My Late-Life Journey: Part 1

Today’s Daily Post from WordPress asks us to describe a journey, “whether a physical trip you took, or an emotional one.”

Here, then, is Part 1 of the late-life journey that lead me to where I am today.

Quite a few years ago I went through a difficult time when my two closest friends died of cancer just 10 months apart. I was shocked and numbed. These deaths coincided with my own entry into midlife—-a time when women characteristically begin to redefine themselves and their purpose in life. Many people say, at a time like this, that they’re looking for answers, but I wasn’t at that point yet: I began by looking for the questions I needed to ask. In my search I turned to the two activities that have always informed my life: reading and writing.

I’ve always read on a wide range of subjects, but in my emotional and spiritual disarray I cast my reading net even more widely than usual. I consumed books on philosophy, spirituality, psychology, and feminism. Each book lead to many others; synchronicity kicked it, as Jung promises it will, once I began to pay attention. Of all the books I read during this period, two were pivotal:

1. Carolyn Heilbrun’s Writing a Woman’s Life. Heilbrun asserts that throughout history anyone who wrote about women’s lives shaped the stories to conform to societal expectations of how women should be. She calls for new ways of writing women’s autobiography and biography: “For women who have awakened to new possibilities in middle age, or who were born into the current women’s movement and have escaped the usual rhythms of the once traditional female existence, the last third of life is likely to require new attitudes and new courage” (p. 124). As older women, Heilbrun says, “we should make use of our security, our seniority, to take risks, to make noise, to be courageous, to become unpopular” (p. 131).

2. Daniel Taylor’s Tell Me a Story: The Life-Shaping Power of Our Stories. Taylor stresses that we shape the stories we tell about ourselves, but those stories in turn shape who we are. Taylor’s most compelling point is that, if the story we’re living is broken, we can fix it by retelling it: “When we envision our lives differently, we are capable of being different” (p. 127). This ability applies not only to individuals but to whole societies as well.

My reading lead me to explore narrative psychology, narrative therapy, and the narrative study of lives movement.

writingAnd through all this exploration, I wrote: pages and pages of journal entries, unsent letters to my dead friends, real letters gratefully acknowledging my living friends, fist-shaking diatribes hurled at The Universe, contemplative musings, questions—-and, finally, some tentative answers—-addressed to myself. For me, writing has always been a crucial part of the learning process. Ideas arrive in large format; writing—-the process of putting those ideas into words and making the words fit together—-is the way I refine ideas, and clarify and discover meaning. Along with reading, writing is a necessary component of thinking.

In a prime example of synchronicity, during this period I discovered Story Circle Network, an organization headquartered in Austin, Texas, that focuses on encouraging and enabling women to write the stories of their lives. Shortly thereafter I attended a Story Circle Network weekend retreat with about 30 other women. As we all read, wrote, and talked together, many women experienced emotional breakthroughs and were able to write and talk about aspects of their lives that they had never revealed to anyone before. That retreat was an epiphany for me, and during my two-day drive home I came to realize that everything I had been reading fit together and that I had finally discovered the purpose I’d been searching for.

That five-year journey was an intellectually and spiritually rejuvenating time for me. It caused me to apply to the doctoral program in humanistic psychology offered by Saybrook University, which back then was known as Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center. I planned my instructional program to learn how to work with people, particularly women, in using writing as a means of telling their life stories, either as a record for posterity or as a means of self-discovery and personal growth.

And the journey continues…

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