I've been catching up on blog reading, and I came across this post of Historiann's, which talked about the death of Gerda Lerner and the importance of her life. Lerner was among the first historians to look at history through a feminist lens. Lerner was instrumental in making women's history a respectable focus for historians.
What interests me even more, however, is that she didn't even begin her graduate work until she was in her 40's. That means that her important work as a historian came when she was on the far side of midlife.
I've decided to note these stories as I find them. Several months ago, I wrote this post about Phyllis Tickle, who did several important things after age 45. Like many women, she spent her earlier years raising a family, and then she turned to other fulfillments.
Lerner spent her earlier years working in Hollywood, writing scripts and working on movies. She was also active in many social justice movements. And then she went to school and then she wrote her most important work, work that looked at women's lives on plantations in the U.S. South before the Civil War and work that looked at patriarchal society through ever larger subject areas.
Why do I treasure these stories of women who did their most important work at the far side of midlife and beyond? Well, on some level, it's obvious. I'm 47, and I need to believe that I'm not a washed-up husk of my former self. I look back and say, "I had potential once." I still have potential.
We live in a society that beams images of youthful achievement, and it's tough to stop paying attention. It's tough not to feel that if one hasn't achieved major accomplishments by age 22, one is finished and done.
I sometimes look at all the things I thought I would do by now and feel despair. Of course, if I had a list of what I thought I would accomplish, a list created by my 18 year old self, it wouldn't include some things I've done: my Ph.D., my chapbooks of poems, my presence as a blogger at multiple places (some of which pay!).
When reading Phyllis Tickle's book, Prayer is a Place, which is an autobiography of sorts, I'm struck by the directions she went that she would never have dreamed of when she was young. I don't want to be constrained by 18 year old Kristin.
It also makes me wonder what 68 year old Kristin will think when she looks back on these blog posts. I've been in the beginning stages of a time of discernment. It seems improbable that the field of higher education can support me to retirement. That leads to the question, "What next?"
Right now, I feel both hope and despair. On my despairing days, I can't remember any other aspirations I ever had. On my hopeful days, it's hard to choose the next path.
It's good to remember that we don't always have to be the super-active agents of change in our lives. Sometimes, all we have to do is to remain open to possibilities as we see what comes our way. There are some changes that we can't have prepared for; we're just the right people at the right time, the ones who say yes to intriguing directions.
Lerner shows us that we can follow our interests, and the world will follow, even when it doesn't seem an obvious outcome. If we went back to 1960 and talked about the importance of women's history, people would look at us blankly or scoff. Yet that's where Lerner led us.
For those of us at midlife now, I wonder where our lives will lead.