Rites of Passage: The Aging Pagan
Crones and Wise Men
Dancing With Spirit
by Sue Curewitz Arthen ©1989
In 1984, our open Hallows circle began in a slightly unusual way. The darkened room filled slowly as people worked their way through a tunnel into a large ritual space and formed a circle in silence. But just as the circle was about to be cast, there was a ruckus in the tunnel, and a querulous voice demanded, “What the hell is going on here? Who are all these people?” Then, in a more tremulous tone, “Where am I? Why are you all looking at me?” A bag lady, returning for leftovers from the supper for the homeless held in this same hall earlier, entered the circle, and looking around, said, “I know who you are, and I know what you’re afraid of. You’re afraid of me!” I was the Crone. Playing a modern version of this traditional role, I tugged at the threads that people like to keep hidden, the threads of loneliness, alienation, and fear. And I held the cauldron that the threads were thrown into as people worked toward transformation. For the year following that Hallows circle, I thought I knew what it meant to be a Crone. I was wrong.
A wise woman told me recently that although the energies and the aspects of the Crone are certainly present and working in us and our rituals, there is something different about actually crossing the threshold to become the Crone. You have a perspective that includes having been all the other aspects of the Goddess in a tangible reality. There is a validity based on physical experience. A well known choreographer said of being old, “It is like Janus the two-faced God: you can look back and see the past, you can still look ahead and see the future, and you are centered firmly in the present. This is something that the young simply cannot do. They haven’t lived long enough.”
When we get old and look back, what will we see? Does getting older mean getting wiser? As the Pagan community of this decade continues to grow, we have begun to realize that some rites of passage need foresight and planning, such as community rites for adolescents. Some rites may need to be invented, and the rite involving the threshold of our old age is one of those. Rites of passage rituals are part of the common language of the Pagan community today. But most of us do not have access to the example of our Pagan elders, or to their wisdom and their love, unless they are the old ones of our coven. Prior to 1970 and often today, many in the Craft feel that attending gatherings or being involved in the public Pagan community is risky – undermining anonymity and diluting Craft practice. This is especially true of older Pagans and Witches, many of whom want no connection with the community. The time-honored tradition of the young learning from the old while caring for them is almost unachievable in a community where most of us are between 25 and 45 years old.
“There is a place and a time where all the elders are called Grandmother and the newcomers are called Daughter. And this is the exchange: the young ones care and the old ones teach. Teach what? Steadfastness. How to dwell in the void. How to in-listen. How to nurture a life-giver whose life is peaking. To begin a clairvoyance of their own life’s peaking. Teach how? By touch. In the receiving of touch. By silences. By rambling, fussy, intolerable monologues. By inverting and making subtle their potency they manage to transmit it, woman-to-woman.
And the Daughter? She takes the Grandmother’s weight against her body, is depended upon. She begins to tap what has been hidden in herself. She comes close to the odors from the old one’s openings and crevices, brushes decay from the dentures, changes once again the stained sheets, caresses dried-up limbs with a steaming cloth. And in her elder’s aura, in this sheltered, set-apart place where progress happens in a different way, where upward growth has stopped, she receives her inheritance.”1
Generation-to-generation teaching – Grandmother, how do I learn to be an Elder and not just old? What has being old meant up to now? Where are the elders – our parents and grandparents?
They are “retired” or preparing to “retire,” in a world where active involvement at “work” defines who we are and what we are worth, and does little to recognize and value other kinds of contributions, the “retired” are stigmatized. There is an automatic assumption that “retirement” is total – encompassing home life, politics, and taking action in the world. Whether you retire to a luxury elder hostel or live quietly in the home you raised your family in, you become invisible.
By segregating ourselves from our elders, we perpetuate the importance given to youth in this culture, and grow uncomfortable with those who, because of their proximity to death, remind us of out own mortality. If we truly embrace all the cycles of life this kind of segregation is intolerable – and will become even more intolerable when we, in turn, are the ones isolated by our children. Maureen Howard in an article on aging parents, notes, “We believe ourselves to be safely in the midst of our lives, yet we deceive ourselves if we do not see our parents’ plight as a run-through, an unhappy dress rehearsal… And still, we speak of them, their truant ways, their foibles. It is they who are slowing down, forgetful – as though we, their children, were set within a sci-fi bubble, magically protected while the old folks mark off the dreary years.”2
Being old often means diminished physical capabilities and beauty but our present society does little to view this aspect of age in any positive light. “Old age in every society brings with it an increase in physical and mental defects, a general weakening of both the body and the mind, but the heart and soul are more alive than ever, with that much more experience to feed upon. So the contribution of old age to society, and the manner of its fulfilling itself, lies in the art of being.”3
The art of being. This phrase raises images of incredible power. In looking through the current issues of any popular news magazine, one thing is clear, old is not the same age it used to be, and whatever the average life expectancy is today will undoubtedly change by the time most of us are ready for Social Security. Richard Atcheson writes, “I have been told that in 12 years the population of people over 85 will double … and 12 years after that I will be merely 78 and the year will be 2013. and the streets will be jammed with rowdy 85 year olds and their mothers on their way to fancy parties to which I will probably be too young to be invited,”4 This increased lifespan is changing the meaning of old age in front of our eyes. As the generation in power grows older, they legislate for themselves. Retirement is not mandatory at 65. In every field of endeavor, men and women are not peaking and then declining, but continuing to climb. There are numerous examples of people who are still “doing” – well into their golden years. Deng Xiaoping of China. Oueen Elizabeth and Margaret Thatcher of England. Actors and actresses like George Burns, Bob Hope, Katharine Hepburn. Businessmen like An Wang. The generations before us are not handing over the reins, going off quietly, and watching us shape our own future. For many of us, this means an extended middle age – How can we use this time productively to get ready for that stage of our lives?
By naming a thing, we begin to make it real. As we move through adulthood, child-rearing and the entrance to middle age, we are already consciously laying the groundwork for the kind of old person we will become. “The future does not happen all at once” a friend told me, “it happens in bits and pieces. Everything you do now becomes part of that future.” A daily yoga practice, twenty-five years from now, will bear fruit in a body that is more pliant and ache-free than it would otherwise have been. Multiply that one daily practice by the many you engage in and make permanent. Diet, magickal work, increased sensitivity to others, awareness of the Earth and your relationship to her. Become conscious.
Accepting the fact that we are aging, and merging with each cycle of our lives keeps the energy of transition flowing. One Gardnerian elder, at 76, said that he began to realize that he was trying to be 58 at 70. “It was the voice of the Goddess,” he said, “that taught me to be able to say ‘l’ve done that’ about boating. about fishing, about travel, about many things. and yet realize there are still things for me to do. If the time comes for me to sit in the sun and wait for death, I know now that this also will be right.”Accept life.
Look for role models. Most of us stop looking for them when we begin to feel a sense of independence in our late teens, butthere is much to learn from the men and women who are doing things that we respect and admire. One of my role models, who laughs when I tell her so, is a women who, in her mid-forties had the opportunity to pack down into the Grand Canyon. She was not notably an outdoorswoman, but she sought advice, prepared for the journey and went. An Adventurer, I look at her and say to myself, “I hope that I am still an adventurer when I am 46.” She still sets off on adventures, and I still see her as an Adventurer and a good example to draw on for my life.
Find old people. Let’s conspire to break the chain separating us from old people. If you do not know any “magickal” old people, that does not mean there isn’t a circle to be shared with the ones you may find. Many of us have problems with the old people we already know – parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. This offers some choices. The obvious one is to make the time to work out those problems. We, as a group, pride ourselves on working out “mother stuff” or “father stuff” but not many of us do it with those parents directly. One woman I know did that work – painfully, slowly, over years – and manifested a piece of magickal work with a potency untouched by work done in an isolated, internalized series of meditations. If working with your family is not possible, then look to the world around you. There are others. Touch an old one, and listen.
Create space for our elders, and for the differences that men and women experience as they age. Women have a real, tangible door through which they step at menopause. As the women of our community cross that threshold, they are sharing it with us in ways that transcend and transform. Menopause, even if it takes years from start to finish, is indeed a doorway. For men. that threshold is more abstract. Who can say when they first cross it? Jokes about sexual prowess aside, it must be odd to recognize that you have less stamina, to notice that your digestive sytem is more delicate, and your hair is thinner, but to have no perceptible doorway through which to pass, and no real support. Women support each other from the time of their first periods, through birth and miscarriage, female surgery and menopause, sharing the universality of these female mysteries. For men, this kind of mutual support is ephemeral at best.
Although men and women reach elderhood at different times and in different ways, both sexes experience the problem of finding a meaningful place as an elder in our youth-oriented culture. We may have moved away from the days when all the illustrations in Pagan publications looked like Barbie dolls, but we have not reached a time when many of them are over 40. And we have yet to create space in our circles for the physically challenged elder by including a few chairs at the appropriate locations for those who want them. At gatherings, we offer space for women, space for men, space for Gays, space for Lesbians, space for the recovering. But no space is offered for our elders. If I were Gay, recovering, wanting a moonlodge, I could find the support group I needed, but we will not be able to find our elders unless we give them space and make them welcome. Create space.
Another experience that comes with age is the second Saturn return at about age 56. This Saturn return can be particularly difficult, forcing us to confront the fact that there are some things we may never do and certain goals we may never realize, if we deny this fact, we may become bitter and cynical. By accepting it we can begin to clear the decks, detaching from physical bonds and freeing ourselves to move into the next aspect of our lives in letting go we open to the possibility of extending ourselves, spreading outward sharing what we know, and manifesting the art of being. If we use the energy previously consumed at jobs child-bearing and child-raising to return to the child within, we can come closer to manifesting spirit in our lives.
The work of an elder may well be to dance in spirit before dancing with death. The community structures within which our elders might do this work do not now exist. We must build them. Whether we start by creating rituals of passage and providing elders space at gatherings, or decide on a larger community-wide effort we must take the first step, by becoming conscious of our old ones, by touching them and hearing their wisdom, by creating space for them in our circles and our lives, and by accepting that we will all one day be old. I look forward to the ritual of crossing that will celebrate my dance with spirit. I look forward to the sacred space when I truly am a Crone, to shedding decades of attachment, and to dancing naked and free. I will remember my first circle, where I danced in sacred space and shed my clothes to dance naked and free. and by connecting all the circles of my life, I will reveal the spirit in my dance and in my heart.
- Kore Hayes. Lavendar and Silver Sorceress and Apprentice The World Between Women. An Anthology Herbooks Santa CrU7. CA 198 7 p 64. (taken from a presentation by Deborah Ann Light called “The Crooning of Crones”)
- Maureen Howard.’Trading Places Lear s. W@ 2. No. 6. p 99. September 1989
- Collin M. Turnbull. The Human Cycle. Simon & Shuster Inc. New York NY 1984 p 228
- Richard Atcheson ‘Our Parents, Ourselves, Lear s Vol. 2, No. 6 p 97, September 1989
SUE CUREWITZ ARTHEN was not a writer when my asked her to undertake the Rites of Passage series. Priestess, Healer and Elder, Sue uorked with EarlhSpirit Community’s Mooncircle and is the mother of two Pagan children.