“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”
—Thoreau

sunset on mountain lake
Inspiration & Advice

 

Here is another example of a third-ager who has managed a graceful and fulfilling transition to the life stage with no widely accepted name, which Marc Freedman in his latest book has called the Encore stage.  Joe Dickey, now 67, has crafted a balanced, fulfilling, if somewhat overcommitted life in the past several years, with some deliberate and some unconscious choices, plus informal support.  His current "life portfolio” includes the following:            

  • Research professor (in acoustical dynamical systems) since 1997 at Johns Hopkins, a teaching and soft money contract position which he has in the past five years ratcheted down from full-time to his current one-plus day a week.  As part of this job, he mentors graduate students and occasionally teaches university courses in vibration, acoustics, and math for physicists and engineers.   
  • Independent researcher. He also makes time to engage in unsupported research and writing on topics that interest him personally, such as the dynamic response of the five-string banjo.
  • Serious, self-taught banjo player (since college) who for the decade has performed professionally several times a month with a bluegrass band. 
  • Serious “wood turner” who exhibits his work in various national venues as well as teaches at the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts  (where he raised grant money to equip the shop). 
  • Chairman of the Board of the Maryland Federation of Art, a private NFP focused on discovering emerging visual artists and helping them get started professionally as well as on bring visual arts into high schools and the community.  Having chaired the Board in the late 80s, he was called back a couple of years ago to salvage it.
  • Most recently, a tree farmer participating in a research project (American Chestnut Foundation) to develop a blight resistant American Chestnut tree, by cross-breeding it with Chinese chestnuts. 
  • Last, but definitely not least, father of two grown children, grandfather of two, and committed partner for the last five years to a woman he met through Match.com.  Not to mention friends.

Joe’s story is rather unusual for successful academic in that, very early on, he decided not to “put all his eggs in one basket.”  He is quick to point out that the diversified portfolio honoring his breadth of interests came with a cost – in his case, higher achievement in physics.  But it has made it easy to reinvent himself, as he has done often both professionally and avocationally.  Most of his physics career was in the  Navy research lab system where he eventually became a manager. After a year’s sabbatical as a Congressional Science Fellow, he returned to a research only position at the lab until it shut down in 1997 when he took retirement from the Navy and migrated to Johns Hopkins.  He maintains a keen interest in science policy.  Earlier avocations included book-binding, boat building (he built a 22-foot boat in college and graduate school), furniture making and photography (which serves him well in photographing his wood pieces, which you can check out at www.joedickey.com).   

 

PREVIOUS COLUMNS

I'm trying something new -- an occasional advice column on 3rd age issues.

I welcome your questions! (meg@passionandpurpose.com)  This first one is brings up both 3rd- and 4th-age issues.

Dear Meg,

"My mom is always talking about (she's 78) this being her final act and I'm wondering how to appreciate that more deeply. Usually it bugs me because I feel like she's fixated on ending rather than just being. Any suggestions?   Annie

 

Dear Annie,

I can understand how your mom’s fixation on a final act would bug you.  But here’s the harsh truth:  the first question to ask yourself when there is anger or irritation is “What is this person or this situation reflecting to me that I don’t want to acknowledge?”   Your answer to that question would shape my advice.  But in its absence, here are some thoughts.

Have you thought to ask your mom what she means by this?  Is it possible she’s actually grooving in the final act – the part in the play where a lot of action, insight, and even redemption is happening, before the denouement and final curtain?

If, on the other hand, your mom is fixating on “ending,” could you have a con-versation with her about that, from a place of curiosity and acceptance rather than judgment?  In the course of the conversation you could help her discover and focus on what gives her pleasure in her life, which will carry her back to the present.  You could also share your own discomfort around her focusing on the ending; and that in turn might help you come to terms with whatever fears of losing her you might have.   

This doesn’t do justice to this important question, Annie, but perhaps it will inspire more ideas in you. It is a most worthy endeavor!

Meg

PS  I’m an inveterate reader, and I can recommend to both of you Florida Maxwell’s The Measure of My Days, her memoir about the challenges and profound joys of old age (she was in her 80s). 

Happy Spring!

Has the promise of spring unlocked your sense of adventure and possibility? Here's another inspiring story of how friends of mine "repotted" in their 3rd age -- both their location and their work, combining their love of travel, adventure, and community service (sometimes dubbed "virtuous vacations").

Russ and Blyth Carpenter planned thoughtfully for their 3rd-age transition away from careers, but they also thought out of the box and took risks.  Having spent most of their lives in California, and over 25 years of married life in the SF Bay area, they were ready to relocate to a simpler, more rural environment.  Before Blyth retired from her job as a high school history teacher and administrator  and Russ left his peripatetic health care strategy consulting practice, they explored possible places to “repot” (their word).  They settled on Eugene, Oregon, or rather, a near-by small town on the MacKenzie River, which satisfies their love of nature and fishing as well as their desire for educational and cultural facilities.   They made the break when their youngest son graduated from high school and they were young enough (about 50) to be able to put down strong roots in a new community, where they knew virtually no one.

They have changed their lives mainly by investing their considerable talents and energy in a variety of civic engagement activities -- serving as University of Oregon library and Humanities Center trustees, and co-founding a University-related seminar project for 3rd-agers. (http://uoinsight.uoregon.edu/) They also joined book groups, the local hiking club, and two town/gown study groups.

What makes their story unusual is the unexpected path their strong commitment to service took as a result of a 1996 trek they took in Bhutan (the tiny Buddhist kingdom on Tibet’s southern border, not far from Nepal).  They fell in love with the country and people, and in order to obtain government permission to keep returning, they decided to launch some public service projects in the country.  This was not as easy as it sounds, as the Bhutanese have no tradition of this kind of service and were somewhat suspicious of their motives.  Serendipitously, they were introduced to a young would-be entrepreneur. One thing led to another, and over the past eight years they have helped start a digital press, an Internet Cafe´ and a travel company. They designed a two-way radio transceiver for remote villages and are currently recruiting English teachers for a monastery.

At the same time the Carpenters began organizing informal tours to share their knowledge and affection for this unique gem of a country. (See their book, The Blessings of Bhutan and their website (www.natworld.com/bhutan).  I was lucky enough to be on the 7th and penultimate 2-week tour last October, for which the superb local guide was Sonam Jatso, the now 38-year-old they helped get started and who represented Bhutan at the World Congress of Young Entrepreneurs.  Each group they take contributes to one of their projects; ours brought $1000 worth of good reading books to a small elementary school in the Pobjikha Valley.  Those children were to “die for”!

Their time of service in Bhutan may be coming to a natural end and they are content to let the next part of their journey evolve.  Whatever it is will come out of their deep, enduring, complementary partnership and their strong values and sense of purpose.  Not only will they balance time at home and abroad, but also work and time with their children and grandchildren and for their many hobbies and interests. 

Of course, it helps that they are economically secure, but there are many low- or no-cost ways to indulge both a love of travel and or the exotic with public service  and many ways to get paid for doing “good work” (See Good Work by Ellen Freudenheim, available from www.civicventures.org). Following personal passions and purpose may take a little more courage and creativity when the safety net is thin or tattered, but it pays rich dividends.  Check into these sample organizations offering “virtuous vacations”:

I’d love to hear your stories!  Contact meg@passionandpurpose.com

 

# 1: Belated Happy New Year!  May it bear witness to our continuing individual growth and fulfillment, as well as to progress toward a just, sustainable, peaceful world community.

Since most e-zines and newsletters are focusing on how to set and keep New Year’s resolutions, I will by-pass that subject, noting only that: INTENTION is the necessary first step to deliberate action, especially to changing old patterns.  Thus, it is essential to expend some energy to discern and clarify what we truly want to do, have, and/or be. Easier said than done in my experience!

One way to do this is by watching what others do and looking within to see what -- if anything -- resonates with our own values and passions, what we reject and what we might want to adapt to our own situation.  I hope to provide in these web-journal entries some models for vital, creative living in the Third Age.  I would also welcome stories and examples from readers, but also your challenges, issues, and questions!

From policy analysts to grape growers. Having just returned from a visit with long-time friends who have made a graceful and fulfilling transition into the third age, I’ll share a little of their story:  John and Elizabeth are in their mid-60s. John is currently a statistics professor at a well known university, and Elizabeth retired gradually from a career as an analyst at RAND (where John also worked for many years).  Elizabeth had a strong desire to become some kind of farmer in her retirement, based on her childhood summers on a family farm.  About six years ago, she persuaded John to join her in realizing this dream.  The short version is that they found and bought land in Paso Robles (about 3 ½ hours north of their LA home), solicited good agricultural advice, planted grapes, built a house and barn, and this fall harvested their second crop of grapes, which were deemed superior by the local winemakers. 

Elizabeth spends most of her time in Paso, while John commutes to LA for teaching and meetings and otherwise works remotely.  They both devote much time to the actual farming and to learning about growing, harvesting, winemaking, and the business of wine. Happily, John has become an enthusiastic grower and business-man; Elizabeth, in addition, has planted a garden and small orchard and plans to add chickens and sheep (and a llama to herd the sheep!).  After some searching for fulfilling volunteer activity, she has landed on her feet as the president of the local neighborhood association, which both makes good use of her policy expertise and political talents and engages her even more deeply in the diverse local community.  Both spend regular time with their children and grandchildren (luckily not too far away),  travel near and far,  listen to Teaching Company courses,  and read (to name a few of their interests and activities).  Elizabeth especially appreciates the slowing down and her attunement with nature that has come with this radically new life style, and both appreciate the chance to learn, grow, and stay active.  As she summed it up: “As our life has shaken out and come together, I find so many moments of sheer joy and a feeling of being very lucky.”  

Caveats and yes-but’s:

  • “Persuading John to join her in her dream” was not so simple as it sounds: it  put stress on their relationship and challenged her to consider whether she was willing to take on the venture by herself.
  • There were difficult times in the transition, best expressed in Elizabeth’s words:  “Those early years as I struggled with where to find friends, who I was now, and what to do with each looming day also had their bad moments--nothing that prompted me to think about turning back, but moments that gave me a funny hollowness in my stomach.”
  • They are among the lucky relatively few who have saved enough money for “retirement” security, which allowed them to take an economic risk (which, incidentally, has paid off, as the Paso area is now booming).

Still, what impresses me is their willingness to try something radically new, to leave their home of 30 years, to reach out to their new community while staying connected to their old, to embrace life with curiosity and zest as well as practicality.  And those traits do not depend on economic wealth or even comfort.

Do you dream of a major life and work shift in your Third Age?  NOW is the time to start turning that dream into reality! 

 

Copyright © 2005 Meg Newhouse.