More from Susan
“Humans Plan, and God Laughs”
I’ve heard variations of this Yiddish proverb several times in my seventy-two years. The older I get, the wiser it seems.
I’ve worn many sorts of hats in the last five decades as a teacher, musician, therapist, craftswoman, writer, masseuse, market researcher, yoga instructor, and house cleaner. In my early twenties, I tried on a nurse’s cap and envisioned a nun’s veil as well, but neither fit, despite planning and longing. Looking back, what tickles me most are the hats I thought I would never wear and yet ended up donning – and loving. I was sure I didn’t want to become a teacher, a mother, or a writer, yet all of these (and other un-plans) have come to pass and turned out to be sources of tremendous learning, meaning, and delight.
Growing up in the suburbs south of San Francisco in the 1950’s, the one thing I knew I didn’t want to become was a teacher. I loved school, but the women in our town were mostly full-time mothers, secretaries, or teachers, and I wanted to be something exotic – like a deep-sea archaeologist. My plans led me first to nursing school and then to training as a psychotherapist, but I ended up teaching in the Psychology Department at Sonoma State University for over thirty years. Despite my determination not to be a teacher, I became one – and loved it. God laughed.
I was pretty sure I didn’t want to be a mother either – until I married at 29. I’m grateful that my now ex-husband wanted children. Our grown sons, Avery and Logan, have been my greatest teachers and sources of joy, along with their children – Natalie (22), Madison (19), Lona Louisa (6), and Lukas (4.) God must have laughed several times, as I became a mother and then a grandmother.
Around fifty, sensing that life was about to shift dramatically, I began noticing some recurring themes in my dreams, day dreams, and art work: living by the sea, walking with a large dog, and being a writer. Of the three, only the ocean was appealing. I’d always wanted to live at the coast and was blessed to find a beach bungalow made of 100-year-old redwood that became a sanctuary for 15 years. Shortly after moving in, I adopted Chinook from my older son. Not a dog person, I was surprised to discover a soul mate in this beautiful old ninety-pound Great Pyrenees / Malamute. God probably chuckled at that too.
I remained resolute about not being a writer though – until the word crone started crossing my path. The first encounter (at age 54) was puzzling. The second, at 56, piqued my curiosity, and I looked up crone in a dictionary. The definition was horrifying, and the origin – even worse: “a withered, witch-like old woman,” likely derived from an Old Scots word for rotting flesh. I wanted nothing to do with any of this!
But the crone kept pestering me. And a few months after the dictionary debacle, I happened upon an obscure reference to the relationship between the demonizing of the crone and the severing of humankind’s relationship to the cycles of birth-death-rebirth (the latter have fascinated me since childhood.) Despite my aversion to the word crone and to thinking of myself as one, I started reading everything I could find about old women in myths and folk tales, and then immersed myself in the study of gerontology.
To my delight I discovered some surprisingly good news about later life that has been overshadowed in this culture by the mistaken, pervasive idea that aging is a devastating decline into dementia and / or debilitating frailty. In fact, these catastrophic conditions are the exception, not the rule. And we hear too little about the many blessings of the winter of life – like increasing audacity, a particular kind of wryly optimistic humor, a trend toward greater acceptance of ourselves and others (including foibles), and the deepening capacity to enjoy life and to meet its challenges with grace and grit.
Misconceptions of aging create a lot of fear and unnecessary suffering, and it’s become important to me to tell a counter-story that acknowledges the challenges of growing old but also celebrates its many under-appreciated gifts. (It’s probably no coincidence that one of my favorite childhood TV shows was “Crusader Rabbit.”)
In the last three years, the desire to tell this story led me to sell my beach house and move into town, to come out of retirement and resume offering classes and workshops on the gifts of age. And despite my initial aversion to the crone and my determination not to be a writer, just before turning 70, I finished Winter’s Graces: The Surprising Gifts of Later Life. It will be released in October, 2108. God is having another good laugh.
I still do make plans. But one thing (among many) that age and experience have taught me is that as important as dreams, plans, and actions are, sometimes Life has something else in mind. And often that something proves to be quite wonderful.
Photo credit: Madison Stewart
Dr. Susan Stewart has indeed followed her own instincts and inner wisdom in gathering stories that illustrate the meaning and value of our lives as we move toward adult maturation. She distills eleven qualities or ways of being – graces – that are possible in the third stage of life which correspond to the natural and organic season of winter. She has thoughtfully organized this gentle book in approachable steps that encourage reflection, imagination, and acceptance.
Dr. Susan Stewart’s work has inspired me to watch for and to celebrate the many wonderful gifts and graces that come with the process of aging. Our society is prone to seeing the “disadvantages” of age. What a joy it is to focus rather on the many reasons to embrace aging in light of the continuing development and deepening of the human being in later life.