The following essay was originally published in Volume 1 of Ravenous Zine.
“I once dreamt I was telling stories and felt someone patting my foot in encouragement. I looked down and saw that I was standing on the shoulders of an older woman who was steadying my ankles and smiling up at me. I said to her, “No, no come stand on my shoulders, for you are old and I am young.” “No, no,”, she insisted, “this is the way it is supposed to be.” I saw that she stood on the shoulders of a woman far older than she, who stood on the shoulders of a woman even older, who stood on the shoulders of a woman in robes, who stood on the shoulders of another soul, who stood on the shoulders…”
-Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype
As I walked up EarthThunder’s driveway my gaze trailed from her front yard, shadowed by a large pine, covered with wild mint and sage, to the to the front stoop where a few decorated antlers hung next to the stained glass door. To the right of the entryway, as I walked inside, stood a tall table strewn with small trays and bowls holding smudge sticks and crystals. Feathers and beadwork hung from the wall behind the couch along with fans and rattles. Ruby, her butter yellow Labrador, greeted me with a wagging tail and heavy breath. The dim light and cool air of the living room was an instant refuge from the sweltering August sun.
I noticed a large drum on the floor in front of EarthThunder’s TV as I sat down on the couch across from her oversized recliner. I wondered which she used more often, the TV or the drum as she excused herself to the kitchen, explaining it was time to take her medicine. At first sight she seemed quite healthy. Her kind eyes and tall rounded body felt appropriate for her age.
At 35 years myself, I’m beyond the age of naivety; yet walking in the body of my mother— I sit in a unique position with no children of my own between two epochs of the female journey. I am no longer the Maiden, not yet a Mother, and still have more than a few decades before I become a wise Crone. Derived from the word “crown,” the halo of light that represents wisdom, in antiquity a crone was the female keeper of wisdom and magic.
Seeking such a woman is what brought me to the living room of EarthThunder. Why? Because regardless of my age, nearly every day, every second that my eyes are open, I’m faced with images and messages about the importance of maintaining my youth. Obvious or surreptitious, they have become the driving force in every dialogue of advertising, marketing and entertainment. Most of us are starved for the kind of sage advice that this woman possesses.
As I start to recognize the life I’ve lived in the lines of my own face, I honestly don’t know what’s more crushing to my female spirit: the inundation of ego-driven youthfulness shoved down my throat or the void in our society of any serious discussion about aging as a woman.
That’s why I chose to seek out the Crone—a woman who could begin to teach me how to age not with grace—but with a tenacity and fire that only a woman in her older years had the experience and capacity to carry.
That may be a long journey but this time it began in the dimly lit living room of the long, silver haired woman and healer named EarthThunder. I’d found her by typing “woman healer aging wisdom Idaho” into Google. Reaching out via Facebook I asked if she would be willing to meet with me, a complete stranger, to talk about her experience with aging as a woman.
She quickly responded with an enthusiastic “Yes!”, and invited me to her home. In no time I knew this short interview couldn’t be our only time together. I feel like I have so much catching up to do. I have so many questions. My curiosity was running wild and I had found my Crone.
There was so much I wanted to ask EarthThunder. Crass shit. Honest shit. Real shit. What is sex like? Do you still want to have sex? Does it hurt to be old? Do you have a lady gang? Are you still silly? Is your inner child still alive? Do you sometimes want to set things on fire because of how you are treated by society?
As women we have to hunt for what has been erased. So much of our generational learning and female lineage has been silenced or completely wiped out by those who are in power and control the overarching dialogue. We have to become the hunters and the gatherers of the wisdom not advertised.
“Thank you so much for welcoming me,” I began as Ruby circled in front of me, finding her place to lay at the feet of a new friend. EarthThunder was a total stranger to me, yet familiar. In the last year or two I have spent so much time on the road crossing paths with people who are new to me that these encounters have become almost as comfortable as the few-and-far-between moments spent with close friends.
“I guess, well, can you start by first telling me what getting older means to you.”
“Well, I was talking to my six-year-old great grandson Oliver the other day,” she said. “I don’t remember what we were talking about but he just looked at me and said, ‘Nana you’re old and you’re going to die.’ I said, ‘Oh gosh Oliver, that’s a horrible thing to think. Who taught you that?’ He said, ’I just know.’ I told him, ‘Well we’ve got to have some talks about getting older.’ I said to him, getting older simply means your gifts catch up with you—when you reach older age, you’re a basket full of gifts.”
“…a basket full of gifts.”the first thing out of this woman’s mouth was like nothing I had ever heard in regards to aging as a woman.
“And you know, I think we need to be educating along the way, at 25, 35, 45,- that being an elder with gifts, it’s not something you are handed, it has to be something you earn.”
Without hesitation she began to explain that we have a responsibility, throughout our lives to accumulate wisdom and share it with others.
“You’ve got to start educating yourself about being the kind of person that people come to for advice… Becoming the kind of person that takes care of her health and takes care of her exercise and takes care of her food, takes care of her relationships.
“That starts early and needs to become a part of your day. I think it’s very important. I see people who get ‘old’ and become a burden on their famiies. If you check out their livelihood, it wasn’t very lively. They really had a lot of problems they didn’t address in their early years until they got to an age where it became devastating.”
I felt a warming tingle in my abdomen as she spoke.
“You’ve got to start letting people know around you that, ‘Someday I’m going to be the wise one. Someday I’ll accumulate all these visions and these wisdoms and I’m going to be the wise Crone.’ And in that way the family and the community is used to saying ‘elder,’ used to saying ‘Crone,’ rather than just saying ‘Oh, she’s old.’ which sounds like a death trap.
What EarthThunder was telling me was that old age should be a kind of empowerment.
Ruby kept panting across the room to sit with her front paws on the cold air of the floor vent then she’d scurry back to sit at our feet.
Already EarthThunder took us in a completely different direction than I thought we would head. Instead of talking about how to deal with the reality of aging or how to cope with the way we are treated, she was very clear that is it up to us as women to take responsibility for the value we bring to the table.
“As a female, do you think it’s up to us to change the way we’re valued as we get older?”
“Yes. Yes, definitely. Whether it’s passion, or it’s work, or it’s education- whatever it is, every individual has the responsibility to declare who she is. It’s not another’s job to remember who you are, it’s your job to help others remember who you are.”
Damn. “…every individual has a responsibility to declare who they are as they get older.”
Drop the mic on the “How to Get Old and Be Rad’ lesson.
You have to declare it.
“You know,” she told me, “Getting old does change your gender. You feel neutered. You feel a neutrality that’s very odd. Your eyes dim, you don’t see the aspects of yourself as clearly as you once did. So to have a memory or practice to declare who you are, is even more important.”
It made perfect sense. If you fail to speak to who you are – fail to make it a practice to declare yourself along your path through your actions and words – you will one day look in the mirror with blurry eyes and not see the woman you have decided to be. Instead you’ll see a blur of a person with no physical reminders of who you were when you were granted the gift of youth.
“How old are you?”
“I’m 70, almost 71.”
“How do you feel?”
“I feel great. I am still thinking clearly. I am still seeing clearly. In many ways much more so than I was in my 50’s. When I was 50 I ran myself around, too busy. I lived in a lot more fear. I live with a lot less fear now.”
“Why do you think that is?”
“Because I planned well enough and I didn’t give myself enough credit when I was 50. I invested, bought a house…I made sure I had a place to come back to.”
The image of my own mother flashed into my head. She is so hard on herself. She doesn’t give herself enough credit. (Note to self: don’t be so hard on yourself when you’re in your fifties, the seventy-year-old version of you will think it was a waste of time.)
EarthThunder’s smoky-coal tinted hair reached the long outline of her breasts under her oversized purple t-shirt, lying to either side of her belly as she gently rocked in her recliner.
I can’t wait to not give a fuck about having long tits and no bra. I bounced from longing to be bra free myself to wondering what made her think the way she does about aging.
“Can you give me a little bit of your background as to how your worldview was shaped and how it has helped you in aging?
“Well I had the benefit of being raised from birth to age ten by four women; grandmothers and great grandmothers. Four elder women plus aunties, grandfathers, uncles. And we’re Native American. It is the way of the Native American to always be putting something away for the time when your world gets kind of lean. You never use up everything. It’s the 80/20 process. 80% you use in the present, 20% you save back.”
You hear this advice about saving all the time when it comes to money and time. But I can’t recall the last time, if ever, I was taught the same lesson in regard to experiences and energy.
I began to see that in her world, her relationship to saving included everything from money and energy to stories and experiences. I started to understand that the energy you invest in new experiences and adventures today, creates a reservoir of stories and sage advice to share with others down the road.
“It was always told in our stories that today you receive a gift, but that gift is going to be stored away until a day when you have more time to present it and others will come to you to receive that gift. That philosophy was just threaded into my life.”
None of this had been threaded into my life. As EarthThunder spoke about living in the wilds of Idaho with four generations of women under one roof, my eyes started to well with tears of envy.
I would love a dose of multi-generational learning but that’s not what the folks around me have ever really done. I was taught to be independent, support myself, and create a life for me.
Both my grandmothers were good Catholic 1950s housewives with multiple kids. I remember that being their focus. My mom, on the other hand, was a single mother most of my life with one daughter, working long days and sometimes weekends in a the male dominated, bureaucratic non-profit world.
My grandmother would offer useful tips as she puttered around the house and in the kitchen. She saved plastic bags and foil, twisty ties and wrapping paper. My mom’s advice has mostly been aimed at teaching me to trust my own instincts, learning to pick my battles along the way and how to best navigate in a male dominated society. There was never talk of gathering “gifts” I could bestow at an old age. One day after my grandmother passed, my mom told me that her mother never really talked to her about aging or how hard it was.
She felt unprepared. I hate feeling unprepared.
“What kinds of routines do you have in your life that you think have been the most important for your physical, mental, or spiritual health as you’ve aged?
“I do a ritual twice a day where I go outside, sometimes I read it from a piece of paper and sometimes I do it from memory- I do my gratitude. Every day I rise in gratitude. Every day is a new day because the day before wasn’t promised. Every day I thank all of nature, my loved ones, I thank myself and the critters, I thank everything and anything I can think of and I start my day that way. That’s sunrise. And then in the afternoon, at sunset, I close the day. I think it’s very important, especially in this accelerated way people live, to close your day.”
“I can get to churning up a lot of energy during the day and there needs to be a time when I cut it off—when I say ‘enough, close the door, have your supper.’ Understand that what has been accomplished is all that can be accomplished and be in wellness about that. Be okay with that. So I do a sunset ritual. I give thanks for everything again. I do that twice a day every day of my life.”
As she spoke I was reminded of a college course I took, Environmental Education Through An Indigenous Lens. My professor spoke to the importance of living with the seasons, with gratitude and understanding of the changing environment around us.
“Is living with respect and understanding for the seasons something you practice? Does that impact your aging?”
“Oh, absolutely. My sunrise ritual changes on a 28 day basis; a moon cycle. By being in these cycles it helps teach me about where food is alive, where food is dying, it helps me be more patient with relationships.
“So like fall, fall is a time for thanks giving more than the actual day of Thanksgiving. You’re gleaning, you’re harvesting, giving away what you can’t store. And it’s the same with relationships. What you do with food, you do with relationships and you’ll find them much easier. Winter is a time when everything dies and the only reason we can still work and be productive is because we have the energy left over, the savings account from Spring, Summer and Fall. And so when you think about your relationships, don’t expect a lot from your relationships in Winter. Tone it down, let it rest.”
“So, are you saying it’s ok if all we want to do is stay in and eat soup and watch Netflix and chill, that’s cool?”
“Absolutely! And same thing about Spring. When Spring comes you start to believe in reincarnation and renewal. Then is a time to work on your relationships to see what they can behold. To plant, to structure the garden of your relationship in a way that will produce. And Summer is a time for dreaming. You want to leave some time for dreaming, because the dreams of your summer are what will fulfill you through Fall, through Winter, and through Spring again.”
Declare yourself. Gather and invest in experiences or “gifts” to share when the day comes. Ritual. Gratitude. Netflix and chill. These seem so simple. So natural.
I knew I had taken enough of EarthThunder’s time. My mother taught me to respect other people’s time. As I thanked her again and stood, a black and caramel colored kitty poked her face around the corner.
“Mystery! This is rare, she never comes out to see people. Mystery is a healer. This is very rare, good for you girl friend. She likes you.”
I told her I felt like I could talk to her forever.
“Oh, me too. I hope we talk again. I have a drum circle you can come to. I have really enjoyed this conversation circle. I look forward to our next one.”
“Me too, more than you probably know.”
There is so much wisdom in older women. I am often stunned to think how little regard we have for them in today’s day in age. In all of my travels, women nearing sixty and beyond have taught me the most by far. To hear their struggles, to behold their accomplishments, to stand by their side and show enthusiasm for their wisdom — Iit’s clear to me that it’s not only a privilege, it’s my responsibility.
We are the ones who will be seen as either “old” or as a Crone someday. If we don’t connect and sit with sagely women today, we won’t have any shoulders to stand on tomorrow. We won’t have any ageless wisdom to pass on. And that’s the kicker I suppose, it’s the wisdom that defies time, shows no signs of aging. It’s not about you and the body you carry. It’s about the women that have come before you and the young women that will come after you.
It’s honoring the Crone by listening, while also declaring yourself an important part of the collective story. To age is to understand that you are responsible for gathering gifts and collecting timeless wisdom that you will later share. Only when you are able to stand grounded in your value and speak it will you be prepared to carry the next young woman upon your shoulders and negate the illusion of the youth-based value system we’ve been sold. It’s not about staying young, it’s about remaining valuable. When your body can no longer carry the weight, you had better have stories and experiences that do.