My daughter’s wedding had a profound impact on me. The rhythm of our life is defined by the thresholds of experience that open up along our pathway through time. Thresholds are points of no return; they form passageways between what once was, and what now will be. We all experience life-changing events that unexpectedly alter our trajectory through time. These profound moments in life usually appear unexpectedly, and they always serve to place us in the midst of a new frontier, a terrain that is both unfamiliar and strange to our sensibilities.
By the time we reach mid-life, we have already passed through many thresholds. Common social thresholds, or rites of passage, include childhood, schooling, entering the workforce, family life, and retirement. However, aging means that we must also journey through spiritual thresholds that are more mercurial, mysterious, and profound, for example, the relentless calling to a vocation, a sudden illness, the excruciating need for authenticity, or the poignancy of loss over the death of a loved one. Over time, ageing invites a greater sensitivity and awareness to these thresholds of existence, and we slowly begin to enter into a deeper and more authentic conversation with the nature of our own presence and identity.
My Daughter’s Wedding
My daughter was recently married to a young man that I am proud to have as my son-in-law. The act of marriage is a socially constructed threshold, that is to say, the institution of marriage is a collectively defined process that must adhere to commonly agreed upon rules and procedures. Spiritually, in sharp contrast, marriage has much deeper roots; it is a profound moment in life when a man and a woman come together in the deep embrace of soulful belonging. Externally, the couple is making a public declaration to abide by the existing social and legal conventions surrounding marriage; internally the couple is cultivating a spiritual promise to share their lives through a bond of love.
I did not anticipate the degree to which I would be affected by my daughter’s marriage. I mean this in a very positive way. There are few things in life more joyous for a father than witnessing the pure joy embracing his daughter’s spirit as she moves into the bond of marriage. This is his own flesh and blood whom he has held and cared for as a little child, and is now walking with her on her journey into matrimony.
It is important to know that a father does not “give his daughter away.” This outdated and misguided notion originates in earlier times when a daughter was considered to be the “property” of her father. It is much better for a father to transfigure this tradition into a public acknowledgment of support, a symbol of his blessing on the marriage, and most importantly a unique and powerful moment in time with his daughter that will forever remain precious.
Though it has been a few years since my parents passed away, we both clearly felt their presence that day. Through the sanctuary of our shared memory, my daughter’s grandparents were with us in spirit. I was deeply moved to see that she had put pictures of her grandparents within the bridal bouquet, so that they would also be present in the ceremony when she took her vows. In this sense, the incredible sense of loss associated with them, had now become a powerful sense of presence. Perhaps this is the real function of grief and bereavement, and that is to transfigure the pain of loss into a new and beautiful sense of presence.
What eventually occurred to me is that I was moving through a very significant threshold in my own life as well. This event, this profound moment in my own life, stirred hidden places within my memory that had not been visited in a very long time. Memories of past experiences with my daughter effortlessly appeared in my mind throughout the course of the day as well as the days following. I felt myself to be an observer to the inner workings of my own imagination, and I realized that I was standing on the very edge of my own personal threshold.
The Rhythms of Memory
We all experience profound moments in life when the feeling of time becomes strange and elusive, and we realize that we are symbolically standing in the midst of a threshold that opens up into an unfamiliar terrain. Whatever that moment is that inspires our imagination and stirs our sensibilities, we intuitively know that the ground beneath us is somehow different. We are, in a way, already beginning to compose a different spiritual rhythm within.
Imagination is the natural habitat of memory. As we age our memory becomes more expansive and we are able to stretch our imagination in new ways. Through the act of remembering past experiences and inviting them into the bright white light of the present moment we begin to engage in a deeply intimate and authentic conversation with the nature of reality. In this sense, memory is always a child of the present moment and it holds conversation with us in the here and now. Memory is not merely about remembering, it is about the creative retrieval of experience, as well as providing a sanctuary for the cultivation of meaning and purpose,
The emergence of a threshold always serves to animate and agitate our memories, so that they begin to ebb and flow in creative and unexpected ways. This can feel quite uncomfortable and disruptive at times. Our experience of time ceases to be blandly linear in these moments, and takes on a more rhythmical feeling. If we intellectually consider time to be an evenly spaced pulse divided into seconds, minutes, hours, and days, then our feeling of time is really the unique rhythms that are generated from our experiences in life. And we all, in this sense, move to a different rhythm.
Music is the art form that is the most intimate with thresholds. The ground of a musical composition is the underlying pulse, an evenly spaced series of beats that sound exactly the same, something like the ticking of a watch. The speed of the pulse varies depending upon the stylistic intention of the composer. The “time signature” is then layered on top of the pulse, and is designed to create a regular pattern of emphasis that becomes the underlying “signature” of the piece. Finally, the rhythmic and melodic presentation forms the expressive figures that generate the unique identity of the composition. In this sense, each one of us is a unique musical composition.
It is important to offer attention to the rhythms that we feel in our life; no two people generate the same rhythm. It is often said that each one of us is an artist in the medium of life, and that the ultimate purpose of artistry if to elevate and exalt the close in experience of being alive. Art is not about creating aesthetically pleasing objects; it is really about the fierce cultivation of life itself.
As we become older, an innate desire for more intimate conversations and authentic expression begins to reach out to us. The reason for this is that ageing eventually compels us to open up and walk into the midst of our own transience. As John O’Donohue has wonderfully said, old age is the time of the inner harvest. Even though ageing requires that our physical bodies unavoidably begin to feel the normal effects of senescence, our experience of life can still become increasingly rich and vibrant over time, well into elderhood.
Embracing the Thresholds of Ageing
I sense that there is a deep and potent connection between being grateful for ageing, and the degree of awareness and mindfulness we can bring into our own presence. Oliver Sacks shares an immensely important message with us in his recent article in the New York Times:
My father, who lived to 94, often said that the 80s had been one of the most enjoyable decades of his life. He felt, as I begin to feel, not a shrinking but an enlargement of mental life and perspective. One has had a long experience of life, not only one’s own life, but others’, too. One has seen triumphs and tragedies, booms and busts, revolutions and wars, great achievements and deep ambiguities, too. One has seen grand theories rise, only to be toppled by stubborn facts. One is more conscious of transience and, perhaps, of beauty.
At 80, one can take a long view and have a vivid, lived sense of history not possible at an earlier age. I can imagine, feel in my bones, what a century is like, which I could not do when I was 40 or 60. I do not think of old age as an ever grimmer time that one must somehow endure and make the best of, but as a time of leisure and freedom, freed from the factitious urgencies of earlier days, free to explore whatever I wish, and to bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together.
I am looking forward to being 80.
Of the many wonderful ideas embedded in this quote, the idea of approaching a threshold in life with attention, awareness, and mindfulness stands in the foreground. There is an inspiring sense of gratitude in his words that touch secret places within each one of us. Ageing is inevitable; the quality of awareness we bring to it is a responsibility.
I have traveled through many thresholds in my own life; some were joyous, while others were excruciatingly difficult. If you take a moment, I am sure you can think of some you have traveled through, and, if you care to share, it would be nice to hear about them in the comments area below. Strangely, I still feel very new at this, even though am I decidedly in late-middle life. There is no convenient recipe for the journey and we must each find our own way.
My daughter’s wedding as a personal threshold revealed many things to me, but most of all I learned this: my life is somehow expanding as I get older, not contracting, and I feel as though my experience of life will only become larger over time.