“Please keep the noise down,” I said to the lad who was shouting over at his friend. “I’d like to keep my hearing into old age.” “You’re not old!”, the thirteen year old boy said emphatically to me. “Not yet,” I replied “But I am getting older and I’m OK with that. I’d like to be an old lady one day.” He looked me in disbelief, “Urgh, I never ever want to be old,” he said and shuddered.
Our conversation left a bitter-sweet smile on my face. Only that morning I had been contemplating, while walking down a quiet avenue. The colour of the autumn leaves had taken my breath away filling me with joy. Gold, emerald, copper, chestnut brown, vermillion; it was as if nature, before going to sleep was putting on her best fireworks display. I had recently had my fortieth birthday and the autumn leaves made me think of the seasons of our lives. I’m still in summer but I see and feel glimpses of autumn; a grey hair here and there being the most obvious outward sign that it’s just around the corner.
Walking through the trees, and hearing what the boy said, had made me reflect on how much our modern society values youth. We spend money on trying to look young; companies prefer to hire younger people; only the most successful actors continue their careers past my age. Yet look at the seasons, autumn is so very beautiful. The colours, the harvest, the bounty; all the efforts of spring and summer have produced this spectacular abundance, a feast for the eyes, the body and soul. Are our lives not like this? Does our experience, our learning; the seeds that we have sown not yield the most wonderful harvest? Is not the simple fact that we exist in itself not wondrous? Instead of celebrating this beautiful season we enter, why hide it, why shy away from it?
That same day, I mentioned getting older to a friend of mine who said, “But it’s just awful, it’s all about letting go of everything you had.” Well, certainly it means letting go of some things, yet also gaining others. As I grow older, I let go of things that were so important to me when I was younger and develop new interests. I don’t crave the same adrenaline rushes, or need the same extremes as before in order to fully experience life. I don’t have to run around all the time to feel that I am making the most of my existence. I am still an experimenter and very curious; however many of the things I could, or chose to do when younger, seem less important to me right now. I’m more interested in the depth, not the number of my experiences and in putting the fruits of my work to good use for the display that I hope to be producing later in my life.
We equate youth with beauty and functionality. If we make a parallel with nature that means that the only beautiful and useful months in the year are spring and summer. Really? I know many people over sixty who are just as beautiful and capable, if not more than they ever were before.
In more traditional or indigenous societies, old age was revered, just as nature was. Ageing was part of the sacred cycle of life, and each season was celebrated. (In Bali, the grandparents and elders are still given the most beautiful house in the family compound and as a sign of respect it often built higher than the others.) What if we could see our “golden autumn” as a harvest of all that we have learned in life and imagine our ideas and actions as beautiful falling leaves that cover, warm and fertilise the ground ready for the new life that follows?
When I was younger I used to dream of summer all year, and cling to the warm days when September rolled around. Like the boy I spoke to, for me it seemed that all opportunities were in spring and summer. I didn’t appreciate autumn and winter back then. The trees seemed stark and sad without their leaves and the days were dark.
Now I embrace each season. Soon the jewel-like leaves will have fallen and all will be quiet. Yet as my mother once pointed out to me, it is only when the trees are bare that you can truly appreciate their form. It is only then, that I can see the landscape around them, which is hidden in summer by all their foliage.
Winter affords a different type of beauty: a clarity, a stripping down to the essence of things. It appears that everything is dead, yet we all know that the earth is simply resting and new life will spring forth once more. “So what about our own winter?” you may ask. If you see things from the perspective of the seasons, although it appears we have died, we are simply transformed and grow again. Now surely that is the ultimate adventure and rather than something to run from, something to look forward to?
At the end of the day it is all a matter of perspective.
What do you think about getting older?
How do you feel about the seasons?
I recently hiked up the Glacier de Bossons in Chamonix. It was a pretty long hike, with an upward climb of 1600m. In spite of the effort required I was keen to go, as I’m fascinated by the glacier, not only because of it’s extraordinary beauty, but also because of the secrets that it holds. Two Air India flights carrying people, animals and precious cargo crashed into it in the 1950s and 1960s. Deep in the ice lie the remains.
Leaving the comfort of the warm car, I and a friend took up our backpacks and started out. The early morning was crisp and fresh as we hiked up to the first hut. Above us the glacier stretched up into the sky towards the summit of Mont Blanc in all it’s grandiosity. Our moods were buoyant and full of pre-adventure anticipation, with jokes about who would drop out early or what we would do if we saw some emeralds or treasure in the ice.
My friend commented on how the landscape changed during the seasons and how the path so dry now, was icy and treacherous in winter when everything was covered in snow. As we climbed higher, we emerged from the forest and the view completely changed. Around us a panorama opened up and the terrain became rocky and austere. With the gain in altitude the sun increased its intensity and suncream had to be applied. Then the wind whipped up and jackets had to be donned. Muscles began to strain and hunger and thirst set in so short rests were taken. Just as the body began to relax, once again movement would begin as a new effort was made. We constantly had to accept and adapt to the changes that the weather, the path and the altitude were bringing. We had to accept and respond to the changing needs of our bodies. Resistance to what was would not have served us or allowed us to make the necessary changes that would help us to continue. As we reached ever higher the fast pace slowed down, heart rates quickened, breathing was faster, the stops became more frequent and feelings changed. Due to the slower pace restlessness and anticipation set in which ultimately transformed to joy as the end point was reached.
We had arrived at the junction of 2 majestic glaciers rising in front of us – glistening in the sun. The continuous effort had ended and it was now time for a well deserved rest consisting of food, a snooze and a sunbathe.
I felt a mixture of joy (inspired by the extreme beauty of the glacier and the attainment of our destination) and sadness (for the people who had been interred beneath the ice). The passengers, once so alive and vibrant, travelling on a plane to their own hopes and dreams are now much changed. I’m sure they were not expecting the sudden change that abruptly ended their lives. All that remains of them are the bones that the glacier expels year after year as the debris moves down towards the valley. My emotions fluctuated like the weather system we were in – the sun a bright hot fireball baking us, until the ever-changing cloud formations would cover it and cause an instant drop in temperature.
Although a seemingly permanent fixture, the glacier itself is also constantly changing – sometimes impassable due to crevasses widening, sometimes flatter and traversable. The shapes are constantly morphing into different formations. Once the whole area was ice, one day the glacier may no longer exist. Ultimately, change will take place on way or another.
As we made our way down, our energy levels had changed. We had a long way to go to reach the car, the light was dimming, and the temperature was dropping. The descent was steep and slippery. I spoke and joked less and focused more on my feet than on the view. Initially I resisted this change in my behaviour and feelings, wanting to hold on to the higher energy I had felt at the top, but on accepting my changing energy and emotions I recognised that they were due to tiredness. I chose to work with the emotions rather than resist them, and walk more slowly in order to prevent any accidents due to lack of concentration. On dropping the resistance, my perspective changed and I was able to continue enjoying the journey albeit at a more gentle pace.
It was a beautiful day and an opportunity to accept the beauty of impermanence. Everything is in a constant state of change and creation. Our environment, our bodies, our feelings, our perspectives.
What I learned was the power of acceptance of impermanence and the creative power of change. I learned that there are things within my control that I have the power to change such as the speed I walk, my perspective, my attitude. With the things that I cannot change such as the weather, other people, events; by accepting them I can flow with them and then exercise the power of choice, the choice of what to do with each situation or event.
Change is inevitable yet so often we resist it. However in order to grow and thrive, change has to take place. Just as the universe is constantly changing so are our surroundings and so are we. As a part of the universe, we are each an important part of this creative process. By flowing, rather than resisting what is, we hold a greater power to allow creativity to spring forth.
Life is a journey and change is inevitable. How do you work with impermanence?
How does it feel when you are accepting change and how does it feel when you are resisting it?
As those close to me know, every now and then I get the urge to go on what I call a “walkabout”. This entails me packing a rucksack, and heading off into the sunset for anything from 12 days to 4 weeks. Although some planning is involved (for example, knowing what to pack, having cash, credit cards and vaccinations in order) other than a focal point for my destination and intention for my journey, the rest of the “plan” remains intuitive and spontaneous, allowing me to get into the flow of life and to see what emerges.
My latest walkabout was to Stromboli, a gem of an active volcano in the Aeolian islands. Since reading “Journey to the Centre of the Earth” in my childhood I’d always wanted to go, and am forever fascinated by volcanoes.
Stromboli is an island like no other. Like a perfectly shaped cone it rises 924m out of the sea (and goes to a depth of 2000m below). The island is very small – 12.6 square km, and only one side of it is really inhabitable (with exclusion of tiny Ginostra on the far side and it’s 26 inhabitants). Around 400 people live on the island all year round.
One of the things I loved about Stromboli, was how life functioned in the absence of meticulous planning and risk management. Now, to put things in perspective, I live in Switzerland, a country which is extremely organised. I have also worked in firms where every single thing was planned to the last detail, to the extent of 8 backup flights being booked for people travelling on business! Every possible risk scenario had been calculated and allowed for. No margin for error was allowed. Like a military operation it was beautifully precise. However, it was also very clinical and there was absolutely no room for any spontaneity (unless of course it was planned…).
For a start there is almost no internet on Stromboli. There were only 2 places on the island that had reasonable internet connections. Mobile phone connections were often down. “How annoying” you might say. No, not really. Actually it was great. It meant that you were totally offline unless you absolutely wanted or needed to check something. It meant that you could truly enjoy your surroundings. It meant that you were actually watching the sunset rather than looking at your telephone. It meant that if you were going to meet someone in the evening, you would say “I’ll meet you in the town square at around 8” (if you were certain you wanted to meet), or “I’ll see you around this evening” (and undoubtedly you would). Invitations such as “Come around to my house this evening and meet the family if you have time”, meant just that. Life continues to function albeit at a much slower pace.
Apart from the incredible scenery all around me, that was the beauty of it. The pace and style of life was so organic. As I was walking back to my house on the beach, I was told, “Slow down. You’re on the island now. Take it easy”. Wow. I thought I moved out of “type A” style behaviour years ago and was taking it very easy (I certainly wasn’t walking fast and was in no rush). Clearly I still had some work to do there. After 3 days, I’d already started to detox from city life and get into a much, much slower rhythm.
What is incredible is that these people choose to live on an island on an extremely active volcano. While I was there, every 20 minutes or so there would be a loud a boom, followed by smoke billowing from the top of the mountain (and towers of flames at night). You could literally feel the energy beneath your feet. I think it would be difficult to live on the island and be ambivalent about it. Everything is about the volcano. It’s certainly venerated. People occasionally have volcanic rocks falling on their rooftops (you see them scattered around the town), and because of earth tremors walls and doors are often set askew. There was sign on the beach right by my house, that showed the necessary escape routes in case of eruption, tsunami or earthquake. (which by the way pointed right back up the mountain).
In fact the volcano itself is not that dangerous, and is being monitored. What is more serious is the tsunami risk. “So what’s the plan if something serious happens” I asked? “What plan?” I was told. There’s not much you can do. I guess we’ll call the helicopters and hope for the best!
And of course another important aspect is the weather. When the weather changes, which it frequently can, ferry boats and hydrofoils do not run. The locals told me that sometimes, in stormy weather, even if the overnight ferry from the islands to Naples is running, it doesn’t mean it’s going to stop at Stromboli, and it will sail right by as you watch while waiting with your suitcases at the jetty.
The point is that these individuals are comfortable with the risks that they live under. They accept the forces of nature, be it the volcano, the weather, the rough seas. They don’t need every scenario to be planned and organised in order to enjoy life. They have chosen the natural beauty and wildness of the environment above the safety and comfort of city life. Many individuals who left Stromboli to go to Australia and New Zealand during the Great Depression actually returned – and I can understand why. They have the luxury of living on a wild and incredible island, in the middle of the sea, with no cars, no glaring electric lights everywhere, sparkling sea water, fresh air, fresh fish, and possibly one of the worlds most incredible natural fireworks displays going off every night.
Speaking of which, nothing could have prepared me for the experience of sitting at the top of Stromboli. The one area where planning does kick in is taking people up the volcano. Here they have serious guides, taking groups up every day. Up to 400m you can go on your own and enjoy viewing the explosions from different points on the mountain. From 400m you have to go with a guide. Some are for this organised system, some against. Some believe that the mountain should still be open to everyone. My own personal take is: if it helps the local economy, and stops people getting lost near the craters, the I’m all for it, but mainly – thank goodness you still have to climb the volcano (and that they haven’t put a cable car up the top!)
As you climb you can feel the power of it under your feet as it booms. I felt incredibly tiny, knowing that I was sitting at the top of a roaring molten fire, the arteries of the earth, with the moon above me, the sea far below me, the explosions all around me, on this planet spinning through space. And yet I still felt connected to everything. It was so very beautiful.
And the jellyfish? Well that’s another example of risk management and when to let go. I’d taken a boat to another island – and while swimming off the boat ended up finally meeting what I had been warned about – a variety of “Medusi” – or Pelagia Nocturni. Never having had a close encounter with jellyfish before, I kept my distance and warned others. I decided perhaps it might be a good idea to get back onto the boat – but noticed that there were a couple of jellyfish right by the boat’s ladder. I waited for them to move on, swam towards the boat, and then it happened.
A whiplash of electric fire across my arm. The jellyfish must have been floating on the surface and I must have missed it. It really was painful – and I can’t say I wasn’t scared of going back into the water. I was. But a few days later, I did go in again – this time more aware of their possible presence. I suppose if we really wanted to mitigate risk, we could not go in the water, or everyone would have to wear stinger suits – but then what kind of experience would that be? It would be like taking people up Stromboli in a helicopter so that there was no risk at all of the volcano, and moving everyone off the island.
What did I learn from Stromboli? That you don’t have to have a plan to enjoy life. That if people living on an active volcano can live without the internet so can I. That by avoiding all risk, you’re also avoiding the experiences of a lifetime.
I think there is a fine balance between risk management, planning, and spontaneity. By all means make the plans that will serve you and will help to mitigate risk, but not at the cost of missing out on immersing yourself in the flow of life and all the joy that it can bring.
How could you incorporate some “island living” into your every day life?
Is your risk management and planning serving you or are you serving it?
How would you feel if you only had very limited internet connection? What would you do?
What structures will help you enjoy your life more?
There is the famous saying ‘it’s the journey that counts, not the destination’. Well of course, that helps if we were to take life as the case. The only thing that we are certain of in terms of our destination as human in beings is death. We all die one day, and as to what happens after that, we have absolutely no idea. Well, in fact, let me just restate that. There are plenty of ideas abounding from a variety of different groups of people but not one of those ideas has been confirmed, hence we have no certainty. As we have no certainty, where could be better to put this statement into practise than our own lives.
So this leads to the question – where are we all rushing to? In today’s Western society, everyone is rushing around, agenda’s packed, things to do, the standard response to “Hi how are you” “Oh I’m good but so busy” answered by “yeah I know me too”. I hear it all the time.
What kind of journey do you enjoy? A mad rush, with bags being packed at the last minute, then running around to see every site there is to see before collapsing in a heap at the nearest fast food or crowded resort diner, only to come back to every day life exhausted? That’s what the vast majority of people seem to be experiencing nowadays.
Think about what kind of journey you enjoy? Personally – I like to mix it up. As I’m naturally curious I like an adventure, which may enjoy a little adrenalin here and there, as adventures, like life, are unpredictable. But I know that I want plenty of time to enjoy the sunrises and sunsets, really savour my food, whatever it may be and get truly involved in every moment – before going on to the next. The next moment is going to come along anyway – so why rush towards it unnecessarily?