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There was a time in my fifties when everything I touched turned brown and died. Everywhere I’d go people would ask, “What are you doing now?”
If I’d told the truth, I would have said: I’m doing nothing. For the first time since college, I have no work. After 23 years and several award nominations, I can’t get hired to write for television. In Hollywood jargon, I can’t get arrested. I can’t sell articles to magazines or books to publishers and I don’t know how I’ll earn money. The phone doesn’t ring, and I have to crank myself up to go out and hustle and why, dear God, do I have to hustle at this age? It’s humiliating.
During this same period, my lover of seven years, a cowboy artist I’d expected to spend the rest of my days with, rides off with no discussion. My children, who’ve occupied my first thoughts on waking and my last before falling asleep, are going off to college. As long as they lived with me, I got up at seven and made pancakes, drove them to school, soccer, ballet, music lessons, helped them write their papers and do research on Egyptian history and carve pumpkins for Halloween. No more. My kids, my lover and my livelihood are being yanked from me at once and there’s nothing I can do. When I tell this to a friend, Peter Simon, the photographer, he says, “Oh, honey, you’ve got money problems and no sex. That’s not good.”
Not good at all. I can’t sleep either. I fall asleep but wake at two, my feet jack-knifing. What am I supposed to do for the next thirty years? I’ve raised my kids, written best sellers, had deep love… Why am I still here?
Why are we still here? When I look around, I see that others are going through similar meltdowns and that as a group, we’re being stripped of our relevance, our primacy. We’re turning 50 at the rate of one every seven seconds, and the advance guard, the icons who set the tone—Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Tom Hayden and the Chicago Seven—are turning 70 or would be if they were alive. We did not plan for this; we did not know that at 55 we might have 30 more years of vigorous health, lust and a desire to contribute and create.
Let me define what I mean by “we,” because the boomer generation—usually described as people born between 1946 and ’64—is not one culture or even one generation. It includes people in their sixties, considering retirement, and others who’re in their forties and raising kids. Of those born during those years, 52 per cent voted red in the last presidential election and 47 per cent voted blue. When I speak of this group, I’m speaking about a cohort of various ages who were infected by the ideals of the Sixties, who believed we should make love, not war, had a passion for improving the world and a transformational agenda. This cohort, whom I’ve been writing about for three decades, is mostly middle class and can get emotional when they hear “Sergeant Pepper”— they remember where they were and how they felt when they first heard it—or see a film clip of Bobby Kennedy saying: “Some people see things the way they are and ask, why? I see things the way they could be and ask, why not?”
Topics I cover
- The Narrows – The rough passage when it feels like you’re being stripped of your identity and purpose. We’ve raised our kids, made a mark in our field. Why are we still here?
- Trying to hang on – Having your face lifted and other ways to say it ain’t so.
- Facing facts – Dealing with your kids leaving home. Becoming a “master” – the p.c. word for older.
- Stepping out of the Box – Taking risks, leaving your comfort zone. As Crosby, Stills & Nash sang: “What have you got to lose?”
- Giving Back – You marched when you were young? How can you help make the world better now?
- The Inner journey – In the East, this time of life is reserved for intense spiritual work. Will we pursue that?
- Actresses, Supermodels and Musicians – Stories of women who had the great bodies, and musicians who had the great chops. Can they still rock ‘n roll?
- Expansion of love and sex – Do we end up with a partner or alone? Joan Hotchkiss, the actress who gave a one-woman show in L.A. about sex after fifty, said: “I refuse to go unfucked to my grave!”
- Moving – Why and where do we move? Some do it to live more simply, some to build a dream house, some to form a community and grow old with a little help from our friends.
- Surrender – Do we rage against it or do we accept: we’re not in control?
- Rituals – Some do it with prayers, some with red thong panties and the Rolling Stones. How do we start this excursion to the unknown?
Quiz – Ready or Not?
I had a major birthday recently, and my friend Joan Borysenko sent me a list of questions to answer, to clarify what I wish from the years ahead. Try answering them yourself.
Complete the following sentences:
- I realize life is both precious and short. When the angel death comes to my door, I will be ready to go because…
- The thing I will miss most when life is over is…
- I have finished with… (name both good things and difficulties)
- I still yearn to…
- In the years to come, I will be grateful for…
Reading Group Guide
- Have you been through what’s described in Leap! as “the narrows?” What was it like? Why does Davidson call it “the narrows?” What different strategies do people in the book use to find their way out?
- Why was “surrender” painful for the author? Did her understanding of surrender change?
- Eve Ensler asks a panel: “Is there a part of your body you don’t like?” and “Is there one you do like?” How would you answer?
- Have you considered having plastic surgery or decided against it? Did reading the author’s report on a face-lift affect your thinking?
- After resisting the changes that befall her, Davidson visits a friend in North Carolina who’s clearing trees to build a community. What happens on that visit that prompts Davidson to yield to change?
- The author explores whether we’re “hard-wired” to seek a romantic partner. What would you conclude, based on the material presented?
- Davidson discovers a great range of sexual behavior after fifty, from those who give it up to the actress who refuses “to go unfucked to my grave.” What intrigued or disturbed you about her reporting on sexuality?
- The author says we’re a society of workaholics, but the imperative now is not merely to work but to align yourself with your purpose, your truth. How would you go about doing that?
- When her TV career collapses, Davidson searches for a new vocation. What does she find?
- Why does the author take a tour of Costa Rica and visit a co-housing community?
- What examples of “giving back” inspired you?
- Why do you think the volunteers in India turned against Davidson? What impact did that have on her?
- She travels to an ashram to pursue her spiritual quest. What does she learn?
- Why does she include, in the final chapter, a description of Carolyn Heilbrun’s suicide? Is there such a thing as “rational suicide?
- What’s the purpose of a “life review?” What are the rewards?
“Riveting and emotional tales of people who are moving to the next phase of their lives at the top of their game. Read it and weep, F. Scott Fitzgerald – there are indeed second (and third and fourth) acts in American life!
“In trying to make the most of the aging process and spend our latter years in the best possible ways, we need all the help we can get. By relating other people’s stories, their hopes and fears, Sara Davidson once again gives voice to her generation. Leap! is informative, entertaining, and above all, helpful.”
—Andrew Weil, MD
Author of 8 Weeks to Optimal Health
“At midlife and beyond, we need role models of sensuality and vibrant life force. Sara Davidson’s book Leap! is full of them! Enjoy the feast she has laid out for all of us.
Author of Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom
Article in Newsweek, Jan. 22, 2007
THE FIRST DAY OF THE REST OF MY LIFE
What are you doing now?” people would ask me.
If I’d told the truth, I would have said, “I’m doing nothing.” For the first time since college, I have no work. I’ve always been overscheduled–writing TV scripts in the bleachers at Little League games—but at 57, I’m at home with no kids and no work. After 24 years and several award nominations, I can’t get hired to write for television. In Hollywood jargon, I can’t get arrested.
At the same time, my partner of 7 years takes off with no discussion, and my children, who’ve occupied my first thoughts on waking and my last before falling asleep, are off at college. As long as they lived with me, I got up at seven and made pancakes, drove them to school, soccer, music lessons, helped them write papers and carve pumpkins for Halloween. No more. My kids, my lover and my livelihood are being yanked from me at once and there’s nothing I can do.
When I tell this to a friend, the photographer Peter Simon, he says, “Oh, honey, you’ve got money problems and no sex. That’s not good.”
Not good at all. I can’t sleep either. I fall asleep but wake at two, shaking with fear. What am I supposed to do for the next thirty years? I’ve raised my kids, written best sellers, had deep love… Why am I still here?
This was the beginning of a period I later came to call “the narrows,” the rough passage to the next part of life. In the narrows, you’re in the dark, stripped of what you thought was your identity, and must grapple with questions like: What do you really want to do with the time left? What will make you feel most alive? That your being here has mattered?
I found, after several years of research, that everyone–no matter how much money or achievement you’ve attained or not attained–must go through the narrows. You may do it in your late 40s, you may not do it till your 70s, but if you don’t do it voluntarily, the world or your body will force you to. Maybe your hips or knees wear down, or you can’t drink as much and stay out as late without paying. You’re compelled to shift gears, and you won’t come out unchanged.
Every person goes through the narrows according to character. Those addicted to gloom will see no hope. Those who put a rosy slant on everything will see it as an “opportunity.” My way was to assume the fetal position and cry, berating myself for failing at work, failing at love, with my kids—at everything. This is what the Buddhists call the second arrow. The first is the bad thing that happens. The second is what you do to yourself because of the bad thing that happened.
I began looking for contemporaries who were going through some kind of stripping, because I needed to see that people could survive, find a way through. I decided to turn my predicament into research for a book, Leap! I interviewed icons like Carly Simon, Tom Hayden, Dr. Andrew Weil, Ram Dass and Bebe Moore Campbell, along with 150 others from all walks of life.
I contacted Carly Simon, whom I’d known when we were younger, because I’d heard she’d been dealing with multiple blows: she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy at the same time her record company was abandoning her, she and her husband were living separately and her kids were off on their own. “I felt discarded like a dog,” she told me. “I’d had so much rejection I couldn’t take it anymore.” Forced to give up her apartment in Manhattan when the rent was tripled, she moved by herself to Martha’s Vineyard where she started recording songs in her daughter’s old bedroom. She’d stay up late, mixing tracks on her own, just trying to please herself. “I was doing what I’d done at 19,” she says, “making sounds I liked. That was the only star I could follow.”
Six months after our talk, she received a call from Richard Perry, the superstar producer with whom she’d made “You’re So Vain” and other hits. He asked her to collaborate on some romantic ballads. They funded the recording themselves and when they were satisfied, sold it to Columbia and the week it was released as “Moonlight Serenade,” it hit No. 7 on the Billboard chart.
How sweet it was – and unexpected. Carly told me, in another moment, that she wants to learn “how to walk down the ladder gracefully. I have this image–I’d like to get smaller and smaller in a relevant way.”
It’s a gorgeous image. I can picture her–tall, willowy and magnetic– walking down the staircase. But how could I do that? My eyes have been habitually trained upward. My shoulders are hitched forward, my orientation is toward rising rather than descending, and to reverse that feels like turning a train around.
People I respect had told me I needed to “surrender,” that at this stage of life, instead of powering your way to your goals it’s better to listen and let things unfold. But I detested the notion of surrender. It felt like giving up in defeat.
As I spoke with dozens who’d managed to make it out of the narrows, I saw that each had had a conversion, and each was different. For Carly Simon, it was learning to walk down the ladder with grace. For Tom Hayden, who, after 18 years in the California legislature, lost an election to a man half his age, then collapsed with heart failure and had a quintuple bypass, it was “putting your career drives down.” He gave up running for office and shifted his focus to reading and writing, speaking out and teaching. “But not a day goes by that I don’t have conflict about it,” he said. For a friend in Chicago, it was quitting his job of 30 years as a tax attorney and starting a nonprofit musical company.
When I started hitting the rocks, I had a strong feeling I should move. My life in California had come to a dead stop, and I had no tethers—work or kids in school—to hold me there. On an intuition, I drove to Boulder, CO, where I knew no one. I was convinced I needed to search for a new vocation. I tried teaching at the University of Colorado, working with dying people in hospice, then tutoring orphans in India, but nothing gave me the sense I was running with the current, doing what I’m meant to do.
Clarity began to come when a high school teacher, Barry Meyers Lewis, asked over dinner, “If you knew the world was going to end in two days, what would you do?”
“Take notes,” I said, not hesitating.
Shortly after this, I spent two months writing a piece for a prestigious magazine, completing what I thought was strong work. My editor called and said the magazine was killing the piece. “I can’t tell you exactly why,” he said. “But I’m afraid it won’t be fruitful for you to submit anything else here.”
I went for a long walk on a trail I knew would be deserted. I felt humiliated. They were not just killing the piece, they were barring the door on me. Was I washed up? Then something snapped and I thought, I had a terrific time reporting and writing the piece and know I did it well. That’s the real reason to continue writing now: for the periods when your mind is humming and the narrative is unspooling. You lose the sense of time as you’re carried to the place John Fowles describes as “the sacred wood,” where characters you’re inventing start to say things you hadn’t expected, and sentences will roll out that startle you with their rightness.
Creative work has always been what makes me feel alive, that I’m using my most potent skills to contribute. The imperative was to shift from creating for a purpose to creating for the joy and challenge of the undertaking. I began to accept—and it’s a daily struggle—that whether I’m writing for my blog or a national magazine, volunteering at a community radio station or being paid by a network, the creative work itself is what I need, as I need air.
I also came to see “surrender” in a different light. It’s not giving up or being a victim but accepting that you’re in a transition and can’t know what’s ahead. As a friend described it, throwing out her arms as if to meet a lover or embrace a child, “You open yourself to what’s unknown.”
While there’s no single route through the narrows, I can tell you that there’s sunlight and air at the other side. What became clear for me may be utterly different than for you. I’ve talked with people who are building a hospital in Uganda, becoming a nun at 50, adopting a child at 61, and others whose passion is to live near their family and play golf.
In some ways, I’m in the same situation now as when I started through the narrows. I have no idea what work I’ll do next or what companions will be with me. But I’m not raging against it. Expectancy is in the air. The country ahead, from the scouting I’ve done, is not arid but rich and unpredictable, and I’ve come to be half in love with uncertainty.