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.”
“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.