Today is my birthday.
Last year my birthday launched what I've been calling Act III, the last and best act of my life. I saw the birthday, my big 6-0, as a major life milestone. That same year I took early retirement, after 22 years, from my job as a professor in the philosophy department of the University of Colorado, irrevocably surrendering my tenure in a satisfying bridge-burning way. I became a grandmother: my grandmother name is Mimsie, and eighteen-month-old Kataleya and I are each others' most beloved companions. I published my 50th children's book, Annika Riz, Math Whiz. I was clearly at a watershed moment in my life.
Now a year has passed. Act III so far has been lovely, but not what I thought it would be. So, herewith, some birthday reflections.
Act III hasn't really turned out to be all that different from Act II. I woke up on my birthday last year, and, well, I was still the same person. Maybe this should have been less of a surprise than it was. But I somehow had envisioned myself now leaping out of bed to exercise with hand weights, standing on one foot for minutes at a time to enhance my sense of balance, writing some new kind of book different from anything I'd ever written before (more, say, the kind of book that would win the National Book Award), and using my newly empty days for what Brenda Ueland calls "moodling" - long, slow reflection that leads to big, deep ideas.
None of those things happened. I did the hand weights for two days and then lost interest. Ditto for standing on one foot, though I know that this is the single most crucial thing I can do to maintain my quality of life as I age. Falls killed my mother, and I've already had several, including one that led to a broken foot with a most irritating period of convalescence. Okay, memo to self: this year I really truly am going to stand on one foot at a time for a full two minutes every single day!
I also found that I'm not much for moodling. What I like is to be busy, busy, busy. Maybe this is a failing in me, a sign that in some subconscious way I need to distract myself continually from meditation on life's woes? Maybe it's fear of tackling the unknown in a way that I would do better to push on through? In any case, I feel restless and blue after days where I don't have anything concrete to show for myself. I want to have pages written (preferably on a book already under contract, with a pressing deadline). I want to advise writing mentees (preferably lots of them), review articles for journals, design courses to teach, even grade papers (giving myself credit for each batch of five graded). I'm addicted to visible, tangible signs of progress. I just am.
So within a month of my Act III-launching birthday, I surprised myself by signing up to teach again, heading back to Indiana for one more sweet semester at DePauw this past spring, and now securing myself a teaching appointment there for this coming spring as well, where I'll be teaching three courses, including two that I've never taught before, and one that nobody has ever taught before, which I invented myself: an honors scholar course on "The Ethics of Story."
I feel my usual guilt at leaving my family for so long to sojourn elsewhere. How Tanky the little dog will miss me, his champion walker! How Kataleya will stand at the gate at the bottom of the stairs and cry for Mimsie! My heart breaks already just thinking about it. And yet. . . I'm just someone who thrives on time away from home, just as I thrive on time here immersed in the heart of my loving family. I like to be here. But I also like to be there. And so I'm trying to arrange a life where I have both.
One year in, Act III has brought some (perhaps rueful) self-recognition. I yam what I yam. And yet. . . I still feel tingly with a sense of possibility, and a twinge of envy, when friends radically upend their entire existence, as when a DePauw librarian friend suddenly moved her entire family permanently (well, permanently for now) to New Zealand, and an author/illustrator friend decided to get an MFA at the University of Edinburgh, selling her house and starting all over again in a foreign land. Something in me can't stop reading websites about retiring in Ecuador or Estonia.
But for now: this is my life, part in Colorado, part in Indiana, part with my family, part by myself a thousand miles away, teaching the courses I like to teach, writing the books I like to write, being who I am in the way that I'm used to being. But I AM going to start standing on one foot for two minutes a day!