This series reflects on midlife reinvention and ways people respond to change.
Caroline Janover, Learning Disabilities Specialist, Novelist, Educator on Revising the Midlife Playbook
Caroline Janover wasn’t expecting to move to Maine when her 90-year-old father asked her to investigate a house being built down the street from his home in Damariscotta. She and her husband, Andrew, were perfectly happy in Ridgewood, New Jersey, where they had lived for the past 30 years and raised their two sons.
To oblige Caroline’s father and satisfy the curiosity he piqued, she and Andrew headed over to Elm Street and down to Lewis Point. When they walked in the door of the single-family Cape-style house, the next stage of their life knocked on their door. With the Damariscotta River out back and Main Street a mere five-minute walk, they practically said together, “It’s perfect.” In June 2004, to their surprise, they found themselves the newest residents in the neighborhood.
With one caveat. The private school in Manhattan where Caroline was working as an educational consultant wasn’t ready to give her up. A learning specialist, Caroline supported parents and helped teachers modify the curriculum for students with learning differences.
Before the phrase “No student left behind” became an educational rallying cry, Caroline devoted herself to students, kindergarten through grade eight, impacted by ADHD, dyslexia, autism, and giftedness. During her summers, she authored young adult novels starring protagonists just like them. In Caroline’s books, they are the heroes and heroines. All of those young adult novels remain in print to day.
Husband Andrew proposed a solution. They would spend three weeks in Damariscotta and one in New York City. Andrew would take the wheel for the 8-hour drive—the rare New Yorker, raised on taxis, who loved to drive. And Caroline would continue to help students like the one she was as a child. A second grader diagnosed with dyslexia.
“Challenges,” Caroline told me, “can be a gift. They make you stronger. When you survive, you learn you can survive. That gives you the courage to persevere.”
Steadiness and composure, not challenge or struggle, are the words that come to mind when you meet Caroline. She has long silver hair threaded in braids, bright red spectacles overtaking her eyes, and a funky blue sweater falling over her blue jeans. At age 77, she exudes individuality and quiet strength. However, when you talk to her about her life before and after her relocation to mid-Coast, she wears the word challenge openly, hoping others will learn from her and with her.
She announced: “When you’ve had 3 fathers, 2 mothers, and 11 brothers and sisters, you learn how to be adaptable.” While I’m doing mental math trying to climb her family tree, she’s explaining that her father, when she was six, fell in love with her mother’s best friend. He left her mother and their four young children. Afterwards, Caroline saw her dad two weeks each summer, visiting him on Harbor Island, five miles out to sea in Muscongus Bay.
While those summers sewed deep ties to her father and to Maine, they didn’t necessarily smooth the challenges that came with family disruption. The eldest child, Caroline early on assumed responsibility for family duties. The 50 cents an hour she earned to babysit and to do the family ironing is not a buried memory. “It wasn’t a particularly happy childhood,” she shared. She remembers long periods away from her mother in the care of her grandparents, while her mother studied and worked full-time.
Yet it was dyslexia, diagnosed in the second grade, which presented Caroline with her most immediate daily struggle. It took three years of tutoring, three times a week, to learn how to read. In high school, she earned the lowest SAT scores in her class. Extra time was not yet an option one could apply for, and she was slow to finish the test. She was accepted to college, she explained, because a small liberal arts college in Illinois was lacking in girls from the East Coast. She was from New Hampshire. Accepted.
“Growing up with dyslexia,” she remarked, “you know everything is hard, so you don’t expect life to be easy.” She had to work twice as hard as everyone else, she said, but her determination eventually earned her admission to Sarah Lawrence College, her alma mater. Later, she would win a full scholarship to Boston University to study special education.
Notwithstanding the family pressures, Caroline credits her mother with an unflinching belief in her abilities as well as refusal to see dyslexia as a defect. That unconditional support came to her through three generations. “What strength I did manage to muster when I was growing up,” Caroline said, “probably came from the influence of my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother—three strong women who held our quaking family together.”
Adaptability, learned from family fragmentation; perseverance, learned from dyslexia; resilience, learned from her mother—who went on, after secretarial school, to earn a Ph.D. in psychology—are some of the foundational lessons she took into adulthood. She would draw on these lessons later in her life when the next disrupter arrived in her family: cancer. A diagnosis of breast cancer, not once, but twice, for Caroline in her 40s. A diagnosis of lung cancer for Andrew in his 60s.
Four years after moving to Damariscotta, Andrew lost his battle with the disease, and Caroline lost her husband of 41 years. At age 65, she looked to a future entirely different from the one she had planned. Healing meant “starting day by day, rebalancing.” Although residents of the West Coast, her two grown sons provided constant support. Two siblings moved to the area, and she had her elderly parents, ages 100 and 95, to care for. “You have to be patient with yourself and gentle,” she mused. “Slowly, gradually, you re-emerge.”
Twelve years later, Caroline said, “For me, retirement was reinvention.” For starters, she kept her job in New York City and adjusted to a new way of getting there: commuting for 10-hours by car, bus, train, and cab. She started to revise her midlife playbook as well: widening her creative interests, serving the community, staying as healthy as possible, and nurturing new friendships.
Caroline lights up when describing her transformation from learning specialist to memoir instructor, a reinvention that began when she moved to Damariscotta. Her writing workshop emerged from a convergence of curiosity and initiative. “I wanted to meet people and to explore something new as a writer,” she recounted. “Since the best way to learn is to teach, I read books on the craft of memoir and wrote a course. Then, I placed an ad in the Lincoln County News inviting the community to come learn with me, once a week, for free.”
She organized the immediately popular class on her own for years, until Coastal Senior College took over, incorporating the course into its curriculum. She continues to teach the class to this day, although due to the pandemic, it’s now held online. “I love teaching, especially when students get excited about their writing,” Caroline shared. Publishing her own memoir, however, is not on her bucket list. Getting her four books into print involved close to 300 rejection letters. “Had I not been dyslexic, learning not to give up, not one of my books would have made it into the hands of young readers.”
“You have to figure out what makes you happy,” Caroline continued, adding painting and playing the ukulele to the creative pursuits that have enriched her reinvention years. Once again, she’s singing the praises of personal challenges. Instead of stopping us in our tracks, challenges can fuel the next step forward. “Before coming to Maine, I had never picked up a paint brush, and I was perfectly terrible,” she explained. And with a wry smile added, “I knew that was good because I could only get better.” The important thing, she stressed, is “that I had a good time doing it.”
At the core, however, Caroline points to acts of giving as the source of deepest rewards. Before the pandemic, she volunteered actively at a local nursing home, talking to elders who don’t have visitors or don’t remember having visitors. “That, to me, is what gives the greatest satisfaction,” she reflected. She is waiting eagerly to get back.
Re-invention, however, need not be an activity visible to others. Having spent most of her life working full-time, being constantly productive and “on,” Caroline shared an inner shift that has enriched her daytime hours. After lunch, she meditates and reads for at least an hour. She admits to a lifetime of running to tight schedules, driven by “the old Puritan ethic.” She’s relaxing now, or in her words, “loosening up, allowing myself new freedoms.”
For the first time in her adult life, she can now take on the challenge of reading long books. “Being dyslexic and so tired at night from the workday, I could read about two pages at a time,” she said. “Now I just finished All the Light I Cannot See, all 544 pages. I found that very exciting.”
Although the pandemic has put a stop to a whole range of social outlets—painting class, ukulele practice, exercise classes at the YMCA, friends for supper— Caroline remains sumptuously grateful for her blessings. “I had cancer twice, and I didn’t think I’d live to be 50,” she confided. “It makes you realize these years are a gift. I never expected to live this long.” With the help of Zoom, she keeps up with family and friends. At home, she listens to music, gardens, walks, cooks, and cares for her perky black Spaniel, Hannaford.
Caroline has the strength that comes from a mother and grandmothers who believed in her, and from a core belief that challenges can become gifts. Looking out from Lewis Point at the Damariscotta River together, I asked Caroline what her midlife years in Maine had taught her about reinvention. In a quiet, voice, she said, “It teaches you there’s always rebirth. Things die and change, fly away and come back.”
The Collective Wisdom of the Ladies of Lewis Point, an informal group who meet in Damariscotta
-Start a conversation, issue an invitation. This is where community begins.
-Say “yes” to new friendships and opportunities.
-Start new hobbies and activities, but turn off the valves of self-criticism and judgement.
Give yourself time to learn. Honor the effort.
-Take or start a class at an educational organization. It’s a great way to nourish the intellect and connect with kindred spirits.
-Re-invention doesn’t have to start from square one. Extend what you know. Build on and share your skills, talents, and experience.
-Work/life balance is as important during later years as it is during the working years.
-Partake in any of the great activities associated with the great outdoors.