March 2016 Articles

U-CURVE: Mawrters in Midlife

By Elizabeth Mosier ’84

In the life stories Bryn Mawr alumnae tell, the word “resume” changes its accent and evolves with age: from the résumé that lands a first job, to the verb for returning to a career path after a pause, to the track record that mentally binds us to our professional titles. With so much experience under your belt, freeing yourself for new pursuits is often difficult, practically and psychologically. But that’s just what Janice Hicks ’80, Suzanne Posner ’83, and Lucinda Ramberg ’84 have done by integrating seemingly disparate interests and repurposing skills to seize opportunities that emerged at midlife.

“My values changed as my interest in spirituality grew,” says Hicks, who taught chemistry at Georgetown University and served as a senior executive at the National Science Foundation. Following a “calamitous” year in which she broke up with her partner, was diagnosed with breast cancer, and moved her mother, who has Alzheimer’s, to assisted living, she made a list of priorities. A vestry member at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., she says: “Spirituality was at the top along with family, and work was pretty far down the list. My own illness, and clearing out my mom’s worldly property, made me see that this material stuff is just taking up valuable time. In the end, love is all that matters.”

Hicks enrolled at Virginia Theological Seminary and found her calling in a summer chaplaincy program at Johns Hopkins Hospital, helping sick people to cope and heal. Coming from scientific culture, she worried about adapting to this intensely social job, until she recalled how much time she’d spent listening—“like ministry”—to colleagues at NSF as co-founder of an employee resource group, LGBT and Allies. Moving from scientist to seminarian, she changed jobs but kept her counseling role as she combined interests: science, religion and diversity. “As I offered spiritual care to people in crisis in east Baltimore,” she says, “patients—some of them ministers in Black churches—blessed me. Some days the work is depleting, but it is also energizing.”

Posner, an award-winning painter and sculptor, always loved art but pursued a more practical career in dentistry. “Though I took a figure drawing class at Bryn Mawr, I didn’t have the personality for taking big risks,” she says. Going solo in her practice—between the births of her two children—was bold but not risky, she says, because she was bolstered by her husband’s income. Paradoxically, it was art that mitigated the danger of losing part of her identity when dual diagnoses of Parkinson’s and Gaucher’s diseases compelled her to sell her practice. “Art made retiring from dentistry so much easier because I had a second career,” she says. “I still introduce myself as Dr. Posner—I’ve earned the title through training and work—but I don’t list my past practice on my current résum. I loved working with my patients, and I’m proud of what I accomplished, but I wasn’t doing anything that another dentist couldn’t do. I want to be known as a stone sculptor.”

Posner’s equanimity originates in her easygoing personality, honed by the real risks she faces daily as she lives and works in this daunting medium. Medication manages her symptoms as she sculpts in her home studio or at the Cumberland School in Great Neck, New York, where she teaches stone sculpting two days a week. She offers her students artistic advice with practical applications to life: “If you make a mistake or you break off a piece of stone you hadn’t intended to lose, it isn’t a tragedy,” she says. “You just dig deeper and your piece will be more interesting.”

Researchers who study life satisfaction propose that, as we age and our time horizons grow shorter, we see our priorities most clearly and invest our time in people and pursuits that are emotionally important to us.1

For Ramberg, now an anthropologist after decades of anti-violence work as a community organizer and educator, that meant finally pursuing a Ph.D. Her mother’s death at 54, just after Lucinda finished a master’s in theology focusing on ethics, was formative. “I learned feminism at my mother’s kitchen table,” she says. “It took me a while to get my feet after that. But surviving her death gave me more life courage to do what I had always wanted to do. The worst thing had already happened, so why not take a risk?” Ramberg had started working on issues of racial and economic justice, doing legal advocacy for women imprisoned at Riker’s Island—and her bold move to UC Berkeley reflected new confidence and stronger belief in the value of her ideas. “For years, I felt so behind—I was in grad school until I was 43! I couldn’t see that all these things were adding up to something. But by the time I began to conduct research for my dissertation, I realized that there was no way I could have been doing that project without everything I’d done before then.”

Nor could she have written her praise-worthy, prize-winning book, Given to the Goddess: South Indian Devadasis and the Sexuality of Religion, an ethnography of a contemporary practice in which girls are married to a goddess. Currently assistant professor of anthropology and feminist, gender, and sexuality studies at Cornell University, she says: “It’s not easy to be in your 50s and on the tenure track. On the other hand, I don’t sweat the small stuff and my authority isn’t challenged in the way that junior women’s authority often is. I’m older; I have more gravitas.”

Ramberg’s revelation came after she understood that her interest in asking questions is a valid intellectual approach. Whether the journey is spiritual, artistic, or intellectual, these Mawrters continue questioning as they travel a lifelong learning curve.

 

1   Carstensen, L.L., Turan, B., Scheibe, S., Ram, N., Ersner-Hershfield, H., Samanez-Larkin, G.R., Brooks, K.P., & Nesselroade, J.R. (2011). “Emotional experience improves with age: Evidence based on over 10 years of experience sampling.” Psychology and Aging, 26, 21-33.

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