A few months ago, I wrote a fairly long and heartfelt piece about the way my profession, librarianship, had changed in the forty years since I got my Master’s degree and walked through my first library door as a professional. It was, perhaps, the best received piece I’ve ever written. It was read and shared numerous times, and got lots of comments from people who love libraries. It was also read by many librarians, especially newcomers to the field, who marveled at how we dinosaurs checked out books in ancient times.
That piece was a build up to me announcing my retirement. I had been contemplating the idea for months, but I couldn’t take the final step. I’m a year short of full retirement, but burn out has gotten the best of me and the fact that I’m living in a very expensive city on a librarian’s salary means that the ends don’t necessarily justify the means.
Then, one day, it happened: the proverbial straw and I was the camel’s back. One of the things about being a librarian is that you are a public servant and the public, collectively, is fickle, indeed. In six years in my current position, I have done wonderful things in my library. I have taken it, my department, in fact, from a 1950s sort of service into a progressive and well-regarded asset to the community. I have created innovative programming and built a model collection. I have created such a demand for programs that tickets to story times are as tough to get as prime seats for The Book of Mormon. In return, I have received few accolades, no raises or promotions, and a community that demands even more from me, even when I’ve reached the limits of my resources and energy.
So, one day, a particularly testy mom (who must have been having a bad day of her own), went off on me. She screamed at me, told her daughter that I was a “mean” lady, and complained to the director of the library, demanding my head on a platter. This isn’t the first time I’ve had a disagreement with a customer. When you work with the public, it’s sort of inevitable. I have rules that I have to follow; the public has demands that don’t necessary abide by the rules. In most cases, you have to bend the rules to keep everyone happy. However, this was an unhappy lady and I got in the way of her anger. I also didn’t bend the rules enough to her liking.
That was the day that I sat down at my computer and typed these words: effective as of April 30, I am retiring. Then I walked into the director’s office and made it official. The director was surprised by unfazed. She certainly didn’t offer me any incentives (like money!) to reverse my decision. There were no last minute bursts of gratitude for my hard work or the tireless hours that I have spent working for the library.
This all happened at the end of December, and now I am less than two months from walking away from a long career. I have very mixed emotions about no longer working. Certainly, I’ve given my soul to my work and it’s hard to conceive of waking one morning without a structured day ahead of me. I do believe that nature abhors a vacuum, and the time will fill up, somehow. I’m worried about finances. Like most Baby Boomers, I don’t know if I’ve saved enough to live on and I’m planning small economies to make ends meet. We, my husband and I and our small white dog, are trying to figure out where to move so that our dollars will stretch further and maybe the sun will be out more often than it has been, this winter. Sadly, wherever we go will be a longer distance from my daughter who is a committed New Yorker.
I never doubted that my staff, a group of lovely young women who I would proudly have as my daughters, would be upset at my impending departure. They tell me at least once a day that they understand why I am leaving, but wish that I wasn’t. They have also been confronted by the public for enforcing fines on overdue books or trying to manage misbehaving children. They have always trusted me to throw myself into the fray to deflect the ill temper of the public away from them and take it on myself. That’s my job as a manager, a negotiator and occasional punching bag. I’ve done it, if not proudly, then at least with honor and considerable vigor, and I have the scars to show for it.
But here’s the odd thing that has happened. Since I announced my retirement, I hear from parents at least once a day about what a fine job that I’ve done and how they have appreciated my efforts on behalf of their children and their families. They extoll the book collection that I’ve built of all because I do love books and relish finding the most innovative one to offer to children. They thank me for my kindness to their children and for sharing my expertise with them. And I can ask only one question of them: why did you wait so long to offer words of praise? Why did you wait until it was time to say goodbye to express your gratitude?
I am reminded of a very old joke. There was a child, a toddler really, who never spoke. One night, the now four year old was sitting at the dinner table, and in a piping voice said, “May I please have the salt?” His parents were overjoyed. They hugged and kissed him and his mother said to him, “Why did you wait so long to speak to us?” the child smiled and said, “Well, until today, everything was fine.”
Perhaps that is the nature of human beings. When things are fine, you don’t speak up. When something provokes you, you make yourself heard. You are incensed. You demand satisfaction. Yet saying thank you happens rarely. It’s a sad statement because gratitude is really very cheap. You don’t have to buy expensive trinkets to make someone feel appreciated. You don’t have to have presentations of plaques or awards. All you have to do is say, “Thank you,” and you will make another person’s day brighter. Seriously, try it. It takes just those two words and perhaps a smile to elevate another person to the point where the bad stuff fades away and they are reminded of why they chose to work in a service profession like teaching, nursing, social work or, yes, librarianship. By the way, an “attitude of gratitude” doesn’t just apply to people you meet in the outside world. Expressing thanks to a child, a parent or a spouse is just as important, perhaps more important. The people we take for granted need to hear that they complete our lives in special ways, as well.
I am trying to be more mindful of my own expressions of appreciation, so please let me say thank you to each and every one of you who has taken the time to read something I’ve written on Afterfiftyliving.com. I will admit to relentlessly refreshing the site to see the number of “likes” you give me and to read the rare comments of appreciation of shared experiences that you take the time to express. That’s what sharing through blogging means to me. We all need to be heard and we all have a desire for the validation of someone saying, “I agree with you.” It’s a huge boost to the writer’s ego.
I am a baby Boomer. That means that I now must not just retire but also reinvent myself in new ways. Everyone says that’s what Baby Boomers are going to do. We will carve new paths and create a new level of post-work activity that will make subsequent generations hate us even more than they already do. We are, after all, the “Pig in the Python,” the generation that must be reckoned with from womb to tomb. I promise that I will get onto the whole reinvention thing as soon as I can. However, you’ll forgive me if, for a few months, I simply take some time to appreciate leisure; smell the roses, figuratively and literally; and figure out exactly what I want my “next act’ to be. I will also try to remember to say thank you much more often. I won’t delay. I won’t postpone. I will remember how much it meant to me for people to say thanks and I will do it in a timely manner because time seems to contract after a certain age, and I don’t want to waste another minute of it.