In places well north of the equator, Nature has begun her annual turning toward autumn with its colder temperatures and ebbing daylight. The first hints of gold and scarlet have arrived, and soon deciduous trees will cast off their beautiful leaves in order to survive the winter and be able to produce new foliage in spring. For many of us, the arrival of fall each year triggers a time of introspection and taking stock as we sort through possessions, reexamine our priorities, and let go of what we no longer need or value. A similar process of taking stock and letting go takes place in later life that is as necessary for our wellbeing as it is for the health of trees.
Letting Go in Later Life
My friend Robin appeared in a dream a few years ago, carrying a lantern that she showed me was both a winnowing device and a source of light. At the time, she had generously been editing the first few chapters of Winter’s Graces, and the dream seemed an apt metaphor for what she had been doing: pruning away the unnecessary and, in the process, shining more light on the essential. Robin’s motto as an editor was “less is more,” and that was how she lived — with great attention, devotion, and intentional simplicity.
It later occurred to me that Robin’s winnowing lantern is also a wonderful image for the natural inclination in the winter of life to focus on what matters most and to let go of the rest. Several late-life trends move us toward paring down — our physical energy wanes somewhat; appearances, achievement, and acquiring tend to lose their appeal; the nearness of death and the preciousness of life become more palpable; and it becomes increasingly important to devote ourselves to what is most meaningful. In the winter of life, we become like winnowers — from the same root as wind — sifting through possessions, roles, activities, relationships, and commitments and allowing nonessentials to be carried away.
How we each spend the last season of what poet Mary Oliver calls our “one wild and precious life,” matters. The growing awareness of our mortality ups the ante, often bringing startling clarity about what we most value — and what can and must be relinquished.
With age it becomes clear that we can no longer “do it all,” and the willingness to let go of the unimportant allows us to devote ourselves to what matters most in this last season of our life. For some, spending time with grandchildren or with good friends becomes especially important, while others may devote themselves to working on behalf of social justice or the health of the environment. Many feel a sense of urgency to realize a long-deferred dream, while others choose to keep working, often in a more selective way, focusing on aspects of their work that are most rewarding and foregoing those that are deadening. While our priorities may rearrange themselves many times in the second half of life, the need to live our priorities (and to say no to distractions) becomes increasingly compelling with age.
Savoring and Delight
Paring down and lightening our load frees us from the tyranny of busyness and its inevitable companion, hurrying. Doing less and moving more slowly re-acquaints us with the wonder, delight, and timelessness of childhood and restores our capacity to savor simple pleasures and enjoy the present moment. In a way, young children and older adults are like travelers who are captivated by the sights and sounds of a new place when they first arrive and are again more attentive as their departure approaches.
In Loving and Leaving the Good Life, Helen Nearing – who lived a very simple life for almost fifty years in rural New England – describes her deepening capacity for savoring and delight as she grew old: “The sea, a lake, all become as in childhood, magical and a great wonder: then seen for the first time, now perhaps for the last. Music, bird songs, the wind, the waves — one listens to tones with deeper delight and appreciation [with age].”
Rather than a time of misery, later life can be a season of deep satisfaction, sweetened by the renewed capacity for savoring ordinary moments.