Congratulations

Seems I am collecting expressions of “congratulations” on my retirement. Does anyone know why at retirement we are congratulated? I know a part of the answer lies in the simplicity; it’s a commonplace, a go-to response, easy to toss out requiring scant engagement with the sentiment it conveys. I’ve used it that way myself as I expect most of us have. Now, however, as I absorb another “congratulations,” I’m drawn to wonder what that word means, particularly in the retirement context. Isn’t the recipient of congratulations someone we honor? A college graduate, for example. What is the honor bestowed on those who retire? What makes the retiring professor worthy of congratulations? Is it that the “congratulations” are meant to be followed implicitly by “you’ve earned it.” It that’s the case, what do the congratulators think I’ve earned?

Maybe they see retirement as release from the host of troubles that beset the working professor? No more grading, no more class preps, no more tedious faculty meetings, no more demands for evidence of “productivity.” To be sure, I’m feeling rather joyous at the moment about shedding these responsibilities! Since most of my congratulators are not yet retired perhaps they mean to say, “you’ve earned my envy.” The congratulator congratulates to acknowledge her own slavery and in anticipation of her own freedom. “Congratulations, now you can do what you’ve always wanted to do and what I must continue to postpone?”

Or more cynically, is it “congratulations, you are getting out of the way of the rest of us?” “Congratulations, we have earned your spot.” This, I sense, is a bit of the sentiment behind the demand that I clear out my office asap though I am still, technically, a university employee until September 1. My office, while not the largest in the department, is still prime real estate. Once my office is empty, the office shuffle can take place . Though a possible meaning, my dictionary would rank this one far down the list of definitions for retirement congratulations.

Perhaps “congratulations” is intended to acknowledge that the retiree has reached her goal, made it to the end, and earned a victory in life’s race. “Congratulations, you’ve finished the race and earned a medal or a title.” Well, yes, I’ve received the equivalent of a retirement medal and I hope the university will bestow a new title of “emeritus.” But, I know. if others do not, that the race goes on and the “congratulations” can mark only the completion of one lap. More laps must be run before the race is over.

Is it “congratulations, you’ve earned a simpler life?” Retirement seems to suggest I’m about to enter a less stressful stage with fewer demands on my time and energy. (See above, definition #1.) I hope this is true, though as I do battle with the paperwork of Social Security and Medicare and plan for the RMD from my TIAA account, I have my doubts! Simpler also suggests that life can now be sustained by “less.” As the retirement finance books point out, I no longer need “professional” clothes so wardrobe maintenance will be much easier. Simplicity can be achieved in part by downsizing. Congratulations, you’ve earned the right to purge your home of decades of accumulated research note “fat.” (Good lord, yesterday I purged research material used for my MA thesis. These folders of notes were carted to four new homes but never once looked at. If this is the simpler life I’ve earned, I am so ready for it.) Have I earned the right to move into less demanding digs…Congratulations, are you staying in Blacksburg, in a house that complicates the simple life with its demands for constant maintenance? Congratulations, that simpler life will certainly be less taxing for you as you age into retirement.

I sense, however, that for the already retired congratulator “congratulations” signifies that I’ve earned the secret password…I’ve become one of them, even if I’m not yet privy to all the rituals of the sorority and haven’t learned all the rules. To them I am a newbie, still on probation as I figure out the demands of retirement. Congratulations, then, means “Welcome aboard and we’ll wait for you to get your sea legs.”

Whatever the intent of the congratulators, the message I hear is not one of condolences. All those who offer their congratulations let me know through this word that as I am losing parts of my identity, I am also gaining others. In a sense, I am like the college graduate. Something has come to an end and the “congratulations” promise a future that as a new graduate with a degree in retirement I am now free to mold. So, thank you, one and all, for the congratulations! I am banking your messages for times when the winds of retirement might blow cold.

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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.

Call It What It Is

Yesterday, while reading the news, I was amused by a story about the various names that have been hurled at the President. Cheeto and CheezWiz about his tan, titles involving hair, and the one that made me sputter at last week, when a PA state representative called him a loofa-faced shit gibbon. I have laughed at Alec Baldwin on SNL and I am entertained daily by the humor late night comedians find in the behavior of the current administration. Humor has often been the only source of stress relief in the past few weeks. But I am about to call it quits, though not because I have been converted to respect for the antics of this administration. Rather, the humor that has pushed me up to the edge is framed around age.

Just this week I’ve seen two comedic skits intended to turn the President into a laughing stock, including one by Trevor Noah on the Daily Show. Both feature age as the source of distain for Donald Trump. In one he appears  as an addle-brained old man dressed in the white bathrobe and asking questions meant to suggest he suffers from dementia. Then today a news article suggests that as our leaders age we should consider instituting annual mental evaluations along with those annual physicals since loss of mental facilities characterizes the elderly. “Old” has to encapsulate the belief that this President is unfit to govern, govern either himself or the nation. And I’m beginning find unacceptable the use of age as humorous code for incompetence.

For sure, at age 70 this president has lived a long life. He could have been one of my high school classmates, and many of them have already passed on. While some are clearly not in the best of health, others of us are working and feeling like spring chickens, to quote my grandmother’s favorite description of the active elderly. Trump has had a long life, for sure, but I do not think age is the reason we should challenge his fitness to govern. Using age to demean this President, is, I fear, not far different from using race to call into question the intelligence of #44. And, it makes me uncomfortable – uncomfortable because I’m quite sure Trevor Noah would be incensed by racist or sexist characterizations, and I know we were appalled during the campaign by the candidate’s mocking of a reporter with a disability. Yet somehow, ageism remains fair game. It was, to be sure, fair game for this president in his name-calling of Hillary Clinton. I didn’t like it then and I don’t like it now. And, turnaround should not be fair play when it comes to name-calling. A Cheeto, perhaps, tiny fingered, maybe, an autocrat, quite likely, but I will not use age to define and condemn this President. Because, I do not want to be defined only by the number of birthdays I’ve celebrated and neither, I suspect, do most in my generation. Age is not the problem we confront in this President; mocking his age demeans us as a resistance. To represent the values of tolerance and inclusion, it behooves us to challenge ageism in all its guises, even if it means limiting our name-calling to shit gibbon.

Rage

This is a post about trying to process impending retirement when up is down and right is wrong and in is out and there are even fewer guarantees than before. My words written on the day of the inauguration – anticipation and trepidation – need updating. I can no longer anticipate any joy in retirement. Instead I foresee a protracted battle to protect Constitutional rights and protest the atrocities coming out daily as Executive Orders. A horrible bargain has been forged between Congressional Republicans hell bent on rolling back the meager semblance of a security net the United States once provided its vulnerable citizens, including its elderly, retired citizens, in the name of establishing a theocracy and an administration intent on creating what more and more looks like the beginnings of a fascist dictatorship.

I wonder exactly what path a transitioner can follow in this chaos. When I marched in a sister march on the 21st, my sign read “One Pissed Off Grandma Marching for her Grandkids’ Future.” I thought then (foolishly as it turns out) we were all playing by the same rules. That is clearly not the case when Departments are gutted and silenced, when government is by fiat, and when Russian and German historians point daily to the signs of history repeating itself. More and more,I despair as I look forward and search for a way to answer “what is to be done.”
In this despair, I am drawing comfort and guidance from the words of
the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

I can, and I must rage in old age, not against dying, but against the dying of the light that should shine brightly for all our children and grandchildren. This is not the 1960s all over again…it is far, far worse. I hope millions in retirement will “rage” with me and our rage should definitely not be “gentle.”

(I looked for a link to this poem – there are several, but they seem to come with ads for fighting belly fat, etc, etc, etc. So I”ll just advise you to look it up, read the poem, pretend poetry didn’t come with advertisements, and appreciate.)

Anticipation and Trepidation: Synthesizing the Transitioner’s Emotions

That tingly feeling you sometimes get when about to open a special present. Excitement, glee, expectation – the emotions of anticipation were circling around me as I approached the start of a new, and my last semester. The process was the same – syllabus to create, classes to plan, students to contact. Yet, this week is the last time I will have to complete these tasks. I know I will miss the students…I don’t think I will not miss the administrative work associated with teaching them!

As I engage with this final semester, change is in the wind at Virginia Tech: new ways to teach and evaluate students, new majors that cross and erase disciplinary boundaries, new record-keeping programs, new standards for faculty productivity, and a new generation of colleagues for whom these changes will structure their work life for many years. At times it seems as though I’m escaping at just the right time, before I have to adapt to a new university culture. And the prospect of avoiding adaptation is surely part of my glee.

But emotions are never entirely straightforward experiences, are they? If glee is my thesis then trepidation is the antithesis. Because, in shedding the university’s culture of new policies and procedures I’m also about to join and participate in the culture of retirement – a step necessitating its own accommodations to change.

While the university’s new culture seems too much to absorb, too much to accommodate, the impending new culture of retirement still has a wrapped-birthday-present feel. I wonder what I will find when in May I tear off the paper and bows and open the box. Yesterday I heard an old, familiar tune . . . “Que Sera Sera.” As I hummed along, I realized the complacency of the song was not as compelling as it once was. What will be in retirement, will be what I work to create. Though partial to “the familiar” I do not want retirement to generate a resistance to change, an inability to adapt, respond to, and create “the new.”

I can’t end this post on January 20 without a comment on the anxiety about retiring that’s been produced by the recent election and the likely changes the new administration is likely to bring to the support system that should be the birthright of all. Here is another place where “Que Sera Sera” is an intolerable philosophy. The emerging politics of retirement and old age are going to necessitate constant vigilance. And not just retirement politics. With the possibility of calamity on so many fronts, the final stages of life are not likely to be peaceful for many of us now anticipating retirement. As I bring this work life to a close, I want to reclaim, as part of my retirement, an identity forged in youth during a time of anti-war protest, civil rights marches, and feminist outrage, and add to it now a greater awareness of age as a barrier to unity. When I unwrap my retirement package may it contain a gift of remembrance as well as a present of future opportunities.

Finding My Way to Retirement: The Journey of a Transitioner

Last month the Chronicle of Higher Education asked me to reflect on the retirement process.  Below is my essay, appearing along with several other pieces on this subject,  in the Dec. 2,2016 issue of “Commentary.”

On my 65th birthday I began to ponder the prospect of a future without the academic identity that had taken decades to construct. It was a disconcerting moment. I had watched my parents pass into retirement and observed colleagues leaving my department, some reappearing occasionally over the next few years, others never to be seen again. Until that birthday, however, I had given little thought to life beyond work and what “career culmination” would entail. I knew I was not yet ready to give up the academic life, yet I also knew that, despite the absence of a mandatory retirement age, I had reached the point at which I should take seriously a future in retirement – to professionals in the field, I had become a “transitioner.”

Turning 65 also coincided with my interest in using blogs as tools for teaching. Partly to model a web presence for a class of students, partly to evaluate the value in blogging, I set up “The Retiring Professor” to record my passage out of work and into retirement. My angst is apparent in early entries; my questions seemed endless. For a historian attuned to the social construction of the stages of life, someone who had built a career researching and writing about the identities adults create for children, I found I knew very little about the identity associated with retirement, or how it was constructed. For sure I’d given little thought to designing a retirement identity for myself.

Intuitively I subtitled my blog “transitioning” to retirement, perhaps to postpone the identity project. Only later did I become aware of the significance of the subtitle I adopted. Retiring is, indeed, a journey, not a calendar date. I’ve found it to be a process that involves preparation on many levels and one that could be eased somewhat if university policies were easily accessible. For transitioning through different academic levels, from tenure to full professor, policies are publicized and mentoring workshops are taught by those who have gone through the process. In contrast, identifying information about how to provide my department chair with a formal announcement of the date for my retirement required some determined sleuthing, since even the faculty handbook does not contain a section dedicated to the process of retiring.

Sleuthing eventually led me to the university’s Office of Human Relations where HR professionals support workshops and webpages about retirement. HR’s workshops emphasize financial planning and aim to address the savings concerns of younger employees. Only the workshop on “emotional readiness” is directed toward those of us thinking about retirement in the immediate future. “Retirees Corner,” HR’s retirement website, offers links to advice on Medicare and a video about Social Security. And, it lists the amenities I’ll be entitled to as a retired employee. I am glad to know that I will have free parking, can continue to use my .edu email address, and will have library privileges; I am saddened there is no mention of office space, library carrels, or even a campus lounge for former employees. More to the point, the “Retirees Corner” does not address the transitioner’s need for information about policies and procedures. Nor does “Retirees Corner” give transitioners a place for virtual interaction with HR staff or a space to engage virtually with other transitioners. To address this transitioner’s myriad concerns, I would have found useful something as simple as a virtual bibliography of recommended readings and websites.

If information accessibility has been one source of frustration for “The Retiring Professor,” a second has been my heightened awareness of the cultural meanings of retirement and the attitudes that shape interactions between generations. Often I experience these attitudes as condescension, a benign, but emotionally painful discrimination that marginalizes faculty of a certain age. I see it in the HR workshop leaders who tell us what our experiences should be. This approach leaves me wondering why a workshop on “emotional readiness” is not led by someone for whom finding emotional readiness was once a quest. I see it in published columns about the future of the discipline where the unemployment of young scholars is linked to the failure of seasoned scholars to retire. I see it in the subtle use of infantilizing language – “Retirees Corner” for example. Are the readers consulting this page about to be punished, or simply pushed out of the way? And, in the use of “retiree” as an all-encompassing identifier. I see it too, in a widespread tendency to conflate retirement and the infirmity that often accompanies “old age.” The process of aging and the path to retirement may coincide but require different accommodations and hinge on different public and private identities. My career may be culminating but my life – not yet.

One solution to condescension could well be a policy of flexible or “phased” retirement. If my university offers such an option it is not publicized. Lacking an official option, I found myself designing an ad hoc five-year plan. Creating and maintaining the blog was certainly a part of my design for a phased retirement. As I wrote about my concerns and my research to address financing, knowing when to go, making the decision public, and coping throughout with the social construction of retirement, I was also announcing the intention to retire. As I blogged I also made decisions to scale back on teaching new courses, to ignore myriad university funding opportunities for new initiatives, to downsize my office library, to take on only the work that gave me pleasure, and to avoid discussions about the future of the department. Phasing was right for me; it has made retirement at the end this academic year, after 5 years of transitioning, a step I no longer approach with trepidation. And yet, the decision to phase into retirement is one I fear my junior colleagues do not view with such equanimity. What I see as a way to address energy limits while I do the emotional work that should precede retirement they may perceive as disinterest and lowered productivity. Without a university acknowledgement that faculty need to let go in stages, my colleagues are not able to both include transitioners and find ways to support the process of retiring.

The problems I’ve encountered while transitioning to retirement have been both cultural and structural. I have drawn a very personal map to help me navigate the journey; other professors will do likewise. The process could be simplified, the road made less bumpy, if universities acknowledge that culminating a career can be as difficult as starting one.

 

“Mem’ries”

“Mem’ries”…..cue Barbra Streisand…. “Light the corners of my mind.” I’ve been drawn to the past lately, and not just because I’m still teaching history to graduate students and writing about the history of childhood. As the future grows shorter (and impending retirement is surely playing a part in this observation) the past seems to have assumed a more lively role in this drama called life. More and more I catch myself recalling snippets of my past, triggered by, often I’m not sure what – a word, a tune, a smell, or just a misfiring synapse. Whatever the trigger, I’m drawn to see glimpses people, places, situations, feelings long, long buried. Sometimes the images are fleeting. They evoke no feeling and they are easily pushed back to the corner they came from. Other times….a brief snapshot is followed by a flood of emotion-laden memories. Listening to a Dolly Parton-Kenny Rogers duet was a recent trigger. Their “Old Friends” performance led to “Islands in the Stream” and that snapped me back to the 1980s and a few weeks spent with a very dear old friend in a small, very rural town in Alberta after the snow season had settled in

I cast different eyes now on the why of my escape to northern Alberta that winter. Though my understanding today is not the meaning I would have assigned three decades ago, it surely isn’t fiction. As I examine these snapshot memories I’m compressing nearly three decades of experiences into the review. My discipline teaches me that the present shapes the meanings found in the past; I recognize that my memories are both uniquely mine and not “unvarnished truths.” Instead they remind me of the connection between past and present, between who I am now and who I once was and there is a truth in that discovery.

These lighted corners don’t invite me to linger in the past. I’m always returned to here and now, walking toward and confronting whatever happens next. Perhaps the “lights” are there to help chart the road ahead, to the destination we all share but all arrive at differently.

Are these glimpses of the past a common phenomenon? It’s not an experience I associate with a younger me. I wish now that my parents had talked more about the experience of aging and their relationships with memories. Beyond, that is, telling me growing old was not for the faint of heart – their word was “sissies” (it was another generation).   I observed the changes in their lives and the memories they tried to share. But I did not understand them and never questioned them. And now I cannot. That thought is a trigger for regret. And perhaps it also opens a route for sharing with my daughter.

As I was ending this post, I pulled a book from the retirement bookshelf, just curious to see what I’d find by searching the index for “memories.” The book, Learning to be Old (2009) by Margaret Cruikshank, is one I’ve mentioned before and one whose critical stance toward the social construction of age I find quite thought provoking. Curiously, “memory” doesn’t show up in the index, though I am led to a few pages on “memoirs” and “life review.”

There Cruickshank describes the act of “re-membering” (coined by another gerontologist, Barbara Myerhoff). Re-membering, particularly through storytelling, is a process that gerontologists, like the “life review” scholar Robert Butler, believe can lead to “resolution, reconciliation, atonement, integration, and serenity” (49). Re-membering, therefore, is a deliberate choice with far greater significance than “ordinary recollection.” Are my snapshot memories easily dismissed as “ordinary recollections,” commonplace occurrences unconnected to the “re-membering” that constitutes life review? I think perhaps not. More likely they are the first stages of the research project, steps without which a “life review” will never be written.   For the moment, I’m going to enjoy occasionally discovering what’s in the lighted corner without the demands of “re-membering.” Later, when I am an old woman, I’ll “re-member.”