When Will I Do It?

My friend Maery did it after fracturing her shoulder at a company outing.

My cousin Eugene did it when he ran out of staples for his office stapler.

My sister Karen did it when COVID-19 closed the dental office where she worked.

What did they do?

They retired.

But unlike me, they all had employers to retire from. They also all had a key moment when they knew it was time to do just that.

But as a freelance writer who works for dozens of clients, there’s no one employer to retire from and since I haven’t yet had a “now’s the right time” moment, I’m still saying yes to most client work that comes my way. Thankfully, I enjoy the work…and the people I work for.

That said, I am beginning to think more seriously about retirement and what it might look like for me.

Despite the fact that I’ve been dreaming about (and saving for it) since I was 22, I don’t have a very clear picture. That’s one reason why, when I turned 60 three years ago, rather than celebrating with a big party, a piece of jewelry or an exotic trip, I took a one-year sabbatical.

Though I missed having work as a way of structuring my days, I really enjoyed the downtime and the chance to unplug both personally and professionally. I also enjoyed the chance to travel for months at a time.

Although I’ve since returned to freelancing, I now say yes only to projects I can do from anywhere at any time. That way, I still have plenty of flexibility and free time, a lot of which I just putter away. Most days that feels like exactly the right thing to do.

Other days, I’m more engaged. I’ve also started journaling again and gotten reacquainted with art supplies I haven’t touched in years. I’m cooking some and reading more. I’m writing letters and calling friends. I’m even enjoying routine household chores, plus getting estimates for several home improvement projects.

Increasingly, it’s these things—not my client work—that’s giving structure to my days…and no doubt moving me closer to retirement. What sign will tell me that it’s finally time? I don’t yet know, but I do look forward to finding out.

Gung Pao Chicken #2 Spicy

Gung Pao Chicken #2 Spicy is written on my desk calendar, on a piece of scrap paper in my bag, at the bottom of our grocery list. My husband’s favorite order from a small Vietnamese restaurant we like. Okay, a place where we ate so often that the servers know us. 

It is a neighborhood eatery where we could relax after a busy day or before running errands. Carry out orders flew from the kitchen. Tables were filled with college students, young families, parents with grouchy high school kids, retirees. Large fish tanks amuse young diners. Food came fast. On rainy or winter nights the crowded room felt cozy. 

When curbside carry out became available, we called our place. The first night, part of our order was missing when we got home. Two weeks later my stir fry had little flavor and the rice needed warming. We noted the slip-ups, but didn’t dream about trying another place or dropping Vietnamese from our carry out rotation. They know who we are when we walk in. I know the person who says it is good to see me. They prefer cash and I understand how credit card fees eat into small business sales. 

The food is good, but not great. It is truly all about the people and setting. And we want to keep their kitchen busy and their staff working until that atmosphere can be restored and there is time to talk about the world as water glasses are filled. We have a connection. In cities that builds neighborhood.

Storefronts and restaurants have already closed on their block because of seven months without stable sales and the whammy of riot damage. Social distancing outside the watch repair place, there are no lines next to me at the theater where a new release is showing. No patrons sit around tables at the tea shop. Inventory looks low at the corner gift store. What will the holidays look like for these small merchants? How will a tenuous consumer economy support neighborhood places? 

So much is unknown because most of us haven’t experienced circumstances so forbidding. This has been described as the worst economy since the Big Depression. Hopefully there will be enough folks in the neighborhood, with resources, ordering Gung Pao Chicken to keep owners and employees of small businesses intact. In the meantime, let’s keep safe and watch out for each other.

Dear Dr. Rajender . . .

Dear Dr. Shyamala Rajender,

The University of Minnesota and the Rajender Consent Decree are probably far from your thoughts. Most of the time they are far from mine, too. However, recently I realized that it’s been 40 years since the decree bearing your name helped me.

I’m writing to thank you.

Your courage fighting gender discrimination changed my perceptions of the world and set me on a feminist path that informed the rest of my life—how I see myself and thought about my career, how my marriage works, and how I raised my sons.

Forty years ago, I was a Freshman Composition instructor at the University of Minnesota-Morris, my first professional job. In the spring of 1980, I got in trouble with the all-male senior faculty in the English department, because I wanted to present a noncredit lecture about women’s literature for a Continuing Education series.

Several of the senior faculty reacted with a policy that stated, “. . . instructors in English should not participate in off-campus events, either formal instruction or informal presentations, which, in effect, call for a person who has been judged expert in the teaching of English literature.” In other words, I wasn’t supposed to talk about literature even though I had an M.A. in English Literature. The policy was odd and confusing. Several of the literature professors at UMM had been tenured with only a Master’s degree. But my credentials—which were the same as what some of them had—were suspect.

At first, I was more scared than angry (anger came later). The Continuing Education director and the EEOC officer knew I was afraid I’d damage my career by fighting the policy, so they informed the academic dean about my dilemma. The dean and others were aware of your gender bias case against the Chemistry department on the main campus. Consequently, the dean insisted the English department rescind their policy, and I was allowed to give the lecture.

Later that year, a number of faculty members, including me, received a $2,000 raise as a result of the Rajender Consent Decree. It’s hard to imagine now, but increasing my salary from $12,000 to $14,000 per year was a meaningful raise then. In general, it’s hard to convey to younger people just how crazy the late 1970s and early 1980s were for professional women.

Your decision to fight the University of Minnesota had a lasting impact on my life.

At 25, I learned gender discrimination was as real and insidious as the fatherly men in the English department, who didn’t see me as their equal and wanted to limit my opportunities. That experience didn’t drive me away from academia, but like you, I left the academic world several years later.

Your career was exemplary (first a Ph.D. in Chemistry, later a law degree). Mine was much more ordinary, but I was always aware of the example I set as a woman in the workplace. Your determination to fight gender bias had a far-reaching effect on me and so many other women. I want to acknowledge your heroic contributions.

Thank you again for your courage.

Sincerely,

Ellen Shriner

A Larger Force

Healthy exercise respecting social distance in the neighborhood appeared difficult with a cluster of kids playing soccer, family groups stretching across walks and streets, dog walking people following the direction of their pets. We drove to the quiet side of a nature preserve where trails are seldom used on weekends. One car stood empty in the parking lot. Parents with a preschool child exited a different car.

We waited for them, but as shoe tying and other preparations continued we made our way to the trail map. The youngster, possibly unaware of social distancing, ran to join us and told her parents that she wanted to be lifted to read the map. Offering her their hands, they assured her they knew the way. We backed away as the child threw a hissy complete with screaming, stomping, and slapping. The right trail choice was any that would create space from the unhappy kid.

As grandparents we’ve learned about giving young children time to make wise choices instead of forcing action on them. Children of privilege are supported in making choices many times daily from choosing to wear clothes to daycare through patient questioning of resistance at bedtime twelve hours later. Family, friends, complete strangers, might be expected to wait while a child tests the limits or can’t choose. It takes a village after all.

Then comes COVID-19—no negotiations, no children making choices, no endangering strangers by ignoring social distance guidelines. The village has been forced into change.

From closed schools, to prohibited playgrounds that look the same as open playgrounds, to stores asking only one family member do household chores; parenting has pivoted in answer to the dual wham of pandemic and economic storms. Parental instincts to keep things normal for the kids are strained as jobs are lost, employers demand long work hours in the family’s home, distance learning replaces classrooms, and being homebound stretches. Hugs of grandparents, cousins and close friends disappeared with no known date of return. Parents have had little time to concentrate on adapting to new burdens, to problem solve, to explore their personal fears or worries.

Experts say our kids experience anxiety of this crisis just like adults. Some will lose a loved one or friend. The soundtrack of childhood has been interrupted to never play in quite the same way. COVID-19 is drawing new lines on the future maps of kids’ adulthood. Our six-year-old family member misses her classmates, her neighborhood friends, going places with her parents. She understands that the sickness means she can’t ride her bike with other kids, climb or swing at the park, be physically present with her friends. The sickness is beyond her parents’ control. She can make good decisions about a snack or activity, but bigger forces now set the limits beyond the front door.

Technology gives us time to talk, play games, be with family. A plate or two on the table and tiny faces on a screen may be how we celebrate this spring’s holiday and holy day traditions with those we love. Better than no connection, a card or a phone call. COVID-19 denies us the powerful comfort of each other’s warmth, smell, physical presence whether around the dining table, at a special event, at a hospital bedside. Some of us will stay healthy. Some of us will die in the company of strangers. No screaming, stomping or slapping can change what we have to keep doing. We will gather to celebrate or grieve in the future. God willing.

Stay home. Stay safe. Keep others safe. May your holy day traditions provide comfort.

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Staying Connected While Keeping the Distance

Between the pandemic and the resulting stock market tumble, my mind is often a crazymaking mess, fueled in part by our president’s lack of concern, care and compassion.

To keep myself from getting derailed by the body’s fight, flight or freeze response, I’m practicing mindfulness, which my friend Jacquelyn Fletcher Johnson, founder of Heartwood Healing, describes as paying attention to the present moment without rehashing the past or panicking about the future.

While I’m certainly not convinced that things are going to be “just fine,” being mindful has helped me think more clearly and calmly.

Two other things have helped: a mantra I’ve borrowed from my sister Karen (“Whatever happens, I’m going to be okay, today and in the future”) and a practice I learned from my friend Diane (Focus on what you want, control what you can).

To help keep my focus positive I’m staying connected with others while spending my days at home. I’m sending at least one card a day and even some handwritten letters. I’ve found a bliss buddy; she and I occasionally text one another what we are grateful for. I’m having weekly conversations with aunts, uncles and cousins, some of whom I haven’t talked with in years. And on Saturday, I’ll be meeting with my book group via Zoom rather than in person.

I’m also taking inspiration from what others are doing.

Deb Shanilec, my minimalist friend who helps people discover that less truly can be more, plans to celebrate her upcoming birthday via a virtual party around her backyard firepit. Teresa Thomas, founder of 50 Fun Things, is hosting an open-to-anyone online “Happier Hour” each Friday afternoon with the goal of raising a toast to joy.

And while joy isn’t my constant companion, it does remain my friend, in part because I’m practicing what Jacque refers to as the “art of the return.” By repeatedly and gently bringing my attention back to the tasks at hand, to my values and to the people and causes I care about, I gradually return to my future hopes and dreams.

How are you keeping calm? What are you doing to carry on? Who is sustaining you? What hopes and dreams are you envisioning for your own post-pandemic life? We’d love to hear. Please share.