In the weeks leading up to my 40th college reunion, I started musing about Barb now and Barb back then. I collected my few mementos: a yearbook, the freshman book with all of our high school photos in it, and a set of peach-colored towels that we are still using. I considered the astonished Barb who arrived at Swarthmore College from California at just under 18. Back then I was interested in looking everywhere: toward weaving, poetry, economics, French, at all the plants, and even at the inside of cats if I had to. Then I considered the astonished Barb now, with my 61 years of banging through life, accumulating views and bruises along the way.
But then my musings changed. After I posted a little bio on our class Facebook page, the reunion organizers asked me to talk on a Class of ’78 panel, “to discuss second (or third or fourth) careers, retirement, and family issues.” But my classmates’ bios, comments, and replies showed about half of them to be stable and steady, often in business, law, medicine, or engineering; and the other half to be nomads of job, family, or land of habitation.
What could be relevant from my life?
As the reunion date approached, I got an answer: not the places I have been and the posts I’ve occupied–those literal and figurative dwelling spots in the maze of my life, but rather the transitions that I am going through. The issues around the transitions I am facing are dependent less on where I have worked and lived, and more on age and stage. Here are the thoughts I came up with.
1) I am transitioning in state—in what I do, and in who I am to people around me.
Changes in work state: I knew what my old state as Professor was; I developed it, crafted it, lived with it and its slow evolution throughout my career. My current state is semi-retired Professor Emeritus, which I had envisioned to where I was fully involved in what I was doing, but in fewer arenas, and with more focus on finishing projects and tying up loose ends.
But this current state is not exactly what I expected. I am still figuring out what I consider “finished up” to be, which is somewhat pleasurable and somewhat fear-inducing. The more frustrating challenge is how differently I appear to be viewed by others than before. Some colleagues (mostly retired) pounced on me, requesting I join them on professional committees. Colleagues at my workplace, though, have backed away from interaction, perhaps to leave me undisturbed. That’s partly what I wanted, but I didn’t expect to be abscised so completely, nor to have them titter with pity when I say that I’m still working on projects. I’m not on furlough with half-pay: semi-retired is semi-working.
And I experienced a loss of power at work that I had not expected. Yes, I am no longer a talkative participant in faculty meetings—and I shouldn’t be; but this loss of power, this decrease in having my opinions sought, started the date I announce my semi-retirement, and it feels to be a drop in status to a greater degree than the loss of official powers deserved.
Changes in relationships: Another change of state crept up more slowly: the nature of my relationships with family and friends. My children moved out and eventually moved on as they established households and agendas of their own. Their mother, counselor, and administrative assistant has transitioned to becoming more of a co-equal.
Parents moved out of the family home and had increasing needs of assistance in realms where I wouldn’t have interfered before. I was daughter and asker; I became advisor or even director of their finances, living arrangements, and health decisions. I have even become gatekeeper for many of their relationships.
Brothers have moved from that metastable balance of confidant and aggravator, to becoming my partners and occasional adversaries as we jockey around our parents and other relatives.
At times, my partner, buffeted by his own family waves, becomes less of a partner than a person who tolerates my family-driven absences. What I mean is that we move from building our joint future actively, to counting on each other’s continued good will as we allow each other the time that the rest of our relationships need.
And a long time ago, I had friends, not just the ones in my exercise class, monthly book club (thank goodness for book club!), the departmental office, or down a hall. A long time ago that transitioned. Now I’m perched in a place where I can begin to develop my deeper friendships again.
I am a different daughter, sister, wife, and friend. I have transitioned toward different roles everywhere.
Changes in health: And yet another change in state is my own health. In college, I was healthy with occasional injuries. Now I have chronic conditions with occasional injuries. I push pain to the background that would have sidelined me in my teens and twenties. My sleep was more refreshing back then, I had a more stable level of energy, and I suspect I was quicker at logic and recall. And unlike today, back then I could take on new activities or change directions quickly. It’s so different. Not all bad, not all good, but all different.
2) I am transitioning in what I emphasize, in what I want to do.
And thus, my states have changed. And so have my desires.
Nowadays I am more driven by what I want to do than by an externally-mandated set of accomplishments. And even though I loved my science and the culture around it, nowadays I am more interested in creating (art, literature, new ways to connect ideas) than in conforming (presenting papers and writing journal articles for fellow scientists).
At work, I’m increasingly interested in reaching closure. Whereas I used to crave hanging out with fellow scientists to talk about physiology, biomechanics, and all manners of science, now I am more driven to be with other seekers who are trying new things, such as managing forests, writing, working with fibers, or discussing ideas.
And I want to devote more time to being with people I like and/or love. Taking my dad to the doctor is not entirely an errand these days; it is oddly a true pleasure.
My emphases have changed.
3) With changing state and changing desires, I am flush with emotions—many of which I’m not accustomed to.
So many emotions—fear, guilt, angst, anticipation.
Fear about what may lie ahead, about what I may face once I reach closure on other projects and the time to move on.
Guilt that I can retire, that I can afford to choose what I next do—when many people have been less fortunate. They may have worked just as hard, or they may have struggled with conditions that I was lucky enough to dodge. And to amplify the guilt, I know I could equalize my “wealth” by sharing it–and yet I don’t, not entirely.
Angst. What isn’t there to have angst about? How should I address my guilt over my bounty? I’m out of practice on a lot of this, like developing friendships or making decisions about what new activity to try next. And how would I actually act to change my course? That would mean a decision, and a taking of a first step.
I see three distinct ways to spend the “free time” I will eventually have: putting high energy into a new paying career, putting high energy into a non-paying set of activities, and putting low energy into activities—going slowly, traveling, hanging out, working out, or reading.
Leaving aside the issues of judgmental outsiders, could I really achieve any of those new states? Could I manage a new career, could I really work under someone without trying to get to a leadership role, and could I, honestly, sit back and truly slow down?
And anticipation. New beginnings, new chances.
4) Transitions give me a welcome chance to pause in my maze.
Transitions give me a chance to start again, this time, from where I am today.
When I left college back in December 1978, I also was leaving my boyfriend who was behind me in school. I was really leaving—from school in Pennsylvanian to California for winter break, and then to Fairbanks, Alaska for what turned out to be 3.5 years of work, grad school, and more work. On December 5, 1978, I wrote him,
“I guess the situation is sort of straightforward. I’m leaving college now to get a job, be in the world, and then continue my educational pursuits wherever they might be. … But there are so many walls and oddly-spaced doors in the maze we have to bang through, it’s hard to say whether we’ll find ourselves (and each other) in the same room.”
“We’ll always still be able to look one another up from somewhere and say HI.”
Transitions force us to pause. We look ourselves up and say HI. We figure out what room we are in, and where we want to go. And then we move on, like my boyfriend and I eventually did. We may or may not be graceful in those transitions; I did my share of banging into walls to get through the oddly-spaced doors of my own maze, but no matter. That was history. All those entries in my resume are history. They shaped me, but they are of the past. I’m here now.
5) My maze is personal, but I am not alone.
At reunion, accompanied by my husband, I looked at my old campus again. We visited with that former boyfriend (who had kindly sent me my correspondence) and his wife.
Some of the campus plantings were gone, and I was jarred: what were all those new trees, and how could they be so tall? What was the purpose of all those new buildings, one of which had a cornerstone that said it was 37 years old?
But when we slipped through the heavy double-doors into the biology building, I felt that familiar whoosh of enthusiasm for plant biology, that craving to know, that burgeoned in me in that spot. We peered into and out of windows from my past. I remembered decisions, good and bad, that took place in old lodgings, in the library, in the field house.
And I re-connected with classmates in person and via Facebook. I recalled interactions. And then I saw clearly what I had missed: I hadn’t made those decisions alone. We all banged and bumbled. We felt our way. But we asked and watched one another. And we still do.
Maybe last week my classmates benefited again from that panel discussion. I need those classmates, and others like them, because my travels through my maze are not yet done.
*I’m in the middle of the bottom row in the first photo. Photo of our intramural softball team sophomore year. Thanks to a classmate for letting me use it.