I’ve written two novels, both of which have been labeled “coming-of-age.” This got me thinking — why is this theme so compelling and what, actually, does it mean to come of age? The dictionary defines coming-of-age as the attainment of prominence, respectability, and maturity. In my novels, the protagonists, Gemma and Grace, set out to find answers to the questions that haunt them. They reach maturity when the they accept the truths they uncover and move forward with their lives. And that’s where their stories end. For those of us who live, not in the pages of a book, but in the real world, coming-of-age is an on-going process, one we will repeat again and again throughout our lives.
Marrying at twenty was, for me, the beginning of my first coming-of-age story. It was in that shabby apartment in Bridgeport, Connecticut that I began to act like a grown-up; to wash the dishes and make my bed, take the bus to work and buy groceries. I did not, alas, learn to cook, though I made a stab at it with the help of Shake n’ Bake and frozen French fries. It wasn’t until that marriage ended, however, that I truly took charge of my own affairs.
Moving on from that relationship, I came of age as a single woman. I secured housing I could afford, paid off my college loans, and began a new relationship. I continued to mature as a professional, taking summer courses and workshops and benefitting greatly from the mentorship of my colleagues.
After seven years at a small rural school in Vermont, I secured a position in a large, suburban institution near Burlington with progressive leadership and seasoned professionals. It was here that I came of age as a teacher. I joined with like-minded colleagues to create multi-age communities in which children learned experientially, expressed themselves creatively, and assumed responsibility for their behavior. Many years into my career, I earned a master’s degree which expanded my knowledge of curriculum and where my skills as a writer were first recognized and encouraged.
By this time, I was married again. The heady first years of the relationship passed quickly and soon the reality of our busy, stressful lives set in. Often, our wants and desires diverged. Consumed by our respective jobs, we lost touch and turned to others in search of the spark and intensity we’d lost. With the relationship on the brink of dissolution, we sought and found the help we needed to save our marriage. We came of age as partners, committed to facing our difficulties and seeking solutions to our problems. We learned to appreciate our marriage as a crucible for personal growth.
When I retired, I felt stripped of the identity that had defined and sustained me for thirty-three years. What would I become in this next phase of my life? I found the answer by straddling two worlds. I spent a month in the National Writing Project, then took a position as tutor in a small private school. Here, I was regarded with a mix of wariness and wonder — a public school teacher who knew nothing about Steiner or Waldorf, but a great deal about teaching reading, working with parents, and earning the respect and affection of kids.
After four years at the school, I left to write my first novel. I knew nothing about writing a novel, a fact I considered a prerequisite for taking the plunge. Learning by doing has always been my overarching educational belief; until you’ve done something, you can’t know how to do it.
In the ensuing decade, I’ve discovered that writing is more than telling a story; it’s telling my story. Whether writing fiction or non-fiction, the story comes from deep within the writer, shaped by our emotions, experiences, and beliefs. I’ve learned a lot about myself from my writing, but I have yet to come of age as a writer.
Now, heading into my mid-seventies and contemplating a move to a senior housing community, I am coming of age as an old person. How will I navigate the challenges of old age and ready myself for the great mystery of death? What does it mean to make the most of the years one has left? With memories of the past rising unbidden into my consciousness, it’s inevitable that reminiscing is on my Old Age To Do List. Beyond that, though, there’s the care of my aging body and mind, the chance to cultivate new relationships in a new environment, maybe even gaze once again at Donatello’s David or sit surrounded by Monet’s water lilies.
Who knows? There might even be time to come of age in patience and gratitude. I’m working on it.