This winter, I decided to trim back even less of my garden when all the plants began their annual march from lush abundance, to spent sticks. As the palette in my yard shifted from greens to splashes of gold and bronze, then finally to shades of pewter, brown, and silver, the winter birds began arriving.
I don’t know if they’ve been this numerous in other years. Perhaps so, and I just never noticed it. But this year, I am noticing: juncos, wrens, goldfinches, chickadees arrived in chittering flocks to tease the seed heads of cone flowers and asters, goldenrod and bee balm.
So of course, I cannot cut the plants down. The birds are having far too much fun nibbling them and scratching beneath their protected brown understory, and I’m having far too much fun enjoying the show of movement, song, and flight.
I’m feeling a special kinship with the dried stalks of borage and foxglove, and all the other crisp, brittle skeletons of my garden companions. For one thing, we share the same hues: my hair has turned over the years to the color of alder bark and hawthorne. My bones are becoming brittle as the mint stems. I note the crepe-like texture of my aging skin that feels more and more like old leaves with each passing year.
When spring comes again, the plants will rise from their inner dreaming in the dark soil and spring once again to supple green life, but my hair will remain gray, my bones brittle, and my skin like crepe.
I am sitting often these days with the reality of aging, and with the deepening understanding that this stage of life is a slow, thoughtful journey toward a threshold. With each day, I come ever closer to my last. It is as though I can see that horizon now, where the world—my world—ends.
I don’t know if it is possible to contemplate such a journey in one’s younger years—provided one has the gift of robust health. Minnie, my mother, used to say that you can’t understand what being old is until you get there. Like pregnancy, it needs to be lived to be understood. And while I have never been pregnant, I am well on my way to being old.
In autumn, the plants return to their source below ground, going inward, slipping quietly into the life of roots and soil and the seasonal alchemy of cold. I find myself retracting more and more into my interior self, my own rootedness, as my personal autumn deepens toward winter. Like the comfrey plants whose banana-sized leaves have fully melted into the ground around them, I am called to different tasks in the waning seasons of my life.
And the tasks are challenging. All of growing up seems to be about “more:” more skills, more learning, more friends, more projects, more excitement, more life. But now, I sense that my life will be about learning to adapt gracefully and peacefully to less: less energy, less mental acuity, less activity, less ability to see or hear well, less good health.
Already in my life, I’ve had to say no to two of my dream jobs when they were finally offered to me in later life. I simply did not have the energy or the concentration to undertake them. A part of me is still shaking my fist at the heavens over the loss.
Around me, peers are beginning to fail and die. The effect on my heart is sobering. I realize one day too soon, that will be me. Owing to chronic illnesses, both John and I have aged more swiftly than some of our friends, so I’ve been struggling with the enormity of letting go of many things for nearly a decade now.
So, why isn’t it any easier? Perhaps because, paradoxically, although this is the time of my physical life where I am able to do less, it is the time of my life where more opportunity surrounds me than ever before. I no longer have to work at a “real job” and my days are my own.
I’ve used the time to craft a close circle of friends—a village around me—and with more friends comes more chances for fun activities. I can honestly say that in the past few years, my life—while much harder—has been happier than ever before.
Since bees and bee tending found me, I have a new passion that I am physically able to undertake. And yet each year, I find myself having to say “no” more and more to the invitations of the world around me.
I don’t want to shut my mind to any aspect of this final pilgrimage of aging. Although the prospect of death is unnerving, to say the least, I want to try to welcome this spirit to walk beside me and inform my days. Because I need her teachings about how to be in this new, rickety landscape of my life. I need to learn how to let go of everything and somehow manage a Mona Lisa smile at it all.
Here is what my aching knees, sore back, arthritic hands, and fragile health are whispering to me these days. This is their wisdom, as near as I can interpret it:
Daughter, less is more. Sitting quietly is noble, not a waste of time. Daydreaming heals. Quiet mornings, quiet evenings—these things start and end your days with peace.
Daughter, ‘Been-there-done-that’ is a fine mantra now. Cherish tasks and skills that were for another time, and let them go. Dust off old attitudes that served you in youth, shine them up, smile at them, and let them go. Remember people and places from another time, treasure the memory (that lasts forever), and let them go.
Daughter, the senses were created for taking in information. Your senses are getting opaque now, dimmer. See? They are trying to tell you that you simply no longer need to be taking in more and more information. Sight, sound, scent, touch—such brilliant gifts for a life, but they can also distract you from your tasks at hand now. The path into the winter moons of life requires a traveling inward, not putting all your energy into the delights and absorption of the senses.
Oh, Daughter, so much your life has been lived in your head and your thoughts. Now is the time for sinking into the deep heart of reconciliation, of a gentle and compassionate review of your days and years, of listening to the conversations of grass, leaves, and bees. Nature knows growth, fading, deconstruction, and renewal. These are the teachings that will serve you now. How limited and fear-filled is your human wisdom on these matters. Sit with dragonflies and pond lilies and follow their counsel, instead.
Daughter, good neighbors are more precious and valuable now than old friends and family from afar. Cultivate a village of support and love across the fences. Give more than you hope to gain. Bring bread. Bring plants. Bring helping hands. Close neighbors are the guardian angels of this time of life.
Daughter, sit with yourself. What a tragedy it would be if you left this life without having ever truly befriended—or known—yourself.
Daughter, no matter your circumstances, there is always the opportunity —every moment—to make a difference in this world. An encouraging smile, a laugh, a listening ear, a tender hand on your dog’s head, an errand for a friend. These are not small things. No expression of kindness or love is a small thing. In you last breaths, you will know the true worth of every kindness you ever offered the world, and you will ride on the currents of this love—if you have crafted it well over the years—back home to the One.
On these cold and windy days, I wander the yard, listening not so much with my ears, but with my years, to the guidance inside the shoe-sucking, winter-wet ground. At the center of a blackened comfrey crown something catches my eye. I move my fingers to push aside a crumbled stalk and find the tiniest gold-green shoot. She stands there like a tiny fairy, bright and supple, tucked into the deep safety of her self-made mulch.
You, too, will rise up again, fresh and green, a thousand times over, I imagine her say as I touch the softness of new growth. You’ll see! Turn the page of your life over like a fragile leaf and find so many, many more chapters awaiting you!