An Interview with Sara Davidson
Your new book, Leap! What Will We Do with the Rest of Our Lives, looks at how the boomer generation will handle life past age 50. When it comes to aging, what’s unique about boomers?
This is a situation that is unprecedented in history. Never before has such a large number of people reached age 50, 60 and beyond in such good shape (and Dr. Weil has had a hand in that!). Their kids are gone, they are freer, and they may have 30 more years of vibrant health. So instead of golfing or sitting on a boat, these people are at peak of their game. They want to contribute, be involved, be active in some way. But where are their models of how to do that? At the same time, a lot of people don’t want to work quite so hard anymore. I heard someone say the other night, “If I could work 20 percent less, and take 20 percent less compensation, I would do that in a second.” But they are not sure how that could happen, because in many professions, if you start backing off you lose momentum and you are out of the game. So we are having to invent and create a new way of being in this new part of life, which I would say is roughly after 50 and before 80.
Is it really true that we are healthier than past generations?
By all of the accounts I have seen, it is true, and not only of people in their fifties, but also those of us at the top of the boomer wave who are hitting 60. I ski with the master’s race team where I live in Boulder, Colorado. We have people on the team who are in their 70s and 80s who are competing. And we also have people like me, who did not even begin ski racing until their 50s. It is possible physically to stay strong and do a lot of things. But at the same time, I don’t want to pretend that change does not happen in your body, and I don’t think Dr. Weil asserts that either. The changes that are going to happen to us physically in the next 20 years are greater than any that have happened since adolescence. So we have to make adjustments, and not be in a state of denial, but we can continue to keep ourselves relatively strong and flexible indefinitely.
In your book, you discuss an inevitable stage you call “passing through the narrows.” What is that, and what was it for you?
I interviewed over 200 people to research this book. I found that everyone, no matter how much achievement or fame or money they had attained or not attained, everybody went through what I call the narrows, which is your transition to the next part of life. It could happen as early as your late 40s, it could not happen until your 70s. But at some point, you are going to experience something like a stripping of identity, a huge questioning: Why am I still here? What are the next years for? What do I really want to do? How can I feel that my time here has mattered?
If you don’t go through this voluntarily, either the world or your body will force you to. In my case, I did not do it willingly. I went kicking and screaming. In my late 50s, three things happened at once. First, my kids were going off to college. Second, I lost my ability to write for television which I had done for 25 years, it was the way I supported myself and my family as a single mom. Because I was getting older, nobody was interested in having me work for them, even though I felt I was writing at the top of my game. And third, my partner, who I had hoped to spend the rest of my years with, left abruptly.
So suddenly, my lover, my livelihood and my children were being yanked away from me, and there was nothing I could do about it. For the first time in my life, I had nothing to do. I have always been overscheduled and multi-tasking. I wrote scripts in the bleachers at little league games. Suddenly, I had nothing to do but sit in an empty house with no partner to console me or have fun with or take breaks with. Suddenly I had to date again, which was horrible. Suddenly, my kids, who had been my first thought on waking and my last on going to sleep, were not in my daily life. And in my career, I felt like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, desperately trying to stay in the game and being humiliated. I thought, at my age, I have written bestsellers, I have put TV shows on the air, why am I hustling, why isn’t the phone ringing, why are there dead ends everywhere? I was brought to my knees and had to go into a whole different mode of operation.
My mode of operation had been, create a vision of what you want to do, work like hell and you will get it done. And don’t accept no for an answer. But now, it was not working. So I really had to be receptive to what was going to serve me at this time. What I found was that it was not as much about making things happen as it was about listening and receiving and looking inside and waiting.
In the book, you say that your spiritual counselors kept advising you to surrender, and you hate the term. Why?
I said, “Surrender to what? It sounds like I’m on a battlefield – should I lay down and let the tanks roll over me?” What I came to learn is that surrender is not being a victim, is not being vanquished, it is not being defeated. True surrender, which I was being advised to do, is opening your arms to whatever comes and accepting it.
Also, I was told that there are fallow periods in life, just as there are with plants in fields. Sometimes, it is winter, all the leaves drop, nothing is happening above the ground. This is the time to wait and realize that the work is happening under the ground. So I went through this period of not knowing what I was to do. It took three or four years before things began to fall in place. It involved my moving to a new place, it involved, ultimately, writing this book, because as I looked around, I began to see that I was not alone. And I think this is really important for people to know who are going through this: You are not alone. You are not crazy. The fates don’t hate you, they are not punishing you. It’s natural, normal. The best thing to do is embrace this period of transition or at least accept it. Accept that this is a transition, and I don’t know what will happen. There are all kinds of possibilities. I need to stay open.
Eventually, you did take decisive action. How did you ultimately decide what to do?
I have a spiritual teacher named Nina Zimbelman who I have worked with for many years. She had always told me to listen to your “knowings.” It is that small, still voice inside. If that inner voice is giving you a message, she said, “lean into it.”
In my case, the inner message that came to me was simply a word, and it was “Boulder” as in Boulder, Colorado. I had already decided to move, the question had been where. When the word “Boulder” came to me, I went on the internet and looked it up. I found out that it has 300 days of sunshine a year; access to skiing, hiking and rafting; a university; a spiritual center with teachers of every stripe from Wicca to Irish Celtic to traditional Christianity, Jewish Renewal, Buddhism…since I am on spiritual path, that was encouraging, it would give me a lot of nourishment. So that’s how you lean into it; you start to investigate. If the doors open and it seems to flow, probably, it is a knowing. If you run into roadblocks, if gates come up and it just does not flow, then maybe it isn’t a knowing and you should just move on.
At first, it looked like it was not flowing, then it did. I found a job and a house and I met lots of wonderful people. And eventually I moved here. But when I got the word “Boulder,” I was not immediately ready to sell my house and move. I had to lean into it, explore it first.
And sometimes, your knowings don’t lead you to something you consider a happy outcome. Sometimes, your inner guidance wants you to have an experience you need to have, but that you would not sign up for. Those kinds of knowings are important, too. Thomas Moore, the author, said if you are going to live by your intuition and follow those inner knowings, you have to be willing to fall on your face nine out of ten times. So it does not mean that just because you get a knowing you are going to have a great, perfect outcome. But you will be living in an authentic way that feels aligned with your deepest self.
Why are there celebrities in the book?
They’re a small percentage – 20 or 30 of the 150 people in the book. I wanted to include famous people because we all have a feeling, and I think “People” magazine and other celebrity magazines encourage this, that these stars get all the goodies. They are so much in love, they have their beautiful kids, their beautiful house, and you sit there and feel worse and worse as you turn the pages.
But when I looked at people who are playing the game at a high level, who are in the public eye, I found that all of them had to go through this humbling narrows just the same as I did. Carly Simon, for example. Her career was on the skids at the same time she was diagnosed with breast cancer, had a mastectomy and chemotherapy, at the same time her kids were leaving and she and her husband were deciding to live separately. So she had a complete reduction, where, as she put it, she felt “discarded like a dog.” She started recording songs in her daughter’s old bedroom and mixing them herself, which is what she had done at age 19, making music to please herself, because she said, “That was the only star I could follow.”
If you ask around, everybody has a period when it seemed their life just fell apart. It happens at different ages, but I don’t think anybody gets through life without going through a time like that. And of course the secret is that those are the times when we have the greatest potential for real growth. Because when everything is going well, you don’t have any motivation to work hard on yourself, to become a more conscious, more connected, realized person. But when everything falls apart, and you abandon all hope, that’s when the light enters.
The end point of all of these stories seems to be the need to live in the present moment, that we have to embrace what is happening now.
Yes, it all leads in the direction of letting go, being open, and being here now. It’s real simple to say, harder to do. One of my main motivations behind this book is that a lot of what is written about getting older is kind of boosterism: you can do anything, you can have a great life, it will all be fine, you can look young, you can stay young. They don’t really take into account the deep inner work that can happen at this time of life. And as I said, most people will experience a call to this deep work whether they want to do it or not. So I really wanted to stress that it is not all tripping though the flowers to the final exit sign.
In the narrows, when you are reduced, made naked, it is fundamentally about the stripping away of what you thought was your identity. I’d always thought, “I am a mother, a writer, a partner.” Now, I am not an active mother, I am not a writer anyone wants to hire, and I have no partner. Who am I? This time of life will require that we look deeper at who we really are, and that we come up with an authentic sense. We won’t get it from a teacher or a master or a book. This is a generation that does not trust accepted wisdom or rules, that likes to find out for themselves. I think we will operate that same way in the next part of life.
You’ve been friends with Dr. Weil for 40 years, and he has the last word in your book. You tell a great story about your lunch conversation at a teahouse in Boulder.
Yes, when Andy and I were walking out afterward, I nodded toward a very old man in a wheelchair, and said, “That could be us one day, wheeling along.”
Andy looked at the man and looked back at me, imagining the two of us in wheelchairs. Then he raised an eyebrow and said, “I’ll race you.”
To contact Sara Davidson or share your story, visit www.saradavidson.com.