I have often felt there is a lack of ceremony in my life, that rites of passage to mark transitions are missing. Difficult events exert their crushing weight without the emotional release some kind of ritual might have provided, and the procession of years moves forward without pause or punctuation. I was therefore especially intrigued when a friend invited me to go with him for a hike that would mark his symbolic entry into elder-hood. We would be accompanied by three other companions, one of them a wise and gentle Chumash elder who would serve as our guide. But whether it involved a ceremony or not, an opportunity to walk in the backcountry with people who know where they are going sounded wonderful to me, and yes is what I said.
It was a long drive and we started out early, winding along mountain roads to a campground at the edge of a wilderness area where we met our Chumash guide. We walked along a gently rising trail through oak woodland, stands of pine and fir trees, and fragrant chaparral. Along the way were thickets of vibrant green grass and bursts of colorful wildflowers, and we soon descended into a sandy creek bed, which we followed for some time. The wonders of the wilderness unfolded before us, and every now and then our guide would stop to call our attention to a shift of environment and a different and palpable energy field, instructing us to acknowledge it and to enter with a spirit of attentiveness and gratitude.
Occasionally he paused to adjust the leg brace he was wearing to support his dodgy knee, but these too were teachable moments. “Getting older slows us down,” he said, “but when we slow down, we notice things. That’s one of the gifts of being an elder…we are allowed to slow down and notice. And when we notice, we acknowledge the spirits. We say thank you. We approach with the right attitude: humble, appreciative, and mindful.”
He further explained that it is our responsibility as elders to become the best versions of ourselves that we can be. We must be good examples to others, and we must pass along what we have learned. One of the perks, apparently, is that elders have the right to scold. But scolding is not just venting and expressing disapproval; it is a means of correcting and teaching. We should make it count.
Also, “cherished ancestral wounds” do not justify bad behavior. That’s the phrase he used, and I like it, because I think we all have wounds we sort of cherish rather than heal, and we masochistically dwell on them when we should be moving on. Forgiveness is the remedy, including forgiveness of self, although this certainly isn’t easy to implement.
It happened to be Good Friday, which someone mentioned in passing. “It sure is a good Friday,” said our guide. He had some thoughts about the Catholic church, too: “There’s an emphasis on the birth of Christ, the death of Christ, and the resurrection of Christ, but not enough on the life of Christ, on really what it means to live a life of genuine kindness, forgiveness, and love.” And here we were, surrounded by beauty in the church of the outdoors, and this was our sermon for the day. Forgiveness again. And love.
“Everyone needs to feel that they have a purpose,” he added. “And everyone does have a purpose, but they don’t always see it. One of the best things we can do for someone is to help them find their purpose.” He told us a story (one of many stories he shared along the way) about how he had helped bring peace of mind to a hardcore criminal regretfully nearing the end of his days by showing the man that his life had not been wasted, that in fact he had provided the crucial service of being a bad example to others.
“Everything in the universe has its purpose,” he continued. “Every insect, every pebble, every snowflake…and each is part of the greater whole. All things are connected. We belong t0 this vast and wondrous universe, and it belongs to us.”
“We must recognize the immensity of our being,” he said. The immensity of it. (It’s a concept I am still pondering.)
He spoke too of his belief that we are at a hopeful moment in time, a hugely transformative moment. Opportunities exist that we could not have imagined. Changes are even now happening, good ones. And why not? I allowed his lofty optimism to displace my usual anxiety for the time being.
We walked further. We stopped at a bush of white sage, touched its leaves, smelled its aroma on our fingertips, said thank you, and continued. Sometimes there were fragments of conversation in the air, sometimes just the sound of our steps on good ground.
I heard a canyon wren. We saw a hummingbird darting about the flowers, a dragonfly hovering near, butterflies and red-tail hawks, the distinctive paw prints of a mountain lion, and bees setting their example of cooperative industry for the common good, just by bee-ing.
At a few special points our guide gathered us together. “This is a portal,” he said. “Can you sense it?” And indeed we did, for the world at these junctures subtly transformed itself, humming and vibrating at a deeper level, shining more brightly, revealing itself in spellbinding clarity and detail.
Eventually we saw a distinctive rock formation looming on the horizon ahead. “What you are seeing,” said our guide, “is a space ship to another dimension.” Those with the right attitude and perspective are welcome to board, he explained.
We approached. Our guide cautioned us that the rock has absorbed the sorrow of many ancestors, and sometimes it is painful to touch. He said he had seen a visitor unexpectedly break into sobs.
We each spoke silently to the rock, touched it, and felt its ancient heat. At first I felt sad, which is still my default state, although I couldn’t tell if the sadness was personally mine or some residue of humanity’s collective heartache. I didn’t know what to say except how deeply sorry I am, and I meant it with all my heart, and how I wished there could be release from the suffering and a beautiful outcome, even if I can’t see it. I also expressed my thanks, of course, and my hope that I might be worthy and wise in this latter section my life, finding and being light.
But then a kind of giddiness crept in, beginning with an overwhelming sense of gratitude about being there. It felt deliciously implausible, as indeed my whole life is, but all of that delicious implausibility seemed to crystallize in the moment. It was absurd and timeless and wonderful. A good time for not-thinking.
I was content to go no further. I am not one of those agile, sure-footed people who climb rocks and ascend to great heights. I told my friends that I would happily wait below while they went up to the top of the rock formation. There followed a bit of gentle coercion, peer pressure, and physical force, in equal parts. One companion tied a rope around my waist and another pulled me up the rock’s steep surface.
There was a beautiful pool at the top, and pale grass, and more rock sculpture forming a sort of bowl within which we sat and felt the earth’s embrace. We took off our shoes and socks and stood in the water, and there was talk about what it means to be an elder, and about navigating life, and how good it felt to be right where we were. Our guide sang a song to us, a kind of chant that reverberated against the rocks. We ate whatever snacks each of us had carried, took some pictures, felt the wind and the sun.
I wish I could tell you otherwise, but I never set the rope down and I never entirely forgot that I would have to get back down, and getting down turned out to be even more terrifying than getting up. I wanted to face outward, but I was told to lean in facing the rock. “Be a lizard!” our guide kept saying, which was not really that helpful, and I honestly couldn’t figure out what to grab hold of or where to place my feet, and I froze. I finally saw that I had no choice but to either stay and die there or allow someone to yank me by the rope and catch me. I still don’t quite know how the removal of me was achieved, but oh, the abandon it required! And the trust in someone else’s strength! I suppose this too was a lesson.
Somehow I was down, and I’ll never do that again, but it was worth it. I will never forget the pleasure and beauty of that place on the rock, and the whole experience, including the challenge of getting up and the terror getting down. Apart from any ceremony, the journey was in its own way transformative. Maybe I am an elder now. Or almost.
Then came the hike back, long stretches of just quietly walking, the light shifting on the mountains, colorful wildflowers and grasses, the fragrance of sage and chaparral, the murmur of the creek in deep places, its water spilling over rocks, glistening in the sunlight.
I wonder what I have brought back with me, and what I will give back. I have been noting my surroundings more carefully and consciously since returning, recognizing changes in environment, acknowledging and thanking unseen forces. And I do like the idea of talking to the ancestors, of including the presence of passed souls in my life in a more positive and participatory way. (When I mentioned this to our guide he said, “Whether you do that or not, they’re there.”)
I also carry the knowledge that I am capable and strong and occasionally brave, not only because I keep trudging along, but because I can trust in the strength of another to help me when I am stuck. And I’m diligently aspiring to fulfill the role of an elder and be a good example. I’ll try to scold selectively and with kindness, and I’ll try to keep learning, because I still feel far from wisdom and peace, if indeed peace is attainable.
But my biggest insight has been a realization of how limited and secular my ways have become, how small my field of vision, how mundane and concrete I tend to be. I have emerged with a greater openness to the spiritual and non-rational aspects of existence. And there is a place in my head that wasn’t there before…that I can return to at will. Maybe I am beginning to sense what our guide means by the immensity.