Words by Jeanette Grzesik
Leaving my car in the unfamiliar parking structure, I square my shoulders and march forward. No familiar cars. I'm relieved. This is supposed to be the start of something terribly exciting. Why am I so nervous? Why am I looking around to make sure I don't see anyone I know? This building is too nice to be associated with educators. We usually find ourselves in the reject buildings that no respectable business owner would consider using.
The elevator drops me off on the 7th floor where I am handed a personalized packet of materials and directed to the conference room. I sit in the first available chair so that I can survey the room and then move if there is a better vantage point, before the others arrive. I don't want to be recognized first, if at all. The reason I am here is supposed to be my secret. Well, of course my husband knows what I'm doing, but I suppose we are both wondering if I'm serious. The room begins to fill a few minutes before the meeting is to start. The empty chair beside me is pulled back and I look up to see a familiar face. My heart sinks and my anxiety doubles, so of course I blurt out, "I won't tell if you won't tell." I sound like a child about to pull a prank or ditch a class. But I'm not ditching class, I'm thinking about ditching my career. I'm sitting in a retirement workshop with a bunch of other people who look strangely, much older than me. Is this a big mistake? Do I look that old too?
I am one of the lucky boomers with a retirement plan. When I began to teach over thirty years ago, 61.5 years of age seemed so far off and so very old. I didn't think I'd even be an educator at that time in my life. Those first few years of teaching were rough. I started taking accounting and computer programming classes to explore other career options. From those classes I learned that I am not a bean counter or a programmer. I'm an educator. For years, I taught students to read, write and "do math" despite their learning disabilities. I taught students to believe that they could overcome huge learning obstacles and compete with their non-disabled peers. Even writing these lines makes me swell with pride as I imagine the faces of students in the classrooms of my past. I'm not proud of me, I'm proud of them. I was the privileged one who encouraged their growth, who helped them discover the strengths that would bypass their challenges. I was their advocate, their mentor, their Special Ed teacher, and I loved them. I think they knew it and we grew together. The timing was right for me to be a part of their lives. I believed in those students and they were nourished and grew and I watched it happen.
Here I sit, pondering the end of this satisfying career. Is it the right time? Does attending a workshop make it happen since now other people know what I'm thinking? How does a person "transition" from one all-consuming career to retirement? Is there an emotional roadmap? I'm about to learn about the financial roadmap. Shouldn't there be a ceremony or something? I believe in rites of passage. When my first child left the nest, I delivered what I thought was a rather meaningful speech about how much being his mother meant to me and how much I believed that he would be successful in college and in life. I'm not sure the message was accurately delivered through my choking tears, but he was successful in college and is successful in life and he has overcome the challenges set in his path. Now it's time for me to create my own rite of passage speech, ceremony and acknowledgement. I am planning my retirement, which represents a time of growth and change and nourishing creative seeds and I see myself, my own visualization as, "chasing wildflowers."
My mentor teacher over thirty years ago was a wildflower expert named Anne. She is the reason that I read the news about the wildflower growth in the deserts of southern California during years of "just the right amount of rain." Some of the seeds have been waiting for decades to have their opportunity to burst through the surface and delight us with their colorful blooms. Anne taught me how to be an elementary teacher during the week and an appreciator of wildflowers on several fine weekend hikes in the hills of Santa Barbara. We even took the students hiking one spring morning, stopping everyone on the trail when the rattlesnake slithered across the path in front of us. I also have a friend, who wisely taught me how to love rainy days, to step outside, face up to catch the drops and be thankful for what the rain provides for us. Without rain, the world is far less colorful.
When my children were young, we experienced Joshua Tree National Park during a year of "just the right amount of rain." The yellow, purple and white carpet of wildflowers over a typically gray desert surface was an experience I will never forget. I admire anything that can live in the bleak desert heat, but this year the hidden desert treasures made themselves known in multiple vibrant patches of color. Some of those seeds might have hidden beneath the harsh desert surface for decades. It was their time to take over. They surrounded the red blossoms of the ocotillo with a joyful display of strength, determination and extreme patience. "Just the right amount of rain" had occurred and it was their time to emerge.
I talk to other people about their retirement plans frequently, comparing their stories to mine. Some people bitterly state that they won't tell a soul about their retirement until they are ready to walk out of the office with boxes packed, hoping that pain and suffering is left in the void as they state, "that will serve them right!" Others are tired, but cling to the value of meaningful relationships with students and families that sustain their hope and belief in what is good in the world and are afraid that without those relationships life becomes less valuable. Others are afraid that retirement means death. Some are so unaware of the time limit on their effectiveness that they keep going to work for the health benefits, forgetting that in the education business, we must give the students our best each day that we show up. Our best doesn't usually show up for health benefits.
I recently chatted with a fellow educator whose expiration date on effectiveness has not yet occurred. She continues to thrive on the satisfaction of experiencing student and family growth, but aging parents, a disabled relative and the joy of being an involved, energetic grandmother to her toddler grandson were nudging her to move into retirement sooner rather than later. Giving up a satisfying career is an emotional challenge that many people would love to experience in this age of unemployment and rampant poverty. She and I are both aware that we get to "chase wildflowers" in making this decision. Is it the right time? Do I have fulfilling plans for retirement? Will I continue to have meaningful relationships? I watched her face as she described her plans. It revealed satisfaction as she talked about caring for aging, disabled relatives. It revealed a calm peace when she described yoga class and cooking dinners. It revealed a lovely sense of joy through tears when she described spending time with her grandson, slowly and thoughtfully breathing in each moment of growth in his life. I reached across the table to take her hand and said, "I think you just made your decision." The seeds were there, all she needed was the "right amount of rain." I think she might be off chasing wildflowers already.
Recently my husband and I made a trek to the poppy reserve in the Antelope Valley because wildflower reports said the peak was fast approaching and we didn't want to miss it. Chasing wildflowers this year was meaningful to me in many ways. I still plan to work for a few more months, but I believe I am experiencing "just the right amount of rain" to prepare the seeds of this new chapter in my life to burst through the surface. I have spent several years planting seeds of a small business that will exploit the myriad of experiences and skills that I have gained through over thirty professional years. I see myself picking fresh produce from my backyard garden to add to the dinner I am preparing, because I have time to tend the garden and slowly prepare dinner. I won't have to rush the process after work in order to clean up before crashing into bed. I have a new road bicycle and a friend to ride with me as we push forward to conquer a century ride. I won't be the fastest, but I'll finish the race! Maybe I'll finally fill my hallway with framed photos from our travels.
The seeds of my wildflowers must be prepared to face a most unwelcome environment on the surface with violence, healthcare issues and political upheaval permeating the news, but with continued nurturing they will grow into a vibrant display of the best of everything that they have been nourished with over the past thirty years. My retirement representative is providing hopeful words and information that this whole crazy transition might be possible. There will never be "enough money" but, with a plan and a successful transition, I might just be able to pull this off!
Unlike wildflowers, whose display is short-lived, I hope to have a productive, meaningful and very colorful retirement of many years. Why not? It's my turn to burst through the surface with a vibrant display of a new kind of living and a new type of work.
I think I've had "just the right amount of rain."
About the Author:
Jeanette is an adventurer who has enjoyed trekking in Nepal and scuba diving in the Galapagos. She is currently training for the Lymphoma and Leukemia Society century bicycle ride in June 2019 to honor a friend who passed away from lymphoma last fall. She has recently retired from full time work as an educational psychologist so that she can grow her part time educational consulting business as well as to pursue her passions in the areas of storytelling, gardening, and traveling.