Becoming Elders

Dina Rees by Diana Van den Berg from her book "Crones"

Dina Rees by Diana Van den Berg from her book “Crones”

Trust.  Trust.  Trust.  So much trust is needed to come to my writing room every morning. To not lock back into what I think I know, all the old opinions, to what’s been said before by others, and so much better than I can say it. Especially by Eliot.  He already wrote in 1943 everything we need to know now. I have it right downstairs, on the top shelf in the hallway…

But Eliot isn’t me.  He doesn’t know the way that reality comes through this 68 year old woman in this time, of Barack Obama and the climate crisis and the financial crisis and young girls in Pakistan and Afganistan risking their lives to go to school and elders…

So I sit and sip jasmine tea and stare at the grey fog drifting in soft smoky puffs through the redwoods. I’m sighing at how there’s always some fight inside myself from the eager one who is sure she knows what to do and how to do it.  She must be about 8 years old– nobody else is that sure of herself.  I wait, hanging out with the fog, not knowing where to begin.

*   *   *

Yesterday, Marilyn and Herb were in from Los Angeles.  They came over for Sunday brunch and stayed till late afternoon.  Paul and I did what we usually get to do with these good friends: delve into new ground, rooting around, exploring what’s been developing in our lives. We have a rule: three minutes each to kvetch about ailments and that’s it for the whole visit. Herb never uses his complaint time.  He’s 84 with Parkinson’s slowing him down, still teaching his courses on leadership at UCLA and for the Navy and now writing a memoir. With lessons for each life stage, of course. Herb is a teacher and even his memoir is shaped to that purpose.

And Marilyn.  I emailed her about six months ago, saying that I missed her and wanted to talk with her. When she didn’t reply, I phoned and left a message on her answering machine.  She never answered.  I figured that she didn’t like me anymore (do we ever get over this stuff?) and gave up.  Then yesterday she called.  “We’ve been remodeling,” she explained. “I haven’t been keeping up with my mail.  I thought maybe you’d be furious that I hadn’t answered you, but decided to take a chance.” (Do we ever get over this stuff?)

“Are you writing?” Paul asks her.  I notice Herb look down at his plate as if the remains of his lox and bagel are the most interesting things in the room.

“Oh, not exactly. I still have a full therapy practice and I’m really into the Internet.  I’m  following the financial crisis and before that it was the election news and there’s so much that’s really exciting out  there.”  She pauses as Herb continues to study his bagel and lox.
“And when I read things that aren’t written well, which happens a lot of course, they’re clunky or way too wordy, I rewrite them.  Then they’re clear and concise and the ideas come through beautifully.”

I’m not sure I’m getting it. “And then?”

“That’s it,” she says coolly.  “Then I go on to other sites with interesting links.”

Herb is shaking his head.  “It’s the saddest thing in my life right now,” he tells us.  “That she spends her precious time this way.”

“Maybe I’m practicing,” Marilyn replies mildly.  “For something I might want to say someday.  In case it comes up.  Which so far it hasn’t.”

She goes back to drinking her tea, her message obvious.  Leave me alone about this, ok?  I have nothing to say.  I wouldn’t know where to begin.

Later, when we’ve ransacked the breakfast, we set out walking slowly towards a nature preserve a few blocks away.  We’re talking about birthdays. “I’ve just turned 68,” I announce proudly, as if I’m still a kid who claims every year as an accomplishment.  Marilyn’s birthday is the day before mine. When she and Herb lived in the Bay Area, she and I and our friend Rose would arrange elaborate birthday celebrations for ourselves. One year we went to the Vagina Monologues, roaring with laughter and crying and generally being Women of a Certain Age together.

“Sixty-eight,” Marilyn echoes.  “And I’m seventy-nine.  It’s really different.”

She says a little about the transparency of the body, how it is like a fragile scaffolding. But everything is like that, she tells us, because what we really are is space.  Just a few sentences like this, intriguing hints. I keep quiet, hoping she’ll continue. Tell me more, I’m thinking.

“I have so few friends my own age,” Marilyn goes on, veering away from the secrets I want to hear to something I actually need to listen to. “They’ve moved away… or died.  Even the younger ones have died.  There’s one who’s left.  She lives in Placerville about 2 hours north of here.  She and I love to talk on the phone.  Mostly we laugh and laugh.  But she said something to me last week, and she wasn’t laughing, “There’s nobody ahead of us, you know. And there are no models, not ones we can use in this world we’re in now.  We’re it.  We’re going in for the first time.”

We’re going in for the first time

I woke the next morning with those words buzzing in my head like a lazy mosquito in a big bedroom, circling.  I asked Paul if they sounded familiar, and pestered him and myself for awhile until finally, when I’d given up, the link showed up like a bell ringing distinctly from 1981.  On a snowy morning in January, Paul and I had driven from Toronto to Montreal, making our way through streets lined with dirty six foot high walls of snow to meet with Joseph Campbell, the eminent mythologist. (He was later known in pop culture for inspiring George Lukas’ Star Wars trilogy.) We wanted to interview Campbell for a documentary we were producing for the CBC about the wave of cultural change that we thought was starting to break in the West. He invited us to his suite at the great old dowager hotel, the Queen Elizabeth.

Joseph Campbell

Joseph Campbell

We sat drinking steaming coffee from tall silver carafes, trying to get warm as Campbell laid out what he thought was going on. In the West, he said, we have lost our story, and a society without a shared story of who it is and where it comes from can’t function coherently. It just goes to pieces. He said that while we have hundreds of shards of stories, thousands, there is nothing that can hold us the way the Bible once did, or the other great stories of earlier civilizations and peoples. “So,” he concluded in a gravelly baritone, “the panorama of possibilities we live in now has made it impossible to mythologize. The individual is just going in raw. All you can do is follow your own inward life and try to stay true to that.”

“That’s not very helpful,” I objected.

“I’m not able to correct the world, my dear.  I can tell you what a mythology is, but when you ask me how we’re going to get a new one, you’ve gone past my level of incompetence.”  And then he laughed and rocked back in his chair, sipping his coffee and gazing out at the falling snow.

*   *   *

The individual is just going in raw.

We’re it.  We’re going in for the first time.

Ok, I think I get it.  I get why Marilyn is rewriting other people’s words, why she is not yet sitting down in the midst of the new path she’s walking to scribble some words of her own.  Marilyn and her friend and who knows how many others are going in raw. Why would they write?  Who would they write to?

There’s a hole in the culture, a gap in what holds us, gives us a world view, tells us who we are and where we came from and where, after all, we are going. Most of the time for most people, the holding is seamlessly smooth. Few notice how it is constantly whispering, shaping, defining our perspective on life.  But in our time, as Joseph Campbell was saying, the shared story that used to give meaning to our lives has shattered into thousands of possibilities.

One way we can feel the cultural hole, or holes, is in the gap that stretches across the divide between those of us who have turned….  It’s not an age, exactly. Not a magic number like 50 or 65, for all the media alarms about this age or that heralding Aging or Senior Citizenship or whatever.  But somewhere in here, there is a divide, a shift in perspective  that starts to take place between the middle of life and the rest of life.

Our vantage point begins to change about the things that matter most in our lives, things we almost never talk about: how endings make you feel, and what becomes poignant, and precious, as a result of those endings; what has meaning and what isn’t worth bothering with anymore; what time feels like; what it means to be human.  And probably hundreds of others that I can’t name and don’t know how to fathom yet, if ever.

To find one’s way into the unknown, you need a compass, a star to steer by, a knowledge of how the waves feel when blown by certain winds.  In a time  like ours when shocks to the culture have broken the old stories of who we are and where we are going, the possibilities are wide open.  Meaning, there are no maps, no GPS systems we can rely on.  Those of us who are entering our sixties now, or past that time,  find ourselves setting sail, as the poet Janet Kalven puts it:

… on another ocean
without star or compass
going where the argument leads.
Shattering the certainties of centuries.

Kalven says we have not even a star or compass to guide us as we journey  on this new ocean.  Joseph Campbell says that the individual is just going in raw, without a guiding story.  The theologian Thomas Berry says pretty much the same thing: that the old story is broken and we don’t know what the new story is.

And yet the ones coming up behind us are sending out invitations: send word,  they say.  Send word!

Filed in: Posts Tags:

Comments (5)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Bev Champagne says:

    Your words on this aging adventure touched me in an exciting and exhilarating way! Ill be celebrating my 68th birthday next week and many questions come up for me surrounded by what does it mean to be a 68 year old woman on this planet at this time? Lots of questions and so much curiousity. Thank you, Sherry!

  2. zelda says:

    I have just embarked on this aging journey: I am fifty six this year and both my daughters have left home to go and study at university. My part-time teaching career has dried up and find myself with time on my hands: very scary.
    Its so wonderful to have found this website. I was drawn in by the first sentence: “Trust. Trust. Trust. So much trust is needed to come to my writing room every morning.” How well I resonate with that.
    Thank you for reminding me that I am not alone.

    • Dear Zelda,
      Thank you so much for writing. I see that I am late in responding,
      and I wonder now how your journey is going. What are you finding about trusting what really matters to you?
      Warm regards,
      Sherry

  3. kathryn scepanski says:

    I have known that I must send you words, Sherry Ruth Anderson, since I slowly savored what few words remained in my copy of Ripening Time and then hungered for more. How did I miss The Feminine Face of God back in the 90s? I’m here now to tell you I just finished that book as well and must ask you what’s next?
    Are there people out there facilitating elders circles based on the excellent download info you offer on this site? I’ve thought about it…yet hesitate to do it by myself.

    That very hesitancy ignites other old time coulda, woulda, shouldas stored in my brain like an arsenal of weapons designed to rip me apart at the slightest sign of proactive behavior. Things I’ve wanted to do and not quite done, like teach A Course in Miracles (which now keeps me from even opening that old friend, because of all the ways it calls me to do exactly that and/or more!) I guess one of the scariest things about aging (67) for me is the fear that I might hold too near the treasures I’ve found along the way.

    You are one of those treasures.

Leave a Reply

With boundless gratitude to webmaster Alla Gringaus (email: alla.gringaus@gmail.com) who not only designed and built this site but has been the most inspiring of teachers in her meticulous and gracious guidance into the mysteries of the internet. And, also, a special thanks to Heather Preston, whose work on the cover of Ripening Time inspired the artistic theme of my site