QUESTION: What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three legs in the evening?
It is a riddle we all learned in childhood and although I can’t prove it, I think I recall that this particular riddle can be traced to the ancient Greeks. It is, of course, redolent of Ecclesiastes, “For everything there is a season…” and the ignorant ageists among us – those who do their best to keep elders out of the mainstream because they think we are stupid and boring – should be reminded that each era of life has its reasons to be.
A couple of mornings ago, Ollie the cat woke me again when it was still dark, 3:30AM. I could have gone back to sleep, but there was a pleasing, cool breeze through the screen door which beckoned me outside to sit on the deck.
It was a surprise to discover there are stars in the sky here in Portland, Maine. I’d almost forgotten about them during 37 years in Manhattan where only Venus is visible and not often. The stars here are not as profuse as in the wilds of upstate New York, where I once had a weekend house, but enough to remind an old city girl that there’s more to nightlife than flashing neon.
I tracked what must have been a satellite – too high to be an airplane - as it raced across the black night. I’d never seen one before.
In the dark, there wasn’t much else to look at and I've forgotten the arrangement of the constellations and their locations, so I settled my mind on the breeze – its rustling in the trees, how it felt on my face and ruffled my hair. How it tugged lightly at the hem of my summer dressing gown, tickling my ankles.
This deck attached to my new home is a revelation for me. Years ago, when I wanted a break from what I was doing, I smoked a cigarette. Now I sit on my deck for a short while half a dozen times a day or maybe more, and I find myself attending more closely than since earliest childhood to what is going on around me.
When, in adulthood, we are on career track, chasing success, raising children, accumulating stuff, filling every moment of the day with “doing” until we drop into bed exhausted, there isn’t time to smell the roses. That is as the second season of life should be. (I’ll leave arguments that we have taken midlife busy-ness too an extreme for another day.) With past gardens, I was too much in a hurry to pause; just get the watering done before leaving for work or rushing off to an evening soiree.
But slowing down comes naturally in elderhood. Forces internal and external nudge us to overcome the cultural pressure to be busy. Activities that no longer seem as important as they once did gradually fall away and a quietude settles upon us.
Now there is time for the breeze, the smell of the sea, the swaying of the tree branches, the call of the birds. To watch a bee flit from flower to flower. A spider diligently building her web. How prettily a fallen petal dances, like a ballerina, as the wind pushes it across the floor of the deck.
Plants, like cats and children, know deep inside how to be themselves. When I turn a pot, the leaves soon rearrange themselves to face the sun. When I water them, their whole being perks up; they almost smile and say “aaahhhh.”
The geraniums, the large, next-door, lilac bush whose top branches reach into my deck, the ivy stretching for a place to cling – each, I am seeing for the first time, is a universe unto itself: flowers and leaves, like their counterpart fauna, are born, live oh so gloriously and die as they must, to make room for more individuals. But the universe, the plant, continues and thrives through the generations of its green and gaudy progeny.
Although I have forgotten what it references, there is a sentence somewhere in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer I have always liked: “It is meet and right so to do.” It is meet and right that elders should have time to discover such things as I have written of today and I think that cannot be done without the stillness of body we are granted in old age which begets this new fullness of mind.
So next time you see an old man who seems so bored and boring is his wheelchair, or an old woman who appears to have fallen asleep on a park bench, remember that it is their season of quietude and they are learning new things they had no time for when they were merely adults. Perhaps, if you ask politely, they will tell you what those things are.
[NOTE: On the off-chance there is someone reading this who does not know the riddle, the answer is mankind, who crawls in childhood, walks upright in adulthood, and uses a cane in elderhood.]