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.

Beauty Is Dangerous

Physical beauty is double-edged sword, for both men and women. It opens doors for us, bolsters our self esteem, but because of our cultural complexity, it can also entangle us, get us into trouble.

Clara (Never Again) muses on her new-found youthful beauty. “Now the beauty I had been given felt somewhat dangerous. I wanted to hide it, diminish it. Beauty attracts, and I’d always fallen in love too easily with anyone who desired me. Off I’d go on the romance roller coaster. Only that roller coaster was not like the ones in amusement parks where you step off safely at the end of the ride. My roller coasters always crashed and broke my heart. Would I be any wiser now?”

Being beautiful can become an obsession. Is my hair right? my clothes? Oh, no! is that a pimple? Am I thin enough, buff enough, tall enough? Am I pretty enough to be loved?

As I wrote in my last post, we can spend huge amounts of money and energy trying to shape ourselves to an image that is rarely attainable or even real.

If we do succeed in feeling we’ve achieved our goal, the greatest danger of all is to identify with it. Our culture, with its many advertisements for beauty products and procedures, teaches us that if we are beautiful the world will open for us, we’ll be popular, we’ll find our true love, we will succeed. But physical beauty is an ephemeral security. It can be altered in a moment by injury, corroded by illness, and finally, inevitably, worn away by aging, year by year, until the face we see in the mirror bears little resemblance to the picture in our high school year book.





If it is love we seek, or worldly success, perhaps we need to turn inward to find the eternal beauty of compassion, listening, caring.