Separation Anxieties and Retirement Legacies

It’s done. I have signed the letter announcing my decision to “separate” from university employment on August 9.  I have completed my last semester of teaching, topped by shepherding two more graduate students to Master’s degrees. And, the department has hosted a retirement party, complete with a gift of shovels and fork for retirement gardening!

I am fascinated by this use of “separation” to describe the break between employment and retirement. If I were fired, I would be “terminated,” a word that suggests violent disruption. Separation, in contrast, has an emotional connotation that obscures the (crass) monetary work-for-wages component of my relationship with the university. It is a word that imparts to the retiring employee an obligation to express sadness about the split but also happiness about the impending freedom.  I have been in the throes of both emotions while tossing away mountains of notes used for teaching so many classes, and when opening my bookshelves to grad students who still seem to think the physical object of a book still holds value. Separation anxiety hangs in the air, and as I recycle paper and books it has me thinking about legacies and retirement plans. Is there a legacy left behind when a member of the faculty “separates?” Where am I going and will I create a new legacy in retirement?

How do we calculate the legacy of a retired faculty member? Books and articles published? Students mentored? Administrative reports written(definitely not, they seemed to disappear into a bureaucratic netherworld never to be heard from again)? What is it that departs with retirement and does any part of the retiree remain after the “separation.” As I reflect on what was left behind by those who retired before me, the notion of legacy seems far more complex than it once did.

In March, as I was signing my separation letter, my colleagues were meeting to decide on hiring priorities in light of two impending department retirements. I did not attend. My views on the shape of the faculty in the years to come seemed irrelevant – it is no longer be “my” department to design. Yet this meeting, and previous hiring plans I’ve helped structure over the years, seem to represent the legacies of retirement. They frame separation as a hole.   For sure, the legacy of the hole often seems appropriate as I empty the contents of office file drawers into recycle bins and contact a book buyer to remove what the graduate students left behind! Still, I’d like to think that there’s more to a legacy than a hole to be filled with new blood. (I’m having a bit of trouble keeping this metaphor going – new “dirt” doesn’t seem to capture the hopes for department change expressed by the legacy of the hole).   These hiring plans do not appear without context; they are framed by past faculty as much as they are symbolic of future growth.   Now, as I leave the department behind, I’ve come to think of the retirement legacy not as a hole but as a brick (or in my case, a “Hokie stone,” a reference only Virginia Tech faculty will appreciate).

Bricks, once they become part of a wall or an edifice, are embedded permanently. And so, I think, are the faculty who passed through the department. A wall is built brick by brick, new rows laid atop the base erase the individuality of the bricks below but not the necessity of their presence; a building (or a department) grows from the bottom up not the top down as new floors are added.  I may not know how my brick fits into the foundation of the VT history department and I see how bricks lose their individuality with the laying of each new row.   I am retiring, though, with the thought that perhaps I and other former faculty members leave a legacy greater than a hole the administration may or may not permit the department to fill. “Separation,” in erasing the legacy, hardly captures the meaning of retirement for the retiring professor or the professors left behind.

As I separate from work life, I face the prospect of framing a legacy from the retirement years. What comes next? A jumble of plans, goals, projects, activities, opportunities are cluttering a clear path to the future. Advice from my retirement mentors suggests the process of retirement is not completed on the day marked for separation and the path forward comes into focus only over time. I value that advice. Organizing the clutter of possibilities will be a part of creating a legacy for my retirement. For the moment, I look to the serenity in my gardens, leave the clutter behind, and contemplate only where I will use the gifted shovel.

Writing about legacies sounds so self-congratulatory, so full of hubris. (No doubt Mother would not want for the cutting words to slap me down!) I suspect it is my way to say that acknowledging that I’ve taken the last official step into retirement has been difficult. I began this column in March, when I submitted the separation letter. It is now three months later and it is still a post I struggle to finish.  Perhaps I should have opted for simplicity and stopped after “it’s done.”  Because, that really says it all.

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4 thoughts on “Separation Anxieties and Retirement Legacies

  1. I hope you’re not finished with this blog. I’d like to see how you manage the next phase of your life. Thanks for what you’ve shared so far.

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