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Thresholds: “It is not too late”

You see, I want a lot.
Perhaps I want everything: the darkness that comes with every infinite fall
and the shivering blaze of every step up. . .

You have not grown old, and it is not too late
to dive into your increasing depths
where life calmly gives out its own secret.

—Rainer Maria Rilke, from Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. by Robert Bly

I wanted to repeat that last stunning stanza of Rilke’s poem to you. Just to be certain you didn’t skim over those words:

“You have not grown old, and it is not too late / to dive into your increasing depths / where life calmly gives out its own secret.”

I have received so many wonderful emails inquiring about the Women on the Threshold program this fall and lots of registrations.  You have shared stories with me about the thresholds calling to you and how grateful you are for a program like this that provides such support.

Some of you have shared with me, something to the effect of “I think I am too old” or “it’s too late” to be considering this, to want to step across the threshold into the inifinite expanse calling to your heart.

In case, there are others of you also having variations of this thought, I repeat Rilke’s wise words to you again:

“You have not grown old, and it is not too late / to dive into your increasing depths / where life calmly gives out its own secret.”

When we tell ourselves we have grown too old to change, or it is too late to follow a dream and holy desire, we deny the increasing depths within us, we reject the possibility that we will finally learn life’s secret, just for us.

In Benedictine spirituality, monks make a commitment to conversion, which is a lifetime commitment to being always changed by God.  At no point is the monk ever too old, the monk has never reached a place where he or she can check that off the list and move on to other things.  (and there really are no other things than this!)

Years ago my mother, who had earned a PhD in political science, was then diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis so severe that she spent many years on disability and struggling with the increasing physical and emotional devastation of her disease.  Multiple joint replacements, near constant pain, and eventually a heart-breaking separation from my father who was completely unsupportive of her could have easily caused her to just give up, and kept her from her dreams.

When she was in her fifties, she recognized a desire to return to school to earn an MSW so she could become a psychotherapist and offer counseling to other people with disabilities.  She asked me once whether I thought she was too old for such a dream and without hesitation I said no.  “You will be the same age when you finish the program whether or not you go, so you might as well do what you love in the meantime” was the extent of the wisdom I had to offer her from my then twenty-something experience.

She followed this dream with such passion, taking classes part-time, commuting from midtown Manhattan down to NYU most days by public bus on her electric wheelchair.  She discovered gifts she didn’t realize that she had.  She came alive when she talked about what she was learning.  She gave herself to the path that was calling to her.

When she finished the program she left behind her life in NYC after 35 years there and moved out to the west coast to be closer to me.  She began doing advocacy work with disability rights groups in addition to starting a small therapy practice.  She was so vibrant.  I got to see my mother enter that rare phase of life that really only comes with age and wisdom, where she no longer cared what others thought about her choices.  She became outspoken about injustice and full of compassion for others who suffered the kinds of discrimination she had experienced.  She was a woman on fire.

And then the unthinkable happened.  Just a few years after she started this new life, she became quite ill, a complication of medicine she was taking, and she died at age 61.  I was with her the last five days and in those moments of her very last breath.  I remember the terrible sound of the heart rate monitor stopping its punctuated rhythm.  I was torn apart by this loss.  For many years I felt this anguish over the fact that she was just beginning to discover who she really was and the sacred gifts she had been given on behalf of the world.  I lamented that she did not have more time to live out this dream and I grieved I did not have more time to witness it.  At her memorial service, the church was filled with people in wheelchairs, new friends my mother had made and impacted by her passion.

There might be those who are cynical and wonder why she spent more money and time on education if she was already getting “old.”  Others might respond to the senselessness of her early death when she had so much more to give.

I do not pretend to have answers to those stances or objections.  I prefer to let the question of how life and death work remain mysterious.  I avoid trite answers about how the universe works in such matters.

As I have gotten older though, I have cherished the memories of my mother coming alive again and kindling the fire in her.

I feel her presence with me keenly as I cross this midlife threshold and follow a call that leads to some unknown future.

Several times in making this decision to move to Vienna, I thought back to my time studying abroad in Paris while in college, and how much easier that adventure seemed.  I was so much younger, I had fewer attachments, less investments in how things would be.  I wasn’t quite so old and entrenched in my life.

When I think of my mother, I think of a woman who wasn’t afraid to respond to the thing which made her heart beat loudly.  She wrestled with her own demons, to be sure, but she emerged stronger rather than defeated by them.  She is one of the “threshold stories” that has impacted my life in profound ways.

Great callings demand great sacrifices.

How much longer do we wait to respond to our own heart’s longing?  How long do we settle for a life that feels tedious or even satisfactory, but we know could feel even more alive?  When the Spirit is at work in us, it becomes harder and harder to ignore.

I don’t promise the road will be easy. In fact, if anything, I know the path traveled will be full of challenges.  Which is why journeying with others makes such a difference.

Drawing on the wisdom of ancient women who crossed their own thresholds gives us courage.  Being with other women on the same path of unknowing and tests to our commitment offers profound solace.

Join us for Women on the Threshold

Join us for Women on the Threshold.  I am partnering with three other amazing women to offer this new 12-week online program.  You can see some reflections from Ronna Detrick here (video) and here (guest post), and from Dana Reynolds here (video).

Poetry Party

Make sure to stop by this month’s Poetry Party on The Threshold of Summer and share your own poetic inspiration. You are also entered for a chance to win a prize!

Gift for Pre-Ordering Desert Fathers and Mothers

Pre-order a copy of Desert Fathers and Mothers: Early Christian Wisdom Sayings — Annotated & Explained and I have a special gift for you: a retreat and reflection guide to accompany your reading.  Just forward me your online receipt for pre-order and I will send that to you as a thank you for your support.  If you get an early release copy of the book, you can just send me a photo of you holding the book up (I would love to see your face in the photo too!)  Gift offer expires August 31st!

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3 Responses

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this beautiful story of your Mom. I’m sure it isn’t easy to share, except that there is so much beauty and courage in it in spite of the pain.

  2. I believe that the spiritual world is more real than this material world. Your mother changed something within her and within the spiritual realm by choosing the path less taken. If she had not taken this path she would have had a very different and possibly sad end of life. I believe that it is common to have regrets about the loss of our parents–however this is the way life progresses towards the next life. We must accept this about those we love and about ourselves. Your blog on this topic expresses many common elements that adult children experience–thank you for putting your experience into words to share.