The snow started falling at twilight, so densely that the air was as white as the ground soon would be. I stepped outside for a moment and stood under the cottonwood tree in the courtyard, sheltered by the thick bare branches. I had run out without stopping to put on a jacket or shoes, and the tree kept me and my slippered feet dry.

What has always drawn me outside into snowfalls is what can’t be experienced while sitting cozily inside looking out. It’s the sound. It’s like no other sound. It’s both cosmic and intensely intimate. I waited for my ears to acclimatize to the silence, in the same way I wait for my eyes to accustom to darkness. And then there it was: the sound of snowflakes falling through air, accompanied by the sound of them landing on the branches, the rooftop, the ground.

I’m in Taos for the holidays, lovingly welcomed into the bosom of my son-in-law’s family. When the snow began it was just me and my daughter Kate and her husband Brendan in the kitchen. I sat at the counter with a glass of wine, watching them cook dinner for us all.

I love watching them cook together. They carried on a lively conversation with me as they worked, about our families, about books and movies, about trips we’d like to take. And all the while I was mesmerized by the way they moved together around their work space, so freely and gracefully, never bumping into each other. They fell into their different tasks with little or no discussion. With a smile and a nod they expressed appreciation to each other for the perfectly diced onions, the carefully peeled mushrooms, the taste of the simmering soup, the shininess of the risotto, the perfection of the pies.

The food carried us through an evening of talking and laughing together in the candlelit dining room. There are eleven of us gathered here from far and near, immediate family plus a few in-laws, lucky me. During the day we go our separate ways in various combinations or alone, reading, exploring Taos, walking up the mountain, meeting by chance in the kitchen. But every evening we all gather in the dining room, and I, who grew up not in a family, bask in the extraordinary connectedness of this family.

Yesterday afternoon all eleven of us drove in a caravan of cars to a house already filled with Christmas cheer and Taos natives. As I made my way slowly around the rooms, meeting everyone, I suddenly realized that I was the oldest person there. It was one of those aha! moments when a sharp zing of understanding hits.

For the year and a half since I turned 80, little zings like that have been making it increasingly clear how different this decade is. I can now report with absolute assurance: Old Age is a completely new stage of life. That term “Old Age” has not a whiff of negativity to me any more. Since it comes after “Middle Age” it seems accurate and descriptive. I feel proud and even somewhat triumphant to be 81, and I find myself telling my age even to people who haven’t asked.

Now I’m not saying it’s easy. I often hear “aging is not for the faint of heart,” but for me it seems more accurate to say it’s not for the lazy. I weaken and stiffen at a noticeable rate, but with enough exercising, almost each and every day, I manage to stay upright and functional and without pain.

A few times I’ve gotten just plain pissed off at all the time it takes to do all that necessary and boring exercise, and I’ve gone on strike for a few days. It felt naughty, like playing hooky, and I enjoyed that too. But boy oh boy, I paid for it by becoming quickly weaker and stiffer than I ever thought possible. I had to sit up and take notice and learn from the experience, and that pissed me off too. But there was nobody to argue or barter with about it, so I simply had to accept that if I want to remain limber and not dodder, I have to put in the time, no ands ifs or buts about it. Damn.

I think a lot of people don’t learn to accept that. They lose heart and just give up, and then they become poster boys or girls for the prevailing view of old age, sitting all day in pain, complaining, waiting to die. Or maybe, more likely, it’s just plain old laziness, and I can certainly understand that.

That inclination towards laziness feels almost like a rip tide that pulls me, not out to sea, but down into my chair. Sometimes it takes a lot of energy to fight it, and I’m always glad when I do. But sometimes I just say Screw it! I’ve earned the right to be as lazy as I damn please. If I want to walk on level ground and not climb mountains any more it’s nobody’s damn business.

I looked around at all the wonderfully quirky, smart, talented Taos people, all younger than me. I felt a sense of separateness, I felt the difference in where we are in life. And it was a pleasurable feeling. I was deeply experiencing reality, and I was a step further along on one of the major quests of life: know thyself.  And I was grateful that I still can hear the sound of snow falling.