I could not accept retirement with grace.
Perhaps it was because retirement was not something I’d sought. Quite the opposite. After eighteen years as a lawyer, I’d been teaching high school English for six, loved it better than pistachio ice cream, hoped to continue for fifteen more years.
Perhaps it was because I’d spent a lifetime seeking education. I’d earned three graduate degrees—in law, teaching, and writing—to be the best I could in my careers.
Perhaps it was because my résumé had always worked magic. Spiffy schools, top grades, and strong endorsements had yielded a series of jobs, each one better than the one before, all landed easily.
Perhaps it was because I’d always been a workaholic. Late nights, weekends, holidays, I’d be there at the grindstone. Yep, you could always count on me.
Yet there I was jobless at age fifty, brought down by four high school juniors. They’d turned in identical essays for a final paper not assigned as group work; even their typos were the same. When I reported the incident to the dean, he ordered me to overlook the cheating. I surmised the parents were donors and resigned instead.
That was seven years ago, and I haven’t found steady work since.
It’s not that I haven’t looked. I applied for countless jobs: eighth grade language arts teacher, high school debate coach, twelfth grade creative writing teacher, college instructor of expository writing, law school professor of legal research and writing, volunteer writing tutor, assistant to a nun who ran a nonprofit and sought someone experienced in teaching, writing, and law.
I wrote the cover letters from the heart, tailored every application. Still, most went unacknowledged, despite my follow-ups. The rest elicited rejections addressed to “Applicant.” They secured not a single interview.
The only work I found was teaching college writing as an adjunct—and, believe me, I was grateful. But this was intermittent, temp work, doled out on a moment’s notice, carried on in isolation, lasting just ten weeks per stint, without a chance of advancement, cancelable at the college’s will.
What had happened to me? I’d once been treated like a crystal goblet, now like a paper cup.
The situation resulted in depression—ceaseless lamentation and self-recrimination: Why doesn’t anybody want me? Was my past success a fluke? How can I be so worthless that hard work can’t bring me up to snuff? I should have ignored that cheating. I was such an idiot. If something happens to my marriage, how will I earn enough to live?
My reaction to joblessness, I learned, was not uncommon. Psychologists have long associated unemployment with depression, poor self-esteem, and anxiety. And a recent Gallop-Healthways survey found that under- and unemployed Americans are more than twice as likely to report they’re being treated for depression than those with full-time jobs.
Treatment, though, wasn’t what I wanted. What I wanted was a job. Why was that impossible?
A friend surmised the problem was my age. She knew the nun I had applied to and asked her which applicant she’d hired. The response: a recent college graduate, a twenty-three-old. A young woman my former students’ age.
That age was my undoing seemed ridiculous. I might live thirty more years. I’m also a whiz on my iPad, and in yoga I can stand on my head.
What’s more, I know young adults. Believe me, I love them dearly. But they skip classes over broken fingernails. They can’t write a sentence worth beans. They’re known to be shameless job-hoppers, switching posts every three years. Why would employers them when they can have someone resilient, experienced, and steadfast—in other words, me?
Still, my friend’s hypothesis had merit. The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported that in 2013 almost thirty percent of cases claimed age discrimination. And according to a recent Boston Globe piece, almost half of all Americans who are jobless for more than a year are age forty-five or older and unlikely to ever be hired. A sixtyish former executive who’d spent five years pounding the pavement described the challenge he’d experienced: interviewers were twenty years his junior and not eager to “hire their dad.”
I was doomed, no doubt about it, so I resolved to walk The Way of Saint James.
The Way of Saint James—El Camino de Santiago—is a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, where, according to tradition, the apostle James the Greater is buried. Ever since the Middle Ages, pilgrims have journeyed to his tomb on a variety of routes. The most travelled is 500 miles long and starts five miles from the Spanish border in the Pyrenean foothills of France, but some pilgrims walk from farther points—Paris, Rome, Munich—others from spots nearer Santiago—Burgos, León, Samos. Last September, I joined them with my husband, trekking 200 miles in twelve stages.
Walking The Way is like having group therapy. All along the trail, pilgrims encounter each other, hike together for a distance, converse about their lives.
The first thing pilgrims always asked me was why I was making the journey. When I confessed that I was unemployed, they listened, shook their heads and nodded, then told me reasons of their own: One said her boyfriend had betrayed her. Another disclosed his wife had died. Another revealed she had cancer. Several, like me, said they couldn’t find jobs. Many of us were hoping the Camino would ease us through a transition or help us recover from a loss. Every day we were happy to discover empathetic souls who liked to walk and talk.
On the seventh day of our Camino, my husband and I rose before dawn and departed O’Cebreiro, a Celtic, mountaintop village with cobbled streets and numerous pallozas—round, stone houses with thatched roofs. We walked beneath the moon and stars, soon joining a group of eighteen young adults we’d met a few days before.
Guided by a few pilgrim headlamps, we headed down a wooded track. It wound around the hill before descending to the hamlet of Liñares and ascending again. The sun began to rise, revealing an ethereal horizon of green hilltops floating over morning mist. This is where Megan caught us and my husband speeded up a so the two of us women could talk.
Megan is a blue-eyed Millennial, a genial girl-next-door with a graceful stride. She told me nothing makes her happier than teaching and working with kids. Just a few months before the Camino, she’d completed a MEd in educational psychology. Through the summer she’d worked as a camp coordinator. She’d enjoyed it very much, but the job was seasonal and ended. On the Camino she was pondering her future, worried that she’d found no other job and scared that she never would.
When Megan and I reached Alto de San Roque, she stopped at a monolithic statue perched on the edge of a bluff—a trekking medieval pilgrim carrying a walking stick. There some of her friends were taking photos, gulping water, and gorging on croissants.
I continued on the path to Padornelo, which passes a pretty, stone chapel and climbs steeply for a stretch before plunging towards Ramil, where pilgrims, sheep, cattle, and chickens share a corredoira—a narrow lane walled with granite. By late morning, light rain began to fall. As I was pulling on my poncho, Rochelle and Erin joined me. We walked and they talked about their lives.
Rochelle is an athletic twenty-something with long blond hair and a bright, wide smile. She professed a passion for the Catholic Church and hoped to dedicate herself to serving it. With a BA in political science and comparative religion, she’d found a job at a diocesan chancery and had been there for two years. She told me only God knows what’s in store for her, but in the meantime she was happy where she was. She was walking The Way because she felt she had something to prove to herself and she couldn’t rest until she did.
Erin’s a gregarious Gen Y-er with chic, dark hair and cerulean eyes. She’d earned a BA in linguistics, planned to work in bilingual education, but realized teaching didn’t suit her well. She wound up in working in high school youth ministry. That job had disillusioned her, so she quit and embarked on the Camino, hoping to become re-inspired. Her goal was to pinpoint a career that would help others and gratify her.
As we talked, the three of us meandered a trail above a wooded valley. After a while, the drizzle tapered off and the clouds lifted a bit. The path began to ascend and soon I felt the need to slow my stride. The two girls offered to stay in sync with me, but I encouraged them to keep their pace, so they nodded and hiked on.
Within moments they were ahead of me, joining their marching, ponchoed friends. Orange-berried rowan trees swaying at the roadside, the queue of young adults briskly climbed the hill, their ranks stretching out before me as far as I could see: Blake, Megan, Lisa, Monica, Milo, Katey, Bryson, Julie, Alex, Liz, Vincent, Helen, Erin, Ruth, Rochelle. As I watched them soldier on, a wave of peace swept through me. I realized we were just where we should be, with them leading the way and me bringing up the rear.
I’d been wrong about their generation. Far from being unaccomplished and inconstant, they were strong, smart, caring, skilled, determined, with lots of love in their hearts and lots of dreams in their heads. They deserved to reach those dreams, but being young they had only just begun and had not yet had the chance to succeed.
On the other hand, I had had my chance. During my fifty-something years, I’d accomplished many, many dreams. I had a family, home, and friends, and yes, I’d had a long career. Between the young adults and me it was only fair that employers would choose them. Perhaps it was time to surrender, accept my turn to lead was over, and bless the next generation as it passed.
Please understand what I’m saying: I’m not condoning ageism; older workers need and want to work and have so much of value to give. And, believe me, if I could find a steady teaching job, I would leap at the chance.
At this juncture, I’m simply acknowledging the deal that God has made with every one of us. As we age, we lose things one by one—health, work, possessions, loved-ones, independence, life. We don’t know the timing or the sequence. For me the job went first, and really, I should be thankful; compared to other things I might have lost—and will lose in the future—the job was insignificant.
Once, Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on a special colt as the people lined the streets with boughs and hailed him as their king. Within days, though, they arrested him and sentenced him to death.
Jesus begged God to change his fate; he loved his work and life and didn’t want to lose them. But God ignored his supplication, so Jesus readily steeled himself and did his Father’s will. He surrendered, accepted his time to leave had come, and blessed his disciples as they began to lead the way.
Originally published in Good Letters.