Monday, November 28, 2005

A Walk on the Beach: Tales of Wisdom from an Unconventional Woman by Joan Anderson

Isn’t it funny how little accidental meetings turn out to be main features in one’s life.
So muses Joan Anderson as she reflects back on her accidental but momentous meeting with Joan Erickson who, quite literally, steps out of a fog at the Cap Cod shoreline and begins immediately to bring Anderson out of a midlife fog that had seemed impenetrable.

As you may recall, Erik Erikson was a psychoanalyst who studied briefly with Freud in Vienna, and then went on to develop a theory about stages of development in life, and, more importantly, about how identity is formed in these stages. His wife, Joan, was much more than a supportive companion and source of inspiration; she co-authored much of what he wrote, and was especially influential in what they took to be an eighth stage, expanded into a ninth by Joan after Erik died.

But Joan Anderson’s little memoir, A Walk on the Beach, is primarily about the relationship that sprung up between the two women when Anderson literally runs off to the seashore to try to reassemble her life. She is in her early fifties, Joan Erickson in her very vital early nineties. Erickson is there to look after and ease into death her lifetime love and partner Erik, which she does with a devotion and grace that is inspiring to read about.

I should say at once that this is a book about existential discovery, and like many such books, it needs to be understood in context. There is a very real sense in which many, even most, of the world’s inhabitants don’t have time for existential crisis or existential enlightenment. They are simply too busy eking out an existence in this economically cruel and unjust world. Self-help manuals invoking us to take charge of our lives, to become authors of our own destinies, can be downright insulting to people who are quite literally chained by daily necessity. Still, there are plenty of us who live well in the sense that we have enough: enough money and food, adequate shelter, even occasionally enough time. Indeed, we may even have time on our hands and wonder why we do so little with it. This memoir is about two such women; both are privileged in the sense that they do not have to worry about their next meal or their next paycheck. Erickson certainly could retire were she of mind to do so, and Anderson, too, appears to be seeking some sort of internal fulfillment rather than a career.

With that preface in mind, I think the advice that Joan Erikson offers Anderson, and all of us who are troubled by a particular internal angst, is right on the mark, and Erickson lives her advice rather than merely giving it.

Let me back up enough to fill in the setting: Anderson has raised her children, nurtured a long and apparently successful marriage, and even managed a moderately successful career as a writer of children’s books. But somehow in the process, she has lost herself and her vitality for life. She is adrift. Her marriage she sees as stale; her children are successful and into their own lives, and she realizes that she has somehow confused serving with living. Says Erickson, “Having a husband can be such an alibi for a women; in the end she never lives her own life. I believe that a full life needs to be about self-cultivation.” Anderson realizes as she looks back at her own mother, grandmother, aunts, that they “allowed themselves few personal dreams and acted on even fewer.” She realizes that she has learned (from in most ways very good women) this gospel of living through serving. One of Erikson’s first lessons to Anderson is to play more. She applauds Anderson for having already broken one of the rules by taking herself away to the sea, but that is only the beginning. Erickson stresses “The importance of play all the way through life and how we all need to unlearn the rules that are set up for us by others.” Couples, too, she insists forget to play, and forget the necessity of solitude.

So many couples cling to what they have instead of moving on to what could be. You know the poet Rilke had it right when he suggested that the highest task for two people in a relationship is to stand guard over the solitude of the other ... I think our devotion to our routines causes us to lose sight of each other as separate individuals.
Besides (intentionally or otherwise) losing our sense of play, we also forget to sense the world.

We are taught early on to stop sensing the world. Parents say no to their toddlers all the time, when all their child wants to do is sense the world around him. Pity, isn’t it! Overdose on the senses is what I say, all the way through life.
Erickson is especially interested at this time of her life to talk to older people, those who have entered the eighth stage. She is convinced that people give into old age too easily, that they stop really caring for their bodies, stop playing, stop taking risks (both physical and emotional). Though she is certainly not the first to point this out, she insists that older people live too much in the past, too much through others (especially their children). “….we owe it to ourselves to create something out of nothing. It’s a weakness to just sit around and wait for a life to come to you.”

Erickson tells Anderson a little story about having bought a manual typewriter at some point in her life because she was writing a lot of poetry and prose. Erick caught on quickly that Joan and her typewriter could be of service to him; he gave her a letter to type, which she did gladly. But the next day there were three or four letters. This went on for a week, and then Joan simply gave away the typewriter. It was not long, she insists, before “he came to respect my role in my own life as much I respected his.” The little story helps Anderson to realize that she has always confused serving with loving. No wonder, Erickson continues, that so many women look around after their children have gone and wonder who they are and what they want to do.

There is so much practical wisdom in this little book, and she has a special message for us city-dwellers. Erickson is convinced that we have lost touch with nature, and lost touch so thoroughly that we have forgotten what we have lost, forgotten even to seek it out (and to keep our bodies in the shape they need to be in order to really be in nature). She insists that there is no substitute for nature, “without it you are doomed to a dull, lifeless existence.” I read this little book at the ocean, and in that setting, she seemed to be talking directly to me. Both Anderson and Erickson see themselves as giving a kind of summons, “to guide people back to themselves—get them out of the mold. The great loneliness is that most people don’t know who they are.”

Anderson looks in wonder at Erickson as she is celebrating her ninety-fifth birthday, her body finally failing her some, but still vibrant and joyful. “Joan looks around like an expectant child, living in the openness to the wonder of being alive, no matter how much longer.” She is asked by some in the throng who are there to wish her well what she would have to say were this her last day.

Make time for play each day,’ she answered without giving the question a moment’s thought. ‘We’re asses if we don’t. Nobody is going to force you to—no one says go out and play. It’s a shame there is no philosophy of life anywhere that insists on play.’
And what about the ninth stage that Erickson discovers only in her nineties?

I really thought that when you got old you stopped learning: I thought it was a plateau. The fact that each day you learn something new never crossed my mind and that’s fun. So, I advise you to take care of yourself and let yourself grow old.
No doubt, good fortune had a lot to do with Erickson’s vital and joyous life into her nineties, but I have no doubt that her wisdom played a generous role. I have been talking about Joan Anderson’s tribute to Joan Erickson, A Walk on the Beach.

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