By Ellen Goodman
Editor’s note: This is Ellen Goodman’s final column.
There is something fitting about writing my last column on the first day of a new year. January, after all, is named for the Roman god of beginnings and endings. He looked backward and forward at the same time. So, this morning, do I.
I wish I could find the right language to describe this rite of passage. Retirement, that swoon of a word, just won’t do. The Spanish translation, jubilación, is a bit over the top for my own mix of feelings.
The phrase that kept running through my head as I considered this next step was: “I’m letting myself go.” Yes, I can imagine the response if a tweet came across the screen announcing, “Ellen Goodman has let herself go.” I can see the illustration: out of shape, lazy, slovenly, the very worst things you can whisper about a woman of a certain age.
But I love the idea of reclaiming that phrase. After all, where will you go when you let yourself go? To let this question fill the free space between deadlines in my life has been quite liberating. It suggests the freedom that can fuel this journey.
Looking backward and forward. I belong to a generation that has transformed our culture. We’ve been the change agents for civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights. Now, we find ourselves on the cutting edge of another huge social change. This time, it’s the longevity revolution. Ours is the first generation to collectively cross the demarcation line of senior citizenship with actuarial tables on our side.
Senior citizen is now a single demographic name tag that includes those who fought in World War II and those who were born in World War II. We don’t have a label yet to describe the early, active aging. But many of us are pausing to recalculate the purpose of a longer life. We are reinventing ourselves and society’s expectations, just as we have throughout our lives.
Looking backward and forward. I began writing my column when my daughter was 7 and I leave as my grandson turns 7. I began writing about Gerald Ford and end writing about Barack Obama. I began on a typewriter, transmitting columns on a Xerox telecopier. Now I have a MacBook on my desk and an iPhone in my pocket.
I celebrated my lucky midlife marriage in these pages, sent my daughter to college, welcomed my grandchildren, said farewell to my mother. I upheld Thanksgiving traditions in this space and celebrated them with a family that evolved far beyond my grandparents’ idea of tradition. I wrote about values and pushed back against those who believe they own the patent on this word.
It has been a great gift to make a living trying to make sense out of the world around me. That is as much a disposition as an occupation.
Now, when people ask what are you going to do next, I am tempted to co-opt Susan Stamberg’s one-word answer when she left her anchor post at NPR: “Less.” I am more tempted to say, simply, “We’ll see.” After 46 years of deadlines, it is time to take in some oxygen, to breathe and consider.
At the risk of sounding like a politician one step ahead of the sheriff, I want to spend more time with my family and fulfill the fantasy of a summer on my porch in Maine. But of course writers write—even more than 750 words at a gulp—and former columnists can get involved in causes that require something more than a keyboard.
Looking forward and backward, it is never easy to know the right moment to step onto that next stage. At a farewell lunch—which I described as the “sheet cake lunch”—my editor and friend read aloud some vaguely familiar words by a columnist 30 years my junior.
“There’s a trick to the Graceful Exit. It begins with the vision to recognize when a job, a life stage, a relationship is over—and to let go. It means leaving what’s over without denying its validity or its past importance in our lives.
“It involves a sense of future, a belief that every exit line is an entry, that we are moving on rather than out.”
It was an odd experience to hear, let alone heed, my younger self.
“The trick of retiring well may be the trick of living well,” I wrote back then. “It’s hard to recognize that life isn’t a holding action, but a process. It’s hard to learn that we don’t leave the best parts of ourselves behind, back in the dugout or the office. We own what we learned back there. The experiences and the growth are grafted onto our lives. And when we exit, we can take ourselves along—quite gracefully.”
She knew then what I know much more intimately now. So, with her blessing, I will let myself go. And go for it.
Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman1(at)me.com.
© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group