A friend of mine yesterday started a cell phone discussion thread about elderhood. He isn’t as old as I am, but old enough and experienced enough to qualify as an elder, and a wise one at that.
His comments got me thinking about feet. Partly because he’s having some serious foot problems, and obviously because the relationship between my own feet and my shoes is more of an issue now that I am old than ever they were before.
The first time I had an issue with feet and shoes was early in life. In the first grade class picture, I am the only student who is barefoot! That wasn’t because we were so poor I didn’t have shoes, because we weren’t, but doubtless it was because I just always wanted to have my bare feet on the ground. I loved the feel of the cool damp grass underfoot, and the soft sand was delicious to experience. Even if I got into squishy mud or a troublesome sticker bur, I resisted shoes. As a kid, when it was time for me to come inside the house every evening, I had to sit down on the porch steps and wash my feet in what was termed a “foot tub,” wiping them with what was called a “foot rag.”
That stage passed, of course. When I was in college, I wore fashionable five-inch spike heel shoes. (Just in case you don’t know what a spike heel was, it was this situation: your foot was angled into a shoe with your toes crushed in a point at ground level while your heel was suspended five inches above the tiny ½ inch dot that was the sole of the shoe at the place where the heel should have touched the ground. You more or less wavered up there above the tiny dot of heel, always mindful not to catch it in a crack in the cement or any other thing that would trip you, while trying not to turn your ankle because you tottered too far in the wrong direction.) I prided myself on my skills on those tallest heels, even in a long evening dress, for example, and even when standing long hours as a student teacher, especially when “old fogey” experienced teachers told me it was darned near insanity to wear those shoes.
President Kennedy’s wife, Jackie, bless her, changed all that for me when she appeared in sensible mid-size heels. I came down off those five-inch stilts, never to return. Sensible shoes it was!
I didn’t notice heels or shoes much for a long time after that. Until one day I realized that my younger daughter, at her graduation ceremony from the University of Texas, was the only one I saw wearing tennis shoes beneath those regal graduation robes. Oh, well.
And then, one particular day, some years later, at a conference I was attending, I saw a woman speaker take the stage, wearing what was obviously her old comfortable house slippers. This struck me with some impact.
Let me explain. I had known this woman from a conference years back, when she was not wearing slippers. Quite the contrary. She was extraordinarily elegant, well dressed, a charmer. She came through the door and swept through the gymnasium-sized room full of people like a deva, like a movie star. The stranger standing next to me muttered, “Well, well! There’s an ego for you!”
I ignored his remark, thinking to myself that she deserved to be elegant and breathtaking. She did had presence, indeed, as she might well have, considering that she was someone with two PHD’s, one in psychology and one in religion, and she was or had already been President of the Association of Humanistic Psychology, and she had taught at Columbia University and other notable universities, and she was a student and friend of Joseph Campbell and Margaret Mead. Of course, she had an ego.
She also had a huge impact on the lives of many people, including me. In 1985, she was awarded the Distinguished Leadership Award from the Association of Teachers and Educators. In 1993, she received the Gardner Murphy Humanitarian Award for her work in psychology and the INTA Humanitarian of the Year award. In 1994, she received the Lifetime Outstanding Creative Achievement Award from the Creative Education Foundation. The following year, she was given the Keeper of the Lore Award for her studies in myth and culture. In 1997 she was made a Fellow of the World Business Academy. In 1999 she received the Pathfinder award from the Association of Humanistic Psychology. She was given the Millennium award in 2000. In 2011 she was named Spiritual Hero of the year by the Science of Mind magazine.
She got herself noticed, though, by the general public, by being friends with first lady Hilary Clinton. She led the first lady in a guided imagination session, so that Hilary could imagine any wisdom that former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt might impart to Hilary if she could. (God knows she needed it!)
The ravenous press got hold of that story and tore Jean Houston’s reputation to shreds. (For that’s who I’ve been talking about—Jean Houston; I wanted you to know about her as I had done, before the Hilary episode gave you any now preconceived notions about her.) The press basically said that first lady Hilary Clinton was consorting with a New Age guru crazy lady.
Jean was anything but crazy. She was one of the most intelligent and articulate people I ever encountered. She was, of course, out there on the edge of the mainstream, a place open to everyone’s judgments. Her husband, Robert Masters, had been part of a U.S. government sponsored project at Harvard University using LSD to study altered states of consciousness, and Jean wrote a book with him about the findings.
Jean, however, has spent her own long career exploring non-chemical expanded states of consciousness. Her emphasis on human potential and broadly based educational formats (other than just rote learning) has had a huge and important influence on education. Jean is still a dynamo, teaching, traveling, well thought of by many. (I read that Margaret Mead spent the last years of her life living in Jean’s home.) So the “bad press” she received about the Clinton episode did not stop her from her life work, though it did give me a few bad moments of embarrassment on her behalf.
But, getting back to that day years ago, even before the Clinton episode, when I watched Jean Houston walk onto that stage wearing slippers, sitting on a stool part of the time. I was taken aback. “Wow!” I thought. I literally said out loud that Jean’s ego had certainly had to adapt and adjust, and it had! She was as charismatic as ever, but she wore those unsightly and unseemly house slippers right there on stage for everyone to see.
Turned out to be as liberating for me as Jackie Kennedy’s low-heeled shoes had been, because my own ego about that time was needing reassurance after its own already-aging come-down. (A couple I was counseling at the time told me that they had recently watched a program on television advising people to choose a counselor in part based on what they wore, including their shoes. The couple told me that they had laughed and said that their counselor (me) always kicked her shoes off during their sessions, and that had told them all they needed to know.) So Jean’s slippers had been teachers back then when I saw them dangling off her feet as she sat on a stool, the rest of her as radiant as ever, still holding forth on important things.
Now, back to this morning. And the reason for this post. I actually awakened with an emotionally charged dream fragment, in which I was with a group of long-time friends who were not coming to a class I was getting ready to teach, and I was saying passionately to them that I hoped they remembered what we had all learned together, because it had been and still was, I emphasized, a most important expression so far of my “life’s work.” On awakening, I took note of the passion in that dream, and vowed to commit myself once again to my authentic life work, both as it is evolving, and as it has always been.
Then, later this morning, as I sat with my cup of hot tea, looking at my phone, reading new comments on my friend’s conversational thread about elderhood, and, switching to delete the phone’s “trash” and “spam,” I noticed in the spam folder a message that advertised one of Jean Houston’s classes! I stalled out for a moment. Jean had been automatically relegated to spam. I sat there thinking about that, and considering my dream, and elderhood, and, before long, wondering if what I send out to the public also ends up in spam.
I have thought, from time to time, about Jean’s continuing to teach, today, much of the same stuff that was so important all those years ago when I first met her. I too have been teaching for a long time, and I find myself often going over the same stuff with people, especially new people.
I have often pondered whether it was time for me (and Jean and other elders) to sit down and leave our various teaching stages altogether, to be given the “hook,” as they say in the acting world, getting us off stage when we won’t leave on time.
But, then, I keep having conversations with young people, my grandchildren and others, who seem to be reinventing the wheel, needing some of the same sorts of information I had needed when young. They are appropriately racing forward to change the world, and we elders can gratefully embrace the new things they are bringing into being and into focus for the world, but I expect the young ones, as they make the great leaps forward, still need the stability of history and experience that elderhood can provide, so that they not be leaping into the abyss, into anarchy and chaos, but have instead the steadying influence of someone’s experience and wisdom.
So, reflecting on my friend’s question from yesterday about elderhood, followed by this morning’s events and musings, I have chosen to continue to believe, for now, that eldering simply means sharing, hopefully passionately, perhaps quietly, but sharing one’s own authentic voice, sharing our experience, gifts, and gratitude. Each of us, at any age, is unique, each an individual expression of the vast Wholeness of Life’s wisdom and beauty and we all need each other to sing our own songs.
It is the ego itself that says we should get off the stage, in our slippers or our old lady shoes or with our canes, need be. The ego ignores the fact that the information itself is sacred, even if no one listens. Even if we are old fogeys ourselves, warty and funny looking and passe; never mind. We are here. Sing our songs.
Birds probably sing because they just sing, not because such singing benefits any human who listens. They don’t stop singing because they’ve sung that song before and are repeating themselves. Same for us elders. We may just need to sing, because it’s who we are, what we are, hopefully singing what is most blessedly natural to us. The singing is important, where we are concerned, for ourselves, whether or not there are any listeners, appreciative or dismissive.
The Universe is humming with energy, obviously attempting to manifest itself in so many myriad ways. My way, Jean’s way, my friend’s wonderful way, every elder’s way, every young person’s way—we each have a voice that is important, to us, if not to anyone else. May we elders have healthy resilient egos that allow us to sing our sacred songs, in whatever condition we find ourselves, in slippers, with a cane, in a wheelchair, in nursing homes, whatever, forever.
Such is elderhood for me, today, as I walk barefoot around my house now. Later I will go down for a necessary rest or a cat nap with my little kitten, whose soft foot pads will never, not ever wear five-inch spike heels. Or tennis shoes, for that matter. His way is natural to him, and that is just fine with me. He purrs in his own way, and I will too.