Composing a Life

2017-Mary-Catherine-Bateson-lead-nocolormanageAuthor, linguist, and anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson is interviewed this week by Krista Tippett on the OnBeing podcast. Bateson’s book Composing a Life profoundly influenced me and my teaching of memoir writing in the 1990’s. Now, retired from teaching at George Mason University, she continues to inspire readers with what she calls a life of “active wisdom.”

This is such a lovely interview, giving us insight into her amazing upbringing as the daughter of anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, and her consistent dedication to the life of the mind, and especially to considering what it means to “compose” a life. She sees life as an “improvisatory art.” But still, she suggests, a life lived well is a deliberate act, one that does not operate in default mode, but rather searches for the conditions of living and the habits of mind that allow one to flourish.

She says, “In a stable society, composing a life is somewhat like throwing a pot or building a house in a traditional form: the materials are known, the hands move along familiar tasks, the fit of the completed whole in common life is understood.”

And a bit later in the interview she says, “I like to think of men and women as artists of their own lives, working with what comes to hand through accident or talent to compose and recompose a pattern in time that expresses who they are and what they believe in, making meaning even as they are studying and working and raising children, creating and recreating themselves.”

Creating and recreating themselves. This was a thrilling thing to hear early on a Monday morning in August—an idea I have grappled with for many years; an idea that is the raison d’être of LifeArt Studio. We are all artists of our own lives. How then can we create and recreate our best selves, moment by moment? Each day we get the opportunity to live the hours well, to choose experiences wisely, to offer beneficence where we can—to pursue the good, the true, and the beautiful as we compose our own artful living.

And this week, as I experienced a milestone birthday, I am particularly inspired by Bateson’s notion of “active wisdom,” a term that honors the experience, knowledge, and legacy of people moving into what she very graciously calls “later adulthood.” Bateson, true to the legacy of her own iconic parents, urges us to think of later adulthood as a time of “harvesting a life of learning and thinking and observing.”

And so, to my fellow baby-boomers, I send out best wishes for your own unique forms of composing and harvesting your life. May you go into your “later adulthood” with wisdom, insight, contentment, and gratitude for the amazing life you continue to create.

As someone famous once said, “Rock on!”