On the Brink of Everything

By Carol Orsborn

It just happened again.  I woke up feeling every bit my age, careening toward my morning shower—when I was swept with joy because I love my shower curtain. I love my shampoo.  I love that I can trust that the spray will come out at the exact warmth and intensity I prefer.

Seven years ago, at the age of 63 when I was fraught with the challenges of growing old in our ageist, dysfunctional society, I vowed to transform myself from victim to explorer.  I viewed the far side of midlife as wild territory, full of dangerous unknowns, and saw that my mission as an adult development expert and author as well as participant/observer would be to report back my discoveries.  I have attempted to do so faithfully in my books, blogs and digest. Happy to say, I believe that I’m making head-way, even if some of what I’ve encountered has required a greater degree of hacking away through thorny brush with a duller machete than I would have hoped.

I have to admit that fraught is not an accidental choice of words but the most accurate way to describe my mood for much of this journey.  The on-ramp off of middle-age was the hardest part: the early stretch of the journey where you still believe that if you just try hard enough, you can stop the more serious effects of aging from happening to you.  But only when the irreversible losses begin setting in and it is clear there’s no turning back, do you become a candidate for serious transformation.

Thankfully, there are elders walking the path before us.  One of these is visionary educator Parker J. Palmer, who at 80 has just published his tenth book On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity and Getting Old.

“Age brings diminishments, but more than a few come with benefits.  I’ve lost the capacity for multitasking, but I’ve discovered the joy of doing one thing at a time. My thinking has slowed down a bit, but experience has made it deeper and richer.  I’m done with big and complex projects, but more aware of the loveliness of simple things: a talk with a friend, a walk in the woods, sunsets and sunrises, a night of good sleep.”

One can learn to reap the benefits of aging, but Parker also teaches us that there is an investment to be made, and it is rarely pain-free. One must also do the challenging philosophical, religious and spiritual work of coming to terms with the world, questions of ultimate concern and the human condition as well as the difficult therapeutic work of making peace with one’s past. There are issues of legacy to be attended to, disillusionments to be faced, amends to be made and self-love to be administered, one act of truth-telling or forgiveness at a time. Much of this journey into the unknown is harrowing, some of it transcendent and most of it unexpected.

But Parker assures us, and it is good to know, that there comes a time when the harrowing nature of the work is done, even while growth continues apace.

…I have plowed my life this way

Turned over a whole history

Looking for the roots of what went wrong

Until my face is ravaged, furrowed, scared.

Enough.  The job is done.

Whatever’s been uprooted, let it be

Seedbed for the growing that’s to come…

For those who live long enough to transit beyond transition to transformation, there comes a time when spiritual growth no longer centers on the metaphor of a heart broken open, but rather, a heart grown whole. There is, at last, not only the fraught journey through older age—but an arrival.

This is what I experienced this morning when I stepped into the shower and found myself instantly transported to something approaching a destination, a place that has been coming increasingly and more frequently into view.  I recognize this place as not a state of doing, not an achievement, not harrowing, but rather, a state of being, an experience of effortless connection that asks absolutely nothing of me other than to be willing to receive. And  I am not alone.

Parker is only 80—and he’s already figured it out.  He is showing us the possibility of aging that represents the culmination of one journey and the initiation of another–with years to spare. And just this morning, I traveled at the speed of light in the moment it took walking from the bed to the shower from feeling my age as a burden to celebrating the fact that if Parker is only 80,  I am only 70 and as his book is so aptly titled,  tottering deliciously “On the Brink of Everything.”

So here we stand, poised and ready, in my case with not even so much as holding a dull machete in hand any more, but a moist shower curtain.  And here I close with words of hope from yet another way-shower, author/elder Joan Chittister.

“Now we are beyond the narcissism of youth, above the struggles of young adulthood, behind the grind of middle-age, and prepared to look beyond ourselves into the very heartbeat of life.  Now we can let our spirits fly. We can do what our souls demand that fully human beings do. This is the moment for which we were born.”

Dr. Carol Orsborn is the best-selling author of 30 books including Gold Nautilus Book Award winner in the category of Consciously Aging: The Spirituality of Age: A Seeker’s Guide to Growing Older (with Robert L. Weber, Ph.D.). For more insights on Carol’s work check her out at www.CarolOrsborn.com.