TRURO — “Autumn is over the long leaves that love us,” wrote William Butler Yeats. The first harbingers of autumn are suddenly over the Outer Cape, as we see the sharpening of the colors of the water and feel the chill in the morning air. But the Outer Cape has become more permanently autumnal, as so many people come here to spend their final years among our long leaves. The median age of Wellfleet residents was 62 in 2014; in Truro it is 60; in Eastham, 59. These are people in what the Hindus call the forest-dweller stage of life.
Ancient Hindu texts wisely divide life into three basic stages: in the first, you study; in the second, you marry and become a householder; and in the third, you go and live in the forest. The third stage begins when you see your first gray hairs, or your first grandchild, and then it is time to head for the woods (with your partner if you have one), to live simply but in comfort, and to think about things. It’s where you finally take the wise advice of the Italians: Dolce far niente. It’s sweet to do nothing.
In this, forest-dwelling is the opposite of what many people hope to do in retirement: catch up on all the old goals that got shouldered out of the way by a career or child-rearing. Travel, learn to paint, garden, bake, do pro bono work, speak Italian, play the guitar. Indeed, it is probably the opposite of what the planners of Carnival Week in Provincetown (which begins on Aug. 17) had in mind when they chose this year’s theme: “The Enchanted Forest.” Well, chacun à son forêt.
In fact, forest-dwelling is more a state of mind than a plan of action. It is the time in which things do not matter in the same way they did when we were younger. I take satisfaction in the knowledge that, if I were to die today, no one could possibly say of me, “tragically struck down in her youth.” There’s something liberating about living on borrowed time.
And the forest-dweller discovers the pleasures of solitude, of what in earlier life would have been wasting time, watching the waves streaming in onto the beach, listening to the wind in the trees, looking at the dance of the clouds in the sky, watching the red-tailed hawks cruising in the marsh. The treasure you find in the forest is silence, the absence of the white noise of what other people think is the real world. The ultimate forest in the Outer Cape is the dune shack, but any structure will do as long as you can be alone in it and away from Amazon and Facebook and all that jazz.
For the Hindus who perfected this system, the object of your meditation should be philosophical; you should be working out your own take on the meaning of life. For those of us who are not Hindus, the mental goal is wide open. One classical Indian metaphor for the ideal state of mind is the surface of water on which there have ceased to be any distracting ripples of anger and desire, so that you can look down through the now still surface into the depth where the secret meaning is found.
For the Outer Cape forest-dweller, I think the ripples themselves may be the meaning, the rippled patterns of life, memory, chagrin, happiness, regret, loss, all that was obscured by the waves of striving to achieve it but now is there for us to contemplate, becalmed among the long leaves that love us.