Choosing to Age in Community: 5 — Living at Light Morning

Living at Light Morning

Tom then talked about some of the more strenuous physical activities here at Light Morning.

Tom–If I’m careful about my attitude regarding it and how much energy I use, splitting wood is easy. There are a lot of what you call physical requirements in this kind of life. I know, when the situation is right, you can get assistance [from others]. But the general tack is to explore it some yourself.

Robert–So with activities like splitting wood, what you value is your making an inward decision about whether you should engage in these activities and when you should stop, rather than having someone outside making these decisions for you.

Tom–Yeah, that’s it. And that’s a part of community. A lot of it is this business of making your own inner decisions about what you’re going to think, what you’re going to believe, and all that. And folks here, they don’t interfere with that.

People will express what they feel. We do that, and it’s very helpful for all of us. But we don’t have any hard and fast ideas that just because we believe in something, somebody else needs to. We may come to feeling the same and having the same belief, but it’s not because somebody pushes you.

Robert–It’s like what we’re trying to do with Lauren [age 10 at the time of this conversation]: trying not to have the middle-aged people telling the younger people and the older people so much what to do, or how to do it, or when to do it, or when not to do it, but leaving as much leeway as possible for people to learn from their own experiences.

Tom–And that’s essentially aging, too: how Lauren is treated as she grows up. This is a part of her aging process. And how it’s treated. It’s very different here than it is generally in society. And it shows! The result of it shows. Tremendously.

Robert–In what sort of ways?

Tom–In her resourcefulness. In her interest. It sort of reminds me of my mother. Lauren always wants to help. She always wants to get in and do things with everybody else. It’s pretty amazing what she can do.

Robert–Do you think that your being a part of this community has made a difference in her life?

Tom–I hope so. I missed a lot in the early part of my experience with my own kids [because of traveling so much]. I missed being an intimate part of their growing up. So reading to Lauren, having her come up to Snowberry [Tom’s cabin] and wanting to do things with me, and all those things that happen with a younger age-it’s just been great to have that all be filled in. Where else could I have got it? I don’t know of anyplace else. There’s a really good relationship between us. And she doesn’t have much of an opportunity to be connected with her grandparents, either. That’s limited.

Tom Tying a Young Lauren's Shoes
Tom Tying a Young Lauren’s Shoes

Tom then reminisced about visiting Fairhope, a community in Alabama with a large retirement population.

Tom–The striking thing was how many of the men died when they made the change [from career to retirement]. It seemed like there was only a certain length of time when fishing and golfing and that sort of thing really made a meaningful life for them. When that ran out, they ran out.

Fairhope is a city of widows. Now the women didn’t change their life much. They were still involved in the same sorts of things as they were before their husbands retired. They seemed to have a keener realization that something else needed to be done. So you’d find those women involved in volunteer projects, or in arts projects, or in community projects. The [few] men who were successful in going on, they either created a new little business for themselves, or they got into this community service side of things.

Robert–So the people who aged quickly and died there were those who weren’t able to re-establish a sense of meaning and community in their lives.

Tom–Yes.

Robert–When you see yourself in the mirror these days, how does that reflected image correspond to your inner self-image?

Tom–Well, my inner self-image doesn’t have an age. It has a feeling rather than an age. And I’m often amazed to know how good the feeling is. A few years back, I was thinking of how some of my friends were getting into their seventies. Now I’m not only in my seventies, but I’m nearing the end of my seventies, and I still feel great most of the time.

Once in a while, like when I had the flu, it really took me down. Relatively speaking, it was possible to come out of that without it taking [me] toward the negative aspects of aging. It was possible to work through that without necessarily thinking that the trouble I’m having is because I’m 78 years old…

For myself, I’ve kind of given up on what age I’m supposed to be when I pass out of this experience. I’m a lot further on in it than I ever expected to be. And in greater control of my senses and sensibilities and even not too bad on the physical side. So I’m feeling now that it’s more important for me to learn to deal with whatever this process of passing is. To be ready for it when it occurs.

Robert–How does one become more ready for death?

Tom–I guess death is one of those things when you don’t really know. At least I haven’t reached the stage where I really know what happens after death. I’ve met a lot of people who say they’re not afraid to die; they’re not afraid of death. But even observing some of the ones who’ve said they’re not, it makes you wonder whether they are [unafraid] or whether they’re just trying to do something with themselves about the experience of it.

I suspect that, except for the body-which we make prime use of in this [earthly] experience-we just pass on to another different kind of experience. I don’t know if it’s “higher” or “lower” or just what it is. I’ve been told that there are other bodies, and that these are available and that you use them in your next experience. I don’t know that that’s true, outside of some dream work which sort of indicates that.

Robert–What sort of dreams?

Tom–I have a feeling that what are called “lucid” dreams are related to a preparation for this [death] experience.

Robert–“Lucid dreams” meaning what?

Tom–That you are in a different kind of dream state. You start the dream like any other dream. Then, very soon after it starts, you become aware that you’re dreaming, [while] in the dream itself. And then the whole aspect of the dream changes. You get a different kind of awareness. You can actually participate in the dream process.

For instance, if it’s a nightmarish type of dream and you realize that it is a dream, you can face that nightmarish aspect of it and turn it around or turn it into something that is easy to take. It turns into a very positive experience. I have an idea that these dreams are a forerunner of the type of life that takes place after what we call death.

Robert–How might living in community affect the process of passing through the death experience with awareness or lucidity?

Tom–Even though we assume that we’re pretty busy, we really have a lot of time for the kind of things that you don’t have time for when you’re out in the [outside] world. Working with dreams, working with prayer, working with meditation, working together-all of these contribute substantially to this. And to taking the fearful aspect out of it.

Robert–Earlier, when those of us my age were in our 20’s and 30’s, there was a strong emphasis on home birthing, natural birthing, conscious birthing. I wonder if now, as we near the other end of the aging spectrum, we might grow into the realization that dying isn’t something to be closeted away in hospitals and nursing homes. And that a family or a community might want to be involved in these transitions.

Tom–Well, in a community like this, we’re family in a real sense. In a greater sense, perhaps, than if you’re out in the world. It doesn’t have anything to do with you biologically, in the way you were born. It has to do with the way you live together. Consciously or unconsciously, we’re contributing to each other in the whole process by being in community and not being plagued by a hundred and one things that would be in our attention if we were living some other way.

Robert–When Lauren was born, it wasn’t in a hospital setting. The community family gathered to lend energy and awareness, to soften some of the anxiety and pain, to participate in the miracle of birth. Maybe death could be like that, too.

Tom–I think so! And that makes a whole different thing out of it. Many studies of various kinds are leading people toward that kind of a goal for dying.

Robert–You’ve sometimes talked about the psychological differences between the expressions “aging” and “growing old.”

Tom–I would rather have people refer to themselves as “aging” rather than “old.” I think it would be a tremendous psychological help. We’re aging from the time we’re born until we leave the scene. We’re aging. And that can be quite a different sort of thing than “growing old.”

Joel [Goldsmith] says that people ought to mature. They shouldn’t get old. They should be born and get into their life and work at it and gradually mature. Change and mature. All the time. And that the three greatest drawbacks to that are the clock, the calendar, and birthdays. He said he wished people didn’t have birthdays. That they would mature gracefully as long as necessary, without having birthdays.

I was laying in bed the other morning thinking about this and it seemed to me that if you were to approach aging like you approach a good wine, then that would be it. You’d have a vintage year in which you were born. [Laughs] And then it would get bottled and pass right on through the years and get better and better and better and better. And as the wine got better, the aging would get better.

Tom and Lauren (1989)
Tom and Lauren (1989)

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A shorter version of this interview originally appeared in the Winter 1995 issue of Communities Magazine . The theme of that issue was “Growing Older in Community.” You can learn more about Communities Magazine here.