Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash
It’s autumn in central Maine, and the leaves are falling. Sometimes they flutter in the arms of a sly little wind under a crisp blue sky, skittering across the road in front of the car, turning me into a more cautious driver than usual because they look so much like a squirrel or chipmunk. Other days they’re torn from the trees by rain and heavy, tropical air under low grey clouds, misty at their trailing hems.
So many leaves in so many shades of copper, bronze, orange, red and yellow. A sodden chaos of leaves underfoot in the rain and an airy whirlwind of them on dry, bright days. It’s as though the trees have been holding their breath all summer and now they relax and exhale, releasing the tension of production, growth and photosynthesis, easing themselves from yesterday’s clothing and burdens, shaking and stretching in naked freedom and settling down with a sleepy grunt for winter.
Bits of the world, leaves, songs
scatter in painted light.
break. –Carol Frost
The past hours, days, weeks and months litter the ground, trodden, damp and fading. Their stories, whispered to the wind, of nest and hollow; bird, insect and animal; stars and rain and dew and the secret underground life of root, soil and mycelium, are lost. From their bodies new stories for the next cycle and generation of life will green and grow.
Photo by Vanessa von Wieding on Unsplash
I envy the trees their grace and patience. They know how to let go. They turn change into glory. They understand surrender to the fading light and changing tilt of the planet.
I, on the other hand, am not so graceful. Starting a part-time job, even doing something I love and am familiar with, has me wild-eyed and overwhelmed. My carefully constructed and comfortable routine is in pieces. I can’t turn the calendar page and fill in my accustomed schedule. Horrors! Now the days ahead are as naked as the bared trees, allowing me time to reconsider the true shape of things. I think of periods of change as bone time. I can’t see the bones of my life when the calendar is predictable and lists guide me through the day. Habit and routine are powerful, and after a time I stop noticing if I’m staying in balance, managing my time and taking care of my needs well. It’s only in these periods when all my schedules, lists and calendar pages are so many leaves of paper tossed onto the floor that I see the bones again.
To inventory our bones is to let go of possessions, distractions, noise, activity, thoughts, beliefs, habits and behaviors and ask ourselves what our true shape is. What are the deepest pieces of our body and soul? What is necessary in order to express our highest purpose? What destroys our time, energy and joy, and what liberates them?
Can we let go of what’s no longer useful? Can we give it to the wind, to the air, to the frost and rain and snow? Can we give it willingly, freely, with grace and beauty?
Yes, I can let things go.
But grace and beauty are noticeably absent just now!
Still, the trees in this season comfort me and show me the way. They’re not worried about next month, next week or tomorrow. They don’t seem to mind change. They release yesterday’s leaves with careless abandon and show their bones proudly to the sky. They know who they are and they take what they need without apology or shame. They rest in the security of the endlessly turning cycles and seasons.
I don’t think I’ll ever achieve their wisdom or serenity.
On the other hand, I know something about my own bones because life gives most of us more than one chance to begin again, and I’ve had lots of practice. I know shortly I’ll be back in a steady, effective, predictable routine that accommodates my new job as well as my current needs and priorities.
wind tugs leaves away
my hat begs to follow
guide me wind the way
you’re lost i’ll be lost — Kim Robert Stafford
Life is change, and change is life. Old conditions give way to new conditions, and the process is always happening, no matter how stuck or helpless we feel. Chaos comes, picks us up by the scruff of the neck, gives us a good shake, and we find ourselves flung into something new, which will in turn gradually fade away.
Leaves fall. Light wanes. We are lost, torn away from what’s familiar, and then the way ahead opens before us and we’re found again.
Photo by Brigitte Tohm on Unsplash
All content on this site ©2018
except where otherwise noted
It’s strange to be aging, isn’t it? It doesn’t matter if you’re in your 20s or 60s, getting older is a remarkable experience. As I move through my 50s, I see more and more of my life when I look over my shoulder and I no longer have the feeling of limitless horizons in front of me. Whatever is ahead, it’s not limitless.
I have a friend who looks at a tape measure and finds the number of inches corresponding to his age. He takes in the distance between the end of the tape and his place at 70 something. Then he puts his finger at another 10 years, another 15 years. The visual on this exercise is startling. What happened to all those years of our life, and when did we move so close to our last day?
Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash
For at least a decade now I’ve been watching my elders and trying to figure out how to age gracefully. Every now and then I meet a remarkable elder. They have a twinkle in their eye, they laugh a lot, they’re curious and interested and they’re wonderfully authentic. I want to grow up to be just like that.
I’m convinced the great keys to aging gracefully are staying in intimate connection with ourselves every single day, no matter how old we are, and embracing change like a lover. Without consent and resilience, aging becomes a bitter battle to the end.
So many of us, as we age, live increasingly in the past. It’s understandable. We’ve been, done and seen a lot. The problem is as the years roll over us we don’t update our software. We hang on to what we were, what our bodies could do, how it all was during a time we remember as the best time (or at least a better time than now). We continue to define ourselves by outdated habits and routines. I’m not sure if this is a function of nostalgia or weariness or just plain laziness, but somewhere along the way we cross some invisible finish line, stop paying attention to embracing how things are right now and start waiting to die.
As our software gets more and more out of date, incompatibilities arise between how we show up in the world and our stories and memories. We lose credibility and effectiveness.
It seems to me the day we stop being curious about what we might learn, do or be next is the day our lives really end. People who age gracefully still have plans. They still dream. Their thinking remains flexible, even if their bodies don’t. They find some magical balance between letting go and moving forward. Change becomes a beloved friend rather than a feared enemy.
It’s not hard to see this in small external ways. We hang on to clothing, for example, that no longer fits, or was fashionable for a fleeting moment fifteen years ago. We hang on to books or movies or music we once loved and couldn’t do without, but now have outgrown. I don’t suggest there’s anything wrong with such nostalgia, but I do think all that stuff can pile up around us and block a clear view of what is now, or what might be ahead. Too often, the externals mirror our internal habits.
I notice many people my age still describe themselves by a job or position they no longer have. Some folks seem almost apologetic about being retired, as though they’ve lost personhood in the world, have become nobody. Others tell you all about some beloved skill or activity, how they practiced it, the ways it enhanced their life, their mastery, but never mention it was all long ago and right now, today, that activity is no longer part of their lives. Their lives have changed, but they haven’t updated their sense of identity. They’re stuck in their past and missing their present. They dangle in the empty gap between who they were and the stranger they are now.
I think some people feel angry about aging. We want our bodies to look, feel and perform the way they used to. We refuse to adjust to our present physical realities because they don’t match what we used to be able to do. We’re ashamed of our changing bodies rather than comfortable in them. We fear the changes the years bring and try to hide them or resist them.
Photo by Capturing the human heart. on Unsplash
Then there are people, amazing people, who know the trick of beginning over and over again throughout their lives. They spend their professional years as a lawyer and then retire and become an artist. A woman marries, works, raises a family and then, divorced and in her 60s, begins traveling all over the world. People in their 50s and 60s go back to school and acquire a new skill or a degree. They live in the day they’re in, in right now, and they’re focused on the present and future rather than the past. They accommodate their physical needs, feel at home in their skin and are constantly updating their identity, intentions, connections and contributions.
Defining ourselves by our pasts is a sad business. I know aging can feel limiting, but I think the real limiting factor in aging is refusing to participate in it! Defining ourselves by what we can’t do, don’t do or once did (but no longer) is a terrible way to live at any age, but in old age it becomes a pernicious habit indeed. After all, anyone may have physical limitations at any age. Those limitations needn’t define us unless we invite them to.
Considering what is possible, what we can do, what we’d like to do and what we’ve always wanted to do — now, there’s a set of questions for living a full, rich life, today and tomorrow. An elder who draws wisdom from years of experience and has a well-exercised sense of humor, curiosity and the ability to learn is indomitable, irrepressible and irresistible.
Life brings many things, including devastating loss, injury and illness. Every day we live we’re aging, and every day is a new gift we might choose to receive, or we might turn away and look only at the old gifts, the old days, all that came before when we were younger, better looking, stronger, more hopeful, more innocent.
I know what’s behind me. Some of it was grand and some very painful indeed, but it’s all over, good and bad. Many of the clothes I wore, the thoughts and beliefs I held firmly onto, the meaningful routines and rituals in my life, are like so many dropped leaves, fluttering in the wind of my passing. I have no idea how much time I have left or what’s in front of me, but there’s so much I still want to do! Still, I cling to the past in some ways. I tell myself such-and-such (a lovely, longed-for thing) will never happen again. I say I can’t do XYZ instead of I’ve never done it before and will you teach me how? I feel frustrated and old when I wrestle with a 40-lb bag of bird seed and my back hurts for three days. I can be just as lazy, sulky, resistant and weary as anyone else.
Yet I’m convinced enormous grace lies in aging, if we can find it. I believe aging is full of invisible gifts, insight and strength. I want that grace. I don’t want to miss the last part of my life because I’m refusing to be present with it. I want to take the time to close all my programs and apps and let my psyche and body update and reboot regularly.
Aging with grace is a work in progress. Some days are more graceful than others.
Photo by ivan Torres on Unsplash
All content on this site ©2018
except where otherwise noted
My partner has trained in Aikido, and he relates hearing the above advice years ago from his teacher. Ever since he repeated it to me, I’ve been turning it over in my mind.
We lately found a Tai Chi teacher and joined a class. I’ve wanted to do Tai Chi for a long time, and it’s every bit as much fun as I always imagined it would be. I practice every day, and part of my practice is meditating on that wonderful piece of subtle Eastern wisdom: Don’t be where the blow lands.
Photo by Jason Blackeye on Unsplash
Tai Chi is a Chinese martial art focusing on energy manipulation, practiced for defense and health. Many of the people in the class we joined are there to address balance and strength. I’m happy to support both my balance and my strength, but I’m learning Tai Chi primarily as a grounding and centering tool.
We’re learning a series of specific slow, repetitive movements that flow into one another. Each movement is called a form, and each form has its own, often poetic name: The bow, the crane, windmills, the lute. Tai Chi emphasizes locating and moving from one’s center, and it’s interesting how difficult I find that.
Learning the forms and stringing them together is no problem for me. It takes a lot of repetition to get arms and legs coordinated and figure out proper positioning, but I like repetition and want to practice. What I notice, though, is how easily I lose my center. I reach or step too far. I find myself up on one toe or another when I’m not supposed to be. I put one foot directly in front of another, like a model on a catwalk, instead of maintaining a more stable, wider-based stance. My ankles are weak and unsteady. If I’m doing one form at a time in isolation, I can tighten my core and be solid, but Tai Chi is flowing movement, albeit slow, and after a few different forms my center is gone.
Losing my balance in this way is a perfect metaphor for the way I’ve lived my life until recently. My energy and attention were always directed outward. I had very little ability to support myself; I relied on external support and I didn’t distinguish toxic inputs from healthy ones. I was too hungry and had too many unmet needs; I took a lot of poisoned bait. Not only did I stand where blows landed and bullets sped, I made a camp there and called it home. I believed I needed those blows and bullets, that they meant love, that it was my responsibility to endure them, and that I deserved them.
We can’t avoid life. Harsh words, verbal attacks, physical violence and unexpected events like fire, flood, riots and sudden public violence are going to happen. Even so, there are ways in which to meet life’s blows with all the grace and elegance of Tai Chi, and as I practice the forms and movements, I think about the skills that allow me to absorb the blow, to flow with it, and to step away from where it landed before it can be repeated.
I’m a big proponent of self-defense and I always carry a knife. I’m not afraid to fight. One day soon I’m going to learn to shoot and buy myself a gun, which I will carry. That kind of self-defense is a separate thing from my practice of Tai Chi. Tai Chi is not about any kind of an aggressor lurking in an alley or a parking lot; it’s about emotional and energetic safety.
Photo by Deniz Altindas on Unsplash
Tai Chi, along with swimming, dancing, ritual work, walking and writing, is a way to call myself home, back to the center, back to my bones and the source of myself. Maintaining my center absolutely requires my undivided presence. I can’t center properly if I refuse to know all of who I am. I can’t maintain balance if I refuse to love all of who I am. The minute I try to amputate bits and pieces of myself, deny my thoughts and feelings or start tearing myself down in any way, I’m standing (again) where blows are guaranteed to land. When I catch myself justifying; pleading; waiting for external validation; trying to please; choice-making out of fear, denial and self-doubt, I know I’m standing on the shooting range with a target pasted over my heart and head.
I’ve spent too much of my life staggering under loads of other people’s shit, carrying vampires and dragging chains. Confusion, fear, perfectionism, disempowerment and constipated unacknowledged feelings have all kept me standing where the blows land. Arguing with what is has cemented me in the path of bullets. Clarity, self-confidence, making friends with my feelings and reclaiming my power allow me to deflect, block or better absorb the blows that come my way.
I’m intentional about living with the wisdom of choosing not to be where the blow lands. Reclaiming my center and moving mindfully from danger, not only physically but creatively and emotionally, all but eliminates my fear and anxiety. Concentrating on grounding leaves no room for anything but strength and rootedness. The meaning of my life is not out there, in the noise and chaos of what others think, say and do. The meaning of my life is in here, centered within the container of my body, expressed by what I think, say and do.
Photo by Amy Humphries on Unsplash
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go see if I can remember the windmills and the lute from yesterday’s class.
All content on this site ©2017
except where otherwise noted
Photo by Andrew Montgomery on Unsplash
I often imagine life as a river and myself in a boat of my own making, floating on it. I don’t picture a sailboat, having no experience of one, but a small boat that glides with the current and can be paddled. I don’t imagine a single river, but a vast network, far more than I could ever explore in this lifetime. Sometimes it’s a river of water, sometimes a river of stars. Sometimes it’s a river of green moss carving a path through thick forest. Sometimes it’s an air-borne river of leaves and feathers and pieces of sky.
Sometimes it’s a river of stone.
The thing about rivers is they take me where they take me. I can paddle and steer, but whatever river I’m on at any given moment is a living thing in itself. I’m not its master and it doesn’t ask me where I want to go.
Of course, I don’t have to surrender to this kind of movement. I can refuse to make a boat in the first place, refuse to learn how, refuse to try. I can take a short cut and buy a premade boat or jump in someone else’s boat. If I do manage to create a boat, I can still make my way to the shore at any point and stop.
I can always throw myself out of the boat, too … but then I’ll never find out where the river is taking me.
I can also fight with the current.
I know a lot about this.
In the last few days, I’ve been floating on a river of stone.
Photo by Paul Van Cotthem on Unsplash
Stone is very, very, v…e…r…y slow. Oh, it moves, in the deep foundations of life. It shifts and compresses, slips, breaks down, heats and cools. It tells an old, old story, whole volumes of which are faded and weathered into illegibility, or hidden so well I know I’ll never read them. Now and then, though, a period of grace arrives in which I inadvertently enter a river of stone and have an opportunity, which I reject, avoid and try to escape, to hear whispers of stone stories.
During these times, others on the river are out of sight and out of hearing. My calls echo back to
Photo by Milada Vigerova on Unsplash
me off stone canyons and cliffs. I reach out for another in my sleep and wake with bloody knuckles. On the river of stone others do not respond. They don’t follow through. They don’t keep their word. My password doesn’t work. I can’t log on. There is no clarification or confirmation. I’m alone, in my little boat, and I feel adrift and forgotten, unseen and unheard, left behind.
The river of stone tells me a story of foundations, of beginnings, of layers of time and events, of family and tribe. My agenda, my insistence on movement and progress, my puny frustration with things not done, make less impression than a fragile-winged dragonfly that flung itself into the stone’s embrace uncounted aeons ago and flies now forever in the river of stone.
The river of stone is inexorable. It forces me to slow down. It provides me with no distraction and no easy entertainment. Creativity falls into sleep from which I cannot wake it. Those tasks and activities I call “productive” cease. Frantically, I paddle my boat, one side, then the other, until my hands are bloody blistered and my shoulders are a block of pain. All the old demons in my head leap into life, jeering and heckling, joining hands in gleeful celebration, and they have their way with me because I’m trapped in a river of stone.
I accomplish nothing on a list. I write no pages. Plans fall through. I wait too long to walk, and then it rains. Dirty dishes sit on the counter. All I want to do is get lost in an old familiar book — if only I could stay awake long enough!
Then, gradually, frustration, panic and fear exhaust themselves and lie down to rest. I rediscover the beauty of emptiness. I begin to see veins and gems and stardust in the stone around me. I remember the difference between doing and being, and the delicate balance they must maintain. The stone speaks to me of strength, of endurance, of centering and grounding. I give myself to the pause in communication and creative work. I put down the paddle, the oar, stretch out in the boat and rest, dreaming of stone-lipped wells refilling with spring water, dreaming of a spray of words leaping off waves or trailing behind stars in a river ahead, dreaming of friends whose faces I haven’t yet seen and broken connection repaired.
I doze, rocked in a cradle of stone. I rest, floating on a river of rock. I sink into the slow, deep, stony heartbeat in the center of all things, imagine inhalations and exhalations, each lasting 100,000 years.
Photo by Brent Cox on Unsplash
I surrender to the river of stone, and in doing so I float out of it.
All content on this site ©2017
except where otherwise noted