It is not too difficult to find safe places to exercise and enjoy walking near the city, so we headed off to Fort Du Pont Park for a Sunday afternoon walk. The park is a wooded area in Washington DC on the site of an old Civil War fort designed as a defense for a Confederate attack on Washington. It is hard to believe that it is already Thanksgiving time and the end of November, after eight months of living with COVID lockdowns and travel restrictions.
It was a beautiful crisp afternoon, a little bit on the cool side, but excellent for walking. The leaves had mostly fallen, and the forest was open so you could see the naked tree trunks standing amidst the thick carpet of golden and brown leaves that lay at their feet. The smell of slightly damp leaves reached our nostrils as we tramped through the thick piles of leaves along the trail. It became difficult to see the trail as we headed into the middle of the forest after we had left the initial paved pathway. The two men went on ahead of me as I carefully picked my way along the trail not knowing if I would trip on a tree root or fall into a hole hidden under the leaves. If it wasn’t for the men ahead who stopped to point out difficult places along the path I may well have wandered off the trail or fallen over a root or rock. They were patient in waiting for me to catch up as I slowly picked my way along the pathway.
As I walked along, I realized how much more vulnerable I had become with age. In my youth I would probably have skipped along the pathway catching handfuls of leaves and let them flutter down, or as a middle-aged person walked briskly along the path, not concerned about falling. Now I needed to be careful not to stumble or trip over the things that I did not see as my eyesight has deteriorated. A fall could result in broken bones. My knees are unstable, and they do not have the same strength to lift me on the steep places, making a slip or fall more likely. I needed to stop more often to take a breather. Fortunately, someone had marked the trail ahead and I saw there were red splashes on some of the trees. I kept my eyes on the trees along the way, checking where the markers were for the pathway.
As I walked along, I began to get new insights into the seasons of the life that we live in. The seasons roll around with annual regularity, in the same order every year. I would consider that I am in the autumn of my life right now even though I may not like to acknowledge it. My body tells me my strength and stamina are not as strong as it was to navigate the steep places. I need help from time to time to give me a hand up or down. Many things could trip me up at this stage, I become more vulnerable to diseases. Mold and fungi are nature’s way of dealing with a fallen and diseased tree, breaking it down until it once more becomes a part of the earth from whence it grew. A warning to me not to fall before my time! I need to have someone ahead of me on the pathway to guide and watch out for me, someone who can check that I am still on the right path and not heading off into the woods and get lost.
We continued our walk, it was invigorating, with fresh air to fill our lungs as we breathed out the stale city air. We took our time (or should I say I did!) pointing out fascinating fungi on tree stumps. Nature was at work, slowly but meticulously the fungi doing their job, preparing the earth to receive new life in the spring when tree shoots will arise from the leaf mold and broken-down trees.
We were surprised by a couple of deer not far off the pathway, there was no cover to hide them so we were able to look at each other, and after they decided we were not a threat, they continued to walk on. A bit further on a couple of elk made their appearance. They were more skittish and moved off quickly, this was the closest we’ve ever been to deer on this pathway. They may have been there before, but we had not seen them because of the leaves, now they were also a lot more vulnerable, with no leaves or cover to hide from hunters. They must live on their wits and speed to getaway.
We need to recognize when we are in the autumn of our lives. This is one of the hard transitions into the second half of life, admitting we need help and that we can’t do everything we used to be able to do. We do become much more vulnerable, not only physically, but financially, health-wise, emotionally, and spiritually. We become prey for those who will take advantage of us, the scammers who want to rob us financially, or emotionally. We become targets for every type of salesperson selling the elixirs of youth aka medications, supplements, and gadgets.
We need to recognize when we are in the autumn of our lives. This is one of the hard transitions into the second half of life, admitting we need help and that we can’t do everything we used to be able to do.
Loneliness makes us more vulnerable to these types of scams because we are no longer out in the workplace, and family and friends may be at work or live far away. A thought-provoking study in the UK found that although there was technology to help filter scammers from the elderly’s telephones, they often switched them off because at least there was someone to talk to, to break the loneliness of the day. COVID certainly has not helped in keeping community, it has isolated people even more as they no longer can enjoy going out to meet with friends or the odd shopping.
Just as we breathed in the fresh country air and exhaled the city air, we need to breathe in the life-giving Spirit. I have found it particularly hard not to be able to attend church and meet up with my community. Their encouragement and the interaction of sharing lives and worshipping together had always lifted my spirit. I have had to find other means to achieve this with an online church and small groups, this helps. Otherwise, I must be satisfied with solitude, meditation, and prayer, but this was the way of the hermits and contemplatives, and they had a rich relationship with God. One of my favorite contemplative authors is Thomas Merton, I read one of his prayers today that resonated with me, so I will share it with you.
My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore I will trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
Facing the second half of life, knowing you are more vulnerable, you can trust the One who will never leave you to face your perils alone. You also still have much to give, to help nourish the generations below, the wisdom of experience and compassion for those who are struggling in their life’s circumstances.
Surprise! You may think you have nothing to offer but you still have time to bloom. Yes, there are winter flowering plants! In the northern hemisphere, the hellebores and snowdrops still cheer in the middle of winter snow, and the lovely aloes in the southern hemisphere when all is dry and drab sing forth their joy with orange and red spikes of cheer.