by Elizabeth J. Coleman

You might say that I was reborn at age 54 when Dr. Pat Allen saved my life. And when I say that she saved my life, it’s a double entendre of sorts.

Yes, she literally saved my life by finding endometrial cancer that no one else had the good sense to look for. But she also saved it because the cancer, and its quick eradication, gave me a second chance to lead the kind of life I had once envisioned for myself.

Not that I didn’t have a great one already: two wonderful grown children; an extraordinary husband of 30-something years; and an interesting public interest law career (I was civil rights director of a large national human rights organization when I got “the news”).

But the word “cancer,” and losing my now useless uterus and ovaries to which I still had a sentimental attachment (see husband and children, supra), made an impression.

It was then that I had the good fortune to learn about a program that the Memorial Sloane Kettering Cancer Center was offering for people who suffered from catastrophic illnesses, called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. I took the course for eight weeks and have followed up for five years in a weekly program called mbsr+.

What I learned from the program can be summed up in the Zen Evening Gatha:

Let me respectfully remind you–
Life and death are of supreme importance.
Time passes swiftly by, and opportunity is lost
Each of us should strive to awaken–
Take heed. Do not squander your life.

The squandering your life part was what got me. By now, I was executive director of a large progressive state bar association, and though I liked the work and the cause, and loved the staff, I felt like I was wasting my life by not pursuing my true vocations.

I struggled for years with giving up the “big” job, or the next even bigger job, to pursue dreams in which I had no confidence. I wasn’t even sure what they were. It reminded me of the Langston Hughes poem. Had my deferred dreams dried up, like a raisin in the sun, to the point where they were unrecognizable?

I was interested in music, but that had always been an avocation. I was interested in writing and had completed a book, for which I had an agent, but I didn’t feel entitled to work on my writing full time. I loved what I had learned about mindfulness-based stress reduction and had trained to teach it to others. We had a family foundation working on environmental justice, and I wanted to spend more time addressing global warming.

And my most shameful secret (well, not quite most shameful) was that I wanted to paint. Every time I went to a museum, I wanted to run home and do a drawing, or make a collage or a print, rather than discuss the merits of Matisse vs. Picasso or Picasso being a misogynist. Yet I had been told I had a “small talent” many years ago.

But my children had finished their schooling and were now working, and the fear of dying at my job, rather than doing my life’s work, trumped my fear of (as it were) jumping off a cliff, so I did it. I jumped.

In 2006, I founded and became president of Professional Stress Management Solutions, Ltd., which teaches stress management to attorneys and other professionals. I am also president of the Beatrice R. & Joseph A. Coleman Foundation for environmental and social justice.

In addition, I perform classical guitar in hospitals, nursing homes and hospices, which allows me to contribute to a patient’s healing, if not his or her cure. I am a published poet and working on getting my book published. And once a week, I sneak off, incognito, to water color class. In fact, I bought a drafting table for my home office.

I am not alone. More and more women are discovering that dramatic life changes are possible in our 50s, and that we can choose a life that brings us closer to a self we envisioned with great joy when we were very young.

People ask sometimes what I learned from these life changes. I have learned many things; two of them are these: If your work and your passions are intertwined, then work really is “love made visible,” as Kahlil Gibran said. And perhaps even more important, my respect for other people’s choices for their own lives has deepened, whether it is my husband, my children, friends or just acquaintances.

In my new career(s), I work harder than I ever recall having worked before, even though I have always been an industrious person. But it’s different, and I feel such joy, excitement and anticipation about each day. Many mornings, I begin work at 5 or 6 a.m. and do not stop for 12 hours. There is so much I still want to accomplish in my remaining time on this planet.

Elizabeth J. Coleman, an attorney with more than 30 years experience in litigation and legal management, previously served as vice-chair of the United States President’s Export Council, chair and CEO of Maidenform Worldwide, Inc., chair of the National Women’s Law Center, executive director of the New York State Trial Lawyers’ Association and national civil rights director of the Anti-Defamation League.

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