We love each other, that’s what we’re here for. To alleviate suffering as best we can and to treat each other with respect, care, honor and dignity. I dreamed everybody in the neighborhood got together to celebrate Mary. Organization happens by word of mouth around here so I didn’t know it was happening until it happened. All the neighbors came out and formed a circle in the field just a ways from the building and J and someone else helped Mary walk out. She got dressed up for the occasion. It was a very big deal.

Of course it was a big deal. Making it to 93 years old is an incredibly big deal. That’s a lot of life lived. It makes you a treasure. An asset is what people call it, but how can we say that in a way that’s not wrapped up in financial systems? Elders can embody wisdom, strength, lessons learned, but the passing of time isn’t enough to confer the title. I remember how my father cringed on that retreat when people started calling him an elder. He said it himself: age doesn’t automatically confer wisdom.

Just because someone’s old doesn’t mean they’re wise. But everyone advanced in age has seen some suffering, lived through varieties of heartbreak, had all the ups and downs you can have in 90+ years and they are deserving of extra care and respect just for that. I don’t know why folks imagine themselves immune from aging and its challenges: mystery illnesses, breakdown of the body, loss of mobility, of cognitive functions. One breakdown or another happens to everyone who’s lucky enough to reach old age. We are of the nature to grow old, we cannot escape aging.

new ancestors

Toward the end of her life, Mary heard music no one else could hear. She was very thin and frail, not able to handle going up and down the marble stairs anymore, but loved connection and would hang out on the landing like a spider in her web, ensnaring anyone who passed by in conversation. It didn’t cost much to talk to her, though because her hearing was poor sometimes it took some extra effort to communicate. She told me a little about the music that drew her up toward the roof and I think it was maybe not dissimilar to the lights my maternal grandmother saw at the end of her life. Lights that were a friendly energy, spirit, angels maybe. Companionable lights no one else could see. There were threads of light, dancing.

Both of my grandmothers lived into their hundreds and managed to keep their wits about them, more or less lucid to the very end. In my last conversation with my grandmother she shared her outrage and sense of injustice, can you believe this shit? No grandma, I cannot. I truly cannot believe this shit and trust me, you got out when the getting was good. I’m so glad she didn’t have to live through what’s happening now. She made her exit in November 2019 at 103 years old.

My heart aches for the lack of dignity older folks experience in this country at the end of their lives. Losing agency, condescended to, ignored, hidden from sight. Part of the tragedy of covid is how many of our elders we’re losing. Numbed by the the enormity of our losses we’re even losing the capacity to mourn, to grieve together, to share ceremony honoring those who’ve passed. We need to celebrate each other.

celebrate each other

A couple years back, in our neighborhood we had a funeral for the hamster of a kid in the building next door. People from different buildings all came out, we had a moment of silence, said a few words honoring its life and its contributions and it was buried in the park, sticks for grave markers. R played Taps on his phone. The kid cried and cried and adult neighbors stood by respectfully.

Part of me thought it was too much, but another part of me was honored to participate, grateful to share in holding space for the child. He had loved. He lost a good friend. His heart was aching. We were paying respect to the life lost, to the love, to all of it. Honoring their connection to each other, the love and joy present between them, as well as our connections with each other. As we celebrate each other, we celebrate life itself

We’ll die too. All of us will die. What will happen then to the ones we love that are left behind? Ceremony is important. Me saying it doesn’t make it so, but I hope maybe people can feel it by now. We need to grieve. And not only in isolation, feeling like we bear this suffering alone. Some things are too much to bear alone. We need to feel our pain and allow it to move through us, transforming us in the process.

Grief and helplessness and rage, we’re not in charge of those feelings or how they manifest in us– when they arise and pass, but we can create space internally to allow them to be present, to be with them for as long as they need and then when ready, they will continue to flow. Uncried tears are poison. Denied anger and grief, poison. It’s essential that it be honored and respected because it is there, it’s part of this life, this being human. Allow it to clear you out, burn you to the ground if need be. Not because you like it, but just because it’s happening.

in it together

Some things are just too much to bear alone. We need each other for this. That’s what the ceremony was. The boy cried and it was ok to cry because we were there with him, holding space. Honoring and allowing and supporting him in all his expressions. That is love too. The collective mourning that’s necessary now to integrate the experience of this pandemic and all the losses it’s brought us is more than my mind can conceive of. I know we need each other to bear it. None of this is meant for anyone alone. It’s not personal.

P noted wisely that the great anthem isn’t called “I shall overcome,” it’s “We shall overcome.” And folks weren’t singing it because they felt happy or confident in victory. Rather, it’s much more likely they felt beat down and devastated by all the violence, hatred and loss on all sides. But there’s such a thing as being held by the collective (many hands make light work) and a place where faith can come in to support as well. (Don’t call it faith if that word bothers you, call it something else like determination. Maybe even just intention would do.)

dWhat kind of life do you want to live? What kind of relationships do you want to have? How do you want to be treated? What world would you like to live in? A culture of care? A place where there’s room for us to celebrate each other and all that is. Good, because that’s what we’re doing now. Welcome aboard, thanks for joining us.

“We Shall Overcome” from Pete Seeger’s 90th Birthday Concert (Clearwater Concert), Madison Square Garden, 5/3/09. Featuring: Pete Seeger, Emmylou Harris, Joan Baez, Toshi Reagon, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, Billy Bragg, Keller Williams, Ani DiFranco, Ruby Dee, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, New York City Labor Choir.