Autumn Voices welcomes Nancy Adams who will be posting a blog on aspects of Conscious Eldering every two months.
Born and raised in southern California, I grew up spending school holidays camping amongst redwood trees in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. But I was nearly 20 years old, living in Germany for a year, before I experienced the rhythm of nature in its four distinct seasons: it felt like coming home to myself.
Since then, London was my home for 10 years while I studied at UCL (International Relations/World Society/Conflict & Communication) and then worked at a variety of jobs (lecturing and research related work around the issue of food security). In 1983 my husband and I, without jobs, but with an old abandoned farmhouse to do up and a 3 week old child, moved north of the border to Scotland, where we have spent the past 36 years living on a farm in West Lothian embraced by the rhythm of the farming seasons.
After 67 years of growing and being changed through raising a family and working in an education setting for 30 years, I have spent the past 6-7 years nurturing an interest in what it means to make a conscious choice to ‘weather well’ in our society in the 21st C. This has led to invitations to do workshops and retreats, where the wisdom teachers I draw inspiration from are most often poets or prophets. I live increasingly out of a place of gratitude…
Blog for June:
Title: “Weathering Well”
I am old enough now for a tree
once planted, knee high, to have grown to be
twenty times me,
and to have seen babies marry,
and heroes grow deaf —
but that’s enough meaning-of-life.
It’s living through time we ought to be connoisseurs of.
From wearing a face all this time, I am made aware
of the maps faces are, of the inside wear and tear.
I take to faces that have come far.
In my father’s carved face, the bright eye
he sometimes would look out of, seeing a long way
through all the tree-rings of his history.
I am awed by how things weather: an oak mantel
in the house in Spain, fingered to a sheen,
the marks of hands leaned into the lintel,
the tokens in the drawer I sometimes touch —
a crystal lived-in on a trip, the watch
my father’s wrist wore to a thin gold sandwich.
It is an equilibrium
which breasts the cresting seasons but still stays calm
and keeps warm. It deserves a good name.
Weathering. Patina, gloss, and whorl.
the trunk of the almond tree, gnarled but still fruitful.
Weathering is what I would like to do well.
There is a challenge for us in the second half of our lives: we can choose to ‘weather well’ by continuing to lead fruitful lives or we can choose to settle into ‘ageing and becoming elderly.’
But what does it look like to ‘weather well’? Is it more than ticking off things on a ‘bucket list’? If so, what shape does ‘fruitful’ take? Perhaps something like this:
I Will Not Die an Unlived Life
I will not die an unlived life.
I will not live in fear
of falling or catching fire.
I choose to inhabit my days,
to allow my living to open me,
to make me less afraid,
to loosen my heart
until it becomes a wing,
a torch, a promise.
I choose to risk my significance,
to live so that which came to me
goes to the next as blossom,
and that which came to me
goes on as fruit.
This concept of living in a way that we transform what we have been given into a more developed or mature gift that can then be given away again is echoed in the words of Wendell Berry:
No Going Back
No, no, there is no going back.
Less and less you are
that possibility you were.
More and more you have become
those lives and deaths
that have belonged to you.
You have become a sort of grave
containing much that was
and is no more in time, beloved
then, now, and always.
And so you have become a sort of tree
standing over the grave.
Now more than ever you can be
generous toward each day
that comes, young, to disappear
forever, and yet remain
unaging in the mind.
Every day you have less reason
not to give yourself away.
One way to ‘give ourselves away’ is to choose what in more recent times has been called ‘conscious elderhood.’
This is related to but is distinct from the term ‘Elder,’ which tends to be a role or title conferred on someone, by others within their Community. ‘Elder’ is a concept recognized throughout time and across cultures by a variety of names: Wisdom or Knowledge Keepers, Medicine Men/Women, Healers, Sages, Crones, Gurus, Seers, Anam Cara, Shamans, or Spiritual Elders.
Traditionally ‘Elders’ are people who have been sought out for the medicinal and spiritual gifts they had to offer: healing, seeing, wisdom, mediation, initiation and observing thresholds. They might hold the memory of the culture and impart it through story, song and dance. They might be people who uphold the local rules of the community, acting as arbiter or mediator when rules broke down. They usually observe the sacredness of people and place, and they have respect for the local ecology: plants and animals tend to be used with a sense of sustainability and connectedness.
One contemporary example of an Elder comes from the work of a Mennonite Peacemaker: John Paul Lederach. In his book, The Moral Imagination, he describes what he calls a ‘VoiceWalker” in this way:
“People who are close to home no matter where they live or travel or what work they do are people who walk guided by their voice. They are voicewalkers: They can hear the reed flute. On a permanent journey, they always are within earshot of home… They rarely stand out immediately. You come to recognise them after a while more than from first impressions. Lives don’t speak in one-time conversations. They speak over time.”
These are some of the qualities embodied by a ‘voicewalker:’
“You may notice them first for the things they don’t confuse. They don’t confuse their job or activities with who they are as people. They don’t confuse getting credit with success, or recognition with self-worth. They don’t confuse criticism for an enemy. They don’t confuse truth with social or political power. They don’t confuse their work with saving the world. They don’t confuse guilt with motivation. Then you may notice something that is not easy to put a finger on: it is not so much what they do, as who they are, that makes a difference. They listen in a way that their own agenda does not seem to be in the way. They respond more from love than fear. They laugh at themselves. They cry with others’ pain, but never take over their journey. They know when to say no and have the courage to do it. They work hard but are rarely too busy. Their lives speak!”
In contrast ‘Eldering or Elderhood’ is an intentional or conscious choice about how we live out our later years. Mary Bateson calls it the “age of active wisdom” and it usually involves some form of ‘generativity,’ a word coined by Erik Erikson in 1950 to mean “a concern for establishing and guiding the next generation.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, the qualities of those in our contemporary world who make this conscious choice are often similar to the qualities embodied by the traditional ‘Elder.’ Richard Rohr, a Franciscan friar who leads the Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico calls these people “true second half of life people” noting that healthy cultures have been guided by such wise seniors who naturally live a generative existence in service of the common good.
- They tend to be gentle, respectful, reverent, honouring self and world.
- They have increasing tolerance for ambiguity and a capacity to live with paradox.
- They have a growing sense of subtlety, and a willingness to move into that space of vulnerability.
- They have an ever-larger ability to “include and allow” in their capacity for non-dual consciousness.
- They have the ability to see at a deeper more spacious level, with wider, long distance lenses; and the ability to listen graciously, drawing out the best in others.
- With a deep sense of presence, elders are masters at granting their attention and awareness to other people: they become truthful mirrors when hard truth needs to be told, but also gentle mirrors that can affirm and praise, so they are trusted.
- They need very few words to make their point and live out of what is sometimes called the ‘second simplicity’
- They are revered for their wisdom, knowledge and understanding accumulated throughout their lifetime, and are the memory keepers of the community.
- They are sometimes called a changemaker - someone who can lead by example, creating positive social change and inspiring others to do the same
(Many of the definitions above are adapted from Richard Rohr’s book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.)
There are so many of us now in the autumn years of our lives, and if we were to make the choice to live more intentionally out of a place of generosity and grace, we would be a force to be reckoned with! One of my favourite poets, Mary Oliver sums it up beautifully:
What I Have Learned So Far
Meditation is old and honourable, so why should I
not sit every morning of my life, on the hillside,
looking into the shining world? Because, properly
attended to, delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion.
Can one be passionate about the just, the
ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit
to no labor in its cause? I don’t think so.
All summations have a beginning, all effect has a
story, all kindness begins with the sown seed.
Thought buds towards radiance. The gospel of
light is the crossroads of — indolence, or action.
Be ignited, or be gone.
The Links page of Autumn Voices has an ever increasing number of websites that provide evidence that we don’t just have a voice, but we are ‘being ignited’ to make a difference while we are able. I encourage you to explore each of the links to see the depth and range of activities older people are involving themselves in across the world that make a difference to the communities within which they live.
Here are a few more that might be worth including:
Elders Climate Action www.eldersclimateaction.org
Raging Grannies International (Using Creative and Humourous Protests for Political Education) - www.raginggrannies.org
Embracing Elderhood (an Eden Alternative initiative) - www.edenalt.org