Fairy tales…ancient wisdom. Strange that two of these stories dropped in my lap at once: The Handless Maiden and Vasa Lisa. Lucky enough to receive these two stories by listening intently. Usually I learn best physically doing as I observe, kinesthetic supported by visual. My auditory channel is functional, just not as well-greased. Maybe that’s why listening to each story made such an impact. Information entered my nervous system via a less utilized pathway, my attention completely riveted.
The story of Vasa Lisa was woven through the just completed Inside Out workshop, a luxurious day of quietly travelling deep in the core. With our communal attention focused as it was on heart and hara, Vasa Lisa’s longing became our own. Stillness invited us to touch our own longing, as well as the challenging forces that keep us from claiming what we truly desire. My attention, captured by this story, was fixed all week as I held class after class investigating this tender question.
This other story, the one of the Handless Maiden, is at the heart of a six-month elder-hood initiation. Let me explain. I was carded regularly ‘til I was thirty-five. Small stature, youthful appearance were not welcome early on. In later years, these qualities have contributed to a bit of denial about my own aging. On more than one recent occasion someone has cited my senior status and turned to me for support or advice or guidance. I look over my shoulder to figure out who they are actually seeking. I guess I could go kicking and protesting into this status. But maybe this is a moment where grace could be cultivated. Hence this initiation process, which completes right before my 70th birthday.
In this Brothers Grimm fairy tale a magician approaches the maiden and asks, “Are you of this world or not of this world?” The maiden replies, “I was once of the world, and yet I am not of this world.” The magician returns to the king who asks, “Is she human or spirit?” The magician says, “She is both.” Perhaps a bit of wisdom about elder status is nestled in this question and response. The topside world claims our attention for so many decades. I was definitively very much of this world for a long time. Glimpses of the underworld, the spirit world, intrigued me. There just never seemed time to indulge the curiosity it ignited. Too busy schooling, paying rent, putting food on table, marrying, career-ing, baby-making. But still it festered. I had a precious 7 minute commute to work avidly consuming audiotapes: Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Baba Ram Dass, Jack Kornfield, Angeles Arrien, Steven Levine…so many souls kept my underworld breathing.
Until one day my children were set free and I went upon a vision quest and Gabrielle Roth delivered me to a long lost dancing self. And I sold my business and I full on entered quiet anonymity and I stayed down in the subterranean forest drinking my fill for a long spell. I had to leave the life I knew, spend a long time not knowing what would come next, trust I would emerge whole, holy, free. Endure many moments of self-doubt and, even harder, the doubt of people who knew and loved me.
It only took a few years for the topside world to start laying claim on me once more. But I answered that call in an altered way, carved a life bridging both worlds. Teetering between topside and underworld in order to teach. Patient care? Same. Long underworld afternoons backyard and studio—in the grass, on the mat, the dance floor, the cushion. Writing and reading. Regular time camping on the earth. Required for holding space with integrity. Indeed, for living my life with integrity.
Now, even the hours devoted to home and garden, kitchen and restaurant, long long marriage, grown children, grandchildren—life just doesn’t feel so cut off only topside anymore like it used to. Boundaries have blurred. I used to wear certain clothes for work, other clothes for home, now my body is covered by a single cloth.
Maybe elder-hood is about living topside and underworld at the same time. For me—so very personal—-it took this huge break twenty years ago. And there’s an accompanying juicy story of humiliation to tell here some day. In retrospect, the path to this moment looks clear. It was so muddy during transition. Is there such a thing as arrival? Apparently not for me. I feel a continual need to let go, pare down, release. I find myself clinging to the most surprising things.
And here’s the crazy part. In so many ways I’m living the life I longed for, the one I imagined two decades ago. Yet, as I transition into what one might call conscious elder-hood, I’m wondering all over again if I’m doing what I long for or if perhaps I am walking into yet another initiation and transition. For some is there a point of completion? What does it mean to retire?
Just reporting from the front, this early elder-hood stage. No sense of conclusion here. Lots of loose ends. Plenty of mystery. Of this world. Not of this world. Wondering. Thanks for coming out and wondering with me.