Thursday, June 25, 2009

Read this book: Women Confronting Retirement: A Non-traditional Guide

I recently recently discovered Women Confronting Retirement: A Non-traditional Guide, a collection edited by Nan Bauer-Maglin and Alice Radosh. The book has helped me think through my approach to my retirement years.

The contributors are mostly white, middle class professional women. For the most part, these are women who can afford to finance (at the least) a modest retirement. They all write well and their stories are sometimes gripping.

No surprise, I was most interested in accounts of retired teachers. They confirmed my belief that teachers are especially well equipped to deal with the unstructured time of retirement. We have invested a lifetime in reading, writing, learning--self-directed pursuits which can be engaged in independent of institutional affiliation.

Also since we’ve had so much time off, we’ve had a lot of practice for retirement. One of my more cynical colleagues said to me: "Why are you retiring? You have a 3 day schedule for 28 weeks of the year. That leaves plenty of time for all the things you want to do. Why give up the paycheck?"

Well, my answer is similar to Phillipa Kafka's, in her essay, “Afterthoughts:”

Rather than subject my students to what I had observed some of my older colleagues doing after they had “lost it”—teaching only for their paycheck and to have some place to hang out every day, I determined to retire as soon as possible.(p.234)

It’s not so easy to stay engaged for decades and I was struck by how many of the former teachers felt the job had changed since the early days when they were in love with their work. Susan Radner focuses on changes in her relationship with her students:

As I entered my fifties and sixties, I had to change my approach in the classroom and make political connections for them. Although most students seemed eager to learn about the feminist literature I was teaching in all my classes, they were very passive, in glaring contrast to the activist students of previous generations. (p.222)

And it’s not just the students who have changed. Susan Radosh’s describes younger faculty as less politically engaged:

Individual career paths replaced concern for those without power—students, support staff, junior faculty. Feminism became an adornment rather than a life-motivating force. Smartly dressed young women fought for the goodies—courses, promotions—while at the same time mouthing feminist ideas by now cliché….In a sign that my life had come full circle, I again found myself isolated in committee meetings and group discussions. I just didn’t see things the way the others did. Thus in ways big and small, I came to feel that I had outlived my usefulness.(p.223)

Others, such as Lanie Melamed focus on the institutional changes which drove them to retire:

In the early nineties, class sizes escalated, faculty ranks and student-centered programs were downsized, and computers were marking student papers. Excellence in teaching became a fading objective as universities hungered for research monies to replenish disappearing funds. Soon after I retired, my colleagues were facing classes of 65 to 140 students. This was anathema to my views of effective teaching and learning, requiring performance-style lecturing with little opportunity for small group work and interactive class discussion. (p.297-8)

For those like me who have spent most of their teaching career in one institution, a powerful motivator was the desire to do something different in the time they have left. Diane Horwitz who spent 30 years as a community college sociology teacher writes:

I spent two hours of the work day driving, often through snowy Chicago winters. Five, sometimes six classes each semester produced hundreds of papers to grade; after the first ten, I would grow weary. The college offered just two or three different sociology courses, so I often repeated Introduction to Sociology four times a day. While each class presented new challenges, I ached for variety.(p. 166)

As I read these essays, I was struck by how temperament (more than anything else) seemed to color the writers’ feelings about retirement. Some clearly have those sunny, resilient temperaments I’ve always admired and envied. It’s what my husband refers to as the Aunt Sally temperament. We visited my husband’s Aunt Sally in her nursing home when she was in her mid-nineties. She greeted us as cheerfully as always and said, “Well, I don’t know who you are but I feel like I should know you. But that’s okay; I’m so happy you stopped by. Isn’t it a lovely day?”

Chances are if you were an Aunt Sally when you were young, you’ll be one when you’re old. Some of the writers, like Dorothy Kapstein Hammer have Aunt Sally’s upbeat disposition:

Any remorse? Yes, there are always some do-overs in our heads and hearts, but at this stage I try to replace them with what is doable and gives me pleasure. I celebrate what I have done and seen, what I can still do, and what I look forward to doing. So what is this thing called retirement”? It can be a joy or a bugaboo, depending on how you view it. I believe I’ve retired to more free time to do the things I love without stress and although I am clearly slowing down, I’ve tailored myself a work-and-play ethic that is rich and rewarding. It truly makes for retirement without regrets. (p.310)

Similarly, Ida Henderson writes:

To those already retired, I say, “It’s a big world, follow your passion and seize every moment. Come on in, the water’s fine. Can’t swim? Don’t worry; there’s always someone willing to coach you.” In conclusion, I have to say I have been truly blessed with good health, a loving family and an abundance of sincere and caring friends.
I am always ready to seize the day and follow my passion! (p.316)

Others have a melancholic streak which I suspect they’ve always had. Carol Gamin writes:

I know, upon reflection, that the imminence of death colors the choices and activities of later life, just as surely as does frailty or illness. What I want to do is not let it take over. I want to benefit from the shadows by appreciating light and color and beauty and sound and love more. I want my physical senses and my spiritual appetites to be whetted by the approach of death.(p.310)

I’ve had similar thoughts but never expressed them so well. For me, keeping the melancholic streak at bay is my major challenge in retirement. I do not fear unstructured time. I’ve always been the busy little beaver, developing new course, new projects, and building new organizations. There are more activist projects/writing projects than I’ll ever have time to complete. There are so many books to read, languages to learn, friends to re-connect with—-not to mention all my garden projects.

I am not worried about too much time on my hands. I am worried about thoughts of the future—aging, illness, loss, death-intruding on present happiness. Aunt Sally would never have let that happen. So I am trying to cultivate whatever inner Aunt Sally I might have.

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