Here I am, eighty-four and a half. What am I doing with my life? Why am I alive? What good am I? My health is good. It looks like I have a few more years to go. What should I do with them?
Two childhood memories contribute to these questions. One sunny summer afternoon when I was ten, my friend Joyce and I had been swimming in the ocean and we were at my house shampooing our hair. We slathered foamy lather on our scalps, and after arranging our hairdos in exotic coiffures we were running through the house from mirror to mirror and showing my folks the different styles. In my delight at my own creativity I announced, “I’m going to be a hairdresser when I grow up.” My mother’s immediate response was, “Oh, no. You must do something more valuable for the world than that.” That message shocked me so that I cannot forget it all these decades later. At that time I knew that there was nothing wrong with being a hairdresser. Hairdressers contribute valuable assets to our lives. Who was I, and what was I supposed to do for the world that was more important? But her message was implanted in my soul and I struggle with it to this day.
Her message was reinforced five years later. With tears pouring down her cheeks she said to me, “I don’t know whether to tell you to have your career first, or to get married and have your children first.” I was really bewildered. I knew there were other options, and why was she crying? What would I have to do to have her feel I was a success?
So yes, I have crammed a dedicated life into my decades. When my four children were all in school I started teaching for Los Angeles Unified. After twenty-seven years I retired, took teaching jobs in private schools, and then in Mariposa I spent eight years as a substitute assigned to any grade, any school, in the county. Then, after two years directing the Mariposa County Head Start program, I took up teaching adults at Merced College, in the Early Childhood Program.
In addition, I look at my children, now all retired from successful careers: three sons who worked primarily in developing computer software and hardware, and one daughter who worked for thirty-four years with troubled and delinquent children and adults. And now? Oldest son Larry has become a minister and he, with his wife Kay, have established a new church in Seattle. Son Lee, with his wife Lucille, are providing low cost housing for people in Las Vegas. Carl has taken a family of five into his home while their father is in Iraq. Holly spends full time taking care of this aged mother.
When I talk to my grandchildren I have to smile with pride and joy. Seth works at Intel in Portland, Oregon, designing software that helps doctors diagnose and treat illnesses, and his wife, Maureen, in her OB-GYN internship, successfully delivered twins by Cesarean section last week. Faith, in conjunction with her mother, is setting up a residential home for seniors and preschoolers. Bonnie is busy raising my two great-grandchildren, ten and fourteen, while her husband pilots a 747 carrying our Secretary of Defense to destinations the world over.
Have I made enough contribution to society? Can I take this time to enjoy nature and the arts? I live in a community where theater and live music abounds. Museums are of the highest caliber, and I have not been to one this year. Walking in the surf is one of my major joys and weeks go by that we don’t go to the beach. I’d like to spend more time learning to play with the new toys available; my computer, digital cameras, iPods, MP3, whatever that is? Still influenced by my mother’s dicta, how much of my time can I use for my own joy?
So what are my resolutions for this New Year of 2008? I pick up a book by Erik and Joan Erikson titled The Life Cycle Completed. Erik’s concept of human development deeply influenced modern psychology. When he, and his wife Joan, were in their eighties he described the successful eighth stage of life as having wisdom, which includes the capacity to see, look, and remember, as well as integrity, which demands patience and skill. At that point Erik died, feeling his work was completed.
But as she aged into her nineties, Joan realized there was another stage of development. “Our society does little to prepare us for the last long trip to death’s door.” But as I read her description of her perception of the ninth stage I realize I’m not yet ready for what she named “transcendence.” Instead I’m still working in the stage of “adulthood,” maintaining a focus on generativity. It is time for me to establish a commitment to continue, at my energy and strength levels, to whatever comes this year. What that may be is still a mystery—but right now I’m dedicated to exploring the possibilities.