I don't claim to be free. Those who proudly proclaim, "The Truth will set you free," leave me cold. I am closely tied to my world, to its problems, and to my fellowman with emotional bonds that would leave me empty rather than free if they should break.
I do however, find a certain sense of independence as I peruse my reminiscences. I don't, for example, depend on my children for my emotional satisfactions. I love them, and I need to see them sometimes, but as they have grown in independence, my activities and interests have moved beyond my family toward other centers. My harvest years will be much enriched with the coming together of our greater family, but these years will be my own.
Secondly, I'm reasonably independent of the material world. This is easy to say from my affluent position in the comfortable home my husband provides, and I might feel differently if I had to do without. We have, however, through the years, lived Spartan lives at times, and the simpler we lived the more I enjoyed it. I am confidant that through the harvest years I will need less rather than more material goods.
A Sense of Purpose
Trickling through the budding years, swelling through the greening years, and moving steadily through the summer of my life flows a stream of faith. Highly individualistic, this faith centers more on a sense of the importance of being than on the nature of God or immortality, but the belief that both exist, even though I am incapable of comprehending their nature, is also inherent.
One spring night in my youth, walking through a gentle rain, I sensed the very Being in the bursting buds of trees, and then I was a pantheist. Watching a black child dance in delight at the new prospect of a ride on the Ferris wheel, I looked up to find her father watching me, and for a flashing moment our souls touched. Then I was a humanist. In the silence of a Quaker Meeting, I have heard another speak to my condition so clearly that there had to be a common trail. Then I was a mystic.
The true nature of God is, for me, part of the enchanting mystery of life. We grasp but flashes as we pass along, and there are weary stretches of darkness when we must plod alone. Then I center down with solitary walks when the Presence comes in subtle form - a silhouette of a bare branch against a sky of frigid blue, a sudden insight about a problem so simple I could not see when I searched; a new dream to tide me through the boring hours.
Faith is a feeling, and in me it runs deep, forming the third dimension of my being. While the mystery of life enchants me, a sense of purpose in life challenges me to flow on in this stream to the Ocean which knows no winter.
What crops shall I harvest with these tools? I see four growing in my fields which will store well for the winter months ahead.
A Sense of Adequacy
Peeking here and there through my anecdotes are reminders of things I have learned to do, and as I look at these, I realize they form the basis of a certain sense of adequacy. I'm not as confident as I often appear to be, but in some ways I am sure.
The business of my summer years taught me household skills. I cook without measuring and seldom have a failure. I identify fever by the touch of a brow. I market in an hour and have everything I need for a week.
I can teach which also means I can give directions so people can understand. I can speak before groups with little tremble and chair a meeting with poise and direction. I can organize facts so they have meaning for others.
This sense of adequacy carries me into new adventures with confidence even where my skills are not so great. I can ask for criticism and accept it with reasonable poise, opening channels for learning new skills. I can dive into new pools where I have never swum before, come up blubbering, and go back and dive again.
Standing at the curve of the icy hill back of our house just before dawn, I watched the speeding sleds with a clutch of fear, and when my turn came, I refused to go. Gone forever are my dreams of riding motor cycles, learning to ski, or climbing the Matterhorn. Because I am well beyond my physical prime, I would be regressing to pursue such ventures. Not only would it take too long to rebuild a broken bone, but I no longer need a physical thrill to feel alive.
This does not mean, however, that I can no longer dare. There are snowstorms instead of hurricanes, and I might walk in one at night to the house of a friend There is golf instead of tennis, and I might play that in Brazil. There are sailboats instead of water skis and I might sail to the Bahamas with my husband to set the course.
In some ways, I can dare more than youth. In calculated risks I can dare face death with greater equanimity than one who has most of life to live. The violence of a mob, if the cause is right, would hold less terror for me because I'm ready, whenever the bell tolls, to answer its call - not that I'm trying to pull the cord, but I have tasted most of life's fundamental experiences and therefore cling less to life for life's sake.
I can dare to dissent. With the self assurance of my present state, I can face the scorn of others, if need be, without undue distress. My dissention must be for society rather than against it because, as I grow older, my place in the human family becomes more dear to me, but my frame of reference can be different from that of those around me.
I may find much need to dissent. I felt, for example, the power of hate through the look of a filling station attendant as I left the Civil Rights March on Washington. I could look back at him with poise and dignity even as I thought to myself, "We are only two hundred thousand people here, and there are one hundred and ninety million in the country." Adventure will be a good crop for my harvest. Not only will I relish it as I gather it in, but it will store well, adding brilliance and vividness in the darkness of the bin
I have already started my harvest with walking. I walk an hour a day. In winter there are squirrels, hordes of busy creatures, always in a hurry, who talk more with their tails than with their chatter, and silhouettes of stark trees, etched in the sky, stiff from frost and creaking as they sway. In the spring there are buds and birds and bumble bees. Piles of clouds, the odor of lilacs, and the feel of gentle rain, cold but life-giving, all make one know and think and feel. The heat of heat waves, the taste of dust, the feel of perspiration, the relief of a shade tree make walking in summer a vivid experience.
And autumn is the best. The shock of the first scarlet leaf, the excitement of a forecast hurricane, the opulence of reddening pyracantha berries are experiences that titillate the soul. It takes time to center down with beauty before it is absorbed. A symphony, a painting, a drama are not yours until they get full focus. Too many symphonies have been a backdrop to my being as I worried through the petty harassments of a busy life.
In my harvest years, I shall seek beauty, not avidly, but gently, taking time to open up my inner self so the beauty can seep through to the core where it will be captured and kept safe for the long winter months.
I shall take time to stop and stare - to stare at the sunlight flashing on the dome of the capitol long enough to feel the need of the artist who designed it to inspire. I shall take time to stand and stare at Neptune, rising from the fountain waters in front of the Library of Congress, long enough to understand why he and his warriors on the prancing, writhing sea horses should have been chosen to guard books. I shall take time to stand and stare at the statues of my nation's heroes, captured here in the halls of Congress, long enough to feel them come alive and greet me as people, and then I'll let them revert again to stone and bronze.
I shall take time to listen - to listen to the rise and fall of the saxophone long enough and deeply enough to hear the yearning and the probing of the musician's soul. I shall take time to listen to the sounds of youth, not so much for what they have to say as for the way they say it, with eagerness, with conviction, with the striving for their right to be.
I shall feel and taste and smell for beauty. Through all my senses I shall seek the gems that lie. buried in the soil of my harvest ground. I shall gather them carefully on a string so that, like a rosary, I can count them daily through the winter hours ahead.
If I were a Hindu, I might plan, at this stage of my life, to leave my household and my family and go off to the forests to live a life of contemplation. I am not a Hindu, however, but a Westerner involved in a need to find myself through what I do. "You are ambitious," a friend once accused me, and this I denied.
"Not in the sense you mean," I replied. "I don't need to be important as much as I need to do important things."
At the year's end in a fellowship meeting, we were instructed to mold a piece of clay without purpose until we felt something shape in our hands.
"Then," our director explained, "you can look at it enough to finish the shaping to fit whatever purpose has evolved."
Much to my amazement, after a half hour of aimless mashing and softening, I felt an urge to shape a bird. It was the wings that mattered. They needed to be widespread and in action. I became so involved in my task that I scarcely saw the handsome horse, the dancing lady, the freak others were shaping around me.
I had trouble with those wings. The medium was heavy, and the wings kept collapsing as I worked. Finally, I shaped them on the surface, flat but large, and the uninspiring object left me cold. In desperation (the year was almost ended), I took the pitiful object back to the kitchen where my instructor helped me find some toothpicks. The broken pieces of these served me well. Buried in the clay, they held the wings aloft, and my bird prepared to seek the sky.
And so it is with me. In my harvest, I must spread my wings and soar aloft. I need to serve mankind instead of man. Just as my bird must have support to fly, I need the love of my family, my faith in the ultimate, and the common sense of my friends to keep my wings upheld. Somehow, someway in my harvest I must serve, not just people, but Causes for people that may bring humanity one step closer to the millennium. I may fail, of course, but the trying is there - a crop for my harvest. How will it look in my bin? Dull? Black? Bountiful? I do not know, but black bread is good, too, if it isn't black from burning. Service is one of my crops.
Life is a quest, and the closer one comes to the end of life, the greater the challenge of the quest becomes. As I see it now, my life has been a garden, a growing place for my soul, and the purpose of my life is to learn to love. "God is love" we hear so many times that we forget its meaning. I think that God is far more than love, and most of what He is I cannot comprehend, but it is only when I love that I know anything of God upon this earth. Whatever love I can glean from the harvest will store the best of all.
I am speaking of love in the active sense - loving rather than being loved. Loving is the capacity of an individual to extend his selfhood to include a love object. When this occurs, the well-being of the object becomes more important than the well-being of the self.
I have tasted love through the spring and summer of my life, but in the harvest I seek more. The Bible confuses me rather than inspires me generally, but some phrases from it sometimes strike a chord.
"For God so loved the world" is one because I love the world, too. Each time I try to. imagine the nature of heaven or immortality, I wind up realizing that earth is better. The miracle of life, the symmetry of a bean sprout, the throb of .a; cardinal's call in spring, the panorama of a sunset, all the infinite myriad of varieties or forms and shapes of life that constitute this world I love. I shudder when I think of the threat of the mushroom cloud, not so much because of the human suffering it would entail because this is too over-whelming to face in concrete thought, but because of the horror of the destruction of that which is this earth.
It is easy to love the world I but I cannot love people at my own will. Love, rather, seems to grow inside me and to burst out here and there, sometimes in tiny tendrils, sometimes in sudden shoots. "Give me heart-touch with all who live," a line from a simple quatrain by Edwin Markham, has become for me a sort of theme of life, and this is my quest for my harvest. I can love humanity as I love the world, but some people's hearts are hard for me to touch.
As I face this task of my harvest one way I hope to achieve it is to broaden my base of human association. The circle of my life has been narrowly drawn around upper middle class white Americans. In my harvest years I want to try to broaden this circle. I'd like to live among Negroes long enough to know them well enough to be able to forget their race; I'd like to live with the poor long enough to realize that they are mostly like me; I'd like to live in a foreign culture long enough to be able to think in their language. How will this help? I don't know that it will of course but I have a feeling it may help me humble my selfhood and lower the bars that separate me from my fellowman.
I shall also seek less dramatic ways to approach this task. I will move among strangers and look for touching souls; I will listen when people talk so that I can hear what they are saying rather than constantly break into idle chatter; I will be honest with myself and admit when a person disturbs me. Most of all, I will be open to finding ways that work as I go.
I have much to do before winter sets in. Adventure, beauty, service, and love are all around me waiting for my scythe, and I must fill my bins. As my autumn fades and my senses dim, I shall fold my self into what shelter I can find for the winter months ahead. I shall light a fire in the fireplace, and turn to my stores to see if they reveal the meaning of life. Perhaps I'll understand at last the reason for old age. Whatever else I find, I have already found enough to know that my heart will sing with the poet, "If winter comes, can spring be far behind?