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Finding a new way forward

Boomers seek a surge in purpose, creativity after 50

Davidson interviewed teachers, psychologists, and artists for hew new book. Davidson interviewed teachers, psychologists, and artists for hew new book. (VALARI JACK)

Leap!: What Will We Do With the Rest of Our Lives?
By Sara Davidson
Random House, 317 pp., $25.95

Sara Davidson, who began her career as a reporter at The Boston Globe after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, became a star chronicler of her baby-boomer generation with her non fiction hit "Loose Change: Three Women of the Sixties." Published in 1977 , the book became an international bestseller and the basis for a TV miniseries, and in the years that followed, Davidson wrote more books , plus several network television dramas, and served as a writer and co-executive producer of the hit show "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman."

Despite her later accomplishments (none of which rose to the success of " Loose Change "), Davidson found that in her 50s she couldn't get hired to write for TV or sell any articles to magazines or books to publishers: "The phone doesn't ring and I have to crank myself up to go out and hustle and why, dear God, do I have to hustle at this age? It's humiliating." Around the same time, her lover of seven years left, and her two children went off to college. She was losing " my kids, my lover, and my livelihood," and it felt as if her identity was being "stripped away."

When she looked around with her journalistic eye, she saw that "others are going through similar transitions and that as a group [the baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964] we're being stripped of our relevance, our primacy. We're turning fifty at the rate of one every seven seconds, and the advance guard, the icons who set the tone -- Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Joni Mitchell . . . are well into their sixties or would be if they were alive. We did not plan for this; we did not know that at fifty-five we might have thirty more years of vigorous health, lust, and a desire to contribute and create." She set out to interview "friends and strangers who led me to others who are making their way, experimenting and asking: What's the next part of life about? How do we make the leap?"

Davidson quickly discovered she was not alone; even some of her generation's "icons" as well as just plain folks felt like the noted Jungian analyst Marion Woodman, who said of her own crisis of aging , "Everything I'd known and believed about myself was being stripped from me." Davidson learned that other formerly successful TV writers over age 50 -- like the authors of outstanding dramas such as " The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman " and "The Longest Yard " -- had brought a class-action law suit against the TV networks for age discrimination, and she joined the 180 plaintiffs. She learned that singer Carly Simon had gone through a period in which she had "so much rejection [she] couldn't bear it any more," being told one of her attempts at a comeback record was "dead in the water ," before she finally had a breakthrough . Former Students for a Democratic Society hero and later California state legislator Tom Hayden was defeated for a seat on the Los Angeles City Council at age 62 by a candidate who campaigned for "A New Generation of Leadership." The loss for Hayden was "shattering -- you feel it in your bones," and he told Davidson that after giving up elective politics "I'm feeling my way, just as I did in my twenties."

Davidson owns her own home and has earned a good pension from the Screenwriters Guild for her TV work, but like many of her peers she still worries if she will have enough money to live out her years. She quotes author Anne Lamott, who wrote that destitution "has been the most historically consistent nightmare of our species ." A psychologist friend suggests that Davidson deal with the fear by imagining herself as a bag lady, and realizing that there's a relative or friend who would take her in. Davidson has a loving sister; countless others do not.

After her four years of research for this book, Davidson concludes that everyone must pass through "the narrows" -- the way to a new phase of life. She dauntlessly tries the many ways others of her generation, facing the same fears, deal with the crises of age and accompanying feelings of irrelevance and hopelessness. She spends time in a convent in Connecticut and an ashram in India; works as a volunteer teacher of low-caste orphans in Bombay; interviews retirees who gather in planned communities of (hopefully) like-minded families who share communal meals; takes part in ceremonies marking the passage of landmark ages like 60 and marches in Washington against the war in Iraq; consults psychiatrists and divines, Hindus and Benedictines; finds hope in Reb Zalman learning to hang-glide at 80 and Marcia Seligson founding a musical theater company at 57 .

Davidson decides "it's possible to attain both serenity and intensity" and is heartened to hear many of her fellow boomers "speak of 'a creeping happiness' " and "a diminution of fear." At the end of her writing, she feels "both hopeful and nervous."

With unsparing honesty and relentless research, Davidson has created a powerful if often unsettling account of the risks and losses age inflicts, as well as the rewards it may hold for those as intrepid as herself. She reflects with a jolt that "I'd considered my own death, but not that my entire cohort would vanish like the flappers, the Victorians, the Athenians of ancient Greece. Young entrepreneurs are already vying for our corpses, creating green, PC funeral parks where 'the 4.1 million baby boomers . . . expected to die by 2040' can be buried in natural landscape with no chemicals or cement."

Baby boomers, R.I.P.

Dan Wakefield's latest book is "The Hijacking of Jesus . "