Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Cleaning House, Shedding Identities

Packing up my office

Dear George,

The more I think about it, the more I’m struck by the similarities between retirement and getting divorced. Both typically involve the abrupt end of a significant long-term relationship. Like divorce, retirement can be amicable or contentious, forced or voluntary, liberating or destructive. But, whatever the details, the person is stripped of one of his or her most important adult identities and the social network and round of activities associated with it. As a consequence, one is likely to encounter a bunch of disorientation and distress.

In my own case, the impact of retirement has been softened somewhat by my keeping an office at the university. I “go to work” for at least a couple of hours most days of the week. Parts of my daily routine have remained much the same. I check my mailbox, make a cup of coffee, say hi to the secretary, read my e-mail, chat with colleagues, attend an occasional lecture, and do lots of writing at the computer. Thus I’m in a sort of twilight zone – formally retired, but not altogether.

I experienced a new retirement mini-crisis recently when the department head informed me that I’d need to change offices. I’ve never been any good at throwing things out, and I still have a ton of stuff in my office files. Because my new office won’t have as much storage space, there’s some pressure to consolidate my wares. I’ve been going through it all for a couple of weeks, manila folder by manila folder, struggling to weed things out. It’s a slow, almost agonizing process. I have endless yellowed lecture notes that I prepared over decades and which contain all the ideas that I strove to impart to students. While I’ll probably never do another lecture, there are literally thousands of hours and a lot of emotion invested in this material. It’s hard to simply chuck one’s teaching career. I have the same feelings for my files from unfinished research projects, drafts of manuscripts in progress, hundreds of Xeroxed journal articles, promotion review files, even Thank You notes from students. So far I’ve managed to rid myself of about twenty percent of this mountain of paper. Even if their functional value is next to zero, all these artifacts symbolize who I’ve been as a teacher, scholar, mentor, administrator, department member. Sending it all to the recycling bin seems so final and irreversible, like giving up a part of myself. If I were vacating my office permanently, I’d summon up the courage and cut my ties to all these past identities. Fortunately, I can hold off on that for the time being. The department secretary just smiled and shook her head when she looked at the thirty-eight boxes I’ve packed for my move. I sort of agree with her – it’s pretty silly -- but that’s my story.



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