I’ve been doing some more thinking about the lessons of Mary Poppins,
in particular a couplet that Bert the chimney sweep sings:
“Chim-chim-inee, chim-chim-inee, chim-chim-cherroo,
I does what I likes, and I likes what I do.”
Most of my friends have understood the trade-off: forty or fifty years of solid work life for a comfortable old age. (Not that we baby boomers are ever going to be old—we’ve already pushed the bounds of “middle age” far beyond what our parents and grandparents knew.) My friends in their forties and fifties who are currently most comfortable are those who have played the game well, sometimes working two jobs or very long hours at one job. They have houses, investments, and bank accounts; they travel abroad. One of them explained it to me this way, “They call it ‘work’ for a reason, Julie. They have to pay you to go there.”
And therein lies my problem. When my dad retired from the work he’d been doing for about thirty years, he told me he’d always hated the business. “Why did you stay?” I asked, with all the narcissism of an adolescent who was never going to work a job she didn’t like. “Had to make a living for your mother and you kids,” was his answer. Not having the motivation of family or saving for the kids’ education, I was free to cut loose. Which I did, when I was 43 and went back to school for a second, impractical (not leading to remunerative work) master’s degree. After that, I worked a full-time job for a little more than two years before I began to freelance. And I wonder why my retirement portfolio looks so dreadful. Of course, I have to add in my first seven years of work, in a Christian school that paid so little that nothing shows up on my annual Social Security projections. For all intents and purposes, I’ve worked a little more than 16 years at well-paying jobs. I did so grudgingly, sometimes, because I didn’t care about stuff, didn’t want to own a house, and am a terrible traveler. No one ever explained to me how Social Security was based on one’s top fifteen years of earnings (if I’ve remembered that correctly). And when I began to freelance, my accountant told me there were two ways to reduce what I owed each year: spend more or make less. I opted not to work too hard, so that I could make less. In retrospect, I should have worked harder, earned more, and bought more office supplies or attended more conferences.
I know a woman who said that when she was younger, she cried every morning as her husband drove her to work, the way some young children cry when they have to go to school. I worked at a bookstore once, and I gave notice the very day I sat down for break and burst into tears while looking at a Calvin and Hobbes collection. (Only in novels are bookstores romantic places to work; the reality is that stocking shelves is physically hard work, best done by the young, which I no longer was. On top of that, the constant noise and need to be pleasant to people—basic retail life—wore me down.) I’m not a slacker; months later, I heard that several people had quit, and they were hurting for good people. I went back to the store and convinced them to rehire me, sans the shelf-stocking piece. I tell you this story out of sheer vanity—I’m a pleasant co-worker, good with people, and honest. They were in a bind; they took me back for a while. I left for good before the Christmas madness began.
I joke—now ruefully—that I’ve quit every good job I ever had. I left the first because I burned out of teaching sooner than expected. I left the second because I’d had what I’d call a faith crisis, and I refused to sign a doctrinal statement in which I no longer believed. Also, I’d had a dream of attending seminary for two decades, and I knew if I didn’t do it soon, I never would. And I had and have an aversion to getting to the end of my life and asking, What if? The third job I left to freelance—another dream, to make my living as Louisa May Alcott had done, with my writing. (At one point, I was going to be Jo March, but Mr. Bhaer never showed up, so the idea of combining writing and family went by the wayside.)
I have to like what I do, which for me has meant being around words—teaching them, reading them, shelving them, reviewing them, writing and editing them. The men (and some women, my mother among them) of my parents’ generation stood for hours in factories, putting together automobiles or widgets; they were the last generation that could depend on manufacturing for a comfortable retirement. I had uncles who pulled double shifts at the factory. But they’d fought in World War II and seen horrors; factory work wasn’t an affront to them. I am not made of that kind of material.
“Your problem is that you don’t want to do anything you don’t want to do,” a friend kindly explained.
“And the problem with that would be?” But I was younger then, not touched by the realities of a financial meltdown, the hidden costs of freelancing, or cancer.