Mary Catherine Bateson —
Composing a Life

The wise linguist and anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson explores the matter of life as an improvisational art, at every age. As the daughter of the iconic anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, she’s had an ability to move through the world as both an original observer and a joyful participant. She’s composed a life that is far more settled but always in dialogue with the memory of her brilliant, globe-trotting, unconventionally-coupled parents.

Share Episode

Shortened URL


is a visiting scholar at the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College. Her books include With a Daughter’s Eye, Composing a Life, and Composing a Further Life: The Age of Active Wisdom.

Pertinent Posts

Becoming a mother can be a startling experience — a belonging to a communion of motherhood and the stark reality that one's identity will never be the same again. For this upcoming Mother's Day, Courtney Martin contemplates the fragility, fierceness, and myopia of motherhood and the ineffable beauty of being a mother.

Selected Writings

Six Days of Dying

"We talk in this country often about property rights. We talk more rarely about the shares people have in each other's lives, and about people’s rights to participation and pleasure, especially at the moments of passage: the right to throw a handful of earth on a coffin, the right to stand up to catch a tossed bouquet, and dream of one's own future wedding, to kiss the bride or groom, or hold a newborn. Couples today devise new rituals or set up housekeeping together in ways most meaningful to themselves without wondering whether meaning is something they owe to a larger community."

Read Mary Catherine Bateson's beautiful essay on experiencing her father's death, simply and intimately, at the San Francisco Zen Center.

About the Image

Mary Catherine Bateson pauses in the hallway of the Bloomberg Offices after an interview in 2006.

Episode Sponsor

Share a Reflection



Could you hold your giggles back? Listen to the unedited version and I hope you will hear how annoying your giggles are.
Thank you.

Krista, please never stop giggling. It was a lovely interview as always. Giggles are like little balloons of sunshine bubbling up and breaking up our well worn expected responses. Your delight in being surprised is part of what keeps your show fresh and simultaneously deep.


Yes, keep giggling! Who are we to suppress others' spontaneous joy?

Never stop giggling!! I love you, Krista! Your work feeds my soul!!

Please, please. Never stop giggling.

Great interview which I read and have not yet listened to. The mention of play in humans throughout our life span brought to mind a Sociology class at the U of Minnesota in the early '60s, using a text on social change written by the prof, Don Martindale. The thesis of the book, as I recall: Play, not necessity, is the mother of invention.

I graduated the /rhode Island School of Design 1971, with a degree in Art ?Education. The only meaningful recollection from this program, attributed to Piaget (sp?) is "Play is child's work". It just now occurs to me, while in deep depression/PTSD is:
why should Piaget's statement apply to children only? I just might cheer up, momentarily at least, is that I have NO PLAY in my Life,
angered by the Luck of the Draw, that Life is not FAIR. My actions have always been for the GOOD, yet I feel punished by a deteriorating spine, a botched surgery that keeps me in relentless pain 24/7, Then the loss of vision in one eye in less than 40 hours caused by an amoeba crawling into my cornea and voraciously eating it as a gourmet meal. My anger is more about the treatment of the Medical, top tier experts that treated me only as an eye, not n entire "human being". Their goal was to "win", to solve a disease that happens only to 1 in 10,000. the one & only other case thy hd treated ended as did mine, with the surical removal of my cornea and how the Doctor took it personally, as of this were about HER Failure. Compoind this by never providing me with any resources of support to adapt to this traumatic physical & emotional loss of my EYE, the one I've owned since birth. I grieve, alone. and I am deaf as well...all before age 65! Thois is when I hoped to live my OWN dreams having raised a brilliant, thoroughly loved daughter & then found the courage to divorce from an abusive 33 year marriage. Sold house, rented a wonderul place, eager to discover who I am, to have my own permission to PLAY. this lasted all of 9 weeks before my spine problems were dignosed as serious. M

What a joy to listen to your interview with Mary Catherine Bateson! I consider her a mentor. I'll look forward to listening to the unedited interview and hope, that at some point, you discussed Angels Fear, MC Bateson's courageous, insightful posthumous collaboration with her father's work on spirituality. Angel's Fear provides a significant touchstone in humanity's search for how to think about co-habiting this planet with the creatures upon whose lives we depend. If you and Dr. Bateson did not discuss this work, I hope you will bring her back on your show to focus on Angels Fear.

Wonder and Praise as the shared values. Love through the differences. Steve Earle's version of loving through the differences for the Children of Abraham named "Jerusalem".


with a video:

If we only did continue playing in a childlike manner rather than playing with our war machines...

"Wonder at a terrible and tender beauty..." To me, it said it all.

Thank you!

The juxtaposition of the two took my breath away because it was so poetically astute. Thank you.

Mind blown! I was so deeply impressed about the depth of this conversation! Is there an online recording/podcast of it? I would like to hear it again & share it with others. Thank you! (p.s. yay for giggles! but, I actually don't even recall "giggles" in the interview... just amazingly profound content.)

Annie Parsons's picture

Hi Katie - you're in luck! You can re-listen to this episode anytime right here:

So happy to hear that you enjoyed Krista's conversation with Mary Catherine.

Your conversation with Mary Catherine Bateson awoke me up to the point that I want to fly . There is so much to go through and learn yet.

I do not recall the source, but do recall the statement that was something like, "We are most human when at play."
This AM I was again delighted with your presence on NPR (91.5). You, your guests, and all else are the major part of my Sunday mornings.
About Ms Thayer the sad, giggle Grinch: Her being annoyed is really annoying!
Mary Catherine Bateson is a wonderful treasure - much as you are.

"The Age of Active Wisdom" -- That is a challenge, having arrived in that space between career and decrepitude. Thanks to Mary Catherine and Krista. I hear the program on Sunday mornings on WCQS in Asheville, NC.

I had the good fortunate of meeting Mary Catherine last October at TEDxCapeMay. She was a delight :) Thanks for the great interview! Mary Catherine's perspectives are insightful, while being practical and helpful.

Below is a link to Mary Catherine's TEDx talk—New World of Active Wisdom. I hope you enjoy it!

Mary Catherine Bateson at TEDxCapeMay 2014
New world of active wisdom

I'm so glad I spent a portion of my Sunday morning with Krista and Mary. Both have given me some much-needed perspective and renewed appreciation for all the wonder around me. For a lengthier reflection on your conversation:

A beautiful soul and such an interesting woman. Will read Composing a Life.

The most fascinating interview of the year. How have I not heard of Catherine Bateson until now. She is innovative and brilliant.

This was truly beautiful. I can't wait to read Composing A Life and soak up more wisdom.

Is there a transcript for this interview?

Trent Gilliss's picture

Hi Emma. Each week's podcast episode contains a transcript. If you scroll down this page a bit, you should see it in the line-up of offerings. But, for good measure, I'm including a link here too!

At this time of my life of being somewhere between who and what I used to be and who I am becoming as a youngish senior, in a new part of the country, with new people, I like the idea of having a Gap Year. Its okay to take some time to figure it out. Thank you Mary Catherine.