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Two Classics for Your Reading Pleasure

The Second Half Of Life:
Opening the Eight Gates of Wisdom

by Angeles Arrien

Sounds True, 2005

Angeles Arrien is an anthropologist, educator, award-winning author, and consultant to many organizations. She is also on the faculty of two San Francisco Bay Area schools: The California Institute of Integral Studies and the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology. Her research and teaching focus on values and beliefs shared by all of humanity, and on the integration and application of multi-cultural wisdom in contemporary settings. She is author of The Four-Fold Way: Walking the Paths of the Warrior, Teacher, Healer and Visionary and Signs of Life: the Five Universal Shapes and How to Use Them..

Sister Age
by M.F.K. Fisher
Vintage, 1984

During a career that spanned 60 years, M.F.K. Fisher (the initials stand for Mary Frances Kennedy) became one of the pillars of American literature. She is recognized for creating a genre by using essays on food and taste as metaphors for man’s three basic needs: food, security, and love. A prolific writer, she published hundreds of stories for The New Yorker, 15 books of essays, a novel, a screenplay, a children’s book and dozens of travelogues. Her more popular works included: Consider the Oyster, How to Cook a Wolf, The Art of Eating, A Considerable Town, and As They Were.

Fisher lived most of her life in California, Switzerland, and France. A ranch in northern California became her retirement home. There, after years of diminishing sight, crippling arthritis, and Parkinson Disease, she died in 1992 at the age of 83. It was during these years that she published Sister Age, a collection of short stories and her only book on aging.

Many of us long for a guide to help us deal with the psychological and spiritual issues that appear in the later years of our lives—especially those issues resulting from a deep inner shift in energy that calls us to some unknown, previously unrecognized path. In our twenties, thirties, and forties, we found magazine articles and books that coached us on how to successfully complete the developmental tasks of those stages, tasks such as: finding a mate, choosing a profession, raising children, climbing the career ladder. Now that we have arrived at the second half of life, few guides exist to tell us how to approach the tasks of the later years, tasks such as being, integrating, accepting, completing unfinished work, surrender, and saying good bye.

The Second Half of Life: Opening the Eight Gates of Wisdom by Angeles Arrien, is such a guide, poetic but practical. Published in 2005, it is fast becoming a classic in its field. In our own western culture where "old" has been held in disregard for generations, few researchers are interested in identifying factors that lead to a successful old age—a time when “being,” not “doing,” is the most prominent task to be addressed. Arrien’s research integrates information from both psychology and cultural anthropology. She brings into her work information from other cultures where old age is not a “curse” and it is possible to identify traits, behaviors, and activities that lead to success in old age.

This book is a guide for those seeking information about the specific developmental tasks and energies that emerge during the second half of life. Arrien refers to the process as “rites of passage.”  She not only identifies tasks we must master in order to reap the harvest of wisdom, she also recommends specific practices and reflections that lead to mastery of the tasks. While doing the recommended reflection and practice takes much longer than reading the relatively short book, it is the practice that is essential. According to Arrien:

Spiritual traditions around the world teach that practice develops and transforms us, encourages discipline and enables us to focus, facilitating change and increased awareness. Whenever you want to learn something new or want change to occur, you must consciously and consistently engage in a practice (p. 28).

The book is organized around the concept of eight metaphorical gates — all archetypal symbols that can help shift perspectives to the tasks unique to the second half of life. Arrien explains the archetypal nature of gates in folk tales and literature. In the journey through life, each of us must pass through a series of gates in order to continue the journey. She says:

Deep archetypal feelings may surface when we are at the gate. Instinctively, we recognize that we are required to let go of what is familiar, and prepare to enter and open ourselves to the unknown. Our passage through the gate is irreversible. We cannot go back. After we open the gate and stand upon the threshold, we must do the work of transformation (pp. 9-10).

The challenges at each gate include:

The Silver Gate: facing new experiences and the unknown. It challenges us in later years to connect with our sources of spiritual renewal.

The White Picket Gate: changing identities; discovering one’s true face. "You will meet the masks you have worn previously in life and find ways to discover your true face."

The Clay Gate: intimacy, sensuality, and sexuality. This gate urges us to care for and enjoy our bodies.

The Black and White Gate: relationships. Here, through the crucible of love, generosity, betrayal, and forgiveness, we learn to deepen our relationships in more intimate and mature ways.

The Rustic Gate: Urges us to use our creativity to enhance our lives, serve our community, and leave a lasting legacy.

The Bone Gate: authenticity, character, and wisdom. To pass through this gate, we must develop the courage to be authentically ourselves

The Natural Gate: The presence of grace. Calls us to replenish our soul in silence and in nature and take time for reflection.

The Gold Gate: Non-attachment, surrender, and letting go. This gate requires nothing less than befriending the death of our physical form by engaging in nonattachment and preparing for our passing from this world.

The Second Half of Life contains much in a short volume: a comprehensive description of the tasks of aging, a collection of metaphors and poetry about the aging process, a workbook of practices designed to help reap the wisdom of old age, and above all, a distillation of the passages through which people of all cultures pass in their journey through the end of life.

I shall always be grateful to Cynthia Trenshaw, our guest editor, for suggesting a review of Sister Age. First published in 1983, this collection of 15 short stories is the renowned author’s reflective work on growing old. Ironically, because of its age it could well have been lost to me. The media long ago lost interest in it, and the publisher no longer promotes it. Even so, Sister Age has the potential to be an important influence in the movement to improve the experience of aging in our country. A limited number of copies are still available from Amazon.com.

The stories in Sister Age evolved from the author’s early interest in aging. Planning to write a book on the art of growing old gracefully, Fisher penned character studies of old people; she collected clippings and articles in a file. Then, in a visit to a Zurich junk shop in 1936, she bought a dilapidated picture of an elderly woman, Ursula von Ott,. Fisher gave her another name, Sister Age, as a term of endearment. For years, the picture hung above her desk or over her bed, silently teaching about life and death with their many complications. Fisher embraced Sister Age as an intimate, just as, many years earlier, Saint Frances had welcomed Brother Pain and the lessons he taught.

So deeply penetrating were the lessons from Sister Age that the planned book on the art of aging was never written. Instead, lessons of humility, compassion, regret, acceptance, dignity, living more simply, and befriending death incorporated themselves into stories and essays Fisher produced throughout her career. Some of the stories in Sister Age were first published as early as 1964. Others were not written until the early 1980s after the author’s retirement to northern California.

There is a great deal of variation among the stories—to be expected in a collection written at different periods during the author’s life. Some, like “The Unswept Emptiness” with the ancient Mr. Bee, are character studies. Others, like “Moment of Wisdom”, seem like autobiographical comment. My favorites had suspenseful plots with surprise endings. Two, “The Reunion” and “The Lost, Strayed and Stolen”, are the best “ghost stories” I've ever read. Their unusual endings rival the movie, The Sixth Sense. Fisher’s insight into the psyche of her characters is compassionate, kind, gentle, and understanding—a tribute to the lessons from Sister Age. It is so intimate and real that the reader identifies with the heroes and heroines, wishing for the ability to display the same strength, resiliency, and dignity when embracing loss, rejection, sorrow, and even death themselves.

Readers wanting more scholarly insight into Sister Age can find literary reviews by searching the New York Times Book Review Section and other online data sources. However, for those seeking a new experience of aging, Joseph Campbell articulated the true value of this kind of story when he talked of the importance of “the hero’s journey.” The hero enriches our lives when we identify with his noble traits, goals, and actions. Enchanted by a good story, we incorporate into our psyches and inner lives the positive ideas, emotions, and traits of the hero. In the process our character is strengthened; we have a role model for our next step in the journey. Stories with role models for those growing old in a culture like ours are difficult to find. The heroes in Sister Age, however, are such models. I encourage you to meet the friends and cohorts of Fisher's lifelong companion, Sister Age.