Like last year, autumn will be slow in coming. It will be awhile before we can leave behind the 90+ degree days that we’ve experienced too many times this summer, and last.
I look forward to autumn. There is a change in the air that other seasons don’t convey; autumn encompasses all the senses. It is a time when the trees and shrubs throw off their cloaks of vibrant reds, oranges, burgundys, yellows, and yes, some are still green. I breathe and inhale the earth in the early process of decay, when the well-nourished soil is sharp with an edge of mustiness, when the compost pile’s warmth comes from breaking down the biota for next spring. In the heat of this summer I close my eyes and feel a an autumn breeze brush against my face, I watch as it pulls the leaves from their fragile hold and sends them skittering down the asphalt. I open my eyes and look toward the garden, now promising a bounty beyond measure. I know in a month or so, the tomatoes will ripen and nearly burst filled with seas which will begin their own glorious attempt at reproduction before the frosts of October.
But now I’m in the midst of summer, blazing hot with a level of humidity that slacks my hair and keeps my face nearly free of wrinkles! See? It’s that awareness of the quick passage of time that continues to follow me through this year of seasons. Age no longer is just a number, it is a reality. I’m 63, and I feel its weight in a new way. In the hot winds that blow, I hear the wind whispering ‘hurry up,’ ‘accomplish those things you always wanted to do. ‘ It prods me to think about my purpose, which I’ve played with and then place aside as I become a shadow of Scarlett O’Hara – “I’ll worry about that tomorra.”
Except tomorrow is nearly here, and time is running out.
That’s not my mind speaking, that’s nature, with her memories and understandings of the seasons as years wax and wane. Nature’s nemesis is our consumer culture, filled with marketing–creams that magically make the wrinkles disappear overnight!. And celebrity images, the 60-year-olds with so much plastic surgery to make them look 30, except when they were really 30, they looked great, now some of them look desperate; and pithy sayings designed to trick your mind–50 is the new 40! Except we are still 50 and our bodies and minds are telling us to get busy and take care of the important shit.
But, these mind games are so alluring. They allow us to dream, to remember a time when we could run with the speed and agility of a gazelle, carry out a list of to-do items in a single day, have sex without additional creams and gels near the bedstand.
The thing is, nature is abrupt and at times flat-out-not-gentle in her reminders that culture’s capitalistic messages are just smoke and mirrors. They hide the fact that we should feel lucky we are old enough to have wrinkles, around our eyes and our mouths which crinkle and pleat when we smile and laugh. My one-year-old grandson, who died of liver failure in 2013, never got to develop such wrinkles; his laughter was taken away at much too young of age. I think of him now because the seasons near the time of year when he sat in a crib, hooked up to so many monitors, his belly growing a little every day, his time quickly running out. He reminds me that we should be happy we lived until 50, or 60, or 80, or beyond, because the lessons we’ve learned, that we’ve been forced to accept as part of life, have taught us (hopefully) humility, compassion, patience, and grace. These are the lessons that allow us, as a human species, to move forward, to survive.
Last year I’d arranged to have tea with a woman well into her 80s, who was still writing and publishing books of historical fiction, of life in the prairie, or in the small start-up towns of Colorado. Her tenacity to move forward despite losing her husband several years before, despite challenges to her health, despite a culture that tells her that she’s too old to worry about stuff like writing Too closely associated with these great memories are the memories of my disappearance from her life for long periods of time. I have to say, I am embarrassed I hadn’t been a terribly good friend as we’ve both grown older. I didn’t visit much, or call her. I was so wrapped up in my messages of ‘time is passing,’ I forgot hers was passing as well. We had the tea, a beautiful conversation, and she was gone a month later. Harsh reminders.
I remember one of my writing professors noted that many my stories contained conversations with older women. “That’s interesting,” he said and inclined his head to one side. “Were you looking for mentors?”
“Looking back, I guess so,” I answered. “I enjoyed their stories, about how they dealt with aspects of life as they got older. I think they were important in helping me figure out who I am, and why my exisitance is meaningful.”
Although it was women that he pointed out, I assure you there’s no gender bias. I’ve learned lessons from older men as well: friends, and my father-in-law, who taught me how to retire gracefully, how to look back at a lived life with precision and acknowledge its valleys and sorrows, and how to voice regrets. But mainly, how to take the time remaining to bring the things that are out of balance back into balance.
“So, you look for wisdom in these friendships.”
But like my friend from last fall, so many of them have passed away, their lives captured by old age, cancer, or a body just giving out. So many of these people intersection with my life in profound ways, some of them for years, others for moments. The moments of intersection have the most clarity.
For instance, the woman who told me of her breast cancer in the fruit aisle, three months before I was diagnosed. Or the elderly man who kept looking at broccoli as he told me of his prostate cancer. The 60-something year-old man who watched with something like fondness as my two young boys, barely out of toddler-hood, pulled videos off the shelves at the video store. Perhaps he sensed the height of my frustration, saw it in my actions as I pulled my eldest son away from the shelf, heard it in my voice as I told both of them to sit down and be still. “You know,” he said gently as he reached down and picked up a few of the videos, “I’d lost both of my children when they were in their early 20s, only two years apart. One died of an illness, the other in a brutal car accident. I would have loved to have grandchildren. Even if they did this.” He gave me a sad smile. “You never know what’s going to happen; enjoy them.”
There was the woman who sat in the radiation waiting room, her head shaved, barely healed cuts crossing her scalp, her large brown eyes held acceptance and tentative hope. Brain cancer. She never said it, but the cuts told the stories. The thing is, I swear, I saw this woman a few months back at the grocery story. Our gazes met, but neither of us acknowledged the other. Perhaps it wasn’t her, but I so hoped it was.
By sharing their vignettes, each of these people left me with such wisdom, with such grace, and an and overwhelming sense of gratitude.
So that torch that lays at my feet–the one they, and my one-year-old grandson Riley, Mom, Evelyn, Gyda, Bill, and Ronni, and so many others, used to light my way through the complexities of a lived life, reveal difficult subjects and murky answers, and show me the important difference between judgements and understanding; the oned who showed me how a steep walk up a rocky hill can reveal the most amazing views at the top– that torch is mine to pick up, to carry. My role, as an elder, is to illuminate paths of wisdom gleaned from rocky trails of joys and sorrows, to share my own stories of survival and what that looks like, enroute. And I will share them with whomever is interested in listening.
So, grab a cup of tea and sit with me and we’ll talk about the things that matter.