It’s only recently that I’ve uncovered the incredible significance of this word — elders — and only recently that I’ve felt the incredible pain of their absence. I only knew their lack once I felt the power of their presence.
Far more complex than simply one who is older, an elder is one who is intentionally fostering and investing in upcoming generations. Because she is closer to death than to birth, she will most likely not receive a direct return on her investment; the fruits of her labors will be tasted by those that come after her. She is paying it forward to benefit all of Life.
Her role is to look. She watches the young ones around her, whispering words of encouragement in their ears, offering fierce, fiery accountability, and, mostly, holding the young ones with an unparalleled love, honor and respect. “I see you,” she says. “I know you. I’m tracking you. This is who you are. Let me show you because you cannot possibly see it on your own. There are others like you, and you are one-of-a-kind, never-before-seen. We need you. Life needs you. I’m here, I’ve got you. Always.”
Free from the messy, complicated, survival love that lives between parent and child,
the Elder is able to love, scold, nourish and shape the soul.
The Elder enters into a different contract with her youngers than parents do, one that is more concerned with Life as it unfolds than the individuals through which it moves. The Elder sees the bigger picture, she is in touch with things unseen and unknown and trusts in that Grand Scheme of Things.
However, in her grasp of the bigger picture that is Life, she does not lose sight of the individuals that make up the scene. More than she could possibly explain, she gives a shit about her youngers. Her care splits her open, breaks her heart, makes her weep. She sees the bigger picture, yes, and she knows that the individual parts of it must be tended to because each one is absolutely crucial and necessary to the whole.
Our culture operates largely-if-not-entirely without elders. The art of eldering has been given up, lost, forgotten in a world that favors youth and beauty over age and wisdom. Elders offer depth as they push us to confront our death and mortality.
But more importantly, the true power of an Elder is to show us where we are absolutely, unequivocally, irrevocably alive.
They can help us begin to grasp why we matter and what we have to give that the world so desperately needs. As so many have said in their own words, our herculean significance actually scares us more than our impermanence. Living a life fully inhabited is more confronting than dying while alive, casting our greatness away, hiding it under a bushel.
Over the course of the last year, a few elders have spontaneously walked into my life. These brave women who are all of an age with my mother (but would and could never replace my mama) have become my touchstones. Courageously stepping into a role occupied by few, they see me, purely, simply and without attachment. Their goal is not to mold me into something or someone in particular, but to help me feel the edges, contours, and shapes of who I already am. Their role is to push me to step into myself, more and more, and when I think I’ve reached my limits, a little bit more.
As I lean into their love and care, more with each passing day, the part of me that has longed for this since the day I was born cracks open with grief.
Until now, with no one around to take it on, I stepped in to elder myself. Elder-ing oneself is messy business and it comes with some inherent problems. I had no one to ask my questions to, and so I asked them of myself.
No one was there to unlock the secrets of the Universe, and so I found my own keys, or more often, rammed the door over and over again until it broke, or I did.
This self-elder-ing led to more confusion than clarity, more break downs than breakthroughs. I had a very real sense that I had to figure this out — life, myself, my purpose, why we’re here — on my own. I felt very much alone.
From the outside, I looked like an unusually mature, self-sufficient, wise-beyond-her-years, confident, composed, self-possessed child, then teenager, then young woman. These are qualities our culture holds in high esteem. But for me, and I’m guessing for others too, they came at a cost that no one dared acknowledge.
One of my elders was the first to bring this to my attention. We sat in a circle of women, gathered together for my birthday. The first four spoke, among other things, to their awe of me, my wisdom and maturity. When it was her turn to speak this Elder said many things, but the message that I felt in the marrow of my bones was this: You carry this wisdom and maturity, yes. But what has been disregarded and ignored in the process?
The ones of me that did not fit into this neatly packaged persona of wisdom and maturity were silenced. The ones of me who have needs, emotions, and desires were deftly maneuvered out of the way, held hostage by this maturity to avoid embarrassment and inconvenience.
And now as I bring them to the surface and into the light, unbind their hands and feet and un-gag their mouths, they wail. All of their backed up grief, fear, confusion, anxiety, doubt and heartbreak now demands to be felt. They lie on the ground throwing temper tantrums of consternation and disappointment that until now my world did not allow them to be.
As they rage I sit in the strong, loving arms of my Elder-Woman in awe of my humanity and my wholeness.