Aging, Autumn and AuthenticityOct 28, 2020
What I’ve Learned about Aging, Autumn and Authenticity
Seasons Series ONE
I’ve been thinking a lot about seasons lately. The writers of the Bible had it right, I think, when they said, in Ecclesiastes: “To everything there is a season; a time to every purpose under heaven.”
And Victorian Erickson’s quote, “if a year was tucked inside of a clock, then Autumn would be the magic hour,” sums up how I feel about this season.
But when I say “this season,” I’m not just talking about the time of the year where the leaves turn colour and fall, the air turns crisp, the harvest comes in, and the nights get longer.
No. For me, I am talking about the time in my life I am coming up to - in my mind, I am in the “late summer” of my life, fast approaching Autumn.
Good thing I love Autumn and Winter.
Aging, Autumn and Authenticity
For me, I’ve carved up the years of my life, recently, into “Seasons”. I know, in pagan and Wiccan traditions, there’s the Maid, the Mother and the Crone, and while I see the sense in that, tying it somewhat to the seasons of fertility, I have chosen another path (as I pretty much consistently do).
No, for me, my seasons have been Spring (birth to about age 25), Summer (26 to the mid-century point), Autumn, 50 to 75-ish, and Winter, 75 until my departure. By the way, I am planning for a long Autumn, followed by an even longer Winter.
I love Autumn, with all my heart. For my entire life, I’ve dreamed of a long Autumn - and in the Prairies, it’s often circumvented by the wind and the snow. A cold snap comes, the leaves turn: a week later, a 100-mile-an-hour wind strips the trees, and we’re faced with grey skeletons for upwards of 8 months (with or without snow). Some years, we’ve just entered a lovely Fall, and the snows come. And stay. Fast forward seven or eight months, when we live for the first snowdrop (ironically named, to be sure) to push it’s little green snout (thanks, Margaret Atwood!) through the white crust.
But I’m talking about the Autumn of my life.
And this is the “Magic Hour” -it’s the time when the light is perfect, everything glows, and you can feel the sparkle in the air.
I have travelled (like everyone else) through the topography of my life, and sometimes the mountains have given way to extraordinary vistas - but not always. Oftentimes, I get to the top and see another range or - somehow worse - a gaping chasm impossible to cross on the path I’m on. And I have to retrace my steps.
Now, though, I feel like everything that has come before this moment has been necessary for now (and yes, strictly speaking, that’s true!). I’m talking more metaphysically and existentially (again with the big words!). The Magic Hour I am experiencing feels like that amazing moment of alignment we fantasize about - when every talent, dream, experience, strength, weakness, and opportunity comes together to create something that could never have existed without those elements. It’s the classic “The sum is greater than the parts” idea.
Harvest of a Life (but not in a weird horror-movie sense)
The idea of Autumn, to me, is not one of a slow degrading into death. Far, FAR from it. To me, Autumn is the culmination of all of the growing that has happened before: it’s harvest time. It’s the time when you gather everything that matters to you, and you see the fruits of your labour (and, in some instances, that’s quite literally what happens). I’d insert a picture of a cornucopia here, if it wasn’t so cheesy.
So what does this have to do with the price of tea in China? you ask. Why am I on about this? Fair question.
Many of the women I work with are in the mid-summer to late-Autumn of their lives, and the thing I’m noticing over and over is the deep-seated need to prepare for harvest or enjoy the harvest, as it were. Problem is (and this is why we work together!), they’re not sure how to do either of those things - they just know, feel, believe they want to learn how to do so.
A story might help: one woman I worked with was highly successful - she’d ‘checked off’ all the boxes of life. She’d gone to boarding school, become a doctor, married another doctor, had lovely children (and she left her profession to raise them). Those children went to private school, were highly successful themselves, and the family was intricately woven into (and greatly respected by) their larger social and faith community. She’d done everything right.
At the end of every day, as she dropped into bed, she went over the list of the next day’s “to do’s” - worried about whether she’d accounted for all of the details needed to maintain all of this success. She was happy - in a “I know that I have a wonderful life” kind of way. Her family was sweet, kind, loved her and she was well-respected.
So she felt guilty. Guilty that she wasn’t really happy - not in a way that was fulfilled or confident. In doing everything for everyone, she had no time left to consider herself. And while this had been just fine for a very long time, she was fast approaching “Autumn”, and something in her was shifting. The thought of 30, 40, 50 more years of checking boxes was beginning to eat away at her dreams - which were quickly becoming nightmares.
It all came to a head one day when a friend was telling her about an activity she’d done in a workshop - the friend had had to make a list of her “Core Values”, and found she couldn’t. Everything she went to write down she realized wasn’t her values - they were things like: “don’t bring shame on the family”, “the kids must ‘show well’ in everything they do - because the community would judge”, “to be a good wife she must fully support her husband’s goals and dreams - at the expense of her own”, “you can only wear designer labels”, “you mustn't ever speak a bad word”, “you must be slim” and so on.
My client listened in horror: this was her list, too. Creeping dread became full-fledged panic when the friend detailed the near-breakdown she’d had when the workshop facilitator asked how “her” values fed into “her” vision for the future - and how her authentic voice could be used to help create that future.
The friend did not have an answer, because she had no idea what her values were. She’d lived her entire life, it seemed, by others’ rules, and when faced with such a direct question - at this season in her life - the realization was almost too much.
After the session, the friend had spent a few days in full-fledged panic. Then she decided that there was nothing wrong with maintaining a life written by others’ rules, and that was her duty and obligation as a woman, wife, and mother. Really, what else was she supposed to do? That’s why she’d been put on Earth. She made her peace with her decisions. Further, she felt the facilitator had no right to ask her those sorts of questions (even though the seminar was called “Visioning Your Future”).
But my client didn’t feel the same: her friend had inadvertently articulated the chaos swirling in her own head. And the longer she thought about it, the more she realized that - while she did share many of the same values as her husband, family and community - she had many that were distinctly her own, ones that she’d never really looked at or thought about, but that were now trying to surface.
An Autumn of Authenticity
And that’s sort of the point of my analogy, really: In the mid-summer, we start to see the emergence of those things planted long ago. Many - if not most - were sown by others (and such is the nature of humanity). However, come the harvest, we have a choice: do we harvest everything, do we harvest only those things others tell us to, or - and this was my client’s big question - do we choose what to harvest AND what to do with that harvest.
This wasn’t a situation where she was going to take a torch to her life - far from it. She had no desire to do that. What she did want was the time and space to articulate those things that mattered to her, beyond the “check boxes” she’d long maintained. We worked through it together.
Here’s what she came up with:
- Meaningful Work
Through the process, she had a huge “aha” moment: while she was absolutely aligned with her family and faith community, she wasn’t aligned personally with how she was spending her days.
As a former high-performance professional, she desperately missed the validation and self-worth that came from using her brain, her talents, her leadership abilities and her compassion to help others. Sure, she was using these elements, after a fashion, with her family, as a supportive spouse, and as a community member. But she knew that all of those things that she had chosen to plant and grow for herself were there, too, waiting to be harvested. She was quickly approaching Autumn in her life seasons, and she knew that if she didn’t address this situation soon, all that was possible at this moment - her own “Magic Hour” - would fade.
Of course, it wasn’t like she would wither and die if she didn’t make changes now. But the internal push of “what do I really want?” and “what do I want my life and legacy to ultimately represent?” was getting too hard to ignore.
From there, we took on her vision: she realized she didn’t have one! After finishing her professional training, and getting those first jobs, her vision became limited to marriage and raising a family - both worthwhile, in and of themselves. But now that her family was getting quite big, she knew that this vision wasn’t the one she would be able to live by for the remainder of her time here.
She dug through many elements, finally getting down to the bedrock: originally, she’d assumed she would simply retrace her former footsteps and work on getting licensed again - but much to her surprise, that’s not what she actually wanted.
When looking closely at her values, and aligning them with her vision, she realized she wanted to create a nonprofit organization that would address mental health support and education for women who practiced medicine. Having been in those particular shoes herself, she felt that this was her calling.
As soon as she held her core values up against her newfound vision, she felt everything come together - it was a full expression of her most authentic self, and she felt that unique combination of deep peacefulness alongside unbridled energy. All of a sudden she knew what she wanted and needed to say, she knew the questions she needed to start asking, she knew the steps she was going to start with. With a little work on the actual vocal articulation of her vision (otherwise known as her “Pitch”), she was able to create a way of engaging and inspiring others with her idea, and off she went.
Shortly thereafter she left my client list - our work was done, and her future was her own.
As women, we lead complicated lives, wrought with expectations, and their implications. Frequently we become so enthralled with checking boxes that we don’t realize that we’ve also been planting seeds. As we reach the late summer and early autumn of our lives, we often feel the need (if we give ourselves the time and space) to consider the possibilities that are (or aren’t) emerging, as well as ask ourselves some very big questions.
Like I said: I regard this time as the “Magic Hour”. I am entering mine, and I am embracing it with every ounce of stamina I have - after all, harvest season doesn’t last forever.
What will you gather during your own harvest?
Get in touch!
Go forth, gather much,
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