The day after I let my wife know that we had enough money to pay for our son’s college education—he was a sophomore at Carolina at the time—, she let me know she had decided to retire in the fall. Our daughter was pregnant. The baby was due in November. After retiring at the end of October, my wife would head to New York to be with our daughter for the final weeks of the pregnancy and the first weeks in the life of our first grandchild.
For a few years, she had been gathering information and planning for her eventual retirement. Still, we hadn’t discussed, after I told her we had college covered, whether this was the time for her to retire. To me it seemed that she left for work one morning, made her decision during the day, and came home and informed me of it. Done deal.
I don’t like change. I had figured her retirement was still a ways off—at least not until after our son had graduated from college. With that story, I protected myself from fear of the unknown. (Another story I have lived by: I won’t die.) Could we afford to live after she retired? Would I be able to work at home—a selfish thought, I know, but I have had the luxury of having the house entirely to myself during the workweek for as long as we have been together—with her in the house?
It’s now been almost two years since she retired. Since then, she has been happier, day by day, than she had been for the seven years before her retirement. For many reasons, her professional work, in the final “third” of her career, was no longer nourishing her.
The state agency for which she worked focuses on early childhood intervention for families and children, birth to three years, with special needs. A speech pathologist and therapist, my wife loves and understands children. She is expert at diagnosing speech problems and recognizing other developmental problems. More importantly, she knows how to get on the floor and play and, even with the most difficult kids, connect with them and get them to have fun forming sounds and articulating words.
Over the years, my wife has worked with children in filthy trailers, public housing projects, and nearly inaccessible backwoods houses. As unpleasant as the conditions often were, she was committed to helping a child or connecting parents to services that would provide crucial support for their children and themselves.
But back at the office, her professionalism and wisdom, gained over many years of experience, were often ignored if not undermined daily by less experienced, middle-management bureaucrats put in place to increase agency effectiveness and efficiency. In your report for a child’s record, these managers instructed their staff of professional occupational, physical, and speech therapists, you must communicate, in language that a third grader would understand. Don’t use terms that are shared and understood among the range of health care providers that will be serving the children.
At the end of the day, her work—sometimes rewarding, increasingly frustrating—ended. Then, she was free to lovingly turn her attention and intelligence away from work and toward what for her, I think, was and still is the most important part of her life: her family.
Despite her full schedule—work and family—she made time to serve our Jewish community, volunteer for political campaigns, and tutor, through the Buncombe County Literacy Council, adult students learning English as a second language. Since retiring, she has more time for this kind of community service.
This August, I will begin my 27th year at UNC Asheville. A professor, I teach creative writing, poetry, a couple of Jewish studies classes, and honors classes. I direct the Center for Jewish Studies, and, these days, I work with faculty and students exploring the use of contemplative practices in higher education. So far, my career has been immensely rewarding.
I’m not ready to retire. But, inspired by my wife, I am ready to reflect on the “third third,” as I’m calling it, of my career—how to shape it—and ready to look far enough ahead to the day when I will retire.
I couldn’t do either if I were not strong enough now—emotionally, spiritually—to live in my body, which means living with its mortal limits.
One day, I will die. There, I’ve said it. But, as I also said, I don’t like change. And I don’t like endings.
I don’t like finishing a box of cereal—a kind of ending—nor do I like the thought that, one day before too long, I will step down from my position of nearly 25 years as director of the Center for Jewish Studies and retire from work—teaching—that has challenged, stretched, surprised, and inspired me (my students, too, I hope!) for most of my adult life.
After shedding the roles that have defined me for so long, who will I be? What if I turn out to be no one . . . or, anyone? And what if we don’t have enough money to live the way we are accustomed to living as long as we live? Of course, others have gone before me—Asheville is thick with retirees—and I can prepare by learning from them.
However, the more immediate, the more productive question, I think, is this: how shall I work and live between now and the day I retire? Shall I continue, at work, following my nose, falling into one opportunity after another, the lucky beneficiary of the kindness and support of colleagues and students? Or, with an end in sight, shall I choose intentionally how to work, inviting, as I go, wherever I go—classroom, quad, conference room—all the years leading up to now and my mortality to sing what’s known and the mystery, terror, and necessity of what’s unknown?
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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Richard Chess
Richard Chess is the author of three books of poetry, Tekiah, Chair in the Desert, and Third Temple. Poems of his have appeared in Telling and Remembering: A Century of American Jewish Poetry, Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of IMAGE, and Best Spiritual Writing 2005. He is the Roy Carroll Professor of Honors Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He is also the director of UNC Asheville’s Center for Jewish Studies.
This royalty free art image is Island Dock Yard, 1934 oil on canvas Karl Fortess captured by Cliff on Flickr.