The Culture of Retirement and Robin Hood Syndrome

Image: Photo by    Chastagner Thierry    on    Unsplash

Image: Photo by Chastagner Thierry on Unsplash

”Retirement” is a western capitalist cultural concept that makes little sense, why live this long as an activist woman just to go quietly? I am turning 65 this week and the questions about it have made me think about a deeper issue  - what has driven some of us to leap upon the horse and just keep riding the issues into the sunset? I could explain my behaviour in terms of moral right and inherited mantle, but as one of five children and the only one always riding through the glen, I suspect something darker or deeper. I suspect pleasing the parent, I suspect constructing an identity that places me center stage, I suspect a fear of silence.  What if Robin Hood was too tired to saddle up on an issue? What if she was a bit tired but more afraid of a personal vacuum than a public firestorm? Habit is also a powerful driver, show me an issue and I will have an opinion, the auto-pilot always switched on. The valuable work of groups working for justice is one thing but the personal identity question seems to be at the heart of the lifetime of behaviour. There are ways to get attention, to be a voice, and one of them is via politics and the mixed agendas of heroics, hard work and having a profile.

This is very different from some people I have come to know and love whose lives or comfort are at risk every time they raise their voice, people whose cause is survival, indigenous collective survival, they are part of something greater and  more dangerous and they have no sense of a choice. They are still humans with ego and issues of power, but from within a logical framework of inherited necessity to fight or to see their culture die.

Robin Hood was a comfortable English outlaw story, loved by the good feared by the bad. We had never heard of Te Puea or Titokowaru. I was born outside some Pākehā social norms of the day but inside my privileged Pākehā culture, in a subculture that rejected the narrative of capitalism but still looked ever to the west. What we learned as children was the option of being comfortable with being rebels in the green wood and some of us yearned for suburban normality. It was all tangled up with the personal contradictions of  family life. Words were the family currency that bought you a passing grasp of theories, daily life was suburban normality iced with revolutionary rhetoric and patriarchal control. When the parent tells you that you are lucky, special and free because of ideology you can choose to believe or you can choose to reject. I chose to believe but I have come to respect all those who questioned, who refused, who became allergic to the righteous diatribe.

This is not to say that the work is wasted, the progressive values are a lie. It is just time to ask why some riders cling endlessly to the horse in the forest and where is the place of older women in the political frame? This is a cultural question which my tangata whenua colleagues do not need to ask. But wouldn’t it be great if they did not have to keep rebuilding their culture amidst the violent and thieving norms of colonisation?

When Penny Bright died aged 64 still apparently berating Auckland City Council with her last breath, I felt sad. I did not want to be that person departing  from this form into the universe, but clinging to the war that was no longer my war. I want to be closer to the peace and the silence so I had better start practising for that now.

When Helen Kelly died she left the word “kindness” as a reminder, she elevated from the issues to the essentials without betraying a life of campaigning. Both these women leave some of us Pākehā women something  to consider.

There are many inspirational examples across many cultures of older women taking their place in time and being valued, but my culture does not offer this.

The vacuum, the silence, the invisibility, the background. Part of me furiously rejects the idea that older women in my culture are now irrelevant, out of the game. Another part of me is wondering what might arise from the silence I can barely imagine, or even the balance that this time of life might invite.

Without a respected role it becomes the lonely re invention, the requirement to respect what has been and what needs to be let go. Kuia do not retire, they travel at the centre of their culture. As an older Pākehā woman searching for a place, I feel the echoes of my notoriety, the echoes of my relentless voice and am at last questioning if walking in the forest and standing still by the river occasionally might not be time well spent. Laying down the hunters bow and sword some days  and picking up the vessel that holds water I might stop looking for a reflection. Finally I might just see the water glittering and heavy, clear as the glass, and inseparable from myself. Robin Hood galloping into the sunset does not hold water, in the end my culture and its spiritual gaps expose themselves. We require some deeper understanding of living and dying that was lost when we left our villages and became materially well off colonial individuals, now without religious certainty or ancestors bones to lay down the pathway. I have no answers to these questions but I will not be retiring from that conversation.


This article was written by Catherine Delahunty, a Pākehā from Hauraki in recovery from 9 years as a Green Party MP. Catherine is also an activist across a range of issues from Free West Papua, Honour Te Tiriti, no mining in Hauraki and women's liberation.