By this time, she had shifted the focus of her career to mostly academic pursuits and was now dean of the journalism school at the University of Oklahoma. She planned to write books when she retired six years hence. Thus, I was surprised when she replied to the television producer's question about whether she was a journalist, too. "I used to be," she said softly.
My heart sank. Used to be. There was nothing "used to be" about Elizabeth. In my mind, she was still a journalistic star, still a contender, and was choosing, as well, to pass her craft on to new generations. How could she be talking about "used to be"?
I told her the phrase made me sad, like she was giving up a part of herself
"I not finished," she said. "Just growing on."
The conversation has stayed with me through many of my own life changes.
The other day, in the gym, a fellow exerciser was talking with my husband Bob about his concern over his wife's serious depression. When I joined them, the man smiled and said. "I heard that you're a therapist."
I felt a mix of emotions -- wishing I could help, especially when I heard how difficult it was to get psychotherapy in this rural area. But my licensure is in California, not Arizona. I made the decision to retire from practicing psychotherapy to concentrate on writing once again when we moved last year. I can't legally practice in Arizona.
"I used to be a therapist," I said at last. And it only stung for a moment, mostly because I wanted to help more than I was able.
We say "used to be" at major transitions points in our lives -- as we look back to the certainty of what was as we stand poised for the uncertainty of the future.
I remember my first night at the freshman dorm at Northwestern University. We all sat in the hall that night, trying to look cool and not nearly as scared as we were. Many smoked for the first time. We shared stories about the big shots we used to be in high school. We were trying to hold onto our specialness, trying to impress each other. But we were in for a shock: we had all been high school superstars. When I said that I had been editor of my high school newspaper and co-editor of the yearbook, there were echoes down the hall "So was I." "Me, too." "Count me in as well."
My shoulders sagged and I wondered if I would ever be special again. Only a few weeks later, I found myself excited and happy to be surrounded by so many bright peers who shared my passions.
It isn't all that different in early retirement when, at least initially, who you are in your own mind is more the person you used to be rather than the person you're becoming. It's harder for some than others. Observing people whose retirement wasn't voluntary, I see some of them choke on the words "used to." Others scramble to find a new cause, a new identity, to fill the gaping hole of loss.
There can, indeed, be a grieving period when one steps away from a career that has meant so much, even if that step is completely voluntary. I see it in retirement. And I saw it throughout my working life.
I have some experience with stepping away, winding down, one career in favor of another -- and grief has been a part of each transition.
My first five years after college, I had two demanding careers: I was a writer and editor on the staff of a national magazine and I was a professional actress, doing stage, television and voice-overs. When I was 27 and in the middle of a run of the musical "High Button Shoes" starring Gavin MacLeod, I came to the painful conclusion that while I liked acting, I didn't like the business. It wasn't a good fit for me emotionally. Even those of us who were working at least a little in the business experienced so much rejection and insecurity. I saw very talented actors who were not stars -- though they deserved to be -- aging, working less as actors and more in marginal part-time jobs. And I didn't want that to be me. So I decided to quit, once the show closed, and concentrate on writing. Although I ended up doing one more show -- "Dylan" -- ironically, my favorite acting experience -- I stepped away from acting forever when I was 28. I shed a lot of tears in the process of deciding and, again, after my last curtain call. Then I walked away and haven't looked back.
I used to be an actress. I can say it with wonder and amusement now. It seems like another lifetime, though my acting experience was very helpful when my writing career blossomed and I was a frequent guest on national television talk shows. I never felt that my time as an actress was wasted. It just prepared me to "grow on" as Elizabeth put it.
And twenty years later, when publishing began to change and my once flourishing writing career took a dive, I went back to graduate school to become a psychotherapist -- both to gain more credibility as a writer and to have an alternate gig to keep me afloat financially. The transition wasn't easy. I shed a lot of tears over the downturn in my writing career. Pursuing a whole new career demanded that I grow in very different ways. But through all the hard work in school, in clinical internships and in establishing a private practice, I never even thought "used to be" when I thought of writing. Even though my career as a therapist took a much larger portion of my time during the last 15 years of my working life, I was always, at heart, a writer first, though I loved reaching out and helping others as a psychotherapist.
Today, I can smile and say that I used to be an actress and a therapist. I learned and grew so much from each career, each life experience -- and now I've come full circle back to writing. But it's different. The book contracts aren't lined up anymore. The national television shows aren't calling. But I don't focus on what used to be. I'm happy and growing and optimistic whatever happens.
I realize that I am fortunate to be rediscovering a passion. We all find our own ways to define our lives and life purpose in retirement.
Some find happiness and purpose by being only semi-retired. A former university physics professor who lives nearby is transitioning from college teaching to teaching physics at the local high school. He has taught there for two years and just signed up for one more. Then, he says, he will be ready to fully retire. Another neighbor, who found that he very much missed his managerial position in a major corporation, has become involved in local politics and city planning -- and finds that this gives the structure to his days that he so missed in his first months of retirement. His wistful "I used to..." has become an excited "I am...."
Others find fulfillment by using the skills of a lifetime of living and working to help others as community volunteers.
Still others, who made a smooth transition from employment to full retirement, share excitement and wonder at pursuing so many interests and activities so long deferred and now quite possible.
Perhaps, whether or not we choose to launch new careers or to discover or rediscover passions, we need to counter all of our "I used to" feelings with affirmative "I am.." statements.
So here's the list I'm just starting:
I used to be young. Now I'm young in spirit.
I used to be slim. Now I'm working on reaching a healthy weight.
I used to dance. Now I exercise more than I have in decades.
I used to have an exciting career. Now I get excited by daily life.
I used to be sort of, almost, famous. Now I am content.
I used to think if I could reach another career milestone, I would be happy. Now I am happy.
We can allow our thoughts about what was, what used to be, to cloud our vision of today. We can look back wistfully to the days when we had small waists and firm thighs, big dreams for the future and a myriad of options. Or we can focus on the people we've become, who we are right now. And we can celebrate the ways that we've grown on through a lifetime of challenges and triumphs to the wonderful possibilities of today.