Lessons Learned: A Life in Under 2000 Words
by Pam Munter
If I were to be mugged, the newspaper reports would call me “elderly,” but most days I don’t feel like that. In some ways, I’m just getting started, even though I know the days “dwindle down to a precious few.” The upside is the sense of perspective over the course of a lifespan, the patterns, the growth and the trends. The goal has been to inhabit a life well-lived with lessons learned along the way. Here are a few of them.
The First Decade (0-9)
I was a much-anticipated baby, the first to be born after several miscarriages, but I think my parents were afraid of me and didn’t know what to do next. It was the 1940s, a rule-bound era struggling through a war and its aftermath. My parents relied on outside forces for guidance, ceding to the escalating pressures to conform, and sought to regulate my life in stereotypical ways. The result was that I often felt I was falling short of their expectations. They weren’t happy when I questioned norms so I began to decipher critical episodes for compliance. I joined the Brownies, became a Girl Scout, got good grades, made my bed and ate my vegetables. My parents didn’t know about the times I was sent to the principal’s office for goading other kids or talking back to the teacher. By ten I had learned how to be a covert subversive, losing myself in books and fantasy. To add to the rebellion, I started a girls’ baseball team, a revolutionary act in the early 1950s, predictably ridiculed by the adults around me. I learned that trust must be earned and not conferred by heredity alone. And that girls are not equal.
The Second Decade (11-20)
At the same time that my father was critical and retreating (likely due to his many affairs, I would later discover), I was battling regularly with my mother who used shame as her primary M.O. I spent more time in my bedroom or away from home – on my bike, in the movies or in the library after school. By adolescence, I had figured out that the most predictable way around adult judgments was through achievement. I took drama classes in junior high, wrote a musical revue in high school with a boy I was crazy about, played in the band and orchestra and started writing movie reviews for the school newspaper. Still the rebel, I decided my career goal was to run a movie studio, even though women remained menial sex objects in nearly every venue, especially that one. I was cajoled into going to college by a newspaper column written by a neighbor, even though I saw no value in doing so.
The Third Decade (21-29)
By the end of adolescence, I had discovered I could be creative and think at the same time. In fits and starts, I graduated from college with three majors and earned two master’s degrees. It was the 1960s, a time of social and political turbulence. My inner turmoil had externalized into full-blown feminism and active advocacy for civil rights. After a series of false-start careers, I followed my instincts (which I had learned to trust by now) and taught political science at a university. But my curiosity and introspective nature provoked a switch to psychology, eventually earning a Ph.D. Just before I graduated, my father died suddenly of atherosclerosis while in the company of my mother’s best friend. I fell in love with another iconoclast and decided to marry, hoping for a happier pairing. I was concerned that my window for a coupling opportunity was running out, not only because of my age but because – as my mother put it – “with all those degrees, you’re pricing yourself out of the market.”
The Fourth Decade (30-39)
My happy ending was not to be. The marriage was a turbulent one from the start. He turned out to be a thief, a narcotics user and a philanderer with an amoral set of values. Once again, I learned that trust must be earned not assumed, and was not necessarily part of a romantic package. I gave birth to a son and had emergency surgery for a benign uterine tumor during the fourth month, rendering further pregnancies too risky. The husband and I divorced after nine years of struggle and volatility, reminding me of the importance of honest communication on a daily basis. It was an ending but also a beginning, as most life eras are.
Early in the decade, I had been hired to teach in the psychology department in a state I had never visited. At the same time, I opened a private practice. It was a frantic decade of risk and achievement, which by now I knew were important components of my identity, a time of existential merit badge collecting. In addition to the two full-time jobs, I was singing in jazz clubs at night. I had decided to live my life full-out. Within a year of the marriage ending, I met and fell in love with a woman, which was surprisingly easy. She, my son and I formed a family unit with a minimum of upheaval, other than the predictable but horrific judgments from my mother. She and I subsequently ham-handedly glued our relationship back together but it would never be the same. Friends had become my family.
The Fifth Decade (40-49)
By 40, I had quit my tenured job at the university to devote full-time to the practice, which my partner and I shared. I learned I didn’t want to work under anyone and honored my independent nature. We worked long hours, enjoying what seemed a joyful, uncomplicated relationship. At home, I studied about financial investments so we could retire in another ten years, another step toward self-reliance. I loved being a shrink, though it was often stressful due to its very nature. It was hard to find time to do much else but the high level of satisfaction made it eminently fulfilling. We found the time to play in a softball league for a couple of years, fulfilling a childhood fantasy. And I continued to sing in clubs, giving it up only when I recognized I wasn’t good enough to do it professionally. It was a major disappointment. With some astonishment, I learned how invested I had been in this bubbling passion called show business.
The Sixth Decade (50-59)
By this decade, the managed care movement had devoured the entire health care system, limiting my treatment decisions and the freedom with which I consulted with my clients. There was more bureaucracy, excessive amounts of paperwork, and fewer allocated sessions before the busywork would start all over again. It felt not only oppressive but unethical; I wasn’t able to provide the level of care required. With significant ambivalence, I left behind my safe and prestigious professional identity to fulfill that siren song – the nagging pervasive fantasy in my life. I started producing and hosting a TV show as part of my role as president of the local arts association, found an agent and acted in independent films and commercials, resumed jazz singing and performed in cabaret clubs throughout the country. I felt truly alive, almost vibrational, living as a creative person every day. Recording a CD tribute to my childhood idol, Doris Day, at Capitol Records was a peak, transcendent experience. The travel for gigs required me to be away from home for a month or more at a clip. I had to learn to juggle my roles and commitments. When my partner started to experience obvious cognitive problems, once again I terminated the performing career. This coincided with the conclusion I had reached once before: that I wasn’t as good as I needed to be to satisfy my own expectations. The decision to walk away left me with a huge void and a major depression that would hang on for the next few years. Living life all out had its costs.
The Seventh Decade (60-69)
After a couple of fogged-out years, I opted for a geographical cure, a move to another state. Within two years, feeling more myself, I had returned to music. By now, I could hear the ticking of the mortality clock. Fulfilling another childhood dream, I taught myself to play the cornet, founded a Dixieland band and sang with two other bands. During this decade, I returned to nonfiction writing, researching and publishing dozens of long essays about less-familiar movie stars from the Golden Age of Film. These creative activities gradually extricated me from the depression, even if they didn’t replicate the joy of the previous decade. Re-energized, I became active with the ACLU, serving as its local president. I had been so immersed in all these recovery efforts that I failed to focus on my partner’s further personal deterioration, noticing only our increased disengagement. After her secretive drug and alcohol use was uncovered, she was admitted to the Betty Ford Center. Within a month of her discharge, she was drinking and using again. Under the influence of drugs and alcohol, she crashed her new car into a palm tree a few blocks from home and was rushed to the hospital. The car wasn’t the only thing wrecked; I knew I could not live like this any longer; my trust had been fractured. I helped her move to an assisted living facility where she could be in a structured and protected setting. I found myself alone for the first time in decades. In shock and devastation, I stopped all involvement and retreated into the familiar psychological cocoon, leading a structured, controlled, subdued life under the radar. In the months prior to the car crash, my beloved son had been falsely accused of (and plea bargained to) a felony and served time in jail. My support, my predictability, my sense of reality had evaporated. I had to relearn how to be resilient and stand on my own.
The Eighth Decade (70-76)
When I saw an ad in the local paper for a low-residency MFA program in creative writing in my area, I applied and was admitted. It has turned out to be much more than the time-filler I had hoped. During this decade, I have published a memoir, numerous nonfiction essays, short stories and plays. I’ve been nominated for several writing awards and been published over a hundred times. The lifelong pattern has resumed: solace in achievement and a merging of the creative and the intellectual. I’m still in regular contact with my former partner who is doing well in her current environment and I have a warm relationship with my son and his spouse. I have maintained long-standing friendships with several people, mostly via email. Many of my friends are dying, and not only the older ones. I’ve been to more funerals in the past ten years than I have in my lifetime. They serve as a reminder. Carpe diem.
At 77 I’m having the predictable genetic and age-related medical issues that will likely shorten my life. Most every joint that could be replaced, has been; I’ve had several TIAs, and recently undergone triple bypass, open-heart surgery. Relationships have offered both the highs and the lows in my life but living alone has opened up a sense of freedom and serenity. I’ve learned I am happier on my own. I have done most everything I wanted to do in my life and value having no unfinished business anywhere. I remain open new discovery, prepared to meet the inevitable challenges I know will engulf me in time.
Significant learning happens throughout the lifespan. Each decade has taught me about my strengths and limitations but, the most important lesson I’ve learned is that I can make it through anything if I trust in my inner voice. It seldom fails.
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Pam Munter has authored several books including When Teens Were Keen: Freddie Stewart and The Teen Agers of Monogram, Almost Famous, and As Alone As I Want To Be. She’s a former clinical psychologist, performer and film historian. Her essays, book reviews and short stories have appeared in more than 150 publications. Her play, “Life Without” was nominated by the Desert Theatre League and she has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Pam has an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. Fading Fame: Women of a Certain Age in Hollywood will be published in early 2021.