On this late autumn day, the elms and oaks around my house seem determined to let go of all the leaves that have died on their limbs. Everywhere I look there is a letting go. The sky has let go of blue and allowed itself to be covered with a thick mantle of gray.
I am reminded of the letting go that I need to do. I am 66 (not that old as actuarial tables go) but like you and everyone and everything else that has been born, I am on my way to that final, total, letting go and I believe that it is time to shed what is no longer needed in this final stage of the journey.
It’s not a long list, the things I need to detach from. They are internal things mostly, like the ambition for worldly recognition that served me so well when I was young and yearned to be somebody. Now ambition and the search for glory and rewards are a heavy burden and I would like, if at all possible, to travel light.
Whenever I try to explain to people that in this phase of my life, I wish to let go of no-longer-needed wants, they get worried that I may be in the grips of depression. Sometimes, I see disappointment in their eyes. I am bailing out on the American dream to strive, always to strive for more, to never quit. I am giving up on living life to the fullest. Why, there are people older than me running marathons, running billion-dollar enterprises, running for president of the United States. A few of my more literary friends have even taken to quoting the famous lines from Thomas Dylan’s poem:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
I try to explain that, actually, raving and raging are at the top of the list of what needs to go. And if there is any burning inside of me, it will be more like the gentle flame of a candle that stays lit in the windstorm. But isn’t rage needed now more than ever? Isn’t giving up on rage the equivalent of not caring, of standing silent in the face of suffering and injustice? Am I being irresponsible? I respond that anger is not the strongest force, the fiercest weapon, but my words are taken as defeat.
I want to keep on working, fighting if you will, by being as useful to others as I can. What I am letting go of is the old motivation and the old methods of work. I let go of working for the fruits of my labor and focus on the sincerity of the effort. If I work with honesty and truth the outcome will not matter. I embrace work as a gift. The energy and ability to work, the talent, the creativity behind it, all is a gift and my only hope is to pass the gift successfully to others. The method too will change from hurried and anxious productivity to work done with the urgency and seriousness of an inner calling, a sacred obligation. Waiting with receptive attention, listening, silence, the fecundity of leisure – all these will be part of the work. The value and priority of different daily tasks will change. What if everything I do each day is equally important? What if playing with my grandchildren is as significant as writing a story? What if I write a story with the same love with which I hold my grandchild? And what if love becomes the burning purpose of my work?
So many world traditions recognize old age as a special time. A spiritual time when a person can let go of the business of making a living and spend time looking care-fully at creation or searching for the presence of a creator, or developing virtues like humility, patience, kindness. Here in America that kind of letting go seems like giving up or, worse, cowardice. But letting go is an act of courage. It is choosing to finally, finally, follow the beat of your own drum. It means, if it comes to that, living on the margins of what is approvable by the world you live in. Courage could mean a solitude that is entered bravely, but not without fear. I am letting go of the images of myself that have served me well since I was a child. Who am I if not the talented boy who could read hardcover books in first grade? Or the dutiful lawyer or the Latino writer? Who am I, really, without these comfortable images?
These old, old, trees let go of their leaves effortlessly. For them, the process of letting go each year is part of their becoming and their becoming happens just as it is meant to happen. It is, unfortunately more complicated for me. The acorn “knows” it will become an oak tree. My own becoming takes some figuring out. Not just who I am but who I am supposed to be. Who is the person I am finally to become? For I feel the presence of becoming in my old heart and it is not the same restless energy of forty years ago. To find out where this becoming is taking me, I must let go of all that is not true, of all that belongs to others, of all those cherished fantasies. No one said it wasn’t going to hurt.
And yet, this letting go is not without a quiet joy, like the joy of the trees swaying in the wind, or the joy of the spiraling, falling leaf. I don’t know how to describe this joy. It is a paradox. It is joy filled with a light that is both dying and living.
I let go of trying to understand it.
Francisco X. Stork is a former attorney and an award-winning author of teen fiction novels. His eighth one will hit shelves in 2020. He often uses themes of his own life as inspiration for his writing. “The Memory of Light” is inspired by Stork’s own experience with depression, and “Marcelo in the Real World” is about a teen boy labeled as having a developmental disorder. Read our interview with him about his personal journey here.