The Elder Circle 

Gail and I were invited to attend an elder circle in Bolinas, California. The agenda was open—we could talk about anything that came to mind. We thought it was a gathering of people in their 60s and 70s and the discussions were going to range from end-of-life issues to what was going on in the current culture. We drove down with two friends—Bing and Eleanor from Point Reyes—to Bolinas, to a ranch we understood was dedicated to fostering new ways of living, farming, and community outreach. We arrived at the tail-end of a two-or three-day conference. The conference was for young people to discuss land use, urban issues, and community organizing. There were chairs arranged in a circle around a large fire pit that was already going nicely in the gathering dusk, the smell of the salt-sea air surrounding us, and owls hooting nearby. A young fox wandered over, intrigued at the circle of us, and then wandered on by. We all looked over at him and he looked at us and then he passed on.

We began by going around the circle to introduce ourselves and share statements of gratitude. James, the leader of the group, made it clear that everybody’s opinions were important and everybody’s thoughts were welcome and he invited everyone to participate. Just then, the youth organizational meeting finished its last session and they joined us around the fire. And before anybody else could speak, one of the younger members from that group shared his statement of gratitude. The smoke from the fire swirled and washed over us as he began talking, as dusk slowly sifted its way towards darkness.  He said his name was Daniel.  Daniel had a friend—whose name was also Daniel—that he had met in Costa Rica at another youth organizational meeting. And he had just heard recently that his friend Daniel had killed himself. For his turn, he said he was grateful for his friend, grateful for having known him. They were both activists trying to combat climate change, trying to organize people to bring awareness to the youth of the world about the issues and dangers of climate change. He said that it’s really difficult to be a young person in today’s world because it feels as if there is no future, there is no way or path forward, all of our avenues are blocked. It is very, very difficult to be young in today’s world, he repeated. He paused and looked down and everybody went silent waiting for him to continue.

He took a deep breath and looked back up around the circle.  “My question to the elder group is: what advice do you have to give to us, to those of us who are wanting to help make the necessary changes for a better world, but feel hopeless about how to go forward?”

It seemed as if he was looking at each one of us individually. We all studied him in return, sitting a little dejectedly in the circle, holding his hands in his lap. Daniel’s question hung in the air. The fire crackled in the long silence. Everybody digested Daniel’s concern in his or her own thoughts.

After a long pause, James spoke up conversationally. “You know, I’m just an old dude. I can only tell you what this old dude thinks. I’m over 70 and I’ll tell you what I have learned about the future. The truth from my point of view is: I don’t know any answers. I don’t know what the future holds. I don’t know any answers for any of our problems. It’s important to me to say this out loud: I don’t know and I don’t believe anybody else knows. We are making it up as we go along. We all are living in a dream that we confuse with some hard and fast reality, but making it up gives us an advantage. Once you realize that everybody is making it up, that we are all living in a dream, you now have the power (since you are making it up) to reframe the issues, so that future doesn’t begin and end with fear. Our culture is driven by fear-mongering, fear mongers, people who want you to be afraid. They want you to fear what’s coming—whether it’s assassins or terrorism or even just political disagreements—everybody’s just making it up. It’s a propaganda issue. It’s an advertising issue. It’s a political issue. When people are afraid, they are easier motivate and to control. This is just the opinion of one old dude telling you that. But by realizing that we can choose to make up this dream of reality to suit our own needs, all of us, we can reframe it so that there is a way to understand future choices with compassion and love. There is a way to see it differently than the way the media would have us see it. We are all one. We are all part of this Earth. We are all one nation. We are all facing it, the life on this planet. This planet is our home. This place is what we are made of. We are part of it. We fit into an ecosystem. What we need to learn to do, with love and compassion, is learn to live within the ecosystem that we have found ourselves in and make something of it that’s worth having. We can join together, all of us, recognizing we are all one generation. We can go forward because there is strength knowing all of us can literally lean on each other. We are one nation, we are one species, we are one life form living with other life forms. We are all in this together.”

“There was a time,” he said, “when I was an infant, when there were only two or three billion of us on the planet. Now we are seven billion and growing. We need to learn to adjust to what’s out there, what we have in store. The key here is to know that we don’t know. No one knows. We can reframe the issue. We can build an understanding, from the bottom up, through the power of this one generation, this last generation. Regardless of how old you are, how old we are, we are in this together and we have the power. We have the power to see for ourselves how to live and how not to be afraid and how not to fear what we have in store. We have to learn to share with each other the eco-space that we have, that has been given to us.”

In response to James’s soliloquy about the thoughts of “one old dude,” Daniel said it occurred to him that, had his friend Daniel been able to find elder group to turn to, he might have found a way to live and not to die.

The smoke from the fire drifted over the circle and it occurred to me what a valuable time this has been, this simple gathering of elders and young people sitting in a circle, talking to each other, really talking to each other, and how valuable such a thing can be.

It’s important to reiterate that the key to understanding how to reframe an issue comes from the strength of knowing that we don’t know the answer. As we old dudes say, “No one knows.” The future is undetermined. Once we realize that, if we could join together and dream together with warmth and compassion, we can reframe the issues that determine the future. We can recognize what’s happening to the planet. We can go forward with an understanding of what can be done in our lifetime and how to take a stand to make a difference. Another note to take into consideration: this was just one element of the elder circle gathering. There were many ranging discussions: sustain-ably growing your own food while living in an urban environment; conservation; how to support a community that gathers strength organizing itself, empowering individuals to take charge of their lives. Rather than becoming victims of a society that is currently trying to rule by fear, we can avoid these outcomes by recognizing what we can do as people who gather their power from each other.

(Cannon Beach, Oregon) A family relaxes in front of Haystack Rock, the largest (72m) sea stack on the US coast.  This was the first day of fair weather in weeks on the coast, and the shoeline was dotted with small fires from groups enjoying the sunset. As usual with the people I seem to meet here, they all had relatives in Norway. Or at least these thought they did; as their name started with Mac... I said, sure, you might be Norwegian and took them up on their offer of a shoreside drink or five, to prove my ethnic heritage. I thus missed missed a very nice, partly cloudy post-rain photo op of some large rocks. Oh, well. At last the little girls thought I looked like Johnny Depp. As the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland. I need a haircut.

One thought on “The Elder Circle 

  1. Thank you for sharing your experience; for giving me something to think more deeply about as I raise my 9 year old son; for reminding me that it is okay not to have “the answer” when my son asks why; and for activating the memory of an old childhood favorite, “merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily . . . life is but a dream. ~Kelly

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