The Shadow & Light of Life’s Third Act

March 19, 2024, Spring Equinox

Ready or not, it’s the first day of official spring. Maybe, though, like me, you like the quiet coziness of winter and are not quite ready to release it to extroverted spring. While others loudly moan about the fickle weather, I quietly embrace a March snow shower. And, I want to get on the trails. It’s a shadow and light thing I grapple with every year.

Each Sunday, I draw a card from my friend Joanna Powell Colbert’s beautiful and intuitive Gaian Tarot. I knew nothing of the Tarot before I met Joanna more than a decade ago at a writing retreat and learned how it can be a useful tool for self-reflection. Which shook my uninformed understanding of tarot as fortunetelling delivered by a woman wearing flowing clothes, a headscarf, and bangles.

A couple weeks ago, I drew the “Builder,” a young man being creative and industrious, from my shuffled deck. “Hmph,” I sniffed, “doesn’t really speak to me.” Sometimes I draw another card if the first one doesn’t resonate, but this time I left it there on the table next to my father’s recliner for the week. Maybe something would come to me.

Later that week, I hosted a first gathering of “women of a certain age.” (Okay, so I was building something.) Eight of us met in a coffee shop to talk about this time of life we, rather surprisingly, find ourselves in: The Third Act. What are we thinking about? What do we hope this season holds for us? What are the joys, the freedoms? What are the fears, the restrictions? We talked about finding purpose, what that looks like, whether simple or complex. We expressed embracing silence, sitting and napping. Are those two ways of being in conflict with one another?

I’ve been reading The Inner Work of Age: Shifting from Role to Soul, by Connie Zweig, PhD. The day after the coffee klatch, I read about “positive aging,” or “successful aging.” The urging by the experts to be productive, to make a contribution. Be the light. In that way, we will age well, the gurus tell us.

But, Zweig writes, there is the shadow side to that. Ideals quickly become “shoulds.” We set ourselves up for failure as we value doing over being. If—or when—we lose the capacity to “do,” we feel shame. Maybe, for any number of reasons beyond our control, we can’t be “productive.” Or maybe we simply choose to slow down. Have we failed to age well? Bought into yet another societal expectation? Beware!, everything screams at us, if you aren’t productive, you are officially “old” and can commence being overlooked by the youngers. My mother (at 100) often said of her day, “I didn’t accomplish anything,” “I was lazy,” “I was worthless.” I was without worth. Really? Should we ever say that about our beautiful selves?

Mary Oliver writes:

“. . . Let me keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,

which is mostly standing
still and learning to be

I’m with Mary. 

Back to the tarot. The following Sunday, I drew the Elder of Air. Suddenly the Builder made sense. (It’s really quite eerie how often this happens when I consult these cards.) This is a time of shadow and light, between both the seasons of the year and life stages. Sometimes we are gifted with ambition and creativity (the kestrel on the Builder card); and sometimes we are content to create purpose in quiet ways, creating sacred space and accessing wisdom (the luna moth on the Elder of Air card), which is also a gift.

Here’s a question to ponder, perhaps journal. Is there a difference between being productive and finding purpose?

As my yoga teacher says, some days we can access parts of our bodies that other days we cannot. It’s true of all ages, I think, physically, mentally, and emotionally; but in the last third we more often have the luxury of going with the flow day by day.

A true elder, Zweig says, holds the tension of shadow and light. She is both nourished and nourishing. She also says it’s important to practice stillness, even as we are being “productive.” Mary expresses it as standing still and learning to be astonished. In other words, we can’t wait until stillness is, of necessity, the bigger part of our life; embrace it now so it becomes a familiar friend.

When the opportunity calls to build something, I will rise to the occasion–if it brings me joy (the gift of the third act). Other times, I’ll be sitting in my father’s recliner watching the day break in the morning, napping in the afternoon, and watching the birds at the feeders. I’ll be worshiping creation on the trail, examining flowers, and embracing my own slowing pace. 

How are you practicing stillness, whether or not you have an unlimited luxury of time and space? Leave a comment!

Over the Hill

A few weeks ago, visiting my two young grandsons and their moms, I emerged from my bedroom for an outing wearing makeup, including tinted lip moisturizer. I rarely wear makeup, and it didn’t go unnoticed. “Why are you wearing lipstick, Gigi?” the nine-year-old asked. “Um, I guess so you won’t think I’m old,” I floundered. “You are old,” he replied.

I knew my grandsons—and anyone under the age of thirty (at least)—see me as old, with or without make-up. They accept that and would not have said so had I not appeared looking different. My mother always wore bright red lipstick (there are still several tubes in the bathroom cabinet), that was how I knew her and she looked odd without it. And when I caught a rare glimpse of her without her glasses in my young years, she didn’t look like herself. In the end, she wore neither lipstick nor glasses, giving in to her face being old and her vision unimprovable with corrective lens. Is that giving up or acceptance of what is? Is there a difference?

So why do I sometimes wear makeup? All I can come up with is that when  I look in the mirror, I don’t want to look old to my own eyes. I don’t feel old. I feel like forty or fifty, decades both difficult and empowering when I was learning to live my own life and truths. Now I want to look my inner age, at least to myself. Looking “old” scares me a bit, truth be told, especially after watching my mother’s transformation. It’s about fear, not vanity. It’s my own inner ageism.

I’m in the last third of life, there is no denying that and I am determined to live it mindfully. I’ve started reading The Inner Work of Age: Shifting from Role to Soul, by Connie Zweig, PhD, which addresses the issue of how we see ourselves as we age. 

I’m also reading Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life, by Louise Aronson, which is more about how society views elderhood. The author tells of a med school professor who asked his class to quickly, without filtering, write down the words that come to mind when they hear the word “old.” And then to do the same when they hear the word “elder.” Try it! She continues in later chapters to talk about how medical professionals discount and disrespect elders. I think I’ve found a new passion.

Words like “over the hill” reinforce our inner stereotypes about aging. I recall telling my family, planning my fortieth birthday celebration, “no black, no ‘over the hill’ references.” Even then I knew my mind about that. Forty sounds so young at 70! Thirty years ago, I never gave a thought to being 70. But thirty years from now, if I’m still here, I will be the age my mother was when she died. And I think about it a lot.

But for now, I tell people I’m “restoryed,” not retired, which sounds too much like “done.” I’m not done by a long shot. I’m preparing for an epic road trip in October through California, planning to hike in eight of the state’s nine national parks. “Are you going by yourself?” I’ve been asked with incredulity. “Yes, yes I am.”