Not Somewhere Else, But Here

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Adrienne Rich reading "What Kind of Times Are These"


There was a time when New Year’s Eve inspired a terrible restlessness—trying to find the right place to be at midnight—fueled by a superstition that where you were at that moment would influence your whole year. On one such night some forty years ago at a very dull South St. Louis party, my friend Sherry Jo suddenly looked at me and said, “Let’s go.” So we piled into her pumpkin-coloured Chevy Nova and headed to the Central West End, where we were fairly sure we’d find something better. But the stroke of 12 caught us driving along Skinker Boulevard—in transit—which pretty much set the tone of those years, as she and I crisscrossed the world in opposite directions, trying to find our right place.

Yesterday in the community centre locker room, a few of us got to talking about the strange year we’ve just been through and how the present isn’t quite the future we felt we were dreaming up when we were younger.

“There’s no such thing as the status quo anymore,” one guy said.

And I thought that’s what we wanted—something better, different, other than that.

But this?

“Nobody seems to know what’s next,” said another. 

“If I could only know what’s now,” I said, “I might be able to figure out what’s next.”

An astrologer friend back East insists that’s the good news, the unfamiliarity of this time. She says it suggests we really haven’t been here before, that the old answers fit none of the new questions, that from this point on, we are truly pioneers.

What made me think it might be easier? The rough patches aren’t usually part of the vision or even the strategic plan. They’re largely unforeseen.

How could we have known as we gathered for harmonic convergences and lunar eclipses throughout the 80s and 90s that this is what we were hoping for?

The fact is that those of us who are lucky enough to have made it this far are getting old, and our role is changing. To claim that 60 is the new 40 is to sidestep an important responsibility, that of elder. The trouble is, none of us really knows what that means. It’s a role that has all but disappeared from North American culture, at least in the mainstream, and yet it’s something we seem to remember by instinct and when we encounter it in dreams—and in the street. For there’s a way in which the homeless often step into this role and remind us in disturbing ways, that we are, in fact, all family.

I am not talking here about elders as a fixed group of people. Or even old people for that matter. The role of elder is fluid. Our job is to recognize when it’s being occupied and to step into it when we are called. And to step out of it again, when we notice ourselves taking it personally.

My present confusion comes from always having had a cause in the past. It was the War in Vietnam, social justice, civil rights that called me out of my private reverie and into the collective dreaming. Indeed one of our battle cries in those days was: The Personal Is Political. At this point it’s clear that the world is not about me. That’s one of the gifts of middle age. The world will go on about its business with or without my approval. It shows a singular disregard for my most deeply held opinions. And that’s beginning to be a big relief.

What matters is that when we are in the role of the elder, we let go of our personal agenda. For the moment we belong to no political party or special interest group. As Arnold Mindell reminds us in The Deep Democracy of Open Forums, the elder’s ability to switch roles is “in response to the moment and for the benefit of all.” The elder, he continues, “may have a very strong mind of her own and, at the same time, may act as if she has no self at all; rather, she is a channel through which nature speaks.”

In the last few weeks, I’ve found myself returning to the poetry of Adrienne Rich, and recall the clarifying heat of her rage over the last 40 years. When I find videos of her interviews and readings, I am struck by the dignity with which she now occupies the role of elder American poet. It makes me think of this place so many of us have reached “where the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows.”

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