Friendships in Later Life


Old friends, old friends
sat on their park bench like bookends
A newspaper blown through the grass
falls on the round toes
of the high shoes of the old friends

Old friends, winter companions, the old men
Lost in their overcoats, waiting for the sun

Can you imagine us years from today,
sharing a park bench quietly
How terribly strange to be seventy

Old friends,
memory brushes the same years,
silently sharing the same fears.

Time it was and what a time it was, it was . . .
a time of innocence,
a time of confidences
Long ago, it must be,
I have a photograph.
Preserve your memories,
they’re all that left you.(1)

This poignant song of Paul Simon
speaks of friends who are 70 — in their autumn and winter years. Simon was in his late twenties when he wrote the song, and he saw the old friends in sad decline.(2) Memories are all that is left them, says the last line.

But suppose that is not the only way to see and be seventy, to see or be in the last seasons of a life? Suppose that old friends, like those we call “old souls,” have more to offer than the song suggest.

In my recent writing, I look at the lifetime in four stages: Spring Student and Summer Householder on the upward and outward arc; Autumn Forest Dweller and Winter Sage on the downward and inward arc.(3)

I see each season as bringing its own gifts and suggest what I call “integral living.” By that, I mean the capacity to not identify with any one stage but instead to have access to all stages at any moment. In such fashion, we begin to live in a timeless way.

What gifts do the Autumn Forest Dweller and the Winter Sage bring to friendships — especially to old friendships — those that have endured over time? Think first of the various kinds of friendships: the friendship of two spouses, the friendship of fathers and mothers with their daughters and sons. Consider the longtime friendships of grandparents and their grandchildren. Consider the relationships of brothers and sisters and others in the family circle. Imagine further long-term friendships whose roots are in common work or common causes — from classmates to workmates to volunteers. Think even of new friendships made by elders with contemporaries — with children, youth, householders; with other forest dweller and others exploring the depth dimension.

What gifts do the Autumn Forest Dweller and the Winter Sage bring to such friendships?

First of all the Forest Dweller-in-us and the Sage-in-us partake of what I call waterfall energy as they enter the downward and inward half of the circle.

Forest Dweller is learning to release and return to what has always been at core. The skills are letting go and letting be. Letting go does not mean giving up relationships; it means letting them be. Releasing the tendency to control others, re-owning the projections we place on others. Allowing others — especially those we have known longest, to be exactly as they are — on their own path, following their own journey, navigating their own joys and sorrows. Detaching from the desire to control does not mean ceasing to care. Rather, we hold the tension — caring deeply and even having views on what we find healthier ways of achieving goals. Yet, we give up controlling people; we give up controlling events. We rest in one of the great insights of India’s wisdom ways, namely to act while renouncing the fruits of action. We act as wisely and compassionately as we can. We leave the results in the hand of powers beyond ourselves.

What are the fruits of this hard-won releasing?

  • Love without possessiveness.
  • Compassion without condescension.
  • Joy arising from the practice of gratitude, a sympathetic joy in the good of the other without envy or jealousy.
  • Peace without breaking the bonds of oneness, peace in our goals, peace in our means, peace in every step.

We approach these “releasings” in the spirit of Michelangelo who, when asked how to make a beautiful statue, advised the inquirer to find a piece of marble where the statue already existed and to chip away what was impeding its manifestation. This is the waterfall way. The gifts and the qualities are already in us. We need not strive to achieve them. We need only let go of what we are doing to obscure their manifestation.

Friendship and Time

Imagine again the old men sitting on the park bench like bookends. Imagine they were 70 in 1968, the year the song was released. This means that they would have been born in 1898. And the round toes of their high shoes evoke that earlier age. Surely they had lived through much as had their age cohorts. Their memories stretch back to another time, another way of being. It is winter and they are waiting for the sun. They have much to share. They can speak easily, leaving much unsaid yet understood. They are comfortable with the silence from which arises what can be said and what lies deeper than words.

When old friends have shared a lifetime, much can be said with only a small reference: a song, a proverb, a place, a family ritual, an event. The familiar allusion, the thing half-said, suggested only. Winter in some cultures calls to mind the waters of unknowing. I think of these old friends as dwelling in things known and things unknown. I see the present moment expanding to include vague intimations of past, present, and all that is yet to be. The mystery of it all deepens, revealing and concealing, disclosing and closing again.

Winter wisdom is less certain. We know and do not know our friends. We know and do not know ourselves. As if the universe and even our planetary home is vaster than we know. As if each individual partakes of that vastness. As if in the realm of soul and spirit, what is most ultimate is most elusive, and we are content with glimpses only. A vastness in and beyond all things.

We are changing like a garden changes, seasonally and also in other ways. I think of Robert Irwin who designed the garden at the J. Paul Getty Museum outside of Los Angeles. Of that garden, he says, it is:

Ever changing never less than whole.
Ever present never twice the same.

So it is with those we count as longtime friends. Those we have known over many ages and stages. Over many seasons unfolding. Through joys and grieving and many hurts to the heart. And in it all, landscapes of shared histories, shared memories, shared fears, and shared hopes.

Honoring the Ancestors

In the native American way, elders are called “grandfather” or “grandmother.” So too are mountains and other elements of nature that are old and wise. While not everyone is a biological grandparent, all who reach a certain age and manifest a wisdom precious to the tribe gain this honorific title.

We can learn much about the skills needed for friendships in later life by focusing on grandparents, in this expanded sense. At their best, I see them fulfilling three tasks:

  1. to keep the big things big and the little things little
  2. to encourage creativity (in themselves and others), and
  3. to bless the young.(4)

Let’s look at each of these “elder tasks” in turn:

1. Keeping the big things big and the little things little.

Grandparents at their best see us in a much longer view, knowing the wisdom of “This too shall pass.” We in our roles of youth or adult often stay stuck in the limited drama of the moment. (Think of first love, first loss, first event that reveals life as unfair and unjust, the first betrayal, etc.)

2. Encouraging creativity

Grandparents can remain supple by encouraging creativity in themselves. And grandparents at their best can be allies of the young by encouraging them to be daring, take risks, follow their dreams. We — in our roles as youth or adults — often are locked into what those in the “real world” will say.

3. Blessing the young
Grandparents at their best see us in our unique core beauty; they see us as deeper than our actions and hence in their presence we often become our better selves. We — in our roles of youth or adult — often do not see each other’s core beauty; we often freeze one another in stories from the past.

So how do we bring these three grandparent gifts to each of our relationships? In one sense, the answer is in the adverbs: Do it ever-more lovingly, compassionately, joyfully, and peacefully.

In another sense, it is through ceasing to approach life as if it were ours to control.

Old Friends to Soul Friends

A Celtic tale: A group of ancient Irish warriors rested while on a hunt. They were led by their chieftain, the great Fionn MacCumhail (pronounced Fin ma Kool.) While they rested for some moments, a debate began. The question was “What was the finest music in the world?” And Each warrior in turn ventured an answer:

A cuckoo calling
The ring of spear on shield
The belling of a stag across the water
The baying of a tuneful pack
The song of a lark
The laugher of a gleeful girl
The whisper of a moved one.

“Good sounds all,” said Fionn.

“Tell us, chief, what do you think?”

“The music of what happens,” said the great Fionn, “that is the finest music in the world.”(5)

The Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh agrees in his oft-quoted lines:

So be reposed and praise, praise, praise
The way it happened and the way it is.(6)

Such music is not easy to appreciate. To hear it, we must relinquish control. Letting go of control, we enter into a more spacious loving. For winter wisdom has its own warmth as the old ones waiting for the sun knew. And love is there. As poet Kathleen Raine puts it: “Unless you see a thing in the light of love, you do not see it at all.” (7)

In Celtic Ireland, having a soul friend (Anam Ċara) was highly praised.(10) Such a friend — almost a confessor or spiritual advisor — allowed the fullest sharing of intimate thoughts and feelings, longings and belongings, aspirations and uncertainties. I see the soul friend as sharing in one’s spiritual journey as well as one’s outward life passage. Hence soul-friendship has overtones of what Brother David Steindl-Rast calls “The More and Ever More.” Yet it retains a blend of earthiness, candor, humor, and large-mindedness often rare. A hospitality to the full range of human experience: bodily and emotional, insightful and reflective, mysterious and unimaginatively vast and — at the same time — present in the smallest event. Here the distinction between secular and sacred dissolves. Earth and sky dance together. Things divided are recognized again as whole. Attention is given to matters visible and invisible; things ancient become new. Time merges with the timeless. Such is the province of the soul friend. At best, soul friends leave behind narrow dualism. They keep widening the circle of inclusion so as to embrace the Great Family of elements, plants, animals, and humankind as well.

Soul friends touch the worlds of Source, Self, and the Circle of Nature. As they do, all is increasingly suffused with mystery.

P. A. Mendoza in conversation with Nobel prize-winning author Gabriel García Márquez asked the author about his thirty-year relationship with his wife Mercedes. Márquez replied: “I know her so well now that I have not the slightest idea who she really is.”(9) This loving openness is the fruit of letting go and letting be. It fosters a life where each friend is capable of surprising us, capable of appearing newly, again and again.

I leave the last word with love. Love unfinished. As the lover remembers a lasting love not yet returned. They are not in a city. Not on park benches. Rather the woman is nodding by a hearth fire. And the man is seeing her in his mind’s eye as she is and was and will be for him.

Here is William Butler Yeats’ poem “When you are old”:

When you are old and gray and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true;
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.(10)




1  From the “Bookends” album – the fourth studio album of Simon and Garfunkel. This album was released April 3, 1968 by Columbia Records. It was produced by Paul Simon, Art Halee and Art Garfunkel. The song “Old Friends” also appears on the Columbia Records 1999 CD compilation, “The Best of Simon and Garfunkel”. See for the lyrics to the song.

2  In April 1968, when the Bookends album was released, Paul Simon (born October 13, 1941) was in his 27th year. Oct. 13th, 2012 will be his 71st birthday.

3  See my book, The Spiral of the Seasons: Welcoming the Gifts of Later Life (Chapel Hill, NC: Second Journey Publications, 2009). In this book, I overlay the four seasons on the classical four stages of life from ancient India, getting Spring Student, Summer Householder, Autumn Forest Dweller, and Winter Sage.

4  I learned these three functions from poet Robert Bly in one of his public talks. He spoke of them as three functions of the sovereign. I see them as functions of grandparents at their best.

5  See James Stephens, Irish Fairy Tales (New York: Macmillan Company, 1920). Also see John J. Ó Ríordáin, The Music of What Happens: Celtic Spirituality: A View from the Inside (Dublin: The Columba Press, 1996), p.7. I have altered slightly the telling.

6  See Patrick Kavanagh, Come Dance with Kitty Stobling, and Other Poems (London: Longman, 1960) Also see Patrick Kavanagh, Dancing with Kitty Stobling: The Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award Winners, 1971-2003, edited by Antoinette Quinn (Dublin: Lilliput Press in association with The Patrick Kavanagh Society, 2004).

7  Quoted in John O’Donohue, Anam Ċara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom (New York: HarperCollins Publishers,1997), p. 65.

8  See John O’Donohue, Anam Ċara.

9  Quoted in John O’Donohue, Anam Ċara, p. 91. For the original, see Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, The Fragrance of Guava: Conversations with Gabriel García Márquez (London: Faber and Faber, 1988, c. 1982).

10  See The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company. 1956), pp. 40–41.