eldering and attachment and fear and control, no wonder we hardly talk to each other
This piece is written in honor of every person who, for reasons of the sediment of generational pain or the violence of targeting and/or random accidents, have died before we got the chance to find out if they were elders or just old. There’s a reason why people vote more conservatively as they get older. The ones who survive are disproportionately the ones who have been most protected. We are missing whole sections of our people. If you know their names, whisper or shout them now. Actively miss them. If you don’t know their names, remember them anyway. Miss them still. It’s that space, that emptiness behind your back, where someone should have been who looks like you, who experienced things that you might have learned from, who loved and fought their generation’s version of the same loves and fights as you do.
There’s a conversation I have, not always but often, with folks who are younger than I am by 10, 20 and 30 years. It’s a response to the question: what can I give you in return? This usually gets asked after some kind of emotional or somatic or mentoring support, or after we have come close to each other’s lives and so the support or care have become part of who we are to each other. I often say something like this: I don’t need anything right now. But I will. Mostly I will need you when I start to disappear. I need you to remember that I’m still here and to find me, to reach out rather than wait for me to show up.
I notice how people disappear from movement spaces as they get older. We also disappear if and when we have children, if and when we have to take care of our own parents or other folks dependent on us, and we disappear or never appeared to begin with when movement spaces aren’t accessible for reasons of cash or ability or the times when parties are scheduled to gather us together.
By movement spaces I mean this; those collective spaces where people come together to deepen understanding, plan action, build culture, grieve and mourn, celebrate and resist. Those spaces that organize around words like liberation and justice and healing, that are committed to shifting the patterns of control and surveillance that began with colonization and white supremacy and that includes control and surveillance around gender and ability and spirit. I mean those places where life is generative and textured and responsive to the greatest shit and the gloriest glory of the moment we live in. Not all of those spaces are open to everyone, thank god for identity- and experience-specific spaces. And… but… still, from memorials to art showings to action plannings to community garden planting to popular education to cultural and spiritual and political and emotional and body body body moments of growth and push and strategize and change, they are spaces where life moves, where movements are born and deepen. I love these life-y moments and spaces, where there is a crash of generations and culture and conflict and care. Where trauma acts on relationships as much as liberation. I love these spaces. I have always found a home in them, one way or another.
I expect that I have no idea what being 65 or 75 or 85 or more will feel like and hello to those of you reading this who are already there. I am not expecting to ever retire, whatever that means. I don’t plan on stepping out and going somewhere else. I expect to slow down. I am already noticing at the young age of 56 that I don’t want to be in the midst of things. But not being in the midst of things doesn’t mean being far away. There are shapes that have yet to emerge, shapes that hold all of the bodies and their needs, generations and abilities and conflict and care. I don’t want to leave but I do want to reshape.
It was maybe 15 years ago. We were sitting on the picnic table in front of our house, whiskey in two glasses and that earnest feeling of a first true conversation with a new friend. The sun was setting, as it does, every single day. He was talking, reflecting, and he said to me, I am so hungry for elders. I want to know how to have one. People don’t have a lot of time, just open time and open spaces where I can come, ask questions, listen. I am so angry about this. So very angry.
I think the word elder is like the word healer. You don’t use it to name yourself. I have been lazy with the word healer, forgetting what I believe and so short-hand using it for myself. I never do that with elder. That word feels, more than almost any other, like something attached to a collective, an experience. Something concrete, something real, something bestowed.
If you are reading this, it is likely that you have been raised outside of an intact culture; a culture where children are centered, where the most vulnerable are centered and supported because we are only as strong as our most vulnerable members. It is unlikely you have been raised where each life stage has been held, where children are children, protected and taught and supported in the ways of wildness as well as the domestication of culture. Where becoming an adult is tracked, where there are clear directives that say on one side you are a child, and on the other you are something else. It is highly unlikely that you grew up in a way where you saw elders, respected and in the middle of things, teaching, listening, modeling, being; holding their peers accountable and being held accountable by the communities who claim them. This means it is likely that you, like me, have absolutely no idea what I am talking about.
When I gave birth to my daughter, I sent letters to all of the parents I had been organizing and working with. I am sorry, I told them. I am sorry for every single time I have not understood what it is to be a parent, for every single time — and there have been many — that I contributed to the difficulties you face in joining spaces that are not geared for children. I am sorry for my ignorance, my impatience, and my assumption that I understood.
Recently, I have wanted to write similar letters to those who are ten, twenty and thirty years older than me. The apology is different. As much as anything, it’s an acknowledgement. Hey, I just wanted you to know that I remember you. I remember seeing you when I was first coming out on the scene, you who are older than me. I came out into the clubs and bars and institutions and identities you created and I also spent a lot of time rejecting and pushing back and changing the clubs and bars and institutions and identities you created. Sometimes that pushing was right on and necessary and sometimes it was more projection than push. I just wanted you to know that I see you. I remember you.
In the early 1990s, I worked at a radical women’s* bookstore, Amazon Bookstore, the oldest ongoing independent feminist bookstore in the country*. Amazon was the first local shop to carry sex positive dildos and vibrators and other sex toys. Our intent was to make it safe for women to look, touch and ask questions. That first wave of feminist and womanist pleasure activism was building with stores like Good VIbrations and magazines like On Our Backs centering women’s pleasure on women’s terms. It was just after the sex wars of the late 1970s and 1980s and after essays like “What We’re Rolling Around in Bed WIth” began to shift our conversation. Within the first week of setting up our new case of sex positive magazines, angry women came in with red paint and threw it on the stacks. Vagina’d bodies with low slung dildoes were perceived, by some, to be a form of sexual violence, a kind of patriarchal alignment. Soon after, I was talking with a co-worker about “70s lesbians” and feeling all of the smug self satisfaction of knowing better, of being sexually positive, of being more evolved than the red paint throwers. One of the bookstore’s founders, older than me by almost 20 years, someone who came out and was fierce during the 1970s, turned away from where she was shelving books and called me out: Susan, she said, your generation didn’t invent dildoes and sex. Just because we didn’t have them made of silicone in beautiful colors didn’t mean we weren’t fucking and coming and rolling around like all of the rest of you. You have no idea what you’re talking about. We weren’t just having sex; we were fierce about ending monogamy and ending all of the patriarchal assumptions about love and sex and relationships. I look at your generation and I think of how tame you are! Professional organizations and legal rights: we wanted to trash all of it, have as much sex as we wanted, and rebuild every single institution and cultural practice that has come out of patriarchy and capitalism. I look at you and think a lot of you have settled.
Oh. Oh. And oh again. Happily, in that moment, I didn’t fight back but listened. And felt humbled down to my toes. I had taken her life and the life of her peers and turned them into a simplistic story that I could use to make myself feel powerful.
I want to write letters. Listen to stories. Apologize. Projections are heavy things and they tangle in our feet, our wheels, our hearts and make it difficult to move.
There are people I know who are elders within specific traditions, even if their cultures are under attack and have violence-lost important pieces, they remember eldering. Their elders are respected to know the language and/or the stories, the things that have been done and the ways to remember and grieve. There are processes, protocols, agreements for honoring these elders. When people in these communities are young, they learn how to be in relationship to elders. They learn this alongside learning their own liberation. I am grateful to have some of those people in my life. When I walk into the spaces they inhabit, there is a weight that lifts. It’s a weight I didn’t realize that I was carrying. The fact that we are all in different developmental stages, that we each serve purposes that support and connect one to the other, from the youngest to the oldest, is just known. Not with the brain as an object for understanding, but from the whole self as a form of breathing and being. I am not romanticising this. Elders and young people in these spaces still misbehave towards each other, are confused, get lost, and sometimes cause harm. And still…. There is something that I notice because in most places, it is absent.
We are all surrounded by stories of powerful leaders, of people who are or might be elders, and who deeply and thoroughly abuse their power. Sexual boundary crossing. Economic boundary crossing. Narcissism. Defensiveness. An inability to listen. Charismatic seduction. Gas lighting. You are either for me or against me and being against me means you don’t have access to this work, these relationships, this safety, this home. Harm harm harm. When our daughter was small, we used to share that too much of anything can make you ill: too much sugar, too much screen time, but also too much attention. Every one of us carries line of betrayal in our bodies because of those who had too much attention, craved it like refined sugar, and who used every speck of power they have to organize the world so that the attention grows. Our current president is a good example and there are examples in every single community, whether the sharp eyed hungry ones have dominant culture power or not. Is it any wonder how few younger people actually trust the older people in their midst? How the hell do you know when someone is trustworthy? What does it take to open your heart against a history of predators, some from your own families and many who sounded good in the beginning before they tried to suck the life from you?
For a few years, we had conversations at the People’s Movement Center about making an elder’s council to support movement. We weren’t the only ones having this conversation, but we had our version of it. This was during a time of multiple actions, multiple occupation sites, multiple moments of front line liberation work in response to the police murders of Black men, women, of transpeople, of land through the building of pipelines. Boundaries were being crossed, organizers in high stakes situations were abusing sexual and economic power while also fighting hard against the systems and institutions whose abuse is generational and epidemic. This tangle of trauma and fight was causing as much, more harm as the systems being held accountable.
When we talked about building an elder’s council, we named different people we would invite to a first gathering. As we listed names, we noticed how many of the people were powerful to some but complicated to others. We talked about the wounds that exist among and between us. We talked about how much harm has been caused in both directions, about how much hunger there is for elders and how much, because of this hunger, power has been abused. Our idea, which we never did, was to have a kind of probationary period of time, one months, maybe three. During this time, the council would be open to anyone who has experienced harm in any way from those on the council to come and share their stories and their impact. This probationary period was envisioned as a process of repair. We talked about the need for humility, for the space for healing between and among us. We were clear that there was a space to be created, a space for eldering. We also knew that there were many tangles of power and identity and history that had to be held and tended to. We thought that if we did this practice, something different might be available on the other side.
A friend of mine, Cara Carlson, someone I love who claims her lineage as deeply learning from the elders at the Cultural Wellness Center, put together a list of qualities for an elder a bunch of years ago. She explained to me that it is possible for young people to call someone to be an elder. That this is what she did. She looked around her and called two or three people to be elders to her. Calling someone to be an elder is a formal thing. If you are called, it’s not small. You have to spend some time really thinking about it. And if you say yes, then you have to make a commitment to being an elder. And the person who calls? You have to make a commitment to being in relationship with this elder. Cara’s list includes things like being firmly engaged in self-study and reflection; being grounded in community life including taking on the responsibilities of teaching and guiding. The ones who are called also have a knowledge of their cultural heritage, of the heritage they share with those who call them. They are respected, committed and available to community members. They give clear and consistent messages and display healthy boundaries. (This is the one that really gets to me — because I know many who do everything else but they still struggle with this, that deep sense of boundary.) They have experience in handling conflict respectfully and do not engage in needless destruction. They have sharp understandings of systems of power, are able to take responsibility for mistakes, and have the presence of humility. These are just a few of the things she named. Reading her list, I got hungry. I noticed that my hunger was a young hunger, the part of me, like you, who has not received enough of this kind of nourishment. She’s still in there, a bit annoyed. She didn’t know she could have called people to be her elders. She doesn’t trust that if she had, they would have come.
What we each learned by those before us is as much about handing off the wounds in our family lines as it is about surviving those same wounds. The more your people were protected by social systems through their race and economics, the more likely you learned things about managing those systems, profiting in those systems, and organizing your body (posture, facial expressions, loudness and pacing of speech, clothing and hygiene) to be recognized so that you can be protected by those systems. The less your people were protected by social systems through their race and economics, the more likely your people taught you how to survive those systems, how you are beautiful no matter what those systems tell you, your skin, your hair, your face, your voice, the way your body moves. Within these, there are specifics of gender and ability and all kinds of other nuances that amplify and illuminate how we are recognized, or not. If you know me, you hear me repeat John Mohawk’s words often: culture is a community’s collective agreement on the best way to survive.
When I research “elder” and “eldering” online, I see a whole bunch of Christian stuff… and then a growing number of classes and workshops about being an elder. There are almost always white cisgender folks holding them and largely, it seems, attending them. They almost always cost a lot of money. They use words like “conscious eldering.” They offer ceremonies that sometimes rely heavily on coopting what they call “Native American ways,” and sometimes don’t. I am snide while I look over these sites, I hate the cultural violence of stolen ceremonies, hate it so much…..and there is a part of me, at the same time, that flares up hungry. I want someone to tell me what to do. I keep whispering to myself: elders do not name themselves as such. Elders do not name themselves as such. They do not self-select for a workshop. They are called by community. To name yourself an elder on your own is to continue to feed individualism and isolation, this idea that you can be relevant because you want to be. We have forgotten how to name and call elders. We have forgotten what to do and how to be when we are named and called. Workshops won’t fix this.
To elder is, I believe, a spiritual act, in that way where trying to say this in English is confusing. I mean spiritual as in culture/ancestors/connection/source/history/future/timetraveling. I mean spiritual in the way that there is no such thing as a straight line, where the oldest and the youngest, the before a death and the just born, recognize each other. As long as we are terrified of power, until we repair the abuses that power has created, this deeper part of eldering, this deep spirit trust that listens to how wisdom is in the cells, is in the trees, is in the voice of ancestors who chatter in your ears and hands, until then we can not fully drink from here. There is nourishment all around us, we are so hungry, and yet we can’t take it in. This is why we are in right relationship when we prepare to be elders from the moment of being born: by how we stretch and push and make mistakes and repair and heal and heal and heal again. It’s easier to do this when there are those in front of us, showing us how by the branches they break and the roots they deepen. And when they aren’t there, we just have to awkwardly begin anyway.
Over the last few years, I have noticed this deep desire to share stories about the things I have experienced. It’s embarrassingly physical. An elder I care about says that we reach an age when, after gathering a lifetime of stories like stones in our pockets, we want to start giving them away, one after another, so that, if we are lucky, we come to the end of our lives with empty pockets and a readiness to leave. My stories sometimes feel like piles of words pushing at the backs of my teeth, wanting to come out. Is it any wonder that I have started blogging again?
With each year that passes, as I am in rooms with people much younger than I am, I notice (and remember from when I did this myself) the arrogance when those younger folks believe that they were the first to name or experience something. For example, I watch as scores of people begin to make money and grassroots-trademark themselves within the framework of healing justice, not knowing or being curious about the roots of this phrase, about the queer Black women in the South who named healing justice in response to specific histories. About their clarity that naming this framework was only about putting new words to practices that are as old as our species; practices that have always been a part of movements for liberation. About the framework’s origins that include building resilience and recognizing and healing generational trauma and also includes clarity about changing the medical systems that are established to provide care and instead perpetuate and deepen that generational trauma. I watch, in the way that generations watched me and generations watched those before me, as what grows and emerges is not always in right relationship to the roots and origins that made these most recent practices possible. I watch the harm it causes. I feel the hunger to get in there, arms waving, and tell stories, set it to rights, this feeling of knowing something that is being forgotten, a physical thing, even as my own physical thing stands on other origins and roots that I didn’t always remember. At one point, one generation of us has to stop.
I have often had a version of this conversation with those who are older than me: this is the practice of letting go. I have said to them: you created something, you fought for it with every part of who you are so that those who came after would not have to struggle, to hurt, to fail in the same way that you and your people have. And you were successful. And because you were successful, we are not hurting and struggling in the same way. Which means there is something else being born and you don’t recognize it. This can not be the same as what you created because the roots are different. Thank you for what you have done and created and now, please let go.
It is hard to let go. Particularly when there isn’t something there to take its place.
I didn’t even think of the “ok boomer” meme until this second. Literally, this second. I wanted to write a piece that is helping me to maneuver my way through this life phase and just this second, hand slapping the side of my head, I had a duh moment. “Ok boomer.” I was born in 1963 which means, when I was young, I was not considered to be a part of the boomer generation. I used to watch these tables that ended boomer-ness at 1960 and wonder what my generation was called. In the 1980s, I talked with friends also born in 62, 63 and 64. We would laugh about being the ‘tweeners, not a boomer, not a Generation X. And then at one point, all of the tables started shifting to include us, listing boomers up until 1964 or 1965, just when this next stage called Gen X began.
What I do know is that I came up just as the economic crises that defined Gen X began. The oil crisis in 1973 meant that for six months, we went to school half days because the school system couldn’t afford to heat the junior high (me) and the high school. I was impacted by the ending of the post-world-war 2 economic booms but that ending was just beginning. This means I was also supported by or my parents were supported by the mostly-white-helping social safety nets that started in the 30s and peaked in the 70s. With Reagan’s election in 1980, those social safety nets and supports started to disappear. And way-mostly-white people began to privatize the shit out of their/our lives. Some believed they had no other choice. They watched what was happening around them and were terrified for their safety and the safety of their kin. Others were like the folks who take the money in the tip jar when no one is looking because, well they can, and isn’t it cool to get away with it?
In the year 2019, we are at the front end of a 48 trillion dollar wealth transfer as the silent generation and boomers begin to die off, leaving behind the mountains of wealth they have amassed to children, grandchildren, museums, foundations, nature reserves, whatever sparks their interest. This much money has been hoarded because the early 1980s created privatization of wealth as a weapon to destroy the idea of the common good. Add in to that global capitalism’s creation of a lifestyle for the globally wealthy that includes strawberries in February’s frozen north and lithium-dependent electronics for every household member, and you have a life-destroying pattern. How do we even comprehend such a number? Go back a trillion seconds, and you are in the year 30,000 BCE. 48 trillion is 1,440,000 seconds before the common era. Is spirit laughing at us? 1,444,000 BCE is the date when the first flint tools, the ancestors of iphone factories in China, were found in western Europe (the earliest tools were found in Kenya at around 3.3 million years BCE).
I assume there are a bunch of ways I don’t understand the OK Boomer moment. Gut-ways where humor comes in to cover something deeper, like betrayal. Mostly I think it’s funny. I think of the irony, the perfect amazing irony, that has us becoming exactly the person we hated when we were younger (hello counter culture boomer). I have no idea what it is to be in your teens, your 20s, your 30s right now. I watch the coldness that comes in to my daughter as she talks about the future, about the potential of not having a future, of just not knowing. This is economic, cultural, communal… this is a deep survival uncertainty that I can’t pretend to fully understand.
Here is what, as parents, we are supposed to do: we bring children into this life and we raise them with a lens that helps them make sense of the world around them. This is why things are, we explain to them, like this. Here is what you have control over and here is what you do not. Here are the choices you can make, and here is where there are no choices. Here are the people who came before you, remember them and feel into what they left for us. Here are the people we live among. Here is how we care for and prepare for our descendants. If life made sense, we would be supporting our young to never leave their bodies, to feel and sense and know connection to themselves, to us and others who are kin and community, to the land on which they live, not as an object but as a living being who sustains us. We would support them to know culture; to feel a sense of spirit and expansion. We would support them to know history, not as a drag and a set of rules but as the springboard that life-rushes to the future. They would grow within the boundaries of their individual bodies as bodies with generations of sediment behind them while also feeling a sense of the connection of all things and the heart-pulling joyfulness of what is possible.
Each of us should, as a foundational instinct, have a deep sense of our right to be alive, of the glory of our living connected selves. Western psychologists call this secure attachment but often only define it as being “connected to those we love.” This is a huge thing but it should go deeper than that. “Secure attachment” is about being connected to all life, to all of our kin, our relatives, both human and non-human. Secure attachment means that, when we are in stress and struggle, we feel good about asking for and receiving support. We don’t overthink it (am I allowed support? Is this my fault?) but instead, assume that if we can’t do whatever it is alone, then we shouldn’t try to do or be whatever it is alone. Secure attachment doesn’t mean happy ever after. Life is hard. We cause harm and are harmed. People we love die. Things don’t work out right. We react to things out of fear and so we lie or steal or fight or cover or do all kinds of things that then, in order to come back to connection, we have to come back to honesty. We live this life that is hard and glorious and we have choices along the way to come back to honesty or just be pissed off or just be wounded and we integrate what we learn and that is wisdom. We gain insight and perspective and some folks do that real deeply and they are teachers and they hold some kind of integrity that the community recognizes and they are the ones who are called to be elders.
Secure attachment is a birthright. It is what is supposed to happen, it’s what the poetry of evolution planned for. This all shifts when you add the cycle of violence that defines which bodies are treated as objects to be controlled and which bodies are entitled to control. With every part of me, I believe that multigenerational dominance culture (white supremacy, patriarchy, heteronormativity, etc) is an attachment disorder. It is something that is taught to us, usually mostly from context and nonverbals than direct communication, when we are first emerging from the womb and which continues throughout our life. It shapes us because, as we look around at the parents who are supposed to protect us, support us, pass on culture and values and practices, we become what is here, in our home and outside.
Because of this, when we are young and when we are old, we don’t know how to find each other and clasp hands as an act of support and strength and generational forever.
I have had a lot of elders, even as I don’t always feel it. Even as they have not been formally called. They are people older than me who have opened something up with their presence. This is different from sharing culture or from having someone track the details of my life and push or support; remember me. This is not enough. This is everything. Here are some of the people who have been and are elders to me, whose lives and actions are part of why I am here and the way that I am, More than half were or are known personally to me, sometimes for long relationships and sometimes for just that single conversation at the right time that changed the before and after. Not all are older than me, although most are. Some are relationships of reading and learning from afar:
Margaret Campbell, Kay Raffo, Irene Gallant, Jan Broom, Nigel Singer, Judith Hobbs, Tony Gomez, Pat Lindsley, Susan Griffen, Cara Carlson, Audre Lorde, Barbara Smith, Gloria Anzaldua, Aurora Levins Morales, Ricardo Levins Morales, Monica Sjoo, Maya Angelou, John Trudell, Hugh Milne, Suzanne River, Marcie Rendon, Thea Lee, Marie Michael, Barb Weiser, Amber Hollibaugh, Suzanne River, Hope Flannigan, Tema Okun, Pat Hussain, Mandy Carter, Charity Hicks, Scot Nakagawa, Starhawk, Loie Hayes, Sharon Day, Carmen Vasquez, Suzanne Pharr, Meinrad Craighead, Kay Whitlock, Terry Boggis, Resmaa Menakem, Chrystos, Cara Page, Anjali Taneja, Carolyn Holbrook, Eric Rofes, Alan Berube, Bo Thao-Urabe, Jane Stern, Iara Volaco Simoes, Margie Fargnoli, Ramona Kitto Stately, Rofina Madaba Lutta, Sandy Jones, Elissa Raffa, Louis Alemayhu, Lynette D’Amico, Terri Jewell, Pat Parker, Les Feinberg, Giorgia Milne and I imagine I will keep adding to this list over the next few days because over the last hour since I posted this, I have added five more names. Their faces are just welling up and smiling at me and all I feel is gratitude. Feel free to send me your list of people, if they start whispering to you while you read this. Go to my connect page and just send them. Reading your list might help me remember and honor my own, while also honoring yours.
I wish for you elders, for those who are there with the stories and songs, the practices and prayers that you need to not feel trapped, to not have to act as though all life began with your life, as though there wasn’t a before. I wish for you all the healing and care, the support and the struggle, that will be exactly what is needed for your particular mix of ancestors and experiences to evolve into being an elder to those who come after you.
I wish that your struggle is woven into broader struggle so that wisdom can emerge and can shape us into the very things our oldest of elders most dreamed of for each and every one of us, their descendants.
* When I write, I use the language of the time; what we called ourselves back then. There is so much for this moment of history to be accountable for, particularly in terms of transphobia and confusion. At the same time, the word “woman” was far more elastic than the way it is used today. Most of the “women” I loved and knew would now be called gender fluid or gender complex in some way. This last part often gets lost in 2019 reflections on 70s and 80s and 90s feminist communities. It was a massive thing to support bodies with clits and vaginas to have a safe place to explore how those clits and vaginas could be yummy and powerful.
* Some didn’t close. I see you Charis Books in Atlanta, Left Bank Books in St. Louis. Recently, like over the last five years, after a generation where the only bookstores were big box chains (Barnes and Noble) or second hand/used, there are more independents opening. I can’t tell you how heart-singing this feels. Locally, thank you Moonpalace Books! Thank you thank you thank you. I am grateful for how the older bookstores have been able to culturally shape shift, not putting lines in the sand between the histories that emerged them (feminist womanist) and the present gender fluid generational shifting truth. I mourn the passing of some of the stores that were also doing this, but could not survive the thin oxygen of 90s and 00s online big box profit hoarding. I miss you, Ancestry Books.