Imbolc                                                                          Valentine Moon

Sunday’s occupy a different reality. Time slows down. Ambition flees. A good thing. In spite of my now long absence from the Christian faith the notion of a Sabbath, lifted from Judaism, has always appealed to me.  A seventh day when God rests. And us, too.

The notion of a divine creator soothing the chaos before speaking the world into being has faded from my belief system. The idea, however, of a time for setting aside work, domestic and otherwise for a reflective day every week still makes sense to me.

The sabbath can be seen as a form of radical hospitality for the self, a day when shaping our lives to the demands of others gives way. On a sabbath we could read, view art, listen to music, cook, play games, visit family.  The third phase of life, after we have set aside work and at home parenting, can be a sabbath phase, much like the last of the four Hindu life stages.

Something to consider.



On Dying Luminously

Mabon                                                                              New Moon of the First Snow

Friend Tom Crane wrote this morning:  “Third phase (or whatever the hell it is we are in) is stereotyped as winding down, dealing with fewer issues (because they have all been dealt with already) and generally a slowing down.  Now that we are all really fully into whatever this is it seems to me there is a good bit of the opposite of that energy.  We are dealing with really significant stuff (body and health related, for instance) that never came to us when we were younger and more vital.  There is more change per square minute that we have ever seen before in spite of the stability of key relationships and situations.  And yet it is curious that we seem to be demonstrating greater capability than ever before as we navigate all this with the experience and wisdom(?) gained through decades of experimentation with who we are.”

The third phase notion is my attempt to decouple this period of life from the concept of retirement, an idea that this period of life defines itself as not-doing something. Winding down, dealing with fewer issues, slowing down featured prominently in the finish line model of retirement. We were done with the workaday world, no more 9-5. No longer the buzzing, blooming world of business with its implacable demands. Now we could kick back, put our feet up, pop a PBR and watch football without guilt. Or go fishing. Or golfing. Or quilt. Or spend more time with the grandkids.

And, when work finished up followed by four or five years of leisure, then disability or death, that model, retirement, the time of not-working, probably made sense. That is, it described life post-work for the bulk of retirees.

Lengthening lifespans have caused not-working to become inadequate for understanding life after the second phase of family building and career. In fact for some who enter the third phase they may not have given up their career, though family building is likely behind them. Still, even those still active in work often now see work as much less central, much less definitive for their identity.

If you agree to any degree with this: “I believe that the true norm of the third phase is to wander, to become like a planet to your Self, pulled by the gravitational attractions of its values and its directions. Now is the time, if you have not availed yourself of it earlier, to listen to the voices of your own heart, your own dreams, your own ancientrail.”, then, this time, call it the third phase or aging (though I’ve always found this an odd term since by definition we begin aging at birth) or old age, is qualitatively different from what has gone before.

It no longer focuses on getting somewhere, accomplishing something (though we may get somewhere and things may well be accomplished), but on the journey of your uniqueness. In this way we can arrive at the paradox, the apparent contradiction that Tom identifies: “…there is a good bit of the opposite of that energy.  We are dealing with really significant stuff (body and health related, for instance) that never came to us when we were younger and more vital…There is more change per square minute that we have ever seen before in spite of the stability of key relationships and situations.”

Once we have made or not made our family, stumbled on or victoriously walked the path of work/career, then the shift can be made to a time of self-understanding, self-expression. Perhaps the second phase could be characterized as a “we” phase and the third the “I” phase, in this sense the third phase and the first have much in common. In none of the phases do we exist solely in a we mode or solely in an I mode. I refer to a matter of emphasis, one dictated not so much by personal desire or even cultural norms, but by matters of biology.

How so? In the first phase we are young, inexperienced, naive to the world. As we grow and our bodies change, the emphasis is necessarily on personal learning: socialization, athleticism, school curriculum or skill set development. At some point in our twenties, early or late depending on the amount of schooling undertaken, the idea of family begins to take hold for most of us. This reflects a maturation of the body and an acquiescence to the species imperative for propagation. Work and/or career follows from the learning of the first phase and becomes, again for most of us, intricately entwined with family.

We are not eternal though. The body begins a decline, at first gradual, then more pronounced. At some point the children are launched, either into the workforce or into higher education then the workforce, and our own work/career reaches a peak. Sometime after we begin to contemplate a time when neither work nor family building will be central to our lives. Yes, family will still be important, probably, and even work might continue in some fashion, but neither will be at the center of our lives anymore.

What will be at the center? Individuation. The final process of personal development. Does this mean a collapse of the we and an ascendance of the I? Not at all. Your individuation may well carry you more deeply into the world. Or, it may not. It may carry you into the study, the sewing room, the world of rocks and minerals, even the development of a brand new way of human interaction. Wherever it carries you, if you are true to the defining character of the third phase, that it ends in death, you will become more of who you really are. Because, you see, it is, finally, only you that dies.

So, then, the paradox. When we are at our most authentic, are most keen to explore and liberate our gifts, the body is well into its senescence. So, the signals of mortality come fast and often: cancer, arthritis, glaucoma, weakening, imbalance at the same time the Self, the integration of body/mind, is at its most flourishing.

Though it doesn’t have to make sense, since this is a biological process and has its own timing, it does make sense to me that our most fully evolved person can be the one who faces the physical challenges of aging. By now, hopefully, we have learned of our finitude and understand biological deterioration. What a gift it is to see our frailties for what they are, accidents of our biology, and not determinative of our Self, its worth. In this way our best Self confronts the dangers and agonies that would have terrified, perhaps frozen, our younger Selves, and sees in them not the hand of a cruel fate, but the working out of a truth known since birth. We are mortal.

But, we can die as the flaming aspen does, a brilliant luminosity apparent just before the winter sets in.

Third Phase Summary

Summer                                                            Recovery Moon

The third phase. First phase: childhood/education through at least high school, maybe undergraduate college. Second Phase: career/family formation. Third phase: Post career with adult children. This last phase has become an extended and to some extent new part of normal life. In the recent past the third phase was often short, interrupted by illness and often marred by poverty and ended not long after it began, especially for men.

Advances in medical science, improved social security and medicare and the maturation of the baby boom generation have combined to push the third phase into greater and greater prominence. We live longer, with better health and improved economic conditions. Too, the large population bulge of the baby boom is forcing society to see the third phase. In the past it may have been possible to consign the aging third phaser to the margins of society, but with the huge numbers of those born between 1946 and 1964 third phase citizens will be a larger and larger percentage of the population.

This is exciting. It allows our culture as a whole to reconsider the third phase and its implications for both individuals and society. Since the third phase is post career/work and usually represented by a couple with no children at home, it places an inflection point on the question of individual worth. The normal external markers affecting self-worth are employment and children. Both of these are in the past for most third phasers. Or, at least the time when they dominated an individual’s life is in the past.

Though it may be frightening to some this means that we each get the opportunity to reshape our lives, often around activities more closely aligned to our own interests. Kate, for example, always a hand-worker and seamstress, now focuses on quilting. I was able, earlier than most third-phasers, to focus on writing, political work and the arts, interests which sustain me now in my late 60’s. Family is still important, of course, with grand children and the lives of adult children, but those interactions happen occasionally rather than daily. This allows a pleasant mix of intimate, family contact while ensuring enough time for independent activities.

The third phase continues to fascinate me as I see friends headed into it and experience it myself with Kate. Friendships matter even more, with the hard work of friendship done while family and career dominated, and become increasingly precious as those factors reduce in importance. In my case the Woolly Mammoths and the docent corps continue to enrich the third phase.




the u-shaped graph

Samain                                                                                Moving Moon

Been thinking about the U shaped graph I’ve seen in recent articles about happiness. The graph follows feelings of happiness over a lifetime. During early childhood happiness is high according to the graph. Then somewhere around adolescence and continuing through  an individual’s working life happiness declines reaching a nadir in mid-career. After that the curve ticks up, implying of course that we’re happiest again when we die. Hmm. Probably not.

(graphic for an Economist article on this topic.)

My life experience so far seems to underwrite the broad concept. Specifically I’ve been wondering about that uptick in happiness (well-being, satisfaction)-I prefer the Greek,  eudaimonia, human-flourishing. Why does it happen?

Here are a few random ideas, not proven as far as I know.  We flourish when our life has recognizable limits. We’re always being told we can do anything we set our minds to, we can be anything we want to be. Maybe so, I don’t know.  I do know that the burden of  having to choose among competing futures can make the present seem fraught and burdened. One limit in the third phase is that of diminished prospects. We no longer have the career world and its vast horizons spread before us, nor do we have the energy, the ambition we had in that time of our life. Seems good to me. Narrowing down the future and its possibilities means a less fraught daily existence.

A second limit we encounter (most of us) in the third phase is financial. We know how much money we have and what we have to do to live within its possibilities and constraints. Again, I think, good. We’re not reaching, hoping for another raise, a windfall, a lucky break. No, we can settle into the life we can afford.

A third limit is length of life. We know now that life does not stretch on well beyond the horizon. Our friends and family have begun to get serious illnesses and die. Our own body has begun to signal its intention, too. Like the other two, narrowed prospects and financial constraints, at first this seems like a horror, an anathema to the American dream of excelsior. But I think good here, too. I want my obit to start out: Ate right, exercised, died anyway.

Acceptance of all three limits encourages us to focus on those matters dearest to us, most important in our lives. Does this mean that we have no hope for a productive life? No. It simply means that we’re likely much clearer about where to spend our energy and gifts. Does this mean we give up on managing our financial affairs? Again, no. It just means that they’re easier to manage and probably take up less energy. Does it mean we abandon caring for our health? Of course not. It means that we no longer do so with the illusion of eternal physical life as our reward for it.

Just random ideas. Not proven as far as I know.

A House With A History

Summer                                                         Summer Moon

IMAG0531Why not write a history of this spot, this hectare? An ecological history. It can start with the glaciations, consider the flora and fauna since then, focusing in more tightly once the first nations began to arrive, then even more tightly as Minnesota began to emerge.

Another starting spot would be today, or from Kate and mine’s presence here. How we decided to be here, why. Go over decisions we made early on like hiring a landscape designer at the beginning. Recount our twenty years, the good decisions and the bad ones, the easy ones and the hard ones. The other historical and geological material could be worked in as backstory.

It would be good for people to view an average approach to the land, one which changed over time (though its roots were indeed in the back to the land movement) and which took advantage not of a particular approach, but of many. An approach that is dynamic, 06 27 10_beekeeperastronautchanging with new knowledge, the seasons, aging, new plants and new desire.

The flavor of “Return of the Secaucus 7” with some Scott and Helen Nearing, Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry thrown in, too. Ah, perhaps it could be a sort of third phase update of the movement years, an upper middle class idyll moving against the grain of upper middle class lifestyles.

Not sure whether to pursue this or not, but it could be interesting. Might even help sell the house. A house with a history.

A structure based on the Great Wheel might be interesting.

Journey Before Destination

Beltane                                                                        Emergence Moon

A book I’m reading has these phrases: life before death, journey before destination. An adequate life philosophy and not far from the one I try to represent here at ancientrails. Which, in fact, emphasizes the journey. As does the Malay saying which I got from my sister, “Welcome to the journey.”

Kate and I now have a destination that reaches out from the future and pulls us toward it, yet we must go on the journey first. That journey involves preparation, execution, leave-taking and much more before the destination. I like the emphasis on the journey. Slow travel makes so much sense to me: car, train, ship. Slow by twenty-first century standards.

When the journey is as important as the destination, then a trip becomes whole. It is not a disjointed transportation from one locale to another with no appreciation of the changes along the way. Of course, slow travel is just that, slow, and often times cannot accomplish what our life demands. But, more often than not we can go slower than we think.

I want getting ready to move to Colorado to be as pleasurable as we imagine our life there will be. Journey before destination.  And always, life before death.

Three Lifetimes: What to Do?

Spring                                                               Bee Hiving Moon

The process of reintegration begins now.  These intensive journal workshops mark an end to one period of life and the beginning of another.  That’s by design.  The period I was in when I got to Tucson began when Kate retired, when I left Tucson I had begun a new period, her retirement in the past, and what’s in the present and future is life in the third phase for both of us, together.

BTW:  A big aha on the idea of the third phase which came while listening to a cd by Ira Progoff (Intensive Journal creator) speaking about the process of the journal’s development.  He noted that in society’s not all that long ago, the average lifespan was thirty to forty years.  At some point in that life a death/rebirth ritual would occur and the initiate would emerge an adult member of the society with a particular role to fill.

In contemporary civilization two realities make that clear process difficult, not impossible, but difficult.  The first is the secular nature of society.  We have stripped away the culturally specific religious practices by uprooting ourselves from the context in which those practices had unquestioned authenticity.  So the ritual elements of traditional culture simply has no weight in the modern psyche.

The second reality is the one that directly bears on the third phase.  Progoff notes that with modern life spans an individual might live two or three of the lifetimes available to a member of a traditional society.  Each full lifetime requires a death/rebirth ritual to adjust/reconfigure the image the self carries as its primary identity.  We’ve created two fundamental images for the first two phases:  student and worker/parent.  We have no fundamental image for the third phase, or, in Progoff’s analysis, our third lifetime.

One of the key tasks in the intensive journal workshop itself is to come up with an image for the next phase of your life.  I’m not sure I have it yet, though the Greenman has come to me.

The Celtic triskele (see above) can serve as symbol for this tri-fold life that each of us now is heir to.  The bottom two spirals are the beginning pair:  student and worker/parent. The third life, the third phase, sits atop the first two, growing out of them, but beyond them.



Imbolc                                                                      Hare Moon

Nicollet Island Inn tonight for our 24th anniversary dinner.

Marriage is an interesting institution and not an obvious one.  There is certainly no need IMAG0331for marriage as a means of assuring reproduction.  There is ample evidence that monogamy grinds against some people all of the time and most people some of the time. The notion of finding someone in your twenties with whom you will be compatible in your sixties is almost laughably difficult.  Of course, that problem can be solved.  First, a divorce.  Second, capitulation.  Third, growing along with each other.

I’ve done the first, would find the second constitutionally impossible and now, thankfully, have ample evidence that the third is an option, too.  Even marrying in our forties, as Kate and I did, doesn’t necessarily augur well for life together in old age.  Why not?  Well, forty somethings getting married are still in their working years, burdened and shaped by the demands of occupation and vocation.

After the work life recedes, there’s no guarantee that the two will still want to see each other across the breakfast and lunch and dinner table.

Kate and I have made this transition over the last couple of years, integrating our lives in a IMAG0531more closely choreographed dance.  Now, when I work here in my study, her sewing machine whirs above me, her feet move across the floor from table to ironing board as she works on her current project.  When we look at travel opportunities, we can be much more flexible in our decisions.  As the growing season unfolds, so will another year of mutual garden work, growing food, caring for the bees.

We didn’t know we’d be good at this when we got married.  It wasn’t on our minds.  But that third option, the growing together one?  It’s marked every step along the pilgrimage of our life together, a pilgrimage far from finished.

Where Will the Dead-to-Work Live?

Imbolc                                                                  Hare Moon

Realized the other day that I’m going to be driving to Arizona in late March.  At 67 that makes me a cliche, the stereotypical white-haired escapee from the frozen lands of the north.  I worked for a while at Unity-Unitarian Church in St. Paul.  Roy Phillips, senior minister there for 23 years, always referred to Minnesota as the frozen tundra.  His last church was in Tucson.

(Sun City Florida ad image)

In 1960 developer Del Webb opened the first homes in what would become Sun City.  Sun City soon became a byword for retirement Valhalla, a place where the worthy dead-to-the-work-world could gather and each day play 18 holes.  After golf they could climb in the cart and drive home to a feast celebrating having crossed work’s finish line.

Sun City was nothing more than a name and a cultural symbol to me when I married Kate. Her parents, though, had retired there, so I had more than one opportunity to see it from the resident’s perspective.  The first time we visited the flat, uniform plats stood out, small single level homes interspersed with golf courses, tennis courts and services like churches, funeral homes and a recreational center.  The colors were muted, desert pastels and the streets eerily quiet.  The ubiquitous golf carts with their electric motors made little noise and there were few of those in sight. (Sun City Florida ad image)

The longer I was around Sun City the more aberrant it seemed to me.  With a minimum age of 55 there were no children.  No young families.  No teenagers.  This was seen as a blessing by many, maybe most who lived there, but it did something odd to the character of the place.

It meant your friends and neighbors were all old.  Dinner table conversation often turned to deaths and illness, frailty.  There was no future there.  Only death.  After that, the desert.  Sun City felt hermetically sealed off from the ongoing world, a sort of vestibule for the life hereafter; when it was meant to be, I think, the life hereafter work.

A rarely mentioned but frequently experienced dilemma occasioned by this flight to Arizona was absent family.  In this case it wasn’t the kids who had moved away from home, following work or a spouse, but the parents.  At first, I imagine, it was exhilarating, all the time with no kids, no grandkids.  No birthdays and holidays, no Thanksgiving.  Free at last.

But when the inevitable decline set in, then the anguished calls would go out.  And they went out to children in Minneapolis, in Boston, in New York.  Sons and daughters had to do long distance elder care while Mom and Dad suffered and sometimes died alone.

Whether those more carefree years of early retirement balanced out the difficulties of the latter years differs from person to person, of course.  But I know in the case of Kate’s parents, both of them, their final illnesses were difficult on all parties, a difficulty not only exacerbated by distance, but also created by it.

These early emigres to Sun City were experimenters, pioneers of the new model for healthy life after the end of work.  But the lessons that could have been learned, I’m afraid were not.

Just visit the Del Webb site for proof that this kind of elder dispersal continues to this day.

Communities need their older citizens, for memory, for continuity, for child rearing, for role modeling, for what has been learned.  Age graded communities deprive both the old and the young of necessary interaction.  Life with children is life with a future; life without them is a sterile desert.  Likewise for children life without older neighbors and grandparents is life without a living link to the past.

I feel this keenly because Kate and I are here in Minnesota with our children and grandchildren far away.  To magnify that our nuclear and extended families are also far away.  This is not a complaint, we’ve made our choices and they have made theirs, but the net effect is for us to be in our mini-Sun City, an aging exurban development with no children. Strange when I look at it that way, but it’s true.

Coming Up in March

Imbolc                                                                      Hare Moon

Looking down the month toward our 24th anniversary (Monday) and the date I’m wheels 1000Kate and Charlie in Edenon the road for Tucson (the 18th).  24 years with Kate and our relationship improves like fine wine, gaining more nuance and depth, more body with each passing year.  This year we return to the Nicollet Island Inn for dinner, the spot from which we launched our honeymoon.  As spring rolled forward in March of 1990 those three weeks in Europe were as good a beginning as the marriage itself. Next year we’ll celebrate our 25th anniversary at Mama’s Fish House on Maui.

The Tucson trip grows closer.  These rolling retreats, as I like to think of alone time behind the wheel, are really just road trips.  Road trips are part of the American way, peregrinatio updated for the age of the internal combustion engine.

This one of course has its focus self discovery, focus, personal deepening so it will have a more spiritual note, but it will also include my usual visits to spots of natural and historic interest.  Among the possibilities are Carlsbad Caverns, the Saguaro forests, a state park or two in Arizona, the Sonoran Desert Museum, Mt. Kitt, Chaco Canyon, Joshua Tree National Park (probably not, but it’s within reach) and a second visit to the Arbor Day lodge and farm in Nebraska City, Nebraska.