Olivia Ames Hoblitzelle
Rhinebeck, N.Y.: Monkfish, 2017. 203 pp., paper, $16.95.
Gaining wisdom is said to be one of the benefits of aging, which is supposed to be done with grace and dignity. But that is difficult for many people in our modern world. Olivia Ames Hoblitzelle gently teaches us the dharma of aging to help ease us along this sometimes confounding stage of life.
Aging is difficult for us in today’s Western world, because we rarely think about this stage of our life until suddenly we find ourselves staring in the mirror at this “old” person. How did she get here? What does this mean? Youth is the idol; so much of our culture is geared toward youth. But Hoblitzelle reminds us through the words of Carl Jung that “old age is the most valuable phase of life.”
Unfortunately, particularly in the West, old age is also the invisible time of life. People begin to migrate from the homes where they spent their householder years (the grihasta stage in the Vedic tradition) to over-fifty-five communities, where they are encouraged to age collectively. Then often it is on to assisted living, where the elderly are even more closed off from the world, and finally many are shuttled to nursing homes, where, sadly, they become truly invisible, depriving the young of the opportunity to engage with what Hoblitzelle calls the “ElderSpirit.”
In part 1 of her book (“Aging: Reflections, Stories, and Mysteries”), Hoblitzelle encourages us to “honor the life cycle” in order to prepare for the sannyasa time—the time when we have renounced the hurried and often distracted life of the student (brahmacharya) and the sometimes stressful phase of the householder—and learn to embrace the slower life that comes with letting go of the identities formed by our careers.
Part 2, “Passages: Wisdom Treasures,” offers us a look at Hoblitzelle’s own journey and some of the people who helped her find her way through the aging process by finding a “spiritual orientation.” She gives us practices to help us find our way, such as the practice of silence, “to feel gratitude for life’s blessings”; mindfulness; stopping; and “finding the sacred in the commonplace.”
Obviously it is impossible to speak of aging without contemplating death, something that we are reluctant to do. Part 3, “Passages: Dying into Life,” contains short passages on aging and death, including writings by Henry David Thoreau and Henri Nouwen. “The Gift of Death” is Hoblitzelle’s account of the death of her mother after six years in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s. She speaks too of the death of her husband, Hob, also from Alzheimer’s.
The lessons that one gains from helping a loved one to have a “good death” in the Buddhist sense are invaluable. Death is so near to us throughout our life, yet we seem not to consider it until we find ourselves standing on its doorstep. As my significant other was dying of cancer at age sixty-one, he commented to me softly before he took his last breath, “Dying is easy,” he whispered to me. “I thought it would be much harder than this, but it’s so easy.”
In part 4, “Wayshowers,” Hoblitzelle introduces us to those wise elders who have gone before and left behind their words of wisdom. To her they have become teachers of the dharma of aging and death—who influenced her journey of aging with wisdom. Among those are the late Theosophist and Jungian Alice O. Howell, author of The Dove in the Stone and other works, who taught Hoblitzelle how to live the symbolic life; Emerson Stamps, an African-American man whose life is lived with a purpose of love and healing; Polly Thayer Starr; Maud Morgan; and Bede Griffiths. Each of the stories of these wayshowers inspires us to prepare for these times of letting go.
Hoblitzelle concludes this wonderful book of the dharma of aging with wisdom with a quote from Sufi master: “Is this not a better path? Is this not a way that goes backward away from the body toward the light from whence you came?” She then tells us, “Finding the light of wisdom that guides us through our elder years, and the light into which we die, these illuminate both our living and our dying.”
Clare Goldsberry, of the Phoenix Study Center, is a freelance writer and author of The Teacher Within: Finding and Living Your Personal Truth, available on Amazon.