When I was a junior at Smith in the early 1960s, we had to attend an assembly every Wednesday morning in John M. Greene. One speaker in particular stands out in my mind. I don’t remember her name, but I remember what she said as though it were yesterday: “Life is long.”
We were used to hearing the opposite: “Life is short.” This phrase came in handy when you told your parents you wanted to go trekking in the Himalayas after graduation instead of looking for a job right away. Or you said, “Life is short,” when you bought an outrageously expensive dress for the prom, even though you’d only wear it once.
The speaker smiled. “I’m talking about life being long, because as women, many of us may be spending most of our lives taking care of others. We may not be able to have it all—at least not all at once.” At the age of twenty, this was the first time that I realized there might be a longer view of life. That everything I wished to happen might not be possible, all at one point in time. I learned later on what she meant.
When I was in my twenties I was raising three daughters under the age of 5. While they were growing up, my role model for how to live an idealized artistic-cum-domestic life was Tasha Tudor, a children's book illustrator who raised four children by herself in New England. Her lodestar was a quotation by Henry David Thoreau: “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”
From reading books about her, I studied photographs of a home filled with early New England antiques, magnificent country gardens, handmade everything, while she supported herself by painting watercolors to illustrate children’s books. I emulated her lifestyle by becoming an antiques dealer specializing in 18th-century furniture. My Victorian house was replete with an asparagus bed, old apple trees, a huge raspberry patch, and herbaceous borders with peonies and iris. I taught myself to cook by reading books written by Elizabeth David, M.K.F. Fisher, and Julia Child ’34, sewed the girls’ dresses and knitted their sweaters. There were warm brownies when they came home from school, and homemade cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning. I played piano and the girls took lessons in violin, cello, and flute.
Then suddenly the balloon burst or the bottom fell out of my life—whatever you want to call it. I found that I needed more for myself in order to feel alive—no matter how “artistic” I tried to make our home. I found a job in biotechnology at a time when its promise was still fresh. My career took off and my marriage did not endure. A friend gave me a copy of the I-Ching, and I learned how to ask questions, writing down what I thought the answers might be. Thus began my true education about myself and the world around me.
As part of this search for meaning, I also read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay, “Self-Reliance.” He wrote, “Trust thyself. Every heart vibrates to that iron string.” He described the value of keeping what he called “commonplace journals,” scrapbooks of one’s thoughts—what inspired you to create or collect—so that it became a visual compendium of who you were or wanted to become, a way to develop one’s identity rather than following someone else’s idea of what you should be.
Although Thoreau thought about himself and exhorted others to follow their destinies in the nineteenth century, his quote seems to be even more relevant for women today as paraphrased herewith: “If one advances confidently in the direction of (her) dreams, and endeavors to live the life which (she) has imagined, (she) will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”
How many baby-boomer Smithies are out there? And how many are looking for more in life but think it’s too late to do anything about it? Many of us look outside ourselves for answers, taking on more activities to fill time, only to end up feeling over-busy, rather than being more fulfilled. When we look inside instead, listening to our intuition can help us access what is uniquely meaningful for us. We are all different. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to our personal conundrums. Each of us can discover our own “uncommon hours,” by listening to our hearts and minds, rather than waiting for someone else to do it for us. Or worse, thinking we are helpless to become more fulfilled.
When we realize that “life is long” and there is still time to discover uncommon hours for ourselves, it may be a relief to know there is still a sense of purpose waiting for us within, even if it’s just singing a song we loved a long time ago, calling a friend we missed and regretted losing touch with, reading a book we always meant to read, or finally attempting Julia Child’s recipe for beef bourguignon. Isn’t it great that life is long?
Katherine Chao Evans ’64 has worked in biotech marketing, is completing a novel, Uncommon Hours, and writes a blog, Mulberry Shoots. She is the mother of three daughters, including Caitlin Smith '92.