Susan Stewart, Petaluma author, on writing ‘Winter’s Graces’

“Kicking and screaming.”

That, says author Susan Avery Stewart with a laugh, is how she gave in after years of resistance and finally wrote her first book. “Winter’s Graces: The Surprising Gifts of Later Life,” will be released by She Writes Press on Oct. 9, and will have the first of several book signing events on Oct. 14 at the Petaluma Historical Library and Museum. It’s quite a milestone for someone who once swore that she had no intention of ever writing a book.

“As a kid, growing up in Burlingame, I was something of a writer,” admits Stewart, a Ph.D., former therapist, and longtime professor of Psychology at Sonoma State University. “I wrote for my local newspaper when I was in high school,” she says. “And I enjoyed that. And now I’m writing a blog. But I was really clear that I never wanted to write an actual book.”

Then she began to make some discoveries, uncovering a wealth of obscure and forgotten literature that challenged many of our culture’s predominant notions of what it means to grow older.

“I eventually changed my mind about writing a book, because I realized I had no choice,” she says, sipping a coffee on the outdoor patio of Petaluma’s Della Fattoria. “I absolutely wanted to quit two dozen times, at least. But I felt like I had something to share, something that was important. And I knew that if I didn’t write it, I would really regret it.”

The process of writing “Winter’s Graces” took Stewart nearly fourteen years to see through, she says, and demanded quite a bit more of her than just her imagination, hard work and tireless discipline. For one thing, she decided to retire early in order to devote more time to the project. For another, writing the book set in motion a number of changes that ultimately brought her to Petaluma from Dillon Beach, her home for fifteen years.

“I wanted to be closer-in to things,” she explains of her move to Petaluma two years ago. “I decided I was at a time where I wanted to be driving less to everything in my life except the ocean. I miss it though, and I do drive out there fairly often, but that’s a lot better for me - driving to the ocean whenever I want to, instead of driving away from it five days a week. Driving at night, especially, was getting harder. My home at the coast was wonderful, and my years there were very special, but I finally reached the point where I was ready to let go of that period of my life.”

“Winter’s Graces,” as Stewart has stated, was another big part of her reason for relocating.

“I realized,” she says, “that bringing something like this out into the world, while being out on the edge of the world, would be a very difficult thing.”

Described by Stewart as an eclectic combination of ancient fables and folktales, recent research on gerontology and neuroscience, wisdom from a variety of spiritual traditions, a ghost story or two, and Stewart’s own first-hand observations and experiences, “Winter’s Graces” explores 11 different “graces” – from the Grace of Authenticity and the Grace of Courage to the Graces of Simplicity, Wisdom and “Necessary Fierceness” – just a few of what she calls the “unexpected gifts” that come as part of the process of growing old.

“When I started, there weren’t that many books about aging, and certainly very few positive ones,” Stewart says. “But that’s changing. I think it’s heartening that there are now so many good books in stores on the subject of getting older. My own motivation came from wanting to share all of these wonderful stories and myths and folktales, illustrating some wonderful possibilities for old age.”

Using the metaphor of the seasons to frame the transition from autumn to winter, Stewart includes stories taken from a wide array of cultures, most of them with old women as protagonists.

“Though the focus of the book is on the experiences of aging for women,” Stewart explains, “I hope that men will find things they identify with as well. Getting older means different things to men than women, but there are many overlaps, and in recognizing those, I think a lot of wisdom can be found.”

Initially, Stewart reveals, the book was going contain only the folktales, with none of the research and science. And certainly none of Stewart’s own personal experiences.

“As an academic, I’d learned to write in very clinical ways,” she says, “to always keep myself out of whatever I was writing. But I kept hearing from friends, people who cared enough to tell me the truth, and they kept saying, ‘Where are you in all of this?’ That was a big learning curve for me, recognizing that I needed to start including my own insights, taken from the events of my own life, in writing the book.”

Stewart has certainly accomplished a great deal over the course of her own life. In addition to her dual careers as a therapist and college professor, she’s been a lifelong musician, who still plays the cello and sings. She’s played with Alisdair Frazier’s renowned Scottish Fiddlers. And early on, she played in a number of small groups, including a trio in the ‘70s named Right on Time, formed with her then-husband and a friend.

“It was a great name for a band, ‘Right on Time,’” she notes, adding with a warm smile, “and the two of them were always late, so it was also very funny.”

Stewart still plays the cello from time to time, and as part of the managing team of the music program at St. John’s Episcopal Church, she sings often. Her primary post-retirement job – aside from being an author, of course – is as a grandmother.

“It’s a wonderful job, being a grandmother,” she laughs. “I’ve got two batches of grandkids, 19 and 22, and 4 and 6. I’ve been with the little ones a couple of days a week for all of their lives. That’s another of life’s gifts that I’m incredibly grateful for.”

In Stewart’s book, the first of the eleven “graces” she explores is the Grace of Authenticity, which she describes as “The freedom to be who you really are.”

“In the course of our lives, when we are younger” she says, “we make a lot of compromises. We give up a lot of who we are, sometimes, though not always for bad reasons. But when we get older, we have a kind of permission to let those compromises go and to become more and more authentic.”

That, she says, is one of the greatest pleasures of growing older.

“There is a real sense of enjoyment in being that old person,” she says, laughing again. “It’s a grace to be wearing what you want to wear, saying what you feel needs to be said, and simply being who you are. That sense of coming into self, of course, brings with it a sense of how we are connected to the wider web of life, that our lives are connected to other lives.

“That’s a very sweet discovery,” she smiles, “recognizing that as we become who we are, we move beyond the personal self to something much bigger, much deeper, and even more beautiful.”

(Contact Community Editor David Templeton at

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