I’m telling you, this woman, is a kind of brilliant and her words never fail to ignite. Leslie Leyland Fields is my sister-friend who works the Alaska ocean with her husband and six children as we work the Canadian fields — with our hands and our hearts. I’m more than happy to welcome her back to my front porch. God keeps weaving our lives together in surprising ways (see below!). She’s stopping here today with a piece of her new book that tells God’s honest joyful truth about aging, fear and the second half of our lives…
I stood at the edge of my father-in-law’s grave, wind whipping my hair.
Forty of us, clutching our coats, stood in clusters in the grassy hillocks, the ocean foaming behind us.
We tried to sing against the wind, “Be Thou My Vision,” “Amazing Grace.” Each of the three sons spoke in turn. Above the casket, the sun was as bright as I’d ever seen it.
It looked as though the skin of the world had been peeled back to its viscera: the grasses, the wind, the ocean foaming white and blue at our backs, everything noisily throbbing and pulsing with life.
How could a burial be so beautiful?
Then it was my turn. I gripped the piece of paper tighter, and pitched my voice above the wind,
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
I know no better words to read at the end of a life than words from Ecclesiastes. The writer, who calls himself “the Preacher” asks hard questions.
He sounds anything but holy, opening with a phrase that sounds like a teenager high on cynicism, or the lyrics from a existential rock song, “Meaningless, meaningless, everything’s meaningless.”
The Preacher wanders and circles through most of life’s paradoxes and confusions.
He’s brutally honest:
“Everyone comes naked from their mother’s womb,
and as everyone comes, so they depart.
They take nothing from their toil.”
He keeps circling back to that thorniest of questions, the question we don’t ask until we’re forty, or fifty: the question we’re all been asking in these “Wonder Year” pages:
As the sun rises and sets from decade to decade, what is it all for? What is it good for us to do all our days under the sun?
When I turned 40, I went for a walk on the loop of our gravel road, my husband and our kids.
It was November. The kids dragged sticks in the road and chased each other. I kicked the sparse alder leaves fallen to the road’s edge and thought about getting old.
About what kind of old woman I wanted to be.
I had just started to color my hair, which was greying around my face. I didn’t want to blanche into pale translucence and fade away with a whisper. I didn’t want to disappear. When I was 80, I would go shopping in a purple jogging suit. I would wear bright red lipstick until I died, I decided. I would be kind. Generous. I would stay interesting. I would not grow old.
When I turned 50, I woke up that morning with an eye infection and my husband threw me a party. A houseful of friends came for lunch.
The night before my mother and sister had jumped out of a closet, flying all the way from the east coast to surprise me.
We ate huge cold-cut sandwiches, drank root beer and lemonade and laughed. I asked everyone to bring a recipe or a story. We spoke around the table, one by one.
Sue, ten years older than me, gave me the best present of all: “I loved my fifties. It was the best decade ever,” she smiled at me.
Then the sun rose and set, the rivers drained into the ocean, my kids grew. We laughed around the table every night. Mothers and fathers died. I scattered stones. I mourned. I wondered how to live with such griefs.
Now I am 60. I am not old yet, but I am closer than I was.
I have a daughter who’s a professor. I have married sons and two sons still at home.
I spend days locked in closets wrestling with God, writing books.
I travel. I teach. I pluck the grey from my eyebrows. I try to hide my wrinkles.
I am happy to be alive. I wear bright lipstick every day. I try not to hate or to kill. I have gathered a lot of stones.
I am ready for peace.
I wonder if I am loving well. (And do I have to grow old?)
After the blustery graveside service, I stuffed the Preacher’s verses into my pocket, and we filed down to our warehouse. We had set up sawhorses with plywood on top for tables, draped them with white sheets and adorned them with sunny jars of wild flowers. We ate grilled salmon, pasta salad, salmonberry pies and homemade bread and shared stories about DeWitt.
He lived a large, happy life.
Three times the Preacher answers his own question. In my favorite rendition he advises,
“Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do. Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil.”
Can I live like this all the way to the end? Can we?Can we always eat and drink with gladness and joyful hearts, even when our legs tremble, when our eyes grow dim, when our flesh fails?
The Preacher ends his book with solemn words of warning to “Fear God and keep his commandments.” Amen, yes and always.
But I cannot end this post of wisdom and wonder there.
I must end with the words of God Himself, who answers our deepest fears about the years ahead:
Even to your old age I will be the same,
And even to your graying years I will bear you!
I have done it, and I will carry you;
I will bear you and I will deliver you.” (Isaiah 46:4)
Set the table, sisters!
Leslie Leyland Fields lives in Alaska and is the happy mother of 6, who have all grown up way too fast. She’s also sent off ten books into the world, including Crossing the Waters: Following Jesus through the Storms, the Fish, the Doubt and the Seas, and Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers. She’s an international speaker and the founder of The Harvester Island Wilderness Workshop, a writing workshop that has welcomed Luci Shaw, Philip Yancey and this year, Ann herself will be Leslie’s guest writer. (Can God really be this good?) Join Leslie for her weekly adventures here.
The Wonder Years: 40 Women over 40 on Aging, Faith, Beauty and Strength brings together the extraordinary voices and wisdom of Brene Brown, Ann Voskamp, Elisa Morgan, Kay Warren, Joni Ereackson Tada, Madeleine L’Engle and many others, guiding us all toward aging honestly, beautifully, and faithfully, with surprises all along the way. It’s never too late to become the women God desires us to be! (A Study and Discussion Guide is also available for book clubs and small groups.)
In three thematic sections–Firsts, Lasts, and Always– these women provide much-needed role models for aging honestly, beautifully, and faithfully, with surprises all along the way. These are indeed the Wonder Years.