I am in a group of 70 people gathered at Three Creeks, a ranch in Big Pine, California, located in the Owens Valley between the White Mountains overlooking Death Valley to the east and the towering Sierra Nevadas to the west. The valley, once verdant with orchards fed with glacial runoff, is now parched and mostly barren, its water diverted through culverts to Los Angeles. Three Creeks is the rare oasis in this dry place. We have traveled here from across the country and around the world, all of us involved in teaching or supporting wilderness rites of passage and the Council Process. We range in age from 21 to 84, with most of the group in their early 30s to mid-60s. Three Creeks is the home of Gigi Coyle and Win Phelps, friends I’ve known for 30 years who’ve called us here to consider the questions: “What’s going on in your life?” “What are the challenges you see?” And, “What’s calling you?”
Gigi is one of the most tuned-in and intuitively gifted people I know. She is a past co-director of the Ojai Foundation and long-time trainer with the School of Lost Borders. When Gigi calls, I come. We’ve been working with the four directions during our retreat. Yesterday, when we were in the West, the direction of darkness, dreams, and decay, we heard four impeccably researched and movingly delivered presentations on the state of our world, focusing on water, waste, women and war. Afterwards I felt devastated. When each person had a chance to speak, I heard myself say, “I feel hopeless.”
Today our group of 70 is completing our retreat, working with the East, the direction of vision, spirit and renewal. We are standing in two concentric circles inside the Heron Hut, a spiral-shaped meditation and council chamber. Those in the inner circle are standing on the smooth earthen floor, and those of us in the outer circle are standing atop the built-in adobe bench that rings the interior space. In a few words, each of us offers a prayer, or declares his or her intentions for the future. The last person to speak, at 21, is the youngest in the group by nearly ten years. She appears reluctant to step into the circle. When she does she moves silently to the center, sits down before the open fire and plays with it, burning twigs and dry grass in the flames, then flicking drops of water from a nearby bowl onto the coals, creating the occasional hiss and pop.
After about five minutes she gets up and begins circling the fire, surrounded by the tired but transfixed assemblage. I find myself worrying about the 80-somethings— the group has been standing for well over an hour. Finally the young woman speaks, “I need your help. I don’t know what to do with what’s coming toward us. I need you who are older to be elders. I need your wisdom and guidance. Please help.”
On the plane home from the Three Creeks gathering, the young woman’s words come back to me. “I need you who are older to be elders. I need your wisdom and guidance. Please help.”
This is what is being asked of Baby Boomers today. Instead of trying to prolong our youth we should be helping young people face the burdens and responsibilities of adulthood. And we need to work together to heal our broken world. I think of the mentors in my life, and the gifts they gave me. Perhaps most meaningful was the gift from my stepgrandmother, Brenda Ueland. Brenda knew how to bless. She was the most encouraging person I ever met, seemingly interested in everything I had to say, no matter how mundane.She made me feel bold, noble, and full of promise and even potential greatness. She did the same for almost everyone around her.
In these seemingly hopeless times, this is what elders can do for youngers—help them to see and remember who they are, and to find the courage and confidence to face the future. Help them to know that their lives make a difference. And, as Brenda put it, help them realize that “they have a star on their forehead, and their existence cheers up the world.”
Of course, mentoring is a two-way street. If we start listening to our young, there’s a bonus for elders as well. We just might get our hope back.
Eric Utne is the founder of Utne Reader.
Image: Chris Lyons / LindgrenSmith.com, courtesy of the School of Lost Borders.