I’ve been incredibly busy with work for a while, not much spare time for blog posts, though I have a couple in mind that I want to write soon. But today I came across this, from a Facebook page called Death Cafe and it seemed about as fitting as any words could be for a blog called Start Now.
In his book, Here Be Dragons: Telling Tales of People, Passion and Power, Peter C. Newman relates a well-known story about author Margaret Laurence. “The magnificent Ms. Laurence was a proud professional, offended by anyone who didn’t adequately respect her craft,” he writes. “Once at a Montreal reception, a distinguished gentleman came up to her and gushed, ‘Oh, I’m so glad to meet you. I’ve read everything you’ve written. I’m a brain surgeon, and when I retire, I’m going to do novels, too!’ She looked at him with pretend enthusiasm, grabbed him by the elbow, and bellowed, ‘What a coincidence! When I retire, I’m going to be a brain surgeon.’”
I saw this on Facebook the other day and, as a writer of 30 years myself, I immediately nodded in recognition. I try not to get annoyed when I’m at some sort of social gathering where someone asks me what I do and I say, “I’m a writer,” to which they respond, “I’m a writer, too. I write in my journal every day.” No, I’m sorry, that doesn’t make you a writer any more than my balancing my cheque book or doing my own taxes makes me an accountant. It makes you literate. There’s a difference.
At the same time, though, it occurred to me when I reread that Margaret Laurence anecdote that, although I understand the sentiment, the reality in the early third millennium is not the same as it was when she made that statement. In this era, it is feasible for people to retire from whatever they’ve been doing all their lives and become writers. Numerous current students and alumni of the MFA program in Creative Nonfiction Writing at University of King’s college fall into that category. Some of them are likely to finish and publish at least one book, if not more.
Self-publishing makes it even more possible for people to retire and become published writers. It’s easy to say that’s just vanity publishing, but I edit a lot of authors who hope to be traditionally published but are willing self-publish, as well as many who choose a self-publishing model from the start, and I’m often impressed with the quality of writing and the story ideas that come my way, regardless of which publishing model the authors are pursuing.
My point is that, particularly in an era in which people are living much longer and often remaining productive until close to the end of their lives, the notion that one might retire from one profession, move on to another, and attain some degree of success—sometimes a considerable degree—is not unrealistic.
Look at Claire Sower, whom I’ve written about here—a successful writer for many years who is now thriving as a visual artist. And Guenther Krueger—another successful writer who earned his PhD in his late fifties/early sixties and worked at his dream job for the last three years before he retired. Clark Elliott, who wrote The Ghost in My Brain, is a gifted professor of artificial intelligence, not a writer, yet he published a book last year.
The whole point of this Start Now blog is to tell readers that it’s never too late to start something new. There are writers who not only did that but became very well-known and widely admired for their writing: although both Charles Bukowski and Laura Ingalls Wilder started writing earlier in life, neither were published until they were in their fifties, and Frank McCourt didn’t publish Angela’s Ashes until he was 66.
It’s also not unusual for doctors to become writers. Think Oliver Sacks, Norman Doidge, and Peter D. Kramer. (Is it a coincidence they’re all psychiatrists?) On the other hand, my son and daughter-in-law are both in medical school and I can’t imagine anyone retiring and becoming a doctor, never mind a neurosurgeon. I can imagine a person starting in medicine perhaps as late as 40, but it’s at least a nine-year process (after completing a four-year undergraduate degree, usually in the sciences) from starting basic sciences to completing a residency, comprising long, stressful hours every step of the way. So, no, I can’t see a person retiring and becoming a physician.
That’s not to say I don’t see Laurence’s point. I work hard at my writing. I’ve been told I have a gift, which I think is horseshit. I’ve spent over 30 years learning my craft, most recently in a master’s program that had me working harder than I have in years. I have as little patience for people who think writers have a gift and writing comes easily to them as I do for people who refer to themselves as writers just because they’re literate. (I have even less patience for people who use these wrong-headed perceptions as excuses not to pay writers adequately.)
So right after I read that old Margaret Laurence anecdote and nodded my head in agreement, I had to think twice about what she’d actually said and whether it still applies. The spirit of it? Yes, unfortunately, it still applies. But the letter of it? No. It’s increasingly apparent that it is possible to retire from a career, take up writing, be serious about it, finish one or more books, find one or more publishers, build an audience, and maybe even win awards.
I’m glad about that, because it gives me and a lot of other people an opportunity to believe that if we work hard at it, we will be able to achieve what we’ve always wanted to but never before had the time or opportunity to do so directly. But I’d also like it if people would get the message beneath Laurence’s quip, which is as valid today as it was when she said it: writing is hard work and deserves to be taken as seriously as any other craft, art, or profession.
If you’re not a professional writer but you aspire to become one, more power to you. But before you say “I’m a writer, too” or “I plan to become a writer when I retire” to someone who’s already been doing the work and paying the dues for decades, ask yourself if you’d say the same thing to an accountant just because you balance your cheque book every month and do your own taxes every year. And maybe then consider saying something a little more appropriate, like “I write in my journal every day, and I often think I’d like to write more when the kids are grown and I have more time. Tell me what it’s like to be a professional writer.”
[Edited] Since posting this, the book has been launched. I thought I had the book trailer inserted here, but the link wasn’t working. However, you can see it yourself at http://www.nikikrauss.com/?page_id=1096.
I’d also like to add (and I hope it’s not unforgivably immodest) that the author just sent me a copy of her book with a lovely inscription and this paragraph in the acknowledgements:
The editor’s red pen can feel a dagger to a writer. Not so with Lynne Melcombe, who edited my very rough first draft. Your constructive criticism and carefully crafted corrections helped me to find my voice as a writer. You were not only editor but also teacher. Thank you for your gentle and respectful awareness of how fragile I often was. You have a gift. Thank you for sharing it with me.
Thank you, Niki, for allowing me the privilege of editing your very moving memoir (not to mention touching my heart and making my day). I hope it sells well and, above all, I hope you keep writing. I don’t doubt for a moment you have many more things to say.
In 1999, Clark Elliott, a professor of artificial intelligence at DePaul University in Chicago, was in a “minor” rear-ender. With no external injuries, he initially thought he’d escaped unscathed. It took some time for him to realize how wrong he was.
His symptoms, including spatial disorientation, dizziness and nausea, uncoordinated movements, balance issues, short-term memory issues, and much more, disabled him for the next eight years. But nothing about his injury was straightforward, as is often the case for concussion sufferers.
According to Parachute Canada, a nonprofit organization devoted to injury prevention, nearly 3,000 people in Canada reported to a hospital emergency department with a concussion in the fiscal year 2010–2011. However, as most concussions go unreported, that grossly underestimates the number that occur every year. In the US, the CDI estimates 1.7 million people sustain a traumatic brain injury (TBI) annually, about 75% of which are “mild” TBI, also known as concussions.
The CDI further estimates that direct and indirect medical costs of TBI, such as lost productivity, totaled an estimated $60 billion in the US in 2000. (I estimated the income I’d lost from my 2003 concussion when my lawsuit went to mediation in 2007; it was substantial, and has grown every year since then.)
Elliott describes himself as fortunate in having an accommodating employer, so for him, at least initially, financial loss wasn’t the biggest concern, as it is for many people. Good thing; his symptoms, which he describes eloquently based on copious notes written throughout his ordeal and recovery with a scientist’s eye for detail, gave him more than enough to deal with.
The first chapter opens with one such description:
Just before nine o’clock, on a frigid night in early 2002, I completed my three-hour lecture on artificial intelligence at DePaul University’s downtown campus. I was exhausted, and ready to head for home, but it took me another two hours to make my way to the sixth floor of the building across the street, then crawl down the hall to my office and there rest in the dark and the quiet until I was able to attempt my journey north to Evanston. Finally, at eleven, I left the building again and headed off through the brutal wind, intending to walk the five blocks to my car, parked near the lake on Columbus Drive.
He goes on to write that his progress toward his car was slowed by snow flurries, which disoriented him in a city with which he was very familiar. He felt the onset of a visual distortion similar to the “dolly zoom effect” used by cinematographers. It took him an hour to reach his car, and another half hour to overcome the disorientation enough to unlock the door and climb in.
He then sat with the car idling until 2 am, resting enough to drive home safely. But once in his driveway, it took him another hour to get to his front door, though it was only 40 feet away. By the time he’d rested enough to get to sleep without getting sick, it was over seven hours since his class had ended.
It sounds too bizarre to be true, but I know from experience how easy it is for others to think concussion sufferers are exaggerating. On the outside, they may look and act fine, while on the inside, they are battling a crippling headache, overwhelmed with confusion, or trying to keep their balance in a room that won’t stop spinning.
The Ghost in My Brain conveys two important messages. First, the lasting impacts of concussion are, for some people, long and torturous. (I’ve read many sad concussion stories while collecting research for my book, but this recent one from the Toronto Star is particularly tragic.)
And second, even years after the injury, there is hope for recovery, as Elliott discovered eight years after his concussion when, on the verge of giving up his career, his home, and custody of his children, he made a last-ditch attempt to find someone who could help him.
He found a clinical psychologist named Donalee Markus who had worked with NASA and developed visual exercises designed to create new neural pathways to replace damaged ones. In her foreword to Elliott’s book, she writes:
Clark Elliott was a mystery to me when we first met. Observing him through my glass front door, I saw that it took him two minutes just to find the doorknob with his hand. When I gave him the simplest of my assessment tests—copying a geometric line drawing—his body went into bizarre contortions as he struggled to complete it. It hurt me to watch this brilliant man put so much effort into such a trivial task.
“The plasticity of the human brain is both its power and its weakness,” she writes. Although life-sustaining functions are hard-wired, cognitive functions, like thinking, hoping, planning, and controlling behaviour, are not. However, when damage occurs to these parts, it is usually diffuse and microscopic, so it is not visible through current imaging technologies and therefore difficult to diagnose, to treat—even to believe.
Because of her unique skill set and persistence, Markus believed Elliott and was able to diagnose and treat him (and many others). She did not do it alone, however. As it was clear visual perception was a significant aspect of Elliott’s dysfunction, she referred him to Deborah Zelinsky, a neuro-optometrist and innovator in the use of visual assessments to diagnose brain trauma, and treat it with a series of therapeutic eyeglasses.
(I haven’t interviewed Zelinsky, but I suspect the glasses she prescribes are similar to those Hilary Clinton was seen wearing after her concussion in 2012, but more advanced than the single corrective, rather than therapeutic, pair I was prescribed in 2004.)
The Ghost in My Brain is a fascinating read, though there are places where it bogs down, notably when Elliott includes long segments from his detailed notes. (This makes sense; he was not writing these for a reading audience but for his own edification as a scientist.) Yet those details were vital to the treatment that finally got his life back on track, and remain important to our growing understanding of what concussion is and how millions of people might benefit from similar treatment.
Perhaps my biggest frustration after reading the book (twice, to absorb as much as possible) is realizing how few people have access to such treatment. I consider myself lucky to have stumbled upon the only neuro-optometrist in British Columbia, who is now retired. There are some other practitioners in Canada and the US who offer similar services, but they are few, far between, and hard to find.
Moreover, in most cases, patients have to be financially equipped to travel for treatment and pay out of pocket for their services, which are unlikely to be covered by most medical plans. That means many of the “concussives” Elliott refers to as the “walking wounded” have little recourse but to accept disability for the rest of their lives—and the rest of us have little choice but to accept the cost of everything we lose when people we care about can no longer contribute fully to our relationships with them, or to society.
My friend Guenther, non-Birkie wearing musician, nurse, therapist, writer, PhD, retiree, and now meditator.
Guenther Krueger is no stranger to starting over. I met him back in the early 1990s when we were both working as freelance journalists. At that time, I had no idea how many times he’d already started over.
Since then, we’ve been the kind of friends who see each other once every few years at social events. It was only recently we started getting together more often, after he read a blog post (which I’ve since taken down for personal reasons) in which I wrote frankly about some of my recent life troubles. He asked me out for coffee, and I found out a lot I’d never known about him, including that he’d recently been through a difficult time of his own, which led to his most recent “start over”—with meditation.
I would not have guessed Krueger was into meditation. To the best of my knowledge, he doesn’t wear Birkies. As far as I could see, he’s always had a sardonic wit and never let things bother him much. But after what he went through a couple of years ago, meditation was what gave him a fresh start—the thing that’s allowed him to ease into retirement and enjoy it instead of fretting over it, the way many new retirees do.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Krueger’s first “start over” came when he was young, as happens for many of us. His youthful goal was to be a concert pianist but “I only lasted two weeks in the faculty of music at U of T.” He made a pretty radical career switch to nursing, where he worked in pediatrics for the better part of 12 years. He knew he wanted to work in health care and with kids, but nursing “was never really what I wanted to do.”
Then he did a master’s degree in counselling, but when he was finished, he realized he had only three real options: go on to a PhD, work for a company that was helping people get back in the workforce, or go into private practice. The first two didn’t appeal to him; the third, “I found frustrating because it would mean working with clients who could pay but had easily resolvable problems, rather than working with people with more challenging problems but who couldn’t pay.”
(Eventually, he did a second master’s, a liberal arts degree. Although it didn’t lead to a career, he does realize in hindsight that he got better and better at being a student with each degree.)
Then, in his late thirties (the mid-1980s), he realized “what I really wanted to do was write.” Like me, he started by taking a course with Vancouver’s legendary freelancer, Daniel Wood. (We might even have been in the same class.) Krueger remembers one class where the assignment was to write a query. “Daniel read it out as an example of everything NOT to do!” This is one of the things I love about Krueger: instead of taking it to heart, he took Wood’s advice, sent the revised letter to an editor, and “sold my first article on the basis of the very first query I ever sent out.”
He loved freelance journalism but, like most of us, he quickly realized there was not much money in it, so he got into reporting at medical conferences (the same type of work Claire Sower was doing), and picking up other contract jobs, too, as all freelancers do.
(“One of the things I noticed about freelancing is that nobody really understands it,” he says. “You’ll be at a party and someone will ask you what you do. You’ll say you’re a freelance writer and they’ll ask you one or two questions about what you write, not realizing that when you’re freelancing you basically write whatever pays. Then they lose interest.” I know just what he means. I’ve had exactly the same experience a hundred times.)
Around 2000, the medical reporting he was doing began to lean toward advertorial work for the pharmaceutical industry, which Krueger didn’t enjoy. “It was just what paid,” he says. Then in 2003, when he was in his late fifties, Krueger’s partner, Barry, who was then still part of the communications department [edited] at Simon Fraser University (he’s recently retired, though still in demand as a guest lecturer and performer) suggested Guenther talk to a colleague in communications about working with her on some grant applications she was writing [edited]. She was already pretty much assured of receiving a $3 million grant and suggested Krueger do a PhD there so they could work on that project together. “I thought about what I might like to do and realized I was really interested in how people cope with tragic loss,” he says. His acceptance to the program “effectively ended my freelance career.”
This is where things get really interesting for me. Other than my peers in the MFA program, I don’t know many people who are willing to start a new degree in their late fifties, much less a five-year commitment to a PhD. In his early sixties, freshly minted doctorate in hand, Krueger found his dream job on a three-year project at BC’s Children’s Hospital, bringing him full circle back to working with sick children, but in the way he’d always wanted.
Life was good, at least for a while. But in July 2014, his mother and father both died, just 10 days apart. He wasn’t close with his parents, so he didn’t expect to feel the loss acutely, and at first he didn’t. “I was the sole executor of the estate, and I treated it like I would any other project.” The whole thing was wrapped up by Christmas, and when he and Barry later went on holiday to Hawaii, he felt fine.
It was the following August, about a year after his parents died, that he suddenly started having anxiety attacks. “I’d wake up in the night, unable to sleep, and go out for a walk.” He found himself so wound up with anxiety that sometimes, in the evening, he’d go downstairs to his partner’s work space—something he’d never done in a relationship of 30-some years—and just lie down there for the sake of being close to someone who cared about him. “Barry felt badly because he wanted to do something to help, but being near him was all I needed.”
Eventually, Krueger started putting things together. He’d been through three major changes in his life almost simultaneously: the career-capping project at Children’s Hospital had wrapped up; he’d retired, which meant he wasn’t working for the first time in 50 years; and he’d been so busy with his parents’ estate that he hadn’t had time to think how he felt about their deaths. The losses had piled up, and were now compounded with a prostate issue and a hernia.
Once [edited] he realized this, he says, “I decided I had to attack the problem from all angles.” He went to his doctor to schedule surgeries for the prostate and hernia issues, started seeing a therapist to work out unresolved issues with his parents, and, on the advice of his therapist and some friends, started meditating.
Never one to do things in half measures, “I decided to read everything I could about meditation,” he says. The book he recommended to me when we got together last July was Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn. I promptly ordered and read it, and tried to follow Kabat-Zinn’s advice to the letter, but his eight-week program of building up to 45 minutes a day of a type of meditation he calls a “body scan” didn’t work for me.
“I don’t adhere to any one style of meditation,” Krueger says now. He doesn’t sit in a lotus posture, but lies down due to back pain (so do I). He doesn’t insist on any minimum amount of time, either. “I find that even if I sit still and focus on my breathing for as little as 10 minutes, my whole day goes better. I’m less stressed and more able to appreciate life in the moment. I’ve spent my whole life worrying about what comes next, and I’m not doing that anymore.”
Krueger’s partner recently retired and went off to Berlin to teach for four months. After his anxiety issues last year, Krueger was a little worried about how he’d do on his own for four months. “It’s been fine, and I think meditation is making the difference.”
Mid-sixties and still starting over—inspiring or exhausting? I’ll go with inspiring. Oh, and meditating for shorter periods and without doing the “body scan” is working better for me, too.
I’ve never seen my friend Claire Sower happier. Not that I see her often; we’re colleagues who bump into each other once every few years. But when I saw her displaying her work Art! Vancouver 2015 last spring, and she told me she’d been invited to participate in a show at the Agora Gallery in New York in October, there was a joy in her face I’ve never seen before.
“In my heart, I know this is what I was born to do,” she says of her mid-life switch from computer to canvas. “When I’m not painting, it’s what I want to be doing.”
Like me, Sower started out as a freelance journalist. And like me, as the years went by and well-paying freelance journalism gigs became fewer and further between, she filled in the gaps with contract work. Eventually, she landed a great gig as a medical journalist, writing reports about clinical research that had been presented at conferences prior to peer-reviewed publication. It was a stressful job, with ever-tight deadlines and a need for pinpoint accuracy, but it included world travel and good money—enough to buy a piece of property, not a common thing for a freelance journalist these days.
Her career switch had its seeds in 2007, when the FDA changed regulations regarding third-party reporting of medical conferences so it could only be done by those with university accreditation for providing continuing medical education. The bottom fell out of the industry; many communications companies went out of business. Out of work, other than the usual jobs most freelancers eke out a living on before finding something more life-sustaining, she set out to create a website providing medical information. But the internet was changing too quickly, social media had not yet evolved into the marketing tool it’s since become, and she was competing against dozens of other health websites, like WebMD, and tens of thousands of out-of-work medical reporters.
“I couldn’t keep up. I didn’t have deep pockets.” She was just making ends meet, and getting to the point where she realized, “I don’t want to do this anymore. I want to do what I want to do, goddammit!” She’d always wanted to paint, but “it never seemed like an option. I never had the time or money.”
Then in 2009, a friend mentioned she’d signed up for an art class and invited Sower to join her. Within weeks, she was hooked. After perhaps a dozen classes, “my friend and I went out and looked for a studio,” she says. “We had one within 10 days down on Granville Island. I just knew at the soul of my being this was what I should be doing.”
After a while, the paintings started to pile up and she figured she might as well try to sell them; if you don’t, she deadpans, “eventually, you’ll just be found dead under a pile of canvases.” Her first show was just a display of her work in West Vancouver City Hall, but it generated enough interest to keep her looking for opportunities.
I’ve been admiring and sharing her work on Facebook for a few years now; there’s something about the flowers she paints that draws my eye. She does landscapes, too—there were a few on exhibit when I saw her last May—but it’s the florals that are written about so glowingly in her artist’s bio for the New York show:
Claire Sower’s florals are tactile and interpretive, conveying a strong sense of tension and joy. . . . Eschewing detail in favor of essence, Sower works quickly, using palette knives to build depth by layering paint, allowing colors to mix on the canvas. This brings a sense of immediacy to her work, which conveys a flower’s “living energy.”
The New York show happened through social media. Claire has a website, of course, and a Facebook presence, but finds Instagram a great platform for emerging artists because it’s where a lot of galleries look for new talent. The Agora Gallery in Chelsea, New York, found her there and invited her to participate in a group show, which opened yesterday (October 9) and continues through most of the month (to October 29).
There’s a whole business component to any art, she says, as any artist knows all too well. You can’t just sit back and relax; you have to be constantly self-promoting. You also have to make some hard choices financially; you have to love what you do or it won’t feel worthwhile. You have to be willing to embrace a somewhat precarious existence, have some faith, and let go.
In some ways, that can be easier for a young person at the beginning of their lives, but Sower feels it’s an advantage to be making this kind of life change at an older age.
“I think being older serves me better because having had 20 years as a self-employed writer and running my own business, I have a lot of experience to draw on in terms of how I want to set up my business as an artist. I understand there’s a lot of pitfalls. I mean, yes, there’s debt, but there’s always debt. I think that’s just a way of life these days. . . . I’ve learned to trust my gut, trust my instincts, and they’ve never steered me wrong.”
At the moment, Sower spends her mornings on freelance writing opportunities to help pay the bills; rent from her property helps, too, another way being older is helping her fulfill her dream. But throughout those mornings at the computer, she’s always looking forward to afternoons and evenings at her studio.
Her long-term goal is to paint full time. “I’m going to have a big studio with a studio assistant and I’m just going to rock and roll!”
I believe she’ll do it. Her work is beautiful and original, and she has the drive and passion to get where she wants to go. And why not? People are living longer and healthier lives these days. Why shouldn’t mid-life be a time when we switch tracks and gear up for something completely new?
If you happen to be in New York City this month, visit the Agora Gallery in Chelsea between October 9 and 29 (opening reception October 15). If not, check out her website or Facebook page and see for yourself. Claire Sower’s art rocks—and, by the way, so does she.
I recently read somewhere, “If you don’t like starting over, stop giving up.” At first, I was taken aback. After all, I’d only just started a blog on the subject of starting over in mid-life. But then I thought, “Wait—there can be all sorts of reasons one might start over that have nothing to do with giving up.”
I’ve started over several times in my life. I don’t care how many people say it’s exhilarating; putting oneself out in the world in a new way is always hard, and I find harder as I get older. I’m not sure if that’s because I don’t have any personal role models for starting over late in life; among my family and friends, everyone did what they did until they died or retired.
Maybe it’s because I’m an introvert—a person who recharges their batteries by being alone, as compared with extroverts, who get their energy from being with people—and starting over typically requires energy to put oneself out there. It’s not unusual for people to have less energy as they get older, whether from a naturally slowing metabolism or because they’re dealing with personal, professional, or health issues.
More likely, I think anyone who starts over in mid-life finds it hard, in at least some respects, but doesn’t necessarily talk about the hard parts. I’ve never been a member of the say-only-positive-things-all-the-time school of thought. Almost inevitably, when people subvert so-called “negative” feelings and experiences because everyone else would rather only hear about the “positive” ones, they enlist unhealthy coping mechanisms.
The problem, of course, is that difficulties only become more difficult when they’re not talked about, but it’s all the more difficult to talk about them when no one else is taking a risk and talking about them lest others target them for not being positive enough. North American culture, I find, is as obsessed with non-stop positivity as it is with relentless self-sufficiency, effortless perfection, and endless youth and beauty. But that’s a whole other rant.
Getting back to the many reasons one might start over, I started over as a youth worker after university because I realized that, although I loved studying anthropology and archaeology, I wasn’t as drawn to the career options as I’d thought I’d be (and wasn’t aware of some of the other options that might have been open to me).
I stumbled from there into youth work almost accidentally. It influenced the course of my life in countless ways, but after seven years I was burning out. Besides, I’d always wanted to be a writer; it had been in the back of my mind for years, but I’d always felt like I needed more life experience. After university, archaeology, travel, youth work, and marriage, I felt ready. It was time to start over again.
I set about to be a freelance journalist around the same time I started my family and stuck with it for 12 years, until our third child came along. At that point, I still wasn’t making a living—freelance gigs were already becoming scarcer and more poorly paid, and I finally had to admit it wasn’t just a personal failing and put my family first. So I started my fourth career, as the sole proprietor of a communications business, working with small nonprofits, with a long-term goal of getting back to creative nonfiction writing after the kids were older.
That’s what I’m doing now, though it feels more like “starting over” than “getting back to it” at least partly because the publishing world has changed much more than I anticipated 20 years ago—and, frankly, so have I. And all those changes make it more difficult than I thought it would be, to the point that I have many moments of regretting that I ever left writing behind.
When I look back with hindsight, I can see there was a third road. On my bad days, I feel bitter because the choice not to take that road wasn’t entirely mine. On my better days, I remember doing what I felt was best for everyone and I remind myself that harbouring anger over old choices doesn’t change anything, past or present.
I imagine a lot of people have those sorts of feelings, which is why I think talking about them is a good thing. The point is, though the statement “If you don’t like starting over, stop giving up” took me aback when I first read it, I soon realized it only sounds true until you think about it.
Anyway, I’d forgotten all about it until I read an article in the Globe and Mail last weekend about an accomplished writer who started over as an Anglican priest in her fifties. It was something she’d always wanted to do, something related in many ways to what she’d been doing all along, something that continues to carry on aspects of life she’d started much earlier. I found it a good read.
It sounds like a completely joyous journey for her, and maybe it has been. Some people really are relentlessly positive, while others battle depression and “negative feelings.” But maybe more of the latter would find the courage to start over in mid-life if they knew more about others who are doing it, and that having/sharing fears and negative feelings about it is not a bad thing. It’s not a sign that the only reason you’re struggling with starting over again is that you’ve spent a lifetime giving up.
I’ve started over many times, for many reasons. None of them had anything to do with giving up. It’s difficult starting over now, but I want it, so I’ll stick with it. I hope it will be my last start-over, but if I’ve learned anything in life, it’s that you never know what’s coming up. You never know when life is going to throw a start-over at you, you never know how you’re going to feel about it until you get there, and it’s probably better not to judge people who are in the process of finding out.
A few nights ago, I watched the second-season finale of Unité 9 on Netflix—and I thought Orange is the New Black was good. This piece of French-Canadian TV brilliance sheds a whole new light on women fighting an uphill battle to start their lives over.
Like OITNB, Unité 9 is set in a prison called Lietteville outside of Montreal. As the show opens, Marie Lamontagne is being hauled off to prison after pleading guilty to trying to kill her father. When she arrives, she’s surprised to find most of the women (except those few in either solitary confinement or the maximum security wing) living in groups of six in cozy little bungalows. Each woman has a small daily allowance for food, but in Unit 9 they pool their resources to have nicer meals, complemented by vegetables grown in a communal garden. Unit 9 is clean, organized, and run like a family by the maternal Elise, who’s approaching the end of her 24-year sentence.
But as Marie begins her seven-year term, a new prison director is taking charge at Lietteville. There have been problems at this new-concept prison and Corrections Canada has appointed stern-faced, tight-laced M. Despins to set the situation straight. Thus, the show starts out by playing into conservative, law-and-order stereotypes of convicts living the easy life on the taxpayer’s dime. Criminals who wear their own clothing, earn money at prison jobs to buy personal comforts like television sets and music players, and even take weekly piano lessons? What kind of system is this for punishing people who have committed crimes against society? And not just people, but women?
As the series unfolds, it becomes apparent this system was working quite well, thank you—or was, until Despins came along. Women whose root crimes were being poor, uneducated, and often lifelong victims of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse were working through their problems and becoming equipped to rejoin society.
But as Despins implements his ideas of the way a prison should work, the thread holding the women of Unit 9 together begins to unravel . At the same time as we’re learning why each woman is really there, what demons many of them are fighting, Despins is busy throwing more of them into Solitary or Max, splitting supportive family groups apart, and tossing women who were beginning to heal in with sociopathic gang members.
Committed staff who have worked with female convicts for years become frustrated with the increasingly toxic environment and leave Lietteville. New wardens hired more for brawn than brains either brutalize their charges or become involved with them sexually. Smuggling and theft increase, internal intimidation and violence run rampant, and all of it gives Despins the excuse he needs to become even more controlling.
In this environment, women who have lived their lives by negotiating gendered double binds find themselves less and less able to do what is expected of them—take responsibility for their actions and prepare to start their lives over.
The script is, of course, laced with metaphors: The windows need no bars because the real prisons are in the women’s minds. The psychiatrist is legally blind but her insights are deep and true. Liette, the root of Lietteville, is both a short form of the romantic “Juliette” and a variant of the slang term “Le Tit,” which refers to a female girl with nice T&A.
Marie Lamontagne is a mountain of strength, having pleaded guilty to a crime she did not commit to protect her daughter, Léa Petite, from sexual abuse at the hands of the same father who molested Marie. Through all the verbal abuse and sermonizing Marie endures for failing to take responsibility for a crime she did not commit (while her father’s abuse of both herself and her daughter goes unpunished), she protects her child (who attacked her grandfather in self-defense) by keeping her secret.
The story itself is, of course, a metaphor. Just as the best speculative fiction takes the problems we find most intractable on Earth and places them in distant galaxies, where we might see them more objectively and find our way out of the double binds we’ve placed ourselves in, Unité 9 places a group of women in their own small, separate universe so that we might see the double binds that tie us all into a world of gendered rules more clearly.
While OITNB strives to do something similar (and succeeds, as Stacey May Fowles wrote a few weeks ago in the Globe and Mail), it does so with a lighter touch, and it’s partly the humour with which the real-life protagonist, Piper Kerman, looks at responsibility in her own and other women’s lives that makes OITNB so good.
Unité 9 takes a different route, and a much harsher look at all the same themes, and reveals more in black and white than orange why it can sometimes be so hard for women who would like nothing better than to start their lives over, to actually do so.
[Edited: An earlier version of this post may have offended some readers. I’ve revised a few statements to, I hope, clarify.]
I gave my first workshop a couple of weeks ago. I was nervous about it, but now that it’s done, I can safely say I enjoyed it. And what I enjoyed most was how confident I felt speaking to a room full of people as if I knew what I was talking about—because I did.
It was a great experience for me, and I plan to do it again. Perhaps more importantly, it got me thinking about how many other women must be Late Bloomers like me—middle-aged baby boomers, starting over with something new or returning to something they thought they’d never get back to.
There could be any number of reasons for women to start over in mid-life: surviving a divorce or loss of a spouse, recovering from an illness or injury, or getting back to the workforce after raising children. The reason is probably less important than finding and nurturing the confidence to do it.
Over my adult life, my confidence has come and gone. In my twenties, I set my sights on being a magazine writer. I thought I could take a few continuing-ed courses and become an award-winning freelance journalist while my babies were napping. I had a fake-‘til-I-make-it attitude. I didn’t really have confidence, but I acted as if I did.
In fairness to myself, I learned a lot over my decade of freelancing; I published dozens of articles, was shortlisted for a few literary awards, and still occasionally hear from readers who remember the essays I published in the Saturday Review.
But while I enjoyed the bylines, by the time baby #3 came along, I still wasn’t “making it” financially, so I switched career tracks and created a one-person communications business. I tried not to think of it as “giving up,” but I didn’t go into it with as much confidence as I’d had a decade earlier. In the meantime, I realized I needed more formal training, but by then I couldn’t afford it.
So I took a deep breath and started flying by the seat of my pants. I made cold calls, using a script to keep myself from going brain dead mid-sentence. I was honest with my target market of small nonprofits regarding my strategy of low rates in exchange for on-job training, and they accepted the tradeoff. I also took a few more courses and, as my business grew, so did my confidence.
Then I was injured, and my time for the next several years was focused on healing, pursuing a lawsuit, and sustaining a basic income. I had no time or money for courses as long as the legal action was ongoing; by the time it was over, the world had gone social and digital, and I’d fallen far behind.
I took another deep breath. I’d been very slowly working toward certificates in writing, editing, and publishing, and now I focused on finishing them all at once. With those under my belt, I said goodbye to my business and graduated into the world of formal work as a director of communications for a mid-sized nonprofit. I thought I was on my way to the last third of my working life.
That plan crashed when the job didn’t work out and the recession hit. Jobs I would have qualified for a year earlier were now going to people with far more formal education and experience than I had. I had to rebuild my business, but nobody was hiring contractors. It didn’t make any difference because I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do next anyway.
It took a while to sort things out, but one thing that finally helped was working with a wonderful business adviser, Carolyn Burke of Integrity Incorporated. Carolyn helped me realize I’m just not comfortable with a fake-‘til-I-make-it, fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants, dance-as-fast-as-I-can attitude—and that’s okay. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with that can-do approach; it’s just that while it’s often gotten me through the moment, it’s never really built my confidence over the long term.
There are two things that build my confidence: training that yields formal recognition, like a certificate, diploma, or degree; and preparation, like a script.
This is not news to me, but it’s taken me this long to feel okay about standing up and saying to others, “This is what I need. It may not be what you need, but it is what I need.”
In a world of 7 billion people, I can’t imagine my experience of starting over in middle age is unique. We’re living longer, and we often need and want to do something different as we get older, but figuring out what it is and finding the confidence to do it is just not the same as when we were younger.
For one thing, we feel a time pressure we didn’t feel when our lives were in front of us. We don’t have time to waste trying things until we get our lives right. If we’re going to find fulfillment, we need to figure it out now.
For another thing, we have less energy than we did 20 or 30 years ago. I have to wonder (and I haven’t looked for research on this) if diminishing energy for the fake / fly / dance approach is linked with introversion and extroversion. I’m an introvert. I’ve always found the fake-it approach draining, but I had more energy for it 20 years ago than I do now. Would an extrovert of my age have a different experience?
I suspect those points apply to men and women equally , but in addition, women in middle age are often battling the cumulative effects of a lifetime of damaging messages. A couple of recent blogposts set alarm bells ringing in my head with countless memories of men interrupting and talking over me, not taking me seriously, taking credit for work I’ve done, and explaining things to me as if I were a simpleton.
I watched a video a while back (it was on Upworthy, but I can’t find it now) that compared the impact of constant street harassment to drops of water on a rock—they may have no visible effect in the moment, but over the course of years, those drops of water can carve riverbeds out of granite and deep crevices in women’s confidence to start something new, start over, start now.
It’s a recipe for women struggling with even the idea of starting over in mid-life. But given the choice now between the hard work of starting my writing career over for a fourth time and simply accepting the way my life was turning out before I started over, I wouldn’t go back.
Whether you’re excited about starting over in mid-life or daunted by it, here’s a small piece of advice: start by finding whatever you think will build your confidence. It doesn’t matter what it is—counselling , yoga, art, education—and you don’t need to listen to anyone else about what it should be. Your gut is your only real guide.
From there, it’s up to you.
My workshop went well, by the way. Not only did I feel good about it, but a few participants contacted me afterward for more information. The evaluations were largely positive, except for those who were expecting something completely different. I realized later they probably hadn’t read the description, which spelled out what to expect quite clearly, and if they’d only read the title, I could see how they might have misinterpreted it. That tells me two things: there are several points for me to improve on for next time—and there’s a niche for me to develop another workshop.
Thank you to my wonderful daughter, Jayme, for attending my graduation with me.
History has a way of repeating itself. Nearly two years ago, I almost didn’t get on the plane to begin my master’s degree. A couple of weeks ago, I almost didn’t get on the plane to attend my graduation.
I couldn’t afford to miss a week of work, I reasoned. I couldn’t afford the expense after two years of accruing student debt. I might miss something blooming in my garden.
Best people I know.
I don’t know why I was even thinking of not attending my own convocation after all my hard work, but I knew none of my excuses were going to cut it. I missed my high school commencement due to illness, and blew off my undergraduate event because I’d done my degree over so many years that I wasn’t really graduating with a “class.” But I’m now 58 years old. It’s unlikely I’m ever going to graduate from anywhere again. If I missed this event, I’d regret it for the rest of my life.
My family makes a big deal out of graduations. In the past decade, I’ve attended more than a dozen of them. When anyone in our family graduates, the whoops and hollers erupting from our aisle in the audience can probably be heard a couple of blocks away. I wanted to hear that yelping and yeehawing for me, yet I almost didn’t go.
Being piped down University Avenue to the cathedral.
I’m so glad I didn’t listen to my doubts. My MFA graduation was even better than I imagined. I couldn’t fly the whole family across the country to be my cheering section, and there were good reasons most of them couldn’t have attended even if I could have.
But I took my older daughter with me and we had a fabulous time. And my two dear writer friends in Halifax, Marjorie Simmins and Silver Donald Cameron, came out to cheer me on. (In fact, Don, who has an honourary doctorate from the University of King’s College, donned his regalia and took part in the procession. I felt wonderfully honoured.)
I did it!
Chronic headaches have, for the most part, put an end to my partying days, but I was determined not to miss anything during grad week. For me, the celebration started with a day of attempting to show my daughter around Halifax but instead getting lost and walking around for four hours. No problem; we laughed a lot while wandering around looking for water (which shouldn’t be that hard to find in a small port city). That was followed by a wonderful dinner with Marjorie and Don. The next day, there was a rehearsal in the afternoon, a pre-dinner reception, and the President’s Dinner.
Then it was the big day, and it was worth every bit of the two years of hard work that preceded it. It started with photos of our MFA class on the steps of the Admin building, continued with a procession through the city from King’s College along University Avenue, and culminated with the encaenia (King’s still uses the Latin word) at the Cathedral Church of All Saints.
The wait for the ceremony, in a hot back room of the church, seemed interminable, but in no time we were processing into the cathedral. To my right, I saw my daughter’s smiling face as she snapped photos of me. Tears were streaming down her cheeks, and that made me cry, too.
The ceremony was about two-and-a-half hours, and the MFA class was the last group to receive our degrees; in hindsight, it seems appropriate because we were the loudest, rowdiest group of all.
Loving thanks to Marjorie Simmins and Silver Donald Cameron.
Maybe that was because we’re all mature students and never expected, before 2013, to do this; maybe it was because people’s book topics were so intense that they couldn’t help but bring us close together. Maybe it was because we were the very first class in the first program of its kind in Canada, or because all but one of us came to grad—and that one had a very good reason. (Good luck, Spencer Osberg!)
Regardless, there was no group of recipients in the convocation who were more enthusiastic about every single member of the class being “capped” and receiving their parchment—no group that cheered louder or clapped harder or made every member of the class feel more loved, appreciated, and proud.
The Zuckerberg Award for Most Impressive Social Media Launch was the real deal.
After it was all over and we’d taken a million photos, my daughter took me out for dinner before our grad party at Helen McDonnell’s, where I received the MFA (see photo) Zuckerberg Award for Most Impressive Social Media Launch. Then it was coffee at the Cobourg on Friday morning, a pre-party at program director Stephen Kimber’s home in the afternoon, and a final barbecue at Pauline Dakin’s house (with many thanks to Pauline for hosting our last “wrap” party as well as our first).
When I was accepted to the degree program two years ago and was wrestling with my doubts, one thing that kept me going was that I wanted to be a good role model for my kids—to show them it’s never too late to start over. At that point in my life, I was struggling to cope with daily headaches and deep depression. I’d given up on ever getting a master’s degree, writing a book, travelling, or anything else I’d once imagined doing before I died, so anything good that happened after that was a bonus, from my perspective.
If you’d told me then that, two years later, I’d be halfway through a book, partying in Halifax with some of the best people I know, and writing a blog about starting over in mid-life, I would have smiled politely and nodded, while inwardly rolling my eyes.
So much more than a piece of parchment.
I’m not rolling my eyes anymore. And I can’t even begin to imagine what else might still be in store for me.