When I was a kid, I loved fall. I loved the leaves crunching under my feet, pumpkins and apple picking, the crisp air. That autumn smell triggered the start of a new school year. We relished those cool afternoons on the sports fields, when we’d have to throw on sweatshirts and sweatpants early evenings when dusk fell.
These days, autumn feels a bit more foreboding to me. I know what is coming on the other side in New England—bitter cold, and snow. Fall is pointing to the end of something. It was also in the fall that I learned my mother had less than six months to live. It was in the fall when my only child went off to college.
My birthday always comes just before this transition from summer into winter—this year, I turned 47.
When this happened, I said to myself, 'Welcome to a new round-up year!"
27 and 37 were harder birthdays for me than 30 and 40. I suspect the same is true at 47. There’s something about being so solidly in that late part of a decade. You’re so late in that decade that you must eye the next one with grave suspicion.
At 47, you’re well past the adventurous 20s, past the tired 30s. It’s time to now play in those years when you step into what you want out of life and stop worrying so much about what others want. Doesn’t sound that bad, right? When you realize you’re more than halfway through this race, you begin seeing things a little differently.
Or maybe it’s all just a precursor to a midlife crisis.
I recently heard a speech by Pema Chodron, the wonderful Tibetan Buddhist nun. Pema said, “Death is a certainty. Time of death is an uncertainty. So what's the most important thing?”
So what is the most important thing?
Pema's quote was particularly apropos because it is autumn. Trees are losing their leaves, plants have ceased their blooming, the grass is losing its green. The air is getting cold.
One fall I remember well was the year I graduated from college, 1991. My friend Lauren and I took off that November for a trip across the U.S. Our vehicle? A blue Plymouth Horizon with 175,000 miles on it. We planned to take the northern route on our way out, and come back via the South. There we were, speeding across New England, the Midwest, the Dakotas, smoking Marlboro Lights out the window, just like Thelma and Louise. (Except for the convertible and the running from the law part.)
Those days, cars were not necessary designed to go 175,000 miles—at least Plymouth Horizons weren’t. So only made it as far as Wendover, Nevada when the car died.
We ended up having to sell the car to a mechanic named Manuel for $50. And just like that, our vision quest and journey toward self-actualization was over.
That seems to be about where I am now, at 47, somewhere in Wendover, NV. Well in the second half of my journey across the U.S., but not close to finished yet. Maybe I’m halfway across—maybe two-thirds. We don't know how long our journey will be.
So as Pema said, if death is a certainty, and time of death is an uncertainty, what’s most important thing?
I’m not sure yet, but I suspect these mid-life years are about figuring that out. It’s about appreciating the moment. It’s about feeling today. Even with cold air, grey skies, and leaves scattering to the ground, it’s about taking all that in. It’s about going apple picking, and noticing that feeling of the branch pulling gently against you as you take one more Macoun off the tree. It’s about making tacos for your son because he’s home from college, looking him in the eyes, and asking him how he really is. It’s about taking that walk in the woods, looking for that great blue heron you always see, watching for red-tailed hawks circling above your head. It’s about giving someone a hug when they least expect it. It making that Moroccan Lentil soup recipe that you printed out the other day, instead of putting it in a drawer to make someday.
What else is all this fuss about? I’ll let you know as soon as I do.