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Excerpt From 'Composing a Further Life: The Age of Active Wisdom'

[An] extended life span suggests a number of adaptations, all of which are occurring simultaneously. For some people, every stage is stretched: longer years of education, longer experimentation before marriage, late childbearing, and often deferred retirement. For others, life is started up again at midstream as if it could be repeated, a fairly common pattern for men with second families. For a third group, often women who have had a first career as homemakers, a new start on an autonomous career is involved. Some want to use an undeveloped talent, perhaps benefiting from emerging capacities to combine right- and left-brain functions by studying painting or dance or learning to play a musical instrument. Some want to build a legacy. Some go on to teach what they formerly practiced. Some want to focus their energies and passions on an area that received only a fraction of their attention in the past. For some there is a discovery of freedom. For others there is a chance for new or renewed dedication. And because we have not yet become fully aware of the possibilities, there will be for many an era of boredom and futility as the open doorways remain unexplored or are prematurely closed. These different approaches should not be contrasted so much as examined for common values and overlapping themes as we move into the new space opened up in our lives.

I like to think of men and women as artists of their own lives, working with what comes to hand through accident or talent to compose and re-compose a pattern in time that expresses who they are and what they believe in—making meaning even as they are studying and working and raising children, creating and re-creating themselves. Just as the use of a new room in a house depends on what is already there in the lives and relationships and possessions of the owners, the use of a new stage in the life cycle is related to what came before, ideally related in a way that is more than a sum of parts but rather an inclusive composition of grace and truth. It is often only in its final pages that a story reveals its meaning, so the choices made in later decades may reflect light back on earlier years.

Excerpted from Composing a Further Life by Mary Catherine Bateson. Copyright © 2010 by Mary Catherine Bateson. Reprinted with permission from the publisher Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. Read an interview with Mary Catherine Bateson.