Making My Own Days

I’m in transition. I’ve been in transition for at least a year. But I’m feeling it now.

My life until this point has been spent within institutions, and I’ve organized my life in relation to their contours. While ‘the academic year’ has a connotation we all understand, colleges have their own calendars, and since I’ve generally worked in three or four colleges simultaneously since 1997, my body’s attended to several start dates. Two of them are on my horizon. 

I don’t regret leaving higher education, and this isn’t a reflection of the challenges of retiring (because I’m not retired). I had a great career for thirty-four years and will always value my time teaching. The collegial side of my career was a mixed bag, and I don’t miss the downright lunacy of it. The ‘business’ of higher education — embodied by administration, especially narcissistic administrators, but certainly greater than that — increasingly became untenable. Had institutional life not become untenable, I might have continued teaching for another decade. That said, I also understand that students will benefit from working with younger faculty, closer to new research, and with people whose life experiences are different from mine. Nevertheless, it’s mid-January and I’m not going back to school. I don’t exactly know what to do with that.

Last semester felt like a sabbatical. I filled my days with ongoing projects. I continued to read as if I were preparing to teach. And I experienced the usual anxiety I feel about not having enough time for ‘my work.’ Since the New Year I’ve slowly recognized that I have nothing but time for ‘my work,’ and that reading and research needs to be in service to ‘my work’ not the learning or expectations of others. I’ve also come to see that I haven’t yet discovered, in the words of the poet Kenneth Koch, how to make my own days.

I think a lot about a quotation I read last winter from the artist David Dawson reflecting on meeting Lucian Freud and becoming his assistant. To paraphrase, Freud was in his early 60s and Dawson could see that he was preparing for a last, significant stretch of creative work. It was when Freud was beginning the monumental paintings, and in retrospect, the final twenty-plus years of Freud’s career were extraordinary in terms of what he accomplished creatively. There’s a lot that can be criticized about how Freud conducted his life, but I’m in awe of his discipline and the way he stayed focused on his work. He often had four sittings a day, and maintained daytime and nighttime studios. He controlled communication to a degree that could be seen as paranoid but that certainly aided focus. Biographers quote him as claiming a kind of ‘selfishness’ in how he conducted his life and art practice (making it difficult to parse them), and I don’t think I fundamentally have that kind of impulse to always put my work first. Still, some part of me envies it. Setting that aside, from Dawson’s reflection I’m trying to take one lesson: this is the beginning of a stage of my career and not an end. And it has the potential to be the most significant chapter.

I thought briefly about pursuing a PhD, but quickly recognized that would simply throw me back into institutional life. I have two MFAs, and from them — and from three decades of teaching — I know how to learn. My impulse comes from needing to cultivate three other things in my practice: 1) critically shaping my agenda; 2) finding structure in which to work that’s recognized as significant (protecting me from distraction) and 3) building a reflective audience for my work. In one sense I know how to do these things, but knowing and doing can be disrupted by feeling and habit.

Perhaps, then, the significant work of this transition is rewriting my script on aging. All around me there’s talk of ‘retirement’ and ‘getting old.’ I want to reject these ideas, but I’m as susceptible to peer pressure as anyone, and resisting the cultural discourse is difficult work. Most days I feel young and excited to begin a new chapter — that’s every bit as potent as the chapters that have come before. But I have to remind myself that this remains a choice to be different from what I’m told I should be, a choice to live as I see fit.

There it is: the work.

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