by Kathleen Schomaker
I am an ecologist, so I believe everything truly is related to everything else. The mystery and joy is to puzzle through how things are connected—by logic, intuition or synchronicity—and then how to walk and dance with what arises. Recently two readings came to my attention synchronously:
Fate and Destiny: The Two Agreements of the Soul by Michael Meade, an engaging, well-storied Jungian discourse on the human journey, a luxurious and edifying read for contemplating human life; and Gauging Aging: Mapping the Gaps Between Expert and Public Understanding of Aging in America, from FrameWorks Institute, a timely piece of social research on ageism in contemporary America.
Puzzling through personal connections, I see my destiny in pursuing a career in environmental advocacy nose-to-nose with my personal experience of aging and ageism in working with Gray Is Green.
Appreciating the connections, I witness our elderhood movement—with its embrace of Earth Justice for creatures and elements—arising within an ageist culture and society—with our social prejudices about older adults.
Gray Is Green is a meeting place and a clearinghouse for older adults interested in greening their lives, learning about community resilience, advocating for sound ecological and climate change policy, and serving as an intergenerational resource for younger people involved in sustainability.
Enter Gauging Aging with its sobering data on ageism in America, its report-out on the gap between aspirations and expressed expectations, and the truth-out about internalized ageism among older adults, along with negative attitudes among other-aged people.
I take this report as part of the clarion call to aspiring elders: this will not be easy. Older and Elder are distinct experiences and viewpoints. Grateful, I am, that our movement has such a rich outpouring of resources for the transition to elderhood: I need all the help I can get!
The call for an elder channel is both timely and timeless: To what do I pay attention? How do I pace myself? How do I express individual and generational gifts and skills? What battles do I choose to wage on behalf of my generation and future generations? What sacrifices can I make today for generations yet to arrive on the planet?
In holding these questions, I approach, then cross, many thresholds. Two steps forward, one step back. Letting go, taking up; falling and getting up again. Older or Elder: Not for sissies either way.
From Identity to Presence
Now in early elderhood, I wrestle and make peace with demons, encounter guides, stub my toes on rocks in the road, and appreciate signage left by forebears. I am aware of shifts in how I show up in the world and how I equip myself for the world. This for me is a shift from identity to presence.
At some point I grew weary of focusing on what to do and began to wonder deeply about why and how I might do whatever I was doing. Let me be clear: I did not suspend the basic values of equity, ecology, democracy, justice, and peace—that is not what I suspended. My aspirations to oppose denialism, hatred, and greed at the ballot box and in social discourse never flagged.
Rather, I was reaching for some pathway beyond habit, beyond regularity, beyond doing what was commonly done. I grew dissatisfied with the query “What do you do?”, longing for a more evocative question in meeting and mixing with people. Experimenting, wrestling, fumbling: “What calls to you these days?” “What gives your life meaning now?” You know how it goes: What is the question worth holding? “Presence” arises in me when I shift from asking what to asking how.
I recall adult identity development clearly: my peers and I wondered about how to make meaning and embrace our spirits in the midst of life’s adult engagements—the workaday world, the demands of parenting, the challenges of owning property, the call to engaging with organizations—and the need to call out truths that embrace values for steering through it all.
At some point I clearly saw the identity I had created for adulthood—an identity I could accept, a persona others could rely on, more or less—and I understood I was living inside a framework, like a social skin. It seemed just as I clearly understood this, I also felt a need to pull out of the identity, as a snake pulling out of a skin that no longer fits.
The rudder of self-created identity was valuable for navigating the turbulence of adulthood with its emotional, social, and financial currents. Looking back, I acknowledge regrets, then transmute most of those into lessons learned. There is humility in post-adulthood.
Yet, as I struggle to lay down the identity attachments of adulthood, I am aware that my aspirations to elderhood beckon from under a tent of cultural invisibility. The how of elderhood is only dimly in view midst the culture’s clamor for consumer spending, oldster fear-mongering, and a national drumbeat for narrowly-defined, older-adult self-interest. Elderhood resists those flows while embracing the realities of biology, economy, and community—not for sissies!
What occurs to me is that elderhood includes a staunch, receptive openness to possibilities for authenticity, folded into a humble acknowledgment of limits—individual and ecological—with a strong dash of courage for navigating the cultural darkness that surrounds this stage of life. Not yet clear, so please hold me in heart-mind as I stumble forward.
I tremble in awareness that we are collectively ripening into old age inside an insidious skin of ecological challenge. Elderhood is so clearly critical; wisdom, so clearly called for. I dare not take lightly the query: how do I engage as authentic elder with our contemporary configuration of climate damage, excess human population, shaky economics and divided polity? I grow aware of a quickening within, a fluidity-with-shape in the amniotic sac of my spirit. This forming thing insists that I continue to replace the question, “What are you doing?” with “How do you do whatever it is you choose to do?” and “How do we navigate culture change as an elder generation?”
The best “how” response I have so far is to move from identity to presence. To embrace an aspiration is to cultivate elder presence. As I currently understand it, this requires twin skills: a deeply-attuned, respectfully-listening inner spirit given to well-focused reflection—entwined with a courageously-patient participant-witness given to well-timed action—in relationships, communities, and polities. The flow is anchored in action-from-reflection, reflection-in-action.
When to speak and when to hold silence? When to act and when to constrain action? These arise for me as elder presencing choices arising continually, from scene to scene. And I have to leave adult identity behind.
Less ID-entity, more Presence.
From Ageism to Elderhood
From any perspective that faces the future squarely, we older adults truly have no other choice: We. Must. Embrace. Authentic. Elderhood.
I believe the embrace of authentic elderhood runs deep in human community life within the longings to know that the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren will all carry on with joy midst inevitable sorrow—while we are with them and after we are gone.
It seems at times that these sorts of longings can only arise when life has afforded time to both meet the daily needs of the body and incite the heart-mind-spirit. The elder takes up creative imaginings that both accept and leave behind a current view of reality. Living long is not the only way to arrive at such wisdom, yet ‘tis a common pathway.
Ageism short-circuits these longings. When ageism is in force, fear and anxiety, frailty and dysfunction, insecurity and lack—all arise in a great poverty of spirit that reduces elderhood to “old age.” I have to face down and own the ageist demons within; I cannot escape the torrents of my culture, the underpinnings of my beloved country, the forces of an economy, of a polity, of a history. I cannot glibly assume that I am immune—that what first occurs to me as a counter-cultural life is the best stand I can take. Struggle is fundamental to authenticity.
Aging, I struggle differently now. Eldering has its own terms and its own claims to truth, as identity transmutes into presence. So I take up the struggle inside Gray Is Green, with Conscious Elders Network.
In the foreground, Earth is calling, “Come on home, children, come on home.” Step forth, take joy, stay close. On we go.
Kathleen Schomaker lives in the Mill River Watershed in Connecticut’s Quinnipiac River Valley, where she works at the interface of ecologically sustainable living and the longevity revolution. She serves as Executive Director of Gray Is Green, a non-profit organization specializing in environmental outreach and education to older adults nationwide. Her love of nature took hold in her childhood ramblings in rural Kentucky; her passion for city life developed later when her family moved to Cincinnati. She holds advanced degrees in sociology from Ohio State University and environmental management from Yale University. Kathleen serves on her local land trust board and holds elected office on her hometown Legislative Council.