Welcome to “For the First Time Ever …”

I’m really glad that you’re here with me. The coming months are going to be so filled with new experiences, new perceptions, new ideas, new challenges; doing this in the company of other wonderful women makes this so much better.

It has taken me nearly 59 years of living to come to this place in my life. I’ve been a daughter, a sister, a wife (okay, several wives .. but I’m not sure that wording really tells the tale accurately either), a mother, a friend, a student, a grandmother, a teacher, a traveler, a thinker, an artist, a dreamer. I’ve lived in many cities, in several countries, and visited many more. I’ve climbed a mountain or two. I’ve lived in peace and in war. I’ve learned things and forgotten them. Nothing in my life’s experience, and everything in my life’s experience, has prepared me for today. It’s July 4th, 2008, and I am about to begin a new journey into a new place and way of being.

I am not an American, and yet July 4th has – for as long as I can remember – been an important day for me. Independence Day! Independence. A word that encompasses a universe when it comes to freedom. Sometimes it’s defined as “freedom from control or influence of another or others”[1] . Sometimes it’s defined as “the state or quality of being free from subjection or from the influence, control, or guidance of individuals, things, or situations.”[2]. In songs, people talk of dreaming about it, not being able to live without out; it’s both journey and destination for sure. That’s why I have chosen to begin this part of my journey into retirement on July 4th. It’s a journey into a new kind of freedom that, at this point, I can only imagine.

I’ve started numerous journeys in the past on July 4th.The year that my youngest son turned 13 and had his Bar Mitzvah, I sat afterwards with a dear friend, Esther, and we talked about our children growing up, our lives evolving, and the things that we’d always wanted to do but were starting to think we’d never get to do. That was 17 years ago and thinking back to that conversation now brings both happiness and incredulity to mind. Today I’m 58 years old (true, only for about another month); I was only 41 then and yet I was already feeling the years slip by and wondering how much more vital living time I had. One of the things on both of our wish lists was to travel to the Arctic Circle. Esther and I didn’t miss a heartbeat before deciding that the following summer we’d load ourselves and a son apiece into a van and drive north. That drive took us across the northern US to a ferry boat in Seattle – it was on this ship on what is called the Alaska Marine Highway that we pitched tents on the top deck and spent the next three nights and two days journeying to Alaska. We then drove to Whitehorse in the Yukon, up to Dawson City, across 13 hours of gravel road to Inuvik (the end of the road) and then we flew to Tuktoyaktuk (the end of the continent) where we put our toes into the cold, cold water of the Arctic Ocean. Camping on the tundra, taking each day as it came, driving for hours and hours without ever seeing a fence … we all lived freedom that summer many years ago, and the feel of it has never left my soul.

I’ve headed out on other summertime journeys on July 4th – sometimes just to a farm in the country, sometimes on a road-trip to California, sometimes just into a period of not having to go to work every day. I look forward to that day every year although I will admit that being a proud Canadian I’m a little embarrassed to talk about it. We don’t have quite the same kind of day in Canada. July 1st is Canada Day but that’s about a country, not about the birth of a democracy, not about freedom. Fact is, neither is July 4th since it doesn’t really represent the beginning of independence for the US either. Thomas Jefferson presented a draft of what came to be known as the Declaration of Independence to the US Congress on June 28th.; it was accepted in theory on July 2nd but still Congress mucked about with it – deleting nearly 25% of the original text – and finally approved the wording on July 4, 1776. It took several more months, however, before it was finally signed and ready to be put into law. Ah – so, independence begins with words. That is what this blog is all about!

I wasn’t sure where that journey would take me or where it would lead me, but I was reveling in the palpable memories of the moment I reached the peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro celebrating my 50th birthday and I knew that although the travels might be difficult and challenging the destination – if such a thing actually exists – was drawing me.

About two months ago I declared my own freedom. Nobody likely really noticed that there was a huge change in the world – a quantum shift – but me. Nonetheless, the moment I submitted my letter declaring my pending retirement I knew that I was about to embark on a journey through a landscape that I knew absolutely nothing about.

Born in 1949, I’m part of a generation of women who were the first to really reap the fruits of feminism. I was the recipient of all of those messages about the strength of women, the courage of women, the capacity of women to be leaders – to indeed do whatever they chose to do. Part of that lesson I learned from my parents whose own courage and strength had enabled them to survive the Holocaust and move forward to a life in Canada and a child born here not long after they’d arrived at their new freedom. Another part of it I owe to those strong women’s libbers that lived larger lives than I could imagine: Betty Friedan, Angela Davis, Nina Simon, Bella Abzug and all the others. It was a blessing I have always been grateful for because no matter what I’ve had to face in my life, deep down in my blood somewhere I knew I was capable.

Capable. To do anything I wanted to do. Ah, as the bard would say: “there’s the rub”. Growing up I knew what I wanted to do – I wanted to get out of London, Ontario. As a young hippie I knew what I wanted to do – topple the establishment and change the world (actually I’m still interested in the change the world part, but am now likely seen to be part of the establishment and toppling myself doesn’t seem very wise). As a mother (the way my heart spent the last 35 years) I knew what I wanted to do – raise children who would embrace life and all it had to offer; I was just never too sure how to do that. As an educator (the way I spent the last 30 professional years) I knew what I wanted to do – make things better for children, make them feel that they, too, could do whatever they wanted to do. But now, facing retirement, for the first time in my life I don’t know what I want to do. That’s exciting. It’s also chillingly frightening.

Other women have always been my inspiration. My mother – fixing the toaster because, after all, it needed fixing. My baby sister – who spent many weekend mornings with me as my “assistant mechanikee”. My first grade teacher – the incomporable Sylvia McPhee – who made me feel so smart and so able and so respected; she’s still a dear friend who mentored me through a Ph.D. and career at the Ministry of Education.

Let’s just look at the concrete realities, a few of them, because there’s so many it literally bogs down and we could all go home and get in our beds. But, let’s just begin with where we are ….

Excerpt from a keynote speech by Gloria Steinem at the annual Women & Power: Our Time to Lead conference, Sept 2004.

My Grade 12 English teacher – Marion Woodman – who taught me that women could have their own opinions and be valued and respected for their insight and wisdom. My daughter Nili – who wears her feminism as simply as her skin, always being brave enough to confront inequity when she encounters it, always working so hard to make life better for women. Dorothea Murphy – who taught in the behavioural class across the hall from my behavioural class in my first teaching position, and who whispered in my ear as I sat next to her in my first-ever staff meeting one June just after graduating from teacher’s college and said: “Look around this room. Would you sleep with any of these men?” This to a woman who was not only at that very moment completely mesmerized by the face of her own Grade 8 teacher sitting there across the staff room – she’d spent that whole year writing “Mrs. Terry Hanson” in a variety of scripts – but was also then an observant Jew. So many women friends and colleagues along the way – some brief visitors in my life and others long-term soulmates that make up my heart family – and each taught me something about strength.

JOIN ME ON THIS JOURNEY

I need to do what I’ve always done. I need to give this a lot of thought, to dig deeply into what retirement means to a feminist woman on the brink of a new adventure. What will my identity be? What will I do every day? Will it be lonely? Will I become everyone’s go-fer? What should I expect emotionally? Will I stay healthy? Will life shrink? How will my partner deal with me not being a workaholic? What music should I listen to? So many questions to think about and so many ideas to explore.

I need to do this thinking, and I need it to be supported by the thinking of other women, of other crones who can share their wisdom, insight and guidance. By being here and reading this, you can share this journey with me. As you read my words, think about your own experiences and your own realities. When something I’ve written strikes a chord, please add your comment to the blog with your own words of wisdom. Together, perhaps, we can figure out what “for the first time in my life, I can really do whatever I want” means.

Let’s just look at the concrete realities, a few of them, because there’s so many it literally bogs down and we could all go home and get in our beds. But, let’s just begin with where we are ….

Excerpt from a keynote speech by Gloria Steinem at the annual Women & Power: Our Time to Lead conference, Sept 2004.

Come explore this landscape with me, and invite your other strong women friends to join us. Together with other women – as has always been the way for me – we’ll forge some new understanding and find ways to share what we learn with others.

And finally … a few technical details on how this will work

It will be almost four months until I actually retire. During this time I’ll be posting at least once a week with the thoughts, explorations, musings, anxieties, clarities I experience along the way. I’ll keep on blogging for at least another four months after I retire … I have a feeling that there will be so much whizzing through my mind in those initial months that the challenge will be not to write a short tome each week. I’ll also be reading your comments, posted to the blog, and I’m pretty sure that before long we’ll have an active, powerful, insightful, wise and witty conversation in full flow. At some point after those four first free months have passed I will be taking all of the words from the blog – yours and mine – and using them to construct a book that will guide others through this journey.

When you submit your comment you will be asked for your e-mail address; that is so that I can communicate with you and put you “on the list” formally. I won’t share those e-mail addresses with anyone else; not to worry.

If you give me permission to use your real name, I’ll give you credit in the book for your contributions to this collaborative effort. Otherwise, feel free to make up a pseudonym for the purposes of blogging and you’ll see that in print one day.

And so: When I was a little girl in London, Ontario, I remember starting a speech in my Grade 5 class with the words: “fasten your seat belt, we’re off on a journey”. Years and miles have passed. Lives have been lived. Here I am today, once again, inviting you to “fasten your seat belt” and join me on this exploration into a space where, as they say on Star Trek, no one has gone before.

 

 

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3 responses to “Welcome to “For the First Time Ever …”

  1. You make me so proud to be your sister. Your road has been bumpy and circuitous but look where it’s lead you. Mine has been a different road, but I share the wonder at where it has led me – a daughter, sister, wife, mother and grandmother; student, teacher, designer and finally artist. Now, at 64, I understand the Beatles’ question “Will you still need me? Will you still feed me?” and how lucky I am that people around me answer with a resounding “YES”.

  2. Hello Sylvia,
    I am at a totally different point than you are — I’ve been retired for 10 years. The moment at which I really decided to retire was when my financial advisor asked me “How old were your parents when they died?” and then, “How old were your husband’s parents?” Putting finite numbers on how long we might have together pushed me over the edge. But, I couldn’t write the letter because I was in a school going through enormous changes. All of us were re-applying for our jobs. I had been very chippy and had asked far too many questions. So it was only when three months after the interview, we were called one by one for our results that I could decide. He said, “Wonderful!” and I went home and wrote the letter.

    The money was a worry to me….it seems silly now but for the first two months I wrote down every cent I spent. Before I retired I bought a very nice cape (in case of wandering on moors) and a really good leather purse. I thought it might be my last but I have another. Probably getting a handle on spending is a benefit….you don’t want to get into a cycle of soul-destroying jobs just to maintain a life-style. We eat out less; I throw out less decaying food from my crisper. I still take taxis. Some of this is better — three of my teaching friends have had dinner out once a month for twenty years. Now we take turns going to each other’s houses for lunch. Once our husbands phoned because it was six o’clock and we’d forgotten to come home.
    It’s not too hard — my pension is actually a little reduced but as another friend points out, an extra $4000 a year doesn’t mean we’ll be staying at the Georges V when we go to Paris.

  3. Sylvia Bereskin

    I’ll admit it’s a bit of a worry to me just because it is such an unknown. Years ago I took a job I wanted more at about a 20% pay cut; I was panicked until I found out how much that really was out of my pocket. The same gnawing thoughts are floating again.

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