Our lives are epic journeys. We taxi for what seems like forever, impatient for the adventure ahead. Once we’re mid-trip, we often live suspended in the quest, with only limited attention to the details in front of us. By the time we land, we might be ready for a rest, but we’ve seen so much by then, so many things have come and gone. Now we know the preciousness of each moment. We feel our rootedness to the earth, our kinship with each blade of grass, every frolicking dog, the early morning glint of light, and the purple sky at dusk.
We know—like we never have before—the value of being alive.
It’s so easy at this end of things to regret those years of unconsciousness, the zipping from here to there, with no extended nod to a lovely afternoon or a thoughtful friend or a book we couldn’t put down. They were the days when opportunities for appreciation seemed endless. I don’t need to stop and smell the roses; they will be here tomorrow, and maybe I’ll have more time then. I replay scenes from my 30s and 40s and find myself most focused on the times I barely noticed the wonders around me. Still, as I long for a replay of a time when my body was young and lithe and my road seemed endless, I am fiddling with something else.
In my normal, awkward self-consciousness at just being a human in the world, I shove my hands into my pockets. There, in that one on the right, an old, faded $10 bill, long forgotten, a sweet surprise. It reminds me of the power I have at this age, what I have inside of me. This is the gift of being old.
Whether we were aware of it or not, every one of those poems we read, conversations we had, paths we walked, arguments we lost, sunsets we ignored and days we lived, is in us. They built us, shaped us, fought us, comforted us, and held us responsible. We might have learned it in our sleep, but it’s in us. We know—like we never have before—the value of being alive.
We understand what it means to love another person for a very long time. We appreciate what it takes to prepare a meal, to do a job, to encourage someone who is being difficult. We know what it is to forgive and to be forgiven.
There is no accident in the order of things. We simply don’t know enough when the journey is beginning to value the gifts set before us. Our worlds are too small and we are focusing on survival. When we’re in the air, alive with being alive, we feel consumed. It’s all we know. Even as we struggle in our mid-lives with finding balance between being and doing, the latter almost always wins. Keeping moving is what we know, what we do. It’s familiar.
When we first begin to unwrap the gift of being old, we see it as a consolation prize. It's as if we're being asked to relinquish all that has happened before. to hand over the good stuff to our younger friends and family. But there, under the tissue paper in the bottom of the box, is the real reward.
We have everything now. If we’re lucky, our minds and bodies are still strong and eager enough. Even if we’re slowing down, we can feel the fullness of our lives in a way we haven't before. We know how blessed we are to read a Mary Oliver poem, to listen to “Ode to Joy,” to watch a wave ebb and flow on gray, damp sand. We weep at a photograph from an earlier time, nearly overwhelmed remembering that afternoon, the way her smile always melted us.
This is the best time, even though it may be the shortest leg of the journey. It’s everything all at once inside of us—a time to watch that angle of sunlight just a second longer, to sit a moment more with our closest people, and to bow our heads, over and over again, in deepest gratitude.