Saturday, February 23, 2008

Becoming Nobody

“I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?”
Emily Dickinson


Having made the choice in the early 1990s to retire from university teaching, I looked forward to the freedom to pursue all the new directions that were beckoning to me. My burgeoning interest in spiritual practice was very attractive; my interest in alternative healing practices was just beginning; and I had a new and exciting partner for all the coming adventures. I cleared out the residue of my previous life and moved in with my new wife and partner, Elyn, in a tiny student apartment on the campus of Iliff School of Theology at Denver University where Elyn was a student.

Suddenly it seemed that I had lost my identity. Elyn’s fellow students were friendly enough, but I was accustomed to being treated as “Dr. White, Distinguished Professor” and that wasn’t who I was any more. I experienced an emptiness that I hadn’t anticipated. I didn’t want to be “Dr. White” any more, but that raised the question of who I was going to be in this new life.

Elyn was busy in her student life at Iliff School of Theology. She was a full-time student studying to be a Unitarian minister. Her natural gregarious nature made her a popular and active student in the Iliff family. She had a full life there and I had a lot of time on my hands. I tried reading and began to do some writing (early drafts of some of these pieces were written at that time). I had some ongoing work associated with my textbooks, but I also had a lot time on my hands. In leaving Ames, Iowa, I had not only left behind my university colleagues and the status of my position but also a circle of close friends with whom I had spent considerable time. I was experiencing a crisis that I had not anticipated—the proverbial “identity crisis.”

This crisis lasted for several years. I got used to not being deferred to (“Yes sir, Dr. White”), and not having a hardworking staff at my disposal, but there was a hole in my psyche that I couldn’t seem to fill. If any of my readers are contemplating retirement from an active career, I give you fair warning to expect a crisis of identity and a period of adjustment. I found ways to fill my time, but there was an underlying depression that I couldn’t seem to shake. I wish I could give you a formula for relieving that depression, but I can only say that it gradually cleared and I began to explore who I really was when the position and status were gone. I can say that ongoing work on projects was an important part of how I got through that time, and I soon found interesting spiritual paths to pursue that opened new vistas for exploration. I found people that I wanted to spend time with. We spent a year living in Spain and walked the Camino de Santiago. I got used to the feeling of being “nobody” important. When people asked me “what do you do?” I got over the feelings of guilt at not having a pat answer. I began to say “I am living my life,” or “I’m having fun.” I no longer felt the need to trot out a list of my past achievements to justify my occupying space on this planet.

Gradually, over a period of years, I have come to see that my task for this part of my life is the challenge of becoming who I really am and of exploring who I want to be in the final stages of this journey. More and more I am trying to become transparent to myself and to others. After a lifetime of hiding behind various masks I am working to put all of the parts of myself together and to feel comfortable in letting others know me. I started this blog with that in mind, and I am enjoying getting to know you all again. I am gradually opening up all the areas of my life to you and enjoy shocking some of you from time to time (see Dating and Parking).

In this journey I am blessed to have a partner who is willing to grow with me, cajole me when I am not present to her, and who is blessed with the sweetest disposition I could imagine. She is truly my partner on all of life’s paths and when I get up the courage to reveal more of myself she is always there, cheering me on. So I propose a toast to my beloved partner, Elyn Aviva. I wish you could all know her.

17 comments:

Phil Foust said...

Hear, hear, Elyn Aviva! Gary seems quite happy in his life with you. Are you now a practicing Unitarian minister? Your story would be of much interest.

Gary, in my less than humble opinion ... it's incredulous that you have ever been or would long tolerate being 'nobody'.

Gary White said...

No, Phil, Elyn thought better of becoming a minister. She is a writer (see her books at www.pilgrimsprocess.com), and a fiber artist (see her works at www.fiberalchemy.com). I'll tell her of your interest in her story.

Diane Archer Bradbury said...

I've begun an email relationship with Elyn, though I've dropped the ball these last few weeks. I'll be back, Elyn.

Ii certainly would enjoy knowing more about Elyn, Gary. I have enjoyed seeing her original fiber creations and am working on sending her pictures of my less traditional quilted pieces.

As for shocking your fellow bloggers, I was told by the psychologist I worked for when my boys were teenagers, "Never let them see that you are shocked."
This is good advice with kids, old or young.

wayne woodruff said...

On a serious note, of course I do not know her, but have met your charming wife, and I envy you the relationship you have attained in you "senior years". I have found that being "alone" is a terrible thing, and children and grandchildren do not fill the void. I recently became reacquainted with a friend who informed me that her husband of 24 years had told her he wants a divorce. She is nice, and even though she is 22 years younger than I, I thought I might broach the subject to her that we both might like someone with whom to do various activities. It is depressing to go to the theater or concerts alone.

Gary White said...

Go for it, Wayne!

wayne woodruff said...

Well, Gary, nice, good-looking young divorcees do not often choose to hook-up with tired, beaten-down seventy year old widowers, so I don't hold my breath.

Jay (J.D.) Mills, HP3AK said...

Wayne, I find that when I am open to sharing time with others that they often feel the same. If you aim is to be "friends" and do things together, I second the motion 'go for it'. It never hurts to ask...or to make your intentions clear.

wayne woodruff said...

Jay and Gary, Thanks for the encouragement.

Gary Metcalf said...

Gary ..I to went through and identy crisis when I sold my business and retired in 1996, After 40 years of a reliable income and not having to get up and go to work each morning was such a change that it took me 6 mo. to a year to feel comfortable with my decision of leaving the frustrations of the business world and do the things I had only dreamed of during the last 10 or 12 years I was in business. It was the proper decision and I am living my dream and can't find enough hours in the day to do all the things I enjoy doing.

wayne woodruff said...

Gary M., I wonder WHAT you do to keep busy. What are the things you enjoy doing?? I have applied at all the volunteer places in town and most say they don't need any more worthless old men.

Gary White said...

Gary M., I know just what you mean about having no time to add anything more to my days. I have so many interesting projects going that they fill my time completely.

Jay (J.D.) Mills, HP3AK said...

Wayne, you could visit me in Panama for starters. However, I don't have room for 'worthless old men', only people interested in new experiences in new places. hee, hee! Seriously, I have a spare room and there are many interesting things to see in this area, far from the Panama Canal.
jay(at)jaymills(dot)org

wayne woodruff said...

Jay, Thanks for the invite. If I could get off my duff, I might actually take you up on it.

Gary White said...

Hey, Wayne, do I have to come all the way out to Ohio and give you a swift kick to get you started? I say again, GO FOR IT!

wayne woodruff said...

I guess you have been out of the loop. I am now back in Las Cruces until June 15,then will back to Ohio for the next six months. I checked the weather at my home in Ohio today, and it is in the twenties and snowing. Whereas, the weather here is 65 and bright sun.

Gary White said...

Hey, Wayne! Come on up to Santa Fe and I'll kick your butt for you!!

Seriously, plan on stopping by when you are in the neighborhood.

Jay (J.D.) Mills, HP3AK said...

Wayne, all you need is a passport and airline ticket to get here! It's not that far. If you ever "get off you duff" send me e-mail and plan a visit. Again, I need visitors so that I can practice my English.