The Wisdom of Elders

My grandmother made her life manageable by adjusting her attitude toward others. The small courtesies, unspoken comments, the gentle smile over the bitten tongue, were all her daily practices.

She died this past April after living 100 and one half years – and by all testaments, including her own, it was a wonderfully fulfilling life that she enjoyed till the end with her wits about her, good humor and social grace. She told her share of stories over the years, and also imparted many wise words of advice. (“Never go to bed angry” is my personal favorite and challenge.) Near the end of her life though, her recall began to fade about specifics, but she was buoyed by her ability to keep her good humor and agreeability and went about her days with unwavering determination that she’d live to see another.  

I cannot remember a time that she appeared to be in a struggle with her feelings in front of me. Of course, she would get “cross” at us grandchildren and speak firmly or harshly even to get things back to order, but she kept her own emotions tightly within like the center of an unopened flower.

In support of her outward countenance, my grandmother kept a folder of inspiring words, poems and sayings that helped her through her days, and I imagine her turning to one now and then for levity and fortitude. The one that she kept tucked into the frame of her mirror on her dressing table begins with this:

“Just for today I will be happy. This assumes what Abraham Lincoln said is true: ‘Most folks are about as happy as they make their mind up to be.’ Happiness comes from within; it is not a matter of externals. Just for today I will try to adjust myself to what is; not try to adjust everything to my own desires. I will take my family, my business, and my luck as they come and fit myself to them.”

My grandmother’s life encompassed a century of shifts in how we relate to one another. For most of it, to openly share one’s painful truths – the rejections, frustrations, unhappinesses, the failures, faults and disappointments, or even the abuses we may have suffered – was generally frowned on.  Intimate or forthright talk of such matters was and still is often a reason for rejection among family or friends, and can be a lonely path to travel on.

Yet the decades of stoicism that guided my grandmother and many generations eventually combusted among the younger generations as individualism grabbed hold of the microphone and spotlight and declared itself king or queen of the stage. And, perhaps more than any other trend in contemporary culture’s understanding of the individual was the identification and elevation of the victim role. If the 1970s were the Me Decade, and the 1980s was the Decade of Greed, the 1990s was the Decade of the Victim.

Many of us assumed the victim role readily, finding camaraderie among our fellow hurting souls who finally were able to feel vindicated, righteous even, in our declarations of pain:  

 “My father abused me. He hit me. Berated me. Made me cower in fear. … My mother neglected me, shunned me, she drank too much, slobbered over me. … My husband left me. She is a cheat, that’s why I am the way I am. My brother and sister robbed me, they’re junkies, pushed me out a moving car. Beat me. Held me down. … Me. Me. Me. Me. Pay attention to me.“

The Decade of the Victim was just a continuation of the Decade of Me. And I admit, I joined in the chorus. Me. Me. Me. Me.

“Just for today I will be agreeable. I will look as well as I can, speak diplomatically, act courteously, be liberal with praise, criticize not at all, nor find fault with anything, and not try to regulate or improve anyone. Just for today I will try to live through this day only, not tackle my whole life problem at once. I can do things for twelve hours that would appall me if I had to keep them up for a lifetime.”

Now that we are in the “aughts” and the boom of the self help trend and spiritual awakening movement has infiltrated most facets of life, the Decades of Me may finally be shifting for a portion of the masses.  We are slowly learning to be soul satisfied from validating and honoring our own strengths within. By taking the time to reflect, to contemplate our own navels when confronted with a situation rather than blaming someone else for our personal situations or our own behaviors in that situation, we can calmly understand what we might have done wrong, what might have hurt us in others actions, and instead of reacting, we can make a better choice of how to be in the world among others.

This way of thinking is not a return to the stoic, unspeakable state of my grandmother, but a more healthy balance of recognizing that enlightenment, peace, agreeability and love even, are available to everyone – as long as we turn the mirror back on ourselves to learn our lessons about how to be kind to ourselves and each other. It often means adjusting ourselves to the situation around us without contempt, without blame, and realizing that in the choices of how we handle ourselves, we have options. We can go into the victim and say Why me? Why is this happening to me again? It’s your fault! You made me this way! Or, we can warm ourselves with compassion to the differences or difficulties of others or situations we might find ourselves in and adjust, knowing that we consciously made the choice, and that in doing so we create an opportunity to learn something about ourselves and others.

In recent weeks, my husband has been providing respite care for my father-in-law in our home. While he can ID a celebrity from decades ago in a black in white photo, he no longer remembers important things and details, sometimes even moment to moment. While still Dad, he is now someone else, someone who is in need of support in ways a child – no matter how prepared in the mind – never fully expects a parent to be.  The roles are reversed, and for now, moment to moment, we are, my husband is, adjusting, working on being agreeable, cultivating compassion, and learning about himself, how to be in the world with a new and different relationship with the person who is his father.

The wisdom of elders is imparted to us throughout our lives in many ways: through their stories, their outright lessons, through their comforting in hard times and even through their punishments. Yet the lessons that are imparted when an elder is unable to tell their stories anymore, when they are in need of care themselves and may not even know to ask for it, are as foundational as the earth itself. Towering above them all is a lesson, an ethic so ancient it spans all cultural contexts and eons of time. It’s what many in the U.S. call the “Golden Rule” – something often not practiced in our still-learning-to be mindful, coming out of “Me” culture. It can better be understood as the ethics of reciprocity, and it is as ancient a wisdom and transcendent as the mysteries as life itself. It’s found throughout human history, cultures and religions, as an edict, guide, and parable for how to be a good person in community, how to be good to self.

     “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.” – Confucius

     “Do not to your neighbor what you would take ill from him.” – Pittacus (c. 640–568 BCE)

     “And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.” Luke 6:31

There are many other examples of this universal guide, in all religions and cultures, from Wiccan, to Buddhism, to Muslim to NeoPagan.

At our hearts, we all share the ability to find ourselves in the other, and act from a place of goodness. When a loved one cannot do for themselves, the answer to being able to rise to that occasion is balance within. It’s not stoicism and avoiding the deep emotions of grief, frustration, anger or despair. And it’s not leaping into to heights of catastrophe, blame and victim. It’s finding the bridge in the middle, where the flares of those extremes fade away alongside, when looking into the face of the one you must care for, your elder, a spouse, a stranger, you see a mirror back to yourself, and the wisdom to care as if for – and indeed truly for – yourself.   

Of Sun and Moon and a July Morning Sky

Image

Early morning stillness. A just-rising sun fanning its coral glow over the eastern horizon. The waning moon resting atop the western treetops.

The air is at rest in these early morning hours, in the silence that is of the absence of people. It is at rest in a surety that calls forth the birds of day to song, that lulls the rabbit to the garden’s edge. It is a stillness that fills the nose of the fox at the edge of the driveway with hunger. That brings together sun and moon to face each other from the opposite edge of the sky. One falling away. One rising. One chasing the other: a harmonious circle of turnings. Sun chasing moon, moon chasing sun.  

These mornings are fleeting. Early July; the year is half over already. I rise early enough to step into the stillness myself, to be in the presence of sun and moon at the same moment, at the center of the balance of opposites. Rising. Falling. Growing. Fading. Beginning again. 

In this year heady with life and death transitions, I have found myself sensitive to these periods of transition, to the moments of last and first breaths. I am more sensitive too, to the everyday shifts like the transient magic of dusk and dawn or the thawing of winter into fitful spring. I am sensitive as well, to the appearance of the wildlife of the moments of in-between, like owl and fox, and of the newness of direction in my life.

For nine years I have lived at the edge of a forest of more than 700 acres of conservation land and, while my husband, son and others have seen deer cross the back of our mown acres, I never had, until about a month ago. Just days after one of my husband’s students, a beautiful 15-year-old spark of energy and will named Mackenzie died in a tragic accident, he and I sat on our back deck talking about her and her family. My husband was saying through tears, “There’s a hole in my classroom now,” and just then, a beautiful doe leapt from the western foliage, and bounded across the back of the yard, startling us with its sudden presence. She was gone in seconds.  He noted then, that the last time he had seen Mackenzie hours before her death in the last class of the school day, she had done much the same thing: startled him by popping out from behind something that had hidden her from view. He noted too, that her grandmother, who had helped raise her and who he was friendly with, is named Doe.

July’s full moon is often called the Full Buck Moon, the month when the new antlers of buck deer push out of their foreheads in coatings of velvety fur. A few weeks ago I had a dream that repeated several nights in a row, which is unusual, for not only do I rarely have dream recall, but I rarely remember repetitions of dreams. The first few times in the dream, I was walking along a road and came upon a beautiful open field, bordered by a woodland that curved in ahead of me to meet the road again. As I came closer to meeting the edge of the field and road, a mown path appeared in the field. It began at the road and curved back out into the field towards my right. The field was lush, warmed by full sun, bobbled by wildflower heads, Queen Anne’s lace, humming with bees, butterflies, birds and insects.

In the first two episodes of the dream, I knew that I was to take the path in the beautiful field, that I was to follow it wherever it led. I stepped into the path and began walking, in great joy.  As I rounded the bend to a bright field beyond, the dream would end. In the third episode as I stepped onto the path and began walking, a large buck appeared to the left along the woodland. His antler rack was enormous. I paused to be wowed by his presence, and then kept walking, again in great joy. I never saw what might come after the bend, only that this was my path, with the buck standing there for surety.

The owl has been present in my life in many ways this last year as well, since the fall, and even before. Both my father’s father and my mother’s mother had connections with owls. My father’s father especially loved them, and kept figurines around him through his life. I now have an alabaster figurine that belonged to one of them in my possession, though I don’t remember exactly whose it was. My home is surrounded by owls who hoot and play long into the night during the fall mating season, and are hooting again now in the warm of the summer.

In October, as I drove home from one of my last visits with a friend in hospice, an owl lifted itself up out of a swamp in flight against darkening October sky right next to my car. I knew then my friend’s shift had begun, and that I would probably not talk to her again. The owl continued up and over my car, heading west into the darkening sunset.  The message was clear:

Silence Will Call Your Name©

A dark silhouette
In the deep plumb light
The old barred owl
Rises on wings
Just after dusk
From the wetlands
Of the river
As the sumac of October
Fades red to black
 
Look at the trees
How they appear to pale
After dancing with such fire
But stand there
Still and waiting
In the only way
There is to understand
That silence and sorrow
Are but evidence
Of promise

Up over the highway
Heading due west
As the night
Prepares to be born
The owl best knows
These worlds
Of in-between times
Carrying the evening sky
On its shoulders
The last breath of day
At its breast

Listen, when you think
You hear nothing
Silence will call
Your name into knowing
Like the owl
Seeing beyond light
On its quiet rounds
Like the owl
Who knows best
That one thing starts
When another stops 

Later, I created a painted book panel form with the stanzas, and gave it to another pair of friends of mine, parents who also had lost a daughter, and have found themselves on a similar journey. The poem was at first to mark my friend’s taking flight, then to honor the mystery of endings and beginnings, and now, to continue that work.

These moments of transition, when one life, one dawn, one season, is slowly changing form to another, shifting energies into a new shape and way of being, they are the moments when we can be most attuned to the world and energies around us.  Without a sense of ego, and with a sense of oneness, a divine connection can be made to the rhythms and energetic ways of our natural world. There is mystery in the in-between. Moments of palpable change can be fraught with frustration, anxiety, and dread. The unknown determinable future of change can be frightening. Or, it can be, if welcomed with stillness, a path of joy into the mystery itself.

Last weekend at the tail end of a forest and field walk with a friend, I looked down momentarily and beside my foot upon the pine needles was the feather of an owl. By identification photos, it appears to be of a great horned owl (See the third one down in left colum). I said aloud, “I’ve often taken walks in the woods and asked for feathers, but none appear.” Rather, they have come to me apparently by other motivations. For the next dozen paces, about every other step on the walk back to the turnout where we had parked our cars, I found four more feathers. They looked different than the owl feather and initially, we speculated that they might be from a hawk, but upon further investigation, we thought it most looked like snowy owl (See both feathers, second row. I have one of each). Yes, this seems dubious as snowy are only seen in New England in winter, and they return north in summer to mate. Still, the subsequent feathers look distinctly like the ones in the photos.    

This past year’s cycle of summer to summer has brought close to me the deaths of two special people, my friend and my grandmother, and the tragedy of my husband’s student’s death. It has also brought two new lives. One beautiful new baby boy, a grandson to my husband. His name, which was chosen before my grandmother’s passing and without prior knowledge, is the same as was my grandmother’s maiden name.

While the rational and logical mind may say none of these things matter, embracing the mystical view allows for the contemplation and wonderment that rises above the harsher critical view. Life may not be easy, but it does not have to be hard, or made harder by negativity. Look within. Cultivate a sense of wonder and self-being. Connect to the community of the natural world (munus, meaning gift, cum, meaning together), the one that speaks with silence, where the pleasantness of giving among each other can be found.

The second new life is metaphorical, as it is my own, as the past months have been a tremendous time of inner change, recognition and growth, leading me on to I don’t know what. Like the mornings of July, when sun and moon hover in balance in the sky, I am in the in-between: able to see from where I’ve come, able to see a little bit into where I am going, and holding in stillness and happy anticipation of the mystery that remains ahead.

The Meaning of the Fourth of July …

Justice. Today I am contemplating the meaning of the word justice, and what it means to be fair and reasonable. And then one step further, the meaning of fairness, of reason. And then one step beyond that, I am contemplating too the boldness and ferocity of character that steps forward to declare injustice when he or she sees it.

It is July 5, 2012, the 160th anniversary of Frederick Douglass’ oration “The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro,” which he delivered in Rochester, NY, on a day probably much like today, which is beautiful. Warm. Sunny. A slight breeze to lift the hair, the hem of a skirt slightly. A passing cloud for shade. When Douglass spoke, our young nation was 76 years old. A generation had embraced the ingenuity and freedom of the young nation, its aspirations, its dreams. And it’s lie. In 1852, slavery continued as a savage blight south of the Mason Dixon line and men like Douglass, free in the North, free to speak, were elevated in what whites may have believed was stature. But it was caricature. It was torture. Douglass was no more free to enjoy fairness and reason than the enslaved in the south.

Gathered on the common behind the City Hall in Worcester, Mass., today, I stepped out of my everyday life along with nearly 50 others to step into the life of Frederick Douglass. We did so momentarily, as the passing participants in the public reading of Douglass’ speech. Sponsored by Mass Humanities, the public reading of Douglass’ speech has become an annual event, an annual reminder that to move forward in our quest for justice in today’s world, we need to embrace the still vivid stories of our past. More than 100 others came to listen to his impassioned, righteous and haunting words.

“The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common,” said Douglass “The rich inheritance of justice, liberty and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony.”

Among the crowd, there were many of many colors, ages, occupations and financial resources. I cannot speak for anyone but myself about why I wanted to speak the words aloud. Which is this: The legacy of slavery and its harsh decendant, segregation, is but a breath away from each of us. Justice and equity among all, is still a dream away from a dream away from a dream.

This is no more evident in the continued fantasy “birther” movement targeting President Obama. It is no more evident in the fearmongering of Tea Party politics, or even more evident in the color (and gender) of the faces of nearly every operational, advisory and organizational board of directors and trustees at colleges, universities and corporations nation-wide. And perhaps most shamefully evident of all is the injustice in our own elected bodies, who are supposed to represent fairly and with reason as they contemplate and weigh the benefits and detriments of every law in our country. Look at their faces and say there is representative justice. It cannot be done.

I often feel a level of powerlessness in helping to shift our collective consciousness into one of reason, fairness and equity, instead of competition, rancor and fear. Racial divides, gender divides, economic divides all stem from a core fear for our individual survival. Scapegoating and finding small windows of weakness, or using force or wealth to create categories, allow individuals and groups to manipulate heirarchy and control what things we might have in our lives to enjoy, to survive. Somewhere along the eons, we missed the chance to recognize that an intellectual society need not be driven by methods of survival of the fittest.

I spoke Douglass’ words today to remind myself, and those in my presence, that injustice lives among us still. It is stealth and it is fierce. It is insipid and heinous. When I listen to my dear friend Jess tell of her struggles in an urban center of the U.S., of breaking free from perpetuating the stories of oppression among her family, friends and colleagues, and the even harder struggles her partner Dee faces as a black man in the city: the job shutouts, the expectations for failure, for fulfilling others’ stories of struggle and deprivation, my heart aches. While there is love between us, there is still a divide and stories that go untold.

“At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed,” said Douglass. “O! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would, today, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed.”

In the end, we each will only have our stories to tell to one another. Not our riches or fame. Only our stories. I do not want to know that I carried shame by not calling out for a better way of living, for identifying wrongs. And I do not want to know that I gave away my hope of possibility, and vision.

Douglass told the story of injustice, and in doing so, spurred the movement forward to justice. I can do my part. Bit by bit. And then tell my story about it too. And to be willing to step forward and and identify what I see: Generational fear that has no cause, the profiling that results, the targeting of groups, genders and gender identification, ages, colors, all the many profiles that continue  to ostracize because of a history of fear of survival and a legacy of dominance. These chains are often so hard to recognize as wrong since the capital of our society, our economy even, are built upon them. And I am no different. That is my story as well. The legacy I carry from my parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and those who came before.

Yet, despite the laser of his vision on the condition and inequity of the 1852 black condition, which he scathingly describes in detail, Douglass also had faith in the future, that things would change. At the close of his oration, he did so with grace with a call for a shared compassion and change:

“In every clime be understood, the claims of human brotherhood, and each return for evil, good, not blow for blow; That day will come all feuds to end, and change into a faithful friend each foe.”

We must continue to overcome, and it must be done together. My story. Your story. Our story.