With a bit of luck, fifty can feel a lot like the late twenties: a time to reinvent life.
My fifties are proving fruitful, which is how I found myself talking to Suzanne my assigned mentor from the Woodlands Waterway Art Festival where I have been accepted as one of the emerging artists in this year’s show. It’s a big break and I am so grateful for the support of my mentors.
To “emerge” at fifty-plus is a sobering challenge rooted in the humbling return to square one - like returning to kindergarten after getting a PhD. Because one thing is apparent about my conversation with Suzanne: I don’t know a thing about art festivals. I am having to figure out tents, partitions, hanging systems, parking, cashiering, tagging, certificates of authenticity, packing, transport, framing, collectors, pricing and advertising. And I also have to ask myself whether or not this will be sustainable and for how long?
Suzanne reassured me by telling her own story of emergence and how she figured it all out. She also gave me a precise to-do list and promised that I could call her at any time. I felt relieved, exhilarated and terrified. So did my husband who will be my teammate at the festival (another layer of change; until now my professional life had been exclusively outside our home.)
While I am being mentored, I have my own posse of mentees. Through referrals, I have been assisting four young professionals with career coaching and counseling. All four are in the process of defining their careers and the parallels between their situations and mine are at times striking. All of us are imagining our future, exploring our options, rehearsing our new persona All of us are open to ideas. None of us want to fail.
But there are differences. My remaining professional lifespan is likely to end up being shorter than theirs. For me, there is no time to waste; this is the big gamble. All or nothing. Go bold or go bust.
Absent too is youthful optimism. While I am overjoyed at the bright unfolding of my mentees’ lives, my own is more muted. More than half my peers are content with a retirement speckled with grandchildren and volunteering. I have near-zero opportunities for internship or an entry level job in my new field. But I have advantages: lots of skills, a wide professional network, a safety net. Most importantly I have lots of time now that my children are grown and my family responsibilities fewer.
Which brings me to fact that late emergence is an acutely female phenomenon. Many promising female artists but also athletes, performers and entrepreneurs either disappear from their field or find it difficult to find the time for their art while raising children. Childrearing takes a huge amount of time, energy and money that is never be replaced. And while it is common for women to think that they will return to their creative field in later life, very few actually do or can. Those who dare to try face ageism on top of whatever other steep hill needs to be climbed. This phenomenon has been well documented.
I doubt that systemic solutions will arise from programs and institutions but a first step might be for us, older women, to encourage, mentor and support both younger women and each other.
Our investment in each other can be a conversation or a word of encouragement. Last December, I applied to the Woodlands Waterway Art Festival because Gika, whom I have met just a few times, encouraged me to apply after she read one of my posts on Facebook. Her kindness led me to a new beginning. I am beyond grateful for her help.
March is Women's Month. This is a good time to reach out across generations to mentor and cheer each other on our respective journey. There is a lot to gain on all sides.
Tell me how you are inventing or reinventing your life and who your mentors are. I love hearing from you.