The wisdom of, ‘Whatever’

My friend Connie, a retired executive, a Christian believer, a mother and grandmother, a considerate friend — a woman whose “lake cabin” is more elegant than any house I’ll ever own — is the last person I would expect to be dismissive or nonchalant.

But that is how I initially interpreted her answer when I asked how she had navigated the final year of her career, at an organization and in a job that were important to her. Whenever something bothered her, she said, when she felt slighted or overlooked, when she disagreed with a decision or a directive from her boss, she would shrug her shoulders and tell herself, Whatever.

The one-word toss-off — so unnatural to her, otherwise — gave Connie perspective, allowing her to see that she could not simultaneously step away and hang on, that she had given a year’s notice before retiring because she wanted to open the door for someone else. Someone different. Someone younger.

Whatever stays with me as I scan my sharp edges after 15 months of a frightening, constrictive pandemic. The principle applies not only to how I navigate the final years of my career but to aspects of life beyond work. Whatever is not: Fuck it! It’s not resentful or angry. It’s the Serenity Prayer, accepting all the slights and hurts, the aggravations and unexpected detours — “the things we cannot change.”

It is recognizing, as my husband says, that America already has too much contention, that I need not engage in every fight or always weigh in with my opinion. Sometimes, the silence can say more, at less cost.

Anger-infused wisdom

Twice in one day recently I had to stop myself from firing back angrily over email (both times with men, whom I rarely allow to gain the upper hand) when the responses to an innocuous request or an open dialogue came across as condescension or mansplaining. One colleague declared it was “not my first rodeo” after I asked him to take notes in a conference session I could not attend (a reasonable request, in my view, given my interest in the topic). Another man gibed that I had become a “convert to Hinduism” after I described the eight limbs of yoga in a conversation about yoga bans in public schools and pointed out to him that, however unwittingly, Alabama and other conservative southern states may grasp the holistic nature of the practice better than most Western fitness enthusiasts.

Both times I stepped back, literally walked away from the computer, and then flipped my irritation like a rock I had stumbled over in the woods. What was beneath it? What resentment would crawl out? “Whatever,” I said aloud, giving myself a pause to reconsider and later to examine how my sensitivities about other aspects of these relationships were fueling such a strong reaction.

Literary wisdom

Sometimes I wonder whether the book I happen to pick up is the one I am meant to be reading. Ideas and awakenings will grab me, ones that seem to be precisely what I need to hear at this time, in this place.

So it was with The Weekend by Charlotte Wood, an appealingly easy read, recommended by a friend, after nearly four months of textbooks in my spring semester graduate class. The story of three women in their early 70s mourning the death of a friend in their longtime foursome, the book described the softening judgments and hard realities of aging, showcasing a demographic often rendered invisible and inspiring this Boomer to highlight passages in multiple colors on her digital reader:

  • “Everybody hated old people now; it was acceptable, encouraged even, because of your paid-off mortgage and your free education and your ruination of the planet.”
  • “You had your ostensible life, going about the physical world, and then you had your other real, inner life — the realm of expression, where the important understandings, the real living, took place.”
  • “On these silent morning walks, her body was ageless, it had seen no degradation.”
  • “The moon appeared now and then between sweeping clouds, and in those moments of cold light, Wendy saw this: my life has not been what I believed it to be.”

I recommended The Weekend to my older sister, thanked my friend David for suggesting it, put it on my list for the next installation of my Annual Book Club — and then was caught short by a dismissive review on Goodreads: “the author was too bored of her own boring book to write an ending for any of the boring characters.” Whatever! The book spoke to me, and that’s what counts.

Animal wisdom

The older I get, the more I see how the wisdom of age is inspired by the wisdom of animals. It is my dogs fleeing to tight, confined spaces when an early-morning thunderstorm warns them to seek shelter. Or the cat, years ago, that pressed itself into the far corners of a closet until it could recover from a fight — the cat we rescued because the owners had declawed it but then left it outdoors to fend for itself.

Like those animals, I seek quiet as I grow older. More yoga, more reading, more breathwork, more stillness. I instinctively retreat from the strivings and drama of my youth — the aspirations at work, the loud, noisy parties, the exhilarating but exhausting relationships. Energy diminishes as we age, and I conserve mine for what matters most. For whatever appeals to me now.

How will you know when it is time to retire?

I am thinking about retirement. I am not yet ready to retire. As a committed careerist and the longtime breadwinner for my family, I never expected to find myself stuck in this state of limbo.

Ads for retirement planning now pop up routinely on my digital feeds, as though Mark Zuckerberg is reading my mind or listening in on my private conversations. Some web Wizard of Oz behind the curtain knows I am only 15 months from the magic age of 65.

Recent online ads include:

  • “Women’s Retirement Roadmap,” sponsored by an insurance agency
  • “The New Reality in Our Retirement,” put on by Retirement Wealth Academy
  • The provocative clickbait Take This Quiz to See if You Can Retire Comfortably.

A year ago, I bit. I took a two-part “Retirement Planning Today” workshop with a colleague only nine months older than me who is now happily three months into her retirement — assuring me that the pricey, self-funded health insurance prior to turning 65 is worth being done with the pains and politics of work.

Shortly after the workshop, I queried my recently retired friends: What had to be in place financially for you to leave full-time employment? What financial decisions or sacrifices did you have to make?

Many months after gathering their responses — and a year into a pandemic that made planning all but impossible — I find that my questions about retirement are less practical than existential.

  • Who will I be when I no longer am working?
  • How will I know when the time is right?
  • How much notice would be fair to my employer without putting me in a position where I have to leave before I’m ready?
Photo by kazuend on Unsplash

Turns out, I fit the mold of late-stage middle-agers, almost to the point of cliché. “Pre-retirement” leads the five stages of retirement, the years when your focus shifts from career growth to financial security. “For many, this stage is a time of excitement and anticipation. But it can also be a time for worry and doubt, especially in the year or two before retirement,” writes Eric Paquette, a blogger whose helpful insights appear on the website for a Canadian retirement community.

Here are some takeaways from what I suspect will be ongoing conversations with my friends and siblings who have crossed this bridge.

What I love best is never having to be anywhere at any time with anyone I don’t choose.

Former journalist and communications director

Money changes everything

“It’s a real privilege to be able to afford to retire and have your health,” says my oldest sister, Debbie, who retired at 65 — from a career that mattered — because an experimental cancer treatment had improbably saved her husband’s life. They wanted time together while they both had time.

Every other woman I interviewed likewise had the financial ability to retire, but not before meticulous planning with a financial advisor. Despite advice to the contrary from business websites that cater to the lifestyles of the professional class, these workaday women proved the ability to live on less once you leave a full-time job.

Prior to COVID, Peggy, now 70, was camping and taking road trips rather than traveling internationally, as she long had dreamed. A divorced woman who lives alone, she completed a budgeting worksheet with her financial planner six months before she retired.

Up for evaluation were her subscriptions and charitable donations, how often she could visit her hairdresser, the level of her internet and cable service, even whether she could afford another cat. “I was a bit flipped out when I discovered my expenses would take just about every dime of my Social Security,” says Peggy, a former journalist who also relies on a “small but critical” union pension.

Nan, now 67, is among several women I know whose employers retired them earlier than they otherwise would have left. She began drawing Social Security as soon as she qualified but is saving it in a high-interest money market account. “I was prepared to find a part-time job that I would not bring home with me,” she says. Ultimately she chose to spend time with her father in his final years and with her growing grandsons.

“My advice?” she says. “Take stock of what you want to do in this next chapter, and you can figure out how to make it work.”

When you leave, no one will remember who you are.

Tim, a happily retired insurance executive

Caring less need not equal apathy

I called a woman recently who turned 66 in February and is planning to retire in June. The work she does “seems to matter less,” both to her employer and to her. “I just don’t care as much anymore,” she said, and that’s a foreign feeling.

Similarly, a male insurance executive who earned a national profile in his field and whose income afforded him both a family home and a lakeside retreat says the shift to digital marketing in his company spelled the end of his career — but so did a gradual shift in his attitude, his ambition. “My heart wasn’t in it anymore,” he says.

Tim went through his LinkedIn account and broke ties with anyone he did not consider an actual friend, a person whose hand he would shake or with whom he’d share a meal. (That makes me wonder how many of my 1,918 LinkedIn connections I even know.)

Many retired people say they miss some things about working. I like having a purpose and a place to go, even as I recognize that I no longer care about climbing the career ladder (and struggle not to judge that as apathetic or disloyal).

My friend David, an attorney and human resources consultant who fully retired at 70, offered some advice last fall that continues to stick with me: “You’re going to be offended by this,” he said, “but I think you need to learn to coast. You don’t have anything to prove anymore.”

The time since leaving my day job has been richer, fuller and busier than my pre-realignment time.

Attorney who retired at 66

Retire is a fraught, misleading word

“I know you,” my older sister Penny likes to say. “You’re going to be busier than ever in retirement,” and I suspect she’s right. Upping my commitments to causes such as women’s healthcare and hunger relief, volunteering to dog walk at the Animal Humane Society, teaching fitness classes for older women, writing and editing more, working what I call a job-job to pay for extras and essentials. That is how I envision my post-professional years to be.

When my friend and former colleague Mary left our place of employment at age 60, back in 2017, she didn’t call it retirement. “I just said I was going to take time to figure out what came next,” she says. “I was pretty sure it wasn’t going to be another full-time professional job, but who knew? These days, I’m comfortable using the word retirement.”

Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

Realignment is the word my friend Helene insists on using. It describes the life she has crafted, from deep engagement with progressive political and social justice causes to earning a second advanced degree. “My job was OK, and the benefits were good, but I also really wanted to leave with time to do work I care about,” she says. “I’ve watched too many folks my age or younger get sick or die to keep believing I had unlimited time for all this.”

Boredom and Barcaloungers, restlessness and rocking chairs, depression and the demise of useful days: Stereotypes about retirement are so inaccurate and outdated that it may be time to retire the word itself.

Why privileged people must keep talking in troubled times

White people are talking to one another these days. Eagerly reading books. Earnestly participating in whites-only discussion groups — a type of racial segregation with an entirely different feel and meaning from the power-hording exclusions of the past.

This is our work, to face up to and come to terms with what feminist and white anti-racism activist Peggy McIntosh calls the “unearned entitlements” that society bestows on white people. (See the list that McIntosh laid out more than 30 years ago in her essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” and notice how full that knapsack remains today.)

As I have worked through (in order) the books White Fragility, and Between the World and Me, and There There, and How to Be an Antiracist, I have been thinking about language:

  • How white names have erased other cultures.
  • How shifts in capitalization initially confused me.
  • How hard I tried, as a young feminist, to incorporate gender-neutral language into my writing and daily speech.

And because I made such an effort to replace generic male pronouns with the admittedly awkward “he or she,” I have become more aware of when unconscious bias — the privileges of race, class and sexual orientation that I take for granted — still trips me up with how I use and view language.

Here’s what I am learning:

Lesson 1: Do your homework.

During the uncivil tug of war over whether to call Minneapolis’ largest lake by its original Dakota name or the one that honored racist politician John C. Calhoun, I never bothered to investigate how to pronounce Bde Maka Ska. Instead, wanting to look “woke,” I simply used it.

A friend who lives near the former Lake Calhoun gently corrected me when I referenced ba-DAY-mah-kah-SKA, putting the primary emphasis on the final syllable. The correct pronunciation of what translates into English as White Earth Lake has a flow, emphasizing the second syllable of the second word. Ba-day-mah-KAH-ska.

“But that’s not what the spelling suggests!” I told my friend. No matter. Not my language, not my place. Instead of embarrassing myself further, I found a video online that helped me pronounce the name correctly, and then I practiced. By now, the pronunciation is second nature.

Lesson 2: Fake it till you make it.

The first time I was asked to introduce myself with my pronoun preferences was when I began volunteering for a feminist health organization in January 2018. “Hi, I’m Amy, she/her/hers” sounded awkward at first. Eventually, like “he or she,” it just seemed natural. The practice has also helped me be more cognizant of non-binary people, those who identify as neither female nor male.

I had witnessed the pronoun challenges of my transgender first cousin, who spent some long, hard years transitioning from male to female and who later grew impatient when people made pronoun mistakes — as her parents, my aunt and uncle, sometimes did. My husband once referred to Renae as “he” at a family gathering, watched her stiffen and felt himself want to melt into the floor. Instead he apologized and moved on, acknowledging Renae’s feelings before his own by staying with the conversation. By remaining present, both literally and emotionally.

Lesson 3: Find safe spaces to work things out.

I recently joined a “Dismantling Whiteness” group at work. I seek out people I trust with whom to discuss issues of race and inequity, of power and privilege, of unconscious bias and changing language patterns. Like me, they are white; like me, they are trying. Like me, they sometimes are confused.

As a former editor, I closely followed the decision by prominent media outlets last summer to start capitalizing the word Black again, in the wake of the social upheaval that followed the police killing of George Floyd. Was this a gesture meant to reverse centuries of horrific treatment? Was it intended to help Black people earn some overdue respect? Or was it time to remind whites of our complicity?

A commentary last July in the Washington Post argued a different point of view. If we capitalize only Black, said author and historian Nell Irvin Painter — who herself is Black — then we fail to acknowledge that whiteness is a race, a social construction that for centuries has elevated some people at the expense of others.

I choose, here and elsewhere, not to capitalize white. Not yet. I fear leaving any impression of allegiance to white nationalism or of appearing antagonistic toward social change or of differing with Black people’s right to claim their own identity. I’m just not sure it is my choice to make.

This is why white people are talking. We must figure it out among ourselves. “I feel like such a stumbling white person,” I told a Black colleague last year at a pre-COVID work meeting. She laughed and touched my arm. “Keep on stumbling,” she declared.

Our turn, finally, to have a reckoning with race.