Louise Nayer, whom I recently met at the San Francisco Writer’s Conference, agreed to guest blog for Radical Aging today. She gives us a little insight into her current work, the book Poised for Retirement: Moving from Anxiety to Zen, which was published in 2017. Before retirement, she was a professor of English at City College in San Francisco. Her 2010 book, Burned: A Memoir, was an Oprah Great Read and won the 2011 Wisconsin Library Award. She lives in San Francisco, CA. I hope you will enjoy her essay, “Leaving my job early and saving my soul.” You can learn more about Louise at www.louisenayer.com
Leaving my Job Early and Saving my Soul
When I was eight years old, I knew I wanted to be an artist. Maybe a dancer? I loved to twirl, studied ballet at Mrs. Tarasova’s studio, and my sister and I dressed up in clothes my mother kept in an old hamper—crinoline slips that swung from side to side, lacy tops and tiaras. We put on the music of Swan Lake on an old Victrola and danced in the living room for hours.
Then I wanted to be a pianist. I loved my teacher, Mr. Diaz, a big man from Cuba. The first lesson I had with him, he said something harsh that made me cry. He told my dad, who repeated it to me, that he was being strict with my fingering because he thought I had talent. I had played on my own for a few years and developed my own, crazy fingering method. He softened, and I learned correct fingering. I went back to him for years and played in many concerts.
But as I entered college, I didn’t have the drive or talent for dance that would get me on stage. As far as the piano: I had small hands. I practiced for hours trying to stretch them with a red rubber ball and then gave up. Beethoven pieces were just too much.
So I began to write. I also realized that writing offered me immense freedom. I didn’t have to follow a choreographer’s wishes. With piano, I was never great at improvisation, so I was stuck with always playing other people’s pieces. With writing—and especially with poetry—I could paint the sky any color I wanted. And even break the rules of grammar. In college I wrote secretly until senior year when I was chosen to be in a poetry workshop with Ruth Stone. She invited us to her house for class. In the cold Wisconsin winter, her house was a haven, spaghetti dinners and a fire burning in the fireplace.
Later, I received an MFA from SUNY Buffalo, studying with Robert Creeley and John Logan. Later, I patched my life together by working as a secretary and teaching small poetry workshops at various places—UC Berkeley Extension Center, two nursing homes, and even got six California Arts Council grants. But when I married and had children, I needed something steadier, so I got adjunct community college teaching jobs, a freeway flyer for thirteen years, driving between two campuses. In 1996, I got a tenured teaching job. It was exciting to receive my “packet”—health care, retirement, finally summers off. But in my heart of hearts I knew it was something I had to do, and not my dream job. I wouldn’t be the “Poet in Resident” at a college, with a small coterie of students, a weekend salon and scads of time to write.
I loved my students dearly, but the crushing amount of papers (no teaching assistant) left me with a chronically aching neck. At 61, I finally got a memoir published—a ten year project—and when it came out, I knew. If I was going to have that writing life I craved so badly, I needed to leave my job now. I was exhausted. I feared I would get sick and die before I had precious time to write.
At 61 and a half, with 22 years in the system (some years that I even “bought back” from my part-timer days—using up some precious money) I signed on the dotted line. My mother, who grew up during the Great Depression and had passed away, would have thought it was foolish. My husband and I would both need to work to bring in extra money, and we do. I have no regrets, though.
Now, I’ve joined the San Francisco Writer’s Grotto. I have an office two days a week dedicated to writing. I wrote a book about retirement—Poised for Retirement: Moving from Anxiety to Zen—that came out last year. I do readings and events for that book. I teach small workshops now, the kind of teaching I longed for when I was younger. I just sent a new memoir to my agent and have recently excavated a novel from seven years ago. I’m doing what I love. Is it easy financially? Not at all. My husband and I rent out our whole house on airbnb and move downstairs to one room in the basement or become vagabonds and visit close friends, now more complicated with a puppy. Every once in a while I buy a lottery ticket. Recently, I’ve been playing Safeway Monopoly and eye the million-dollar prize. Mostly, we’re just budgeting carefully and making sure we have enough airbnb reservations. We also have options. We could sell our house and move.
What is most important is that I am so grateful I made the choice to leave my job early, before my neck problems got even worse and my body began to break down from the stress. Every decision is unique. Mine might not have been prudent, but it saved my soul.