I’ve read and admired Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot’s work for more than 20 years.
Starting with The Good High School, which included a chapter about my alma mater, Brookline High School, continuing with Balm in Gilead, her moving tribute to her mother’s life and work, and then extending to I’ve Known Rivers: Lives of Loss and Liberation, her portraits of six professional African-American men and women, Lawrence-Lightfoot has demonstrated an unusual ability to listen, synthesize and place in context what she calls the architecture of people’s lives.
Her most recent book tackled life for people in the 25 years after they turn 50.
The Third Chapter is Lawrence-Lightfoot’s distillation of what she learned through interviewing 40 people in this age group over the course of two years.
Rather than decaying or playing out the proverbial string, discovering or returning to passions is a major theme of the work.
Lawrence-Lightfoot maintains that for these people to make these changes, they must disregard what society tells them they should do and trust a different type of knowing. The risk involved in making these changes and charted these new directions is scary, and sometimes painful, but most often worthwhile for a number of reasons. She explains that the new endeavor can be a source of meaning and joy in itself, and also can generate meaning because people are charting their own directions, rather than following the paths that society would assign.
The changes her characters describe differ in scale and type. For one woman, the exploration of a social science discipline to add to her focus on science in the academy is a new direction, while for another it’s returning to fierce activism against genocide and other atrocities. For a third, it’s developing her creativity through becoming a playwright, while a high-powered attorney Lawrence-Lightfoot takes up gardening.
Individual chapters focus on specific aspects of the process. For many of these people, moving forward requires looking back to heal childhood wounds and navigating boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable behavior. The process of taking up something new can be both bewildering and exhilarating.
In the end, though, many of the people Lawrence-Lightfoot depicts feel satisfied with what they have done.
She closes the book with a poem by a 70-year-old black woman that aptly encapsulates the book’s message:
After a long seeking
I gave up on all mirrors.
Then feeling a way forward in the fog
Without a lamp or even a candle
And absent any guide at all
One starless night I stumbled
Upon ths place of water where
Gleaming in its darkest deeps,
My own two astonished eyes.
Lawrence-Lightfoot shines a useful light on this little-chronicled stage of life in this accessible and insightful work.