In the late 1970s, journalist Gail Sheehy helped a lot of people understand their lives with her book “Passages.” Alas, I was not one of them. I tried to read it, but didn’t get far before setting it aside for my usual fare, a murder mystery. In those years I was more into detection than introspection.
The subtitle of Sheehy’s book is “Predictable Crises in Adult Life.” She describes those crises using the framework of decades: The Trying 20s, The Catch 30s, The Forlorn 40s, The Refreshed (or Resigned) 50s.
The Library of Congress listed “Passages” as one of the ten most influential books of modern times. But that was then. A thirtieth anniversary edition of the book was issued in 2006. In the new introduction, Sheehy (who died just last year) wrote she’d been asked to address what had changed since the book’s initial publication.
“What hasn’t changed?” she asked rhetorically. “Passages” is steeped in the culture and mores of the ’70s. An apparently younger reviewer on the website goodreads.com declared, “I’m SO glad I didn’t grow up then. [As a woman] I’m so grateful for my ‘freedom.’”
My own adult passages did not coincide with the decades but occurred like clockwork every fourteen years with a major event in my life. At age twenty-one, I married my high school sweetheart, which he observed much later, seemed at the time “like the thing to do.” The next fourteen years included an amicable divorce, much searching and discovery.
At age thirty-five I married my soulmate, John, and settled into fourteen years of maximum productivity, a full life. When I was forty-nine, John suffered a brain stem stroke, resulting in total paralysis and catapulting us both into an era of disruption and deeper discovery. Fourteen years later, when I was sixty-three, John’s death coincided with a sense of my own maturity.
Now at seventy-seven, it’s not a personal event but a global pandemic that has ushered in what is most likely my final fourteen. I don’t know if that’s fourteen years, months, weeks, or days. Google says the number fourteen in Chinese tradition means “guaranteed death.” Well, we’re all guaranteed that.
I do know that I’m afraid, but not of death, which Jane Goodall at age eighty-seven describes as “the next great adventure.” My fear comes with the certainty that the next fourteen years are critical for the life of our mother, Earth. She and I may be on a parallel path, and her health is already more fragile than mine. Climate crisis is not some day. Climate crisis is now. As recent months proved, our four seasons now are autumn, winter, spring, and hell. Moreover, hell is sneaking across the boundaries, invading spring and autumn.
In the darkest of black humor columns, New Yorker writer Dennard Dayle suggests, “You’re not looking at the death of the human race. Just the death of the human dream.” I disagree. We may be out of time, but we’re not out of opportunity. And opportunity offers passages to dreams, to hope.
We have the opportunity of choice. We each make hundreds of choices every day. Many, if not most, affect the whole of creation. When we make choices as captives of a consumer culture instead of as free children of a beloved Mother Earth, we diminish the dream. Paraphrasing theosophy writer Alice Bailey: “Let Reality govern my every thought, and Truth be the heart of my life. For so it must be for all of humanity. Please help me do ‘my part.’”