I am excited about this new column and the chance to make contact with both new and old readers. 3rd Act Magazine, as it charts new territory for those of us past 50, is a good fit for a cultural anthropologist like me. I have spent a lifetime interested in culture and illness (how beliefs systems can make us sick) and adaptive strategies (who can change and who cannot).
A lot has happened to me since The Seattle Times ended my previous column in 1999. Some of it was terrible, most of it was wonderful. Year by year, what I thought were permanent stones in my heart dissolved as my perspective changed. That quieting contributed to comfort within myself, my family, and my community.
At 73 I live in the home we built in 1991 and tend a garden that has aged into beauty. I have seven amazing grandchildren ages 6 to 21, acquired in various ways. I share my life with a good and endlessly interesting man I met at 60. I feel I have learned to love and be loved, a very difficult step for me. I take time to be with friends and smell the roses, daphnia, wisteria, lilac. I worry about the world, as I did at age 10…but then early this morning Molly had four puppies.
The recent memorials for Prince and David Bowie reminded me that one way we mark time in our lives is through music. A certain tune or beat can bring a visceral response. Can you recall a memorable song for each decade of your life? We sang my mother’s songs at her 90th birthday party. The first two were Bicycle Built for Two and Now is the Hour. When Mom sailed to America in 1947 with my brother and me, she left my father in London to wrap up his police cases. Now is the Hour was their love song.
My songs would begin with How Much Is That Doggie in the Window or Red River Valley, then Elvis and the thrill of Love Me and Heartbreak Hotel. I can see my grandchildren laughing when they sing the first one and realize I was once a child. When I began dating, after I was widowed at 59, I put rock ’n’ roll discs in my car player. On the way to a date I would turn up the volume and my body and mind would become 17 again. When I fell in love, it was to that beat and my male friend’s favorite aria from the opera Lakmé.
You still have a song if you listen for it. It may be a different tempo now, because each decade you know more about yourself and the world. You have tested your ideas and your values and you are freer to be who you want to be as you move closer to being mortal.
In this new column, I hope to push the edges of what can be said about our lives. I want us to conspire together for good lives now and good deaths whenever. The Latin meaning of “conspire” is “to breathe together.” Even if you and I never meet, we do breathe together because we still share the immense power of life.
Jennifer James has a doctorate in cultural anthropology and a master’s in history and psychology. She was a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington Medical School. Jennifer is the founding mother of the Committee for Children, an international organization devoted to the prevention of child abuse worldwide.