Composing a Further Life: The Age of Active Wisdom

Knopf, September, 2010
ISBN/EAN: 978-0-307-26643-9

Mary Catherine Bateson, author of “Composing a Life,” weaves life stories into a follow-up book about what kind of projects adults in their 40s, 50s and 60s could take on, knowing they will live longer than previous generations.

Stop for a moment to absorb this possibility: Rather than dreading a protracted old age, consider that you have been given the gift of an extra phase, what Mary Catherine Bateson calls “Adulthood II.” There are no longer three generations in one average lifetime, but four (more great grandmothers!). This new phase might begin at 40, or it might begin, as Jane Fonda testifies in Composing a Further Life, at 60.

In the United States, we are, on average, living 30 years longer than we did in the 19th century, 20 years longer since World War II. “We have not added decades to life expectancy by simply extending old age; instead, we have opened up a new space partway through the life course, a second and different kind of adulthood that precedes old age, and as a result every stage of life is undergoing change.”

This is the kind of life-altering perspective we can expect from Bateson, student and teacher of the developmental psychologist Erik Erikson, daughter of anthropologists Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead.

Bateson’s most famous book, Composing a Life, was published in 1989. It spread, word-of-mouth, hand to hand, around the world — reprinted dozens of times in more than a dozen languages. The message was: Life is an art form, not a linear, predictable process. We do the best we can at each potential turning point, given the information and the self-knowledge we possess. It is the kind of book fans keep multiple copies of, to press into the hands of friends busily agonizing over how to exert their will over the course of their own lives.

In this new book, Bateson encourages a similar, lapidary approach to the question: What are we going to do with this gift of time? “How, in growing older do I become more truly myself, and how does that spell out in what I do or say or contribute?” She looks at the activism, the career opportunities, the opportunities for creative expression and the wisdom that can come with this new phase: “Those who are grandparents today are unlike the grandparents they remember. They adore their grandchildren, but they just aren’t sitting still.” Her intention in this, her 11th book, is to “challenge individuals not only to thoughtful discernment and creativity in composing a further life but to greater engagement.”

Bateson’s medium is life stories. In this and other books she weaves a narrative through a handful of stories. Here, she searches for the continuity in lives — before and after retirement. What are the skills and also the passions that people forge into new contributions? The boatyard worker in Maine who used his metal working skills to make jewelry, becoming a craftsman in his later years and building a community of other craftsmen and women. The academic who turned his teaching skills into mentoring and the creation of nonprofit organizations. The actress who turned her training — the ability to empathize — and her financial resources into work with teenage girls. These may not have been the same issues they cared about in their 20s and 30s — for example, rather than work for abortion rights, a person in a second adulthood might care more about death with dignity legislation.

This is an important shift in perspective: If you see yourself sliding into old age you might be less likely to take on something new with a vengeance. While the idea of retirement encourages a “play stage,” Adulthood II is a time to bring one’s wisdom to bear on the world. (In other words, write the memoir in your 50s or 60s, not your 20s.)

Perhaps it’s a result of being raised by anthropologists — Bateson has a gift for looking over the wall. Most of us are too busy getting through the day to imagine the possible course of our lives (for example, Lord, get me out of this traffic and home so I can just make dinner). Borrowing a model from recent work in evolutionary science — she describes the importance of “punctuated equilibrium,” what the geeks call “punk eek.” While most of us strive for smooth continuity in our lives, Bateson champions (here and in Composing a Life) the virtues of discontinuity —the growth spurts, the sudden illuminations, and the slowing down, the aging. “Punctuation,” she writes, “may be essential to the examined life.”

We connect the phases of our lives like so many tiles in a mosaic. This is our medium, our art. “Connecting things is for me one key meaning of composing, as women have tried to combine multiple commitments in ways that are not only workable but graceful.” Bateson reminds us that there is grace in the interstices, the wobbly places.

As we slow down, there is a tendency to soften and look inward. In a conversation with Fonda, Bateson explores the possibility that elders, moving “from ego into soul,” experience a different but equally important phase of spirituality, serve as role models and can contribute a long-term perspective to a wide range of issues, personal and political.November 25, 2010 By Susan Salter Reynolds | Special to the Los Angeles Times

Composing A Life [1989]

Grove/Atlantic, Inc. Paperback, 2001
ISBN: 0452265053

“Composing a Life has been such an inspiration because it gave me a framework. She has kind of an anthropological and multicultural view of women’s lives and was very encouraging of me to do a lot of the work I do on women and children.”
Hillary Rodham Clinton

Reading “Composing a Life” made me gnash my teeth and weep. I scribbled all over the margins, turned down every other page corner and underlined passages with such ferocity that my desk was flecked with broken-off pencil points. All in all, a surprising reaction to a book that is written with such measured thoughtfulness, with such excessively extended reflection, that it might well have been titled “A Composed Life.”
Jane O’Reilly, New York Times Book Review, Nov 26, 1989.

“I can’t imagine a man writing an autobiography by including himself as an equal with four of his friends and exploring the intertwining of all their relationships, all of their lives, for the sake of discovering patterns and themes that emerge from from all women’s and men’s lives. But surely if a man did such a thing as well as Mary Catherine Bateson has here, the book would be hailed as a masterwork of rare breadth and particularity, encompassing all the rhythms of five lives and friendships, and interweaving their stories in ways that reveal grand social truths and peculiar personal graces. . . I want to hail Bateson for finding – creating, really – a literary form that reflects the way that women commonly reason and talk. ”
Christina Robb, Boston Globe Nov.17, 1989

“Ms. Bateson unleashes some very powerful ideas in this book. There are flashes of brilliance on every page. She is a seminal thinker and this is far more than a women’s book. It cuts right to the marrow of the society we live in. ”
John J. Daley in Hartford Republican, Nov. 1989.

willing-to-learnWilling to Learn: Passages of Personal Discovery

Steerforth Press, September 2004
ISBN: 1586420801 (distributed by Random House)
Writer and educator Mary Catherine Bateson is best known for the proposal that lives should be looked at as compositions, each one an artistic creation expressing individual responses to the unexpected. This collection can be read as a memoir of unfolding curiosity. It brings together essays and occasional pieces, many of them previously unpublished or unknown to readers who know the author only from her books, written in the course of an unconventional career.

Bateson’s professional life was interrupted repeatedly. She responded by refocusing her curiosity – by being willing to learn. The connections and echoes between the entries in her book are as intriguing as the contrasts in style and subject matter. The work is grounded in cultural anthropology but shaped by the observation that, in a world of rapid change and encounters with strangers, individuals can no longer depend on following traditionally defined paths.

Willing to Learn is arranged thematically. The longest section focuses primarily on the contemporary United States and deals with life stages and gender. Bateson argues that because women’s lives have changed most radically, women are pioneers of emerging patterns that will affect everyone. Another section includes a sampling of writings about Bateson’s parents, anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. The most anthropological section deals with belief systems, conflict, and change, especially in the Middle East, and the final section with different ways of knowing. Bateson is a singular thinker whose work enriches lives by bringing fresh, original ideas to subjects that affect all of us. Willing to Learn is at once an articulation of and an enduring testament to the artistic creation Bateson has produced pursuing her own life’s work.

Peripheral Visions: Learning Along the Way[1994]

Harper Perennial Paperback, 1995
ISBN: 0060926309

Here [Bateson] turns the beam of her ardent, disciplined mind on the crucial and often misunderstood process of learning. . . she also frees “multiculturalism” from its superficial and political trappings and altogether invigorates her readers with her faith in our adaptive abilities.
Donna Seaman in Upfront: Advance Reviews, May 1, 1994

A wise and liberating book…Bateson brings fresh perspectives to concepts of beauty, the self, competition vs. cooperation, parenting, rituals, the division of labor between women and men.
Publisher’s Weekly (starred review)

Bateson…takes us on strange journeys that inevitably result in surprising revelations.
San Francisco Chronicle

“The author’s vast experience and eclectic knowledge continue to provide incisive perspectives on a variety of contemporary issues, ranging from international politics to ecology and education.”
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in The Washington Post

Full Circles, Overlapping Lives

Gender and age are the two factors that make up the bulk of Bateson’s subject matter. ”Full Circles, Overlapping Lives” is this anthropologist’s look at a society that has ”arrived at a necessity for interdependence and empathy that goes beyond any selected for during evolution.” . . . Bateson sets out to articulate and analyze the problems and opportunities created by this new reality. She succeeds through a combination of impressive intellect, broad knowledge and genuine sensitivity. . .this book grows steadily more engrossing through the final page. It will leave readers feeling as though they’re finishing a conversation with a wise and learned friend: satisfied, thoughtful and hoping to hear more from this perceptive observer of our continuing cultural transformation.
Martha Beck in New York Times, May 28, 2000.

“Mary Catherine Bateson has examined lives across races and cultures and has produced a wise and beautiful book. Anyone – from parent to policy maker – who needs to know how human beings tick will be richly rewarded by what Bateson has thought through so carefully and presented so elegantly.”
Roger Wilkins, author of A Man’s Life

“Provocative and surprising, Full Circles, Overlapping Lives has Mary Catherine Bateson’s unique signature: her uncanny ability to find the strange in the familiar, the ordinary in the exotic. With insight, grace, and generosity, Bateson witnesses the cross-generational dialogue in a classroom at Spelman College where young African-American women and their elders search for meaning and understanding in each other’s life stories.”
Sarah Lawrence Lightfoot, author of Respect: An Exploration

“With her customary wisdom and subtle wit, Mary Catherine Bateson helps us think about the great divide that we all live with but few discuss: the enormously different life experiences of members of different generations. Drawing on the deeply personal and self-revealing stories both of young women just starting out and of women who have lived long, varied lives, she takes us on a stirring journey through the wonder and challenge of life and self in our fast-changing world.”
Deborah Tannen, author of You Just Don’t Understand

“A wonderfully knowing and engaging book by an anthropologist who has learned a lot from her students and tells us what it means to be an American-and how a nation’s citizens vary in accordance with their age, their particular experiences.”
Robert Coles, James Agee Professor of Social Ethics, Harvard

[Bateson] writes from a dense cloud of unknowing, like Carol Gilligan and Deborah Tannen and all of those academics who have ventured out to help us behave better, love more wisely and live longer.
Susan Salter Reynolds, L.A. Times