Autumn Is a Powerful Reminder to Live While We Are Alive

Walt Whitman, and an HIV diagnosis, showed me how to think about aging and time.

Posted Sep 19, 2018

Walt Whitman called life’s autumn “the brooding and blissful halcyon days,” the days when “the apple at last hangs/really finish’d and indolent-ripe on the tree.” These are the “teeming quietest, happiest days of all!” wrote the poet, in his famous Leaves of Grass collection. For Whitman, older age isn’t a time to dread, but rather a time to savor the harvest of a well-lived life.

The autumn equinox arrives this weekend, and fall begins.

At about 9:54 p.m. EST Saturday night, Earth's equator will pass through the center of the sun. Daylight and darkness will be perfectly balanced, though only for an instant. After this “eventime,” daylight will shorten and darkness will lengthen until the Winter Solstice arrives on December 21.

Some people dislike the fall because it reminds them that winter isn’t far behind. They spend their middle age years in terror of old age. I know people younger than I who describe themselves as “old.”

John-Manuel Andriote/photo
Grapes hang ready for the harvest at Sonoma's Ravenswood Winery.
Source: John-Manuel Andriote/photo

Aging is a fact of life. “Old” is a state of mind, and it’s a choice.

I think about these things because soon after this fall begins, in early October, I am going to turn 60 years old. It is certainly older than I've ever been, and the first decade I've begun aware of all it signifies-- retirement, Medicare, Social Security--and suggests, including words like "elderly" and "obsolete."

But just because the calendar is turning doesn't mean I will now choose in my inner self-talk to use words and language that diminish, rather than build me up. We don't suddenly become a different person at 40, 50, 60, 70, or beyond; we simply become more of who we already are. We ripen, like Whitman's "finish'd" apple.

I’ve always marked my “milestone” birthdays with some kind of celebration. A party for my 30th. A sit-down dinner at the National Press Club for my 40th. A solo road trip to Montreal for 45. Another party for my 50th.

I plan to celebrate 60, too.

Why celebrate? Why not quietly accept that I am now young only in comparison to people who have already retired?

Because I am grateful to be alive, for starters. I am grateful that effective medication allows me to live well with HIV, 13 years since my diagnosis. I am grateful that I have had the motivation I needed to advocate for myself when “the system” could have left me in a dangerous position without insurance and unable to pay for the lifesaving medication I must take to avoid developing life-threatening illness.

Too many of my friends didn’t have the chance to survive their thirties or forties, let alone make it to 60. My dad died at 52, and his dad, my namesake, died at 51. I have already seen more than enough of the potential harshness of life’s winter—the decline, the frailty, the suffering and loneliness that too frequently accompanies it.

So I choose to celebrate the autumn of life, the time of harvest.

Since returning in 2007 to eastern Connecticut, where I grew up, I have rediscovered in my regular forest hikes around the largely rural area why I’ve always loved fall.

I marvel at Nature’s annual fireworks display in the flamboyantly colored trees and grasses.

My heart pounds with excitement at the deafening din of honking southbound geese soaring overhead in their V-formation across the field whose changing complexion I’ve observed since the new leaves appeared in the spring.

Time’s clock ticks louder in autumn. It invites reflection on what I have done with my time to now. Did I invest it in sowing a good "crop" in my younger years that is now yielding a bountiful harvest of pleasant memories, good friendships, and satisfaction that I have used my time and talents well?

The cooler air gives me a renewed vigor. I feel so alive in the fall! I feel more determined than ever to occupy my days, however many remain for me, and never, ever even talk about “killing” time. It’s far too fleeting as it is, and much too precious.