If post-heroic stories tell us about the mid-life journey beyond “happily ever after” then – says Allan Chinen (In the Ever After) – elder tales reveal what lies beyond mid-life: it is in them that we may hope to find some guidance for being and becoming an elder.
Until quite recently, I saw myself still caught up in a post-heroic mid-life quest, adrift on the high seas in search of Ithaca. Since turning 60 however, something has changed. I no longer feel that I am searching for some elusive glimpse of what I might become; I am more or less content with who I am and believe that I know what I am here to do.
I feel rather like the old woodcutter in one of Allan Chinen’s elder tales who, after a lifetime of labouring in the forest – his children having grown up and left home – announces one day to his wife that he has had enough of cutting wood. He hangs up his axe and retires to bed from which he cannot be persuaded to rise.
One day a caller asks to borrow his donkey. The woodcutter agrees and the caller (who is in fact a magician in disguise) leads the donkey to a clearing where hidden treasure is buried. The magician retrieves the gold and loads it onto the donkey but is disturbed by a troop of soldiers marching through the forest and runs away.
The donkey, trained by long years of labour alongside the woodcutter, finds its way home and presents its load of sudden and unexpected riches to the woodcutter and his wife. They give a third to their children, a third to the local poor, and the remaining third is more than enough to keep them in comfort for the rest of their days.
The story is full of subtle detail and rich in symbolism. The woodcutter has cared for his family and done his duty all his life. But there comes a time when he relinquishes the struggle – he ceases to strive – and it is only then that he is visited by magic and that riches come to find him. He does not have to search or labour for the gold but the donkey only finds its way home because it has worked alongside the woodcutter for many years. In that sense, the woodcutter’s newfound wealth represents the fruits of his life’s labour.
The tale beautifully illustrates three of the developmental tasks that Chinen attributes to becoming an elder: breaking free of personal ambition (the woodcutter ceases to worry about earning a living); liberation from social customs (he goes to bed and won’t get up); the reclamation of wonder and delight (the return of magic).
As I begin to embrace my age, the stresses of constant work and travel are increasingly irksome. They remain a part of my life but I am gradually learning the value of being quiet and staying still. And in that still, quiet place I discover that my imagination has more room to breathe and that my creative self can flourish.
The real magic of my later years is to have discovered the delights of writing and storytelling. Like the woodcutter’s gold, they are riches that can only be enjoyed by sharing.