If God grant me the gift of acceptance, and I be willing to receive it, then not only can I hope for a good death, whatever its circumstances, but I can be free to live each moment of my life.
Thank you for inviting me to come. I’ve been looking for someone I could talk to about a few things that have been on my mind a lot lately. Oh, people always say they’d be glad to listen…you know how they do. But when I say that what I want to talk about is this thing of getting old – weellll. People’s faces just sort of shut down! You can feel their psyches jump back about ten feet. Or sometimes it’s just the opposite…they get sort of hyperactive and start shouting about how totally great it is to be old! I’m afraid either one of those reactions leaves me not quite knowing what to say next.
We Americans are such a faddish lot, given to great swings of the attitudinal pendulum. One day we elevate youth to the godhead, and the next we’re “into” death and dying. In one phase we speak of the sick, the frail, and the elderly as one great undifferentiated mass on whose behalf we need only legislate increased aid. In another mode, the 6-o’clock-news broadcasts routinely feature stories on senior citizens, all of whom seem to spend their days participating in marathon races, square-dancing exhibitions, and an enviable sex life.
In the midst of all this, a person can begin to feel sort of cosmically alone. Did you know that over 90 percent of all the species that ever lived on this planet are extinct now? True. (Shudder.)
I’ve been trying to remember just when it was I began to think of Aging as something that really would happen to me…is happening! Was it the day I hit the Big 6-0 and couldn’t say it out loud? Mmm. That was one of the times, all right. Psychologists have noted a pattern they call “number numbness.” That’s an inability to comprehend large numbers… like a two trillion dollar deficit…or 6-0. For weeks I walked around in a deep fog, wondering how it was possible that something that takes so long to happen could have appeared so suddenly!
It’s like a wonderful line I found in a book called My Sister Looks Like a Pear. That’s a collection of things done by children in a creative writing class. One child philosopher observed: “The worm not only turns, he often does it without giving the proper signal.” Ah yes, that’s how it feels. Other people age gradually, of course, but for goodness sakes it was only yesterday that I….
Our Western culture provides so few rituals with which to celebrate, or mourn, or somehow mark the time of a significant transition as most other peoples of the world do.
It reminds me, too, of when I was pregnant with my first child. I was nine months and two weeks pregnant, actually. Swollen all over, miserable, wondering if I was going to be like this for the rest of my life. But can you guess what my first thought was when the pains finally began? “I’m not ready for this!”
It doesn’t seem to matter how well you think you’ve prepared for any of the major rites of passage: When the Occasion comes, looks you in the eye, reaches out to touch you….
Part of that difficulty may come from the fact that our Western culture provides so few rituals with which to celebrate, or mourn, or somehow mark the time of a significant transition as most other peoples of the world do. Oh, we have driver’s licenses at 16, social security, and medicare…but that doesn’t quite do it. And while we applaud useful statistical reports on Aging, it really is considered a rather tacky subject for conversation, generally speaking. And how many people who are dying can talk about it with their families? We’ve developed the practice of Avoidism to a fine art, I’m afraid.
So most of us are simply not prepared to handle the matter of our own diminishment. Grandparents, who might have served as role models, now live half-way across the country, in all likelihood. And so our first conscious confrontation, at a personal level, may come the day a friend says: “I just read the most interesting thing! Did you know that after the age of 35 you lose 150,000 brain cells every 24 hours?”
Dear God! Suddenly you’re obsessively compulsed over the whole horrible subject. You go to the research department of the local library and discover that from the age of 30 on your whole body is absolutely careening toward destruction! The skin dries and wrinkles start creeping…crepeing. The hair thins; sight, hearing and teeth lose just a tad of their youthful verve. Muscles lose tone, bones begin to grow brittle and reflexes dull. Circulation turns sluggish, and arteries gather sludge. The respiratory system, the immune system, the digestive system, and the nervous system all slow down. The onset of chronic disease is just around the corner. And this is at 30!!
Oh, there are ever so many anticipatory Soundings along the way that we just sweep under the carpet before they can reach the level of consciousness and cause us pain. There are some things we’re dimly aware of but don’t quite identify. Like an unexpected sort of restlessness, a dissatisfaction with the way things are, even when they’re really not too bad. Man or woman, we all know what the black poet Lucille Clifton is talking about when she says:
the thirty-eighth year
of my life,
plain as bread
round as a cake
an ordinary woman
an ordinary woman.
I had expected to be
smaller than this,
wiser in African ways,
I had expected
more than this.
I will be forty soon.
My mother once was forty.
My mother died at forty-four,
a woman of sad countenance
leaving behind a girl
awkward as a stork.
My mother was thick,
her hair was a jungle and
she was very wise
I have dreamed dreams
for you Mama,
more than once.
I have wrapped me
in your skin
and made you live again
more than once.
I have taken the bones you hardened
and built daughters
and they blossom and promise fruit
like African trees.
I am a woman now,
an ordinary woman.
In the thirty-eighth
year of my life,
surrounded by life,
a perfect picture of
I had not expected this
If it is western,
if it is the final
Europe of my mind,
if in the middle of my life
I am turning the final turn
into the shining dark —
let me come to it whole
and holy —
out of my mother’s life
into my own
into my own.
I had expected more than this.
I had not expected to be
an ordinary woman.
It’s when these thoughts come – not locked away in the unconscious, but clearly perceived, articulate and pounding in the gut – that we begin to know the feel of this extraordinary process.
There are choices to be made, attitudes of mind and heart to be cultivated or rejected. There are commitments to be made, adventures of the spirit to be undertaken. And it’s never too early to begin – or too late.
At first it doesn’t feel as though anything were being lost. Whatever you had to begin with is still there and working as well as it ever did, probably better. It’s just that you wake up one morning and realize that something has shifted. It’s that glorious feeling you’ve had from childhood that if you just dream the right dreams and work hard enough – anything is possible! Do you remember feeling like that? Until the realization comes that there aren’t that many possibilities left. This is pretty much it, and “it” bears very little resemblance to the way you planned it. When that day came for Madeleine L’Engle she wrote a poem and called it ACT III, Scene II:
Someone has altered the script.
My lines have been changed.
The other actors are shifting roles.
They don’t come on when they’re expected to,
and they don’t say the lines I’ve written
and I’m being upstaged.
I thought I was writing this play
with a rather nice role for myself,
small, but juicy
and some excellent lines.
But nobody gives me my cues
and the scenery has been replaced
and I don’t recognize the new sets.
This isn’t the script I was writing.
I don’t understand this play at all.
To grow up
is to find
the small part you are playing
That’s a wise conclusion, but not a simple one. Living well is not only the best revenge, it’s an art. One doesn’t arrive at a serene and fulfilling old age that is the Crown of Life the poets talk about by simply continuing to breathe in and out. There are choices to be made, attitudes of mind and heart to be cultivated or rejected. There are commitments to be made, adventures of the spirit to be undertaken. And it’s never too early to begin – or too late.
Traits of character and personality evolve through a continuing process over the course of one’s life; they don’t just zap into place at birth or at 21 or 65 or any other milestone. Actually, people are a lot like cheese or wine: Who and what we are in old age is pretty much a distilled essence of what we’ve been becoming through all our years. One of the things we tend to lose as we age is our ability and even our will to dissemble, to cover up with our repertoire of masks. There we are, for all to see. Experts say that in a curious way this is even true of some Alzheimer’s victims.
Of course, this isn’t entirely a boot-strap operation. I am also the product of my environment. As my inevitable diminishment proceeds I become increasingly vulnerable, and responsive to the human ecology that either nurtures or erodes my being…..Which is why I want to tell you about my friend, the Quagga.
Now it might strike you as odd that I would refer to the Quagga as my friend. One might assume that we didn’t have too much in common – considering that the Quagga was a four-footed beast that became extinct more than 100 years ago. But you never know where you’re going to discover a sympathetic chord.
These lovely creatures were of the family Equus, kin to both the zebra and the horse. They galloped in herds over the grassy steppes of southern Africa and it must have been an extraordinary thing to see them come thundering over the horizon! The head, neck and forequarters looked like any zebra you might meet, but from the center of the back through the hindquarters the coat was a beautiful unmarked golden brown. like a buckskin pony from out the American West. And then the whole thing was topped off by a jet black tail! It was conceived, I have no doubt, when the Creator was in one of his more whimsical moods.
But unfortunately for the Quagga, the species homo sapiens was not content to simply observe such an unlikely wonder romping about. No, they had to possess that amazing coat. And so it came to pass that the last of the Quaggas, a female, died in an Amsterdam Zoo in 1883.* How very lonely she must have been.
But there’s more to the story. A few years ago an incredible thing happened. A group of scientists at the University of California at Berkeley succeeded in extracting and reproducing – cloning – DNA material from fossil remains of the Quagga! Well now, that’s pretty exciting stuff, and I’m sure the fields of molecular biology and evolutionary studies have taken giant strides as a result. But it scares me, too.
You see, I keep having this image of white-coated figures in a laboratory peering through their microscopes at the cloned cells. And then their leader says, “What we have here, ladies and gentlemen, is the essence of Quagga.”
No sir, you do not! Those cells tell you nothing about the creature’s spirit, or his temperament, or courage or fears or the way it nurtured and taught its young, or the dreams it dreamed, or a thousand other things. They tell you very little about the Essence of Quagga!
And I have the same kind of chill when I hear more and more definitive statements about what old people are like, what their needs are, where and how they should live, the sexual practices they can be expected to follow, et cetera, et cetera.
Don’t misunderstand me. We need theoreticians and statisticians at many levels and their contributions are often invaluable. It’s just that when the time comes that I need to be ministered to, cared for, I pray that those to whom I am entrusted will not be overly influenced by the latest findings regarding the average Caucasian female of such and such an advanced age. I would remind the world at large that both the Quagga and I are highly individuated specimens of our kind!
Another child in that creative writing class I told you about wrote this: “The people have problems, such as starvation and shelter, and they might get squished.” Oh yes! There are a lot of ways we can get squished. It happens all the time. Sometimes Life seems to reach out like a disembodied Force to flatten us. Sometimes we squish each other. And we even do it to ourselves. The fact that there is seldom any conscious malice involved makes it no less destructive. But you and I claim to be People of Faith – and that’s supposed to make a difference in the way we look at things. It’s supposed to say something pretty powerful about every human being’s dignity and place in the Universe.
The quality of this final phase of life depends primarily upon my attitude of mind and heart and that of those around me.
Then what are we to make of it all? Well, I know that as far as I’m concerned I’ve decided that if I’m going to do this thing at all – get old, that is – I’d like to do it just as well as possible. That’s partly enlightened self-interest, to be sure, but it’s also acknowledgement of the responsibility we all have to become, as nearly as possible, what we were created to be – as fully realized as ever we can muster. That entails a certain degree of luck, but not much when you get right down to it. People seem to be triumphant or not, quite apart from their circumstances.
Now obviously, we’re dependent upon food, clothing, shelter, and proper medical care for survival. But the more I think about aging, read about it, listen to those who are already further along the path, the more inescapable the evidence becomes that the quality of this final phase of life depends primarily upon my attitude of mind and heart and that of those around me.
I keep remembering a friend of mine who spent his adult life battling the effects of polio. At 70 he spent most of his time in a wheelchair, and he said, “There are a lot of things in this life that we don’t have much control over and that’s a fact. Yes sir, that’s a fact. But misery? Misery is optional.”
One of the characteristics most often found in those who could be said to have aged “successfully” is an energy, an engagement with life that I can only call passion. When Hanya Holm, one of the great pioneers of modern dance, was interviewed at the age of 93 one of the first questions had to do with the fact that she was still teaching and creating new choreographies! How was it possible, they asked, that she could have sustained her creativity over so long a time…more than 70 years! Hanya’s answer was direct: “Yah, well, one has always to take risks, yes?” Good grief. Most of us begin shutting down the risk department before we’re 50.
And don’t simply write Hanya off as a genius, which she was. But we needn’t be extraordinarily gifted in order to cultivate this celebration of life. And that’s exactly what it is, a celebration. I know a wonderful frail little lady in her 80’s who is entirely dependent upon friends and helpers for bringing in her week’s supply of groceries. Once in a while, if the weather is fine and there is no pressure of time, they’ll take her and her walker along with them to the store – an enormous treat! “I do so love it when I can go,” she says. “It just sort of recharges my imagination, don’t you know? I mean, you just don’t think to put things like artichokes on the list when you’re sitting at home.”
Another quality these people share is humor, and a delight in play. Did you know that we are the only animals on this planet that retain a pattern of play into adulthood…unless we shut it down, of course. And the Creator must have had something in mind when he instilled this impulse in us. Which is to say, it shouldn’t be overlooked, or squished. I believe it’s related to a proper sense of awe when confronted with the ironies and mysteries of life. Shall we pull a long face and retire into blackness, or shall we look still for the energizing mark of life more abundant?
We all have a need to move toward closure with a sense of coherency about the sum of our days.
Like my friend Bertie. At 91 he could have been justifiably dour: preceded in death by his adored wife, confined to a wheelchair, familiar with pain, and aware that his memory had turned unreliable and would not always rally to his bidding. But Bertie had class!
When I heard that his rare outings entailed being trundled down a rather precipitous ramp from his porch to a car at street level, I said, “Oh gosh, Bertie, that sounds a little scary to me!” And Bertie responded with, “Yes! There is that faint flicker of danger that can liven up a whole day if properly savored!”
To the fullest extent of their capacities, however grand or limited they may be, these people remain engaged with the Life Process. One of my dearest friends in the world was Polly Wiley. When she and her good chum Helen Shoemaker were in their middle years they brought into being the World-Wide Anglican Fellowship of Prayer. At 75 Polly undertook a whole new career and became one of the Founding Spirits of the remarkable Guild for Spiritual Guidance. At 90 she was still an indispensable member of its staff. It represented her passionate commitment to the work of that One in whose image she was made – the Creator. Each day was perceived as Gift and each person encountered an occasion for joy and reverence.
I’ll never forget the Grace she said at my table one day. We’d had a rough morning at a terribly difficult meeting that was filled with problems and confusions and hard feelings. Everything was at sixes and sevens, with nobody really hearing anyone else. And then – nobody knew quite how or why – things began to fall into place. People began to listen to each other, to respond from a place of caring and reason. Well, it was some kind of miracle. We drove back to my house, a bit limp. I fixed a little lunch, and when we sat down at table I asked Polly to say Grace. She leaned back, lifted her head and said, “Oh my blessed Lord, there is so much to be silent about! Amen.”
That was the essence of Polly – wrapped in the wonder of life. The magnificent Bertie, by the way, was her older brother. It ran in the family, you see.
I don’t know how many of these people read Richard Bach’s book Illusions, but they always made me think of one of the best lines in it. “Here is a test to find whether your mission on earth is finished: If you’re alive it isn’t.”
“There where clinging to things ends, is where God begins to be.” – Meister Eckhart
At the same time this passion, this spirit of engagement is being nurtured and maintained, there is another impulse that is also being honored. Paradoxically, it is the inner movement toward detachment.
One woman I know consciously recognized it in herself for the first time when she unexpectedly heard herself saying at a family reunion, “Children, take anything you want!” Now this was in no way linked to depression. On the contrary! It was in some manner that she couldn’t define, a moving on to Holy Ground. Meister Eckhart knew this glorious uprooting and identified it. He said, “There where clinging to things ends, is where God begins to be.”
Polly Wiley was not happy about the physical effects of aging and didn’t pretend to be, but she discovered singular rewards that relate to this matter of detachment. “I was surprised,” she admitted, “at what one can do at 75 and beyond that you could never have done earlier on. You’ve got no more agenda for competitive self-aggrandizement, and so nobody can really insult you, or even wound you very much. You’re free…to say only what you believe in your heart. And people come to understand that.”
The Big Truths always live in paradox. Within the process of detachment from the bonding world, one experiences as never before the reality mystics and poets have always known and physicists are beginning to discover in their laboratories: There is no such thing as a separate thing! All things are one – irrevocably intertwined and interdependent. This is literally, demonstrably true. We have finally discovered what those we call primitive understood a long time ago.
When a Lakota Sioux prays it is to the Seven Directions. To the four corners of the world. To the Mother Earth who nurtures and sustains us all, the two-leggeds, the four-leggeds, those that crawl, those that swim in the sea and those that fly in the air. To the Great Spirit who created all. And the seventh direction is myself, in whom they all converge.
As we move closer to our Source, we are like migratory birds who must obey the compelling Voice that calls us to undertake the Inner Journey, the Inner Work. A usually quite gentle Englishman reported to me one day that he was in a high dudgeon. “Some of my best friends, who jolly well ought to know better, keep nattering on about my joining in at the Bingo games down at the Golden Age Center. Well now, that’s all right if one has nothing better to do, I suppose, but at 92 and a half I have a great deal of serious thinking to do and an appallingly limited amount of time for doing it in, in all likelihood. I’ll not play Bingo!”
Well now, I don’t have anything against Bingo or Gin Rummy or anything of the sort, and as a matter of fact I rather thought a little purely fun time might be a very good idea for him. But the point is that it doesn’t matter one whit what I or anyone else thought about it. One must first of all honor his instincts and increasing sense of urgency.
Because what it is is a need we all have to move toward closure with a sense of coherency about the sum of our days. We may never, in this life, be entirely privy to the purpose of our lives, but there is layer upon layer of meaning to be discerned. The inevitable fragmentations we all experience cry out to be arranged in healing order, with connections made clear. We all have regret for roads not taken, guilt for things done and left undone, bitterness, heartbreak, rage…a hundred different kinds of baggage that must be resolved, if they can be. But resolved or not, they must be let go of if we are to come to the end with peace. Even the most precious memories must be redeemed from mourning for their pastness. Oh, there’s a lot of work to be done, and the sooner begun the better.
I suppose almost nobody really completes the task, but each step taken brings immeasurable solace, and the final letting go is that much easier. That’s not just a pious hope – doctors report on it over and over. There is less pain, less struggle, a greater ease of transition for those who come to the end of their days – not eagerly, to be sure, or even willingly – but with a sense of release, of completion like the resolution of a final chord.
So if there is inner work that needs doing, we must be about it, honor and encourage it in others. Allow time and space for it. Elise Maclay wrote this moving poem to tell us what that need feels like:
Preserve me from the occupational therapist, God.
She means well, but I’m too busy to make baskets.
I want to relive a day in July when Sam and I went berrying.
I was eighteen; my hair was long and thick and I braided it
and wound it round my head so it wouldn’t get caught
on the briars.
But when we sat in the shade to rest I unpinned it
and it came tumbling down
And Sam proposed.
I suppose it wasn’t fair to use my hair to make him
fall in love with me,
but it turned out to be a good marriage.
Oh, here she comes, the therapist, with scissors and paste.
Would I like to try decoupage?
“No,” I say, “I haven’t got time.”
“Nonsense,” she says, “you’re going to live a long, long time.”
That’s not what I mean; I mean that all my life I’ve been
doing things for people, with people. I have to catch up
on my thinking and feeling.
About Sam’s death, for one thing.
Close to the end, I asked if there was anything I could do….
He said, “Yes, unpin your hair.”
I said, “Oh, Sam, it’s so thin now and gray.”
“Please,” he said, “unpin it anyway.”
I did and he reached out his hand – the skin transparent,
I could see the blue veins – and stroked my hair.
If I close my eyes, I can feel it…. Oh Sam!
“Please open your eyes,” the therapist says. “You don’t want to sleep the day away.”
She wants to know what I used to do: knit? crochet?
Yes, I did those things, and cooked and cleaned and raised
five children, and had things happen to me.
Beautiful things, terrible things.
I need to think about them, arrange them on the shelves of my mind.
The therapist is showing me glittery beads.
She asks if I might like to make jewelry.
She’s a dear child and means well.
So I tell her I might.
Some other day.
That’s important work.
And how are we to think about death itself? Not theoretically, not speculatively in terms of religious doctrine, but actually. How am I to think about my own death? Why should I think about it?
We acknowledge that death can come as blessing, but even then it is defeat. It is the Enemy. Unless…we can embrace it as the final alchemy of the soul.
Well, the thing is, of course, that we can’t not think about it. Life is filled with death and reminders of its approach. It’s only a question of how we shall deal with it, not whether. Thrust it aside, run, hide and it becomes the growing, looming Specter of fear and rage. Deny it…and we condemn those who are dieing to go behind unbreachable walls of loneliness and separation, and deny ourselves the instruction they might give us. How many times do families spend years celebrating, sharing birthdays together … only to come to the point of silence when the birth into new life is approached by one of their members?
We acknowledge that death can come as blessing, but even then it is defeat. It is the Enemy. Unless…we can embrace it as the final alchemy of the soul. Will my faith be strong enough, my preparation sound enough to enable that ultimate surrender? I don’t know.
Acceptance of my own death or another’s is not something I can set out to achieve. Neither reason, nor will, nor profession of creed can give me acceptance. It is of another order – the order of Mystery – and it comes as Gift.
I can only place myself in the way of this Gift by being open, receptive to it. I can loose my consciousness to embrace the rhythms of all created things, to merge with the rhythms of the tides, the seasons, the cycles of all things. I can know in this way that I am not experiencing a chaotic wrenching of Order, but participating in its fulfillment, that I am one with the Great Dance.
If God grant me the gift of acceptance, and I be willing to receive it, then not only can I hope for a good death, whatever its circumstances, but I can be free to live each moment of my life.
The Irish have a blessing for us here, as we might expect. They say, “Let us go forth into the sorrows of the world with joy.”
First performed by Kate Miller: March 9, 1986 Trinity Church, Southport, Connecticut”
* Editors’ Note: Attilio Gatti’s fascinating book, Here is the Veld (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948), suggests that one Quagga stallion survived until at least 1936.