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Recovering Our Elders
(They Aren’t Who You Think They Are)
As the Baby Boomers enter old age, the idea of “elderhood” seems to be increasingly popular. The generation that invented adolescence is now determined to make senescence the center of attention. The generation that rejected their grandparents’ values and traditions now wants to be recognized for their own achievements and insights. The generation that let families fracture and communities collapse and the world burn wants somehow to imagine they have wisdom to pass along.
Except that real wisdom is knowing that elderhood isn’t a mere by-product of chronological age.
Real wisdom is recognizing that our elders are everywhere.
Certainly wisdom can hide in the hands of the old woman, broken and tired and worn, who has prayed through disappointments and disasters with no time to work on herself or find the words to adequately express the profundity of her spiritual journey. But wisdom is also scintillating through the manic toddler disrupting the grown-ups carefully laid plans and the child obsessively asking uncomfortable questions and the little one with eyes so old they seem to hold the cosmos. Wisdom is buried deep in the ground in the tangled roots of ancient trees but it is also blossoming in the invasive wild roses that have recently taken over a ravaged landscape.
Real elders remember that we are all coming and going from the land of the dead. Real wisdom is remembering how to see with the eyes of the dead while we are still alive. The youngest among us, having just crossed over, can still see with those eyes. The old about to make the journey can, sometimes, remember. But the truth is, that we all hold within us—young and old—multitudes of lives, that we can access at any age. If we can let go of the relentless narcissism of imagining our souls only have one life to get it right, one life that really matters, we can recover the long story of souls.
And that story, for every soul is long indeed.
Tyson Yunkaporta writes in his must-read book Sand Talk about the cyclical perspective of his people when it comes to matters of life and death, childhood and elderhood.
“Sometimes it is hard to write in English when you’ve been talking to your great-grandmother on the phone but she is also your niece, and in her language there are no separate words for time and space. In her kinship system every three generations there is a reset in which your grandparents’ parents are classified as your children, an eternal cycle of renewal…”
Can we recognize our elders in the children we know and meet? If we truly valued “elderhood” how would we treat those children each and every day?
An anthropologist once told my husband and me a story about how the difficulty he had when he first arrived to “study” one of the last extant hunter-gatherer communities. He had been trained to figure out who was in charge, who was the head man, what were the lines of power governing this organization. But he couldn’t do it. The first morning he was there they set out walking and a young man seemed to lead the way, which made sense to him, also a young man. But at a certain point, after they had crossed a narrow stream, a very young girl took over, wandering among the weeds, picking out some and pointing to others. Storm clouds appeared and an old man pointed the way forward. A woman decided where they should bed down for the night. Leadership, such as it was, seemed to be collective, migrating across both genders and age.
Wisdom is collective. Wisdom is recognizing the multiplicities of lifetimes within ourselves and within each other.
Elderhood is not a special status.
To be an elder is to know everyone we meet is an elder, to know that every one and every soul—plant and animal and fungi—is an elder.
The earth is very old indeed and we’ve all always been part of its ceaseless cycles of renewal and becoming, vast epochs of change in which we are all dancing from one life to another, wound together ceaselessly, eternally.
How do we know that in our bones? How do we reclaim that way of being in the world?
We don’t simply grow older. We don’t simply accumulate experience. We must remember who we are. We must recover the long story of our souls—and recognize the long story in everyone we meet.
This is my Free Substack but I also offer a paid version with excerpts from the books I’m writing right now…and a monthly Zoom conversation on the third Sunday of every month about the other side. Stay tuned right here for lots of information about my upcoming course with The Shift Network starting in August.
My book about the long story of our souls Take Back the Magic: Conversations with the Unseen World is coming out in September but is available for pre-order!
If you really want to tap into the VERY long story of our souls, be sure to check out the substack of Mary Porter Kerns The Flowers Are Speaking