Jennifer Cheyne at the "Green Gate" at the entrance to U.C. Berkeley.

Last fall, at 49 years old, I transferred from community college to UC Berkeley to complete the upper division portion of my bachelor’s degree. My first semester was just one long whirl of delight at having arrived at a school that was beyond my dreams. Fine old libraries and hours marked by massive bells, textbooks written by my own professors, whole afternoons spent studying French and psychology . . . my arms were blue from pinching myself.

But then this semester—my second here—two things happened:  I turned 50, and I started to feel fear.  I could see the student loans mounting, and I kept thinking of how hard getting a job would be after graduation—I mean, that’s all you hear in the news, and the stories are about 22-year-olds. So I got a student job. This would mean fewer loans, as well as an office job more recent than 1991, on my rėsumé.  I was hired to work in the chancellor’s office, and after a couple of months there, I began to imagine working for the university. People around me were retiring with full pensions. The benefits were wonderful, the people terrific. Security!  My priorities shifted to the job in hand instead of where my studies might take me.

Even graduate school, which had been a sensible and exciting next step, now seemed not only unnecessary but unwise. I would be forgotten by the time I returned—best to move straight into the university’s warm embrace rather than risk losing its regard.

At about the same time, I met someone with whom I thought I could see myself settling down. Maybe we would get a little house in Oakland one day and walk up to College Avenue for coffee on Saturday morning, our dog trailing along with us. We might grow tomatoes and take our two-week paid vacations in exotic locales. I had been very lonely at times, raising my son alone, so tired of making big decisions without any input. I had been pretty worried about money, too, and about caring for myself in my old age. Was it possible now that difficult days were behind me, in spite of all they say about women of a certain age? In spite of this economy we were all trying to survive?

The problem was, the farther I went down this road mentally and emotionally, imaging myself installed in a secure and solid life, the less joy I had. I even felt a bit blue. Why on earth was this cropping up? No more working alone, living alone, sleeping alone. . no more seeing people only when their partners and husbands or employers loaned them to me for a movie or lunch. I should be feeling lucky. Perhaps I was a simply a chronic malcontent.

It took me a while, but I finally unearthed the issue. The life I was creating was the life I’d already had 20 years earlier. A nice house, a nice mate, and a dog that trailed along with us to coffee. The job I’d had then was essentially the same as the one I was aiming for now, only at a movie studio “campus” instead of a university.  Security up to my ears. I knew this path. I had tried to get back to it a few years ago—start over!—but could not even apply for my old job without a bachelor’s degree.  It’s what sent me, out of options, down to Santa Monica College to enroll.

Unfortunately, since that day I’d been exposed to a lot, not the least of which was learning what I was capable of. I had seen evidence of who I am at my best and worst—as well as who I am not in any circumstance. Psychology had opened up the mystery of personality and motivation, while studying French made an entire culture so much more than berets and baguettes. Political science and sociology and even biology. . . the readings strained my brain and opened up my soul. A course in women’s studies made me aware of how women are disempowered in a million subliminal ways, and I was quietly, appropriately enraged. I began to have dreams of making a difference.

Was all this new consciousness and wonder simply preparing me to re-enter my prior life? Shouldn’t I shoot for the stars now, go for the gold, have it all?

Wait, though, wait. This sort of pie-in-the-sky thinking was fine if one could afford it. Life gets ugly fast when one lives under the weight of debt and scarcity.

I was teetering between these two poles when I came out the other side of finals and received my grades for the semester. With my eye on security and my priority set on my job-related future, my GPA slipped. While I was busy never missing a day’s work no matter how much pressure was on me in my classes, I received my first C. It was in statistics, a gnarly mess of a subject that insists on building upon itself week after week. Once I fell behind, only an A on my final paper could pull me back up—but I turned that in late as I scrambled to learn it all fast, and had 20 points taken back off of my final score.

It might not seem like such a big deal, this one C, but now in order to graduate with honors—something that had been a given for me previously— I will have to get straight A’s from here forward. No room for error. And even with that, such fine honors as belonging to Phi Beta Kappa, the national honor society, are now beyond my reach. I had, in fact, almost harmed my chances to go to Paris in my last semester—the applications are due later this year, and if you fail a class, which I almost did, you may not be considered.

Is this what happens when one is overly focused on security? The grander opportunities go from being difficult to achieve to impossible? Security gains you a sense that you know what’s ahead, but it comes at another cost.  When I imagine that my life is settled but that lofty and noble goals are not for me, my spirit deflates. And beyond that, life feels so doggone short when you can see how it will end, nicely tied up in a bow.

Furl my sails, fearing risk? Or sail into the fog, seeking new lands? (Photo: Evan Gleeson)

There is nothing wrong with that other path—how I had longed for it so recently!—but I don’t believe it’s time yet to go that way. Let me carry on in my naïve dream a little longer, here. Strive for A’s and hope to achieve that honors notation, go on to graduate school in some impractical subject like creative writing or journalism, and take jobs, yes, to help pay, but never lose sight as I had, giving the jobs priority over career. The trade is a difficult one—it means I leave solid earth and head out to sea in a somewhat creaky old boat, continue on with fog ahead and no buoy to guide me safely around unseen hazards. But I may discover new lands this way, and come to a new shore where I can use all parts of me in my life. At this age, I think I should take my shot at becoming fully realized, not withdraw from possibility. When time is shorter, it’s the time to risk a bit more. Not irresponsibly, but with a sense that this is your chance.

I may yet make money by way of creativity or in helping some cause about which I am passionate. I can only imagine the love I might find with someone who is a match to that me. We may travel the world and make love into our antiquity, never running out of things to say or causes we care about. Sure, yes, if I can tell my future will not be this —after grad school and a honest attempt—then I will settle down and be the most excellent employee a company could wish for.  But not yet.  Not just yet.



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  • Jennifer Cheyne May 31, 2012 at 1:34 pm

    Hi Judith,
    Your 2 cents are worth a lot more than that! I completely agree with what you say – our only real security is within ourselves, in whatever path we are pulled toward. (All the formerly reliable paths are a bit overcrowded these days, anyway!) We have to cobble together something unique, I think, and THAT will be of more value to others and to ourselves than if we squeeze ourselves into some slot that “pays out” (until it doesn’t anymore). Women who have LIVED have so much to offer – it’s time we knew it ourselves and let others know it too. ;0)

  • Judith A. Ross May 31, 2012 at 10:46 am

    Hi Jennifer,
    Thank you for articulating what is on a lot of our minds these days. I am well into my fifties and lost my job as a full-time writer for a nonprofit almost 2 years ago due to lay-off. So much for “security!”

    I haven’t quite figured out how to get paid for doing what I love most, given the huge change in the publishing model, but I think going for the joy will offer you the most security in the long run.

    I, too, am avoiding going after what I have always done. I want to do work that feeds my soul and that I believe in. In the end, that’s the best long-term plan because you won’t get burned out on it, and you will continue to grow and challenge yourself while doing your best work.

    My two cents!