Book Baggage

A few days ago I was chatting with a prospective graduate student. She would be applying in the fall of 2017, not this year. And as she rose to leave my office I said (automatically, as I do to every possible recruit), “Be sure to stay in touch and come by again when you are ready to apply.” This time, however, I had to pause, caught be surprise, then add, “but there will be a new graduate director to talk with next year.”

It is coming at me, in small ways, like in the exchange with this student. As Dr. Seuss told Marvin K., “the time has come. . . .” Next September I will not only not be the department’s graduate director, I will not be the department. And that is beginning to feel like the right choice.

So, what are the next steps as I phase into retirement? At the top of the “leaving the department” to-do list: I must find a home for the office library. It can’t move to my house, where there is already a library. No point in offering it to the VT library. Our library is dispensing with books altogether – they have begun to move almost all books to an off-campus storage facility from which we can “order” books and have them brought to our offices in a day or so (browsing is not an option). The library is being renovated as a huge meeting space and study hall. Desks and comfy chairs and lounges replace shelves lined with wisdom and knowledge (a curmudgeonly comment, for sure).

But getting back to the problem of how to clear out twenty-some years of the office collection. The advice of retired friends and colleagues: open the door and invite grad students to rummage and leave with armloads of treasures; use the department’s “free books” hall shelf; give what’s left to the public library and Literacy Volunteers book sales. As I think through this plan I hear my mother’s horrified voice, honed in the years of the Great Depression, “You will just give them away?!” Yes Mom, because books are no longer the valuable assets they once were, to be passed from generation to generation (just as, and the sarcasm kicks in, your extensive collection of glassware picked up at flea markets and garage sales, was not a secure retirement investment, it was just your hobby). The books and Marvin K. have to “go” and “go now.”

Soon after my exchange with the MA recruit, I unloaded the first office shelf to reload on the hallway “free books” shelf. No regrets when some of them left the office—they represented courses once taught, projects that never came to fruition, and impulse buys that should have stayed in the store. Others, however . . . gave me pause. Like lost loves rediscovered, those books engulfed me in memories. Where was I when I read this one? What was I doing when that one crossed my path? Can I part with a book that once brought such intellectual excitement even if it hasn’t come off the shelf in two decades? Or must I hold on for a few more years to these reminders of the life once led?

Perhaps letting go of books is a metaphor for retirement, a process rather than a project, something that will happen over time, many times and not just once. With that thought, today I will weed through another shelf, indulging myself in memories, and holding on to the best.

Weighing the Transitions in a Life

When I began this blog I wanted to use it to record “observations” about the start of old age, the approach of retirement, and what these changes mean – to me, to others, and in history. In 2014, the observations were infrequent. Deciding to postpone retirement for a few years made the reflective project less urgent, even though the changes kept creeping into consciousness. Recently I’ve been thinking again about when and how to retire, and also about how we mark and celebrate transitions like retirement. There’s the proverbial gold watch, the retirement party, the application for Social Security benefits, the plans for moving to a new location or a smaller home, or moving on to a second career. In a description of the year preceding her retirement (“The Forever Professors,” Chronicle of Higher Education, Nov. 21, 2014) Laurie Fendrich wrote of her awareness of “the last time,” the bittersweet feelings aroused as she finished with talking to a class of students, grading an exam, going to a department meeting… Cognizance of the many last times foreshadowing retirement is surely one of the rituals marking this transition.

Yet, as I look back on the major transitions in my life over the past 50 years, I do not remember thoughts of the “last time” as markers of change. Rather I’ve become aware that each of my transitions has involved weight! Occasionally weight gain, as in pregnancy, but more significantly, weight loss. Dieting…that is something I associate with the big changes of divorce, applying for that first tenure-track job, and now, retirement.

I thought the determination to focus on food and exercise this past summer and fall were related to the potential for health problems revealed by the last annual blood analysis. Underlying this immediate “threat,” however, I now see this decision to diet as a powerful change-coping strategy. Every transition, including my preparation for retirement, involved feelings of loss as well as an awareness of possibilities. Apparently, accepting and assimilating those feelings requires that I visualize them – on the bathroom scale. I am turning each loss recorded by the digital readout into a symbol of what will be gained from this impending transition.

As I write these thoughts, I wonder if I am alone in calculating transitions in body weight. It requires more effort than accepting a gold watch, but the gains promised are so much greater. (And that includes an excuse for a new wardrobe!)