By Karen Jahn
I’ve been in several book groups where folks mention ‘academic’ with a dismissive sneer yet wonder why after an hour and a half of discussion, they still don’t know what the book is about. Granted, I fall asleep as soon as the next person when invited to listen to a talk about intertextuality in Joyce’s Ulysses. But a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ and some tough questions open up texts.
When several people in an otherwise sophisticated group of women judged Austen’s Emma irrelevant, I gave up leading their discussions. And yet, my rustic clothes looked shabby next to their fashionable ensembles. And so, the transition from English Professor to avid reader has been a rocky but worthwhile passage. As I struggle to find my civilian legs, I’m learning a great deal about how to function in a milieu more democratic than the classroom or campus.
People still working wonder at their retired colleagues, caught between envying our spare time and doubting that we’re doing anything. Now retired, I can’t imagine how I had time for a career and family all these years. I often railed against both for cheating me from becoming myself, but now I wonder.
As a Navy bride stranded in a Yokahama hotel with a six-month old for weeks at a time, my twentieth year was hardly typical. Later rendering this episode comic, then I struggled daily with the irony of being trapped in the life I’d chosen in place of college. Marrying my lover and having a baby had landed me alone, with no friends, classes, family, or familiar surroundings, not even my husband most of the time. But he had insisted that we stop at Berkeley on the way to Japan and enroll me in two correspondence courses. So, in addition to infancy, my baby Scot and I shared my Shakespeare and Psych Statistics in our New Grand Hotel room.
These days, sitting at breakfast with enough time to chew, read the newspaper, watch two goldfinches circle the feeder nourishes the rest of the day. But other mornings, I’m off at seven for the half hour drive to Pilates or yoga a process which tunes me into my body as intimately as sex in earlier years. Gas is exorbitant, my puritan self nags, but how else can I do my vocal exercises, soak in the rural scenery, and get my errands done? I return refreshed, open to reading, gardening, writing, or being with others.
As Flannery O’Connor has the psychotic Misfit say after shooting the Grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”: “She would have been a good woman if it had been someone to shoot her every minute of her life!” These days I have the gun, so life goes well.
Before her retirement, Karen Jahn was for many years a Professor of English. Her special love was African American literature and its connection to music.