Walking through a covered passage in Montpellier, France, I noticed a number of people going in and out of one of the businesses and I asked someone what kind of shop it was.
Oh, it is not a store,” she answered. “It is a place for Third Life education.”
“Yes, for people who are no longer working but who wish to keep learning.” She looked at the sign on the door.
“Today, they are learning more about the computer.”
I realized the place was what we might call in this country a “senior center.” Most of the people I could see through the window were in their 60s or 70s, a few younger, a few older.
I walked on but the phrase “third life” stayed in my mind. It struck me as the perfect description for the way we age.
We have no choice in our first lives. We adapt to the circumstances into which we were born—quickly learning some are luckier than others—and we navigate childhood, school, and nascent careers.
Our second lives are the years we spend striving and reaching. We make choices—some carefully considered and some with careless abandon. We face difficult decisions. We work, we climb, we search for a mate. Some of us marry, pair up or partner. Some of us have children and either settle down to raise those children full time or shoulder the extra burden of both career and family. These are the years we sleep less, worry more, spend too much, save too little.
And finally, the third life. The last child leaves the nest. We retire or simply get tired of the rat race and decide to change careers or cut back. For some, the job or marriage or status they thought they would have falls apart and they discover they can not only survive, they can thrive.
Finally, for the first time, bolstered by experience, emboldened by wisdom and motivated by the knowledge that time will not wait for us, we realize we have the freedom to thoughtfully choose the life we will live. We have a few regrets. We still have a long list of things we’d like to do and skills we’d like to master. We want to make a difference.
Some waste these years with bitter extravagance, angry and self-absorbed, consumed by old grievances and lost opportunities.
Not me. What’s done is done. The past is quicksand and the more we struggle the faster we sink.
I want to see my children launched and successful in work and matters of the heart. I want to be a part of my granddaughter’s life. I’d like to learn to make a souffle without the damned thing collapsing like a parachute on the ground. Like the men and women in the classroom in France, I want to keep up with technology, to get the most out of what it has to offer.
I want to, at least once, beat my husband in a game of Scrabble.
There are so many places I want to see while I still have the good health and opportunity to get up and go. Or, with glaciers crumbling, poles melting and forests burning, while they are still there to see.
I want to write something worth reading.
Somewhere between the next five minutes and the next 30 years, my time will run out and I’ll be done. My first two lives are already behind me. But instead of looking back and mourning the loss of my youth, I know to keep my eyes on the horizon. This third life is a gift, a reward and benefit for making it this far. I want to get it right.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer whose audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of ‘Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons’ and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org