Time is a funny thing. We measure it carefully, we use our devices to map out every minute; yet when we look back, it is more slippery, evasive – our memories are like kites in the wind, colors flashing, sounds emerging and then fading, forgotten faces and melodies. My 64th birthday was just last week, and I was happy to hear from people in almost every chapter in my life, so far – a remarkable kaleidoscope. I know that I am very fortunate, in some ways – most ways – to have been able to choose to stop working more than 2 years ago, when my peers are still trying to figure out when they will retire. But the unexpected in life is like an imp, relishing its unpredictability, laughing at our plans for everything to work out “just so”.
Still, most people – at least in our culture – see this time of life as one to step away from the “daily grind” and finally “enjoy life”. How much better it is to try, at least, to see every day as an opportunity to not only experience joy – but to create it for others; to give meaning, and hope, to those we encounter. I have found and continue to discover new meaning in life now that my days of paychecks are long behind me. But it’s odd, and to be honest, perturbing to share that I often still dream of work – various jobs, and people, mingling from my past in a kind of alternative universe where they all pop in and out of meetings. I often awake and come to a kind of relief and realization that – no, I don’t work anymore; I don’t have a deadline. I don’t have to drive anywhere today, or solve that budget problem, or fill that position.
But today, March 31 as I write, marks a change of another sort. An end to a journey that started a very long time ago, when I would visit the career center – a glorified name for a classroom with a library and some microfilm readers – at my local high school, taking aptitude tests and awaiting computer reports by mail to analyze my responses. Those reports would tell me, somehow, where my future lay – what path would be fit for my skills and aptitudes. I had excellent grades – it surprises me, now, that old classmates remember some tests and achievements which at the time seemed so important but which I forgot long ago; but I strove for those grades, I had nothing else to point to that gave me a sense of worth, or belonging. And those tests told me I was fit for being a librarian, or a bookkeeper, or some sort of similar administrative role – not the kind of future a lonely, closeted boy would dream of in 70’s California.
Still, I followed my career center’s advice – and decided my future was to pursue being a CPA. I didn’t really even know what that meant – just that you had to take certain classes, and then join a “public accounting” firm. A Certified, public, accountant – promising a guaranteed career path, financial stability, and more. Those were gleaming dreams in the eyes of a kid who grew up in a one parent family, with no car, little money for clothes, and who had never been on an airplane. I did well in college – naturally – good grades got me interviews, but my awkward discomfort with myself, much less other people, put me at the back of the line for the “national firms” – the “Big 8” back then – and I ultimately got a job with a firm in the majestically named “Inland Empire” to begin my professional life. I took my first plane trip, to a training course – I remember sitting on the aircraft, half expecting the pilot to announce as we began our ascent – “Ok, everybody, here we goooooo” just like all the times the recording had played on Peter Pan’s flight at Disneyland. I never would anticipate where my life would head from there.
Back then, it took at least two years to become a CPA – two years of very specific experience, and I barely made it through the first year with my job intact, but I learned how to get my act together. I pushed – like I still do, when I have a goal – and then, after the two years, came the next hurdle – the CPA exam. A large room, four tests over 3 days. Many students took what were called “review courses” then – I couldn’t afford it, so I purchased books from some publisher back east for a few hundred dollars, and spent hours on the little desk in the bedroom of my childhood home, studying the past test questions and materials for hours. Worrying, as I always did, that I might not pass; I might not be smart enough, not as smart as the rest. Back then, it took a very long time to get results – you might pass some, or all, of the sections – but I cleared that hurdle. Shortly thereafter, I paid my “license fee” the state of California, and joined the professional associations, and was able to proudly add to my business card, those 3 letters – C.P.A.
Computers were just beginning to emerge as business tools in 1980, when I graduated college; my own programming classes had utilized punch cards to submit to the computer lab, with a report to be picked up the following day on large computer paper with green stripes. Fax machines were next, then cellular phones, and PC’s – my first home computer from Radio Shack/Tandy utilized a cassette tape for programming. Now, these terms have themselves become antiquated – and in a way, so has my knowledge. Public accounting was, in fact, an excellent career for job stability; even with my flaws and foibles, I was able to maintain my employment through more than a few periods of uncertainty and change. In time, I even pursued an MBA, which I am glad to say did give me a better understanding of how the technical aspects of the work I provided, moving from public accounting into internal financial administration, could help the organizations I serve better achieve their goals.
Those 4 certificates were framed and displayed above my desk, proudly, through my last office job in 2017. Every two years, I would complete the required continuing education classes – sometimes at conferences, but often on my own – just enough to meet the state requirements, and pay the fees, and get that license renewal. Even after I decided in 2019 to end my pursuit of employment, at just barely 61, to prioritize my new life with my husband and other pursuits – I filled out the renewal forms and paid the fee. But the certificates stayed in the basement – until last week, when after another dream about work, I knew the time had come to close the chapter. I was a little surprised, somehow, that the papers which I had been so delighted to see arrive in the mail after my efforts, long in their frames, were really just flimsy sheets. This morning, they were picked up, joining all the other contents of the trash barrels at 4 am.
Legally, from this point on, I cannot say I am a CPA. Not that this is not a sad occasion – just a memorable one. As I reflect on all the memories of all those jobs – calling an old friend from that era, who like me waited anxiously to learn if they had met the standard – I think not of all the financial reports that I wrote, or the presentations, as much as I do about the lives that I was able to somehow, in a small way, encourage. The numbers were not as important as the decisions and choices they facilitated – and the health of the organizations that I toiled for, served the needs not only of their communities, but the individuals who worked alongside me in the teams, trying to get through their own daily grind. I know how fortunate I have been – but I still remind myself – to have the ability to live a fairly measured life in retirement. free from that sense of uncertainty that there will be enough. It is very different from the life of that young boy trying to choose what path to take, what road would lead to if not success, safety.
Beyond that gratitude, I am struck by the realization that we all define ourselves so much by things like our job titles. Yes, we are nurses or cops or clerks or dancers, bartenders and barbers, sales reps and janitors – yet, we are so much more. When the time comes to walk away from that paycheck – we do not stop being significant. In fact, this is a moment to give ourselves to see new opportunities – ones that we could not take up when we were grasping so tightly onto the horses whose reins we had already taken in hand. We built well defined, comfortable boxes for ourselves – we look for labels, and present those to others; we see models and try to look like them, because somehow they represent the pinnacle. Whether in our careers, our relationships, our schools or our bodies of faith – we try to conform. To meet expectations; to have that “seal of quality” that say, yes – we have made it!
That label, at least – CPA – for me – is now history. The career ended a long time ago; the dreams remain, and I doubt that getting rid of the certificate will end those. But slowly, like many other “skins” of my life, I am shedding the walls that I gripped so closely to define me, and allowing myself the opportunity to, if not spread my wings, dip my toes into new pools, tenderly. I am glad that my career gave me the opportunity to contribute to the well-being of so many organizations that do good in our world – in a small way. I am grateful that for a very few lives, that I worked alongside, I was able to encourage and perhaps even inspire a few to believe in themselves even though that was difficult for me to embrace; I saw in them opportunity and gave them permission to chase it. And I am moved that some from those many years remember me now, kindly. Today, those desks belong to others and the computers I used are more than defunct, the financial reports shredded and forgotten; all that pressure and stress, just a dissipating smoke of memory.
We are so, so much more than a single, limited perspective – even our own is less than complete. When we let go of not only trying to meet the expectation of others, but to free ourselves of the limitations and definitions that have been our own private islands – we can travel to new destinations. New life can emerge – regardless of our age. Now just for ourselves, but for those around us – we can start to push through the boxes and find a new world outside, filled with promise and uncertainty just like the ones we faced when we took off our high school robes and filed our diplomas. I am glad that life still offers a chance to me, and anyone facing once again the question of what purpose to make primary, what goal to pursue – a choice. A chance. Those doors are forever ahead of us, not just behind; each leading to adventures and discoveries we cannot imagine. Onward, my friends – onward!
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