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?”
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.”