by Gail Straub
Today is the autumn equinox, and fall wraps itself around me with a blustery wind. In the field below, grasses turn burgundy and amber. Asters dot the hillsides like violet stars. Along the lower ridges and hollows, the hardwood forests display wide sweeps and curves of yellow, as if a giant calligraphy brush had painted its strokes across the mountain range. A lone maple tree flaunts a spiral of brilliant colors: a lower ring of emerald green leaves followed by loops of yellow and orange, then a ring of fiery red spiraling to the top, bursting into the sky like flames escaping to heaven.
Here on this opening day of autumn, I am experiencing the natural polar opposite of the spring equinox. Instead of spring redbuds inching across this valley heralding so much green birth, September’s colorful leaves usher in winter’s nakedness followed by death. Out here on the Ashokan Way, birth and death exist in an open, natural manner as two halves of a whole circle, rounding each other out with no false separation, no clinging to life and pushing away death. I am thinking a lot about these themes as soon I will launch a new year-long training on conscious aging. And these reflections permeate my psyche as I enter the late September of my life.
In my aging, I aspire to fully enter into the paradoxical terrain of decay and wisdom, revolt and adaptation, denial and acceptance. I want to greet the changes of growing old as opportunities for spiritual maturation and meaning. In our youth-obsessed culture, there is scant encouragement for this. But the landscape does foster this inquiry in rich and informative ways.
When I pay attention to the natural world, it eloquently embodies the teaching that life on this dualistic plane is nothing but complementary opposites: light and dark, visible and invisible, full and empty, sound and silence, male and female, life and death. And with its incomparable ability to inhabit the present moment, nature apparently says to me: Death will come to you in its own time, so why not really live now? Why not leap empty-handed into the depths of this messy, fertile, paradox of getting old?
In our society, one of the most subversive problems in aging is a dementia of the imagination. So many cultural assumptions conspire to shrink our creativity, short-circuiting unforeseen epiphanies and unfettered wisdom. Dried up, closed in, and hidden away in nursing homes, older people lose access to their interior open space. This is one of the reasons that contact with the natural world is so essential in our later years. Nature’s divine imagination inspires curiosity and a beginner’s mind, expansive thinking and a sense of wonder—all of which foster creativity. The wild and unexpected aspects of landscape encourage us, even in unconscious or unarticulated ways, to open to the wild and unexpected places in ourselves. Where do my untamed and unpredictable instincts lead me? With a vital imagination, I could easily view death the way Walt Whitman did in Song of the Open Road: “Old age flowing free with the delicious nearby freedom of death.” Out on the open road I could reinvent myself in surprising ways that help sustain meaning and joy in the autumn of my life.
Since aging is one of the great teachers of change, part of my spiritual practice in these later years is to engage with what does not change. My body is changing, my mind is forgetting more, my work is shifting, I am losing those I love, and death is nearer for me. But what is constant? The landscape’s steady, humble presence is an enormous comfort. Just sitting in this mountain valley, breathing in the primal silence, gives me a profound experience of constancy. With its capacity to simultaneously hold the past, present, and future, this land transcends linear time and space. It offers the vision of an ineffable realm beyond time. When I am gone, this faithful place will still hold the memory of me with the invisible echoes of my footsteps. As I grow older, this landscape’s primordial continuity bestows the kindest of benedictions.
I have made it known that when I die I want my ashes scattered here, along the Ashokan Way. But until that time comes, I would like to enter this September of my life like the bright autumn colors that come before the nakedness of death. I wish to engage with the vibrant youth around me as if they were the fresh new green of spring—and I, the rich palette of autumn, offering my cycles of experience. In these coming years as I lose more and more of my color, I want to experience this as the natural preparation for my death. And when I take my last breath, I hope to imagine myself as a bare winter tree lying on the forest floor, my naked grey skeleton becoming one with the earth that nurtured my life.
Gail Straub is the Executive Director of the Empowerment Institute where she co-directs the School for Transformative Social Change. As part of this focus, she co-founded IMAGINE: A Global Initiative for the Empowerment of Women with initiatives currently underway throughout Africa, Afghanistan, India, and the Middle East. Gail is the author of five books including, with her husband David Gershon, the best-selling Empowerment: The Art of Creating Your Life As You Want It, The Rhythm of Compassion, and the feminist memoir Returning to My Mother’s House. Her essay in this issue is excerpted from her latest book, The Ashokan Way: Landscape’s Path into Consciousness, available here. She lives in the Hudson River Valley in New York.
We are most grateful to Kate McGloughlin for offering the use of her transcendent paintings of the Hudson River Valley in this article. More on her work as a landscape artist and regional storyteller can be found at katemcgloughlin.com .