But seriously

I missed my self-imposed Sunday posting deadline because we’ve been working non-stop to prep Cane’s house for sale, and then we took the weekend off to visit family five hours away. It was the first time to see any of them since Christmas 2019 (or earlier), and it was 10 hours of driving for about 5 wonderful hours of sitting together on a patio, eating and drinking and laughing and story-telling. And quizzing:

“So, what are you going to do now that you’re retired?”

“Do you think you’ll write now?”

“Are you looking for jobs?”

“How are you going to spend your time?”

I threw out non-comital answers I need to better hone: shrugs, “not sures,” “not burning to write anything,” “going to see how it goes.” I need to work on these responses because they don’t seem to stop these questions I’ve been fielding for weeks, which is what I’d like them to do. Finally, after the third or fourth time one cousin asked me some version of the “what are you going to do?” question, I tried a new response:

“I’m going to just be.”

Uncomfortable (for me) silence, that I rushed to fill with inanity. “I’m going to reach a higher spiritual plane,” I added, clearly self-mocking. (We are not a clan who says such things seriously.)

More silence. Finally, my cousin’s wife said, “No, but seriously: What are you going to do? You have to do something.”

And I felt something rise in me. Something hot and bothered and frustrated.

“Why?” I asked. “What if I don’t?” What I was thinking–and might have said some version of, but I’m not sure, because I was feeling all kinds of flustered–was: Do I have to do to have worth? Do I have to do for my life to have meaning? Do I have to do to be a good person?

To be clear: No one there was suggesting that I must do any particular thing to have worth. (Unconditional love and acceptance is the thing I appreciate most about my family.) My frustration was the culmination of weeks’ worth of such questions, as well as my own stuff around doing and achieving and worthiness. If anything, their questions were likely driven by how I have lived my whole life. Perhaps it was difficult for them to imagine me just being because it’s so antithetical to how I’ve always lived.

“You came out of the womb busy,” my mom once told me. “It was like you just had so many things to get done.”

Those of us around the patio were a collection of Boomers and Gen-Xers, with a handful of Zoomers running in and out of our scene. We have all been doing/working for most of our lives, since we were kids picking berries for pennies on the pound. One of my cousins is now raising her grandchildren; she’s been parenting non-stop for almost 50 years! While having a career. (Two of them, actually.)

Earlier in the conversation, there had been some castigation of our children’s generation, of some of their ideas and ways of being. Some of their questions and demands regarding work and life.

“They just don’t know what they don’t know,” someone said, and others concurred. I’ve said or thought this about others in various situations, and it can be true that not knowing what you don’t know is a significant problem. But it is not a problem reserved for the young.

“That’s probably true,” I said, “but is it possible that there are things we don’t know that we don’t know, that they do?”

Another silence.

All of us grew up in a family, in a social class, in an era when kids were supposed to do what they were told. (We often didn’t, but I never questioned that we should.) We were told that if we worked hard and acted right, life would fall into place. (And for all of us there that day, we mostly did and it mostly has.) We were working-class white kids growing up in a remote state where college tuition could be paid as we went, and housing and healthcare were affordable. I entered a profession that I knew would never make me wealthy, but would provide for my lifetime needs. When my children first began pushing back at some of my expectations and advice and world view, it frustrated and worried me. As I listened (to them and others), though, I came to understand that many things are not the same for our kids as it was for us. Our state is not the same. The world is not the same. As I have worked to see from others’ perspectives, I’ve been surprised by all that I didn’t know I didn’t know–by all I hadn’t considered or questioned. In the past five years I’ve wondered deeply about ideas I once took as universal givens or unchangeable truth. Like, for example, that our worth is tied to the value of our work. Or that education is the playing field leveler. Or that if we just work hard and act right, things will fall into place.

On the drive back home, we listened to Nice White Parents, a podcast series about all the ways in which white parents have undermined efforts to provide equal educational opportunities to black and brown children, sometimes with the best of intentions. As the series moved into the years that my career and parenting spanned, I felt such a weight in the pit of my stomach. I saw myself at various ages and stages in so many of those interviewed. I understood, in new ways, how unseeing I’ve sometimes been and how futile so many of my own efforts were and how toxic the system in which I worked has been not only to black and brown students, but to all of us who have lived within it. This was not new understanding; the series just added some layers to what I’ve already learned, reprising pain that comes from realizing how much you didn’t know that you didn’t know about things at the core of your life and identity.

What am I going to do now, knowing what I now do?

In my year-end reflection at work, I was asked to describe where I am in my equity journey, another question I found difficult to answer. The best I could come up with, finally, was this:

I’m at a rest stop, people-watching. I’m noticing who they are and how they seem. I’m still on the road, thinking about where I’ve been, planning where I want to go, building some reserves in order to keep moving.

This is where I am in general. This is what I am doing, am going to do. Action is not always our best option; if we find ourselves lost in the wilderness, the best thing we can do is stop. In recent years I have come to feel not only lost, but also exhausted. I am bone-weary from so many years of running hard uphill. Decades ago, a mentor counseled me that a career is a marathon, not a sprint. I was less than ten years in, and frustrated with colleagues who did not seem to want to grow and change at the pace I wanted all of us to.

“Some people are where you are,” he said, “charging forward. But others are in a place where they need to walk, or maybe even to step off the path and rest before they can get back to the run.” He paused.

“All of these places are OK,” he said. “I’ve learned to respect where people are.”

At the time, I wasn’t so sure, and I never really did learn how to pace myself. (Perhaps my circumstances didn’t allow it?) But, knowing what I know now, I agree with him: All of these places are OK, not only for our careers but for our lives as a whole, and as I’ve struggled to find easy, concise ways to explain where I am and what I’m doing that won’t bring pleasant social activities to a standstill, John Donne’s words have come to mind more than once:

“They also serve who only stand and wait.”


16 thoughts on “But seriously

  1. Ally Bean says:

    Nicely said. There is absolutely nothing wrong with just being– doing what needs to be done in your own way in your own time, not bothering anyone along the way. I think it’s rude to tell someone they have to be doing something. I don’t know why the idea of not being busy bothers some people, as if it’s a moral failing rather than a rational way of allowing for the ebb and flow of life. You can’t force everything into place.

    • Rita says:

      Can you imagine what kind of world we’d have if everyone could do things in their own way, in their own time, without bothering anyone along the way? I suppose that’s not really possible; my way is probably going to bother someone at some point. (I’m thinking of your Bible study group story, for instance.) But maybe we could all think more about whether or not we really need to be bothered? For example, I don’t need to be bothered when people ask me what I’m going to do! Or when they press me for answers I don’t yet have.

      I really like the idea of allowing for the ebb and flow of life. Maybe that will be my new short answer to the big questions.

  2. Marlene Lee says:

    When I retired, I had also just got married, and sold my home and moved into the new home we built six months later. Whew!
    When people asked me what I was going to do, I usually replied that there was never enough time during my summers off to do all I wanted to.
    In retirement I knew I didn’t want a job—even part-time. I did know that I wanted to volunteer for causes and for groups that I believed in. I’ve spent more time working on OSLIS website projects than I could have imagined.
    I volunteered with SMART Start Making a Reader Today reading with K-3 students which was such fun after working with high school students my entire career. I volunteered in my granddaughter’s classroom K-2. These both ended with COVID, but I hope to return when possible.
    My husband and I travel, and I enjoy putting together a photo book when we return.
    And I read—still so many books, so little time.

    So I suggest “There was never enough time during the summer to do everything…I have a backlog. I may get just the right part-time job, or I may volunteer. I have lots of options to explore.”


    • Rita says:

      I remember you doing all those things at once! And I’ve enjoyed watching your retirement life through Facebook. It might turn out that I need a job or want more income (I’ve got a ways to go before social security kicks in), but I’m going to try living without one. I love the idea of volunteering; I told more than one library manager that I’d be happy to help out with special projects next year if they’d like me to. I appreciate the words to use. I’m going to try them out next time someone asks. I did offer at the family gathering that I am never bored because there’s never enough time to do all that I want, and that was met with some skepticism, but it’s true! If nothing else, there will never be enough time for all the books. 🙂

  3. Marian says:

    Hello, Rita 🙂
    There have been so many times over the last several months that I have wanted to comment, but simply couldn’t. Congratulations on your retirement! I know how hard work has been for you for the past while, so I’m happy for you and want to wish you well on this next stage of your life. Funnily enough, my husband and I were just talking last week about what he would do when he retires. He’s hoping to keep working for another three or four years, but I told him he should probably come up with some sort of a plan. (He can’t cycle all day, every day, I pointed out.)

    I really appreciate (and agree with) Ally’s words, above, but I initially interpreted your family’s questions and comments as well-intentioned concern. After all, it can be really hard to lose your main purpose and/or your identity. Reading your comment above, though, and seeing that they met your “I am never bored” with scepticism does make me want to walk back that take on things.

    I could write an essay on the generational castigation you mentioned as well as the problem of not knowing what you don’t know. It’s not really fair to generalize, but I know (and know of) many Boomers who don’t have a clue how lucky they were/are, and who will defend to their dying day their right to live in a way that uses four or five planet’s worth of resources simply because they “worked hard” and they “deserve it.” The fact that our children are questioning things (and that they are angry) comes as no surprise to me. (I am angry too.)

    “I’m going to reach a higher spiritual plane.” Thank you for the laugh, Rita. I know you don’t care about your blog stats, but if you begin to write like this, I will have to unfollow you. (I am kidding, of course, and I hope this has made YOU laugh. I will just quickly add that one of the reasons I left my climate action group last summer was because it was inhabited by Boomers who did not know what they did not know, and that the self-proclaimed leader of the group was all about getting all of us onto a higher spiritual plane.)

    • Rita says:

      Hi Marian! I’m so happy to hear from you!

      Thank you for the congratulations, and for the thoughtful (as always) response. (Over)thinker that I am, I have wondered about the purpose/identity question quite a bit myself in recent weeks–which is an entirely different issue from being bored. I have wondered how it will feel, not being an educator any more. At least, not one deeply embedded in the public school system. I don’t think I’ll truly begin feeling that until September, when so many friends (including Cane) will return to school and I won’t. I anticipate that it will feel strange (among other things). I’m looking forward to having room to develop other identities, maybe something entirely new to me.

      As for generational castigation, well: I could write an essay, too. Lots of them. Although maybe it’s not so much a generational thing as some other thing. There are plenty of young people, too, who have the attitudes you describe. Maybe it’s a class thing? An experience thing? I’ve been humbled to realize how much I never knew or questioned about the world beyond me. I remember being a child and feeling indignant (and, I will admit, superior) when learning about how other countries indoctrinated their citizens through propaganda and false information, while never wondering if mine might be doing the same to me. I look back on my education and am appalled at how US-centric it was. There is so much I still don’t know! I appreciate young people who have helped me in my continuing journey to question and learn. I know I will miss being around them all the time, and I do worry a bit about the impact that might have on me. I know I’ll have to be purposeful about staying connected with youth.

      And spirituality and leaders who don’t know what they don’t know and aren’t open to the idea that they don’t know: more essays. (But I probably won’t write them for fear that I will only be churlish.) I would like to reach a higher level of spirituality, but I suspect that does not come from engaging in such things as politics or yoga so much as from engaging in a different way in the gritty and/or mundane parts of life.

      • Marian says:

        If even *I* feel the pull/weight/promise of September, then I suspect it will be a hard month for you, especially with Cane going back. I’ve always found it helpful to have a big project to embark on, so when the house is suddenly empty of kids, I can see it as an opportunity, rather than a loss.

        And yes, I think much of what we think of as generational does actually boil down to class (or simply awareness). One of my best friends is a Boomer who can afford to live a large life, but she and her husband are purposefully curtailing themselves for the sake of their grandchildren. A few months before I left my climate group, we held a “climate conversation,” in which we invited the public to come and talk about problems and solutions. I was the person who did all the work of compiling the information we gathered that evening, and for me, the most important question that was raised was, “How do we persuade people who can afford to live lavish, carbon-intensive lifestyles to limit themselves?” (I think this is one of those ideas that will face extreme resistance, though, as it runs counter to personal freedom.)

        • Rita says:

          No kidding! It has been so disheartening to see how (in my country, at least) personal freedom has been valued over so many other things during the pandemic. The irony is that those with the most resources are those most able to take measures to limit their footprint. I was able to see such a difference in my own choices when I was working from home vs. working on-site, just around the issue of lunch. And it seems like I should be able to make choices such that I could take a lunch with me every day, but the reality was that many days it didn’t happen and didn’t feel possible–so lunch was something I drove to get, often from some fast-food place. And I am so much more privileged than others! I’m not a single parent raising kids in a low-wage job. I think also of conversations I’ve had with my mom about Amazon. She gets all the reasons not to use Amazon and agrees with them, but she lives in a rural area without many close options for shopping, so…she uses it. (And I can’t be too holier than thou when I have a Prime subscription myself.) My hope to live a smaller life was a driving force behind my decision to retire. I saw how much working costs.

  4. Kari Wagner Hoban says:

    My wish for you is to leave Facebook and join TikTok. I don’t normally give advice, but this is my advice for you. Message me on Instagram if you’d like to learn more. I sound like an MLM or a pyramid scheme and maybe I am. A pyramid scheme of HEALING.

    Your family asking you those questions triggered me for you. Because old me would’ve felt lazy if asked that question. Like, what AM I doing? But now, I ebb and flow, as you mentioned above.

    One day at a time. One moment at a time. Breathe in and out. Enjoy this time you have. You have worked so hard for so long; you don’t need to fill it up.

    My only question would be, who are you going to be?

    Love you, friend. Enjoy the silence.
    Kari Wagner Hoban recently posted…The Care and Keeping of MeMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      Hi Kari,
      I appreciate advice that comes from a caring place, but TikTok concerns me too much for me to create an account there (https://time.com/6071773/tiktok-faceprints-voiceprints-privacy/). I have no illusions about Facebook and other social media apps, and know that all come with some risks and drawbacks. I think a big part of whether or not any of them contribute more good than harm to us is how we use them. And curation! I can’t do much about the ads that come my way, but I’m ruthless about who I follow (and, more importantly, don’t).

      I suppose I am going to be who I’ve always been. I think we do too much conflating of what we do with who we are. Your comment, though, reminds me of some thoughts I had that didn’t get into the post. Namely, that it’s not even possible to do nothing. Maybe an important difference is what pace we’re living? I know I’m really looking forward to living at a slower pace. I crave that. Not making much progress with that so far, but it’s a goal. 🙂

  5. Tom Miller says:

    I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up either but I came to a realization 10 or 15 years ago maybe more. I decided that no matter what it is that I am doing for work I probably won’t like it because it’s work. Some of my favorite things to do are house remodeling and handyman work and yet when I have done that for other people I’ve come to dislike it rather intensely. I’ve decided that I’m best off with a job I can tolerate and preferably one that pays fairly well so I can pay for doing the things that I enjoy doing in life. I guess I would say that I’ve come pretty close to being a peace with the idea. Although full disclosure, my being at peace with anything is a rather difficult thing to attain.

    • Rita says:

      Ah, I knew you were one of my people; I also find peace a difficult thing to attain. Or maybe to keep. I also understand what you’re saying about doing the things you like most for yourself as opposed to for other people. I love writing, but I quit a writing/editing job (and became a teacher) because doing it all day for pay on projects that didn’t light my fire killed any energy I had for doing my own writing. I used to love developing curriculum for classes I was going to teach and once thought I’d love a job where I only did that–but then I got some curriculum work for classes I wasn’t going to teach, and it wasn’t the same at all. I’ve long been envious of those who seem to have jobs doing what they love, and I wished I could be such a person. Maybe we love what we love too much to tolerate having it diluted with the tedious/odious parts of any enterprise that is about making money?

  6. Kate says:

    I’ve read all the comments above and have come to the conclusion that they have all said what I would like to say – but rather more eloquently.

    I know I’ve answered that type of question at various times – especially when my kids went back to school and I continued to stay home – but the truth is…I have plenty to DO. I used to joke that just as soon as I felt bored I’d go and get a “real” job. Enjoy this time. And good for you for allowing yourself the space to settle in and be.

    • Rita says:

      YES. I’ve been saying for some time that just living is a full-time job. I’m so looking forward to having enough time to do a good job of making our home and taking care of the business of our life. I’m looking forward to weekends in which Cane and I aren’t doing chores for the majority of the time. (Projects, yes. Chores, no. I’ll do those during the week while he’s at work.) I’m looking forward to feeling as if I have a good handle on things I should have a good handle on, rather than feeling as if I’m just winging it and hoping for the best. I think we’ve lost sight of how much labor goes into running a home, and that such labor has worth. I’ll be bringing less money into our household, but I’ll be adding a different kind of value. What’s really interesting to me is that the person who said “but you have to do something” has been a SAHM for years, and her kids are now grown. Maybe that’s part of what threw me. It was the last person I expected such a perspective from.

      • Marian says:

        I wonder if this person’s “but you have to do something” is indicative of her own struggles, Rita. As a long-term SAHM (yesterday was, in fact, 25 years to the day that I went on maternity leave), I can attest to how hard it is to be considered a non-working person. We absolutely have lost sight of the labour it takes to run a house—and we also don’t recognize the repercussions that occur when that labour either doesn’t get done or it gets outsourced to others. This is a subject that has been burning inside me for years, but it would take more bravery than I possess to actually write it.

        • Rita says:

          Oh, I wouldn’t want to speak for her–but I was a young mother at the time when the media was making a big deal about the “mommy wars” (as I know you were, too), and I remember feeling as if there was no way any of us could win. It felt (to me) as if there was no choice a mom could make that wouldn’t open her to some kind of criticism. I’m sure it has been very hard to be considered non-working; our culture/economic system absolutely equates value of worth with value of paycheck. I haven’t walked your path yet (and won’t in the same way as I won’t be raising children), but I’ve already begun working through thoughts/feelings about no longer making an equal financial contribution to our household. There’s a lot of discomfort there! And while I believe intellectually that I will be contributing a different kind of value that has actual economic value, I’ve discovered I have some uncomfortable feelings about the prospect of not getting paid for it by some person or entity outside of my personal relationships. I know I’ve got some things to work through, and that I haven’t really begun to yet. I would love to read more of your thoughts on this topic, if you ever feel able to do that.

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