On Retiring, Vocation, and Gladness

 In The Tide

Jerry Ruff, our inaugural writer and managing editor, is retiring at the end of March. We’ve been so grateful to have his experience and guiding hand to help us develop our voice and perspective as we have built and launched Springtide over the last year. I’ve asked him to write a reflection at this moment for a couple of reasons. First, rites of passage and rituals are dramatically underappreciated in our country. I think it’s important for all of us to mark major transitions. Secondly, I think it’s very valuable for young people who might be reading our stuff to know the real care and concern that so many people here at Springtide put into understanding their lives and capturing their voices. Thank you, Jerry, from all of us at Springtide.  

 — Dr. Josh Packard, Executive Director, Springtide Research Institute 

Retiring in the midst of a pandemic gives perspective. My 401K may be tumbling, but that’s of little consequence when people are getting sick and dying, losing jobs, and suffering debilitating anxiety and loneliness driven by isolation and fear. 

Everyone must push pause, in one way or another. Being age 65 categorizes me as among the more vulnerable. But vulnerability takes many forms, and I am aware that in some respects young people are our most vulnerable. This pandemic will certainly shape their lives into the future. Mine in many ways has already been shaped—and I can say blessed—including in the work I’ve been paid to do. 

One of the critical findings at Springtide Research Institute is that having just one trusted adult in a young person’s life is a game-changer. Growing up, I had literally dozens such trusted adults—among them my parents, extended family members, teachers, religious leaders, neighbors, coaches, the parents of my friends. Cumulatively, these adults made me feel loved, valued, respected, and gifted. 

They also instilled in me a sense of responsibility—to consider my own well-being as well as the well-being of others. And for whatever personal gifts or skills I had been given, responsibility also meant honoring those gifts by sharing them. 

The writer Frederick Buechner calls vocation:

“the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” My deep gladness has always been in language, words, and storytelling, and in serving people—especially young people. I’ve been fortunate to exercise that gladness throughout my career—in particular as a teacher, writer, and editor.  

My first memory of simply sitting still and marveling at words and the images they create is listening to my dad read A Child’s Garden of Verses, by Robert Louis Stevenson. Certain lines still come immediately to memory: “Whenever the moon and stars are set, whenever the wind is high, all night long in the dark and wet, a man goes riding by.” I was mesmerized. 

In grade school, I wrote my first real “story,” about a migrating salmon named Sammy (alliteration had me hooked early on). I don’t remember what happened to Sammy, but most likely he had a happy ending, as nearly all my stories did. In today’s coronavirus moment, I think a happy ending is something for which the world has a deep hunger. My own deep gladness has come through conveying in words something of the joy always available in the world, no matter how uncertain or painful the moment. That outlook is very much a product of my Christian upbringing and belief. I don’t see such a view as exclusively Christian, but that is the path and faith tradition that shaped me. 

Back to those adults who helped to grow me and send me on my way. Many of them were writers, most of them strictly via the page, but a few I knew in person. Among the latter was my dad, a professional journalist and marvelous humorist. (Side note: The year after my dad died, some 25 years ago, my mother and I edited a collection of his humor columns into a book. We laughed and laughed as we cried—and I learned again the deep healing power of words.) 

But here I must also single out Mark, a college English and creative writing professor who encouraged me as a writer, gave me multiple opportunities not only as a writer but also as a literary editor, and even put in the good word that got me hired for my first college teaching gig. If you are an adult who works with young people, never forget, you might be a Mark to one of those young people. 

Words, words, words. From Sammy the Salmon I eventually graduated to my adult professional jobs as an editor, managing editor, contributing writer, etc. for newspapers and magazines, two book publishers, and finally my current role as managing editor and writer with Springtide. 

After retiring, in addition to enjoying my family, including three grandkids and a fourth due in May, I’ll be doing some freelance writing and editing, but particularly I will focus on writing children’s books. Because whenever the moon and stars are set, and whenever the wind is high, I feel the need to sit down with a cup of coffee and return to my deep gladness, always with the hope that this gladness might also meet some deep hunger in the world, and especially in the world of young people. 

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