This year summer seems reluctant to yield to passing time. October is unusually mild and the forecast suggests it will stay so for a while. Insects still provide a steady background chirp in the evening forest, bringing me back to childhood evenings listening to night sounds and enjoying the feel of warm breezes as I drifted off to sleep. Even now I love sleeping next to an open window in weather like this. I recently heard coyotes howling in our woods, and I wonder if they are aware of the unusual warmth of the season.
Other autumnal rhythms are independent of temperature. Trees respond to the changing length of daylight, and are finally turning their various rainbow shades, rewarding annual tour bus visitors with a colorful though somewhat muted landscape palette this year. Animals prepare for the winter. Some gather food, others gorge themselves with the last of this year’s bounty. Some migrate south. Some are at the end of their lifecycle, and die.
Countless cultures have recognized the seasons as apt metaphors for the stages of our lives. I sense this strongly in myself. The summer of my full maturity is passing but I too am reluctant to step fully into my autumnal years. Like the weather this year, I am lingering in the warmth of my past, unwilling to let go. I still thrive in many ways. I am blessed with good health and fitness and a sound (though sometimes forgetful) mind. But just as the green chlorophyll gradually drains out of the leaves to reveal their underlying pigments, so too does my old strength gradually fade, and I find myself examining my essential core, trying to discern fully who I am, that part of me that will stay with me to the end.
Shifting metaphors, I think of the tree itself. Deciduous trees shed their leaves in part as a necessary protection from the weight of coming snow, in order that their branches, which have less flex than many evergreens, will not be snapped off by winter’s burden. Though I do not know if I will live on past the winter in some new cycle of rebirth (as some religions would have us understand) I sense a wisdom of trying to let go of things in order to be most free and flexible to meet the challenges I shall face as I move more deeply into the second half of my life, and to take best advantage of the opportunities that may still come my way.
I am unwilling to yield to age simply because of the number of my years. I want to live life fully. To be on fire, like the hills in northern New England appear at this time of year. To let the color and vitality of my life shine. The challenge, of course, is to burn as brightly as I can, unfettered with assumptions about how people my age should live, but at the same time be attuned to real limitations as they arise, and be graceful in surrendering to these.
I recall a quote from the Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis, who has had a profound influence on me since college:
“Maybe you’re right, boss. It depends on the way you look at it … Look, one day I had gone to a little village. An old grandfather of 90 was busy planting an almond tree. “What, granddad!” I exclaimed. “Planting an almond tree?” And he, bent as he was, turned round and said: “My child, I carry on as if I should never die.” I replied: “And I carry on as if I was going to die any minute.” Which of us was right, boss?” — Zorba the Greek
There is much wisdom in the alternative of the grandfather’s approach in gracefully accepting each day as it comes. There is a Zen quality to this way of living in the present. But I confess that I prefer Zorba’s answer, to embrace life and live it with a sense of urgency so that no opportunity will be missed, because our time on this earth is so precious.
The days of autumn become shorter, and darkness falls upon us sooner. I am confronted with the reality that I have fewer years ahead of me than behind. The approaching winter carries strong symbolism of death. But Zorba inspires me that embracing life need not be a panicked reaction against this inevitability, but a guide to living life at any age. The spirit, heart, mind and even body can, and should, always burn as brightly as possible, their fires illuminating and expressing our selves, revealing and celebrating who we are. And, just as in early fall the isolated red maples seem to ignite a conflagration of magnificent color across the hillsides, perhaps our lives can serve to inspire and ignite others to also celebrate this mystery we call life.