What Would You Choose?

What Would You Choose?

Imagine that you are eighty years old. You have lived a full life and now you are slowing down. You have some aches and frailties, but for the most part you are doing well.

Then imagine you are suddenly given a perfectly healthy young body. But your spirit is still eighty. You remember all your life experiences and the wisdom you gained from them.DSCN0155

That is what happened to Clara, the protagonist of my novel Never Again. After her transformation, she was delighted with her vitality and health, but also found her new life confusing, and the incongruity between her body and spirit increasingly distressing. Finally she asked the Elirians, the immortal extraterrestrials who had transformed her, if she could have her old body back—and learned that she could. DSCN0184

As she struggled with her choice, she turned again and again to nature. She saw herself in the tree that held onto its leaves too long and was bent with snow, and in the flowers that were still blooming in late fall when it was time to make seeds. When the Elirians asked her about birth and death, she explained the human life cycle by comparing it to the seasons on planet Earth. DSCN0323

In recent months I have given several talks about Never Again. I tell my audience Clara’s story up to her point of choice, and then ask, “What would you choose?”

It has been interesting to hear their answers. The ages of the people in my audiences has been between late forties and early eighties. Most were over sixty.

The discussions were lively.

The younger people were more likely to choose to keep the young body. They were into life and wanted more. Perhaps it was hard for them to imagine what it would be like to be eighty.    Older people in the audience, with some exceptions, chose to return to their old body. Some said they loved their retirement, not having to be on a schedule, following their own rhythms, enjoying their hobbies. Others spoke of looking forward to seeing what lay beyond, to reconnecting with loved ones who had died before them. No one over eighty chose to keep the young body.

Then, of course, they asked me what I would choose.

It is a difficult decision. Oh, to have a young body again! To be able to leap and run and dance for hours, to reclaim lost yoga postures, and climb high and far in the mountains. To wake without pain. There is also the lure of the path not taken, and the tempting thought that I now have the patience and maturity to be a much better parent than I was the first time around.DSCN0049

But like Clara, I am weary, so full of memories I feel I can hardly hold more. Clara said, “Too many memories. They weigh me down like the pack I carried up the mountain. No, heavier. Much heavier. Like an immense manuscript hanging over me, riffled by the thumb of God, a blur of endless pages falling on me, page upon page, pressing me into the ground.”

I find the increasingly impersonal and electronic world daunting. And I do not want to sit in a hospice room and watch my elderly children die before me.

The season of my life turns. I am curious about what comes next. Already I feel my skin becoming more permeable, the boundaries of myself softened. I long for a more complete blending with Spirit, a longing that has called me all my life.

Not yet, not quite yet. But definitely I don’t want to wait another fifty or more years.

What would you choose?

Life Is But A Dream

My friend Kathy, who is studying to become a spiritual counselor in the Mile Hi Church, tells me that none of what we experience in daily life is real. Only Love is real.

I have been thinking about that.

A month ago, I had a moment when I seemed to see myself from afar, an old woman with a cane walking down a winter street in the late afternoon, bare tree branches stark against the sky. It felt like a dream image.DSCN0380

It seems as I age that my identification with the persona  of  “Heather,” with all her history, experiences, perceptions, and elderly habits, has grown more and more tenuous. There have been other occasions when I have seen myself  from afar, as if from the other side of a veil. Then the question arises, who is seeing me from there? I have no conclusions about that.

It is not a new idea that this world of the five senses, that we insist is reality, could be a dream. Certainly if we see it that way, we would have a different perspective on all our dramas. Often I have waked from a nightmare or the ecstasy of flying and said with relief or regret, “It was only a dream.”

For many years I danced the ceremonial long dance at solstices, equinoxes, full moons, and cross-quarters. The longest and most powerful dance each year was at the summer solstice, when we danced in the forest for two or three days and nights, rocked in the rhythm of the drum, dancing through dawn and midday, twilight and starlight. Many adventures unfolded for each of us—solitary dances at the center pole, entrainment in the circles, dances with others. Dramas and comedies emerged in the central courtyard, laughter and tears. We called it dream time.

Then after the drum stopped and the closing spiral unwound, we gathered in the talking staff circle and shared our experiences and visions.

Could it be that after we die, we gather with old friends and the guides who have watched over us, and realize that this lifetime, that now feels so full and important, is like a long dance or a dream?

Forty some years ago, when I was in Arica Training, we often ended our long day by chanting a mantra. Usually it was in Sanskrit, but one afternoon our teachers surprised us and made us laugh. Then we sang:

“Row, row, row your boat,

Gently down the stream,

Merrily, merrily, merrily.

Life is but a dream.”

The Path Toward Death

Aging is happening all our lives from the time we are twenty-something, but there comes a time when it accelerates, a point— only we ourselves can say at what chronological age— when we realize we are in the last stage of our lives and we are really going to die.

Such a time came to me about a year ago. I was troubled by free-floating anxiety. When I went to my therapist and we sorted together, I realized that most of my anxiety was about my body. She said, “It’s okay. You’re seventy-nine. You’re in transition toward death.”

A shocking statement, but it was a relief. Of course my body would have to break down, else, short of sudden violence, how could I die?

For the last year I have been living into the understanding that I am in that transition, although it may take ten or even fifteen years. It is a shift in focus. I walk my path in a new way, open to what is unfolding, rather than being fixed on how I think it should be. Because at any moment—

Of course it is true that at any time of life that moment may come. Death always walks beside us. When we are young we really don’t believe that, but as we grow older death comes closer.

My doctor said to me once when I was complaining about fatigue, “Give thanks for what you can do and rest when you’re tired.” Wise words.

Flower Petals On The Path Toward Death

One of the gifts of aging, though it may not seem so, is that we do need to rest, slow down, and these quiet times give us an opportunity to go inward.

Clara writes, after she is old again, “The frequent rests I needed during the day, stretched out on my bed under the silver blanket, gave me time to return to those ineffable processes that had been interrupted for a year—dreaming, musing, sorting the experiences of my life as the old do, laying flower petals on the path toward death.”

For me, there is a sense of urgency now, not about what I must do, but about what I want to become before I die. Time is running out, and, although I’ve lived a rich, full life, I am only now getting down under all my busyness to grasp what is important. Not much time left to learn to love as I have always wanted to love. Not much longer to court the light and clear away the debris that keeps it from shining though me.

It’s true, there are a few things I would like to complete. I’d like to see the novels I’ve started finished and published. It would be good to clear out all those possessions I no longer need that still clutter my closets, basement, and garage. But those things are not important really. If they don’t get done, it doesn’t really matter.

The love and the light are what matters.

Aging In A Sacred Manner

Aging is tough. There is so much loss. Little by little our bodies betray us. In varying degrees and combinations we lose our teeth, our hair, our hearing, our vision, our memory, our continence, the flexibility of our joints, our very strength. It’s embarrassing, humbling, frustrating. We also lose the ability to enjoy many of activities we loved. And far worse than these physical losses, is the loss of friends and family who die before us.

Clara muses as she struggles with her aches and fragility: “It’s only aging. Aging is never easy. It’s the toughest challenge on top of all the challenges of incarnate existence, and comes at the end when, hopefully, we have accumulated enough strength of spirit to handle it.”

How then do we age in sacred manner? How find transcendence out of such myriad difficulties?

My mother, Katharine Day Barnes, wrote a poem in her old age, from which I derived the title for my novel.

“There are warnings enough—that first cold night in August

When Andromeda swings up in the East and crickets are silent!

The early dusk of September, heavy dew in the garden,

And blurring eyes, and aches, and names forgotten.

Never again, never again the summer of strength and beauty.

Friends waver and vanish—O chill north wind of warning!

Look long, love deep while you may.

Too soon December.”

Perhaps the first step in bringing transcendence to aging is accepting it, and the death that looms, as part of the natural rhythm of life.

Clara explains to the immortal Elirians who seek to understand aging and death, “It’s like the seasons of our Earth—the newness of spring, the fullness of summer, the withering of fall, the death of winter.”



Gratitude and presence are also key to aging in a sacred manner. Gratitude for all that is past—all the gifts, the adventures, the people we have loved, the lessons learned. Gratitude even for the bitter lessons, holding them in gentleness and forgiveness.

Gratitude for the present. With age, let us find at the last the wisdom to savor the gifts of each moment—the opening of a flower, the mutable colors of the sky, the shining eyes of a child, the smile of a beloved, the taste of food, the comfort of a warm bed. Most of all, may we drink in and give back love.

When Lenny and Clara learn that Lenny is dying, Clara asks in grief, “What will we do?” and Lenny answers,  “We will live every single moment we have left together so deeply each one will be an eternity.”

As we age we become like an old rock wall that shifts, settles, and crumbles. Being grateful, being present are like growing flowers into our crumbling spaces.

Look long, love deep.

Accepting or Giving Up

Part of incarnate life on planet Earth is aging. It doesn’t happen to all of us; some die young. But for those of us who avoid early death, it is inevitable.

My mother, who was brought up in aristocratic circumstances, used to say of various unavoidable human frailties, including aging, “It happens in the best of families.” So it does.

One evening when I was twenty, standing in line at a church supper, I became impatient with the old woman in front of me. She moved so slowly, fussed clumsily with her tray and utensils. “Oh, get on with it,” I thought. “I’m hungry.”

Then it hit. A chill went through me. I can still remember that moment of realization. Someday I will be old like that.

And now I am.

I wonder what the young woman behind me in the checkout line at the grocery store feels as I slowly unload my cart and dig in my purse for just the right coins to give exact change.DSCN0181

It’s shocking, really. It seems just yesterday I could see clients all day, mow my big lawn running barefoot behind a push mower, hike high in the mountains, dance for hours.

When something is inevitable, an important question is, “How can we handle it gracefully?”

I think one piece has to do with finding the line between accepting and giving up.

In my novel Never Again, Clara, on her eightieth birthday, seeks to climb high in the mountains to a place she loves. She stumbles, her heart races, her inner voice tells her she should turn back. But she does not, because she fears that if she does, she will never try again, and her walks in the mountains, which are her greatest joy, will be lost to her forever. So begins her story.

When we are injured or ill or aging, there comes a point when we will have less grief if we accept where we are, adapt to it, make peace with it. There is grace in that.

But where is that point? Ah, that is tricky. It can be too easy to say, “I can’t,” and give up, when perhaps a little more effort would gain more function, more good years. There is also grace in pushing through, trying harder, holding hope.

Of course, finding that line between accepting and giving up applies not only to aging, but to any situation that challenges us, at any age.