One more thing we need to keep in mind as we consider our sense of place in the second half of life is that, ultimately, it's a moving target. The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously said, "You cannot step twice into the same river, for other waters are continually flowing in."
So, even if we stay in the same place, it's no longer the place it was. We're fooling ourselves to think that we can somehow stay where we are for any length of time. Place is a fluid concept; while it's true that "wherever you go, there you are," it's also true that wherever you are is someplace that's new.
Many people have implicitly expected the place aspect of their later years to be the retirement community, a safe, unchanging environment where nothing bad happens. This may be an attractive picture, but it's quite unrealistic. Nothing ever stays quite the same. At every age and stage in our lives, we need to be adaptable. We will always need to be making adjustments so that the place we are is the place we belong.
This means we need to continually introspect about where we are and what makes us feel a sense of belonging or not. We need to ask ourselves the same questions we asked ourselves as young persons trying to find our place in the world. We need to engage in the same sort of exploration by which we found our home earlier in life to rediscover it later in life. And, if like many people, we never really undertook that exploration back then, but rather just let our home find us, we need to do it all over again for the first time.
Sam Gould and Janet Tyler
Sam and Janet are card-carrying members of the baby boom generation. They are hardly, at this point in their lives, elders in the sense that our parents understood the word. But they are already making changes in their lives and lifestyles that are helping them to plan for and create a purposeful life in the years to come. For them, the focus is surely on the place issue. A new sense of where they belong has emerged out of events over the past few years.
Both Sam and Janet were born in the early fifties, attended college and participated in various protest movements in the sixties, and worked and succeeded at professional jobs in the seventies, eighties, and early nineties. Sam was a lawyer specializing in contract law; Janet was director of development for a major nonprofit organization. "We both made good money, did good work, and for the most part enjoyed what we did," says Sam. "We also raised two boys and sent them off to college," adds Janet. "And we had lots of fun together as a family; we traveled, skied, typical things, that we enjoyed together."
Both Sam and Janet acknowledge that it seems sort of strange to talk about their lives in retrospect in this way. "Our lives aren't over; we're both just in our 50s. I'm still working with my firm; Janet is still doing consulting; we still see our boys pretty regularly. It's just that over the past few years, we've made some transitions that are setting us up for what comes next for us, whatever that is."
When they were first starting out in their careers, Sam and Janet had a plan to "get back to the land," as they call it. "I guess it was sort of the sixties-influenced dream," says Janet. "You know: we would both take these jobs, and make just enough money to leave them and buy a place in the country where we would raise organic vegetables or whatever. It didn't exactly work out that way."
As young adults, both Sam and Janet found they enjoyed their work; the reality of giving up all their education and training to become farmers wasn't as appealing as the dream. Plus, then the kids came along and life got more complicated. There was the issue of schools to consider and then extracurricular activities, friends, girlfriends, the whole thing. Even if they were still fully committed to their original plan, it wouldn't have been very easy on the family to make it happen.
After their second son went off to college, though, things changed a bit. "Sort of by degrees," says Sam, "Janet and I began to reconsider our original idea. Of course it was different now. Now it was more about feeling a more direct connection with nature than it was about being self-sufficient hippie farmers."
So, over the course of a couple years, Sam and Janet found a small place with a few acres of land in a rural part of Washington about three hours from their home in Seattle. They are gradually transitioning to live there full-time. They've sold their house in Seattle and currently, rent a condo in town where Sam stays for the four days a week he spends at his office. Janet joins him there when she has consulting work in town; otherwise, she is out in the country.
"I still plan to be fairly active in my firm for about another ten years," says Sam. "It's not like I've retired. But I have begun to think a lot more these days about life after work. And having a place where I can have nature all around me is something both Janet and I have always wanted. In a way, whenever I'm out there, and even though it's only been a couple years we've had the place, I really feel like I've come home again."
Neither Sam nor Janet has an entirely clear picture of what the second half of life in their new place will be for them. They joke that maybe they'll try their hands at some winemaking. "That seems like a noble profession for a couple of old codgers," says Janet. Sam jokes that he'd rather have a still.
Moreover, neither is entirely sure that their current plan is one that they will stick to. "It seems right for now," says Janet. "And I think probably because it's something we always wanted to try. If we never gave it a go, we'd have always wondered."
Sam and Janet realize that the place they currently feel they belong may not always be the place. But they also realize that continuing to have dreams and pursue them is key to a vital and meaningful second half of life.