As I wake up this morning, it takes a little while to remember where I am. I sit up in bed, pulling the quilt around me against the damp, and wait. Here it comes: the hills above Half Moon Bay. Old growth redwoods drip through the front window, and in the distance, fog rises off the Pacific. Wild geese, moving across the sky like a pack of barking dogs, are heading…where? What month is this? I wait again.
August. Late August. It must be the Fall migration. The geese are flying south.
* * *
Why did I take so long to figure out the month? I’ve never gotten used to these West Coast seasons. Green means winter when the rains finally come, and golden hills mean early summer when everything has dried out. We don’t have four seasons here —just two: wet and dry. Makes it hard for a normal person from New Jersey to know what month it is.
A tiny lick of fear flashes up as I reflect on this. I’ve lived in California almost thirty years. How come it’s so hard these days to get oriented when I’m in a new place? I have a sense of reaching out to balance myself, not entirely sure of the ground. Is my mind eroding, the way beaches give way over time, the ocean pulling them back into itself?
Until this moment, these thoughts have been just little flurries of worry, eddies in the general flow of mind moments. Now, as I let the questions come clearly into my mind, my fear becomes conscious too. Well, ok. Here it is. Let the fear have some space, one of my teachers used to say. Let it breathe.
I’m letting it breathe. The fear gets bigger. (This used to scare me: you pay attention and it gets bigger, for God’s sakes! Who wanted that? But I’ve come to trust the process. This is just how it works: I pay attention and whatever I’m feeling shows up more clearly. Like monsters hiding under the bed: you lean over and shine a light on them and the dust balls and maybe a monster or two comes into view. It’s not so terrifying after all.)
I settle down a little bit. Now the fear feels like a chilly, uninvited guest clutching hard at my heart as if it wants to be invited for dinner. I sigh and stop fighting so hard. The guest makes himself at home, sloppily leaving his chilly stuff all through my midsection. Breathe, I remind myself. After awhile, I begin to wonder what’s scaring me. No sooner does my curiosity show up than the chilly spread-out fear changes, dissolving into a watery kind of energy. The flow quickly begins to pick up force, flooding through my arms and hands, pouring itself down my spine and then all through my body and into the space beyond my skin. It feels delicious, like a dried out ravine finally getting her river back. Nowhere to go, nothing to do and nothing to be scared about.
Now I do what I’ve gotten good at these past ten years or so. I wait. It’s not the usual kind of tapping-your-foot, bouncing-your-leg, drumming-your-fingers impatient waiting. This is more of a riverbed’s waiting as the rains fill it in after a long dry summer—welcoming and not even thinking of hurrying anything along. Especially myself. It’s a contented waiting, and the waiting itself– or allowing, you could call it that—is a pleasure. I’m happy to let this waiting take its own sweet time.
When you wait like this, there is no telling what will unfold. In this case, what develops from my fear of losing my mind is something that astonishes me: a loving kindness so tender, so penetrating, that it seems to be feeding every cell of my body with nectar. In the presence of this kindness, I don’t feel scared anymore. I hang out for awhile, waiting again, wanting to understand more but not hurrying anything, not ransacking my poor mind for an answer because it probably wouldn’t know anyway.
Gradually, my familiar sense of self changes into a deep calm and stability, a kind of sober maturity unlike anything I’ve ever known before. I feel as spacious as the night sky and, at the same time, steady and grounded as a mountain. Moreover, all of these impressions seem to issue from a source, a sensibility, that is ancient and wise.
I’m trying to describe something that is not really the way that it sounds. It’s not like dropping a suit of clothes and putting on a another one. It’s more like you unzip your dress, step out of it and let it drop to the floor; and then you unzip your skin and let that drop too. You feel totally empty but it’s not a hollow, something-is-terribly-lacking kind of thing but something completely different: a sense of being so open that you contain all possibilities; so unformed that you’re no longer trapped in the prison of all my yesterdays; so at ease that you’re as free as 10,000 miles of sky with no clouds in sight.
To my great surprise, this has all unfolded in response to not running away from my fears about getting old and losing my mind. First, that experience of maturity beyond anything I’ve ever known, and then the freedom. I’ve known the freedom before but not that particular sense of … what to call it? Ancient, calm, grounded maturity. How curious!
Is this the perspective of an elder?
I wonder. Does this have something to do with my being over sixty, or can it happen at any age if you confront your fear of growing old?
What if all of us who worry and cover-up and distract ourselves about having our bodies wrinkle and weaken and our minds get Swiss cheese holes or whatever happens to make them forget and slow down, all of us who are freaked out about being helpless and homeless and all the other nightmares and real things that actually do happen if you live long enough, what if we took heart, slowed down, pulled out the flashlight and looked under the bed at the monsters that are scaring us? What if we told the truth to each other about all of it?
Wait a minute. Slow down. I’m on the lip of something here, something about maturity that I’ve wanted to understand for a long time and haven’t known how to approach. Not just a perspective, but an embodiment of what it means to ripen all the way through. I’m not foolish enough to imagine there is only one way this maturity appears. After all, does a ripe peach taste the same as a ripe artichoke? But still, to stumble into this experience by plunging into my fear about getting old is not what I expected at all. Not at all.