Aging for Amateurs (copy) (copy) (copy)

Bert Keller

You don’t have to be Jewish to love bagels, and you don’t have to be Irish to dance around the bonfires at Lughnasa. Lughnasa is a festival observed from the dawn of Celtic peoples’ memory to mark the beginning of the harvest season.

Why mention that now? Because the festival happens on the first of August. We are there.

Lughnasa is a rite of transition from growing season to harvest season. It celebrates the fruits of hard labor. In that sense, and this is the point, we can think of Lughnasa as also representing our personal transition into that season of life when our “generative” work is largely done, when we are entering old age: harvest-time. That Lughnasa transition is often marked by retirement.

Our customary routines, habits and structures get upset when we retire. Sometimes this unsettledness causes a person to “hunker down” defensively into ways that lend a sense of safety. But approached in a different way, there is something about retirement, for those who get to retire, that makes it like the outward corroboration of a subtle, more psychological change that’s already taking place in them. There’s that whisper: Am I getting enough of the things that make my life good? Things I love doing?

It's like a gradual shift in our thinking: the Lughnasa-transition!

Retiring or making a significant work change: the outer face of an inner transition in which we’re being called to invest ourselves in our life differently, in a fresh, more spontaneous way.

How to do that is the question.

I like that word "spontaneous." It doesn’t mean just spur of the moment, carefree behavior or reacting to unexpected things that happen to us. Older people have plenty of those moments and we deal with them. But the whisper of spontaneity I’m talking about comes from that part of us that connects with the “flow," that deep desire to align our life with what’s present, natural and real.

Spontaneous action is what moves us into alignment with what’s present, natural and real.

Action is spontaneous in the sense that it doesn’t require analysis but assent, not pushing or forcing, but giving in. To change the simile from harvesting to boating, it’s like the difference between rowing and sailing, Alan Watts said.

Rowing requires strain and exertion to move the boat against the current of water. Sailing allows the forces of nature to move and direct the boat. But it takes practice learning how to sail!

Rowing is more like the first half of life, when we build a career, push ahead, start and raise a family, make a place for ourselves in the firm or public life. Sailing is like the second half of life: Now we want to be with life in an unforced way that satisfies our desire to be our real self.

When I think of spontaneous action, I think of Renata, who is exceptional in that respect. To celebrate her 80th birthday, she planned a solo trip to Mongolia. She had been drawn by Mongolia for years. Some of her friends, including her pastor (me at a younger age), were alarmed and started warning her about all the “what ifs." She was undeterred.

She spontaneously went off to Mongolia, not knowing anyone there or what she would do when she got there. She stayed about three months, working in an orphanage, trekking on the steppes, making friends with wonderful people, expanding her field of loving. She was “dancing at Lughnasa” in Mongolia!

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Renata’s action was not typical for “middle old age.” And she had actually begun her Lughnasa transition years earlier than that as most people do. We all go through the transition in our own way, but for all of us, transition means being unsettled; unsettledness can lead to more spontaneity; spontaneity opens the door to adventure.

As every farmer knows, harvest time does not mean work is over. Hard and important work is still to be done, but it’s a different kind of work now. It involves gathering and putting into barns what has been sown and weeded and fertilized and tended regularly until now.

Lughnasa, then, dramatically marks the transition from one kind of action to another kind of action, be it agricultural, psychological or spiritual. All we’ve done in starting and building our work shifts into the action of getting at the meaning of it, storing (internalizing) it, savoring it, saving and storing some seed for the next generation of crops.

We need some kind of gripping Lughnasa ritual to mark the transition from one to the other season of life! Both kinds of action, growing and harvesting, are purposeful. But pausing now to dance around a holy well, to climb a mountain (as many do at Lughnasa in Ireland), and to be with one’s community, lead naturally into a “completing” kind of action. The kind of action that bids us: Loosen up. Let go your compulsions. Be clear, awake, not lazy, but at ease. Work differently now.

And that’s what elders do. We all find different ways to bring the harvest home, and when it comes to us that this is what our life is about now — harvesting, savoring, passing on seed to the next generation — that this is our good work, then we can do it with heart.

The prophet Haggai said, “You have sown much and harvested little.”

Now is the time.

Bert Keller and Bill Simpson write the occasional column, “Aging for Amateurs.” Keller, a retired minister and bioethicist, wrote this installment. Comments, questions and suggestions are welcome at