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Eldering as Giveaway

I remember my mother in her seventies, looking into the mirror while getting ready to go off to one of our lunches, turning to me in exasperation, biting out the words, “getting old is ugly!” And me, nearly forty, reassuring her this was not so. Perhaps reassuring her that it was my way of whistling past the grave yard, yet I truly didn’t find her aging ugly. But each time she looked into that mirror, expecting to find a face that she knew, a face that reflected how she felt inside, which was, I imagine, like herself, another woman looked back. Who knows what others looked back at her as well. Her mother, her grandmother? Or some old woman she never knew but whose bones rested in some place my mother never set foot upon even though she carried that deep down DNA in her bones as well.

In my mid-sixties now, I think a lot about aging, about dreams unfulfilled, things wrought, the invisibility of older women and the obsolescence of true Elders as a vital repository of knowledge in a culture of commodity and speed, technology and social media. The culture of nursing homes filled with old people waiting to die. The culture filled with young people not knowing what they’re here for. Who are desperate and deciding to opt out. I live in a time when I’m told from every quarter that aging is a state of mind, that sixty is the new fifty, that white haired women can be oh so sexy (we knew that), and when young women reassure me quickly how good I look even though I am old. As if age in and of itself needs reassurance. That culture.

As a younger woman I felt that I was contributing to my community, but notice it’s more difficult to embrace that now that I’m an older woman and have deliberately, following the soul of my Eldering, turned away from certain work in order to be available in depth to who, visible or invisible, needs me and the ways I have to offer that were given me to carry. The soul ways.

And, yet, it is still a real work not to be infected and seduced by those voices that shout from every available venue, telling us that fighting death and aging is the great heroic journey of our times. Not getting old seems to have become an obligation. Or proof that you still love life. Or perhaps it is sheer self defense against becoming invisible and irrelevant in this racket we call culture.

I try to keep company with other voices these days, and they whisper me a different story, one that the whole natural world seems to know. Death is a giveaway. In a world of right relations, we would all know—wouldn’t we?—that our death must be a giveaway, our bodies laid back into soil, feeding the small ones, rotting into nutrition for the next sprouting. The great big last giveaway.

This past fall, I sat watching the leaves, dazzled sane by their beauty in the shifting light and winds. In the rain. They are dying, their nutrients called home by the mother tree in preparation for winter. The remaining sweetness, the colors and then the shedding to earth, making new earth. A primal generosity. In a culture so terrified of death, the aging carry its unwelcome specter. We are walking reminders that, after all, we are animals inevitably bound to the ancient cycles.

One can live this as fact, biology, concept, science. The leaves will fall whether or not they cotton to the deal, says the scientist. But if you sit and watch the leaves, you’ll know, you will, that they are in some holy agreement with the wind, the sun, fate, the deep pulse of life knowing itself and continuing. In a world of right relations, this would be both a beautiful and sorrowful story. True Elders are steeped in the knowing that this is the way of things, it is one of the vital knowings that they impart to the young. Death feeds life, makes new life. But some of the people fell out of this ancient agreement somewhere along the line and the consequences are breaking the Mother Tree and her young.

Yet I am wondering now if the trees are telling me that aging, too, is not only a giving up, a surrendering to, but also a giveaway. Or, at the least, an accelerated one.

I look down at my hands, knobby and rivered with veins. I see my mother’s old hands holding a needle, holding a book, smoothing the table cloth, wringing each other anxiously as she sits on the edge of the hospital bed after a nightmare. They are my hands now. My skin is thinning, becoming the same parchment life is written on. I am evaporating.

I evaporate and someone drinks. Do I become rain over Ohio fields, or snow in the canyons? Or the brook down the hill? Life is taking me back. Little by little, perhaps even now I am feeding that which has fed me all along. I like to think that the eldering, in our way, are like the dispersal of downy seeds in the sunlight, the corn ground into meal for blessing the babies. How could it not be true? Is it not true of the life around us, the seed pods that burst in a fluorescence while the mother plant dies generous and flagrant?

Yes, the fact is that life will take me back no matter how I resist. Do the leaves have a choice and if they do, would they choose differently? Would they stubbornly hang on until the snows of winter lay so heavy on their surface that the mother tree breaks under the weight? Perhaps the leaves know where they are going. Perhaps they agree. Perhaps they know the consequences of refusal.

I have to admit, I know the consequences too, I see them all around me. Yes,
so often the tight fist of my heart is closed and afraid and I stand outside the round of life. But the leaves have told me a different story. One could do worse than to follow their ways.

This giveaway. I am part of it. We are all part of it. This deep and mysterious wonder of life forms and ways.

Recently, Allan and I chose the piece of ground in a small, old cemetery where we will be planted in pine boxes or shrouds, where we will someday sprout up as grass. It’s a somewhat shabby cemetery, worn stones a bit askew, grasses unmown. Yet lovely. I like to know that the grass we will become is allowed to grow up so that it’s iced with morning frosts of November, backlit by setting suns.

When I am dead, the earth will take what is left of me, a body I give willingly to the worms, the bacteria, the grass. The earth will take what I pray by then is a body, a heart, a mind well used, right down to the bone of me.

Yet, now, right now, life is taking me back into itself. I am evaporating and in that drop of water is the world, in this gesture, years of experience. One woman’s silent attentiveness to life is another’s soup kitchen. One Elder’s art is another’s prayer. Every living thing needs nourishment and every thing is living. There is so much to give away.

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