In 2018, on 11th June, after much humming and hawing (to the point where I must’ve bored Maggie and my work friends to pieces) and a memorable walk with Roger (my manager at the time) to talk it all through, I sent off the paperwork to apply for Voluntary Severance from my post as Programme Lead/Principal Lecturer in the School of Education at Oxford Brookes.

The back story is that I had been thinking about it for some time, pondering back in the January on this blog  “whether vocation and profession are coterminous.” Then it crashed in on me a year ago, at a time when (as the still rather raw-to-read blog posts such as this and this or the more comfortable this attest), I had had enough. Doctor; Occupational Health; Counselling: VS came at the point where I was (as those compassionate or foolish enough to get caught in the flood)  everything from tetchy to sleepless or weepy . I thought about it, thought about the other possibilities, and metaphorically signed the papers (e-documents). I am tempted to give an Oscar-like list of thanks to all those people who let or helped me let go of all those things I felt increasingly unable to do well, or who gave me sage advice. But I  won’t –  except that it’s now my turn. Here are some thoughts about the last year or so.  I won’t advise on how anyone not yet at pension stage should check their payments and lump sums &c regularly – although to have done so earlier would have saved me literally days on the ‘phone. This is a bit more personal. Well, a lot more personal really.

I wrote in January ‘18 that it came as “something of a surprise at this end of my working life to find I have friends deeply woven into my appreciation of a working day.” I was right when I said I enjoy people’s company.  It is still a good day that has coffee with Mat, or with Elise,  Chris or  Helena, or tea or something more refreshing with Jon. It is still a good day when coffee in the Weston means meeting Catharine, Carol, Georgina or Susannah. I still feel guilty about leaving when colleagues asked me not to.   It can be a bad day when I have to remind myself that not everyone is as flexible as I can be…  I wouldn’t describe this as loneliness, but as a realisation that I was right: life at Brookes can go on, does go on. Gloomily, I likened my going to a stone dropped into a pool: a splash, and then the calm waters close over. I had seen colleagues leave before and know that organisations and systems fill the voids very quickly.  That this is true is inexplicably sad. Nobody told me how big a part of this would be regret.

So the first message was that I wasn’t going to leave behind some of these gloomier things. I thought I might; I said to my counsellor I understood I wouldn’t; I really didn’t think it would be as big a deal as it is.  While Elise had advised it would take a year, I didn’t realise it would be a hard year. 

Other things have stayed, too. I feel like the reinvention of Nick has been like a second go on the adolescence rollercoaster, but with some knowledge of the track.  I sleep badly still – but then,  I always have. I spend too much time on social media and modern tech. Too much telly, too much iPad or ‘phone. A worry last week about a student’s programme meant I saw the dawn, heard the dawn chorus. Avoidance strategies to make things that are hurtful seem smaller. But with that has come running.

I am not a good runner. I am not like some of my extended family who moan about the Trench Foot or broken toes their umpteenth Marathon has brought them. BAA6F010-890B-422D-8483-6C7981D1D1EBI am a tubby jogger who is proud to be able to cover 6.5k without collapsing. Nevertheless, I look forward to it, enjoy it (mostly), really appreciate the contact with the natural environment of suburban Oxford, and of course boast of it when I can (like here).

Therefore the second message: new things may arise. I keep seeing jobs that I think “Ooh, I could apply,” only to realise that those opportunities are closed to me. But there are new chances, new possibilities, and I now know that vocation and profession is not the right dyad: it is much more like profession and full-time paid employment are not coterminous, and the new things arising can’t always be seen in terms of money.  Being not-entirley-retired has a lot of plus points: it allows me above all to ponder what I really want and need from my profession as an educator (yes, I know that’s ponderous and full of windbaggery).  

And as for the rest? Well, the new opportunties may not be what was expected, they are smaller, but they make the shape of a day feel different.  It’s such a joy to share stories and books with school children; a challenge to learn from pottery; a grace to go to Mass more often – and who is this person that writes household To Do lists? Tomorrow I will be reminded by various bits of music that it’s a day for running. This piece of Nina Simone from the music of Billy Taylor has been key, a life saver in the darkest times, and if it is an anthem for the liberation of oppressed minorities in the States, I don’t mean to equate my desires with the plight of African Americans in the 50s and 60s, but this came on as I went for my first run, and has stayed with me.

…I wish I could say
All the things that I should say
Say ’em loud say ’em clear
For the whole ’round world to hear.
I wish I could share
All the love that’s in my heart
Remove all the doubts
That keep us apart
I wish you could know
What it means to be me
Then you’d see and agree
That every man should be free…
It’s powerful stuff, all that wishing, all that desire for freedom.
And it’s reflecting on this that will bring this rambling to a close. I knew I would lose a lot when I left, some good, some bad – or maybe some immediately pleasant and some stressful: avoiding a judgment of good and evil – and I dimly realised there would be some things I would take or leave that would be in my power. I hadn’t expected that a lot would be outside my immediate control, and again some of that has made me really happy, and some has taken me to very miserable places.  I suppose one way of thinking about this is a Detox, but of course not everything was toxic in my job, not by a long chalk –  although I think one of things that I became addicted to was the stress…  and bang: work stress is gone.  
And that’s perversely one of the things that make leaving feel like a sentence that has been interrupted, a me that no  longer is me. The fish who escape the Aquarium at the end of Finding Nemo are free – but what do they do now? What will Caliban find when he has no more dams to make for fish? Another “language learnt but nothing understood,” perhaps? Freedom is also freedom to be caught by squalls of depression or aimlessness. Maybe these are the very spurs that send me out trotting round the meadow.  Like Caliban we all create who we are with what we have….
The poignant lyrics (and very James Taylor harmonies) of Before This World and The Jolly Spring Time have some useful thoughts:
Give up the love that takes and breaks your heart
Let go the weight of all that holds you here
Let the resin risin’ up in the tree
Make the green leaf bud…
Yes the winter was bitter and long
So the spring’ll be sweet
Come along with a rhythm and a song
Watch creation repeat.
Thin thin the moment is thin
Ever so narrow the now
Everybody say got to live in today
Don’t nobody know how
I know that the lyrics alone don’t cut it. For some people these are threadbare sentiments except, maybe, to a sixty-something who smiles when he’s running through the meadow and James Taylor’s singing comes on the lighten the last few minutes of a run. But they stop me running away from something: they make me think I’m running in something, which feels very different.  Running in the now. 
Maybe the third message is that I think this is my new job.    

3 thoughts on “(Semi)retired

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