“From wonder into wonder, existence opens.”
I dreaded turning sixty. For months before my birthday, I imagined a fire-breathing dragon lurking around the corner, waiting to singe off my eyebrows at the entry way into the inexorable downhill slide into that last third of life—a journey studded with taunts and smirks of little red demons holding up images of medicine bottles, hearing aids, cataracts, wrinkled skin, forgetfulness, and worst of all, funeral-after-funeral of friends and family. It seemed all too much. And so, I took my lamentations to the park and walked along a sunny, tree-lined path, feeling that perhaps the old trees could offer some comfort or advice. After all, they were aged, too, and they didn’t seem to mind.
Ambling among the trees, my mind turned to one of my favorite fictional characters, Mrs. Fisher. Mrs. Fisher is the lonely English dowager who dignifies the pages of Elizabeth von Arnim’s novel Enchanted April. It's set in the heady 1920s, when youthful excesses tried to drown out the brutal detritus of grief left behind by the Great War. Being old was not in fashion. But here is Mrs. Fisher, a prideful, stiff, and self-enclosed older woman, who pines after friends long gone and laments her own feelings of "deadness" inside. Yet, she is strangely stuck in this feeling. She reluctantly agrees to join two younger women for a sunny Spring retreat in Italy. There, in the presence of new friends and climbing wisteria and budding trees, her soul begins to grow disturbingly restless. While walking alone along a tree-lined path with her old wooden cane, she finally gives in to the notion that something odd is happening inside her. In fact, much to her chagrin, the old woman felt “a curious sensation, which worried her, of rising sap. . ." Von Arnim describes Mrs. Fisher's alarm:
"It was such an absurd sensation at her age. Yet oftener and oftener, and every day more and more, did Mrs. Fisher have a ridiculous feeling as if she were presently going to burgeon. Sternly she tried to frown the unseemly sensation down. Burgeon, indeed. She had heard of dried staffs, pieces of mere dead wood, suddenly putting forth fresh leaves, but only in legend. She was not in legend. She knew perfectly what was due to herself. Dignity demanded that she should have nothing to do with fresh leaves at her age; and yet there it was — the feeling that presently, that at any moment now, she might crop out all green."
Thankfully, despite her struggle against this unseemly sense of "bourgeoning," Mrs. Fisher does, in fact, “crop out all green” and finds herself letting go to a fresh sense of aliveness and joy. And so can we. At any age. And with the inspiration of trees and youth and all other life-forms pulsating around us, we can find the courage to keep burgeoning, to grow in greenness and joy and creativity as long as we continue to breathe.
For it is in the last third of life that our souls begin to widen out in untamed bursts of bold blossoms, no longer trimmed neatly by cultural expectations. We, in our sixties and seventies and beyond, grow into wisdom, despite ourselves. Of course, leaning into our age is a choice we make. We could choose to harden into petrified wood; examples do abound. But if we choose to expand our souls with curiosity and love rather than shrink back in fear and isolation, sudden bursts of meaning tumble forth. We find that we prefer moments to money, hummingbirds to houses, relationships to accolades. Life becomes more rounded and real and honest than before. This means we no longer flee from death as we did in our youth. In our losses and our communal grief, we begin to understand death as a part of life and cherish our friends and loved ones even more. Instead of living for the future, we savor a single day, each one, an entire life cycle.
Most interestingly, in the last third of life, spirituality takes center stage. We begin to examine our interior world and find new treasures there. We gather up the past and decide what to do with it, like sorting clothes for a rummage sale. We let go of what we need to let go of and keep what want to keep; we make room for new experiences. Instead of lamenting the loss of youth and physical beauty, we begin to ripen towards a beauty of spirit that transcends our bodies. In fact, our souls grow so wide and deep that there is nothing for it but a sort of "bursting forth." (Perhaps wrinkles then, are cracks where the soul's burgeoning just can't contain itself? This is the model I'm going with, anyway.)
Yes, walking among verdant trees and thinking of Mrs. Fisher and her bourgeoning, I catch a glimpse of the luminous truth that the last third of life is like becoming an old and stately tree that never quits bourgeoning. Graceful aging is all about being deeply rooted with long and interestingly shaped branches that reach out with experience, and a wisdom not possible at a younger age. As Mrs. Fisher “cropped out all green” to grace the world with her ever-burgeoning soul, so, too, can we. This means that we never stop growing and bursting forth with fresh moments of meaning and joy. It means that we are never irrelevant or useless, despite what our culture might insinuate. It means that as we face our beleaguered planet, our troubled society, and the tragedies of our day, we know that these problems are not to be left only to the young. The aged must, too, keep bursting forth for the sake of the world. Old trees do, in fact, give the best shade.
Here’s to bourgeoning, to Mrs. Fisher, and to cropping out all green at any age.