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The Turning

Nights are cooler, chilly even; kids are back in school; the plants are showing it – the transition is well underway. Fall is knocking at the door. It is a fascinating season and this year, is remarkably apt as a metaphor for my personal progression through life, albeit an obvious one, one I’ve used in the past. But as I’ve written, and as you well know dear reader, everything assumes a new and unique hue with altered perspective. And little alters perspective than time and a major life changing event – such as retiring.

I’ve also written several times on the indomitable human spirit; the flexibility and adaptability of our psyche is seemingly limitless in depth. Humans can find at least some level of peace and joy in almost any circumstance that has a semblance of permanence to it. Once they (we) understand and accept that our current condition is more than temporary and unlikely to change for the better any time soon, humans instinctively begin looking for the good in it, and quickly embrace the good. We look for routines we can settle into, small pleasures where they can be found, and work hard to make the life we are in an enjoyable one, this despite the hardships that may accompany it. There are countless examples that come out of the stories one can read about during WWII – making the best of it. Certainly not to imply that we enjoy misery; but – within the natural limitations of a human – we can convince ourselves to enjoy our circumstances of the moment.

It is not dissimilar to matrixing, or better put, pareidolia. This is the tendency for people to see faces in inanimate objects; the psychological phenomenon that causes the brain to take random patterns and anthropomorphize them – in particular to insert facial features in them. It is just another example of how our brains work feverishly behind the scenes and impart an internally created reality to our conscious selves.

And I have found myself no different through my life; there were long stretches with little money, piles of bills, and hours upon hours of really hard work. Stretches of being bone-tired, weary and battered by life, longing for a day off but with none in sight. Yet I relished those years; there was a rhythm and a routine to it – one I clung to tightly. And the smallest thing could buoy my spirits for an entire week: a good Monday night football game scheduled, stumbling on a James Bond movie on TV (or even better, a marathon), or possibly even the thought of having pizza for supper. And to come home was always a joy after a long day, even if it was coming home to a clogged toilet or a runaway dog or a bad report card.

To get back on point, at least to some extent, I am anxious to explore this pivotal season that is descending upon us. Spring is about rebirth, a new and fresh recreation of the world; well, at least up here in New England. I really don’t know what spring means to someone who lives where it is warm and green all year around. But to a northerner, it is a welcome and long-dreamt of relief from the cold and gray of winter. It is the advent of life anew – a promise of the lush and deep richness of the coming summer – an appetizer of the exotic beauty yet to come.

Summer is resplendent with its life; trees and plants bursting forth in every direction; flowers of colors never found in a box of Crayola crayons; delicious and luscious smells that force your eyes closed and force your toes to curl; and warm soft, supple air that embraces you along with (when you are lucky) a gentle afternoon or evening breeze that caresses you. Summer, quite simply, is intoxicating.

Winter…well as I just mentions, is dark, cold, gray, and hard; the ground is hard and doing anything in the cold is hard. There is basically no vegetation to be found – certainly there are evergreens, but that is a misnomer – while the trees and shrubs that do not shed their leaves for the winter may be green, this is not the green of summer! The foliage has the color green, but little else that might remind you of how it looked in the summer;  they are tightly bound to themselves, curled hard against the bite of winter, To me, they seem pained – distorted by the ice and wind. For example mountain laurel and rhododendron leaves almost turn into tubes from the way they curl. White pine and hemlocks look more like their summer-selves than many other evergreens, but I still see the manifestation of winter upon them.

Which leaves fall (pun very much intended) in this seasonal list. I find it unique from the others; fully aware of the fact that it is diametrically opposed to spring with regards to its overall trait: spring ushers in and fall ushers out – waxing and waning, ebb and flow – all easy depictions. But fall is more than the stepping stone between summer and winter, much more. More so than any other season, fall is the time of preparation – it is, in some ways – the quintessential preparatory period. The plants and animals all know, without conscious thought, that it is time to make ready for the “big change”. That change can be to prepare for the long winter and await the next spring; or it can be to prepare for the few limited remaining nights left in their life. It is the time to place your affairs in order.

It is also, of course, home of some marvelous traditions; hayrides, cornfield mazes, leaf piles, harvesting of crops, and the migration of the thousands of birds who move with the season. It also holds two remarkable holidays: Thanksgiving and my personal favorite – Halloween. (We’ll talk more about Halloween next month!) For the plants there is little more to do than drop enough seeds to ensure your offspring will sprout in the spring or your bulb is deep enough to enable regrowth. The mighty oaks shed their leave and stand tall and bare, with minimal surface area for snow and ice to accumulate upon or wind to grab hold of. The animals work all through the fall to gather nuts and seeds with which to survive the barren winter months. They ensure their dens or nests are sound and secure, whether to hold them day to day or to hold them for the winter’s hibernation. And for a northern homeowner, it is a season to ensure you have all you need to heat your home and keep your family safe and warm.

As I said, autumn is an all-too easy analogy for life; you enter the fall of your life and like everything else in nature, things decline; you age, you deteriorate, you begin lose your leaves so to speak. Happily, unlike any specific season, which is a predictable set and finite moment in time, the seasons of our life are unpredictable in both when they arrive as well as their duration. For some, the autumn of their life can arrive early and last years; for others it cannot show up until much, much later in life and could be quite brief.

The beauty of the human condition is that we are all so different yet all so much the same. We all age and we all die, but we all do so in vastly different ways and times. To that end, I know, intellectually, that I am in my autumn: mid-60’s, no longer a member of the workforce, graying hair – I recognize the signs. But I am not feeling it. This past summer has thrown me back and I feel so much younger than my years. Don’t get me wrong, there are obvious companions to aging one just can’t ignore; thinning hair, failing hearing and vision, muscles that don’t bulk or define as they once used to with exercise, strength or stamina that falls far short of where you know it once was, stubborn weight that won’t depart.

You can’t change these indicators of your personal season, but you can “sort of” look the other way and focus on what you do still have left. Accentuate the positive as they say. Age is not a choice, but how we handle it, react to it, respond to it, and how we manage it is our choice. And those foibles that come with age? I do not yield to them nor do I wear them as a badge, I adapt and attempt to focus on what I have that does still work. I have accumulated some measure of knowledge and wisdom through my life – it is inevitable if you live long enough! As they say even a blind squirrel finds a nut sometimes. And I try to utilize those skills to compensate for the loss of speed or strength or other physical shortcomings.

And frankly I am enjoying that; I can’t split wood like the bull I was twenty years ago, but I can still swing a splitting maul. There may be a little less force behind it and there may not be as many blows as rapidly as before, but I am still swinging. And now I know how to read the grain to make the slightly less forceful blows more effective. Sure I get frustrated with myself sometimes as when I have to stop splitting after four hours instead of the six or eight I used to be able to do, but I am still getting wood cut. Or I may not be able to knock off a 20 mile hike anymore but I can still mange 16 miles with some strategic trail management. I might stumble over a root or a rock that I might not have 20 years ago but I catch myself and push on and I am still out on the trail. Yes – I am in the autumn of my life, but to me… still feels like summer!

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