The columnist David Broder gobsmacked me this week with these words:

There used to be four common life phases: childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age. Now, there are at least six: childhood, adolescence, odyssey, adulthood, active retirement and old age. Of the new ones, the least understood is odyssey, the decade of wandering that frequently occurs between adolescence and adulthood.

Odyssey! There’s a new stage of life called odyssey?

You may have heard others call this stage “emerging adulthood.”

According to Broder, the “odyssey” label refers to a decade of time and to ceaseless searching without settling down. He points out that a huge shift has taken place around the old markers of adulthood — marriage, children, and independent living.

In 1960, roughly 70 percent of 30-year-olds had achieved these things. By 2000, fewer than 40 percent of 30-year-olds had done the same.

But, hmm, “odyssey.” That word could be used for almost any life stage.

Having taught Homer’s classic text for many years, I’ve always carried a little of Ulysses, Penelope, Telemachus, and Mentor (Athena) in my heart.

Like Tennyson, I have thought back to Ulysses after passing from one stage in life to another. These words, especially, have flooded my mind often:

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.
Selçuk, Turkey, ruins offer arches around every corner. Temple of Hadrian.

Arch of experience. Selçuk, Turkey. This one is from the Temple of the Roman emperor Hadrian. From our 2012 odyssey to Turkey and Greece.

How much do names matter?

For example, “odyssey” fits the other new stage, the one Broder calls “active retirement” very well also.

I’ve already begun to explore two other names for the new elder stage: Jubilación, and The Third Act. None of the names are perfect.

What is exciting, however, is that so many people are feeling the possibilities in this new stage of life. Spiritual directors, life coaches, and life planning gurus are urging us to become intentional about making the best of the 30+ years many will get to experience.

One of the best books ever written on the subject of aging, Helen Luke’s Old Age: Journey into Simplicity, offers a brilliant insight into how The Odyssey instructs us through the character of the blind prophet Teiresias. In the middle of the book,Teiresias gives Ulysses instructions about what to do when he returns home: plant an oar, symbol of his wanderings, in a place where people have never seen the sea.

In contrast, Tennyson’s old Ulysses sets off on a new adventure:

for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
Stirring as these words are, they strike me as less wise than Luke’s picture of a chastened warrior who has learned to integrate the feminine and masculine sides of himself and is ready for a final challenge of being rather than doing.
We are ready to revisit David Broder’s name “odyssey” for the young adulthood stage and to see a connection to the elder Ulysses that Teirisias foretells and Helen Luke describes.

When Ulysses plants an oar in an unknown place, a tree of hope springs up. The young will look upon the tree and begin to ask questions about the journeys they themselves have yet to undertake. Ulysses will tell his story, one of the greatest stories of all time.

What do you think might arise out of a tree of hope as described above? Do you know of any odyssey stories of youth connected to  old age that stir your spirit?

Shirley Showalter

42 Comments

  1. Laurie Buchanan on March 23, 2016 at 3:10 pm

    Shirley – I have been intrigued every since you introduced your term — Jubilación — as a new name for one of the “elder stages.” To me, it points to joy and celebration.

    It’s been said that our last shirt has no pockets (nothing to weigh us down). That’s how the term “Jubilación” feels — light, airy, and freeing.

    • Shirley Showalter on March 23, 2016 at 8:27 pm

      Thanks for voting for “Jubilación.” I’m hanging on to it!

      I love the image that the last shirt has no pockets.

      You have a treasure trove of sayings like that in your heart, Laurie. They help you take yourself lightly. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Richard Gilbert on March 23, 2016 at 4:31 pm

    Much to feast on here, Shirley. You are a model of active retirement, from what I can see. I’d love to read more of your thoughts any time on how you view your travels to so many interesting places. For instance, I really want to go to Cuba because of you. I told my wife and she’s game. But I am unsure how to think about such a journey, honestly. I suppose one learns, things that can’t be easily summarized. And stocks up memories for when one can’t go anymore?

    • Shirley Showalter on March 23, 2016 at 8:37 pm

      Richard, you and Kathy would love visiting Cuba. I encourage you to talk with Jennie Cressman here: http://www.jennicacuba.com/ She’s experienced, helpful, non-intrusive and knows how to keep costs down and quality high.

      And yes, it’s hard to put in words why we go and what we’ve learned. Blogging is the perfect place for such musing. I hope you go on an Odyssey and then come back and plant an oar.

      • Richard Gilbert on March 23, 2016 at 8:48 pm

        Thanks for the Cuba contact, Shirley. Maybe next winter . . .

        • Janet Givens on March 24, 2016 at 11:52 am

          Richard, hello (via Shirley). I’ve been in touch with Jenni and am looking forward to a trip also next winter, along with some extra bikes we no longer need. I’m hoping to go close to the holidays. Perhaps we’ll meet.

          • Shirley Showalter on March 24, 2016 at 11:56 am

            How cool would that be?



  3. Elfrieda Neufeld Schroeder on March 23, 2016 at 4:50 pm

    Shirley, I just wrote a birthday greeting to a friend who turned 80. In part, I wrote: “Isn’t it wonderful, how, at our age, we can look back at our lives, see the story that we lived and share it with others? When you turned 70, I couldn’t believe I had a friend that old, but now that you are 80 and I am also ten years older than I was at that time, it doesn’t seem all that amazing anymore…We who are in our 70’s and 80’s are the privileged survivors who need to share the adventures we have experiencded…”

    • Shirley Showalter on March 23, 2016 at 8:44 pm

      You said it perfectly, Elfrieda! I think you must have read my mind: “We who are in our 70’s and 80’s are the privileged survivors who need to share the adventures we have experienced…”

      I’m not in my 70’s yet, but I can already sense the transformation beginning. I’ve been a mentor all my adult life, but I sense more to give in this stage than ever before. You do too!

  4. marian beaman on March 23, 2016 at 7:38 pm

    Your avid followers and I seem to be taking a course in Discoveries of Thoughtful Adulthood here. So rich! A phase I didn’t see coming is the wandering/odyssey following a fulfilling professional life, where I experimented with Rosetta Stone French and savored time to read more. French language learning has stalled, but I’ve found joy as I’ve settled into the writing life of my Third Act.

    Mary Gottschalk sheds light on one aspect of the larger discussion in her recent post: http://marycgottschalk.com/leaning-in-to-old-age/

    • Shirley Showalter on March 23, 2016 at 8:49 pm

      Ah Madame Beaman, comment t’allez vous? It’s interesting that you chose Rosetta Stone French as one of your first post-retirement challenges. My sister-in-law did the same with Spanish. Power to you both.

      You have definitely turned your golden years into a way to connect to younger people through your written stories. You are creating a great legacy and building a strong readership. Can’t wait to see your first book.

      Thanks for bringing Mary’s blog into this space. I’m off to explore. Mary and I have some overlapping interests right now.

  5. Shirley B Yoder on March 24, 2016 at 10:25 am

    Planting an ore where no one has seen the sea is such an evocative image for me. I must ponder that one for a while.

    • Shirley Showalter on March 24, 2016 at 11:20 am

      You are one of the few friends I have who actually grew up within the siren’s sound of the sea. I highly recommend the Helen Luke book. Glad to know that the image has made a home in you.

      • Shirley on March 25, 2016 at 11:06 am

        This subject on new names for life stages has become quite lofty. Maybe it is time for a bit of humor. Just this week I received a timely post on Facebook that went somewhat like this: We senior citizens should be called “Seenagers” because we finally have most of the things we wanted when we were teens:

        * a pad of our own
        * a car of our choice
        * lots of drugs
        * can stay out all night
        * can stay in bed all day
        * take road trips with no destination in mind
        * have sex without worry of pregnancy
        * People ask us for money and not the other way around!

        • Shirley Showalter on March 25, 2016 at 1:57 pm

          🙂

  6. Mary Gottschalk on March 24, 2016 at 10:27 am

    Shirley

    Overlapping interests indeed! Our conversation over breakfast with Carol was an inspiration for the day, and contributed in no small measure to getting my blog on old age written, as well as to seeing my way through to the speech I have to do. The discussion on jubilacion opened a door on a new way of looking at aging, but I think I lean to Odyssey … the stage of wandering and being open to whatever comes your way.

    • Shirley Showalter on March 24, 2016 at 11:26 am

      Yes, Mary. And your blog includes the same tension between Tennyson/Thomas on the one hand (fight, fight, fight) and Epicuras/Luke on the other (let go, be, savor).

      Thinking about how Jubilación can allow for both: within daily rhythm, consecutively through time as our bodies allow less, and simultaneously as we plan odysseys (travel) and rest periods before and after. Much to chew on . . .

  7. Joan Z. Rough on March 24, 2016 at 11:59 am

    Wow, another thought provoker. And I love the planting the oar image. I have been feeling quite burned out of late from the process of getting my book into production. But you post this morning makes me think it’s a oar that young people might need to read as they age themselves and begin caring for their elders. Thanks, Shirley, for helping get me back on track!

    • Shirley Showalter on March 24, 2016 at 12:03 pm

      Yes, Joan, your memoir about caring for and forgiving your difficult mother will indeed be an “oar” planted in fertile soil. So many millions of us will both be caretakers and need care in the near future. Our stories become trees of hope for younger generations. Your work is important. Now just savor. 🙂

  8. Janet Givens on March 24, 2016 at 12:13 pm

    Hi Shirley, I’m struggling to get my head around Broder’s new stages of life. His Odyssey I can relate to, having seen it in both my sons (though at the time I connected it to the economy). It’s his “active retirement” one that troubles me. So, thank you for adding another Odyssey stage. But, I’m still troubled. I hate the word retirement, that’s first. Am I in denial? Possibly, but let’s set that aside. I look at my mother, 19 years my senior, who is looking forward to joining the Peace Corps. She feels she still has much to offer, and there is no upper age limit for PCVs, you know. Can two generations be in the same stage? It’s the labeling I guess I’m chaffing at. I’m 67. My hips don’t work well so horses are out for me, but I just rode nine miles on a bike, after years of not biking at all. I’m sure if I stuck with it I’d go much farther I take pills I never used to take, but I don’t feel different (probably because of said pills) than I did twenty years ago. But, emptying my pockets: that’s the stage I relate to. Lightening my load, sharing my bounty, leaving a legacy. Those things interest me, energize me.

    Thank you for another provocative post. You always get me thinking (and writing). Sure you don’t want to move closer? I’d come over for coffee (oh yes, I forgot. I can’t drink coffee anymore). OK, back to work.

    • Shirley Showalter on March 24, 2016 at 1:16 pm

      Janet, you made me chuckle about the coffee klatch without the coffee. But I would love to have whatever you are having.

      Two twists. One on the young Odyssey stage and its possible relationship to the current economy. Yes. I am sure there is a relationship. Like Broder says, no corporations are offering lifetime, secure, employment anymore. But the other choices like marriage and children seem less like economic choices than like fear of something. We used to call it fear of commitment. Not sure that’s the best word either.

      As for the stage we are in and what to call it. . . . I agree that the word retirement does not work. Your mother is living proof! Can’t wait to hear about her adventures . . . and to feel young reading about them. Thanks to you, of course. Clink go the coffee cups.

      • Janet Givens on March 26, 2016 at 12:36 pm

        Hi Shirley

        Enjoying my afternoon tea and pondering the old “fear of commitment” idea. For me, I didn’t see that as much as an inability to get a foot in the (economic) door. How much harder it was to buy a house, how much longer it took to pay off school debt. Taking a bit longer to figure out where one fit (the odyssey, again) — all tied in my mind to an economy that was exclusionary, rather than inclusionary. (Are they words?). I’m off in a bit to track down Easter bunny paraphernalia — an unexpected visit here in Chincoteague with son Jon and family. I have 8 hours to get ready. And yes, both boys now own their own homes and have families. And a lot more debt than either of their parents at their age.

        • Shirley Showalter on March 26, 2016 at 3:10 pm

          Happy Easter!

  9. Audrey D. on March 24, 2016 at 12:37 pm

    Love the term “Odyssey” for “emerging adulthood”. As in the Greek tales, a risk for the young person can be to stay far too long listening to the song of the Sirens falling soon under their spell; or be threatened by the Cyclopses of our ambition and never return to land on a choice for our first stage of adult life.

    We are certainly fortunate to be living in a time where we are exploring new ways to envision and name our expanded lifetime. Active retirement may well be a precise definition of that phase for most. However, for me, it lacks the energy of name I learned some years ago, that is “refirement.” Refirement has energy and passion attached to it. It brings to mind coals that have gone cold but if our breath is blown on them the fire returns. Many times we return at this stage to passions (perhaps discovered during the earlier Odyssey journey) to meet more practical realities. I often think of travel (thinking here of your New Zealand trip) as ways we create a break from our routine life for a revived Odyssey (to use this new term for me) and find inspiration which nudges life back in.
    Thank you for your post.

    • Shirley Showalter on March 24, 2016 at 1:50 pm

      Audrey, you have described well how the Greek text fits current social realities for young people. The story has always described the perils and ambitions of youth. But now the ropes holding Ulysses to the rail of his ship have been loosened, and he is held in thrall much longer than before. He does eventually come through, however!

      You propose a word that I too have read about and like — better than “retirement” but not as much as “Jubilación.” Refirement.

      Best thing about that term is the connection between past, present, and future. I really like your words: “Many times we return at this stage to passions (perhaps discovered during the earlier Odyssey journey).” Yes! We do get to revisit old loves and go down some roads not taken earlier also.

      Are you in “refirement”? Planning for it? As I continue this theme, I hope to learn even more about you.

      • Audrey Denecke on March 26, 2016 at 11:44 am

        Yes I consider myself in a “refirement” phase of life. I am past traditional retirement age. Yet, I continue to work as a leader coach (corporate and NFP) with an international firm at a half time level. Coaching is a passion of mine;often working with mid to late stage leaders. And at times our work moves into transformational (and at its’ essence spiritual) territory. And I have capacity and time with this schedule to attend to my own refirement. Writing is becoming a key vehicle. Thank you for your question.

        • Shirley Showalter on March 26, 2016 at 3:08 pm

          Wonderful! Stay tuned as we continue to walk this exciting journey. Sounds like you have lots of stimulation yet more time to explore new options. Perfect!

  10. Merril Smith on March 24, 2016 at 12:56 pm

    Like Janet, I think I, too, chafe at labels, but you got me thinking, too. And in that weird synchronicity thing, I just opened a fortune cookie to find this message: “Accept no other definition of your life, accept only your own.” I seem to be receiving pithy bits of wisdom in fortune cookies this week. 🙂

    I think life itself is an odyssey, and at every stage you are taking some sort of journey. Right now, I have a muse who is taking me on a creative journey in poetry. I connected with my daughter yesterday when she described a similar feeling with her art. Then my mom, who is an artist, told me she wrote poetry when she was a teen–something I never knew.

    • Shirley Showalter on March 24, 2016 at 1:20 pm

      “I think life itself is an odyssey, and at every stage you are taking some sort of journey.” Yes! And the classic text works because we can be so many archetypal characters, different ones, along the way. And in the case of Ulysses, we can move from one set of obstacles to another and know that we will at last reach home.

      “Sing in me muse, and through me tell the story,” the first words of The Odyssey, apply to you and to your creative family right now.
      Thanks for contributing to the synchronicity here today, Merril.

  11. Dolores Nice-Siegenthaler on March 24, 2016 at 1:36 pm

    I really appreciate your linking Spiritual Direction into the conversation.

    AS one who practices Spiritual Direction, I find that making time for conversations to discern the inner prompting and movement of Spirit is an important way to grow and unfold in all stages of life.

    I agree, all stages are odysseys!

    • Shirley Showalter on March 24, 2016 at 1:53 pm

      Thank you so much, Dolores. I hope you clicked on the link and found Marlene Kropf’s essay? I know you’ll enjoy it also.

      Spiritual direction has helped me in many stages of my life and is doing so again. I will be writing soon about my trip to Iona, Durham, and Lindisfarne, guided by my spiritual director. Stay tuned!

      • Dolores Nice-Siegenthaler on March 24, 2016 at 3:27 pm

        Yes, I enjoy (and even contributed to) the articles on Menno’s network.

        I hope you fall in love with St. Brigit, one of Ireland’s 3 great saints, who is especially famous for having lived fully as Maiden, Mother and Crone.

        • Shirley Showalter on March 24, 2016 at 3:47 pm

          Sounds like she could be a feminist model for odyssey.

  12. Sherrey Meyer on March 24, 2016 at 1:46 pm

    Shirley, your post and Mary Gottschalk’s back-to-back cast one I’ve been planning on turning 70 and what do I do next back into a corner. Especially into a corner as I sit here in pain suffering the patience of waiting on doctors to get down to busy and make it go away! Perhaps I’ll wait until next week to bring my post into the light of day. It should be an interesting one following on the heels of yours and Mary’s.

    As others have mentioned, I very much dislike labels and find the only part of the label “retired” I enjoy is the freedom to do as I please with my time. However, since turning to writing that time isn’t so free anymore. So which label to choose–retired or writer. And now I’m 70! More of a “senior” citizen than before and yet another label. But wait…I’ll give away my post! Loved your post and the imagery you always bring to the page.

    Hugs and blessings,
    Sherrey

    • Shirley Showalter on March 24, 2016 at 1:59 pm

      Sherrey, it seems that hugs and blessings are in order for you too, my friend. Boo pain. Boo cast. Boo inattentive doctors. How’s that?

      Oh, that’s right. You said blessing, not cursing. 🙂

      You bring up something that all the writer friends I know struggle with also. We have returned to a passion (see Audrey above) and have formed a wonderful community (witness the conversation that arises on all our blogs), and yet, if we aren’t careful, we end up being as busy and as doing oriented as we were in our 9-5 jobs. (Actually, I never had one of those. Always more hours. But you know what I mean.)

      The good news? We have language. As we struggle for the right names (not the right labels), we are struggling to create authentic stories to tell under the tree of hope. Get well soon, Sherrey. In the meantime, stay as passive as your body requires. You will surge to new energy. Of that I am sure.

  13. Richard A Kauffman on March 24, 2016 at 5:30 pm

    It is nearly impossible to read one of your blogs without adding books to my “must read” list. I’m talking here about Old Age by Helen Luke. But truth be told, I’ve never read the entire Odyssey and have had that on my “mental to read list” for years. Maybe now that I’m retired. What is your recommended translation?

    I’m sure you’ve heard of the three stages of retirement: go-go, slow go, and no go. It will take some grace to move to those latter stages. Fortunately, I have some good models of that at CMC.

    • Shirley Showalter on March 24, 2016 at 7:34 pm

      Thanks for the high compliment on book suggestions, Richard. I hope to keep them coming. 🙂

      We used the Robert Fitzgerald translation in our intro lit classes at Goshen. Here’s an audiobook on youtube!! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fzFCpEEobVI

      I had that go-go joke in an earlier draft. I picked it up from the Marlene Kropf article in The Mennonite. I embedded a link under the term “spiritual direction,”

      Love having your comments here. We need mentors, and we need each other as we ride the “wine-dark sea” toward home.

  14. April Yamasaki on March 25, 2016 at 11:21 pm

    Shirley, thank you for re-introducing me to the idea of odyssey and applying it in a new way. I was intrigued to watch Jane Fonda’s TED talk on The Third Act of life some time ago, and started a Pinterest board with related resources–I’m going there now to add your post to my collection 🙂

    • Shirley Showalter on March 26, 2016 at 11:15 am

      April, yes, I posted the TED talk here some time ago, also. Thanks for adding this post to your collection. I am moving from memoir to jubilación (the encore vocation)as the theme for this blog, but keeping the emphasis on personal storytelling as a way to understand the many opportunities and hazards in this “new stage” of life. The spiritual dimensions of this conversation are essential. I hope you’ll continue “putting in your oar,” so to speak. 🙂

  15. Elaine Mansfield on March 26, 2016 at 10:30 pm

    I’ve read and was moved by ‘The Way of Women’ by Helen Luke. I think I should read it again, but it sounds like her more recent book is more important at this moment. I just looked at her book list at Amazon and realize I haven’t read her autobiography either. That would be interesting. I’m making a list.

    I’ll be thinking about your questions in light of myths I know.

    I was on my own and married in my early 20s. Vic was 26. My sons took much longer to settle in to adult life, trying this and that for a while. The new norm For me, now is the time for the inner odyssey. Good thing I already live near Ithaca.

  16. Marilyn Unruh on April 9, 2016 at 12:47 am

    Shirley — I have just discovered your blog, via your review of Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir in Christian Century, which came in today’s mail. Now I am sitting up way past my bedtime, elated at finding this new treasure trove.

    Did you ever have the chance to meet Helen Luke at Apple Farm in Three Rivers? What an amazing woman she was, tucked away there in rural Michigan. I think I have most, if not all, of her books.

    I loved your memoir, wrote you a letter about it a year or so ago, and received a lovely letter back from you, which I very much appreciated.

    Marilyn Unruh

    • Shirley Showalter on April 9, 2016 at 1:27 pm

      Hi Marilyn, I’m so glad you’ve found me online, and your comment makes my day. Thank you.

      I didn’t get to meet Helen Luke in person, although my colleague at the Fetzer Institute, Mark Nepo, considered her a treasured mentor. I did drive past Apple Farm a number of times. I think maybe I stopped in once, but after Helen’s death.

      I hope you sign up for Magical Memoir Moments here. That we way can continue the conversation every week (the emails include links to the weekly blog post) — and you won’t have to sit up way past your bedtime. 🙂

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