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Exploring Some New Branches

Every day I run down a street past a newish public library. As part of the modern look of the library, the city held an art-in-public-places contest and chose a bright turquoise neon sculpture that looks like a large tree but is designed to represent the branches of the Dewey decimal system. Because I pass this near the end of a 4- or 5-mile run, I’m usually pretty tired at this point and I’m happy to focus on anything I see just to get me through it. When I look at those branches, I always think about the branches of me, and how each one has changed since I retired a couple of years ago.

To understand my obsession with these strands of me and my life, it’s important to know that I’ve never been a person who might be considered spontaneous or easy going. I’m much more someone who has enjoyed knowing what my roles are and what I needed to do when. When I first started teaching, besides getting to interact with my students, the thing I liked best about it was having a purpose, a road to travel, a beginning and an end to every semester. I knew my role and I donned that identity like a perfectly fitting sweater.

I have to say that it’s harder to create a whole new identity than I imagined it would be.

The other branches were devoted to friends and family, outside interests, my home, and a few unnamed for future use. In other words, in the years when I used to occasionally run marathons, that bright green light of “marathon runner” was lit up for several months at a time. My conversations were about how I felt, what it was like doing my last long run, and what I would wear on the day of the race if it turned out to rain. When the day came and went, I would leave that path and move back into the other parts of my identity. After the first marathon, I was actually a little stunned by the change in my life—letdown that this thing I’d focused on for several months was over. That taught me to plan something compelling to follow the next 26.2-miler.

If you’ve lived as long as I have, you learn, gratefully, a few things about yourself. I knew that when I retired, in other words, that I’d feel a lot like I felt after that first marathon if I didn’t build in some new things on which to focus. Still, I have been a little surprised that the identity I felt related to my job was deeper than I ever really imagined. It makes sense intellectually because I spent so much of my life there and met so many of my friends in one way or another connected to that work. But I have to say that it’s harder to create a whole new identity than I imagined it would be.

Actually, it just never occurred to me that I would have to find a new person to be. I think I imagined that I would just clip off that little branch and live fruitfully on the others. I’m getting it now that I’m a little more basic and primitive than that. It’s hard to focus such a huge amount of energy in one direction and then just stop being that person. As I’ve said here before several times, it’s difficult not to still just think of myself as the person who had those jobs and worked at those colleges but now I don’t do them anymore. I still talk to people about college politics and I work on projects for my friends who continue to work there. In other words, I’m gripping hard to the last strands, even though I know it’s time to let go.

This development is surprising to me because I was sick to death of my job when I left. I was so ready to leave that I made everyone I talked to look at the number of dwindling days on my “Retirement Countdown Clock” on my phone. And it isn’t that I want to go back and have any of the jobs I had then. It’s that I am a person accustomed to having a job and now I don’t have one. It’s that simple.

This is why I’m perseverating a bit these days on those branches, those paths, the roads that go together to make up who we are. And I find myself wishing I’d lived with more balance for those 35 years of working. But that is a little like a former smoker wishing he’d taken better care of himself when he was younger so he’d feel better now. What’s done is done. I certainly pass on my sense of this to my friends who are still working, but I think the lesson has to occur much earlier in one’s life.

It’s almost as if you need to start your career with the idea that this is only one branch of you—not the biggest or the heaviest or the most important. I get it that when money is involved that’s not always easy. But we also live in a culture that is all about identity related to work. When someone says, “What do you do?” It’s odd to answer, “I read some really amazing books and enjoy my dogs.” We are a product-focused culture and having fun and enjoying one’s self are not high on our lists of what we’re supposed to be doing with our time.

So I’m starting here and building this new identity. It affects everything because I have huge spans of time in which to create. Do I work on my own projects or help others? Do I lie on the couch and read or clean the house? Do I go out to lunch with my friends or have more structure in my day? The answers are all about how we see ourselves and how we want to be seen. Shaking old ideas about identity isn’t easy and there aren’t that many guidebooks to help us navigate the way. I’m learning some new things about myself every day, a luxury I couldn’t enjoy when I was almost always focused on work.

It’s definitely the best of times—I have no complaints. But learning is hard work sometimes and the lessons are forehead-slapping realizations on most days. It’s a funny feeling sorting through all of this to find who I am and who I want to be. It’s a delight on some levels and an uphill battle on others. For now, I’m trying a few different paths and I figure at least one of them will hold just the right combination of familiar and exciting to help me step fully into the next iteration.

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