Sage in training – modern elderhood

When you let go of the career and life goals that have driven you forward throughout adulthood, it is hard to escape the questions ‘who am I now and what is my purpose in being?’ Earlier this year I identified that for me, at this point in my life, my most important role is as sage in training.

The unexpected adventure of growing old

I am very much at the beginning of this life-stage, the start of an exploration that will underpin however many years I may have ahead of me.

Building on my initial delving into the qualities and role of the crone, I delighted in the wisdom of Leah Friedman’s The Unexpected Adventure of Growing Old. This joyous and eloquent examination of the decades beyond sixty inspires a sense of real excitement in looking at the road ahead, even as it is obscured by mists of unknowing.

As we enter our later years all of us are fools in the sense that we are stepping off the edge of our early lives in order to explore new territory, that of elderhood, a place unknown and strange to us.

Leah Friedman, The Unexpected Adventure of Growing Old, page 96

Friedman reflects that, in Hindu tradition, sixty represents a point of transition from ‘householder’ to ‘forest dweller’, one who begins to separate from the daily demands of life in order to spend more time in contemplation and in preparation for death. Though I am not sure I can make such a complete shift in our modern age, I love the idea of embracing at least parts of the identity of ‘forest dweller’!

It is perhaps important to remember that it is only relatively recently that many of us have had any significant expectation of life beyond sixty. Jean Houston observes that

The years beyond sixty, the years of our second maturity, may be evolution’s greatest gift to humanity.

Jean Houston, Life Force: The Psycho-Historical Recovery of the Self

At a more individual level, Leah Friedman speaks of an increasing coherence, perhaps a reconciliation with the paradoxes that so often define our humanity:

By our seventies we have lived long enough to forge our oddities and our conventionalisms – these disparate and sometimes contradictory qualities – into a more or less coherent whole. We can begin to see all of our characteristics as demonstrations of our selfhood.

Leah Friedman, The Unexpected Adventure of Growing Old, page 58

She encourages us to let go of the ‘depressing D words’ (decrepitude, decline, diminishment, death . . .) and instead embrace the ‘encouraging E words’ (expansion, experience, expertise, enlightenment, equanimity, emancipation). We can choose how we focus our gaze.

Sage-ing

Elders practice contemplative disciplines from our spiritual traditions and come to terms with their mortality. They harvest their life experiences, pass on their wisdom to younger people, and safeguard the health of our ailing planet. Out of their late-life explorations in consciousness, elders bestow upon the world the life-giving wisdom it desperately needs . . .

Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Ronald S. Miller, From Age-ing to Sage-ing; a revolutionary approach to growing older, Preface xiii

To my surprise I discovered that From Age-ing to Sage-ing was written some twenty years ago – it’s a fairly laborious read but repays the effort! At that time, I was working in dementia care, increasingly conscious of the lack of any clear social valuing of aging and feeling a strong impulse towards redefining a model of elderhood. Of course, in my early forties, life took over and that impulse was temporarily shelved.

Now, using The Sage-ing Workbook to provide focus and structure, I am diving into what I think will be both a challenging vision of what aging can be and an excavation of my own story. This is core work for a sage in training.

The curriculum of life’s second half involves more than the completion of our biological imperative. It involves the evocation of soul and spirit . . . a homecoming with our inner nature.

Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Ronald S. Miller, From Age-ing to Sage-ing; a revolutionary approach to growing older, pages 23 & 27

In From Age-ing to Sage-ing, the ‘jobs’ of old age are defined as

  • Self-realization
  • Service to society
  • Being society’s ‘futurists’

Instead of being retired to uselessness, you can now graduate into the global function of seership, involved in the larger issues of life, the wider cultural and planetary concerns.

Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Ronald S. Miller, From Age-ing to Sage-ing; a revolutionary approach to growing older, page 30

Further, the authors identify five key roles of old age, which I think of as the ‘5 Ms’

  • Mentor
  • Mediator
  • Monitor
  • Mobilizer
  • Motivator

Potential tasks of elderhood might include:

  • Coming to terms with our mortality
  • Healing our relationships
  • Enjoying and celebrating our achievements
  • Healing the earth
  • Legacy creation
  • Storytelling
  • Visioning / pathfinding
  • Stewardship
  • Spiritual connectedness

Phew, not much to tackle then!

Where am I now as a sage in training?

My aspiration, perhaps the most fundamental focus of this period of my life, is to become truly an ‘elder’, not just an ‘old person’, exposing new dimensions of personhood, new strength of being, the continued and marked evolution of uniqueness and discovery of ‘am’. My aim is to embrace ‘eldering’ as a state of growth, not a static condition. My job is to become a sage, an elder, a wisdom keeper,

a harbinger of the possible human . . .

Jean Houston, Life Force: The Psycho-Historical Recovery of the Self.

Implicit in this is a commitment to spending time looking inward, yet also to reflecting this outward. As I age, I hope increasingly to be able to draw on my reserves of knowledge and wisdom while letting go of that which no longer contributes to my wellbeing – a shedding of leaves.

This is our time of ripeness, of the harvest of all that we have been.

As a sage in training and based on my reading so far, as I look ahead, I seek

  • to weave together the needs for solitude and for connection.
  • to allow meaningful transformation.
  • to process at the deepest level my past, my story.
  • to learn gratefully and gracefully to receive, to accept what I need.
  • to be ‘an agent of evolution’.

Elders function like old cobblers and dressmakers, sewing us back into the fabric of creation. Through their compassionate relatedness to all of life, the reduce our sense of alienation by helping us rediscover our sacred roots. And they do this without suffering from the disease of deadly earnestness. Elders have a wild, almost prankster-like quality that enables them to see the humor in every situation.

Joan Halifax, Anthropologist

Positive images of ageing

Collage - Positive Images of Ageing from a sage in training

The initial exercises in the Sage-ing Workbook focus on existing perceptions of elderhood. I had a lot of fun creating a collage to represent the positive images of ageing that I have internalized! I am fortunate to have in my life some amazing role models for positive ageing who provided real inspiration as I thought about this. All the women pictured are in their 70s, 80s or 90s and all are feisty boundary pushers in different ways!

My ideal elder

An extension of this exercise was to create an image of my ideal elder, flowing out of those positive perceptions. What came to me feels like a blueprint for becoming.

My ideal elder

  • remains active and engaged within whatever constraints they may experience.
  • is open-hearted and loving, with a continuing zest for life.
  • is curious and continues to be engaged with their own growth.
  • has many connections with people of all ages.
  • is able to accept what age brings and to let go of what they can no longer do and what no longer serves them.
  • is authentic and full of character but also humble – they don’t pretend to have all the answers!
  • finds ways of being that support and inspire others.
  • is feisty and funny.
  • is deeply connected – to self, to the wider community, to nature, to mystery, to spirit, to all that is.

Elders are the jewels of humanity that have been mined from the Earth, cut in the rough, then buffed and polished by the stonecutter’s art into precious gems that we recognize for their enduring value and beauty. We sense their radiance in our youth, but we cannot contain it. It requires a lifetime’s effort to carve out the multifaceted structure that can display our hidden splendor in all its glory.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, The Sage-ing Workbook

 

Revisiting Joy

Joy is to be found in a place of inner quiet, the point of light within – the divine spark? It is more the manifestation of a quality of spirit than an emotion, existing only in the ‘now’.

Back in 2010, when I started this site, this was my first attempt at a definition of joy.

Revisiting joy nearly ten years on it is interesting to see where this perception has led me.

I see joy as a momentary glimpse of absolute belonging within the flow of all that is, a moment of total connectedness.

Joy is not happiness. If anything, I think it provides a glimpse of the unlimited capacity to encompass both the ecstasy and the agony of living and being human, both heart-filling and heart-breaking.

I perceive joy to exist at the level of our essential being. Young children access it more easily than adults because they have not yet fully constructed ego’s walls.

Still wilderness. The place that is most us yet remains beyond us.

Christian Wiman, Joy – 100 Poems

Those with a deep spirituality often seem to radiate joy (the Dalai Lama comes to mind). Is this, perhaps, because they have worked to shed layers of ego, to access and stay connected with the depth of being, the flow?

Let there be light

. . . joy is a flash of eternity that illuminates time.

Christian Wiman, Joy – 100 Poems

Often when we experience joy it is as an incandescent flash, almost outside of time. It is not something we can hold onto, yet it nourishes us to the core. It is, in the words of Derek Walcott, an illumination, a benediction, a visitation.

Cultivating our capacity to experience joy is also a process of honing our ability to connect, as well as to contain and to accept every shading of existence. This encompasses both the ‘natural’ and the ‘human’ world, which in the end is simply another manifestation of all that is whether you define this spiritually or in terms of particulate matter.

It is interesting that, at least according to Buddhist academic and teacher Reggie Ray, if we go back far enough in time to archaic, pre-agricultural civilizations, life’s purpose was perceived not as ‘progress’ but to stay connected with the depth of being expressed in creation. It seems to me that joy re-opens that gateway to connection and to that ‘still wilderness’.

The interconnectedness of all

Murphy’s Point; an overcast, eerily still autumn day. Our woodland walk, unbidden, becomes a meditation on the interconnectedness of all things.

Living rock, underpinning, defining, evolving so slowly that we perceive only inertia and stasis. Each metamorphic striation has a distinctive character, encourages colonization by different trees and plants. These, in turn, support specific populations of insects, birds, reptiles and mammals.

Rock and beech trees at Murphy's Point

To walk through these micro-zones mindfully is to experience the web of life, woven in wonder!

Flakes of mica dust glitter along the path to the old mine . . .

Human habitation was defined first and foremost by the bounty of the earth. Whether in the fecundity of fertile loam in which to harvest wild plants or cultivate crops or in veins rich with mineral wealth, our lives too are shaped by rock; by what lies within and by that to which it gives life.

I am awed by this deep knowing of my own rootedness in the very fabric of the earth!

In our increasingly urbanized world, we set great store by ‘independence’. Surely it is no coincidence that depression and anxiety are so pervasive when so many of us live so distanced from the pulse of life; our disconnection leaches colour from our internal worlds, rendering us so very alone.

Trees at Thanksgiving

Here stand beech and maple
arms outstretched
to cradle the embers of summer
that fall to the forest floor,
blanketing it in red and gold
against the winter cold.

Here groves of hemlock,
limbs hung low
to cherish the memories of darkness
that cling to swampen ground,
sheltering it from light and chill,
comforting, peaceful, still.

               ~ October 8, 2018 - Thanksgiving Day
A typical Ontario view at Murphy's Point; Shield Rock, trees and water

Flexing very stiff poetry muscles, exploring eternal life

In a still very tentative flexing of underused poetry muscles, the idea behind the poem below came to me so vividly that it had to be written, even if not well! It speaks to a sudden deep internal awareness that particles are more or less constant in the universe; so all of us, in a way, have an eternal existence.

Eternal Life

When my human days are done

and I walk the path of the long goodbye

I will not be gone.

 

Will some particle of me take form

in rock or stone,

ruby’s heart or emerald’s gleam?

 

Or will my flash of green and red,

touched with gold,

draw your eye to the blur of hummingbird wings?

 
Lake and sky
 
 
Within the flow, catching the light

of the lake’s constant changing –

Is it there I’ll be?

 

Perhaps, in the creaking of branches

and the susurration of leaves,

you’ll sense a trace of me still.

 

Or maybe I’ll be a sprinkling

of stardust on indigo

somewhere far out in the universe.

 

It’s somehow comforting to know

that the particles that make up ‘I’

may scatter, but they (almost) never die!

 

February 7, 2018

 

I wrote my first poem before I could actually transcribe the words onto paper.

Then, in my teens, poetry and my deep connection to the natural world saved my sanity in an era when no-one considered the impact of significant loss and grief on an adolescent.

Every now and again, amid the roller-coaster demands of just living a life, the poetic impulse has bubbled briefly to the surface.

Now it feels as if it is time once again to tap into this part of me. But oh how rusty I feel, how hard it is not to become self-conscious, to lose the flow, to try too hard or not enough – I’m not yet sure which!

 

Nature, connection and homecoming

Our first year of living in rural Ontario has been truly special. I have had a sense of homecoming, of re-connecting more fully with nature. And, for me, that connection is the source of much wonder and joy.

Fall at the lake

So I put together a book, A year in the life of The House at Turtle Pond. A kind of journal, it seeks to capture our response to the newness of living through the turning of this first year, looking out over Cranberry Lake on the Rideau system in Southern Ontario, Canada.

It speaks to a deep connection with nature, the rhythm of the seasons and the interconnectedness of internal and external realities.

I wrote it first and foremost so as not to lose sight of the newness as the years pass and familiarity potentially dulls our awareness. But it has been lovely to find that at least a few people find in it something to feed the soul. It makes it even more worthwhile!

The book

Below is a link to A year in the life of The House at Turtle Pond as it appears on the Blurb website. Here you can glance through a preview. If you happen to be interested in having a copy and live locally, please feel free to contact me direct. Blurb often offers discounts to the creator of a book, which makes it significantly more affordable.

By the way, it was our predecessors who named our wetland between the house and road Turtle Pond. And our neighbour noted that this was therefore The House at Turtle Pond,  like The House at Pooh CornerThis seemed apt, especially when I came across this:

And by and by Christopher Robin came to the end of things, and he was silent, and he sat there, looking out over the world, just wishing it wouldn’t stop.

A.A. Milne