Friday, December 13, 2013

Life After Retirement

It’s been two years now since I turned in my key and my parking sticker. Two years since I lugged home 100’s of papers, dead trees littering every surface of my house(as an English Professor at a community college). What is life like from this vantage point?

I have no regrets. My neck, which was collapsing under the strain of teaching, is better. I go to yoga more regularly. I took a hike up to Mt. Tam two weeks ago. I’m ordering a walking stick(which my husband already got) so we will be two elders climbing a mountain that is only across the bridge. Jim is gray. I have finally decided not to dye my hair anymore. I am gray, too. I don’t want toxins leaking into my scalp and because I have dry and flaky skin, I’m sure there are lots of little places where the dark brown dye can burrow. I want my brain to be clear. Sometimes I do the AARP brain games and find, afterwards, that I feel better. Last night, I rode my stationary bicycle and watched Spiderman and was able to go at a fast pace for 40 minutes. I have time for these things, though I am still a bit clueless about my Iphone but promised by children that I will look at the utube videos about how to figure this all out. I haven’t done that yet. But I just took a video of my 15 year old dog after she took a bath. She raced through the house like a puppy dog and then leapt up on our maroon couch as swift as SpiderMan, leaping between buildings. She didn’t break a leg, thank the higher spirits. She amazes me. I learned how to take a video and even send it. Step by step. Brain cell by brain cell.

I still go to the SF Writer’s Grotto(an amazing writing collective) two days a week and write. I have three projects in the hopper—a non-fiction book proposal, a new memoir and a novel I hope to finish at a retreat next fall. Words still spill out of me: still an urgency to not only write but to publish. A curse, perhaps, this still urgent need to write—to get my writing out into the world?

At night, I often have time to watch a T.V. show—lately PBS mysteries-- with my husband, our dog sometimes sitting between us, her eyes now glazing over a bit, blindness beginning. “We’ll love you to the end, blind, deaf, infirm,” I whisper into her ears. She lets her head rest more firmly, then, on my lap. I feel the bony outline of her chin and stroke her head.
I remember when my mother told me her eyesight was going. “You can get books on tape,” I said rather blithely. Why did I not say more? Comfort her? I had so much to learn, and still do, about love.

I still teach—mentoring writers—helping them get their stories out, and for some of them to get their stories out into the world. I’ve been on memoir panels this year, one at the Center for Independent Living—where I saw people with no arms or legs who have built incredible lives: photographers, writers, office workers. There is no dearth of stories out there. Courage abounds everywhere. I have more time to see their courage.

So with my husband now 70—we’re thinking about what adventures we want to take. Perhaps I’ll teach less next year(we’re doing airbnb at our house—a steady stream of wonderful guests from across the globe that will allow me more time to write). We want to go to Europe—visit our ancestral homes in England. Perhaps I will go to Vilna sometime(my younger daughter says she wants to go, too) and see my Jewish ancestral home. For now, though, we are sticking with our dog, Penny, petting her, telling her it’s okay when she sometimes goes down the hallway back and forth from the T.V. area to our bedroom and doesn’t know which way to face. A pet on the head is a reminder that we’re here. She sits by the heater now, as it’s winter. I love to see the warm wind blow across her white fur. I love to look at her apricot markings. These two years away from full-time work have allowed me that: to look more deeply.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Not Quite Retired but Writing

For many of us older—but not too old-- teachers/writers who can figure out a way to release ourselves from full-time teaching before the body starts to break down past the point of repair-- we’re often called back (the siren call of students we want to teach and books we want to write) and yes, the need for some money. My friend, Jackie Davis-Martin, a teacher and writer, also took the plunge to leave full-time teaching—she left at 62—-despite some money fears-- and then also took on some part-time teaching and continues to write.
When she was full-time and “collecting annoyances” as she said, she ached for a weekend without grading and got annoyed when people said, “It’s Friday, Happy Weekend!” The life of a full-time English teacher is non-stop grading. Period. And if you decide to take a weekend off, the piles just grow—multiply like dishes or rabbits. Unlike some people who fear THE VOID, Jackie says, “I didn’t have fears of ceasing to be (thanks, Keats), but some fears of money. I’d been teaching in California only seventeen years and, when I visited a retirement advisor, he was full of so many “should haves” about what I should have done with my life that I actually wrote a short story about him."

Now she teaches part-time at City College of San Francisco (where we met) and she says, “I love my colleagues, love the students, love what I am teaching. Part-time allows me involvement in the college, but time to write. I write both fiction and non-fiction.
So: this is my retirement.”

Not everyone slips into this new life of the not quite retired so easily. Age-related discrimination is real and many young people are scrambling for jobs as well. It’s a risk to leave a job early—but ultimately for those of us who write—those of us who wake up in the middle of the night thinking of a scene from our book—or who listen to the lilt in the voice of the Starbuck’s server as he takes our order hearing “Chai Latte” roll off his tongue like music—or for those of us who have buried our desires six feet deep into the earth because we have to “make money” “be responsible” then taking this chance at a new life with part-time work and extra time brings us teachers/writers back to the old magic of words.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Parental Voices

When I visited my parent’s urns in New York City—a number of years after they had died, I saw their names etched into the three-story wall of names at the Trinity Mausoleum. Their ashes were behind the wall—what was left of their flesh and bone. But their spirits were alive in me--so alive, in fact, that I found myself arguing with them (mainly my mother) over whether I was doing the right thing by retiring at 61 instead of staying at least a few more years in my full-time teaching job. Should I do this? Can I do this? I wanted them to leap out of the concrete wall, fully embodied and tell me what to do. Pathetic, perhaps, that at 61 I still wanted their permission? But my mother, though a small person, was a force to reckon with.

But don’t we all, in some primal way, want to please our parents (even if we rebel). I’ve done many readings of my poetry and prose but I remember, very specifically, the few times that my parents were in the audience. I remember what they were wearing—my mother with her ultra suede skirts and silk blouses, my father with his khaki pants and sports coat. I remember where they sat. What I had for dinner that particular night (lasagna flooded with cheese). I remember what they said or didn’t say.

So even though I had done my calculations for years now, believing that Jim and I could figure out a way to live on less—I could hear my ever-practical depression-era mother asking me endless questions: “How will you pay all your bills?” “Do you want to give up $300 more dollars a month in pension money?” “Will you be able to set up classes?”

Then there was the other side—my husband and sister’s voices: “We’ll be fine” “Take care of your neck” “You’ll find classes to teach.”

In the end I did retire at 61—but not really retire. I have set up many classes. I’m writing every week. We sold one car. We have students living with us. We have a house and enough to eat.

But sometimes I imagine my mother shaking a finger at me—(if I spend too much on a credit card or live beyond my means). My father paces every once in a while—but mostly he’s happy to see birds fly by or read words shaped by the cumulus clouds that float endlessly in the upper realms where they now live.

I’ve made my decision and it’s the right one. I’m a member of the SF Writer’s Grotto and today I’m writing—one of the main reasons I left my job—to write more.

I don’t need to ask permission any longer though I think my mother has given me some advice during the night. “Stop spending so much money on chai lattes,” she said when I was sleeping. “And take your lunch to work with you!” “And sew buttons on that coat. You don’t need a new one!”

“Yes, Mother,” I say. Though I think I will slip out the door for a chai latte later on.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Retirement: The Courage to Leave the Habitual for the New

As a community college instructor for over 27 years (many years in the same school), I had my parking place—the one I always hoped to get if I got there early enough (by 9 a.m. at the latest). I would drive down the small serpentine road behind Batmale Hall (a prison-like building—home to the English Department) and park. Sometimes, I would see the same faculty member park at the same time. I often saw one women who walked her two leaping dogs; another walked a dog that had lost its back legs, but with a special contraption the dog was able to move up and down the small sidewalk and smell the flowers, lift its leg and pee.
My office was on the 3rd floor (away from the fray) but I would often go up to the 5th floor where there was coffee for a dollar and I would have a few moments with whoever happened to be there—“My child wore pajamas to school today,” a young mother/teacher said—“I spent the whole weekend grading and I have three batches left!” another said. I’d chat with the department secretary— about her daughter who was sick, or her other daughter’s day at kindergarten or the Xerox machine (always breaking down)—or check out the pastries or sometimes fresh fruit brought in by a faculty member. I needed those moments: they brought me into a community, however chaotic and fleeting it often felt as we all made our way across campus to different buildings. Sometimes the only non-student chats of the day were those few words exchanged between teaching 1A Transfer composition—or a night creative writing class where I often got coffee from “The Cart” and again chatted with those surrounding this small watering hole. Food has always drawn me to places!

It is the “watering hole” that I still miss—the talks about life/love/even death with those you have known—even if not deeply—for oh so many years. It takes courage to make the transition—leap into what can feel like the unknown. You have to give up that parking space—with all its easy familiarity.
Al Averbach worked as an editor for many years—and always wanted to write. He is now a published poet. He wrote to me about what it was like for him leading up to actually retiring—and talks about a slow phasing-out before he left his job completely.

In my work life—maybe for many born in the mid-forties and astounded by the sixties--I was almost famously stable. In early 2007, approaching 63, I had spent 30 years as a manuscript editor in just three work settings. It was work that suited me and made me feel useful. Never a planner or dreamer, or, for that matter, someone who took stock, I looked forward to vacations, but could always resume that habitual daily motion back to my desk and my manuscripts. That life just worked.

But now something had set in that I was slow to recognize. Sure, several co-workers had already left for another organization; sure, one whole small group had spun off to another setting. So some blanks had opened up around me, but (fixed as I was on the studies in hand and under way), I was slow to read them as signs. Now I wondered. Do I have to continue doing this same thing? What would happen if I don’t?

I still don’t know exactly what set off the flip in my perspective. There was some inner resistance, a real hesitancy, after all.
First, given our work-consumed culture, whose habits we’re prepared for from kindergarten on, there’s a freight of habit and inculcation, from punctuality on up, that would have to be set down and turned away from. I began to understand that I would have some other work to do . . . some great undoing was called for . . . and I had had no practice at learning it.
Second, to contemplate retiring wasn’t just to bring to an end my life as I knew it, day in, day out. It was, at nearly 63, to consider a decision that would tail me off in a single direction of a different order—toward the rest, and toward the end, of my life.

With these stakes, why such weak, paltry terms: retire, retirement? I didn’t like them, and there were no better near-synonyms. I actually found myself so short-handed for terms that I was angry. So I made one up—rezoom. I needed grounds for resumption of something left off long ago, and looked for them. For the previous 6 or 7 years I had begun composing poems, a practice I had given up for about 40 years, and had gotten several published. I began to feel I had finished an important phase in my life: My son was going to cycle in Europe while running his transcription business; my daughter was about to embark on her counseling/therapist career. My wife was still making a good salary at her work and liked working. And the recession hadn’t come upon us yet . . .

Even so, I “hedged” by choosing to transition slowly: “phased retirement.” A way for me to stick my head out the door from work, and keep a foot in, and see what it was like. I would work maybe 40% time. But then true writing appeared on the wall: our work group was going to be transferred from Berkeley to Sacramento, and subsumed into something else there. The only phase for me then, come late June 2007 was: out. And I took it, and have been in that phase since. Call it what one will, but one of its near-synonyms is “breathe.”

We all hope to “rezoom” as Al says and we often need to see that others before us have done this: left a long-time job and given up their parking place to someone else. I still miss seeing the dogs—but I see new dogs I had never seen before in my Glen Park neighborhood. I still miss all the chats but have new watering holes. Plus, I’m still teaching part-time so I have my students.

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Void

Perhaps one of the greatest fears of retiring is THE VOID. What do we go to next? Some definitions of the void contain the words useless, ineffectual, devoid, destitute--perhaps we imagine ourselves with no money pushing a shopping cart--though "There but for fortune" sometimes plays in my brain. We do the best we can at planning. We are grateful for our health.

But in reality, there are no voids. Ask my husband who recently said he has so many house projects to do(from dry rot to the garden which has become his kingdom) that these tasks—could go on ad infinitum—or maybe ad nauseum(which ever suits the moment). People do fill up their time—whether it’s house projects, family, friends, community work, or plunging into something—like drawing or writing—that was started eons ago and can now surface and blossom.

For teachers/writers like me—who always wanted to write more and teach less—retiring was more about losing the company of colleagues and the company of my precious students—and less about what I would do. I joined the San Francisco Writer’s Grotto, walked five blocks from my house to the BART(the subway), carrying my backpack filled with computer, computer chord and a few hearty snacks, and now I’m there two days a week—writing. I did miss my colleagues though, especially at first. Sometimes I would look at new faces—the eyes, the smiles, the lines-- and search for the old. Sometimes I would imagine all the “hellos” echoing through the City College of San Francisco campus where I worked for 27 years. But the void was filled up with writing and now, also, part-time teaching—more of the teaching I want to do—memoir workshops—a women’s lit. class with NO PAPERS to grade(which spares my aching neck). There are still students in my life. And I also get together with colleagues that I still do miss. But I must say, that when you leave—and many of us who retire leave after feeling very, very tired and after so many years—those little chats along the serpentine road that surround City College—or the small moments you have with co-workers—will now be filed into memories. If you planned somewhat, you won’t be destitute—pushing a shopping cart. But perhaps it’s an empty shopping cart that you see before you. What do you fill it with?

My advice would be to take some time if you don’t know what to do. Something will appear—a stray cat in your doorway who needs to be cared for—a young person who needs a tutor after school—a call from a dear old friend who wants to visit and now you have some time to show her around—and maybe a practice—yoga, walks, and reading. And for me—besides my writing and teaching--well my husband has been leaving the middle deck up to me to care for: he even got me some herbs and even planted them for me.(Hint, hint). I would take care of them—we would have fresh herbs for our meals.(See the use of “would”) “I have the back garden to care for,” he said. “This is yours.”
Today, finally, a New York City transplant who would rather be reading than watering— now I think I will finally water those herbs—fill my void with something new.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Getting to the Finish Line

Over the past few months, five people I have known have died---two were in their eighties but two were in their sixties(my decade of life right now). One friend now has metastatic cancer. She has been posting pictures of herself on Facebook--from a beautiful wide-eyed child in Ireland, to her now still beautiful thinning visage with a huge head of curly white hair and an endearing smile. The last picture was on Mother's Day with her daughter, both with their cheeks touching, her daughter's eyes, sad and a bit terrified. After all, it is a mother who first tethers you to this earth.
We don't know what the "finish line" of our lives will be--or how the energy of our lives, our atoms will live after we die. But we can, at least some of us can, make choices--when to leave our jobs--where to live--how to live, perhaps, more cheaply some place else. I know that when my body felt depleted- in those five months before retiring---I didn't want to get sick early. But at the same time, I was afraid I would get sick--before I had this chance of a new life.

I wanted time to enjoy the last decades(or however long it will be) of my life without the constant pressure of grading papers. I would feel small lumps--and bumps--those growths that seem to sprout more when you get older. My almost 15 year old dog, for instance, has big lumps on her ears. "Just part of the aging process" the Vet says, feeling that it's still movable and not growing. But I would, at times wonder if I would make it. I didn't want to die on the job.

My husband, six years older,left his job a couple of years before I left mine. We were both going to work longer--me until 63 at least and he until 70 but we both had to get out when we did. Jim would come home and say he had to talk himself through the day. "Now I'm filling out the forms. Now I'm putting on the coffee." The brain was drained, the body felt like it was following. He checked off days on the calendar, making big X's like a homesick boy at summer camp. He says this:

"Once I had set a definite date for my retirement, I became plagued with the fear that death or disability might strike me down before I could reach the goal I had labored for. Though I was in excellent health, thoughts of heart attack, stroke, or a fatal accident haunted my "final days" of work. It didn't help to acknowledge those fears as irrational. What mattered most was that after 54 years of paying into Social Security, I was going to be stopped short of the finish line. Whoa to the wage slave, who doesn't receive his or her pittance."

But he did get to retire. He goes on hikes, visits museums, does his art work--lately Egyptian hieroglyphs, follows his beloved team, The San Francisco Giants, reads and does a lot more house repairs than he had expected to do. He cooks for the student who lives with us. And I got to retire, as well, though I teach and write both part time. We're going to Pt. Reyes this Thursday, a typical work day-- a beautiful hiking area filled with water, birds, and spectacular views.

Sometimes, when those fears surface--it's good to take a deep breath and visualize--the healthy body--all the cells humming in perfect harmony. And perhaps, remember, that even though people die-- babies are also being born.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Retirement Anxiety--Not at All!

A friend of my sister's, Susan, taught art in high school for many years in St. Thomas, the US Virgin Islands, where my sister, a life-coach and therapist, has made her home for many years. She was a dedicated teacher---helping her students constantly--both inside and outside the classroom. But when she turned 65 and made the decision to leave her job, except for some minor anxieties about health care--she was ready to go.

Here is what she wrote:

Retirement Anxiety?

I remember marking the date of my intended retirement on a 12-month calendar hanging in the classroom where I taught. I would be 65 and that seemed a reasonable age at which to leave the teenagers with my hand picked replacement, a lovely young woman who was recommended by my university advisor in Tennessee. My retirement became a necessity when my husband suffered a subdural hematoma and needed my assistance during his recuperation, so I never really had any doubts that I had made the right choice. We had spent the previous five years caring for my mother who passed away at the age of 102, allowing us to take vacations together again.

Perhaps I had a bit of anxiety figuring out the health insurance options, but with Medicare kicking in and my government insurance as supplemental coverage; it all fell into place.

Do I miss being in the classroom? No. Do I miss the kids? Yes, but I see them on facebook. Do I miss writing lesson plans, attending staff meetings, dealing with disciplinary problems? Are you kidding? Am I bored? No. Do I lack direction? No. Am I enjoying being retired from teaching? A resounding YES!