Keeping Busy?

The exchange has been heard so often in the street and at parties that it's almost unremarkable: "Keeping busy?" "You bet." It's a friendly greeting, asking for ritual assurance that the acquaintance is following one of the precepts of our civic religion. And generally the expected answer follows, because to admit otherwise is to be regarded as partly dead.

Coming into Your Own: A Woman's Guide Through Life Transitions, Barbara Cecil's book, is many things: a manual for women, a description of the process of change in adulthood, with well-told examples from her friends, from her own life, and from useful books. But first of all, it is a counsel to not keep busy, to honor endings, be quiet, , listen to the body, wait, let a new direction emerge.

Along the way, she invokes poets such as John O'Donohue, Rainer Maria Rilke, and David Whyte, artists such as Andy Goldsworthy ("Rivers and Tides") and the architect Christopher Alexander, spiritual leaders such as Pema Chodrun, and other wise women such as Joanna Macy and Margaret Wheatley (who contributes an Afterword). Mainly, however, Cecil offers us meditations on the lives of unknown people, clients, friends. (Disclosure: I happen to be acquainted with a couple of the many people.)

In part, Cecil has met these people through the international network of an organization that she helped to found, Coming Into Your Own, after which the book is named. She leads CIYO retreats and works as a coach.

The contribution of her book is both these stories and a theory of growth. The theory posits four stages, each of which is described as a "dwelling place." The stages are: endings, in-between, beginnings, and tending. In terms of change, the stages are almost obvious. Cecil's sensitive discussion is not. Men as well as women can benefit by pondering what she offers.

For a male reader a crucial passage in Cecil's book comes when a guy insists in a classroom that the new thing should "butt right up" against the old dying thing because any gap would be inefficient ("a case of bad planning"). This is the attitude mainly taught in our society (it was said in a class at Columbia). In contrast, Cecil calls for and describes "a period of unstructured, exploratory transition."

Much of our educational system emphasizes left-brain knowing ("teaching to the test"). Cecil talks about listening with the heart, about learning This is not book-learning with an emphasis on being a "fast study," but rather a kind of patient learning, where nobody can tell you the answer and you can't get it by "thinking."

Among adults, perhaps avoidance of the vulnerability of not yet knowing is related both to the path of perpetual rushing and the practice of seldom listening deeply to other people. As consultant and as author, Cecil gently provides an antidote and alternative to a pattern so familiar we seldom stop to notice its toxicity.