Archives for category: Growing Older

Most of us have experienced dark times in our lives. The source may be the actions of others or a random turn of events. Our wounds may be self-inflicted. Regardless of the cause, the pain is real. What we do with the ashes of adversity shapes whether and how we move forward.

Looking back over the difficult times from the vantage of having gone through them, we can see that most of them were stepping stones to new awareness and understanding. However, while we’re in the throes of our challenges, it is often difficult to take our leave from the drama.

Perhaps, the leaving is tied to a relationship or a chapter of one’s history that was filled with significance. While this sort of leaving may certainly be accompanied by the anguish of what was and will no longer be, the free fall of letting go sets the stage for what is to come.

David Whyte reminds us that often the ashes of our vexing conundrums or old hurts point the way to the next chapter of liberating possibilities – arriving to begin again.

The Journey

Above the mountains the geese turn into the light again

painting their black silhouettes on an open sky.

Sometimes everything has to be inscribed across the heavens

so you can find the one line already written inside you.

Sometimes it takes a great sky to find that first, bright

and indescribable wedge of freedom in your own heart.

Sometimes with the bones of the black sticks left when the fire has gone out

someone has written something new in the ashes of your life.

You are not leaving. Even as the light fades quickly now, you are arriving.

Are you asking who you are meant to be and what you are meant to do in this chapter of your life? Recent observations of a tree may offer some help.

Two years ago, porcupines ravaged one of our locust trees, stripping bark and leaves from almost every branch. Based on the lack of life last year, I thought the tree was dead. This year, observing its lifeless branches as its neighbors leafed out, I concluded it would join our wood pile this fall…that is, until this past week, when the cream colored flowers appeared. While sparser than two years ago, the blooms are unmistakable signs of life.

In addition to how little I know about locust trees, three other lessons surfaced that may help you with the arrival of your own blooms of this season of your life.

Like the tree in question we humans carry within us unique gifts and truths. Locusts grow quickly, even horizontally in outreach to the sun. Their wood is durable and difficult to cut and split. It takes a long time to dry and burns quite hot. What are your special gifts?

The locust’s vitality reminds me of the genius of resilience. Able to withstand the porcupines’ assault the tree persevered for a new day. What persists in your life’s calling?

Each gift of vocation manifests in its due season. I knew that ash trees leaf out later than most others. I now know that locusts leaf out even later than ash trees. No amount of my worrying or coaxing could change their inherent timing.

Maybe these simple lessons from nature’s way can reassure us that our unique gifts will emerge in their due season. Patience, mindfulness and receptivity will also help.

 

Our men’s group met last week. We span four decades, and it was the arc of our chronology that dominated our dialogue. Whatever our respective ages, we face the unknowns that accompany walking into that landscape for the first time.

Three of us are in the “sandwich” years, directly caring both for children and parents. Two are exploring what it means to retire and when. Two have done so. Each of us dances with our partners in ever-evolving relationships. None of us has ever been here before.

Always the task beckons: how do we define ourselves within the unknowns of each stage of life? What insights and perspectives do we bring forward from the past to guide us? What baggage do we leave behind? What are the treasures of this time to embrace and the trolls to beware of?

As each member of our group has chosen to live where we do in a small town near lakes and hills and remote forests, the words of Wendell Berry resonate, reminding us of the adventures to which life calls us.

Always in big woods when you leave familiar ground and step off alone into a new place there will be, along with the feelings of curiosity and excitement, a little nagging of dread. It is the ancient fear of the unknown, and it is your first bond with the wilderness you are going into. What you are doing is exploring. You are undertaking the first experience, not of the place, but of yourself in that place. It is an experience of our essential loneliness; for nobody can discover the world for anybody else. It is only after we have discovered it for ourselves that it becomes a common ground and a common bond, and we cease to be alone.

 

Across our valley one day last week the setting sun kissed the tops of the hills. Continuing its arc to the west, it cast shadows that revealed the contours of the terrain that are hidden from our view at midday. The sight grabbed my attention. With their fleeting hues the passing moments of twilight were blessing the day, bestowing a fuller perception of its gifts and lessons.

Mid-way through my eighth decade I see the sun’s retreat from the peaks as a visual reminder of my life’s twilight. I am learning to embrace it. Slowly cleaning the clutter of expired years, I revisit and cull correspondence and writings, claiming the perspectives they provide on the people and events who have brought joy, challenge and meaning to my life. Like the contours of the hills revealed by the setting sun, views appear that were missed while I had been absorbed in the day’s dramas.

However, twilight’s perspectives are not reserved for the final decades of life. They are available whenever the light of our mindfulness softens the sky. Times of perplexity or promise, when we may procrastinate or prevail, can point us to the blessings of a new understanding.

Some lines from John O’Donohue encourage us to pause at day’s end to capture and appreciate an insight hidden in the glare of our midday tasks.

As light departs to let the earth be one with night,

Silence deepens in the mind, and thoughts grow slow;

The basket of twilight brims over with colors

Gathered from within the secret meadows of the day

And offered like blessings to the gathering Tenebrae.

(from “Vespers” in To Bless the Space Between Us, p. 183)

 

This is a week of arrivals and departures, when many of us will be traveling to see family and friends. For some our gatherings bring joy. For others duty dictates that we manage aversive dynamics. Often it is a mixture of both, compounded by delays from traffic or weather en route.

For those of us whose destinations are filled with fun, friendly repartee and abundant food, arrival is a boon and parting a drag. For those who must navigate contentious currents the exit can’t come soon enough.

Either way, if we pay attention to our energy accompanying our arrivals and our leave-taking, occasions like the coming holiday hold lessons for us about being present. Focusing on the jewels of insight in each moment, even when difficult, becomes more and more precious.

Yesterday’s entry from A Year with Rilke titled “Spectators” struck a chord.

And we: always and everywhere spectators, turned not toward the Open but to the stuff of our lives. It drowns us. We set it in order. It falls apart. We order it again and fall apart ourselves.

Who has turned us around like this? Whatever we do, we are in the posture of one who is about to depart. Like a person lingering for a moment on the last hill where he can see his whole valley – that is how we live, forever taking our leave.

How much of our lives do we spend watching ourselves come and go, overlooking what beckons before us? Do we linger over parting, or are we quick to say goodbye? After all, it is the “stuff of our lives” even when it seems burdensome.

My wish is to focus more and more on gratitude each day before the final leaving taking arrives.

 

Reunions are a time when past and present converge. The resulting emotional kaleidoscope requires interpretation. How do we (re) present ourselves to ourselves and those we claim as cousins of distant circumstance?

Living in the decade of the “fiftieths,” I have attended my high school and college reunions. Last week it was my seminary class. Wading into the waters of each gathering I have felt the tugging undertow of questions. What was the reality? What might have been otherwise? What is now the routine? What still may be possible?

Reunions require us to tell a story about how we define ourselves. An insightful lyric from Stephen Stills offers a warning: “Don’t let the past remind us of what we are not now.” Certainly, our experiences have shaped who we are today, but our creativity guides who we become tomorrow. Reunions can re-enkindle the imagination of possibilities.

One spark from last week was the inspiring examples of two women bishops whom our Episcopal seminary honored for their leadership under very difficult circumstances. Women were not ordained as priests or bishops when I was a seminarian.

The second ember to be fanned was a re-ignition of two friendships for whom a fifty-year hiatus was but an interruption. We will likely become part of each other’s narratives in the years ahead.

What is the tale you tell yourself? What do you present to others? Rilke’s words encourage all of us to articulate the truth and promise in our story today.

Here is the time for telling. Here is its home.

Speak and make known: More and more

The things we could experience

Are lost to us, banished by our failure

To imagine them.

Old definitions, which once set limits to our living,

Break apart like dried crusts.

Ninth Duino Elegy

 

Sometimes, when adversity threatens to overwhelm the spirit, focusing on a simple task can bring us back to center.

There is much to weigh us down in life, from personal challenges to the daily bombardment of media images and commentary. The devastation from recent wildfires and flooding is a case in point.

How do we bring ourselves back to center? One dramatic example occurred in the outpouring of assistance in the wake of Harvey. It was an inspiring glimpse of our better angels transcending the demons that normally divide us.

Most of us regain our footing through the routines of nurturing our families, caring for our animals, volunteering for causes we believe in, pursuing hobbies or practicing yoga. I have found another form of meditation.

We heat with wood, and I split most of it by hand, a little each day. One of the storms last winter brought down some trees in our forest. Before the black flies arrived in May I bucked up the trunks and limbs into stove length rounds. Last week I began retrieving them to split and stack on the woodpile. The tractor access stopped 45 yards short. This meant carrying the rounds and returning the same distance for the next load. Viewed from one lens, it was a highly inefficient process.

Earlier in life impatience would have led me to desist. Last week I slowed my pace and coordinated it with my breathing. I lifted only manageable loads. I used the many return trips to appreciate how much joy I felt walking among the trees. I have the time to do this now. The woods nourish me aesthetically, and they feed my provider persona.

Maybe the reset boils down to this: pay attention and be grateful for the abundance in the moment.

 

Have you found your place in the world? A home for your values? A harbor for treasured relationships? Pursuits that quicken your passions?

A few of us know early in life where we belong. The route of others is more circuitous. Count me among those whose paths have taken longer but who now know and embrace the destination.

This week I began the season’s first mowing of our front field, a sloping acre of rough grasses, ferns, and half buried boulders. Exacerbated by recent rains, much of it is also wet, requiring me to trade the tractor for a weed whacker. These days the chore, once viewed as nuisance, affords time to reflect.

Revisiting the past, I realized that each chapter of life fed only some elements of my being. That is, until the last decade, when, as much as they ever will, all the pieces have come together. Up the drive from the mowing field stands the home of our dreams with views of the surrounding hills. Gardens yield food and flowers, and stacks of drying wood stand ready to fuel the fires of winter.

David Whyte’s poem The House of Belonging connects with me here. The images range far beyond his residence. May the closing lines inspire you to read the whole and celebrate your own awakening to your place in the world.

…This is the bright home in which I live,

this is where I ask my friends to come,

this is where I want to love all the things

it has taken me so long to learn to love.

 

This is the temple of my adult aloneness

and I belong to that aloneness

as I belong to my life.

 

There is no house like the house of belonging.

 

Have you been neglecting something important about who you are? If so, this post is a nudge to bring it back into the light.

A few days ago I picked up my guitar. Abandoned in a corner for far too long, it has been with me since 1960. The years of use have chipped its finish but its action is still smooth, its sound resonant. It embodies the gift of music that our parents passed on to my sister and me.

Our family’s means were lower middle modest, but there was always music. A post-war memory still holds my parents dancing to jazz and swing on the radio. I sang in the church choir, the school chorus and the high school’s annual musical. My adolescence accompanied the birth and rise of rock & roll, and I love to dance.

It began when I bought a plastic ukulele for 25 cents (!) and learned to play and sing a pretty good rendition of Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode. It got my parents’ attention. I came home from school one day to discover a Guild guitar on my bed. Knowing our limited resources, that gift meant mounds of affirmation.

I learned to play. There was plenty to emulate with the popularization of folk music in the ‘60s. I sang at family gatherings and hootenannies and to a special girl. In seminary, I wrote and recorded a folk mass that engaged congregations more actively in worship.

Best of all, the genes have made their way to our children and granddaughter, each of whom enjoys music and dance in their lives too. And so, I return to my guitar and the songs of my soul.

What is one of your neglected gifts? Is it time for you to sing that song again too?

 

I am spending time these days sorting through stuff. What to keep and what to release? It is a worthy task for any decade but even more so in our later years.

The accumulation of what we once thought important enough to lug around collides with the knowledge of the way life turned out. Fewer “rainy days” remain, and what is wanted now, much less needed, may not be what we saved long ago.

As a “Jack” of many trades I have collected much: shelves of books; files of weddings, sermons and eulogies from days of ministry; course syllabi and curricula from teaching; plans, proposals and publications from leadership roles; speeches and correspondence.

To be honest, in addition to easing the load on those who must deal with this stuff when I depart, the sorting provides an opportunity to revisit the story I tell myself. Wouldn’t most of us want to emphasize the times when our better angels prevailed?

Then there are the forgotten jewels. During an unsettling transition in my twenties I bought a pricey camera to explore an interest in photography. Two of the boxes I am culling contain slides, negatives, and photos that I developed and printed from that period.

There are family members, friends and landscapes; moments of play and laughter, music and fellowship – images of my life frozen, preserved and now re-presented to delight and refresh an aging memory.

Each still-life frames a gift with which I am blessed – loving relationships, connections to the earth, a quest for meaning and opportunities for service. These treasures reinforce the core values of my story and justify the effort to lug this stuff around all these years.

And you? What is the weight of stuff you carry? Is it a burden or a boon?