Starting Over When Life Changes Course

ALICE STEINBACH

November 14, 1991|By ALICE STEINBACH

It was a reunion of sorts, my recent dinner with two women I hadn't seen in over a decade. Once, back in our school days, the three of us were inseparable; now we seem to meet at 10-year intervals. Which means there's always plenty of catching up to do.

We usually begin with family talk, proceed to career developments and, after checking out how each of us is aging, lie and tell one another: "You don't look any different than you did 10 years ago."

What we don't lie about, however, is how different our lives have become since we last met. Spurred on by the wine, we talked openly about the roads not taken and where the paths we did take have led us.

To surprising destinations, as it turns out.

"I never expected to wind up working as a corporate lawyer in Manhattan," said my friend who formerly worked for an art museum in Washington. Growing up, this friend dreamed of becoming a history teacher. A married history teacher with a large family. She's divorced now, with no children.

As for my other friend -- well, since we last met she's sent two kids off to college, adopted an 8-year-old girl and, after being widowed five years ago, recently married a man several years younger than she is.

"I feel like I'm living a whole new life," she told us. "It's not where I expected to be at this point in my life -- and I'm not sure I'm prepared for it."

"That's funny," I responded. "Because I guess you could say I'm where I expected to be, but I'm not prepared for it either."

We all laughed. But I wasn't joking.

Although the changes in my life over the last decade may have come in less dramatic ways, they nonetheless have come. And like my friends, I'm struggling to find a way to calibrate the old parts of my life to fit in with the changes.

Driving home from dinner that night, I thought about our conversation and decided that what interested me most, ultimately, was this: Why were we so surprised to find that life refuses to proceed in a straight line? Surely from our own experiences we ought to have learned that the minute you think you've got life nailed down, it pops up. After all, hadn't the three of us been creating new lives on the foundations -- sometimes the ruins -- of old ones all along?

From single, working woman to married, working woman; from married, working mother to single, working mother; from widowed, single parent to remarried, working woman -- we each had arrived at these destinations only to find they were temporary stops in a longer journey.

And speaking for myself I can say: Sometimes I welcomed the need to move on. But sometimes I did not.

Life, it seems, has a way of ambushing those who travel through it. Of throwing a hand grenade onto the orderly route mapped out by the unsuspecting tourist. In an odd way, it may be one of the few common experiences left to us in our increasingly polarized society: The need to compose a new life when the old one must be given up.

The parent who loses a child knows this and the partner who survives a mate knows it too. But so does the person who loses a job or is deprived in some way of his or her sense of identity.

And in this age of television, we get to see how famous people react to a sudden blow that forces them to give up the old life and move on. Magic Johnson showed us one reaction last week when what seemed to be a clear, continuous road stretching out ahead of him was blasted away. Now he must compose a new life. Which he seems capable of doing.

And we saw Clarence Thomas react to such a blow, too. He told the Senate Judicial Committee that he "died" the day he learned Anita Hill's charges against him would be made public. "The person you knew," he testified, "whether you voted for me or against me, died." Now he too must compose a new life. And, of course, so must Anita Hill.

But even when it clearly would be in our best interests to move on and create a new life, observes Mary Catherine Bateson in her book, "Composing A Life," we are afraid to do it. "All too often, men and women are like battered wives or abused children," she writes. "We hold on to the continuity we have, however profoundly it is flawed. If change were less frightening, if the risks did not seem so great, far more could be lived."

But frightening or not, life insists on having a life of its own. And it seems to be telling us that we cannot count on continuity to get us through. Which, as Magic Johnson and Clarence Thomas and so many of us have found out, was only an illusion anyway.

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