Though leaves are many, the root is one;
Through all the lying days of my youth
I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun,
Now may I wither into the truth.
In a few days, I’ll turn 78. When friends say they don’t know what to give me for my birthday, I always respond with the same tired old joke they’ve heard from me before, which causes them to sigh, roll their eyes, and change the subject. (Here’s a perk that comes with age: repeat yourself so often that folks think you’re getting dotty, when in fact you’re fending off unwanted conversations.)
Q: What do you give a man who has everything?
I don’t need gifts of a material nature. But I do need to remember a few things I’ve learned during my nearly eight decades on earth — well, mostly on earth. So here’s a collection of six lessons as a birthday gift to myself. If one or two of them turn out to be gifts for you, my birthday will be even happier.
The Yeats poem at the head of this column names something I don’t want to forget. Actively embracing aging gives me a chance to move beyond “the lying days of my youth” and “wither into the truth” — if I resist the temptation to Botox my withering.
My youthful “lies” weren’t intentional. I just didn’t know enough about myself, the world, and the relation of the two to tell the truth. So what I said on those subjects came from my ego, a notorious liar. Coming to terms with the soul-truth of who I am — of my complex and often confusing mix of darkness and light — has required my ego to shrivel up. Nothing shrivels a person better than age: that’s what all those wrinkles are about!
Whatever truthfulness I’ve achieved on this score comes not from a spiritual practice, but from having my ego so broken down and composted by life that eventually I had to yield and say, “OK, I get it. I’m way less than perfect.” I envy folks who come to personal truth via spiritual discipline: I call them “contemplatives by intention.” Me, I’m a contemplative by catastrophe.
Poetry has redemptive power, or so it has for me. Poets like Rilke, Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, and Naomi Shihab Nye, have provided life jackets to keep me from drowning, ballast to keep me from gaining altitude, and maps to keep me from getting lost in the woods. By following Emily Dickinson’s advice to “tell the truth but tell it slant,” good poets have snuck up on me to deliver messages I would have evaded if I’d seen them coming.
I write poetry as well as read it not because I’m a pro, but because it’s the best form of self-therapy I know. Here’s a poem that came to me some years ago while trudging down a country road past a plowed field, deeply depressed and wondering if this was the day. It’s a poem that, over time, helped me find my way back into life:
The plow has savaged this sweet field
Misshapen clods of earth kicked up
Rocks and twisted roots exposed to view
Last year’s growth demolished by the blade.
I have plowed my life this way
Turned over a whole history
Looking for the roots of what went wrong
Until my face is ravaged, furrowed, scarred.
Enough. The job is done.
Whatever’s been uprooted, let it be
Seedbed for the growing that’s to come.
I plowed to unearth last year’s reasons—
The farmer plows to plant a greening season.
“Harrowing” doesn’t merit a place in the Western literary canon. But because it helped me emerge from a deadly darkness into a “greening season,” it’s canonical to me.
If all the sentences I’ve published in nine books and hundreds of periodicals were laid end-to-end, they’d almost equal the longest sentence James Joyce wrote. But perhaps the most important sentence I’ve ever written is that one word, “Enough.”
Said on the right occasion, that word can safeguard one’s soul, and saying it comes more easily with age. These days I say “enough” without hesitation to anything that’s not life-giving for me and for the people and world I care about — whether it’s frenzy and overwork, a personal prejudice, an unhealthy relationship, a societal cruelty or injustice, the feckless exercise of power in fields from religion to politics, or the crypto-fascism sickening the U.S. body politic.
When I was young, saying “enough” often seemed risky. I know people who lost favor, friends, reputations, livelihoods, and even their lives for saying, “This far and no more.” But risk looks different from the vantage of old age. More than fearing the cost of taking risks for the things I care about, I fear aging into irrelevance.
I’m among the fortunate ones who has what he needs, so I don’t need to worry about losing things that some folks require for survival. For people like me, the notion that old age is a time to dial it down and play it safe is a cop-out. We should be raising hell on behalf of whatever we care about: freedom’s just another word for not needing to count the cost.
One thing I care about is the younger generation and the world they’re coming into, a world they’re helping to remake as they come. To care about them, I find, is also to care for my own wellbeing.
The psychologist Erik Erikson said that en route to old age we face a choice between “generativity” and “stagnation.” “Generativity” means more than creativity. It means turning toward the rising generation, offering whatever we know that they might find useful and, even more important, learning from them. So I spend as much time as I can talking with young people, and always come away the better for it.
A couple of years ago, I met with a group of young adults less than half my age. For two days, I listened as they talked about the emerging world as it looks from where they stand. Early in our meeting, I said something like this:
“I feel like I’m standing somewhere down the curvature of the earth, while you’re close to the top of that curve looking at a horizon I can’t see. But I need to know what you’re seeing. Whatever’s on that horizon is coming at me, as well. So please let me know what you see, and when you do, please speak loudly and clearly so I can understand what you’re saying!”
Hint to my age-mates: Next time you think, “I’m over the hill!”, say to yourself, “Nah, I’m just standing farther down the curvature of the earth!”
Most older folks I know fret about unloading stuff they’ve collected over the years, stuff that was once useful to them but now prevents them from moving freely about their homes. There are precincts in my basement where a small child could get lost for hours.
But the junk I really need to jettison in my old age is psychological junk — such as long-time convictions about what gives my life meaning that no longer serve me well, notably my work. Who will I be when I can no longer do the work I love that’s helped me hang onto a sense of self for the past half-century?
I won’t know the answer until I get there. But on my way to that day, I’ve found a question that’s already giving me a new sense of meaning. I no longer ask, “What do I want to let go of, and what do I want to hang on to?” Instead I ask, “What do I want to let go of, and what do I want to give myself to?”
The desire to “hang on” comes from a sense of scarcity and fear. The desire to “give myself” comes from a sense of abundance and generosity. Those are the kinds of truths I want to wither into.
Sooner or later, “withering into truth” culminates in death, the ultimate form of withering and perhaps the ultimate source of truth. Who knows? Maybe death will be as it was for the husband of poet Lucille Clifton, according to the words she put in his mouth in her poignant poem, “The Death of Fred Clifton”:
I seemed to be drawn
to the center of myself
leaving the edges of me
in the hands of my wife
and I saw with the most amazing
so that I had not eyes but
and, rising and turning,
through my skin,
there was all around not the
shapes of things
but oh, at last, the things
I have no idea what, if anything, I will learn from dying. This is all I know for sure: I have no bad memories of wherever I came from when I arrived on this planet, so I have no good reason to fear where I’m going when I depart.
Besides, I know exactly where I’m going: to the Boundary Waters up along the Minnesota-Ontario border, a wild and holy place where I’ve spent summer’s end every year for the past two decades. Each time I’m there, I think, “This is heaven, and I’m heavenward-bound!” (All that’s left is to figure out how to bring a canoe along.)
I may not have the latitude and longitude of heaven exactly right. But one way or another, we’re all going to end up in the arms of Mother Nature as our atoms recombine with the stuff from which they came. As I said in another On Being column:
“It matters not to me whether I am resurrected in a loon calling on the lake, a sun-glazed pine, a wildflower on the forest floor, the stuff that fertilizes those trees and flowers, or the Northern Lights and the stars that lie beyond them. It’s all good and it’s all gold, a vast web of life in which body and spirit are one.
I won’t be glad to say goodbye to life, to challenges that help me grow, to gifts freely-given, to everyone and everything I love. But I will be glad to play a bit part in making new life possible for others. That’s a prospect that makes life worth dying for.
Twenty annual pilgrimages to this holy place called the Boundary Waters have convinced me that Julian of Norwich got it right: ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’”