It Feels Like my Third Act
I was terrified when I hit fifty, being pretty certain the rest of my life would be shorter than what I had already lived. In my first act, I had received accolades for several impressive accomplishments that I believed would no longer be considered extraordinary but rather expected of someone over fifty. However, later that year I spent a delightful afternoon with a dear friend who was just a year older than me, comparing our notes on aging. Our conversation became a celebration of the learning that took place during the difficult, even tragic, events of our lives.
When my husband died suddenly at age fifty-three, I was set adrift and my new-found wisdom and reliance on past experiences seemed to vanish overnight. “How was I to continue living without the love of my life?” Grief is a painful process for anyone and I felt it all. While still processing and grieving, I began to give thought to creating a new vision for my future without him. As a child and into adulthood, I longed to be a Lutheran pastor. However, my commitment to my husband (who didn’t see himself as the spouse of a pastor) and sensitivity to my parents’ feelings (who were convinced women should not be pastors), led me to put my dream aside for more than thirty years.
My third act began when I retired from my career in social work administration and entered the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Everything in my life was different. I left my family, my support system, a team of colleagues I loved, my home, and everything that had provided me with security as I was dealing with life as a widow. I was fifty-eight years old, living in a third-floor walk-up in the third largest city in the United States and was learning Greek and Hebrew for the first time in my life. Nearly all of my classmates were at least thirty years younger than me and our professors had the same expectations for me as they did for my young friends. I viewed the entire experience as an adventure, filled with opportunities for learning, developing new perspectives, and gaining unique experiences amidst a diverse community.
I loved my first and second acts. I loved my husband and family. I loved my work and my team. I didn’t love the struggles, the figuring out how relationships work, how to be a mom and care for a family, how to support others in their difficult times, and trying to file it all away for future use. I don’t miss the frustration of failing, falling and getting up again.
I love my third act. I serve a congregation in central Iowa, filled with people I love and respect and from whom I am learning. So often, when writing a sermon, teaching a class of teenagers, or visiting someone who is dying, I find myself being so grateful for every experience I’ve ever had, as they not only made me who I am, but are so helpful in understanding and caring for others. Okay, I still make mistakes, but I recover so much faster than I did in my youth.
There is something very freeing and exhilarating about facing each new day with sixty-eight years of life-long learning experience.
When I purchased my little 1890-built home in Winterset IA, 2016, I was thrilled. Within months of moving in, I hung a small barn board sign on my porch: JOY.
That’s all it said, but it said it well. Typically, I am a person of joy. I am grateful to be alive; to have a home; a family that I love; a faith that provides comfort, as well as joy; work that is a calling; friends I adore and a sweet little dog whose name is Amazing Grace. My life brings me joy.
Once the sign was hung, I had my huge backyard fenced in so sweet Gracie could run and play outdoors without danger or the possibility of getting lost. Using permaculture strategies (I know just enough about permaculture to believe I’m part of an earth-saving movement), I first analyzed, planned and then staked out a plot of grass that would become my garden. I layered cardboard and newspaper, followed by leaves and grass clippings, nutrient-rich soil, compost, and straw for mulch. I used the same process for my front terrace. The snows came, and my new garden was under development.
As soon as the soil could be worked (standard language in gardening manuals), I pulled back the mulch, added another layer of soil and compost and started planting. I got to see a few flowers out front and the four strawberry plants came in beautifully. As for the rest, well, it would either grow or it would die. No matter what, I was feeding the soil and that brings me joy. The garden plot did not fare much better. I ate a few tomatoes, had enough potatoes for a meal, and the kale was almost plentiful. One cannot live on kale alone, but I was cultivating healthy soil. So, I pulled up some dying plants, left a few in the ground, and began my layering process once again, in both garden plot and my front yard terrace.
This year, I again added soil and compost (lots from a previously unused dog kennel now serving as a compost bin), planted my seeds, starters, and transplants and covered them up with straw mulch. Much better this year, despite the long weeks without rain. Enough potatoes to actually weigh (#31 pounds) and sweet meaty tomatoes to eat every single day. I’m freezing and giving away basil, parsley, oregano and mint and finding great joy in the bright spots of color from the perennial flowers my daughter-in-law gave me. Oh my, the terrace still looked pretty sparse, but the too widely spaced yellow, blue, lavender and deep red flowers made up for it. A sudden stretch of serious rain plumped up the strawberry plants and brought new life to the Daylilies and the Hostas growing close to the house.
On the flip side – my beans, peas, carrots, radishes and cucumbers really struggled and produced only a “eating while cleaning up the garden” snack. The cucumbers were hilarious. They grew fat, instead of long. The plants flowered, a little green poke emerged, and then…fat orange cucumbers with humungous seeds. Are you kidding me? Oh well, back into the soil from whence they came. My soil will continue to grow healthier as I drop everything back into or on top of it and await next year’s planting season to repeat the process once again. This brings me joy, so I had a local crafter create a matching sign that says GARDENS and hung it below my JOY sign.
Joy Gardens hopes for the future:
Eliminate all grass in the front yard and replace with strawberry plants and blueberry bushes so I can eventually pick berries from my own yard. Why the front yard? Because berry plants and bushes are pretty, and they do not require mowing. Plus, many people walk past my house every day. Retirees walking dogs, children and teens on their way home from school, the occasional exercise walker. Why not provide them with a little rest stop and a sweet snack. Am I worried about others eating up all my fruit? Not a bit. I do hope they save a little for me, but just the thought of my yard offering a treat to passersby brings me more joy than making jam.
I looked long and far to find the author of the quote I adapted for myself after seeing it somewhere many years ago. Sorry there is no credit line. If you wrote it, tell me.
“She who plants a seed beneath the sod and waits for food believes in God.” YES!
One more thought: Of all the gifts my mother ever purchased for me, my favorite is the garden sign I received Christmas 1982. Although there were a number of years that my husband and I were too busy enjoying summer camping, biking and kayaking to plant and care for a garden, the sign is in my garden today:
The kiss of the sun for pardon,
The song of the birds for mirth,
One is nearer God’s Heart in a garden
Than anywhere else on Earth. *
Until next time,
* God’s Garden, lines 13–16, Poems, by Dorothy Frances Gurney (London: Country Life, 1913).
PS – Who knew? If I have a chance to go to Starbucks, I usually use the drive through. The last time I was there, the drive through was so busy I decided to go inside. There – right on the counter – were large bags of used coffee grounds. FREE! Coffee grounds are a great addition to garden compost. From now on, I’m going inside.
The story was already being told as I tuned into the local IPR station. He shared his story of abuse as an acolyte when he was a child and expressed sorrow, but not surprise at the latest round up of victims. What I am thinking about is not limited to the Roman Catholic Church, but is about the horror of people in positions of trust failing to live with integrity. And, in some respects, I am thinking too about how the priesthood might just be a draw for those identified as pedophiles. The situations on my mind, are those involving teachers, therapists, youth group leaders, camp counselors, coaches, and other positions that allow for close relationships with children. They are all violating a moral code that breaks my heart and tears apart the life of their victims.
While some pedophiles and those guilty of sexual assault are never caught or convicted of their crimes, the legal system tends to come down hard on them and they are forced to deal with the harsh consequences of their actions. Okay, now this is where it starts getting sticky for me and why it is that I am thinking about this current event. From where I sit (as a Lutheran pastor), it seems to me that pastors and priests, anyone who serves in a position of leadership in the church, has an even greater responsibility to act with integrity. I am heartsick at the thought of anyone hiding under the shield of Christ’s church to further their lifestyle of child sexual abuse.
What is keeping Pope Francis, someone for whom I have so much admiration, from clearing the decks and wiping the roster clean? What is keeping him from turning over the tables and refusing to sanction any reassignment or health leave of absence for both abusers and those responsible for covering it up? I’m not sitting on some self-righteous throne here. I’m asking what I believe to be a legitimate question.
I have only my experience with Roman Catholic friends and my armchair knowledge of how that church works, but I know that among its members, faith runs deep and challenges to the church are painful. I think anything that leads us to question our faith in any system is agonizing, but I ask, “At what terrible cost to those about whom Jesus said, “…whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6).
I understand why the victims may not want to pursue this. I can only imagine the shame that is felt by this twisted abuse of a position of trust. “He’s the priest. I must have done something to cause this. It’s my fault, because a minister would never do anything bad.” So, the suffering is compounded because of the position the spiritual leader holds. And rather than making the abuser pay, other men of God cover for him and people get paid off to remain silent.
Is there something wrong with my thinking on this? What have I overlooked?
Since the recent deaths by suicide of a friend, a friend’s son, and a cherished colleague, I have been thinking often about depression, anxiety and the death sentence that comes too often with those conditions. Now, I know many people live with depression (including me and other loved ones) or anxiety and may not be in danger of death, but it remains a very real possibility. Suicide became real for me when a classmate’s brother died by suicide during his first year of high school. The common response fifty years ago was, “Someone would need to be crazy to take their own life.” That kind of talk is less prevalent today, and it casts an ugly shadow, but that statement could lead us to find the truth. The truth is that those who die by suicide are often dying from depression, a disorder of the brain. The morning after the most recent death in my own circle, I wrote in my journal, “Depression is a killer.” Statistically speaking, 800,00 suicides out of 350 million people worldwide with depression seems a very small number. But not to the friends and family of the 800,000. *
In my limited experience, depression doesn’t always kill, but it is a killer. My young friend, a woman of deep faith, was a beautiful, soulful, thoughtful and loving spouse and mother to three sweet young children. From outward appearances, she appeared to “have it all.” And then she died. My colleague had been in ministry for more than thirty years, proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ among the marginalized, the disenfranchised and the mentally ill. Following his death by suicide, the tributes poured in: “Man, he brought me back from the brink of suicide.” I wonder how many people are alive today because he reached out to them in compassion, with a wealth of understanding about depression. I could continue, telling you stories about my college friend that his girlfriend and I thought we could keep alive by “watching” him; or the relative whose depression was so well hidden, no one knew how he died until two years after his death; or the precious son of a girlfriend, who died by suicide just days before his high school graduation, but you most likely have stories of your own.
Depression is one of those things that we cannot ignore. We must stop stigmatizing. In some cases, we must not give someone their privacy by avoiding raising the issue. As with many illnesses, depression appears in varying degrees. In some cases, it is controlled and treated by medication and talk therapy. In other cases, it is far more challenging and more debilitating than many of us can imagine. I recall being drawn to a couple of small children at our church, who loved hearing the stories I would tell on Sunday mornings. Most of the time, mom and dad were with them, but there were many times when dad was present for worship and other events with just the children. Where was mom? It turns out, she was in the hospital, trying a new treatment for her depression. In the hospital, staying safe. Her depression is severe. Her children are grown and living away from home yet stay in touch regularly. She is open about her illness and finds help and support among family, friends and her faith community.
I guess I’m writing this because it is on my mind and because I consider myself a good listener and a supporter of those with mental health concerns. BUT, I have missed the warning signs far too often and that scares me. It scares me for my loved ones and those I don’t even know. And it scares me to know that if I can be that insensitive when caring for others in my life’s work, then we all need to be more aware. Not just aware of others’ feelings, but aware of the symptoms and signs of depression and suicide. What can we do?
Until next time.
* Most of my information comes firsthand from those living with depression, but I have also found a great deal of valuable help on the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and National Association for Mental Illness (NAMI) websites.
Facts from the NIMH Website: Depression is divided into two categories on the NIMH website. The leading cause of disability for people aged 15-44 is major depressive disorder. More prevalent in women than men, it affects more than 15 million people in the United States. Three (3) million people struggle with what NIMH calls dysthymic disorder (prolonged chronic depression).
NAMI lumps the categories together and says that depression affects more than 350 million people of all ages globally. It is the number one cause of disability, and, get this, predicted to be the number one global burden of disease by 2030.At its worst it leads to suicide, which takes the lives of 800,000 people worldwide each year.