Pabbi (my father) spent Sunday afternoons in the living room reading or working in his vegetable garden even when there seemed to be little to do. To my teenage self, with its short supply of insight and wisdom, my father’s behavior was irritating. Why would anyone sit alone hour after hour? Today, half-a-century later, I sit in the corner of my bedroom reading and walking to the community butterfly gardens searching for the milkweed leaf beetles, even in winter knowing they won’t be there.
Growing older, our sphere of influence shrinks. Our map of interests contracts. Our third phase is a time of mourning and grief, a bridge between what was and what. This phase of life crossing from one reality to another, single to married, career to retirement, or married to widowhood, brings herculean changes. Attending more funerals than weddings is sobering. Some days we feel fragile as a Fabergé. Good or bad, our former life evaporates into the ether. What seemed so important before is no longer. When sixteen, I’d tell my friend, Áslaug, “I don’t want to live beyond 21.” So easy to say with your whole life ahead of you. Now I might say, who am I without children to raise, fixed relationships, work, or geography that defined me?
We all have “friends” who constantly complain about this or that, and for every encouraging thought you offer, they have three fears to share. You say, “This is perfect weather for walking.” They say, “You better enjoy it now. After today, the forecast is overcast, windy, and cold.” These are friends who lack self-awareness, quick to criticize and slow to inspire. Sometimes that woman is me. For one reason or another, I’ve given in to my lower impulses. Nudging me out of my self-pity-indulgence is a stark non-deletable truth. To be human is to love and be vulnerable to losses and suffering. Phrased another way, growing older is inevitable; gaining wisdom is optional.
Living in youth-oriented patriarchy feeling invisible is a given. But we don’t have to accept the culture’s negative views of us. Reduce our intake of commercials. Make up a mantra to chant to ourself to get the message to our subconscious. I am free to be me. I have the power to create change. I am deserving and worthy of all good things. What younger folks lighter in sagacity don’t get, it’s in the third phase we can become more ourselves than at any other time. Remember? When I grow old, I will wear purple.
From Jean Shinoda Bolen’s, Goddesses in Older Women: “The Greek Goddess Hecate is the goddess at the threshold of major transitions. She is embodied by the midwife who assists at births, and by women who help ease the passage of the soul as it leaves the body at death. Metaphorically, Hecate is an inner midwife, whose perspective aids us when we birth new aspects of ourselves. She helps us let go of what is ready to die: outmoded attitudes, outgrown roles, anything that’s no longer life-affirming.”
Our third phase is a time to pay attention to our inner compass. If we let it, our intuition will guide us toward each next step to allow the “soft animal of your body love what it loves” (Mary Oliver’s poem, “Wild Geese”). “Paying attention, pausing as you might from time to time, as if in an unfamiliar neighborhood, moving on when something instinctual in you knows that all is well” (Jean Shined Bolen, Artemis).
What we imagine becoming precedes development. Know where we are headed. It’s not enough to know what we don’t like. It’s more important to find what we love. What we choose to or not to do has an affect like the ripples from a stone tossed into a still pond. We must know what matter to us for us to choose wisely. Yet before we can navigate the river’s snags and logjams, we must have the name or image for what is stirring in our psyche. Discontent and dis-ease are sign posts from our inner being, a yellow light leaning to red or an eco-friendly emerald green LED post that remains on.
Our everyday choices shape our lives. Stepping out of a well-groomed rut, deciding to attend a poetry class, fulfilling a long held wish. Telling your children it’s their turn to host Thanksgiving dinner. What we focus on, we energize. None of us can stop time but unless we have lost our ability to accept and adjust we can make changes. Old age can be a time to transform bad habits. Reclaiming squandered time and pursuing the image of how to become the person we love, a person with no regrets. Our bodies will age; our soul can expand.
How do we usually respond to unsought shifts? How do we think, feel, and act when our landscape transitions? Have we learned from the past? This is the moment when we decide if getting older is good enough or to take the arduous path, the road less traveled.
“The Road Not Taken” —David Frost. Last stanza.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
“Wild Geese”—Mary Oliver Devotions
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.