A Life Unfinished: Joan Anderson

Joan Anderson, author of The Second Journey, talks about finding your true self at midlife.

By Wendy Rodewald
Joan Anderson (Photo: Sarah Fantom)

Just over a decade ago, Joan Anderson did what many of us have dreamed about doing: She took a year off. Unbound by her duties as a wife and mother of grown sons, Anderson mapped out a new path for herself during the 12 months she spent in semi-isolation at her small Cape Cod cottage. She even worked a fishmongering job at the local market.

That first journey resulted in her bestselling memoir, A Year by the Sea (Doubleday, 1999), an account of her life-altering self-discovery. Through the course of three more bestsellers and two Oprah appearances, Anderson has brought together a network of self-searching women who flock to the weekend retreats she now leads.

Her new book, The Second Journey: The Road Back to Yourself (Voice), opens with the author feeling the consequences of this success, stretched to her limit and in need of a break. A three-week pilgrimage to the sleepy Scottish Isle of Iona results in a new appreciation for her life stage and a fresh perspective on what’s next. Here, the author shares what’s she’s learned so far.

MORE.com: The book opens with a snapshot of an overextended woman — you’re traveling to book signings and leading retreats, caring for your elderly mother, balancing relationships with your husband, grown children, and friends. I think a lot of women can relate to this feeling — how is it that we get to this point of no control in our lives?

Joan Anderson: I think we’re just compassionate people. We can’t say no. And so when you finally say, "I have to stop," or you are stopped — because of a health reason, or because your husband just left you, or whatever’s happened — it’s almost a gift. If we don’t catch ourselves, we end up in the trouble that I have ended up in time and time again.

MORE.com: In The Second Journey, you revisit the themes of your first memoir, A Year by the Sea. How is the new book an extension of that initial journey?

Anderson: I came here [to Cape Cod] and I never left. You have to go to a safe place. That allowed me to listen to what my heart needed to tell me. I think in the end, The Second Journey is all about having your own answers, not asking for permission to break the rules. And it’s thrilling, because after we’ve given the first part of our lives to everybody else, we have that middle time to actually be who we were meant to be.

MORE.com: The places you visit in both A Year by the Sea and The Second Journey seem to be catalysts for your self-realization, even physical symbols of your inner journey.

Anderson: Going off to a place like Iona, I was at a crossroads. I’ve come to realize that the heroine, when she’s at the crossroads, wants to make the decision for herself. The non-heroine wants it made for her. And I think that when we finally can go to a soothing place, we can hear what our heart needs to tell us. A place like that offers no distraction from the newness that you’re to find. It’s like any odyssey or quest. If you break down the word adventure, you have advent: to begin.

MORE.com: You call yourself an "unfinished woman," and in the last sentence of The Second Journey you write, "If I have learned nothing else, it is that the journey will always be unfinished." In our goal-driven, results-oriented society, what can we gain by embracing the idea that life is forever a work in progress?

Anderson: It goes back to the idea of a woman’s life phases. Really it’s about recognizing that you live a lifetime in a decade. If you were to look back at 10 years ago, where were you? What were you? Who were you? Who was in your life then? What’s exciting is to evaluate at the end of every 10 years how far you’ve come, how many people you’ve influenced, how many crises you’ve weathered, how many new ideals you have as a result, and then to say, "That part of my life is gone, and I’m getting rid of it so I can embrace that which is unlived."

It’s such an exciting thing to realize that you’re supposed to do certain things at certain times, and then as you grow into the next stage — like a molting lobster which is growing larger and larger as it goes — you can become that completely new individual that you were always meant to be.

MORE.com: It’s interesting that your journey of self has turned you into such a public figure. Your writing has inspired thousands of readers, and you lead regular retreats for women seeking their own inner selves. What role does community play in this process of finding self-awareness?

Anderson: I think for women, what really drives us is generativity — I learned that from my mentor Joan Erikson [the human development theorist who, with psychologist husband Erik Erikson, popularized a model of eight life cycles]. Nothing means a damn if we don’t pass it on. All of my books I write to the women I don’t know but I do know. We have to cheer each other on toward the stages we’re meant to go through and toward gravitating to a new stage.

I think one of the things in this culture that’s so sad is that people are lonely because we’re so isolated. And the great loneliness is that people don’t know who they are. So my whole campaign is: My goodness, before you crawl into that casket, you’ve got to know you!

MORE.com: As you describe leaving Iona in the last pages of the book, you write, "All such journeys end with arrival somewhere." Where have you arrived at this point in your life’s cycle?

Anderson: I’ve arrived at a place where I know that, in order to stay healthy and to stay healed, I need to be patient. As change is thrust upon me and I feel a crisis of feelings, I know now that I will hear the answer, that it will become clear. And I’m ready to share what I’ve found. For so many of my friends, the change that was thrust upon them was a betrayal or a death of a spouse or a health issue. To see them go through it, embrace it and know that the challenge is going to make them stronger is really quite wonderful.

MORE.com: What do you hope readers will take away from your story?

Anderson: That the way we are is not the way we were. And love you for now — we don’t want to go backward; we want to go forward. There are 8,700 hours in a year, and if we can’t find 24 for ourselves, it’s pitiful. No one’s going to push you to change; you’ve got to take it for yourself.

In the end, I was finally able to define myself, and I encourage other women to do the same. Many people take a sabbatical and they study something. Well, I’m studying me.

Join MORE and Voice books for "Getting Better All the Time," a workshop series featuring Joan Anderson and more authors. See dates and interact with fellow readers at voice.gather.com.

For more information on Joan Anderson and The Second Journey, visit her Web site:

Originally published on MORE.com, May 2008.

First Published Mon, 2009-04-06 17:04

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