Fall foliage peaks around these parts in October, when hillsides display New England’s calendar splendor; giant arcs of brilliant red and orange leaves holding firm to their branches. But I prefer November’s starker beauty, when more leaves lie underfoot than hang overhead. The stragglers still clinging to their life-source are too few, too fragile, too sallow to conceal the dark trunks and branches silhouetted against the slanting sun. They remind me of myself: past prime and, by most economic measures, practically past purpose. Yet, in their diminished form and number, these leaves reflect autumn’s weak light with greater dazzle. They are also all that stand between us and full-on winter.
I am not old; it will be years before I’m the gaunt silhouette of a winter human. I’m middle-aged; a term that our youth-obsessed culture only applies when our middle years have, in fact, already passed.
Just as global warming pushes peak foliage deeper into autumn, so too our longer life spans change our perceptions of age and time. I grew up in the era when we distrusted anyone over the age of thirty; everything worthwhile belonged to the young. A recent survey reports that we don’t achieve optimal happiness until the age of 33. But the reality of aging is more complex than a single year can connote. The Atlantic Monthly reveals the magic of the U-Curve, while Britain’s Daily Mail contends that happiness dips in our thirties and forties, only to tick up from age 50 and peak at age 85!
I’ve never laughed as long or hard as I did during my teens and twenties, but I prefer the more balanced happiness – call it contentment – that arrived in my forties and fifties. Most of my friends are in their sixties; soon, I’ll join their ranks.
We still talk about big issues: the state of our economy, the direction of our nation, the health of our planet. But our personal health demands more discussion, dissection and diagnosis than before. Traditional career satisfactions are behind us; we’ve either retired or moved into holding patterns pending Social Security. We speak in the past tense more than in the future one. A decade ago, we juggled careers and children and aging parents. Now, our parents are deceased; our children are grown; our grandchildren have yet to arrive. As those immediate demands diminished, then evaporated, life became more leisurely, open-ended and satisfying.
It’s been almost a year since I left paid-work. My son was the first person to label me retired, but I’ve come to embrace the word. Freed from pursing a paycheck, I’ve published a book, become a yoga teacher, taken up massage, joined a gym and tutored immigrants. I have the time to visit any friend who lands in the hospital, but I can relax into a novel whenever the urge strikes me.
I’m not as actively engaged in the world as when I battled downtown traffic every day and lent my hand to designing hospitals. Six hours of sleep was the norm then. These days, I always get seven or eight, sometimes 10.
I am like that November leaf[, depleted of the chlorophyll that once made it verdant, but full of carotene, the less robust but more stable pigment in yellow leaves. My contributions, like the faded leaf, are subtler than during the mid-summer of my life, but they are more gentle and personal, too. A golden leaf dangles from its withered stem. The sun shines upon it, and I feel splendid in its fleeting light.
This essay was originally published in WBUR Cognoscenti titled ‘A Starker Beauty: Embracing the Autumn of One’s Life’, on November 29, 2014.