The Still Point
I developed a swollen node on my neck, a soft bump that shouldn’t have been there. As my masseuse pointed it out, she cautioned me to keep an eye on it. “It could be nothing,” she said, though her tone said otherwise. I vacillated between dismissing it as a short term effect of a head cold, and dire thoughts of lymphoma, pneumonia and a slow painful death, to which Alan suggested it must be Beriberi, his way of telling me not to be so melodramatic. (My father used to call me Sarah Bernhardt during my dramatic displays, though come to think of it, he was far worse than I.)
The swelling went down after a few days, but it was all part of how I’d felt since early September, when Summer suddenly ran off and Fall came down like a heavy curtain. No amount of stomping, clapping, or calling out “encore” brought back a last round of warmth. The leaves, felled by brisk wet winds and heavy rains, skittered over the street, some red but mostly brown, and in my despair I was sure we would forego the gentle entrée of reds, oranges and yellows, an indispensable encouragement for embracing gray months ahead.
Usually my feelings about Fall here in the Pacific Northwest are more mixed; excited about cooler mornings, rain in the garden, digging out warm clothes while mourning the end of languid days, sleeveless shirts, warm skin, and thriving gardens. Instead, I was fighting inevitable change, a losing battle. I knew that no matter how hard I push away the unavoidable, I can never be happy. I knew it and yet losing is all the harder for its predictability.
At first the trees also seemed to hesitate, moving into that liminal stage of green and yellow, green and red, one step at a time, one leaf at a time. Walking the neighborhood, roses looked forlorn, shrubs dotted with brown, gardens just plumb worn out. I too felt worn out. Then I caught the grandkids’ colds. Which comes first, the blues or illness?
Most summer mornings I stretch my creaky body in the quiet early light in our yard, birds waking with me under a blue sky. All too quickly it was now still dark when I rose, stars not quite faded, clouds glowing faintly against the night sky. The patio grew cold under my bare feet, and then the unseasonal record-setting rain drove me indoors. Looking out longingly from behind the window, cold creeping into my bones, I turned on the gas fireplace in early September, a nail in the coffin of my despair. Just call me Sarah.
The garden’s inexorable demise started early. The evening’s chill extended further into the mornings, fruits and vegetables dropped or rotted before ripening. Everything was bedraggled and tired out, the strawberries sodden. The tallest cosmos, cherry colored celosia, and brilliant zinnias, such a source of joy not so long ago, toppled from the weight of the rain. A squash blossom on a volunteer plant burst forth from a winding stalk, declared itself, grasping at life. But I know who’s going to win this game.
It’s the Fall of my life, my third season. I’m a little tired and achy, my hair grows wild, and everything droops or swells. What I observed around me translated as a message about the arc of my life, and I didn’t like it.
I went to the woods, as I do when I feel dire and fatalistic. I envisioned trees tall and straight, strong trunks, a canopy of green, lush undergrowth, lifting me up with its vibrant strength, grounding me into the Now.
But what drew my attention once I got there were the broken limbs, the stumps, the enormous upended root balls, the twisted boughs, the piles of broken tree bits. The trees listed or tipped precariously, leaning on others to be held up, and nascent fern fronds covered old trunks. I noticed the knots and nodules, cancers, growths, and fungi covering the wood, stumps dissolving into dust, bark wearing away into crumbly textures full of holes and grooves, scars and wounds. Branches rising up straight from a horizontal trunk or limbs, reaching upward, grasping for sustenance in spite of the odds.
How easily I give in to despair when nature does not. It adapts. It evolves. It works around and through. It’s flexible and resilient. One path closes and it finds another. It keeps moving, keeps changing. It just is.
We humans have our doubts, our fears, hesitations, brokenness. Still we must rise up every day, embrace the sun and sky, drink deeply from that which gives us strength, put one foot in front of the other, embrace and smile, nod and say hi, greet and clasp. The world keeps spinning. There is little that can bring it to a halt, and that cataclysmic day is not today.
I look for a way to somehow embrace this season of aging before the long slow chill of my winter comes on. Standing on the precipice between seasons, the earth tilts slowly away from the sun. This is the new normal, and I breathe in, breathe out, try to stay grounded and present as the world’s chaos beats at the door, rattles the windows, drowns the earth, and washes us clean for another spin around the sun.
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
TS Eliot, excerpt from Burnt Norton, Four Quartets
Stay tuned for Part II about the glories of aging and the joys of Fall…