Composing a Life

The Australian writer Helen Garner, in an essay called ‘On Turning Fifty,’ reflects on what she has done with her life so far. She is a pithy, widely published journalist, has written several books, been an activist for social change, nursed a friend through dying, brought up a child, had friends, had one or two marriages -- yet she says this: ‘The word “career” is one I can never imagine applying to what I do. “Career” is a word that can only be applied from without. It’s a word with connotations of speed and certainty, of smooth forcefulness, like the trajectory of a comet seen from a great distance. How can one speak without irony of one’s own “career”?’ The word career is an interesting one, in historical terms it is a relatively recent entry into English, a 16th-century acquisition from French, that referred, exactly as Helen Garner says, to the course of a speeding body through physical space. It later came to be applied first to one’s ‘course’ through life, and later still, as life became increasingly professionalised, to the narrative of that professional life -- which is where it has, until now, tended to rest. When we are asked to write a curriculum vitae -- the course of our life -- we write about our jobs, with a little added extra for the other skills that make us, in the eyes of employers, more ‘rounded’ as people. Women have fought very hard to have careers, and very hard to have lives as well. For a long time women were excluded from professions, and then had to make the choice between marriage and work and, even now, the juggling act of managing relationships, children, education and work has been particularly hard on women. 2013 commemorated 100 years of the suffragette movement, but the struggle to have degrees conferred, to be doctors, to become teachers, was not the clear progressive movement it seemed 100years ago. We live in a period when education no longer seems like the doorway to better prospects for young people, but the doorway to a lifetime of debt, with jobs, let alone careers, retreating somewhere into the distance. Women’s lives have changed for the better, and mens too. Yet we live in uncertain times, and the papers are fond of comparing the present condition with a more stable past -- a time 10, 20, 30 years ago depending on who is speaking, when jobs were plentiful and the goal was to be better off than your parents. But this model of past stability and present turbulence isn’t the whole story -- good times and hard times come and go, crises take different forms in different places, but if one thing is certain it is that human beings adapt and change. Far from being creatures who can only function in stable times, we have shown ourselves to be very good at improvising, at making new tools, new technologies, new kinds of families, new social movements and new religions, from fragments of the old ones. That’s just the way we are.

So when Helen Garner -- a public figure and a writer with many awards -- balks at the word career, she does so, I think because she is asking us to consider different ways of looking at what it is that constitutes a life’s work, not just for herself but on behalf of others. The word career implies she says, ‘smooth forcefulness’ and certainty -- it does not apply to the meandering, less certain course that she sees herself having taken, and in which she has quite literally made it up as she goes along. Hers is a life in which she has considered the things she has done as a citizen, as a mother and as a friend, as important as the things she has done that have supported her financially, and what she has written has itself responded to the circumstances, social, political and personal, in which she has found herself. She has practiced what another writer, Catherine Mary Bateson, calls ‘composing a life’ -- shaping the way one lives according the opportunities that come along, and ‘weathering’ the bad times. Bateson’s book Composing a Life, takes the stories of five women, each of them very different, and looks at the ways in which they have responded to circumstance, improvising where necessary and bringing past skills to new situations. She writes not simply to honour these women, but to look towards the future. In 1990, when she wrote her book, she was looking towards what she called a ‘landscape in flux’ a future in which ‘it will become less and less possible to go on doing the same thing through a lifetime.’ We will have to learn, she says, to see the value in continual redefinition, to see composing a life from odds and ends as a practice with real, social value.

Interestingly, it’s one thing to acknowledge the variety of a successful writer’s life, another thing entirely to realize that what we call ‘creatives’ are not the only people whose life-shaping we need to acknowledge for the health of all our futures. I have recently moved from York where we lived in a city centre house with a big communal garden maintained by the City Council. Just before I left I rain into one of the maintenance men that I got to know there. He was collecting rubbish in the nearby shopping centre, part, its part of his job with security and maintenance. We had a little chat. I know that Pete (not his real name) who is in his thirties and has two kids, is a great gardener. He lives in public housing and has an end plot, where he, like his dad, grows all his own veg. He has given me lots of garden advice and encouragement over the years, about trees, veg and flowers. Gardening is really his passion. Gardening, says Catherine Mary Bateson, is one of those practices whose ‘complexity is woven over space and time.’ His job defines him not more than the word career defines what Helen Garner does. Several months ago on a radio programme about the future of work, I heard a senior editor with the Financial Times giving an unusual point of view. Not only did he look at some of the bleaker prospects for future work, but he began to turn his own thinking round. He interviewed three women working for a large supermarket. He was surprised at how much they liked their roles. They did them well, and they were, he was surprised to learn, very happy. They drew from their own life experience talking to people, working in teams and listening to stories. The things they did were very little different from the things that companies spend a great deal of time teaching employees to do: work in teams, listen, collaborate. The FT editor began to think that rather than seeing achievement, as Catherine Mary Bateson says, as monolithic and purposeful, we might start to see it as intricately composed from odds and ends, and then look at how to make the most of that in creating liveable futures.


The theologian Ivan Illich talked about ‘tools for conviviality’ — also name of a book he wrote in the 1970s -- tools that help us to live together well, that anyone can use, that are accessible and flexible and non coercive.The writer Michel De Certeau, also a theologian, talked in his most significant work about ‘the practice of everyday life’, the way we creatively shape that space into which we are born and in which we will die, the space of the every day. the gift of these extraordinary writers is to find words for the weaving and shaping that all of us do in composing our lives, and which we are going to be, as the Financial Times editor began to see, increasingly called upon to bring to the table in future. We no longer live, if we ever did, in a world of purposeful forward motion towards more affluence, but in a world woven from odds and ends, in which we are going to have to acknowledge that the best skills are accessible and shared by all of us, and can be exchanged, and the ones with the most value are the ones that enable us to live well.

Isn’t this where we have ever been as Unitarians? Crafting it from odds and ends, valuing the every day, building our own theologies from the wisdom of ancient and new practices, near and far? Part of the strength of Unitarianism in future may lie in the way it resonates with this old/new idea that there is value in continually remaking and re-shaping the present using fragments of the old. The tools we have to make new forms of faith are the tools we are using everyday in our lives, those brilliant tools of weaving life, shaping it up, tools as Ivan Illich says for conviviality, tools that make things better between people in this uncertain world. We can perhaps reclaim the word career now, and see each of our lives as an arc that we continually refashion and reinvent as we move through time and space. Another Australian writer Paul Carter calls this process creative re-membering, putting back together the things you bring from elsewhere in new ways. How ordinary the elements are that make lives: gardens, homes, children, friendship, care for others, compassion, tolerance, the ability to see the other view. ‘The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice’, as Martin Luther King said, quoting that great Unitarian social thinker Theodore Parker — and Catherine Mary Bateson ends her book with these words. ‘The compositions we create in these times of change are filled with interlocking messages of our commitment and decisions. Each one is a message of possibility.’