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A New Stretch of the River

Learning to Age with New Openness in Our Hearts and Minds

Mary Pipher

There are many lifetimes in a lifetime. I was born in the Ozarks in 1947 to parents who were just returning home from serving in the Navy during World War II. That puts me on the leading cusp of the Baby Boomer generation. I grew up in Beaver City, Nebraska, where my mother worked as the town’s doctor. I was the oldest child in a big family. We lived on the edge of town, and I spent my days reading or playing by Beaver Creek.

As a teenager, I was a socially inept, gawky girl. I went to the Methodist Church, where I earnestly signed a pledge never to drink, swear, smoke, or have sex outside of marriage. On my red record player, I played Broadway musicals, such as Camelot, South Pacific, and Flower Drum Song. Later, in high school, I listened to Dave Brubeck and Stan Getz and yearned for the day I could forever escape the Midwest.

After high school, I attended the University of California at Berkeley, during a time when it was a beacon for freedom and exploration of all kinds. My brother lived in San Francisco, and we saw the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin in Golden Gate Park and at the Fillmore and Avalon. I took classes in Tarot reading and “Howling at the Moon” at the People’s Free University.

Since then, I’ve experienced other lifetimes, all in Nebraska—as a graduate student in psychology, as a mother of young children, and as the wife of Jim, a psychologist and musician. I’ve worked as a therapist, writer, and speaker. For the last 15 years, I’ve experienced the great privilege of being a grandmother with my five grandchildren living nearby.

There’s continuity among all these lives. I’ve always loved to be around family and close friends, to be outdoors, to take long walks, to swim, and to look at the sky. Ever since I was young, I’ve found comfort in reading, and I’ve always liked to take care of people and animals.

But I can also see great discontinuities. I can barely remember the girl who owned lacy baby-doll pajamas, danced the twist, and read her white leather Bible before turning out the lights and listening to KOMA. The young psychologist who scraped together money to buy an expensive suit for legal work feels like a stranger.

We boomers were children in the ’50s, teenagers in the ’60s, and college-age at the height of the Vietnam War. Now we’re in a new century, traveling down a new stretch of the river, aware of how vulnerable everything is, including ourselves.

We’re Getting Old

I always write about what I most want to learn, and, right now, I want to understand the implications of being a 70-year-old woman in this ageist and death-denying culture. I’m a sister, wife, mother, and grandmother. I’ve taught women’s studies, seen mostly women in therapy, and written about women. Much of what I explore applies to men, but I don’t claim great expertise on their developmental experiences.

The only constant in the universe is change. The one thing we can predict about our own lives is that they’ll be unpredictable. In this life stage, we’ll be beset by internal and external crises. If we’re like most of our peers, we’ll lose friends and family members. And, at least in small ways, our bodies will begin to betray us.

As we age, our bodies and relationships change, and the pace of change accelerates. At 70, we’re unlikely to be able to function as we did in our 50s. We require fresh visions, better navigational skills, and new paradigms for framing our experiences. What worked yesterday will not be sufficient for tomorrow.

Change may be gradual, but our realization of it comes in bursts. Ava’s watershed moment came when she was purchasing a ticket to the Chicago Art Institute. The young man at the desk asked her if she wanted the senior citizen discount. That wasn’t the usual response of men to Ava! She was a curvaceous brunette, who’d always been sexually appealing to men. How could this man see her as a senior citizen?

On one level, of course, she knew she was 65, but at the same time, she still saw herself as a gorgeous woman in her 30s. Her husband and many of the men she knew still treated her this way. It was strangers and newcomers who somehow couldn’t see the 30-year-old Ava. She was now completely invisible. She didn’t miss the catcalls as she walked down the street, but she didn’t like being erased.

The young man’s remark knocked her back a step. She put her hand to her heart and waited for her breath to return. Then she said that she wanted the discount.

There’s no one woman who can represent all of us. We’re partnered and single, healthy and infirm, and contented and miserable. Women our age vary by race, cultural background, employment, socioeconomic status, geographic region, and sexual preferences. Likewise, we range from women who are full-time caregivers to those who have no such responsibilities. We differ in our access to resources such as nearby family, a life partner, close women friends, a safe and connected community, affordable medical care, exercise facilities, and cultural opportunities. We vary in the amount of emotional and physical pain we’re suffering and in the amount of resilience we can summon. Some women seem hard to lift up, and others are impossible to keep down. Most of us exist between those extremes. We’re resilient on some days but not others. We recover quickly from one kind of stress, but struggle to bounce back after another. What we share is the distance we’ve traveled.

A developmental perspective on our 60s and 70s allows for a new openness in our hearts and minds. When we limit our belief in our own potential to grow, we also limit our incentive to grow. With the mindset that abilities, talents, and skills can be developed, every place we go becomes our school, and every person we meet becomes our teacher. The challenges and joys of this stage can be catalytic. If we stay awake and keep growing, we can see the love in our friends’ faces, taste the rain, and hear the song of the meadowlarks. We can do this even when we’re walking out of a funeral or in pain from arthritis.


Resilience isn’t a fixed trait, but instead can be learned in the same ways we learn to cook, drive, or do yoga. Growth doesn’t just happen. Some women remain locked in their smallest selves, cosseted by blankets of familiar but outdated ideas. Others wither emotionally over time and deal with life’s many body blows by becoming more isolated and self-involved.

As Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach, an Austrian novelist, wrote, “Old age transfigures or fossilizes.” We all have encountered someone who complains constantly, is critical of others, and is unskilled in self-awareness. Sometimes we are these women. We all get grouchy, blue, and make uninspired choices. We all lose battles with our appetites and impulses. However, it’s never too late for us to do better.

We can grow in moral imagination. This increased capacity for empathy comes from our own suffering and our witness of suffering. Pain drives us deeper and makes us kinder. It also toughens us up. We can learn to withstand the roughest of currents. We can be profiles in courage. This is not a theoretical point; I’ve seen this growth happen to my clients, my friends, and my family members.

All life stages present us with joys and miseries. Fate and circumstance influence which stage is hardest for any given individual, but attitude and intentionality are the governors of the process. This journey can be redemptive if we find ways to grow from the struggles our stage offers us. Just as adolescents must find their North Stars to guide them, so must we elders maintain clarity about the kind of people we want to be.

When transitions happen and identities change, one of our great challenges is to find a new sense of meaning and purpose in our lives. That sounds simple, but it isn’t easy. As my brother John observed when he was forced to retire for health reasons, “You can’t just go out and buy a pound of purpose.”

John was exactly right. We construct meaning when we choose what to do, how to help, and what stories to tell ourselves. Of course, in times of stress and change, even the busiest of us may want to luxuriate in sleeping in, coffees with our best friend, or watching movies any time of day. It’s a question of balance and contrast. We do best when we learn how to have both work and rest in our lives.

Our development is fueled by the need to adapt to new circumstances. Time passes so quickly that our lives feel as fading as jet contrails. We’re constantly engaged in a process of reflecting and problem solving. We ask questions such as, Now that I have time to travel, what do I want to do? Since my best friend moved to Arizona, whom do I call for a movie date? With my bad back, how do I carry in 30-pound containers of bird seed?

Simultaneously, we explore the largest of questions. Did I make good use of my time and my talents? Am I now? Was I loving? Am I now? Was I loved? Am I now? What is my place in the universe?

Many of us can describe our lives in both/and terms. In fact, that combination of suffering and happiness is what defines this life stage and fuels our growth. Suffering gives us empathy, while happiness gives us hope and energy. The contradictions of this life stage make it a portal for expanding our souls.

One of the great paradoxes of this life stage is that we experience not only the largest number of catastrophes, but also the highest well-being. Our contentment comes from acceptance of life as it is. Wisdom compensates for our travails. We can navigate the river’s snags, logjams, and downpours with competence and confidence. We can explore the mysteries along the shores of time. We can help each other travel down this river...


Read a larger excerpt here in "A New Stretch of the River," by Mary Sykes Wylie. The full version is available in the March/April 2018 issue, A Gift of Time? Facing the Challenges and New Possibilities of Aging.

This blog was adapted from the forthcoming book Women Rowing North: Navigating the Developmental Challenges of Aging to be published by Bloomsbury Publishing in January 2019.

Illustration © IllustrationSource.com/Cost

Topic: Aging

Tags: 2018 | Aging | community | death | empathy | getting old | grief | grief and loss | grieving | grieving process | happiness | kindness | loss | love | Mary Pipher | positive aging | skills | stress | stress anxiety | women

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Wednesday, July 8, 2020 5:58:37 PM | posted by Jennifer K Pietrzak
Beloved Mary! I was a few paragraphs in when I thought, "this life story sounds familiar!" So i scrolled back up to see that dear Mary Pipher had written it and I exclaimed out loud. I'm so grateful for Mary Pipher's insights, her way of describing life in words, and her spirit. I've benefited from her books since the 90s, when I first became a therapist and am currently reading "Women Rowing North." Thank you for this article and for your lifetime of work.

Sunday, June 24, 2018 8:03:09 AM | posted by marcia richman
It is so hard knowing who we are and when we are at every stage of life as it happens. Numbers, decades, do not seem to denote "me" rather they refer to "them" and "then" and are not real--just words on paper or spoken. 70 is hard--every age is hard. This time, this place, these people..

Saturday, April 7, 2018 5:38:37 PM | posted by Bridget C. Cantrell, Ph.D.
This is so touching. I am sitting here in tears listening and feeling every breath of her words, which describes so many of us as we enter this new phase of our lives. This is beautifully written and really strikes a chord. We, "The Boomers" grew up in a very interesting time, where new territory was forged and life transitions were new and exciting. We lost many of our loved ones to the Vietnam War, our friends and families to AIDS, leaving holes in our hearts. Many of us broke away from the stereotypes of previous generations but we still honored and cherished those who came before us. Life passes us by so quickly and now as we stand at the river's edge, it is time to reflect on our triumphs and our defeats. It time to walk a new path of meaning and purpose which will continue to bring our souls alive. This is quite thought provoking to me.