Read: Composing a Life, Mary Catherine Bateson

January 12, 2008

I first heard about this book on an end of year gift recommendation list from one of the feminist blogs on my Google reader, and I was immediately intrigued. Bateson is Margaret Mead’s daughter, and in this book she applies her training as a cultural anthropologist to understanding the path of her life and the lives of four of her female friends and colleagues. Her point is that women’s lives have always been built upon multiple commitments and framed by discontinuties, and as such they offer potential models for male and female lives in our time, when even for the most stable and powerful people among us models of single-minded commitment have been proven unproductive and assurances of continuity, professional or personal, rescinded. It was checked out, so I put a hold on it at my library and went about my holiday reading. It was waiting for me when I got back, and a week later I have a page full of copied down quotations and a whole bunch of thoughts.

This book pretty much floored me, and I’m sure I’ll be using its ideas in many future writings, but for now I wanted to share some of those quotations and some of the ways this book connected w/ my thinking on a personal as well as intellectual level. For those of you who know me well, you know that I’ve been spinning my wheels for about a year now as to what my next step should be, and that this has not been something I’ve been able to reduce to a simple decision of what I want to do, what I should do, or what I can do. This book helped me pinpoint a couple of reasons why.

For one thing, as Bateson articulates, I have been obsessed by the ideal of professional continuity. As I’ve told a couple of my friends, my mother’s frequent claim that she still hasn’t figured out what to be when she grows up (she just turned 55), is a source of downright terror for me. No, I say, no. I’ll do anything not to be saying that when I’m her age. I’ll do anything just to know what I’m doing with my life. Or so I thought. How horrified am I now, age 26, within a year of finishing two advanced degrees, to find myself saying basically the same thing. I don’t know what I’m doing next, I don’t know what I want to be let alone what I will be.
I was relieved, then, to find in the opening pages of this book a shared frustration at this prospect of always seeing myself as a work in progress rather than an accomplished, secure whatever already, of always feeling like I’m making it up as I go along. Bateson writes:

“This is a book about life as an improvisatory art… It started from a disgruntled reflection on my own life as a sort of desperate improvisation in which I was constantly trying to make something coherent from conflicting elements to fit rapidly changing settings.”

Oh, you too?  Phew. Further, while for various cultural reasons women have always tended to be jarred from the idealized path of focus on a single professional or creative pursuit by marriage, parenthood, and homemaking, this undecidedness is increasingly a reality for men and women. Yet we find little precedence (at least, precedence that has been expressed) and support for building a life that is built on responding to one’s environment rather than defining one’s purpose and plowing through any environment to pursue it. I felt so many of my anxieties addressed and my concerns affirmed when I read passages such as:

“Much biography of exceptional people is built around the image of a quest, a journey through a timeless landscape toward an end that is specific, even though it is not fully known. The pursuit of a quest is a pilgrim’s progress in which it is essential to resist the transitory contentment of attractive way stations and side roads. […] The model of an ordinary successful life that is held up for young people is one of early decision and commitment… Ambition, we imply, should be focused, and young people worry about whether they are defining their goals and making the right decisions early enough to get on track.”

“These assumptions have not been valid for many of history’s most creative people, and they are increasingly inappropriate today.”

“Many of society’s casualties are men and women who assumed they had chosen a path in life and found that it disappeared in the underbrush.”

“In the academic world, the tenure system still supplies a high degree of security and campuses still project serene images of continuity.” “In effect, the best of our young men and women are educated by faculties deeply committed to continuity. […] When we speak to our children about our own lives, we tend to reshape our pasts to give them an illusory look of purpose. But our children are unlikely to be able to define their goals and then live happily ever after. Instead, they will need to reinvent themselves again and again in response to a changing environment.”

This seems accurate to me. Probably part of the disconnect, and mild abandonment, I felt between myself and my role models (all professors) during my senior year of college had to do the with the fact that both of us knew that their advice might not help me, as much as both of us wanted it to. They could mostly give me advice about going straight into a PhD and working for the tenure track. Having seen many former students find out, often quite painfully, that this model was not going to work for them, they were hesitant to recommend it strongly but had little else to offer. Bummer if you’re a young woman, rather inconveniently in a serious relationship w/ her future husband and the daughter of two out of work parents w/ little financial support to offer, looking for assurance that she will be okay if she keeps doing what she seems to be best at. That assurance is not to be found, for anyone. I was wrong to look for it and they were right not to offer it.

My problem has often come, I think, from seeing my decision not to immediately pursue the PhD as a personal failure rather than an adaptive response. And even if I learn to see it that way, it still leaves my future pursuits and employment quite an open question. So I survived–now what? What is the best way to keep on surviving?

Composing a Life doesn’t have any answers to that, but it does continually affirm the value of defining oneself by threads of belief and skill that transcend job title, geographical location, and marital status. It also affirms staying afloat and making changes when things go wrong, as they inevitably will. From it, I take the courage to hold out in the midst of questions that feel like they will tear me apart rather than fall back on models (commit, commit, commit to one thing right now; narrow your interests so you can focus; pursue one goal singlemindedly) that have partially worked in the past but that don’t seem to fit right now.

All of the women she writes about have won acclaim, held multiple interesting and challenging jobs, and lead creative lives. None of them did this by following the ideal of single-mindedness, largely b/c that was an ideal that was never open to them as women:

“None of us follows a single vision; instead, our very visions are products of growth and adaptation, not fixed but emergent.”

And they have all been very successful! So perhaps it is good news still not to know what I want to be or will be. I’ll try to see it as good news more often, at least.

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