Lisbie Rae responded to the call for Next in Life reader submissions. Her reflections speak to how it feels to live with purpose, a subject previously covered here. Lisbie nails it when she sees her activities went beyond “I like doing this,” to “This is what I’m meant to do.” That is living with purpose. The grandmothers’ organization to which Lisbie refers is mentioned in Carl Honoré’s book Bolder: Making the Most of Our Longer Lives (2019) as an example of how people are engaging with life in their later years. This grandmothers’ organization is also featured in this Globe and Mail article.
I’ve never been one to think about myself much; I prefer doing. When faced with an issue that demands self-reflection and hard choices, I divert into doing something, anything, that will deal with at least part of the problem, instead of examining myself and working out how the issue affects me. I’d be hard put to define my life’s purpose in a few clear words.
Stefa’s blog post set me thinking about how to do that very thing. I’ve lived a long life, and though I haven’t until now formulated my life’s purpose into a clear statement, I do have touchstones that tell me when I am on the right course, and thoughts that ring true for me.
There’s a quote by George Bernard Shaw that really appeals to me; he said,
I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no ‘brief candle’ to me. It is sort of a splendid torch which I have a hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it over to future generations.
Without expressing it in words, I’ve been making choices and guiding my life with the image of the “splendid torch” in mind. For instance, I knew I’d made a good choice in becoming a teacher when I saw a child’s face light up with curiosity during a lesson. Of course, I was focused on the child and her dawning comprehension, but within myself, a quiet “yes!” sounded. Multiply that “yes!” by ten, twenty, a hundred times, and a deep love of teaching emerged. Holding a torch so that I and others can see the wonders of the world, that’s a purpose I can sign on to.
I’ve trusted that “yes!” voice to confirm my choices in life. It was a quiet hum throughout the years of child-rearing, when my purpose as a parent was so clear and imperious that it left little room for any other. “Love! Protect! Nurture! Love!” That “yes” voice resonated in graduate seminars where I found others who challenged my thinking on performance or theatre criticism. It cheered from the wings when I honestly connected with another actor onstage. More than just, “I like doing this,” the voice said, “This is what I’m meant to do.”
Shaw’s belief that “the harder I work, the more I live” poses some problems. For me, working hard does not necessarily produce the best results. When I face obstacles, my tendency is to dig in, work harder, and struggle to overcome the issue by myself. This can lead to success, yes, but it can also end up with me either worn out, frustrated, or short-changing other parts of my life. Life keeps teaching me that if I step back, let go and ask for help, other people might clear the block that thwarted all my efforts. Besides, asking for help brings more ideas, builds community, and creates friendships. “The more we work together, the richer our common life.”
Edging towards retirement, I remember wondering what I would do when I wasn’t teaching. Images of longer hikes, more time to read, advocate, travel, filled the nebulous cloud called retirement that was billowing ahead. Was my useful life over? I sensed a vague unease at the thought that I might not be needed any more.
Then I went to Africa and met 500 African grandmothers. I was in Swaziland (renamed Eswatini in 2018), at the African Grandmothers Gathering, with a contingent of 42 Canadian members of the Stephen Lewis Foundation’s Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign. We Canadians were there to meet the African grandmothers for whom we’d been raising funds and awareness. They were there from 14 different African countries to share, in searing testimony, their stories of loss, hardship, and recovery. They had lost children to AIDS and were now raising grandchildren orphaned and traumatised by the AIDS pandemic.
As they buckled down to share ideas of how to cope, these heroes of the continent inspired us with awe and respect; we vowed at the end, “We will not rest until they can rest.”
Now several years into retirement, I am living a full and rich life, with the Grandmothers Campaign a key component. Moving from Ontario was made easier because I could join the Victoria Grandmothers for Africa and sign up for the Cycle Tour that was famous throughout the campaign. After six years of cycle training with the Victoria Grandmothers, I am very much fitter and at 76 can comfortably cover 100 km a day. But the bigger benefit is the sense of purpose and common cause shared by all the riders as we raise funds to support the work of Africa’s amazing grandmothers.
Other components of my retirement life include family, friends, healthy outdoor activities, and replenishing work to feed my inner self (yoga, meditating, reiki, reading). Family always comes first; at this stage in life, my family members are busy with their own lives and I am welcome, but less needed. Looking at my life laid out like this, I can take George Bernard Shaw’s saying and rephrase it like this:
I want to be thoroughly useful for as long as I live. I want to work with others, for the more we work together, the richer our common life. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no ‘brief candle’ to me. It is sort of a splendid torch which I have a hold of for the moment, and I want to let it shine as widely as possible before handing it over to future generations.
About Lisbie Rae
Lisbie describes her course through life and career as more of a zig-zag than an upward curve. Working first in Scotland as a physical education teacher, she retrained as an elementary school teacher after moving to Canada. The arrival of her daughters lead to working part-time while pursuing three university degrees over many years.
Building on her love of the dance side of physical education, Lisbie found a similar creative outlet in a small community theatre she co-founded and ran for 40 years. Theatre became Lisbie’s study focus, eventually resulting in a PhD in theatre. Her passion for theatre as a hobby turned into a career teaching acting and theatre courses at university. As Lisbie says, “By zig-zagging through life, combining career, continuing education and hobbies, I found myself being paid to teach what I loved doing anyway.”
Easing into retirement was made easier by the yoga teaching Lisbie had been doing part-time. When she stopped teaching at the university at age 65, she kept her yoga classes going. She retired fully on moving to Victoria in 2015 – “I retired into a new career as volunteer for the Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign. Where will the next zag take me, I wonder?”
Lisbie, thank you for this illuminating essay and your reflection on life.
What more could I have offered humanity if I had made a clear map for myself to follow in life, but…it is in hindsight that I see I HAD unknowingly, unwittingly, made a map to follow in life. Some of it as the accidental traveler. I detoured when necessary and often, sometimes with great sadness, taking unexpected pathways, but I zigged and zagged and here I am today, in Victoria, still z’ing.
Thank you for sharing this Stefa.
Lynn, your accidental traveler image makes sense for me, and yes, sadness accompanies many changes of direction. When events happen that cause sadness and confusion, it’s hard to think clearly and choose how to move forward. If I think back to the moment when I realized my marriage wasn’t working any more, I was incapacitated by fear of making change, and sadness at what I was losing. For a month as I held these two images in my mind, to leave or to stay, I tried to listen to my whole self. Gradually, only one image resonated as true to me and I left. That choice still feels right.
Jenny Rae reminded me that she has this Jack Kerouac quote on her pegboard — neat! “[…] the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!” ― Jack Kerouac, On the Road”