While cleaning my teeth, my dental hygienist expressed dismay that her 79-year-old mother was still working as a nurse. Without the financial need to continue her career, her mother persevered with a two-hour daily commute because she enjoyed the social interactions with both colleagues and patients. Although I’ve made a different choice for now, I can readily understand the mother’s preference.
I sometimes wonder the opposite. Why aren’t I still working at age 61? I didn’t need to close my mediation-law practice five years ago. But my retirement resources were adequate so that I could choose to take “early retirement.” I successfully began a new “post-retirement” consulting business, but now find myself turning down potential clients. I am somewhat perplexed by my own actions.
My husband still works long hours. We live in the “suburban countryside” on two acres of land complete with red and gray fox, barred and screech owls, deer, and the occasional sounds of gunfire from hunters who have strayed away from the limited areas reserved for them. It is great for spiritual reflection and long walks. And if I time my outings the distance from the city does not discourage me from leaving to interact with others.
Yet, I have begun to feel uncomfortably comfortable. I want more challenge in my life, and desire for more people-interaction. It feels like my circle of friends has grown smaller with time, and now that I’m not in the work world, my schedule doesn’t mesh with my still-working friends who live in the city.
But I’m resisting returning to my hectic pre-retirement days of cases and clients. As a next step I have at least identified my interest in developing more lasting relationships than I have managed to foster in the projects and cases of my past careers.
There is also this nagging belief, perhaps left over as one who came of age in the late 60’s and early 70’s, that to justify my existence, I must be about something that is making the world a better place.
I turn to a couple of favorite authors as I reflect on this new stage of my life. In her 1990 bestseller Composing a Life, Mary Catherine Bateson reflects on her maternal grandmother’s influence on Bateson’s mother, anthropologist Margaret Mead. Bateson concludes her reflections with,
For Americans today, composing a life means integrating one’s own commitments with the differences created by change and the differences that exist between the peoples of the world with whom we increasingly come into contact. Because we have an altered sense of the possible, every choice has a new meaning. (page 59)
So what meanings show up in the choices I have made in recent years to step back from my life-long career path and explore other avenues for experiencing life? In fact, what is important to me these days? What matters? I play tennis. I volunteer for a few hours each week. I play with my dogs. I see friends. But it no longer seems enough. Not once I place myself in the context of “the differences that exist between the peoples of the world.”
And so my first challenge of this new year is to discover what principles, or what observations, or values need to guide me in this stage of my life. My behavior makes clear to me that the assumptions of earlier life-stages are no longer front and center.
Composing a life no longer feels like the operative phrase for how I am approaching the next unfolding of my life. Rather, I turn to another image introduced to me by the second author, Terry Tempest Williams.
A mosaic is a conversation that takes place on surfaces.
A mosaic is a conversation with light, with color, with form.
A mosaic is a conversation with time.
And then a little later she writes:
A mosaic is a conversation between what is broken.
Williams travels to Ravenna to learn the basics of becoming a mosaicist from Marco de Luca. He tells her:
Out of randomness, you create order. I express something very deep and then deny it immediately.”
I want each mosaic to have maximum liberty to be itself.
These words resonate with me. Especially the yearning to exercise the “maximum liberty” to be myself. But haven’t I been doing this all the way along? What makes this season of my life feel so perplexing? So much a beginning? So different from the orderliness of practicing law, raising a child, volunteering to do good in the world?
I don’t know. But I think it has something to do with the juxtaposition that Williams captures in the title of her book with beauty and broken world.