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Late Fall, Early Winter

A Fresh Look by Barbara Kammerlohr at Past Reviews

Thinking about this issue’s book column brought me back to the heart of my involvement with Second Journey. The editor suggested that we deal with my temporary inability to see well (and hence read) by reflecting on past book reviews, focusing on a few titles, and labeling them “The Best of….” After all, much about Second Journey is the search for meaning. Success in that endeavor rises from the depth of the inquiry, not the sheer volume of books we plough through.

I have found books a most helpful tool as I searched for a way to grow old with dignity and grace. Wanting to become a wise elder instead of a silly, old biddy, I was frustrated by the paucity of role models available to me. I found myself in a culture that had shifted dramatically from that in which my mother, and my grandmother before her, grew old. Most of my contemporaries seemed as rudderless as I was. And it was through reading books and exploring Web sites that I found direction for a conscious and deliberate journey through the fall and winter seasons of life.

My reflection on what to label “the best” occurred during recovery from surgery. At the same time, a close friend and former colleague suffered a serious stroke. While unpleasant, those days provided me with an enlightening experience. I was surprised by how much my Second Journey book reviews mirrored my own progress on the journey. For the most part, I had focused on aspects of life’s “fall season.” During this part of the journey, health, a good pension, family members, close friends, and my own competence in many areas traveled with me. I also had unexplored talents such as painting that were pleasant new companions to discover. On any journey, the landscape does not remain static. Eventually the warm and vibrant colors of fall give way to the starker landscapes of winter. This reality, however, was seldom at the forefront in the many reviews I wrote over the past three years. Nor is it a theme underscored by most authors.

That has changed for me. This recent challenge with my vision, though not a winter experience itself, was like the rain and cold of a late fall day that signals the coming change of seasons. My vision is inalterably changed. It will improve; I will see better after a second and third surgery. But I will never see as well as before. The sun’s warmth will return, but I know now that that will be temporary. I am on a journey into winter.

All of that is to point out that the criteria for selecting the five titles to include in this column were very personal. By any objective criteria, some of the better books did not make the list. I’ve chosen books which I think should be re-read by those who, like me, more attuned to the autumn landscape, may have missed the reflections on winter. Preparing for winter is a task for all seasons of life. I still remember my second grade teacher pointing out the squirrels’ winter preparations. Winter requires preparation; ignoring the references to the winter of life is hardly the best way to do that preparation. A deeper understanding of how the process is unfolding is required. This understanding and reflection begins during life’s fall season, and to find success with the tasks of winter, one must become proficient with the tools of reflection and intuition.

Reading is one way to develop those skills. The following books from earlier columns speak to the tasks of winter with its changing landscape and adventure. To access the earlier review in its entirety, click on the title.

From Ageing to Sage-ing:
A Profound New Vision of Growing Older

by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Ronald S. Miller.
Warner Brothers, 1997.

Though this is not a book I have reviewed, it is featured prominently on Second Journey’s Web site, and its revered author is a frequent contributor to Itineraries. It is difficult to believe that there are readers of Itineraries who have not read it. Reb Zalman’s book was my introduction to the concepts of life’s seasons, especially life’s fall and winter. Its metaphor of winter helped me get my bearings during a difficult time —helped me realize that the journey must take me into winter.

Sister Age by M.F.K. Fisher
Vantage Books, 1984.

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. 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.

Old Age: Journey into Simplicity
by Helen M. Luke
Random House, 1987.

This short book (131 pages) is a collection of five essays on old age written by a woman, well into her eighties, who spent her life studying the insights of Carl Jung. Her thesis is that, near life’s end, a point comes when we must choose how to go into our last years, how to approach death. The choice, Luke tells us, is “whether we will let go of the trappings of the ego so that a new man who is the creation of Mercy will be born, or whether we will hold on to the old man, to rejection of that emptiness which is the fullness of Mercy.” Luke is the ultimate storyteller, adept at marshalling metaphorical passages from great literature (The Odyssey, King Lear, and The Tempest) to make her points. She retells these stories focusing on the symbols important to a Jungian view of the aging process.

The Gift of Years: Growing Old Gracefully
by Joan Chittister
Bluebridge Books, 2008

The 40 short essays in this book grow out of Sister Joan Chittister’s belief that the spiritual task of later life is embracing its blessings and overcoming its burdens. Intention is built into every stage of life, and old age is no exception. It is the mental and spiritual attitudes that we bring to our challenges during this time of life that determine who we become as we advance from one age to the next.

Her topics include: regret, fear, joy, transformation, sadness, wisdom, limitations, and many others that can bring comfort in the face of a challenge of old age; each essay closes with a summary of the burden and the blessing of the attitude under discussion. The book is not meant to be read in one sitting; its deep, practical advice takes time, attention, and contemplation to assimilate.

The Second Half of Life: Opening the Eight Gates of Wisdom
by Angeles Arrien
Sounds True, 2005.

This is also a short book included here specifically because it is such a practical guide for dealing with the intangible psychological and spiritual issues that appear during the winter years, especially those resulting from a deep inner shift in energy that calls us to some unknown, previously unrecognized path.

Each gate represents a developmental task we must complete in order to reap the harvest of wisdom in old age. A chapter devoted to each gate explains the challenge and gifts of the gate with suggestions for reflection and practices that can result in success at the gate.