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Full Circles, Overlapping Lives: Culture and Generation in Transition by Mary Catherine Bateson

2000; 262 pp. $25; Random House.

Mary Catherine has been a gentile in Israeli kibbutzim, a Christian in Iran, an American in the Philippines, and the only woman in innumerable organizations. In Full Circles, she is the white teacher at Spelman College, the renowned black women's college in Georgia. Her dialogues with old and young "students" reveal the essence of Mary Catherine's advocacy: maintain an eye and ear for the strangeness and curiosity in the familiar. It is the bulwark supporting tolerance and love. Marriages infused with curiosity and surprise about one's mate last longer. Generations open to each other's personal histories become wiser and gentler. Full Circles continues the work of her popular Composing A Life, presenting with passion (and keen personal anthropology) the crucial need to always, always learn, despite the hyperworldic pressures to dwell in anomie.

"We live with strangers. Those we love most, with whom we share a shelter, a table, a bed, remain mysterious. Wherever lives overlap and flow together, there are depths of unknowing. Parents and children, partners, siblings, and friends repeatedly surprise us, revealing the need to learn where we are most at home. We even surprise ourselves in our own becoming, moving through the cycles of our lives. There is strangeness hidden in the familiar.

"The stories our children need most to hear are not the stories of daunting success, achievements so impressive and final that they are hard to identify with, but the repeatable stories of composing and improvisation, in which adaptation is more central than dazzling accomplishment.

"Miaba is an immigrant, someone born in a different country and arriving without the knowledge and skills for the new one. But every newborn is also an immigrant, and our era is unique in that each new generation is born into a changing country. Each of us, as an adult, is an immigrant, for the country I was born into in 1939 was not the same country as the country I live in today, though at least immigrants in time rather than space have the opportunity to adapt more gradually. The undergraduates in my Spelman seminar were born into a different country from the elders, but all of us bore the stamp of where and when we had matured.

"Increased longevity?the way we manipulate biology?has an effect on every age and stage, as well as on systems of meaning and concepts such as maturity and childhood, love and family. We have not only added some fifty years to life expectancy since the invention of agriculture, thanks to increments of knowledge and control, but added twenty of those years since World War II. We need to develop new understandings of how adulthood must change as it unfolds over time, beginning later and lasting longer, and how this changed timing will affect the relationships between generations.

"The longer old people survive...and the more active and able they are, the more important it is to make real distinctions rather than see age as a halo around all of a handful of survivors. It may be important not only to compute health care costs but also to understand the sense in which elders are or are not wise. Wisdom may be another of those concepts that has slipped our grasp. Virtually everywhere except in modern America the wisdom of age is associated with an acceptance of the approach of death."

 

ISBN: 0345423577

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