Marking Time

August 16. Preparing for the start of a new school year, sorting the desktop clutter that accumulated over the summer, filing away the .docx icons that sprout up and fill the screen no matter how careful I am about organizing files in folders. It’s an annual ritual that serves as one marker of the “beginning of the year.”   Among those files is one from May labeled “marking time.” Opening it exposes an unfinished blog entry, and as the new semester is about to begin, the questions pushed from consciousness over the summer are again jostling the psychic equilibrium.

May 16. Another semester is over. Another group of MA students have graduated. And the fall semester will bring another group to begin the cycle once again. It has been this way for me for more than two decades. Not as long as some of my colleagues who were not such academic late-bloomers, but long enough to count as one of life’s recurring patterns.   I’m struck by how ruled I am by this cycle of commencement and graduation. I plan other activities around this schedule. It’s the reason photos of visits with my grandkids are collected in albums labeled “Summer 20xx.” And so, as I ponder retirement I also ponder the years ahead not guided by such a rhythm. When I retire, when will my year begin? New Year’s Day? My birthday? The deadline for filing income tax forms? At the commencement of a knitting project? Will retirement years even have beginnings or does each month or day mark its own form of newness?   I am eager to hear how others mark time once no longer ruled by the semester system?   Does abandoning the academic cycle create a sense of freedom or a feeling of chaos? How have others navigated these waters?

September 16. Another semester, another year of teaching has begun. I continue to think about replacing in retirement the academic structure that has ruled life since age 5. I am committed to this job for two more years…and then what?

Today I am attending a Human Resources workshop on “emotional readiness for retirement.” When responding to questions about loss of structure, the workshop coordinator suggests that we make a pre-retirement plan, a to-do list that substitutes book club meetings, exercise dates, and Lifelong Learning Institute classes for the weekly teaching schedule.   Planning, she assures us, is key to an emotionally “successful” retirement.   What she means – we “pre-retirees” must search for and discover the hidden identity behind the active academic with research and teaching agendas that fill our days, weeks, and years. Once revealed, this subconscious identity (for decades it’s yearned to breathe free?) will guide retirement and generate its own sense of structure.

My mind balks at the idea – I do not want to re-experience adolescent identity angst.   And, I suspect that much like peeling away the layers of an onion only to find more onion at the center, I will find at my core only a historian. This revelation is not what the workshop coordinator has in mind. She is definite that I cannot achieve retirement “tenure” (or, a “successful” retirement) while holding on to a pre-retirement version of me. Little does she know that I am already picturing retirement emotional readiness as a tenure clock!

This planning business is going to be more complicated than expected. What I once framed in terms of financial readiness is now a psychological conundrum – the historian of psychiatry thinks perhaps she should hold on until a pill to help the retiree structure time hits the market. Big pharma should see a golden opportunity here and I’d bet the 403(b) plans would find it a profitable investment.


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