I have been in the habit of reading obituaries for a long time. The practice has given me glimpses into lives well-lived of both the famous and not-so-famous. My recent studies in the field of aging have also flavored the way I read these snapshots of life.
Educational sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot in writing about changes people undergo as they age says this:
“The developmental terrain grows more layered; patience trumps speed; restraint trumps ambition; wisdom trumps IQ; ‘leaving a legacy’ trumps ‘making our mark;’ and a bit of humor saves us all.” (Third Chapter, 2009)
The most interesting people in the obituary column are usually, but not always, those who left legacies as opposed to making marks. The more appealing aspects of the life of a retired federal lawyer who held many important posts, for example, were his volunteer activity at a middle school teaching young adolescents the game of chess or his trips to the beach with just him and his grandkids.
Recently, however, I came across the obituary of a famous person who both made a mark and left a legacy. The headline for the article about the death of James Tate read: “A poet of the ordinary and the extraordinary.”
The opening paragraph described him this way:
“James Tate, who planned to be a gas station attendant but changed course in college when he discovered that he could write poetry, the art form that occupied him for the rest of his life and for which he received the highest honors in American letters, died July 8, in Springfield, Mass. He was 71.” (Emily Langer, Washington Post, July 11, 2015)
How could I not keep reading?
He wrote more than 20 collections of poetry, won a National Book Award, and was the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize and the William Carlos Williams Award. Certainly this man made his mark.
But as I read the poetry excerpted in the article and then turned to the internet to find more, I realized that with his topics and his approach to life, he had also left a significant legacy. In describing his work, poets and critics had trouble putting him in a specific box.
“A consensus among admirers,” noted the article, “was that he had an unusual ability to merge the extraordinary and the ordinary, the dark and the funny.”
In an earlier interview with Charles Simic for the Paris Review, Tate described the way he would start a poem with “something seemingly frivolous or inconsequential,” and slowly build in gravity to end in “something very serious.”
A poem that captures this spirit is “The Wedding.” The initial descriptions of the bride and groom are whimsical and charming, leaving me unprepared for the thoughtful conclusion.
really cares about such special days, they
are not what we live for.”
The last lines have stayed with me since I read them. The importance of special days may, I think, be their role as markers in our lives: who we were before marriage, and who we became after marriage; who we were before a child came into our lives, and who we became after, among others.
Churches help people mark special days with sacraments, liturgies, and celebrations. We’ve created liturgy for young people when they get a driver’s license, graduate from high school, or leave home. For many, these are followed by the sacraments of marriage and baptism for children.
The special days seem to fall off as people grow older—the only one remaining after those early celebrations for most is the rite of burial. What are the special days in between young adulthood and old age that allow people to mark their lives? Where can they compare the befores and afters in this time span to find meaning?
Perhaps the church needs to be more creative in how it looks at adults, especially since people are living a lot longer. Maybe we need rites of passage for special days that mark adult lives long after their graduations, marriages or childbearing, such as having a child leave for college, or the start of a second career, or the onset of retirement, among others. Without markers, events during those busy decades of adulthood tend to blur together.
Even if special days “are not what we live for,” they provide the markers that help us remember who we were and what we have become. Let’s find a way to add a few liturgies or celebrations in adulthood to deepen our understanding of both the past and the future.
Dorothy Linthicum (@dslinthicum), Program Coordinator, Center for the Ministry of Teaching
A new resource from LifeLongFaith Associates, The Seasons of Adult Faith Formation, edited by John Roberto, is now available. It calls for every church “to commit itself to developing faith formation for every season of adulthood.” Dorothy Linthicum contributed a chapter about older adulthood. Her CMT colleague Kyle Oliver, also on the writing team, wrote about young adulthood.