Aging in a Beautiful Place With Purpose

Age in place


Aging is no accident. It is necessary to the human condition, intended by the soul. We become more characteristic of who we are simply by lasting into later years; the older we become, the more our true natures emerge. Thus the final years have a very important purpose: the fulfillment and confirmation of one’s character.
~ James Hillman

Topiary;  Pronunciation: ˈtō-pē-ˌer-ē Function: adjective/noun: Etymology– Latin topiarius, from topia ornamental gardening, irregular from Greek topos place.

Date: 1592: of, relating to, or being the practice or art of training, cutting, and trimming trees or shrubs into odd or ornamental shapes; also: characterized by such work.

The longer I live the more convinced I become of the essential role creativity and purpose play in aging well. I never tire of this topic because it always brings substance to the often slippery notion of “successful aging.” One of the single best examples of successful aging that I’ve ever seen is the film A Man Named PearlThe documentary is about Pearl Fryar who is a self-taught topiary artist in Bishopville, South Carolina. Pearl and his wife Metra, who is African American, were looking to move into an all-white neighborhood in 1976. A homeowner expressed a collective concern that “Black people don’t keep up their yards.” The racial stereotype became a best-worst experience and a catalyst for Pearl.

Confucius said: The man of virtue makes the difficulty to be overcome his first business, and success only a subsequent consideration.

After moving on and settling into a rural and mostly black neighborhood, he went to work on achieving the coveted “yard of the month” award and became the first African American in Lee County to win the honor, countering the racial prejudice. And along the way, he has inspired countless others to realize their human potential.

Tail of Happiness

Wayne Dyer tells a story about an old-seasoned and wise cat who comes across a kitten in an alley chasing its tail. The old cat queries: “Why are you chasing your tail?” The kitten replies: “I’ve just returned from cat philosophy school and I have learned two things; 1) that the most important thing for a cat is happiness, and 2) that happiness resides in my tail. And if I catch it, I’ll have a lock on eternal happiness.”

The wise old cat is amused, and offers some wisdom: “I wasn’t lucky enough to go to cat philosophy school, but I too have realized that the most important thing for a cat is happiness, and indeed that it is located in my tail. The difference between you and me is that I’ve found if I go about my business it just seems to follow wherever I go…”

Seeking “successful aging” directly (which is really another way of saying “happiness”) can be a form of chasing your tail. Day and night our media culture sells the notion that aging is a disease and the “cure” is a commodity that can be purchased; “ask your doctor about_______ (fill in the blank). Much of this is high-tech snake oil and potentially damaging to the body—and the soul.

Magnificent Obsession

Pearl Fryar defines successful aging; not by the absence of his youth or career, but by his magnificent obsession in life. Within his 3-acre garden visitors find etched into a manicured lawn the enormous flower-filled letters:


Age in place

For some 40 + years, these have been the guiding principles upon which Pearl has worked his magic. Pearl’s initial response to racial bigotry against him eventually became the realized gift of topiary genius. The success which has subsequently followed him wasn’t sought directly—it was a byproduct.  


Creativity has been defined as bringing something new into existence; by this definition, this topiary artist has hit the mark—not only in the garden but in the strength of his character which opens minds and hearts to what’s possible in human relations. As he sculpts and contours nature into his vision of a beautiful world, so too, are we shaped and formed by this man’s determination to be part of the solution.

Gandhi once said: My life is my message…the same could be said about a man named Pearl.


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