There’s a small branching plant with clusters of yellow pods that burst open in the fall to reveal intense orange, jewel-like berries. In Indiana where I grew up, we loved to gather this and use it as a highlight in flower arrangements. It’s called bittersweet. And what a fitting name for this time of year when crimson, gold, copper, amber, and orange create a glorious, glowing fiery display just before the stark days of winter begin.
Earlier cultures celebrated the fall as harvest time, which capped the long, hard work of planting and tending. Of course, the seasons have long been used as a metaphor for one’s life, and each has its special gifts. The autumn of life can be the joyous reaping of the fruits of our hard labor, like the recognition and freedom that comes with retirement. Though I’ve also found it’s accompanied by that bittersweet sense of the transient quality of time as we become more acutely aware that winter lies ahead. This awareness of the passage of time is quite pronounced for me as I’m turning 90 this year.
I’ve had to grapple with finding my way through this new territory of aging. It’s like being in a foreign country but as I learn its language, I begin to find there are many riches to be discovered. One is having the time to become more attentive to life so that it’s quality that matters, not quantity.
I’ve never been one to readily accept the messages of popular culture to just “keep fit” and “keep busy.” Although well and good, I think the autumn of life also holds an invitation to explore another layer of meaning. In my search, I am led to the writings of the philosopher-poet John O’Donohue. It’s the concept of inner harvesting that he writes about so eloquently. Much like memoir writing, its purpose is “not merely to journey back to the past; it is rather to awaken and integrate everything that has happened to you. It’s part of the process of reflection that gives depth to experience.” It’s a way of coming home to yourself. He goes on to explain that “everything that happens to you is an act of sowing a seed of experience. It is equally important to be able to harvest that experience.”
The art of inner harvesting invites us to look back and find the patterns and themes, the fluctuations, the little deaths and rebirths, the losses and disappointments, the failures and accomplishments, the trials, crossroads, dead-ends, and something I call “divine accidents.” We can reflect on what mattered most and what led us to where and who we are now in this ongoing journey of becoming.
Although I recognize that memory can be notoriously unreliable, this process can reveal a new understanding of one’s self. As I do this, what becomes clear to me is that life is a conspiracy to make me grow! So, maybe this current need to re-examine my personal history was a sign that I was not finished with that growing, even at this late stage.
That gift that came to me through probing the past yielded an even greater value than that of self-knowledge. A kind of clarity emerged that gave me a greater appreciation of others so that I became more sensitive to how each of us is struggling to grow into our own expression by way of the personal circumstances we encounter. Everyone has an amazing story full of mystery and meaning. As I reflect on my story, my heart opens to be more present to others; to see the world with greater empathy and compassion; to embrace all of life more fully and to be more deeply connected.
We may be inclined to do this harvesting in the autumn of our lives but as nature’s fall season rolls around with its keen sense that all things change and die, we can reflect on our values and direction at any age. This reflection can ground us in our contemporary world full of distractions and divisions so that we can go forward with greater awareness…more awake and alive.
To remember means to re-member, to put all the parts of our life together so that we become Whole and THAT is the fruit of harvesting.
I love this article, thank you. It has inspired an exhibition I am working on xxx much love
Thanks Stacy. I’ll let Virginia know. Betsy
I’ve had the good fortune of meeting & speaking with Virginia while swimming at the YMCA, which she does a few times a week (!). I believe that her history of dancing, as well as swimming, has enabled her to remain mentally sharp & introspective. I love the way she’s described the experience of growing older…I intend to follow her advice and hope to achieve such a wonderful, insightful process to my own aging. Virginia, you’re a terrific inspiration for me & everyone who gets the opportunity to meet you!
Lovely article and so forthcoming too. Just want to give a heads up about bittersweet – it’s an invasive plant and takes over and kills all the native plants in it’s wake. For the environment, get rid of ALL bittersweet that you happen to see. Sorry to be a debby downer but fact is fact.
Happy 90 Birthday to the most lovely and genuine person I know. Virginia gently encourages others to seek their purpose which is actually to continuously grow. Thank you for your inspiration. Dance on beautiful one!