For me, it started right around the time I had children.
This insatiable curiosity about how other women do it. What's "it"? Well, you know, this whole modern woman's life thing. There's so many pieces to try to put together: work, love, life . . . And no matter what, they just don't all fit into the nice orderly pattern that my younger self imagined they would.
That's why when a friend of mine told me that she'd just published a piece in an anthology of essays by and about women over 50, I jumped at her offer to sell me a copy. Then - in classic multitasking mode - I zoomed through most of In Our Prime: Empowering Essays by Women on Love, Family, Career, Aging, and Just Coping in one sitting, camped out on the sidelines of my youngest son's soccer practice.
Although I'm still in a different stage of life than most of these women, reading their stories felt like being introduced to a big group of friends of friends: some I loved, some I couldn't relate to, some I was awed by, some my heart hurt for, and a few who turned me off completely.
But mostly, their stories stayed with me.
Elizabeth, coming to terms with the fact that she left a high achieving career track to care for her children, aging parents, sick husband, and recurrent family emergencies, while her old friend, Linda, became president of a major corporation - cashing out with $18 million, prestigious board posts, speaking engagements, and her own children to boot.
Monica, who despite graduating magna cum laude and publishing two award-winning books, finds herself a member of America's "college educated nouveau poor." Married to a man who dutifully works "a habitual job that offers too little to pay the bills," she struggles to care for four children - including a disabled, brain damaged son - while coping with fears of destitution.
Glendal, an African American woman, working through layers and layers of racially-infused hurt and pain under her "got it all together" facade, evolving to a place where she's nonetheless able embrace a positive vision of race - and humanity.
Many, many stories. About work, love, loss, abuse, grief, fear, regret, hope, resilience . . . not to mention aging, appearance, body image, sex and much more. While loosely organized into thematic sections, overall the essays don't offer any single, simple message. While the majority of women have found grace and wisdom through their issues and struggles, some are still groping in the dark. Just like real life, it's an ongoing story. There's no one-size-fits-all ending.
Still, a recurrent set of questions - as well as some answers - weave through the book. As long as basic survival needs have been met, the big questions keep coming up: Who am I, really? How do I manifest my authentic self in the world? What's really important in life? How do I learn to accept - and learn from - pain and disappointment? How do I live a full and meaningful life?
That's why I love hearing other women's stories - each offers an unique prism through which to view our common experience. And listening to older women, who have lived through many, many chapters of life only to find themselves faced with the challenge of aging in a culture hyper-obsessed with youth and beauty, is invaluable.
There are many paths up the mountain. I look to the guides who have come before me for some help in finding some markers as I walk on. Not to mention pausing for a bit of coffee, conversation, and companionship on the way. Because however separated we may often seem, ultimately we're really all in this together.
Nancy Griffin Worssam, ed., In Our Prime: Empowering Essays by Women on Love, Family, Career, Aging, and Just Coping (CreateSpace 2010).