That’s “old” as in “of long standing,” not “exceedingly advanced in years,” which neither of us is (though we are, to speak truly, well-advanced into our fifties). The message referred to “the shadowed journey we are on” and urged that we “with a lighter heart, sing gladly toward its inevitable end.”
Beautiful as the message was, my immediate reaction was “Wait a minute! I’m not going ANYWHERE yet!” then had to ask myself if I’m growing old ungracefully, hanging on when I should be letting go. Looking to my general sources for answers, poetry and the natural world, not necessarily in that order, I had the following revelation (nothing to do with Christmas): nature does not “go gentle into that good night” (though individual organisms may well do so). Autumn is perhaps the most alive and extravagant season of the year, so why not of our own lives?
Yes, spring is wonderful (literally, full of wonders), and for most of my life, it was my favorite season. What’s not to love about daffodils, dogwoods in bloom, and baby birds? Yet, beautiful as it is, spring is not the season of greatest abundance, though it may be the season of greatest energy. In earlier centuries, spring was often “the starving time,” when the last year’s harvest ran out and the new crops were not yet available. I remember reading somewhere that many Neanderthal children died in the spring, often when they were three or four years old. If their mothers had birthed new babies over the winter, the older children were weaned, and if no food were available, they all too often died. Spring is beautiful, but it isn’t always kind.
The spring of human life isn’t always kind, either. Think of puberty, high school, your first heartbreak, the difficulty of establishing a career and figuring out who you are. Would you really want to go through all that again?
Summer is the story of exuberance, busting out all over like June in the old song. There’s too much of everything—think zucchini and mosquitoes. Think July temperatures. Think of our own lives—too much work, too much responsibility, too much worry over having to be everything to everyone at all times.
But autumn—autumn has all the virtues of summer (okay, maybe not strawberries) with none of the vices. Temperatures moderate, the air clears, even the light seems crisper. Then, the miracle happens. The late crops come in--apples, wheat, potatoes, the glorious abundance of winter squash—all the good, solid things that carry us through the winter. The year as it ages puts on a show possibly more impressive than those of spring and summer. Besides the trees covering the hillsides in colors unimagined by spring’s more restrained palette, the warm-season grasses bloom, creating lower-level mists of soft color, followed by the bronze, tan, and orange of drying stalks that will last through the winter if we tidy humans can manage to leave the grasses standing. And the flowers haven’t finished, either: fall brings armloads of asters and gaggles of goldenrods, along with hangers-on of some of the species that were part of the summer show, all working with pollinators busily pollinating before the first real cold puts an end to this year’s growth. Whole flocks of birds settle in our trees and bushes, clearing them of berries, stocking up for the trip south. While the year is indeed moving toward its close, nothing is more alive than an autumn afternoon.
And so with us. The autumn of our lives is slower than the earlier seasons, and I for one am not enamored of arthritis, but we can take a hint from nature and revel in this phase of our lives. If we are ever going to make peace with ourselves, now is the time. Color change is part of the process (are you listening, L’Oreal?), as is the end of fertility (does anyone really miss periods?), but autumn is not a sad, shadowy affair. Instead, it dances out the door and leaves sustenance for the next phase as it goes. When those red and yellow leaves finish their moondance and turn brown, they are generally bearing eggs for next summer’s butterflies and bird food, and by the time they disintegrate, they have helped to feed the trees that feed the bugs that feed the birds that…you get the picture.
Now, at the age when most of us no longer have children at home, we can be in the world wholly as ourselves, free of the summertime responsibilities that took so much of our time. If we are lucky, we can work more on our own terms now, choosing the projects into which to put our energies; we need not take on everything. We can celebrate the lives we have lived, revealing our true colors as the decline of chlorophyll reveals the true colors of leaves.
Moving into these late phases of our lives, let us be gaudy as gumtrees, tenacious as turnips. Let the young ones see us with our roots in the good soil we helped build and our branches in the air, moving with the breezes, unwilling to miss anything. Let us be lighthearted and singing, unconcerned with the end (for which we should have prepared in some way during that hardworking summer). Let our legacy be remembered sweetness, but sweetness with the perseverance of pumpkin, the solidity of squash. Let us be.