It has been almost four weeks since Dr. Mary Catherine Bateson came to Marylhurst University to give a presentation on her latest book, Composing a further life: The age of active wisdom. Almost four weeks, and some of us are still talking about her presentation. Like fans reliving a rock concert, we remind each other of especially powerful ideas she offered us, paraphrasing her phrases as closely as we can. Some of Bateson’s ideas have even popped up in the blog posts, on Facebook walls, and in the academic papers of my friends, colleagues and students.
In 1989, when the prequel to Bateson’s current book was published, I was completing my senior year at Willamette University majoring in psychology and music. The book was titled Composing a life, and in it Bateson, the daughter of anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, wove together an extraordinary portrait of five women’s life journeys, using their comparative biographies as a way to take face-on the complexities of women’s lives as they travel through the life course and attempt to balance work and love, their own and others’ development. The way Bateson lovingly represented the lives of the women she studied, the gentle and precise attention she gave to her interviews with them, so deeply moved me in my early adulthood; reading and rereading her book cleared space in my heart and mind so that I could imagine a different life-course for my self than the one my family history had fated me for.
I was also jarred and deeply impressed by the form of Bateson’s inquiry, the way in which she wrote, the way her sensibility enveloped every word on the page. In my infancy as a Human Scientist, in my still relative newness as a human adult, and even though I was not yet in graduate school, I knew enough to know that the kinds of questions she was asking, the way she approached her research, and the way her sensibility enveloped every word on the page was, well, somehow transgressive and radical. And sane and beautiful and hope-filled. To me, Mary Catherine Bateson was a major rock star, an imaginary friend and yearned-for mentor, a model for the kind of scholar and teacher I aspired to become.
So, after her significant and insightful presentation four weeks ago tomorrow, when she’d finished signing books, as she was gathering her people and things in preparation to leave, I had a moment to tell Mary Catherine how much she’s meant to me for over twenty years. She embraced me, which brought tears to my eyes, and thanked me for making it possible for her to come to my university to give a presentation. I told Mary Catherine Bateson that for a long time I had wanted to be her, but at a certain point in the last few years I had decided instead to be inspired by her to continue in my becoming the best me I could possibly become.