In Your Story Matters, Leslie Leyland Fields gives this advice to a beginning memoirist: “Make a time line for every five to ten years of your life (depending on how old you are), marking important events: places you’ve lived, jobs you’ve held, major events in your family.” Milestones. See my reviews of Leslie’s wonderful book here and here.
In some ways each important event is a milestone, a stone set alongside your life path to physically mark the distance to a particular place or metaphorically mark a significant change or stage in development. A new chapter, turning point, breakthrough, discovery, landmark, anniversary or “big” birthday.
If we were writing an autobiographical memoir, marking the stages of life, we’d place a BIG milestone at the end of our student years—graduation, when we’re like this budding zinnia pictured above entering into our adult lives—and another BIG milestone when we’ve completed our careers and family lives, hopefully only slightly battered like the sunflower above center. The next big milestone comes after work-family life ends and before death, the final stage, like the coneflower shorn of pedals and gone to seed pictured above right.
When sharing thoughts about life’s milestone changes, I often refer to Parker Palmer’s The Active Life, which I wrote about here. I first read The Active Life in the mid-90s when I was in my early forties and newly divorced. Upon turning 50, a little over two decades ago, I read the book again. After 25 years teaching at the same school, I had taken a new job. I sold my house and moved half way across the country. Since my two children had graduated from college and high school respectively and both had left home that year, I would live by myself for the first time in my life.
An age milestone, new job, new location, new living situation—except for the march of time, these changes were mostly my choice. Even so, I needed help making sense of it all, you know, the LIFE thing, and as long as we’re being honest here, the DEATH thing, too. Change like this brings us closer to our mortality.
I knew my new job and living situation would bring creativity and risk. If I didn’t embrace both, I wouldn’t experience a truly active life. Before the change, life was busy, exhausting, work-filled and without much time to think. This new, more balanced life allowed me to integrate action with contemplation.
In The Active Life, Parker Palmer writes that the tug-of-war between action and contemplation in Western culture is long-standing. He notes the ancient Greeks’ reverence for contemplative philosophy and the story of Mary and Martha, then the shift towards action with the Age of Exploration and Enlightenment, the rise of science, the Industrial Revolution, urbanization and technology.
Why this historic tension? “Contemplation and action ought not to be at war with one another,” Palmer writes, “and as long as they are, we will be at war within ourselves.”
Now well into retirement, I watch the sunset at Vanaprastha. Action has shifted more towards contemplation. I have time to pursue my curiosities and write. It is a mission that not only nurtures me but also nurtures others when I publish—at least that’s my goal.
As I took the three pictures above, I thought about what Parker Palmer calls the spirituality of work, creativity, and caring. Work sends me back to the slightly battered sunflower’s milestone, creativity to the budding zinnia’s, and caring to the coneflower gone to seed. Ah, those seeds, lovingly shared with others.
We can return to previous milestones and revisit those within, but we cannot leap forward. As Leslie Leyland Fields notes, referring to Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, life does indeed have a timeline of memories, metaphors, and milestones.
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