September 10th was a 9th wedding anniversary for David and me. We’ve had a lot of transitions to make in those nine years; a lot of joy, a lot of excitement, miles – in both length and depth – of journeying together, challenging challenges – my transition from career woman to retiree included – and a lot of love. Interestingly we each gave the other an anniversary card with a similar message … that every day we fall in love all over again and that we’d marry each other again. Knowing he’s on this journey with me is a real gift; my kudos – and gratitude – to him … and anyone else who can support someone in this journey into understanding what this new part of life – retirement – is all about. I wonder what it’s like to live with someone who’s doing one of those life-cycle, ground-shifting sort of dances? Not easy I’m sure. Thank you David.
NOW, to the original Thursday morning posting:
I was watching Criminal Minds with David the other night (a favorite show we share) and I heard these words:
ON THE FLIGHT OUT (if you watch Criminal Minds you’ll know what I mean, otherwise just see these as two quotes in the show): “The French philosopher Voltaire wrote ‘there are some who only employ words for the purpose of disguising their thoughts’.”
ON THE HOMEWARD-BOUND FLIGHT: “The author, Francois Foucault wrote ‘We are so accustomed to disguise ourselves to others that in the end we become disguised to ourselves’.”
These words were kind of jangling and set my mind racing. They’ve been sort of haunting me now for several days. I worry that through my words here I am disguising myself … maybe even from myself. It’s another spin on words that I’d heard from the women I interviewed years ago when I did my doctorate. They’d all talked about their take on the Impostor Syndrome which leads many of us to continually question ourselves about whether or not we really have earned what we’ve achieved and whether or not we’ve been misleading others into believing we’re smarter and/or more competent than we really are.
Then I read Bettina’s comment on my Labour Day post, suggesting that she thought I was “finding that comfort center” in (my) retirement if there is such a thing” and I knew I had to pause and think and write. So I’ve just spent time – for the first time in a very long time – rippling through the pages of my dissertation (Solomon, Sylvia R. (1989). Women of Eminence: The Underrepresentation of Women at High Levels of Achievement. University of Toronto) and what a nourishing journey through old words it was. Let me share it with you here.
In 1989 I completed my doctorate in education (there’s my diploma hanging in the bathroom along with David’s MBA from Hebrew University, my REALM award for outstanding public service, and certificates attesting to climbing Kilimanjaro, crossing the Arctic Circle, and walking across the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge). Completing my doctorate was a wonderful event for me because it was one of those “there; I’ve finished what I started” moments that can be so exhilarating; and I’d done it – to be frank – against the odds. I was a single Mom with three children who were 16, 15, 11 at the time. My second marriage had ended a couple of years earlier and that had been one of the catalysts that put me back on track to this particular destination – rebuilding the self-esteem that is inevitably injured in divorce. I’d completed the required course-work several years earlier but had become a “lapsed candidate” waiting for the right moment to do my research and write my dissertation. In those non-attendance years I’d given a lot of thought to what I wanted to do and had a pretty complete sense of my work when OISE (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education/University of Toronto) hired Dr. Dan Keating, a world leader in gifted education. In the fall of 1983 I’d left an envelope in Dr. Keating’s mailbox at the university, basically laying out in quite clear terms just what I wanted to do in my research, what my background was, some samples of papers I’d already published, and a flippant comment about being a busy, full-time working single mother of three children and having little interest in fetching coffee or spending a lot of time in the department. Chutzpadik for sure! Anyhow, he’d responded that he was most interested in working with me (I think I was his first grad student at OISE) and by the springtime I’d had a proposal accepted and a committee established. I won the Shirley Stokes Fellowship for Women’s Studies from the Federation of Women Teacher’s of Ontario and that, as well as the money I received for the William Pakenham Education Fellowship (evidently the most prestigious award granted to incoming graduate students at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE/UT) enabled me to travel in July and interview women for my dissertation.
I’d discovered in my early reading on gifted women that when you “test” children for giftedness when they’re about 8 years old you get appropriate proportions of boys and girls being identified. When you test again at around age 14 however, up to 80% of the girls seem to have disappeared … and they don’t reappear in later testing either. So what happens here? That was what I wanted to learn more about. Any explanations of this phenomenon that had been written about up to that point in time were pretty much studies done by men and their explanations – tied to the onset of puberty – put a new meaning to the phrase “bleed your brains out”. Enough of that! I decided to do a series of interviews with women who’d made it to the “top” (and yes, I recognize that I should have dealt more with the very notion of how “top” is defined in our culture … ) and see if I could find anything in their recollected pasts that would give us direction for things that might be important for gifted girls so that they don’t disappear. For me to select subjects they had to be in the Who’s Who of Canadian Women and they had to have gotten there on their own strengths (that is, I didn’t include women who’d been born into – or married into – families that had been instrumental in placing them in high positions if you know what I mean). What incredible women I met.
Roberta Bondar first came to international prominence as the world’s first neurologist in space; as Canada’s first woman astronaut on the space shuttle Discovery in 1992. After her flight she went on to lead an international space medicine research team, finding new connections between recovering from floating in space and neurological illnesses such as stroke and Parkinson’s disease. Part of her message of advice to young women (at that time of course) was that they need to keep their options open: “rely on yourself and your talents”, she said, “You’re not born with all this knowledge, you have to learn in.”
June Callwood was a Canadian journalist, author and social activist par excellence. Her own goal, she told me, was “to be proud of what I’m doing, and I have almost never achieved that.” The most important thing that she identified was compassion. “Compassion is different from pity by a long shot. It’s the ability to be in someone else’s situation and to feel someone’s else’s pain. You can’t do that if you’re totally preoccupied with yourself. You have to start with, say, an ant scurrying across the sidewalk and the child wants to step on it. All the children want to step on it. You make the child stop and look at the entity of the ant, and the importance of that ant to the community it’s in, and so on. It’s got to care about that ant. When you can get a child into the ant, you’re going to be able to raise it successfully. That’s what you have to do … if they can do that they’re well on their way to having a very satisfying life.” What a great deal I learned, personally, interviewing her.
Wendy Cecil-Cockwell is now Chair of the U of T Governing Council. She told me about how a professor of hers who had invited the class to his home and treated his students as humans worth taking an interest in had inspired her, had indeed “opened up a whole different world to me”.
Maryon Kantaroff is a world-recognized sculptor. She’d grown up with the gift of a mother who’d always told her it was okay to try to do whatever you had a passion for and that whether she succeeded or not she’d still be loved. What a gift that was! So she’d gone through life doing what she wanted to be doing, saying – to those who might not agree with her directions and choices: “Tough, this is what I have to do, and then I’d go ahead and do it. My feminism”, she said, “has made me an enormous threat but I can still be who I am.” Definitely that inspired me.
Eva Kushner was a professor of French and comparative literature and a University president. When she talked about her career, she told me that she hadn’t been too well organized for a career (comforting for me to hear) and that: “I have by no means obtained everything I wanted. If I really want something I go after it, but I weigh the cost in emotional currency and what it will do to me.” Wise woman.
Nora Lem was a molecular biologist. Nicola Rooney was a chemical engineer. Nancy Morrison was a Supreme Court judge in British Columbia. Lorna Marsden was a sociologist and later became a University President.
All of these women recognized that they’d been “at least partially successful” but they also talked about that fear of being judged and having not accomplished what they should have. What was comforting to me then – and now – is that they also said that within that perhaps inevitable discomfort you have to focus on peace of mind. Wendy Cecil-Cockwell said it concisely: “If you don’t have peace of mind, if you’re not comfortable with your decisions, you’re not successful. If you have peace of mind, you have everything.”
So here I sit now. I am comfortable – mostly – with the decisions I’ve been making in retirement. I’m still filled with self-doubt, but that’s me I guess. I hope – and I think – that I’m not using words to disguise myself but rather to help me see myself more clearly. I do continue to struggle with seeing the distance between “what is” and “what I wish was”; I guess that’s also me.
In the end, I guess I just have to say it: I have everything.
Slow smile crosses my face as I notice that the sun has come out and there’s potentially a nice kayak paddle in my near future.