The Elder


This elder is generations old, twisted and gnarled by its journey of adaptation. Steadfast in its determination to live and hold place on this precious earth, it reminds me of my own father.

I am just back from my trip to Minnesota to be of support as he fights to recover from a stroke. The hearts of both the old bristlecone and my 86-year-old Dad pulse on. Other bristlecones in the high mountain grove of this old one stand in companionship just as Mom and Dad’s 65-year-community is offering good support.

Life needs other life. We cannot stand alone. My sisters and I have been sustained by the outpouring of love and help. The elder lives on for a while longer.

A little love goes a long way

My friend Harriet is 86 the end of this month. She’s a member of a group of women friends who support one another’s spiritual journeys, stay in various levels of connection during busy schedules, and meet once a year for a week of council, informal conversation, great eating, hiking, and late night videos. We are women at camp in a large shared house, reflecting on where we’ve been and setting intention for the coming months.

That’s where I am this week, tucked into Willow Pond Lodge with this sisterhood. The first day is always consumed with hours of checking-in… one by one choosing what to say about how we are. As what is said in circle is confidential, I have Harriet’s permission to share this moment and her story and thoughts.

One woman had finished and self-published a novel, another had completed a first draft of her memoir; some women were busy at work, busy traveling, busy mothering and grandmothering. Harriet checked-in near the end of the round. “I don’t work anymore,” she said with a tone of contrition, “I don’t know what good I’m doing. I go down to Coffee Talk every day and just try to be friendly, make sure everyone gets a welcome as they come in the door.

“There was this young mother with a crying baby, came in for coffee. I could see she was at her wit’s end. We have a rocking chair by the fire and after a bit I convinced her it was safe to hand over the fussing child and she could just sit down and sip. Little Henry and I rocked and rocked and soon he was asleep in my arms. … She still comes in, bringing Henry, finding community.

“You know, people just need to be seen. Just need someone to look up and say hi; glad you walked into the room. Mother Teresa said the greatest disease in the world is loneliness, that if she could heal anything about being human, it would be to cure loneliness with love. I try to be like that, to bring a little love into the space around me. But I feel old. I don’t have the hearing, the energy, or the big ideas I used to. That’s all I got to say.” She passed the talking piece; we rang a chime to signify a space in the speaking.

Harriet is white-haired, vigorous, and humble. She was raised on a farm in Minnesota, worked for 3M in its early years, did graphic design and rode the wave from the drafting table to the computer, had a successful real estate career. She is the gentle matriarch to 3 children, 10 grandchildren, and 5 great-grandchildren, including a 3 year-old spitfire girl named Harriet junior. The deepest formation of Harriet senior’s character and the source of her stories, values, and wisdom remains her childhood grounding on the earth and how it helped her tap into spirituality. She carries a personal blend of Lutheranism, Catholicism, practicality and mysticism leading to the motherhood of God. And here she sat at the edge of the circle looking disappointed in herself, seemingly unsure how to take her place among other, mostly younger women, whom she assumed were doing more than she to earn their space in the scheme of things.

I asked permission to comment on her check-in and she nodded. “Harriet, you are doing exactly what the elder in the village is supposed to do! You are tending what’s right in front of you. This is the fulfillment of your days—the capacity to slow down, to see what needs to happen next, right here, right now—with the young mother, with the baby, with the barrista, with the regulars from town, with us in the circle.”

Christina and Harriet

Christina and Harriet

“Through these gestures of kindly attention offered into your daily surroundings you are a messenger of your deepest values. Every one of us who is moving faster, who is busy beyond managing, who is hooked into the necessities of technology, is counting on you being here amongst us moving at the pace of guidance and paying attention in the ways that you do.” We rang the chimes again—sat in the reverberating stillness.

In this moment Harriet saw her elder place validated and took it into her heart, and I saw my own elder place being prepared for me by Harriet and took it into my heart. Gift and magic. Sweetness among friends.

Small Creatures

On the last day of 2012 I headed out with my backpack to spend a quiet night with the earth to give gratitude for the year past and to set intention for the year coming. Temperatures were slightly above freezing. There was a light drizzle. Darkness fell at 5 p.m. and daylight rose about 7 a.m. The last creature I heard before total darkness and the first one at daybreak was the tiny golden-crowned kinglet. “Teez, teez, teez,” is their high-pitched call note.

How do they get through 14 hour nights at freezing temperatures? I had a warm sleeping bag, a good ground pad, and a superlative tent. This little, secretive creature is barely larger than a hummingbird. Scientists still have not figured out exactly how these birds survive—Do they go into torpor and lower body temperatures overnight? Do they huddle with others of their kind? Do they feed later and earlier in the day than other birds? You can read more about what a lone researcher in Vermont has spent decades trying to figure out:

My island home is only about 15 miles from my little solo spot. Every day sitings of golden-crowned kinglets and extensive vistas of mountains and sea are found in both places. I am reminded again that the secret to a calmer, more centered life at home is to attend to both the small and large wonders that hold my life in place. There is no substitute for time spent outdoors.

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Wintergreen: New Year’s Day on Whidbey Island

I have a friend who tells me, “What you do on your birthday sets the tone for the year.” It’s not my personal birthday, but it is the first day of a New Year… so happy birthday 2013… and here’s the tone of what I did today.

Mountains in morning light

Mountains in morning light

I woke and wrote in my journal—thinking deeply about the many events and adventures planned for the next 6 months, sort of a Solstice-to-Solstice awareness.

I prayed for guidance, for wisdom, for help bringing all this work together in good ways and for understanding “what is mine to do now.”

I did home-based self-care: yoga stretches, dog petting, laying out vitamins, eating a healthy breakfast…  Commonsense remembering to take care of myself and encouraging those around me to take care in commonsense ways.

I spent an hour in telephone council with a beloved colleague. With ease and facility we followed circle protocols by voice, a thousand miles apart, with candles lit in each of our spaces. Truth and compassion without holding back: we were peer spirits.

Ann on the roof

Ann on the roof

I worked outdoors alongside Ann. Our island handyman is replacing the garden fence, which leads us to clearing last year’s growth from side gardens, raking, pruning, emptying the autumn fir needles from the gutters.

I noticed little signs of growth already emerging on this first day of January. Buds are hiding in the primroses, the Hellebore blooming under the bedroom window, green grass and sweet carrots pulled from the ground to the plate.

I checked emails when I had time to answer them, not just flag them.

I wrote this blog, reaching out for you, whether you are far and near.

Soon, I will cook dinner, eat by the fire, work with Ann on our annual scrapbook.

This is a tone for the year I can imagine sustaining. It’s complex and strenuous at times, yet grounded in returning home again and again to the realities of Nature, the physical work of gardening, the non-tasky pleasures of dog-loving (play ball, play more ball, take me to the beach!), a sense of community that crops up everywhere—from travel, teaching, telephone calls, and post-hole digging in the rocky soil.

Gracie and me on beach stairs

Gracie and me on beach stairs

I am aware of the incredible privilege all this represents: a safe and beautiful place to live, enough of everything, a healthy body and resilient spirit, the opportunity to offer meaningful work to the world.

I am grateful. Profoundly great/full.

What are you doing to set the tone of the year?