Life on the Curve—FOUR: Sustainer

As women, we are here for each other—how will we use this opportunity?

“Be a lamp, a lifeboat, or a ladder. Help someone’s soul heal.”   —Rumi.

In this fourth blog of my series Life on the Curve—stages of a woman’s life and soul—I want to focus on the midlife arc of a “Sustainer.” A woman’s experience in these still-contributing years can be compared to the Fall of the year, with its vibrant richness of color and fragrance. “Sustainer,” I believe, is a penultimate act of woman’s life that is exhilarating and worthy in its own right. And the Sustainer’s work is needed all the way up and down the spiral of life.

Elizabeth Davis and Carol Leonard in their book The Women's Wheel of Life write of a woman finding strength in her own right “by reanimating her original nature and integrity of purpose.” An empty nest, perhaps, a successful career completed, projects and goals attained, intense relationships relaxed or released from, a woman in Fall can learn to gaze both forward and backward, gaining further strength for whatever might lie ahead.

According to Davis and Leonard “she rekindles the intensity of her complementary archetype, the Daughter, and returns to an independent sense of herself, pre-lover and pre-mother.” Yet she is not the same person, after she has lived through these other stages to get to this place.

In this open and inviting stage of opportunity a Sustainer experiences the facing of a second “blank” slate to inscribe herself on—though by now her expertise has grown, so that her contributions to life and society will be more nuanced. And perhaps they will also be more simply and flowingly executed, in a relaxed “second time around.”

As Ann Patchett wrote in her recent novel State of Wonder: “Never be so focused on what you’re looking for that you overlook the thing you actually find.” And whatever awaits the Sustainer will find her, also, as she simultaneously finds it.

She might begin to nurture foster children, care for her own grandchildren, or mentor young adults rising in her profession. She might take on a second career, become an entrepreneur, or work at whatever craft she chooses for the sake of beauty and further self-development.

But basically, “Sustainer” means that she is there for those people in her life who might once have needed her close supervision and protection, but now are self-sustaining enough to free her for her own next performance in the world.

I recently read an article about women seeking and finding (often of necessity) new jobs in their fifties, due to the strained economy. One applicant became distressed during a job coaching session, teared up, and blurted out: “I didn’t expect to be here!”

In the Fall of her experience, a woman’s family situation usually changes. Sometimes, rather than freeing her, it may put new demands on her earning ability—a husband forced to retire early because of the economy; post-college children who can’t get jobs and return home to live; an aging mother who needs help with daily tasks she used to perform for herself.

Then, clearly, it is time to “Be a lamp, a lifeboat, or a ladder. Help someone’s soul heal.”  

But how we “got here” is less important than what we will do with this time, while we are still able to contribute positively to the world and others’ welfare. And for each day that we are “free” to take a step toward our own goals, as well as practice Sustaining, there is deep incentive to give thanks.

Simply being a woman who has lived, who has lain with her love, who has taken the necessary steps to become adept in mothering, or gardening, or writing, for instance; or networking, creating, or management—these are facts to celebrate in the stage of Sustainer.

The Sustainer has learned to “promise little and do much,” in the words of one folk saying.

I was amazed as my children became more and more independent of me, in their natural stages of growth into adulthood, how much time and energy it freed me up to discover and re-activate in my own soul. It was as though I had put money or treasures in reserve to be held until a time I could purchase something with them again—like forgotten money in the bank.

On a recent vacation to visit my daughters where they live, across the country, I told friends, “They really don’t NEED me. That’s good, and yet, well, they don’t need me.” We raised them to take responsibility for themselves, and so they don’t call home every time a decision has to be made, or need to check with us to get our approval. That’s good! But in continual adjustment to the spiral of life on the curve, the mother too has to accept the new situation and channel the energy that once went into managing a family’s needs—into tasks that actually require what she has to give!

This is the Sustainer role, at times a bittersweet experience, and not only because we are in the Autumn of our years. We cannot BE who we once were, nor should we want to or have to. That is its beauty as well.

As the wonderful writer Dorothy L. Sayers wrote: “Time and trouble will tame an advanced young woman, but an advanced older woman is uncontrollable by any earthly force.” We are this unleashed power, and we have it to release in whatever direction we choose. For me, there is freedom to write more regularly, to help nurture other writers in our community and through the web, and to enjoy the leisure of my husband’s retirement.

Of course, I sometimes miss the excitement I once felt when being chosen for a new job, or an elevation of position. For years I carried the assumption that I could switch gears into a different field of work if I chose. Then I realized I would have been at a great disadvantage competing with workers who had more experience and knowledge in those fields.

Though the spiral of my experience as a woman has largely widened out, to include more types of friends, more travel, and greater expectations of what I can accomplish in my field of writing and editing—it has also of necessity entailed a narrowing down. I am choosing carefully just which projects to take on, and leaving other legitimate ones on the table. I now know better my own limits and energies and abilities—realism is an important facet of this arc on the curve.

I write of Sustaining in honor of the examples and glories of other women who still sustain me by their brave lives, their writings, their accomplishments. They say to me, “Yes, you can,” even now, in this late burst of creative life.

How I might sustain other, younger women is less clear to me; but I know that inhabiting my place in the chain of connection, on the spiral of life’s experience, is as real as each breath I take.

Elizabeth Ann Seton, early American educator and saint, wrote: “When so rich a harvest is before us, why do we not gather it? All is in our hands if we use it.”

Each day I am learning, with open hands, how this harvesting can be possible.

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