Rethinking Middle Age in Community and Envisioning Older Age as Ascent
Yesterday fall sunshine suffused our conference room at the Collegeville Institute.
I was “on deck” as the first scholar to present my findings and receive feedback on my project: Jubilación: Vocation in the Third Act of Life.
Having colleagues, a community of scholars who challenge and encourage you, is a gift at any stage in life.
In the Third Act years, too many people lack this gift.
My guess is that work is the only place many people experience any kind of community.
They aren’t like my new friends, Benedictine monks or nuns, who never retire and who live by the motto: “Ora et labora.” Prayer and work in community.
As I listened to my colleagues, I realized that my calling to learn and teach has never been solitary. Nor has it depended solely on any of the many jobs I’ve had or roles I’ve played.
I’ve never been without community, which means I’ve always had a larger framework for my vocation.
Today, I celebrate community and invite you to think with me about the multiple places we can go to experience it.
Below is the post I wrote for the Vocation Matters blog today. It starts out with some nostalgic candy and introduces a beautiful question:
Some of you remember these vintage candies with the enticing name: Now and Later. Have some now. Save some for later. They were the 1960s way of saying you can have your cake and eat it too.
We usually think of vocation as being about NOW. Listen for your calling, make a choice, and then follow it throughout your adulthood until retirement. But that’s an increasingly outmoded way of conceptualizing how vocation works.
What if we think of our callings as seeded at birth, confirmed in adulthood, and continued into old age all the way to the end? In other words, vocation is both being and becoming — both now and later. Evolving throughout the life cycle, vocation connects us with purpose: before, during, and after paid employment.
Sounds good, right? But how many people actually think this way? Especially while involved at the peak of their careers? If they think about post-employment living, it’s usually in financial terms. How much money do I need to make sure I don’t outlive my savings? We’d all like a definitive answer to that one, but most of us can’t be sure we have it. It’s not A More Beautiful Question, as Warren Berger might say.
“Always the beautiful answer / who asks a more beautiful question.” – e. e. cummings
To discover my answer to the beautiful question, click here to read the rest of the post.
Then come back and tell us your own experience with any of these topics: how do you find or create community in your life? Did you do anything, or are you doing something now, in middle age that helps you see your vocation as lifelong? Pray tell!
Thank you, Shirley, for reminding your readers that “Life begins at 65!” I am 73 and back in the classroom (after earning a PhD in my late fifties and teaching.) This time to see if I can fulfill a childhood dream of writing a book. Together with my youngest sister (the one who learned her alphabet and her numbers from me) I am taking a creative writing class at the McNally Robinson bookstore in Winnipeg. Our classroom of approx. 30 students has an approximate age range of 25 to 85!
I love this, Elfrieda. You are finding a community of learners in the classroom, and an even more intimate community with your sister also taking the class. And your desire to write goes all the way back to the “seed” in childhood. You are a poster child for the idea of jubilación!
Such a vital and interesting path you’re exploring for us, Shirley. For me, it’s always been about writing and teaching. Well, it started with artistic expression that became focused on writing, and then I taught and loved it. When I was still a reporter, I began teaching, decades before it became my primary work activity. I hope in retirement to continue that.
As well, in the last three years I added hospice volunteering to my roster. As most such volunteers say, I did it for me and I’ve been blessed. I was afraid of death, or thought I was—I think really I was afraid of being afraid! I’m not sure whether I will do it in retirement, as we plan to move and it depends on our and the hospice situation there, but like any profound thing one does, hospice has already changed me. It’s hard to relate to the self who fearfully pondered volunteering in hospice.
I love this sentence: “I think really I was afraid of being afraid.” Funny how we have practices like Halloween where we try to overcome our fears by making them visible, but when primal fears haunt us in real life, we often hide or seek distraction.
I can tell you are giving thought to LATER even in the NOW. Best wishes on your proposed move. Hope we finally meet in person some day.
Oh, and on teaching after retirement. One of the lovely aspects of the calling to teach is that it can take so many forms. And one can teach as a volunteer, as an adjunct, in adult ed, in churches and libraries and parks and rec programs. Endless opportunities while working around other commitments.
This post is pulsing with life abundant: being, doing, growing.
The video on the link reminded me of two things: (1) At age 75, I am well beyond middlescence, and (2) I think of my vocation as life-long and ascending; I don’t think I’m past the peak – yet.
Honestly, I live with the illusion that my lifespan will be long unless God has other plans. After all, I am college-educated, exercise and don’t smoke. My tribes give me zest for life, particularly my writer friends who have spurred me on to my Third Act. Although I like to watch movies, lunch with friends and shop, I think of those activities as garnish on a full plate.
You may be familiar with the work of Fr. Carlo Notaro, a priest in the Order of St. Camillus, who has done work in specialized ministries, particularly with the elderly. In fact, the theme of his doctoral thesis was on the spirituality of aging. When I saw the notation recently, I thought of you.
Thank you for showing your cozy conference room, Shirley. I wonder if you wish the table were round.
You would enjoy the Aging with Grace book, Marian. You have every reason to believe you are headed for a long old age, based on the research in this book. The story reads like a detective novel. It took Snowdon a long time to know what he was studying, but when he found a whole collection of autobiographies the nuns wrote when they entered the convent, he struck gold. By doing content analysis, he was able to see astounding connections between the types of writing women were doing and their ability to escape Alzheimers, or not, depending on what kind of sentences they constructed in their youth.
You are definitely not past your peak. In fact, you are still climbing high.
I’m past middlescence too, unless I live to be 138! It was an adjustment at first to become “middle aged” but also to leave that stage.
I wrote this blog post with a particular group in mind — faculty in their 40s through 60s. I hope they can find encouragement in it that people like you have continued to ascend to your calling after retirement. I’ll bet you began to collect visions of your LATER years while you were still in mid life. True?
I have not come across the name of Carlo Notaro. Can you remember more about the citation, Marian?
In my last year or two at the college I panicked because my career as I had known it for 40+ years was coming to an end. Dr. George Vaillant’s Aging Well came to the rescue by extending my vision though at the time it didn’t include writing.
Thanks for your reading tip. I’m never disappointed with your suggestions, Shirley.
I too loved the George Vaillant book. It is so clear about the value of good relationships. In the middle years we work so hard for “success” by whatever definition we construct, too often guided by late-capitalist society values. But these longitudinal studies starting with Harvard grads, privileged white men, show that in the end our awards and medals and even our bank accounts matter less than how we have loved our special few and life itself. To those of us who memorized portions of the Sermon on the Mount, this should come as no surprise.
Oh yes, the table. Rectangle is fine with me. Tables and circles don’t go too well together. I like a circle when its just chairs in the room.
Shirley — I love, Love, LOVE this post. I’ve snagged my answer to some of your questions from page 49 of my book, Note to Self: A Seven-Step Path to Gratitude and Growth:
“I’m fortunate in that I love what I do, and I do what I love. My vocation (career) and my avocation (purpose) happen to be one and the same.
“The purpose I have determined is not bound by geographic location; it’s totally portable
and can be accomplished from any vicinity. Additionally, I can be A MINDFUL AGENT OF HEART-BASED CHANGE in any occupation: hairstylist, landscaper, astronaut, accountant, dentist, mechanic, corporate executive—there are no limits.
“Currently, my path is transformational life coaching, which I do online with clients around the globe via Skype and FaceTime. This path provides me with the opportunity to be A MINDFUL AGENT OF HEART-BASED CHANGE through my specific areas of interest—energy medicine, inner alchemy (personal transformation), and spiritual awareness.”
[As an aside… I don’t believe we “find” our purpose, I believe that we determine our purpose.]
How do I create community in my life?
IN PERSON — I get involved with people in groups who I share interests with: book clubs, yoga, writing groups, lunch for literacy.
ON LINE — I make connections that I cultivate and nurture.
Yes! Laurie, you too are a poster child for Jubilación. I think many of the readers here are. By listing the many different roles or jobs one could have and illustrating that all of them can be performed in a special way — as a “MINDFUL AGENT OF HEART-BASED CHANGE,” you get the point of what I call continuing vocation, a word we use in slightly different ways while agreeing completely on the main idea that job and purpose are two different things. Purpose trumps job.
I hope by now all the readers here have discovered your work on line and have purchased NOTE TO SELF, your new book. If not, they can click on your name, find your latest post, and get a great list of how to help continue the launch of an important book into the world.
Both of us find continuous growth the most beautiful thing in the world, especially the continuous growth of love.
Shirley — “Purpose trumps job.” Amen siSTAR!
Wow! I love this post. So much to think about, so much to say. The big change in my life came in my 50’s when I began being my mother’s caretaker. When she died the year I turned 65, I began a journey during which I discarded the role of victim and becoming a student of life, reinventing myself, and sharing what I’ve learned through my memoir. My vocation may be simply being a student, exploring what is before me and allowing myself to be open whatever comes along. Every day provides me with something new to contemplate and brings about change in the way I think and respond to what is going on around me. My vocation is to simply BE. We can bring change to our messed world with a smile, encouraging someone who needs help, and simply being part of the mystery.
And I love your response, Joan. You are not only a poster child for Jubilación, you also show the strong connection between actions taken in middelescence and the later fulfillment of their purpose in later life. Your lovely memoir SCATTERING ASHES: A Memoir of Letting Go tells the story of your desire for forgiveness and reconciliation, your painful journey with a narcissistic mother, and your own transformation after her death.
I also love your definition of vocation as BEING. I asked one of the monks here, a white-haired, bearded, one, what his role was in the community. He said, “being.”
Shirley, hope yesterday your findings were embraced and valued, and you walked away with exactly what you needed for your next steps.
A community can happen in a moment in time, for example on a light note, last night our long-suffering generations of Cubs fans (a community of shared commitment to a team, a place, a dream) celebrated the dream manifested. This is a community in a broad sense of the word. I am thinking too here of short-term communities which bond during external crises. Here we are connected for a moment and then the community or group dissipates.
I have beén blessed with several deep communities of friends. Here community is built through shared experiences, being together over numerous years in some cases, being known to each other and supporting each other if only by witnessing and acknowledging challenging times or celebrating the high moments. Bonds of trust deepen. It’s not always sweetness and light. If it looks that way, the community has not yet matured.
I have found value and the need for multiple communities at each phase of my life because no one community can be all for us.
How do we build community? We create community by first recognizing the possibility; by investing ourselves within it, giving, supporting others; receiving what others can give; being fully present; and persevering through its limitations and fractures.
I am embracing the gifts already received and the possibilities for the future with my newly embraced community of writers. I’ve experienced its generosity in many forms even at this early stage of involvement.
Go Cubs!! Have you seen this Nike Ad yet? http://www.adweek.com/adfreak/heres-lovely-salute-cubs-nike-aired-after-final-out-world-series-174418
Audrey, it has been a great pleasure getting to know you and offering some suggestions on your writing journey and appreciating your comments on mine. We both know how to build community, and now, thanks not only to experience but to research, we know that this ability is a gift. Thankfully, it’s a gift available to all. But it’s not one that our individualistic society ordinarily teaches or rewards.
Blessings as you continue the writing journey.
Shirley, your phrase, “my calling to learn and teach” lit my lamp with a 200 watt bulb. My daughter used to joke that “my mom reads a book and leads a workshop.” Actually it took three or four books to get to that point, but she wasn’t far off. However, that process only became truly energizing twenty years ago when I stepped away from the corporate arena and discovered my passion for learning and teaching life story writing. That’s when doing what I love to do, am called to do, began generating community and more energy than I put into it. I eventually discovered that writing is best done in community.
When we moved to Austin I toyed with the idea of stepping back from teaching to reconnect with other creative outlets. After all, how many more years do I have left? Finally I agreed to teach one class for the Austin volunteer organization, the Lifetime Learning Institute, similar to the Osher programs I worked with in Pittsburgh. Hooray for that! Now I remember why I love to teach and realize how much I was missing my Pgh writing community. That first LLI class is continuing to meet as an ongoing group. Now I feel about twenty years younger, but sager than I was back then. In February, I’ll help start three more groups, another one with LLI and two in libraries, certain they’ll organically spread. We’ll make Austin the life writing capitol of the world!
I have discovered that I may run, but I can’t hide. My calling to learn and teach is inescapable. Thank you Shirley for the precise phrase to describe it.
Ha, Sharon, I love that description of your daughter’s: “my mom reads a book and leads a workshop.” And your response. Actually, it takes three or four books. I so know what you mean.
Wow, you are so full of Jubilación spirit that you moved all the way to Austin, TX, and are now spreading it further. I love that your class has not stopped meeting even after the “official” ending. You obviously established a safe space and a place of honest critique.
The takeaway for me from my presentation to our group (some of whom are 30 somethings and none of whom are as old as I am) was to see the importance of community to the process of continuous growth throughout a lifetime. I was like a fish swimming in an ocean of community all my life, not as aware as I should be of the importance of the ocean itself!
Glad you are helping to keep Austin weird by making it the life writing capitol of the world. 🙂 So exciting.
I gather so much inspiration from your posts and from the discussions in the comments, Shirley. Thank you. I am in the middle years–53–and I am at the place where I can look back and learn from my past actions and from what happened TO me, while also looking ahead and thinking about what kind of person I want to continue becoming. I feel more accepting of who I am instead of feeling guilty about, well, everything about myself. I am slowly but surely embracing life instead of fearing it. Community is not easy for me to create, but I am part of an online community of people who “get” my love for animals, and I am working on building a community of support for writing. I am grateful to be in the place I am right now, and I look forward to what’s ahead. I, too, believe that vocation goes far beyond any job title, so I never expect to retire. I will be writing and reading and thinking (I hope) until the end.
Tina, your message fills me with empathy and hope, not just for you but for other middlescents who are rounding the U curve of life satisfaction. I might write a post just on that concept. Here’s a start. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/12/the-real-roots-of-midlife-crisis/382235/
I am so glad you are able to build an online community of people who get your love for animals. Online community is a wonderful way to meet, connect, nourish, and support like-minded people. It’s especially good for introverts.
May you continue to follow your vocation, all the way around the bend of mid-life and up the rocky path to joyful old age.
Shirley, your time at Collegeville is a benefit to your readers and friends. This post is filled with so much about where I am in my life–age 70–and where I have been and want to do, as I’m sure it is for everyone who reads it.
As you may or may not know, I hoped for a career as a social worker. My sophomore year in college students on track for that degree were scheduled for an internship at a mental health facility not far from campus. The biggest lesson I took away from that internship was that I’d never have a happy family life as wife and mom because I could not leave behind the struggles of my patients at the end of the day. That gift of caring and compassion is one of the greatest gifts my mother gave me.
Not long after I dropped out of college and began working. This led to my lifelong career as a legal administrative assistant (almost 35 years worth) until retirement in 2006. It was then I picked up my dream of writing and began moving forward with a memoir, a blog, a book review blog, and more. I found my community–online friends like you, Kathy, Marian, Laurie and more. Most days I am fulfilled and usually brimming over with more to do than I have hours for.
However, yesterday I found myself drawn to Richard’s volunteer role sharing myself and my time as a hospice volunteer reading to patients. I don’t yet know where this will lead but it’s another possibility on my journey of a lifetime.
Continued blessings in Collegeville!
I didn’t know that you wanted to be a social worker, Sherrey, but I’m not surprised to hear it. I think God must be smiling to see that you are becoming a hospice volunteer — a social work-like role. I love the movie Babette’s Feast which shows us the ways in which that which we thought we had to give up in our youth sometimes comes back to us in our older age. And sometimes it is even better than the thing we wanted originally.
I’m so glad we met both in person and on line. Many blessings as you continue to focus on another dream you now have the time to fulfill, writing.
This post and its comments have affirmed my day, my life, my path onward and upward. I feel that I’ve been afraid to be afraid too many times – as well as too many times I’ve dared/jumped without proper cogitation… Now that I’m a ‘codger’ I can freely admit both.
PJ, so glad you found this post and comments inspiring. I learn so much when others take the time to say what does or doesn’t connect in a post. And I love hearing other life stories.
You are so succinct and so right in your observation of the perils of both sides of risk taking. Sometimes we do too little risking. Sometimes too much. The wisdom of codgers is to recognize both errors and not be defensive about past mistakes.
Wow Shirley! Thank you! Big questions indeed but as e.e. cummings says “Always the beautiful answer / who asks a more beautiful question.” For me, I reckon living the questions is my purpose. Though, when we have a goal in mind we have to implement certain tasks to make the goal a reality which is what I am process of doing. By the way, retirement (whatever that means), can be changed into re-fire-ment? Am going to look out for David Snowdon’s book, it sounds wonderful! I can see by that nun’s lovely smile and face that this is a book I would like to read!
Yes, Susan, thanks for this reminder of Rilke’s response to the young poet: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
This is the best possible response to the question of how we can live Now while believing in the goodness of Later and yet not knowing exactly what that Later will be. The question itself is our answer.
So exciting to put these two lovely, poetic, thoughts side by side.
And so relevant to the political turmoil now in both our countries. How can we both ask more beautiful questions and also live into the answers?
I think Re-Firement might be calling wisdom forth around these questions. Maybe action also.
Just to note Shirley, I copied and pasted my above comment a moment ago from the comment I made yesterday – I noted it was ‘still waiting approval’ – but it’s been a joy now to read others’ comments and your responses to them! Have a wonderful weekend 🙂
Hmm, Susan, I’m not sure why, as a frequent visitor to this site, you would be caught in the approval process. That should not have happened, but glad you persisted. I’m glad you had a chance to read the marvelous responses above. The conversation is what has kept me motivated after eight years of blogging.
Wonderful, Shirley. Thank you. Much of what matters to me now ties to my earliest earliest experiences. The first memory was light pouring through stained glass windows in a hospital chapel when my father was gravely ill. As a little one, I knew my mother didn’t notice that light and suffered because of it. I never forgot that Light. Another formative experience was standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon when I was five. I never forgot the magnificence. As a high school kid, I searched for something I wasn’t given at home. I started with Catholic services, but didn’t get help or encouragement from priests. In college, my focus shifted toward eastern traditions. I met my most influential spiritual teacher when I was 22. His focus was studying and learning from all traditions. That’s been been my path since. The seeds of becoming a quester were there in the beginning–the oak inside the acorn.
Thanks for the Rilke quote in comments. It’s one of my favorites.
The oak inside the acorn. I love that idea, Elaine. Thank you for sharing the seed of your vocation and how it has evolved through time.
I was struck by your spiritual precociousness of seeing the light — and the loneliness you must have experienced in not only losing your father but being unable to communicate the depth of your experience, your initial call, with your mother. Now, however, you are a beacon of light to many. All the study and questing you have done are there to share with others.