I love autumn, the lovely shedding toward winter. This autumn, in a few weeks, I’ll be turning 70. It’s been at the back of my consciousness for a while, no doubt influencing what seem like random activities. They’ve been steps toward this milestone.
A few days ago, for example, I sorted through all my remaining paper books and narrowed down the keepers to one set of shelves. I buy e-books now so I don’t have to do that kind of sorting with my recent acquisitions. But someday we may move to smaller quarters and I want to be ready. Aging means lightening, letting go, simplifying, focusing. I am getting the sorting out of the way while I have energy for it. I don’t want to be burdened with stuff and decisions later on. We have a whole basement full of such stuff. My husband has even begun to tackle his end of it.
We are seeing financial and estate advisors. Thanks to my husband for nudging us forward on this. Many decisions are involved in this, as well as clarification and communication between the two of us that wouldn’t happen on its own. I’ve started to look forward to the monthly appointments, each of which brings a homework assignment.
The exercise thing I’ve been going through is all about turning 70, though I haven’t wanted to admit it. It’s like I need to gather steam to get me up this big aging hill. I think of aging as a climb, not a decline. But we climbers are handicapped. We work with and around diminishing powers, make the best of what we have, try not to fuss too much about what we don’t. Get rid of excess weight, just as we get rid of excess material stuff and baggage, pump up the energy levels to home in on the tasks and activities that are really important to us.
Dealing with old selves seems to be part of it, too. Will I ever be done with this? Probably not, but the last month has brought a perfect storm of Old Stuff. It started with a silly fight with my husband, who is often the hapless trigger for my periodic bouts of psychic cleansing. Under the fight, as usual, was an old pattern, a hurt and needy little kid. I’ve been paying attention to her and she’s been right there close to the surface this whole month, sometimes triggering bouts of anger and mourning and fear. There, there, let it all out.
I recently witnessed my 4-year-old granddaughter’s temper tantrum and realized that I never, ever did that as a child. I wouldn’t have dared. I was a little jealous. It didn’t help that I had been the trigger for this particular tantrum. But after it was all over and I’d found a path back to her affection she was all love, hugs, and good cheer. Is it too late to learn that kind of emotional freedom and resilience at age 69.9? I hope not.
But if I were to name a theme for this birthday I would choose “modesty.” A time of knowing and fully living into my limits. I am inspired to choose this term after reading Ursula K. LeGuin’s fine essay, “The Conversation of the Modest” (featured in a new collection called The Wild Girls).
Although every now and then I get an attack of what-have-I-accomplished-professionally anxiety, that seems to come from one of those old, younger selves, influenced by the perceived expectations of the culture around me, which is all about presenting oneself well, making a name, making a recognized contribution. If I truly live into this stage of my life it is more about relationships with people and the earth than about achievement.
Last night I sat in a circle of friends in a modest home overlooking a spectacular autumn riverside. Over a potluck feast (two apple cakes!) we talked about everything from cremation to politics. My failing ears couldn’t follow some of the conversation as voices crossed over each other or dropped at the end of sentences but it didn’t matter. We were engaging in what LeGuin identified as one of the most important human activities:
I think a great many people still hold modesty to be a virtue and practice it, even if they don’t use the word. I’m thinking of everyday conversations–carpenters working together on a job, secretaries chatting during a break, people having a beer or dinner together and talking about whatever they’re interested in and know about. It appears to me that in these situations, modesty of demeanor is the norm. Overbearing garrulity about my sweet deal on the Honda, my trip to Oaxaca, my incredible sex life, my special relationship to Jesus, is borne with, or heard out more or less politely, especially by women listening to men. But at length the true conversation continues around it, reconnecting unbroken, as water flows around a boulder. The conversation of the modest is what holds ordinary people together. It is the opposite of advertisement. It is communion.
More communion. That’s what I want for my birthday.