what she did next. What did she instinctively turn to?
“I harnessed my passion, which was gardening.” This became her second career. “I set up a gardening business on my own and it quickly became an unmanageable business because I had too much work.” While the success was rewarding, it was physically intense work and after four years, Zanna needed to innovate.
One day, “this inspired woman said to me ‘Why don’t you teach gardening? You’ve got all the qualifications to do one and all the qualifications to do the other.’” And so Zanna did, teaching gardening at the same college she studied at.
“I was there for years! Absolutely years! But again, in time, I got bored.”
“I went back to working with people with severe learning difficulties. I realised there was another career strand there. I discovered that there was something called a horticultural therapist.”
People ask, “Does that mean you talk to sick plants?”
And I say “No, I grow people.”
“Which is what I did, and I loved that. And I did that right up to 60 years of age” which is when she started to think seriously about her life after work.
Even knowing she could cope financially, Zanna was “scared of retiring.” She didn’t know what she would do: would there even be anything to do?
“I kept my passion, which was initially teaching, and I’ve moulded that with gardening. [But] at 60 my battery was dead; I couldn’t give any more. So I entered my first retirement.”
This involved volunteering for two days a week in a church garden. “The rest of the time I was at home.” She began to bore of the sedentary days in the house with the dog, and her decreasing capacity to care for the gardens. Her battery soon recharged, and she reminded herself of her goal: to grow old colourfully.
“My second retirement began three years ago – and now I use the skills that I have to teach people gardening in people’s own gardens, I love that. I do a bit of garden design; I show people what they could do. I give talks at horticultural societies on recycling in the garden.” She pauses and reflects: “I am a resource.”
“Money doesn’t matter. What does is that I don’t lose what I’ve built up in my head: what I know.”
“And it breaks my heart to see others totally sedentary. My husband is one of them, he has no hobbies. He sits, and I go. I’m away for weekends, and I go to gigs, and I visit friends. It’s been a complete change-round in our marriage: he’s at home with the dog and I’m out having a great time.”
So what does Zanna do with her time?
She fell into theatre.
“I had never been on the stage, but a lifetime of teaching makes you an actress.”
In her first ever audition, instead of getting the smallest part in a big show as she planned, Zanna scored the biggest lead role.
“I was hooked. And little by little I did more here and there; I joined new theatre groups, and committees. After a while I became a stage manager and was shown how to do that. And one day I was watching a rehearsal and I thought ‘I could do better than that. Why doesn’t she see why this scene isn’t working?’ so I went on to directing. It went from acting to ASM to SM to Directing – and it was all muddled in together. And it’s lovely. It’s what keeps me alive.”
Zanna tells me about the ecosystem of theatre circles: “It sounds like a weird thing to say – but it’s this wonderful thing coming together of experience and youth. And this energy has kept me hooked.”
“It’s the best thing I’ve done in years: it’s magic!”
But what else?
“I’m socially very busy.” As a member of the British Red Hat Society, a playgroup for older women across the country, Zana partakes in Sunday roasts which quickly turn into basement disco parties, city breaks and trips abroad, and seasonal shows put on by members. “It’s very silly, it’s complete anarchy. And again, it’s performing and enjoying my life. I didn’t realise how much performance would become a part of my retirement.”
By staying curious and flexibly pursuing opportunities to see if they’re for her, Zanna is living colourfully.
“In this very room” Zanna tells me, “I was recorded for a soundscape for Richard Hand’s Romeo and Juliet.”
Voice acting for radio productions is her current jam: “the radio stuff is absolutely magic because you don’t have to learn any lines!” In radio performance, since the audience cannot see the actors, directors are free to mime instructions to them.
“I love it! I absolutely love it! Loads of things I had to do! And he just pulled faces at me and I had to deliver them in different ways. Wow, that was interesting.”
When she thinks about retirement now, Zanna knows it’s what you make of it. “I can’t explain it to you in any other way: I don’t feel as though I’ve retired. I cannot work out how I used to do the things I do and work.”
Before I can ask what else she’ll add to her plate, she jumps in:
“What’s next? What’s my next career going to be?” It’s pure excitement she shows, dances, celebrates in. “It might only last for a few months or for years” before she transitions to her next thing, but that seems to be the joy of it. The freedom to pick a new career every other day, if you wish, and try things you never knew you’d love.
The end of one adventure is the opportunity for another to begin. -----------------------------------------------------------------
Originally written for Chadwicks Wealth Management, "Life 2.0: Your Next Act" collection of interviews. 2019.