Home My Vegetable Love Weathering Winter Taking Retirement Letters to Kate The Made-Up Self Essayists on the Essay A Self Made of Words
February 21, 1997

Retirement. I've been phasing into it slowly, gently (three years at three-quarter time, two years at half-time), so I figured it would be an easy transition when the no-time time begins a few months from now. I'd step into my new life so well-prepared for it that I'd hardly miss my old one. Just a simple matter of putting one foot in front of another on my way to the brave new world of AARP-the American Association of Retired Persons. As a retired person-a retiree-I'd no longer feel the old compulsions to go into the office, check the mail, chat with my colleagues, confer with my students, or do any of the other things I've been doing the past forty years. I'd hang out instead in my attic study, overlooking the back yard, and watch the seasons unfold. But just to make sure I didn't go to seed, I'd keep a hand in by teaching one of my favorite courses in the nonfiction writing program that I used to direct-a course in prose style, or the personal essay, or the art of the journal. One course a year-just enough to keep in touch with the students, keep myself stimulated, and keep my office too. But without any of the hassle.

No more department meetings, no more committees, no more salary reviews. Free at last! Free to tend my garden for the rest of my days. Free to read what I want, write when I want, teach when I want, go fishing, visit the children and grandchildren. And travel with Kate to all those alluring places in the glossy brochures that clutter our mail box every spring and fall. Hike Macchu Picchu, explore the Galapagos, take a villa in Tuscany, tour the Holy Land, visit the Forbidden City, and behold the Great Barrier Reef. No wonder I chose to retire at 65 rather than 70. Especially with more to spend than if I were working full time-thanks to Social Security and forty years of investment in TIAA-CREF, otherwise known as Teachers Insurance Annuity Association and College Retirement Equities Fund. My pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

The only problem is that some of my plans began to change, and not by choice, when I stopped in a few weeks ago to visit my colleague Paul, who now directs the nonfiction program. The minute I sat down and started to discuss my teaching plans for next year, I could see the smile on Paul's face beginning to droop. When I asked him what was wrong, he told me that our department chair, Dee, had been fretting about low enrollments in some of our nonfiction courses, especially given the recent additions to our nonfiction staff. So, as he explained it, there'll probably be no chance for me to teach a course next year or any other time in the near future. No room for me, no need for me. No fault of Paul's or of Dee's, but those words rang and rankled in my head as I listened to him review the numbers, just the way I'd advised him to do when I passed him the baton a few years ago. As he leaned back in his office chair, ticking things off with his fingers, it dawned on me that I'd not been keeping track as closely as I used to. It also dawned on me that I'd soon have fewer professional options than I'd imagined. I too was ticking things off.

Then I found out from Dee that the department will be short of office space for several more years. So, I'll probably have to give up the office I've had the past twenty-five years-my office overlooking the river-and take up residence in "the emeritus suite," a three-room ghetto for retired professors overlooking the parking lot. A place so crammed with metal lockers and similar amenities that only one or two of my retired colleagues has ever used it. Once upon a time, everyone kept their offices as long as they wished, so the department was like an extended family, and retirement was not like an eviction notice. But now I might be evicted altogether, for the emeritus suite, as I discovered just a few days ago, has been converted into office space to house our visiting professors and the department's honors program. Talk about being out of touch! You'd think I was already retired, given how little I know about what's been going on around the building while I've been phasing-in. Or phasing-out, to put it more accurately. And not just out of my office, but also out of the community of my colleagues.

Out of it, just at the moment when a new person's coming into the nonfiction program who's sure to be a wonderful colleague-a person who'll fill the vacancy created by my departure and so in a sense will be my replacement. Though I met Sara just a few days ago during her campus interview, I've been hearing about her from members of the search committee, also from my longtime friend and former colleague Bob, who's directing her doctoral work at Brown and sang her praises in a recommendation that's exuberantly over the top-"She can charm bees from flowers and words from dictionaries." Last summer, I exchanged a few e-mails with Sara about her thesis on the essay-the subject of my own study the past twenty years-and just from that exchange I was buzzing about her too. Then a few weeks ago, I looked at her teaching materials and noticed that she's offered courses not only on the essay but also on prose style, covering some of the same material that I've been dealing with the past forty years. And doing it with more pizzazz, though she's only been teaching a few years. A lot more pizzazz, as I could see from watching her run a two-hour workshop a few days ago. The room was abuzz when she finished. So when the department met yesterday afternoon to consider our two job candidates, I could hardly contain myself as I waited to make a strong closing statement for Sara-even though she hasn't yet finished her doctoral thesis and several people are worried about bringing in someone without a degree in hand. I don't think I've given such an impassioned talk since my heart attack twelve years ago-so impassioned I could feel the pulse throbbing in my temples.

Only then in the flush of my excitement about Sara did I realize that I'd delivered my valedictory-that I'd probably never have another occasion to address the whole department. And only then did I realize that I was far less ready for retirement than I'd supposed-that I have, in fact, such mixed feelings about giving up the classroom, my office, and the community of my colleagues and students that I thought I'd better start keeping a dairy. A diary where I can deal with the bittersweet feelings I'm experiencing even now as I sit up here in the attic writing this piece. A diary that might help me through this suddenly dismaying phase-in-phase-out-and beyond. For I don't want my final day of teaching, just a few months from now, to be a day of mourning. I want to take retirement rather than feel as if it's taking me unawares. Maybe even seize it joyously. But at least behold it without looking back so longingly that I turn into a pillar of regret.

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