Being elders: Generational stories can create community
ADDISON COUNTY— When Christopher Shaw was in his twenties, he had a wizened, old, long-distance sailor for a friend. A relentless chain smoker of Camel cigarettes, this man was one of a few elders in Shaw’s life at the time, and Shaw remembers his wily stories and rollicking songs.
He loved listening to the older people in his life.
“I hung onto their words,” Shaw said of the elders in his life. “I always looked up to them and wanted their wisdom.”
To Shaw, these women and men were the “living embodiment of a past you couldn’t access in another way,” he said. They were good instructors, even if they weren’t all good examples.
Shaw, who taught English and writing at Middlebury College until three years ago, is now 72. He said that in the past few years he has felt hostility instead of word-clinging respect from young folks. Though he doesn’t think the hostility toward his generation is entirely warranted, he does understand where it comes from.
“Teenagers look at those who come before them and say they are to blame,” Shaw said.
But whereas community traditions all over the world have long held elders at their center — as storytellers, leaders and guidance-givers — senior folks in our fast-paced, globalizing, in-crisis culture often feel they are regarded with less and less priority.
François Clemmons, 76, doesn’t feel he’s being treated as the resource he is. Clemmons, who retired in 2013 after 15 years as Middlebury College’s Twilight Artist-in-Residence and many more as director of the Harlem Gospel Choir, said the school and wider community’s “community outreach” has not reached him. He is happy to own the role of “elder” and said he thinks students, young people and community members of all stripes should come talk to him and other community elders (particularly those who live alone), but they rarely do.
The Black singer doesn’t want to force himself on anyone but said he doesn’t think this lack of regard or invitations is “healthy or honest.”
Clemmons wishes the college would offer students the opportunity to learn from him and other community elders.
“You’re depriving the Black, international and artistic students of a role model,” he said.
Hailing from Birmingham, Ala., Clemmons is chockablock full of stories, and brings a different perspective than most to this community. “I don’t like rhubarb, I don’t ski, I don’t climb mountains, I don’t drink beer and I still like cane syrup more than maple syrup,” he laughed. But he’s here because he loves Vermont’s people, and he believes there’s healing power in that love.
“Unconditional love, that’s the first thing to put out there,” said Clemmons, who weaves his care (and his resonant singing) into all of the stories he shares.
Mark Orten, age 55 and Dean of Spiritual Life at Middlebury College, agreed that receiving love, lessons and stories from older folks is key to growing in a healthful, deep-listening way, but these aren’t conversations he wants to have in a hurry.
“We do have pieces to hand off,” he said. “Generations have things to say to each other that are profoundly changing.”
But in what Orten calls “the real consequences of a capitalist culture,” this intergenerational rapport is often neglected and he said it will take active attention to return to it.
“People don’t even know what they’re missing, it’s just absent,” Orten said of honoring elderhood. He added that our culture’s aversion to death and dying is an obstacle to rich mentor relationships.
Another thorn in the side of intergenerational communication and community-creation is the mounting climate crisis.
“It crushes me every day that I’m going to leave the world in this shape,” Shaw said.
Clemmons agreed this crisis is one all generations are responsible to, which makes communicating with older folks even more urgent and crucial.
“Us elders are caretakers of the earth, and we are also a part of it,” he said.
Clemmons added that if he weren’t so spiritual, he would be “terrified.”
“If we don’t want to destroy ourselves, we will begin by cultivating relationships,” he said.
Carol and Reg Spooner, age 92 and 84, respectively, have been facilitating relationship with place and community through the Spirit In Nature Interfaith Path Sanctuary in Ripton since 1997, when they co-founded the trail system with several other community members. The couple, who claim old age “works” with a partner, said their way of dealing with how “screwed up everything is these days” is to “live for today and do what we can for today, and hope others do the same.”
Shaw shared a similar sentiment.
“How do we get through it — jeez barely,” he said. “But the world is still so beautiful…my daily practice is living into how things really are and also feeling the joy of every day.”
Shaw said this is what he yearns to share with younger friends. “But hey,” he added, “old folks will share what they think is wisdom, and sometimes it’s just bullshit.”
Then again, sometimes it’s precisely what’s needed — young folks need only be open to listening.
As Clemmons put it, “I’ve got some medicine, folks, come and get it.”