Elderhood, Exile and Pilgrimage – part one

Desert Monolith

Desert Monolith

I first wrote “old age” in the title instead of elderhood, but thought better of it.  “Old age” can refer to something that is measured chronologically, while “elderhood” is more of a qualitative developmental stage I think. . .

Getting old(er) slows many of us down and sometimes can lead to a different kind of discomfort and pain – that of stillness and silence, sometimes born of simply slowing down and appreciating solitude, sometimes it is from being alone.  How many of us insist as we age that we shall keep on doing just as we have done before, it is the mantra of our youth-glorifying culture to always be active, participating, making, contributing, talking and so on.  But sometimes, we can find ourselves in a desert of vastness, alone and, as is appropriate for a desert, “deserted.”  This unfamiliar place and mode of being is so unfamiliar to us, it is often a frightening wilderness.  How can we go on in this strange place and why would we want to go on?  Thomas Merton observed in “Thoughts in Solitude:”

To wage war against despair is our wildness.

Perhaps we need the wilderness of desert, of that place of exile, if we hope to be able to discover our wildness.  This is what I am referring to when I write about exile, the wilderness of the unknown.

I recently met with someone who chose to return to Colorado to live.  This person had retired from the foreign service and had a foreign-born spouse and had not lived in Colorado for more than probably sixty years.  It seems that our sense of place, of belonging somewhere, is often inextricably tied to the movement we experience in our lives, along with the ancient mythological notions of exile and return.  So too our sense of belonging is often based on a comfortable way of being in the world that serves the limited and limiting needs of the ego-self (and not the higher self).

Next month is National Poetry Month, so I’ll start a bit early with this haiku from Saigyo:

So loath to lose

What really should be loathed:

One’s vain place in life,

We maybe rescue best the self

Just by throwing it away.

From Sanka-Shu (Lafleur transl.) in The Karma of Words: Buddhism and the Literary Arts in Medieval Japan (1983) at 100.  The transition to old age or elderhood can be a journey of years, a waking up in a strange and unfamiliar place, or even a drawing of a curtain of darkness between what-once-was-and-is-no-longer and a present existence which simply cannot be accepted.  In the latter place of being I am taking about the deepest level of youth glorification that can often continue during a person’s old age, when we focus exclusively on the losses sustained by our “doing” and otherwise capable self.  Death denial would seem merely to be an extension of such thinking.

Okay, there’s elderhood, old age and exile . . .  so what about pilgrimage. . . ?  It just so happens there are more than a couple springtime pilgrimage festivals if you will: Passover, one of three pilgrimage festivals on the Jewish calendar and Easter holy week, a pilgrimage time for Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and other communities.  Pilgrimage is in many respects a traditional ritual which is anti-modern in experience for many people who choose to make a pilgrimage.  Note how interesting is the common Indo-European roots of these three words: holy, whole and heal.  Definitions for pilgrimage include:

A journey to a shrine or other sacred place;

Journey or long search made for exalted or sentimental reasons;

Any long journey, especially one undertaken as a quest or for a votive purpose, as to pay homage.

And these are just a few!  In many ways, exile can be a form of liberation – whether we choose to see it that way is up to us of course (as is how we see anything).  Reminds me of the quote about seeing the world as we are, not as it is, which on this occasion I’ll attribute it to the poet and mystic William Blake, who also wrote:

Mysteries are not to be solved. They eye goes blind when it only wants to see why.

In many ways exile can be a form of liberation – whether we choose to it that way is up to us of course.  Is this perhaps why so many pilgrims go on their trek to begin with?  I’m think if many modern pilgrims walking along the Camino, making the Hajj to Mecca, or traveling to Chimayo, New Mexico – and many other places and paths.

Please stay tuned for part 2 next week. . . .

©Barbara Cashman  2015   www.DenverElderLaw.org

 

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