At 38, and soon to be 39, I am nowhere close to receiving social security checks or living off a cushy pension or a seven-figure Roth IRA. But financial security hasn’t stopped me from declaring my retirement at the end of 2016.
That’s right. I said retirement.
This is retirement in the tradition of the thirty-something-year-old NBA basketball player who retires from the hustle of the game. (Except I’m neither as rich nor as famous as Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan.)
I have been writing professionally for 15 years, and most of that time I’ve been a freelancer. That means that I’ve been floating from assignment to assignment without an employer to call my own. But this year, I am retiring from that writer-for-hire life. I have not made a lot of money, I have not made an indelible mark (whatever that means) and I have not achieved all that I’d hoped to accomplish in my professional writing life. Having written my way to mediocre success, I am choosing now to say to myself, “Good for you, Penny. Mediocre is good enough. Now, stop trying and start living.”
In essence, what I’m doing is quitting. But I take solace in calling it retirement. Retirement has dignity.
Retiring from the writer-for-hire life does not mean that I will no longer write. In fact, I think I will finally write a book. I will get a “real job,” as my family calls it. Having relocated last year, from New York City to Lancaster, PA (where I was raised), I’ve considered all manner of nine-to-five duties, from answering phones as a receptionist to working as a substitute teacher to an instructor with an after-school program for teens. Wherever I end up hanging my career hat, I will commute in the morning with the other commuters and hang out at after-work happy hours. And when people will ask me, “What do you do?” I will namecheck my employer without having to contend with the dubious look in people’s eye when they hear the phrase “freelance writer.”
Though I’m quitting the writer-for-hire hustle, I will always write. Like that NBA player, I even plan to come out of a retirement occasionally. I still hope to write a cover story for Essence and an essay for Vogue. And there’s the holy grail of seeing my byline on a Modern Love column for The New York Times. After all, writers who have fewer clips than I (and/or clips from lesser-known publications) are doing cover stories for Essence and writing essays for Vogue.Before the year is out, I will throw myself a private retirement party. I will write two speeches — one from me and one about me.
If I’m honest, those other writers are what’s prompting my retirement. There’s nothing more disquieting than looking at the people who are getting more work than you are and thinking, “Why not me?” At first, it makes you shift gears and floor it. Soon enough, though, with so much speeding and grinding, you begin spinning in place. Sometimes you have to pull over to the side of the road and rethink your decision to race.
Now that there is an end in sight, I am relieved. It’s a hard-won relief, one that I had to wrestle for after many conversations wherein in I told myself that I am neither a failure nor a loser and that ending one leg of my journey doesn’t mean there’s not an exciting road ahead.
I’ve been thinking a lot about bubble gum teen idols (specifically Miley Cyrus and Jessica Simpson) who are now grownup superstars. As a society, we tend to call these mid-career transitions reinventions or pivots. They are rebirths, but in order to be reborn you must first die.
Retirement as a rebirth is not for the lazy or down-and-out. We’re not talking about the uneventful disappearance of a one-hit wonder or the “could’ve been” contender conceding to nobody-ness or the earthly damnation of a has-been skulking around in irrelevance. This retirement is nothing more than a pursuit of re-relevance. You might call it “relevance revisited.”
The difference between shit happens and shit changes probably sounds subtle to you, but there’s a world of distinction. Ascribing the phrase shit happens to a shift in circumstance implies that when shit happens — death, unhappy accidents, betrayal, infidelity, failure, firing and all manner of ill-gotten beginnings and endings — it’s sudden or at least a little bit surprising and unfortunate.
The thing is, that which seems abrupt in life is not always unforeseen. Surely, life’s transitions are carried out with a measure of unexpectedness, and that’s mainly due to our limited capacity for prediction. That’s where shit changes comes in.
Life’s transitions don’t sneak up on us out of the blue. We are just too human to perceive them coming. Shit doesn’t just happen to us; it shifts. And the shifts never stop.
“Time is filled with swift transition, naught of earth unmoved can stand…”
Those are the first lyrics in the church hymn “Hold to God’s Unchanging Hand,” which goes on to say, Build your hopes on things eternal, hold to God’s unchanging hand.
The moral of the hymn: Shit changes; God doesn’t. And whether or not you believe in God (and I do) isn’t the point. See, I’ve been thinking about the inevitability of the first clause (time is filled with swift transition and none of us can stand unmoved forever). This is the kind of change that, to me, applies to my pending retirement.
I’m mostly calling it a retirement because that way there’s finality to it. I’m owning this retirement shit. I’m shouting “Done! Finito! Basta!” with gusto and intention. And, because I believe in punctuating big events with real-life exclamation points, I will throw myself a retirement party before the year is over.
It will be a private celebration. The only invitee is me. I will write two speeches — one from me and one about me. The speech from me will be the one where I say things like, “Well, I didn’t accomplish everything I set out to do, but daggummit did we have fun or what?” I will grieve the losses and the unrealized dreams associated with my career.
But the one about me will call out as many of my achievements as I can think of. Remember the first time you were on the TODAY show? Oh, and remember that first National Magazine Award nomination? This will allow me to bask in the career highlights about which I’m most proud so I don’t forget that I wasn’t as much of an underachiever as I’m making myself out to me.
When I host this party, I will wear a party hat and get myself a cake. I may even buy myself a giant card and sign it over and over and over again — multiple congratulatory messages from myself to myself. I’ll even attempt to write each one in different handwriting with a different pen. One of these greetings might say, “To Penny: What a wild ride it was, right? The journey only gets better from here. Onward and upward.”
Or perhaps, simply, “Shit changes.”