Becoming an Elder


Interesting. I just did a search on Amazon for “becoming an Elder”. A few dozen books about Church Elders popped up and exactly one book about Eldership that wasn’t Religious. It’s based on astrology and written for women.  I bought it.

Yesterday my friend Misty and I sat talking, drinking buckets of hot tea and snacking on gluten-free cranberry orange muffins. I call them First Day of Christmas Muffins because they taste exactly like the spirit of Christmas if it was baked into a muffin. But let’s be real; for us they were more like “after the christmas hubbub subsides and we can sit down again” muffins. Anyhoo. We sat drinking, snacking and talking for about 3 hours. It’d been a bit since we’ve been together. 

We hit on about fifty-eight different subjects and solved most of the world’s problems, as per usual, but then, just after the third bathroom break (buckets of tea will do that) and just before leaving, she mentioned how she’s been feeling “old” lately. Not old in the body, definitely not old in the mind, but old in the way other people treat her. Imperceptible attitudes. Assumptions about her. Requests for the younger Dance Instructors at her studio. An underhand comment from someone she hasn’t seen in awhile, “Wow. We’re all looking older, huh?” 

“I feel like everyone else considers me old, and I’m not sure what to do with it.” She said. She’s 51.

Rainbow Eagle is an Okla-Choctaw Indian. The last, 7th Fire Keeper of the Peace Shield Teachings. I love everything about his teachings but one aspect we’ve lost a little more than the others is the guidance of Elders. This is what came to mind when Misty talked about feeling somehow discarded or devalued, a little less-than, because she’s not young anymore. 

“What about becoming an Elder?” I asked. 

Misty tipped her gorgeous blonde head to one side. “What does that mean?”. 

“Like what if we were intentional about communicating all the experience and wisdom we’ve gathered; all the healing we’ve done, the mistakes we made, the lessons that kicked our ass, the better ways to live and be? What if we offered the guidance we never had?” 

In Native American culture—other ancient cultures as well—the people prepare their whole lives for an epic climax; Becoming an Elder. 

First, everyone must develop their own life vision—forge their unique path—gathering experience and wisdom along the way. At some point they are expected to offer something profound and beautiful, something incredibly helpful, to those coming behind them.

I feel like, in “modern” culture, there’s a sort of war between older and younger generations. Both generations seem to feel misunderstood and de-valued by the other. Understandable in the immaturity of youth. A bit weird for those who’re supposed to have matured decades ago. 

I’ve spent the last twenty years wishing for a Grandmother. Not that there’s a grandmother shortage here in the U.S. where life expectancy has soared and medical wonders keep people alive beyond that murky point when people actually want to stay alive. I wish for a Grandmother who offers deep, timeless wisdom—that still applies to me. Guidance that is still useful in the world I live in. There’s no shortage of life coaches and therapists, mentors and counselors. For $300 bucks an hour I could get all the modern-day-eldership I’d ever want. Advice is not in short supply. 

Let me see if I can articulate the difference.

A fifty-something disabled Vet who struggles with PTSD enrolled in Harvard classes last year. He learned a lot from being surrounded by millenials. He immersed himself in who they are, why they do what they do and choose what they choose. He wrote a brilliant article titled “What I learned from a semester with Snowflakes”. His willingness to ignore stereotypes and actually listen to those kids, whispered of Eldership. His appreciation of them shouted of Eldership. As he opened to them, they opened to him and began seeking his stories, his wisdom, his guidance. I doubt he tried—or even wanted—to mold those kids into who he is. Instead, he offered what he knows, and helped them apply it to a very different world, to their varying goals and values, to this culture and ideology that is light years away from the one he grew up in. He saw them, valued the ways they’ve advanced, and adapted his wisdom to supplement what they’re lacking. 

Elders can see situations, people, events and drama clearly. They know where the pitfalls are, and how to navigate them with grace.

It’s like when you’ve been a mountain bike rider for a few decades. You’ve ridden all the local trails dozens of times and sure, they’ve changed and morphed over the years. Gotten re-routed. The equipment has upgraded beyond all imagination, and the young riders have no idea what you had to deal with and how tough you had to be thirty years ago. Despite all that, you can watch a new rider mess up and crash, and you can tell them exactly why. You can demonstrate how their balance is off, how they pick lines that screw them up. You can offer tips that are so ingrained they’ve changed your DNA. 

Yes, there’s something to be said for how we all came to this human lifetime to learn our own lessons and have our own experiences. Definitely. But what if we had the cushion of some understanding Elders to soften our falls? What if we had their clarity as a guiding light so we stumbled less? What if we simply had encouragement from those who’ve paved the very roads we drive on, saying “Keep going. It’s going to be ok. You’ve got this. Here’s what I know about this part…”  

Excellent Eldership seems like something we should spend a lifetime cultivating. I’m not talking about sharing pointy opinions or exerting influence. I’m talking about an older, deeper type of support. I’m talking about elderly people with the wisdom to know what they don’t know too. I’m talking about seniors who aren’t offended by those who don’t see things the same way. Wise ones who push us to try new things and improve on their methods and ideologies. 

Elders understand evolution. They’re the first to promote it. 

Elders value the way the world was when they were coming up. But they delight in the ways it changes.

Elders have the wide-eyed wonder of children, and the patience of centuries.

Elders understand the difference between knowledge that is no longer applicable, and it’s underlying wisdom that will always be applicable. 

Elders are the most flexible members of the tribe because they know that if you can’t bend, you’ll break.

Elders fear nothing anymore.

Elders respect all visions and encourage all paths.

Elders are like the PhD’s of life experience and accumulated knowledge, yet they work magic with silence.

Elders embody the love we were all born as.

This seems like a very tall order, yes? Who can possibly fulfill this? Perhaps we understand now why traditional Eldership took a lifetime to attain. No wonder they were so valuable to their people.

Eldership was no accident, not a side-product. It was an intentional goal that people trained their entire lives for. It was expected of everyone—but not everyone achieved it. Plenty of tribal members just aged; got crotchety, withered and died. I’m sure some criticized and scoffed at youthful desires to adapt ancient customs, introduce new technologies, try unheard of ways.

The aging population of today has few models. Eldership hasn’t been on our radar, unless you’ve spent time in Native American or non-american cultures. Even in those, the idea of Eldership has gotten watered down, or drowned altogether in these screen-addicted times. 

We can reawaken it. It’ll take recognizing the needs of younger generations. Being relevant, generous and gentle with our offerings. It’ll take a whole lot of attention and intention. Us middle-agers will need to consciously begin our training today, wherever we are on our path.

Misty and I talked for a few minutes about what it would look like to continue reading the many books we read, continue our recovery journeys, continue parenting our grown-up kids and grandparenting, but with a new perspective; practicing Eldership. Observing what our youth are missing, learning how to offer that, and being in love with all life-paths. 

We decided we’re doin’ it. We’re aiming for Eldership. We decided it’s a state of mind. A worthy goal. 

One particular beauty of traditional Eldership is that each person gets to choose the Elders they want to learn from. I’ve begun paying more attention to the Elders I’m choosing. 

Jose and Lena Stevens

Rainbow Eagle

Dolores Cannon

David Manning

Tara Brach

Joanna Macy

Neale Donald Walsh

Leah Lamb

Caroline Myss

Graham Hancock

Who are your Elders?


First Day of Christmas Muffins (gluten-free)

2 cups gf flour (I use Bob’s Red Mill GF 1:1 blend)

1 ½ teaspoons baking powder (aluminum free)

½ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

⅓ cup melted coconut oil

¾ cup maple syrup or honey

3 eggs (room temperature)

1 cup greek yogurt

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Zest from 1 orange (organic if possible)

2 cups fresh (or frozen) cranberries, minced in a food processor

Preheat oven to 400. Whisk together the first four (dry) ingredients in a small bowl. Whisk together the next six (wet) ingredients in a large bowl. Dump dry mix into wet mix and stir just until blended. Fold in minced cranberries. Fill greased or lined muffin cups full. Bake at 400 degrees for 15-18 min or until light golden on top. 

*I bake at 10,000 ft elevation so this may need adjustments for low elevations. Also, these freeze well.

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