Beauty and retirement

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I am a glutton for natural beauty. Last week, on our way to a wedding in Pennsylvania, we made a side trip to West Virginia and I was able to feed my craving for two full days in the mountains. It made me think about how I want to live the rest of my life.

Our hosts were one of my husband’s high school classmates and his wife. Although we haven’t kept in frequent contact over the years, thanks to Facebook we knew that Herb and Sarah lived in a beautiful place and shared our love of nature. They were great guides to the glories of their neighborhood, and Sarah is a genius at picnic lunches.

Besides being age mates, our lifestyles are similar. We are mostly retired and we live in locations that satisfy our need to be in touch with nature, but when we get really old and decrepit we won’t be able to stay in our current homes.

Herb and Sarah already have the next stage worked out. When they have to leave their house perched on a hillside at the end of a road on the edge of a tiny town, they’ll move into an addition to the home of one of their children, in another lovely location. The addition has already been built and financial arrangements made, even though Herb and Sarah are in fine fettle. They’ve planned ahead.

We’ve started to think about options for our future. Recently a friend broke an ankle and was wheelchair bound. A quick look around our house made us realize we had to cancel a dinner that included her: too many steps and narrow doors. Our house will not accommodate us in our old age when we are physically impaired.

But whenever I think about eventually leaving my lovely house in the woods I get a pang of regret. I am willing to downsize but I am not eager to downgrade my aesthetic surroundings. Beauty, I believe, is a spiritual need that stimulates a physical response.

I developed a heightened awareness of my own response to the physical world years ago in a summer walk in the sensory section of a botanic garden. As I ran my fingers over lamb’s ears and breathed in the sharp fragrance of lavender, I was aware of feeling good, which was not unusual. But, for the first time, I noticed where the good feeling showed up in my body: it was a warm tingling around my solar plexus, as if my body was opening to the garden. This visceral good feeling got my attention.

As I walked through the garden, I continued to pay attention to what my solar plexus was doing. I noticed the response again–the warm, opening-up feeling–not often, and not necessarily when I would expect it, but unmistakable. In the Japanese garden. Under a willow. At the sound of the waterfall. By the lily ponds. At that moment I realized that “liking” was more than a mental attitude; it was a direct, physical response. The psychologist James Hillman called it the “ah response.”

Beauty makes me happy and I feel that happiness in my body. My sense of beauty is tied to nature. Happy people stay healthier, longer. Wherever we go from here, it must be more beautiful than most of the retirement communities I’ve seen. I want to live till I die in a beautiful place.

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