On the Threshold: Approaching Elderhood & Retirement

By age 50 you are a survivor. By age 60 you begin to contemplate the end of institutional life. By retirement you are done with the university with all its blandishments, banes, and blessings. Your academic career has reached its limits and borne its fruits; it’s history, and so are you. The question is, what now?

In late career we still experience the perennial, existential anxiety of living in a world of impermanence, flux, and mutability. But to this we now feel a new kind of anxiety: identity loss combined with incipient mortality. Earlier, ambition, achievements, and honors motivated and sustained us. We built programs, developed ideas, published our research, gathered disciples, made enemies, and garnered awards, all with varying degrees of satisfaction. We were supported by an institutional and professional identity. For better or worse, we had both a position and a reputation. But now, we are on our own, with a surfeit of both freedom and time.

Untitled 2William Maxwell, who wrote and edited fiction for the New Yorker, once remarked, “The view after seventy is breathtaking.” On a clear day that may be true. But consider a grad school acquaintance who recently confessed, “If I am no longer a professor at Stanford, what am I?” Another, retired for half a decade, explained that he had begun selling his books. Several of his colleagues were pushing eighty yet still teaching. It was important, he felt, not only to make room for younger scholars, but also to embrace the challenges and opportunities of a new phase of life.   To stay alive, he felt, it was necessary to learn how to be an elder, not only for the sake of the world, but for the sake of your soul. Otherwise you ran the risk of succumbing to bitterness and sterility.

So we arrive at elderhood in spite of ourselves, facing a breathtaking view yet curiously unsure what to do with it. Maxwell continues: “What is lacking is someone, anyone, of the older generation to whom you can turn when you want to satisfy your curiosity about some detail of the landscape of the past. There is no longer any older generation. You have become it, while your mind was mostly on other matters.”

Fortunately, there is scholarship and learning, which need not end when we exit the classroom. “Books are our grandparents,” says Gary Snyder. Maybe now we’ll learn to read them in a new way. And fortunately, we also have each other to serve as companions and guides. Maxwell’s breathtaking view goes in both directions.

So in the weeks ahead Staying Alive will be posting and inviting posts on elderhood and retirement. This is the last and least appreciated phase in the model of academic careers that we have been exploring. Institutions devote little imagination or resources to it, feeling that elders, being no longer “productive” or active in business as usual, are both obsolete and a burden. Elderhood is not something they want to pay for. The profession, likewise, may honor elders for past achievements but generally wants to hear more about the latest new theory or discovery. And for the person, elderhood feels especially complex, fraught, and ambiguous, attended with ambivalence and anxiety. And yet, if we can learn to see it more clearly, perhaps we’ll enjoy a kind of summit view. Stay tuned.

Resisting Burnout is Revolutionary: Marisol Cortez at ASLE

by Sarah Jaquette Ray

At the 2017 ASLE conference, Marisol Cortez, of deceleration.news, talked about the importance of slowing down our feverish reactivity to “multiplying crises” of environmental injustices, climate change, the ascendance of white supremacy, etc.  (You can find her paper now published here).

Marisol and her partner, Greg Harman, have experienced debilitating mental health problems, prompting them to leave their secure jobs for the precarious lives of freelance writers and activists.  She talked about the “disabling assumption” that our “bodies can sustain constant conflict, constant crisis.”  She bemoaned the fact that all such action– chasing fire after fire, working, working, working to resist– reflects a logic of capitalist extraction, a “production imaginary” undermining capitalist growth ideology, that affects corporate life for sure, but also academia and even grassroots activism.

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In contrast, she said, deceleration, degrowth, is a praxis of environmental justice.  The “logic of ‘not-enoughness’ is disabling to activism.”  In other words, the overwhelming feeling we all have to increase the amount of work we do in response to the increased urgency and onslaught of crises is not sustainable to the “marathon” (Bullard’s word) of environmental justice.

Thinking of the “pace of life” expectations around productivity (in the corporate sphere but less obviously so, in the grassroots sphere) as “disabling” is so brilliant. Cortez just blew my mind.

Finally, Cortez rejects “resistance” on the grounds that it nurtures conflict– the very conflict that disables us.  It “internalizes not-enoughness”, while “deceleration rejects our exhaustion with resistance,” which can be “boring” and “joyless.”  Drawing on Gloria Anzaldua, Cortez proposes instead that “inner work, public acts” is a better mantra to live by.   I love that Cortez engages disability studies’ critique of productivity in her talk, politicizing self-care and mental health as central to (as opposed to an elitist luxury getting in the way of) environmental justice.

She cites the 2017 anthology Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era as a key inspiration for her ideas; in it, an essay on “care” — especially care of the self– argues (as I understood Cortez’s summary to say), that we should resist the debilitating forces of production, exhaustion, not-enoughness, action, extraction of our labor, acceleration, accumulation, and the emotional and affective results of these values (despair, nihilism, impotence, depression, etc).

Although the feminist in me bristles a bit when somebody tells me that “care” is the antidote to capitalism, I take her point. I never feel I have the time it takes to properly care for myself, my family, critters, and my friends and loved ones. I resent those humans and non-humans that demand care from me, because I am compelled, torn to do the important work so needed to resist, valued “work” that I imagine happening external to the banality of my domestic life.

But what Cortez is saying, I think, is that I needn’t feel so conflicted, and that if I prioritized care, I might care for myself as much as the other critters that need care, instead of cutting self-care in favor of hard work and care of others.  In short, Cortez’s paper prompts me to rethink the complexity of “care”, especially as the discourse of “self-care” surfaces as the key to long-term scholar-activism in a post-election moment.

I was struck by the arguments about temporality implicit in Cortez’s paper.  She talked about the work of environmental justice that is invisible even within the counter-hegemonic work of justice, the slow, daily, monotonous work that is taboo and uncool in the fight to “resist”: meditation, writing, thinking, creating, tending to relationships, tending to our joys and loves. She says that our unwillingness to “count” this work as valuable is a reflection not of our selfishness or our inadequate commitment to justice, but rather of the capitalist logic of extraction and productivity.

If Rob Nixon’s theory of “slow violence” helps make visible the forms of violence caused by environmental injustices dispersed and displaced across time, then perhaps what we might call “slow activism” (which may not even look like activism as we know it) surely is the response to surviving it.

 

SarahJRaySarah Jaquette Ray teaches at Humboldt State University, where she also leads the program in Environmental Studies. Her research and teaching focus on environmental justice, race, identity, and environmental discourse, affect, and pedagogy. She confesses to spending most of her time these days wishing she could find time to write about pedagogy, interdisciplinarity, parenting, resilience, climate justice, friendship, eco-grief, and critical hope. Sarah maintains the blog “Writing at the End of the World”, where this post first appeared, and serves on the Executive Council of ASLE.