Tag Archives: midlife crisis

Surrendering the Lead: An Observation from the Way of Saint James

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I could not accept retirement with grace.

Perhaps it was because retirement was not something I’d sought. Quite the opposite. After eighteen years as a lawyer, I’d been teaching high school English for six, loved it better than pistachio ice cream, hoped to continue for fifteen more years.

Perhaps it was because I’d spent a lifetime seeking education. I’d earned three graduate degrees—in law, teaching, and writing—to be the best I could in my careers.

Perhaps it was because my résumé had always worked magic. Spiffy schools, top grades, and strong endorsements had yielded a series of jobs, each one better than the one before, all landed easily.

Perhaps it was because I’d always been a workaholic. Late nights, weekends, holidays, I’d be there at the grindstone. Yep, you could always count on me.

Yet there I was jobless at age fifty, brought down by four high school juniors. They’d turned in identical essays for a final paper not assigned as group work; even their typos were the same. When I reported the incident to the dean, he ordered me to overlook the cheating. I surmised the parents were donors and resigned instead.

That was seven years ago, and I haven’t found steady work since.

It’s not that I haven’t looked. I applied for countless jobs: eighth grade language arts teacher, high school debate coach, twelfth grade creative writing teacher, college instructor of expository writing, law school professor of legal research and writing, volunteer writing tutor, assistant to a nun who ran a nonprofit and sought someone experienced in teaching, writing, and law.

I wrote the cover letters from the heart, tailored every application. Still, most went unacknowledged, despite my follow-ups. The rest elicited rejections addressed to “Applicant.” They secured not a single interview.

The only work I found was teaching college writing as an adjunct—and, believe me, I was grateful. But this was intermittent, temp work, doled out on a moment’s notice, carried on in isolation, lasting just ten weeks per stint, without a chance of advancement, cancelable at the college’s will.

What had happened to me? I’d once been treated like a crystal goblet, now like a paper cup.

The situation resulted in depression—ceaseless lamentation and self-recrimination: Why doesn’t anybody want me? Was my past success a fluke? How can I be so worthless that hard work can’t bring me up to snuff? I should have ignored that cheating. I was such an idiot. If something happens to my marriage, how will I earn enough to live?

My reaction to joblessness, I learned, was not uncommon. Psychologists have long associated unemployment with depression, poor self-esteem, and anxiety. And a recent Gallop-Healthways survey found that under- and unemployed Americans are more than twice as likely to report they’re being treated for depression than those with full-time jobs.

Treatment, though, wasn’t what I wanted. What I wanted was a job. Why was that impossible?

A friend surmised the problem was my age. She knew the nun I had applied to and asked her which applicant she’d hired. The response: a recent college graduate, a twenty-three-old. A young woman my former students’ age.

That age was my undoing seemed ridiculous. I might live thirty more years. I’m also a whiz on my iPad, and in yoga I can stand on my head.

What’s more, I know young adults. Believe me, I love them dearly. But they skip classes over broken fingernails. They can’t write a sentence worth beans. They’re known to be shameless job-hoppers, switching posts every three years. Why would employers them when they can have someone resilient, experienced, and steadfast—in other words, me?

Still, my friend’s hypothesis had merit. The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported that in 2013 almost thirty percent of cases claimed age discrimination. And according to a recent Boston Globe piece, almost half of all Americans who are jobless for more than a year are age forty-five or older and unlikely to ever be hired. A sixtyish former executive who’d spent five years pounding the pavement described the challenge he’d experienced: interviewers were twenty years his junior and not eager to “hire their dad.”

I was doomed, no doubt about it, so I resolved to walk The Way of Saint James.

The Way of Saint James—El Camino de Santiago—is a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, where, according to tradition, the apostle James the Greater is buried. Ever since the Middle Ages, pilgrims have journeyed to his tomb on a variety of routes. The most travelled is 500 miles long and starts five miles from the Spanish border in the Pyrenean foothills of France, but some pilgrims walk from farther points—Paris, Rome, Munich—others from spots nearer Santiago—Burgos, León, Samos. Last September, I joined them with my husband, trekking 200 miles in twelve stages.

Walking The Way is like having group therapy. All along the trail, pilgrims encounter each other, hike together for a distance, converse about their lives.

The first thing pilgrims always asked me was why I was making the journey. When I confessed that I was unemployed, they listened, shook their heads and nodded, then told me reasons of their own: One said her boyfriend had betrayed her. Another disclosed his wife had died. Another revealed she had cancer. Several, like me, said they couldn’t find jobs. Many of us were hoping the Camino would ease us through a transition or help us recover from a loss. Every day we were happy to discover empathetic souls who liked to walk and talk.

On the seventh day of our Camino, my husband and I rose before dawn and departed O’Cebreiro, a Celtic, mountaintop village with cobbled streets and numerous pallozas—round, stone houses with thatched roofs. We walked beneath the moon and stars, soon joining a group of eighteen young adults we’d met a few days before.

Guided by a few pilgrim headlamps, we headed down a wooded track. It wound around the hill before descending to the hamlet of Liñares and ascending again. The sun began to rise, revealing an ethereal horizon of green hilltops floating over morning mist. This is where Megan caught us and my husband speeded up a so the two of us women could talk.

Megan is a blue-eyed Millennial, a genial girl-next-door with a graceful stride. She told me nothing makes her happier than teaching and working with kids. Just a few months before the Camino, she’d completed a MEd in educational psychology. Through the summer she’d worked as a camp coordinator. She’d enjoyed it very much, but the job was seasonal and ended. On the Camino she was pondering her future, worried that she’d found no other job and scared that she never would.

When Megan and I reached Alto de San Roque, she stopped at a monolithic statue perched on the edge of a bluff—a trekking medieval pilgrim carrying a walking stick. There some of her friends were taking photos, gulping water, and gorging on croissants.

I continued on the path to Padornelo, which passes a pretty, stone chapel and climbs steeply for a stretch before plunging towards Ramil, where pilgrims, sheep, cattle, and chickens share a corredoira—a narrow lane walled with granite. By late morning, light rain began to fall. As I was pulling on my poncho, Rochelle and Erin joined me. We walked and they talked about their lives.

Rochelle is an athletic twenty-something with long blond hair and a bright, wide smile. She professed a passion for the Catholic Church and hoped to dedicate herself to serving it. With a BA in political science and comparative religion, she’d found a job at a diocesan chancery and had been there for two years. She told me only God knows what’s in store for her, but in the meantime she was happy where she was. She was walking The Way because she felt she had something to prove to herself and she couldn’t rest until she did.

Erin’s a gregarious Gen Y-er with chic, dark hair and cerulean eyes. She’d earned a BA in linguistics, planned to work in bilingual education, but realized teaching didn’t suit her well. She wound up in working in high school youth ministry. That job had disillusioned her, so she quit and embarked on the Camino, hoping to become re-inspired. Her goal was to pinpoint a career that would help others and gratify her.

As we talked, the three of us meandered a trail above a wooded valley. After a while, the drizzle tapered off and the clouds lifted a bit. The path began to ascend and soon I felt the need to slow my stride. The two girls offered to stay in sync with me, but I encouraged them to keep their pace, so they nodded and hiked on.

Within moments they were ahead of me, joining their marching, ponchoed friends. Orange-berried rowan trees swaying at the roadside, the queue of young adults briskly climbed the hill, their ranks stretching out before me as far as I could see: Blake, Megan, Lisa, Monica, Milo, Katey, Bryson, Julie, Alex, Liz, Vincent, Helen, Erin, Ruth, Rochelle. As I watched them soldier on, a wave of peace swept through me. I realized we were just where we should be, with them leading the way and me bringing up the rear.

I’d been wrong about their generation. Far from being unaccomplished and inconstant, they were strong, smart, caring, skilled, determined, with lots of love in their hearts and lots of dreams in their heads. They deserved to reach those dreams, but being young they had only just begun and had not yet had the chance to succeed.

On the other hand, I had had my chance. During my fifty-something years, I’d accomplished many, many dreams. I had a family, home, and friends, and yes, I’d had a long career. Between the young adults and me it was only fair that employers would choose them. Perhaps it was time to surrender, accept my turn to lead was over, and bless the next generation as it passed.

Please understand what I’m saying: I’m not condoning ageism; older workers need and want to work and have so much of value to give. And, believe me, if I could find a steady teaching job, I would leap at the chance.

At this juncture, I’m simply acknowledging the deal that God has made with every one of us. As we age, we lose things one by one—health, work, possessions, loved-ones, independence, life. We don’t know the timing or the sequence. For me the job went first, and really, I should be thankful; compared to other things I might have lost—and will lose in the future—the job was insignificant.

Once, Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on a special colt as the people lined the streets with boughs and hailed him as their king. Within days, though, they arrested him and sentenced him to death.

Jesus begged God to change his fate; he loved his work and life and didn’t want to lose them. But God ignored his supplication, so Jesus readily steeled himself and did his Father’s will. He surrendered, accepted his time to leave had come, and blessed his disciples as they began to lead the way.

 

Originally published in Good Letters.

The Truth Told Slant

1879221_101_430Every winter I plunge into darkness.

As Seattle days shorten to eight hours with clouds covering most of them and the city readies for ten months of showers, my inner world becomes as bleak as the world outside. I burrow through three seasons like a shrew mole through the mud, tunneling deeper to cry, surfacing only to complain.

Born and raised in New York, I’ve not adjusted in twenty-seven years.

I suppose this isn’t surprising. All my grandparents were natives of Sicily, a place where even in winter daylight persists for ten hours with nary a cloud in the sky. The people of Palermo wake to sun 228 days per year.

When my grandparents immigrated to the US, they did well to settle in Manhattan, where the sun shines over Central Park 235 days. The Space Needle basks in sunrays only fifty-eight.

My doctor calls my melancholy SAD, a depression caused by lack of sunlight resulting in low serotonin. Those who experience it suffer desolation, petulance, anxiety and social strain.

Since evolution has optimized humans for equatorial light, SAD is common in northern latitudes and climates with cloudy skies. Dark-eyed people like me are genetically predisposed. Blue eyes take in more light. Seattle is simply insufferable for someone with my genes.

I can’t, though, blame my darkness solely on the weather. The past six years have been tough. Just as my children left for college, I lost my full-time job, and I can’t seem to find a new one, thirty years of résumé be damned.

Since I’ve desperately tried to fill the void with a grab bag of pursuits not always suited to me—part-time, volunteer and temp jobs, housework, classes here and there—I’m left feeling frantic, lonely, worthless, bored, and more so every year.

This winter SAD struck hard. I could barely rouse myself mornings, sometimes didn’t bother dressing, cried if my cat crossed my path, overate, skipped the gym, ignored my friends. Every evening I pleaded with my husband, “Get me out of here! There’s nothing for me in Seattle, nothing at all but rain.”

But, in truth, I knew my husband couldn’t leave. He’s worked decades to grow his business and it’s not portable.

Once, I met an American woman vacationing in Tuscany. She told me that although she was married, she always travelled solo and lived alone too. Her husband preferred Boston and she Cos Cob, so they had separate homes.

When I asked the woman if she was ever lonely, she shrugged, “Why should I be? I’m never by myself. My favorite companion is me.”

At this, I remember passing judgment. How selfish. What’s the point of such a marriage? I could never be like her.

Still, in the bleak of winter, I determined that I could. If my husband couldn’t leave Seattle, I’d move by myself.

The idea was so radical and bewildering that my mind could scarcely comprehend it. I’d buy a tiny house. A house in North Carolina, where there are 220 annual days of sun. I turned on my computer, began to search online, and after ten minutes on Trulia, there my dream home was.

2026 Sycamore.

This classic 1929 cottage was one-third the size of our Seattle house. See the lovely lemon shingles, the cheerful side veranda, the steep pitched roof and sun-drenched lawn.  Note the cozy rooms, the quaint divided windows, the sunbeams angling through the panes lighting the honey hardwood floors.

What relief this house would bring me, so tiny, simple, bright. I’d leave my tattered furnishings behind, discard my old books, not need very much. I’d spend my time reading Kindle on the porch or planting a garden in the sun—azaleas, honeysuckles, witch hazels, asters, bee balms, goldenrods.

The inside of my cottage would be an uncluttered haven just for me, the outside an ebullient sight for the community.

This would be the home of my heart. Thrice daily I ogled it on Trulia, walked around the block on Google Earth. How apt that it was located on Sycamore, for I was sick in love.

One rainy spring morning after dreaming of the house, I came across a poem by Emily Dickinson, as quoted in a Parker Palmer essay:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant,

Success in circuit lies,

Too bright for our infirm delight

The truth’s superb surprise.

Palmer was pondering depression, a state he claims is caused when we disrespect the true self, the person God created us to be.

When we honor the true self, we choose pursuits that employ our inborn talents, resist pursuits that don’t and heed our natural limitations. Doing so brings us joy and enables us to serve those around us. Doing otherwise causes depression and burdens the community.

To honor the true self, we must listen to the promptings of its voice, which Palmer calls the inner teacher, others call the soul, and others the still, small voice of God. But this voice can often challenge the resistant ego, so to make acceptance easier, it sometimes tells the truth slant, using metaphor.

Could it be that the Carolina cottage was a trope composed by my true self? Not the dwelling I should buy, but the person I should be?

Rather than welcome less square footage, should I embrace my diminished role in the professional world? Instead of shedding tattered furnishings, should I drop unfulfilling work, like teaching basic grammar and dusting the church pews?

Rather than throw out old books, should I discard worn sob stories, like those about my SAD and unemployment? Instead of planting a new garden, should I cultivate pursuits I have and love, like writing and, yes, gardening, and caring for family and friends?

Who would I be if I did these things? Inside, an uncluttered, tranquil person; outside, ebullient, generous.

Perhaps the brilliant sunlight angling through the Carolina windows is simply the truth told slant by the voice of my true self.  Now it’s summer, and I am listening.

Peripheral Vision

3443136727_e5ae4b0e93_zNot long ago, I had surgery. I suppose that in the vastness of creation, the precipitating problem wasn’t much; with age I’d lost peripheral vision due to drooping eyelids. For several years I’d lived in shadow, sight obscured by canopies of flesh.

My ophthalmologist prescribed blepharoplasty coupled with an endoscopic brow lift. If I chose to have the surgery, he’d put me under general anesthesia, incise along my eyelids’ natural creases and in several places in my scalp. He’d remove excess skin, muscle, and fat and close the gashes with myriad stitches. The procedure would take about two hours, healing, four to five weeks, after which—he hoped—my field of vision would appreciably improve.

When I woke up in recovery, my body tensed with terror, my eyes and head pulsed with pain. I could scarcely press open my eyelids—was anybody there? I felt my husband’s hand in mine, heard a nurse calling my name, but saw only an under-ocean swirl—searing light, floating glow-spots, miasmatic silhouettes. Had my surgeon blinded me?

The first few days at home, I lay supine on the couch—inert—ointment in my closed and crusted eyes, pads on my livid lids, bandages round my throbbing head, heavy icepacks on my face. And for some reason I still don’t understand—anesthesia, pain medication?—I lost control of my thoughts, which tumbled into pondering my past, spiraled into panic for the future, pummeled me so relentlessly that my physical black and blueness paled before the bruising of my heart.

For the previous several years, I’d been teaching writing as an adjunct professor at a college. There, I’d given my all to my students: I’d worked fifty hours per week, developed multiple curriculums, written numerous student recommendation letters, counseled students outside of class, led a Bible study cadre, been a reader for senior projects.

Still, I’d been fired by mass email every June, rehired last minute each quarter, paid less than baristas earned at Starbucks, offered no office, meeting invitations, health insurance, or other benefits. And just before my surgery the college had informed me that a brand new PhD would take over my favorite writing class.

So I brooded: How could the college discard me? Had I done something wrong? Was I a terrible teacher? Was the problem my age? I was twice as old as my replacement, who wouldn’t need blepharoplasty till I was in my grave.

Curled up on the couch, I wept through my ointments and dressings, tears coursing into my ears. In my blinded and mummified state, I couldn’t shake my melancholic thoughts. So desperate was I to divert them, I flouted my surgeon’s orders; I picked up a book from the coffee table though he’d forbidden me to read for at least a week.

Straining to open my eyes wide enough to see, I turned to a meditation by the poet Scott Cairns, who wrote of hiking through Utah’s Arches National Park. Having gone only a little way along the trail, he was awed by the endless blue sky, enormous canyon spaces and tremendous arches and towers of incredibly red rock. He stopped to look down. A flash of vivid color caught his eye, held it, and he was startled to see a brilliant, deep magenta cactus flower on a prickly plant whose scarred, paddle-shaped appendages seemed more dead than alive. He wrote:

And then, having noticed that one flower…my eye was thereby led to another just beyond the first, and then just beyond the second, another…brilliant flowers dotted the landscape as far as the eye could see. They had been there all along, but until I had seen the first I’d been oblivious to their presence, blind to their broadcast beauty.

I lay the book aside, realized my eyes no longer ached that much and neither did my heart. For the first time in several days, I got up from the couch and began to look around. Out the window, in the park, was a boy flinging a Frisbee, his dog springing like a pogo to catch it in its teeth. On the front porch up against the door was a fragrant crate of oranges with a get-well note from a friend. And in my computer inbox were some emails that had come in during the week:

From a student who’d just finished my writing course:

I have loved taking the writing class with you this quarter. I loved seeing your smile every Tuesday and Thursday : ). I feel like I have grown a lot as a writer because of your class.

From a student I’d taught in high school:

I just completed my first script and turned it in! What a rush! Thank you for inspiring me all the way to graduate school!

From the head of the English department at the college where I teach:

I just wanted to let you know that, if you’d like to teach writing next quarter, there’s an afternoon slot that’s opened up. And I want to let you know right now that I will have 1-2 writing sections per quarter next year available, if you’d be interested in signing up for teaching then too.

A leaping dog, sweet oranges, encouraging emails. This trio of brilliant cactus blossoms had been within my field of peripheral vision, but I’d let my umbrage at life’s prickles completely blind me to them. Now my eyes were open. And I knew that if I kept on looking, I’d find still more flowers on the trail.