Dr. Berta Parrish is a longtime educator, writer and workshop leader. In Wise Woman’s Way (Morro Press, 2007), she uses her background in Jungian psychology and transformative learning to explore the uncharted territory of life after 60. With refreshing candor and thought-provoking analysis, she offers possibilities for growing old with purpose and passion.
AHB reached Dr. Parrish in Morro Bay, California.
Ruth Dempsey: Wise Woman’s Way suggests there is an art to living life after 60. Right?
Berta Parrish: Yes, thankfully there is an art to growing older. By seeing the transition to old age as a rite of passage, as an initiation, we choose the beliefs that determine how we perceive and experience aging. And this process of making conscious, rather than unconscious choices is highly poetic and creative. It includes self-discovery through images, symbols and metaphors.
RD: You write: "I did not want the retirement scenario of my parents or grandparents. On the other hand, I did not want to defy my natural aging process in unhealthy ways." Can you please elaborate?
BP: The attitudes and behaviors of my youth no longer served my changing body and future. I had no positive role models. My grandparents lived on a farm and were quite old fashioned. My father was unhappy in retirement and my mother was a traditional homemaker who was clueless when widowed.
When I looked around at how other women aged, I discovered two reactions. One group aged naturally with gradually graying hair and wrinkling faces, while the other delayed the aging process with cosmetic surgery and anti-aging products. The research suggests I
can anticipate a healthier life and more years than previous generations. I decided to honor the physical and emotional changes that come with these bonus years, instead of feeling shame and anger. I want to celebrate my life, all of it. That includes the wrinkles and the extra inches.
RD: You say life after 60 offers new opportunities to examine, to expand and to transform our stories. Is that right?
BP: Definitely. With new perspectives, we experience life differently. This is where discovering and relating to the wise woman archetype can influence our lives. In myths and folklore, the wise woman sorts the various options, synthesizes existing knowledge, discerns the best alternative and solves the problems of her people. From Grandmother Spider, who weaves a web to steal the fire, to Hecate, who supports bewildered travelers at the crossroads, to Cerridwen who constantly recycles the cosmic soup.
Inspired by these stories and guided by our inner wisdom, we re-examine and reinterpret our experiences to find the underlying pattern of our unique life story. We can then clarify our priorities and choose what we (not others) want to do with our time, talents and energies.
RD: You seem to say there are no easy fixes. In fact, you emphasize the importance of inner work?
BP: That’s right. To fully enjoy my remaining years, I must integrate the underdeveloped and darker aspects of my personality. Relating to spontaneous images from the unconscious by reflecting, writing, drawing and paying attention to my dreams brings the unknown into my awareness.
I have found personifying and then dialoguing with troublesome emotions to be the most beneficial form of inner work for me. I have listened to and negotiated with the "little girl" who needs security, the adventurous "gypsy" who treasures spontaneity, the "professor" who wants stability and the "explorer" who thrives on the unknown. This brings harmony.
RD: You also highlight the need for ritual. Why is it important?
BP: I think most western cultures underestimate the power of ritual. But ritual can help us live more vibrantly. It enhances meaning and satisfaction in every day life. And it deepens our connections to others and especially to the divine.
Personal rituals are the most powerful. For instance, I have established rituals for my writing practice. I light a candle, play inspirational music and offer a prayer of invocation and thanksgiving. These simple acts announce my intention and energize my efforts. They focus my concentration and create a sacred space for inspiration and guidance.
RD: Each of the 10 chapters in the book covers a specific life theme. And each chapter contains reflective exercises, art activities and action steps. You describe the book as a mentor in print. Why this format?
BP: As I mentioned earlier, I had no guides or gurus for a fulfilling late life. So I set out to find an alternative vision for growing older. I hope my book acts as a mentor guiding other women through readings, reflective exercises and action steps to a life-changing entry into this third stage of life.
RD: You give the nod to your husband Wayne, noting "his knowledge of the examined life." Do you think women and men negotiate this phase of life differently?
BP: I do believe it’s harder for men to make a successful transition from the workplace to elder identity. As well as working, many women are involved in caregiving or volunteer work. However, most men focus primarily on their careers, gaining respect and self-esteem from their performance on the job. When they retire, they are frequently depressed, having lost both power and purpose and with no significant post-retirement roles available. Therefore, I think, both men and women can benefit from a formal, sanctioned initiation into the next stage of life.
RD: Finally, gerontologist Ken Dychtwald reminds us, "A boomer turns 60 every eight seconds today." Any tips for them?
BP: Certainly. The years after 60 can be a marvelous time of life. Let go of old fears and limitations. Try journaling, meditation, prayer and dreamwork.
Finally, focus on the things you are really passionate about. And share these with your family and community. In short, walk with the wise woman.