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Endings and Beginnings

Last week I stood in a Sacramento City College parking lot with many of my colleagues, as we congratulated more than 350 graduating students who were participating in our curbside commencement. It certainly wasn’t like our normal commencement, but it was lovely to cheer on all these folks with their parents, siblings and even their kids in cars and trucks and a couple of rented limousines. It was also special for me that this very different graduation event was my last, after the better part of 35 years. The school year coming to an end has always been a marker for me—from the days of grammar school when I had a summer of hanging out at the local pool ahead me, to the many years I looked forward to a couple of months without papers to grade.

But those endings were also always a little bittersweet. No more of that particular group of students in my English class; a different set of writers and photographers on the school newspaper. This year’s ending, of course, holds even more weight, because I’m retiring. Clearly, because I’ve already tried retiring once, it seems to me that I don’t do endings very well. I realize now that when I retire this time, I need to keep my thoughts on the beginning of the next phase and not so much on the ending of the one before.

Gradually, in such a slow fashion that I have barely known it's happening, I have slid into each new part of my life.

It’s obvious why we think about what was more than we focus on what might be. It’s a known. We can be selective by concentrating on what we did well and what made us feel like good people. We don’t have to worry about what will be required of us on our next adventure. In my case, I’m thinking about what it takes to move from a life of planning and achieving, to one of being and exploring for a while. We’ve all done this in one way or another and felt the weirdness of going from being one person to becoming a new, currently unknown one.

I remember graduating from high school and feeling as if I had no idea what was ahead of me. My friends were all going in different directions and, whatever crazy methods I had devised to survive those four years that felt like 10 were no longer going to work. It took me a year or two into college to settle into my new skin and find some undiscovered parts of myself. It’s been that way every time I’ve moved to something new. At first, there is the grieving for what is known and familiar, and then some awkward scrambling toward what feels comfortable and like home. Throughout this transition is the step by step exploring—what have I been wanting to do, to be, to think about? Gradually, in such a slow fashion that I have barely known it's happening, I have eventually slid into each new part of my life.

I love that about beginnings—that there is almost always something waiting for us out there, and that we really have no idea what it is. I’ve felt it at new jobs, in new houses, in new relationships and new ages. It’s fascinating how much there is involved in each of these iterations of our lives—and equally interesting to me that we think we’re supposed to know all about the next step when we’re still in the one before it. The disappointment that it doesn’t turn out like I imagined or planned has bonked me over the head more than once, so I’m doing everything I can to withhold judgment and defined plans this time around.

As we watched all of those graduates drive by us in the SCC parking lot last week, their enthusiasm and hope was contagious. I think we all felt energized by their accomplishments and their excitement about next steps. I forgot for a minute, as I was cheering and whistling, that I’m moving on, as well. Walking to my car, down a sidewalk I’ve traversed thousands of times in my life, I felt the nostalgia I always feel on that campus—this place I started teaching when I was in my 30s. But I felt a lightness, too—eager for this particular new beginning, and hopeful for at least a few more along my path.


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