Field Notes from an Elder-in-Training

By Jeanne Mackey

It was the fall of 1994. I was living and working in Maryland, just over the DC border. Faced with the possibility of a hysterectomy, I sought spiritual solutions along with mainstream medical advice. Ursula, a trusted friend and healer, advised me that the imbalance in my womb was in part a result of my conflicted relationship with my mother. “It would be good for you to create a ceremony of forgiveness and separation,” she said. “Let your mother’s story be hers and your story be yours.” So I gathered a group of nine women, inviting them to witness the ritual and reflect on my journey. Each had supported, inspired, and taught me: Pattie, my soulmate; Ursula and other beloved long-time friends; Mary, my therapist du jour; Jane, my acupuncturist; Elise, a Dutch bodyworker. It was Ursula’s turn to speak in the circle.

Jeanne, part of this healing process is about coming to terms with your power and your powerlessness. When you haven’t accepted your power and can’t face your powerlessness, you need a mother. When you can own them both, the only mothers you need are the Earth and the Shekinah — the sacred presence of the feminine. You don’t need a mother in human form. Every human being is your peer.

Twenty-one years later, I have clear memories of that day — the circle of women, our voices joined in song, smoke rising from an abalone shell as I burned symbols of resentment and asked for spirit help in releasing my grudges against Mom. In the years that followed, I experienced a sweetening of our relationship.

The health crisis was resolved with minor surgery, leaving my womb intact. Was it the ceremony that turned the tide? I’ll never know. But I will spend the rest of my days incorporating the medicine of Ursula’s words. It is part of my work as an elder-in-training.

I have developed my views on elderhood through a variety of influences: goddess spirituality, the Feminist Movement, indigenous wisdom, and Erik Erikson’s eight stages of psychosocial development. One thing is clear to me: becoming an elder means more than just getting older. It requires developing the capacity to reflect on and learn from one’s life experience. It’s about harvesting those lessons, skills, and gifts, and finding ways to share them.

Having recently turned 65, I am now entering the last of Erikson’s life stages, where the developmental challenge is integrity versus despair. The goal is acceptance of oneself and of the reality of death. So how am I doing?

Experience has taught me — painfully — that power struggles, intolerance, and self-deception are present wherever humans gather.

My life has certainly taken some unexpected twists and turns over the years. I gave up the search for the man of my dreams long ago when I discovered a preference for the company of women — one in particular. Pattie and I celebrated the 25-year anniversary of our commitment ceremony this spring, and we were able to legally wed, at least at the federal level, in 2014. Job-wise, I’ve gone from performing musician and part-time secretary to full-time clinical social worker to my current (and presumably last) gigs as part-time U-M tech trainer and part-time musician, workshop leader, community activist, and big bubble-maker.

It’s a good life, crafted through a combination of skill, privilege, and luck. And on a good day, I like the person I have become. I wish I could time travel back to my lonely adolescent self and whisper in her ear. “Hang in there, kid. In the future, you have a wonderful partner and great friends. And you learn how to make up creative projects and carry them out, perform your own music with confidence, write, speak, teach, and live out loud!”

Maybe I’m kidding myself, but I believe I’m OK with the fact that my life has an expiration date. Perhaps there is a kinder, gentler reality in the next world — who knows. Losing loved ones is a very different story, though. I had my first close encounter with Lady Death when my dear friend, Diane, was diagnosed with cancer in the mid-90’s. I witnessed Diane’s profound spiritual and emotional healing during that last year of her life. And like all her loved ones, I felt the exquisite pain of loss when death overtook her. Talk about powerlessness.

These days I am a regular at the Ann Arbor Death Café, hosted by my friends Merilynne Rush and Diana Cramer. We gather publicly on the third Saturday of every month in the Crazy Wisdom Tea Room, where we drink tea, eat cake, and talk about death. I find the conversations oddly comforting. And I haven’t lost my youthful zeal for taboo-busting, so that is also part of the appeal.

Jeanne and Pattie at the U-M Museum of Art the day after they were married last year

Jeanne and Pattie at the U-M Museum of Art the day after they were married last year

Acceptance of self and of the reality of death — sounds like I’m doing great with Erikson’s integrity challenges, right? Well, one of my big lessons these days is that life is paradoxical. We are all bundles of contradictions, and I am no exception. I like my life and I have a lot of despair. I came of age in the sixties, after all. My friends and I were convinced that any wrong could be righted. I addressed this humorously in my song “Different By Now”:

I thought it would be different by now

I thought my friends and I would be taking a bow

For saving the whole damn human race

For making the world a much better place

But we’re still stuck in the same rat race

I thought it would be different by now!

–from Drop the Knife: A Memoir-in-Song

As a young adult, I believed I would see the day when humans live in harmony with one another and the natural world, acknowledging our interconnectedness and ensuring that all living beings have what they need to thrive. I do appreciate the positive changes I have witnessed thus far, such as the election of our first African American president and the growing acceptance and legalization of gay marriage. I am heartened when I meet young people who are passionate about social justice and by the emergence of peer-led collaborative movements and trends, such as the Maker Movement, “unconferences,” World Café, and of course, Death Café. But my expectations of a global shift in consciousness in my lifetime were just a wee bit unrealistic. Experience has taught me — painfully — that power struggles, intolerance, and self-deception are present wherever humans gather. If I begin to doubt that, I need look no further than my own snap judgments and hotheaded tendencies.

My rude awakenings are not limited to the state of the world. I assumed that everything I didn’t like about myself could be fixed, one way or another. I would never have predicted the internal struggles that still impact my daily quality of life. That insecure adolescent who feels like a failure — she’s still in my psyche! She is pretty sure she doesn’t have what it takes to navigate this scary adult world. Lacking self-trust, she is always on the lookout for the wise adults who can tell her what to do. And that just doesn’t work anymore, if it ever did. The answer is obvious. I need to become my own loving parent. But when the anxious self-doubt starts revving up, I don’t feel like giving that inner teen an invisible hug. I just want her to chill out or go away. I suspect my mom had similar reactions when my insecurities kicked up her own deep-seated feelings of inadequacy.

There are no quick fixes for what I’m grappling with — no denying that I am living in a world where economic, racial, and gender-based injustice is a daily reality for millions, and where humans still treat the natural world as a resource to be conquered and consumed. Hopefully, the balance will shift someday, but I doubt that I will live to see it. And on the personal level, it is unlikely I can eradicate the negative beliefs formed during those dreary small town high school years.

It’s not hard to see all the ways I am powerless. But where do I have power?

 “Tell me what you pay attention to, and I will tell you who you are.”

– José Ortega y Gasset, 20th century Spanish philosopher

I have the power of choice. As Buddhist eco-philosopher Joanna Macy says, our ability to “suffer with” the world is the literal meaning of compassion, and part of what fuels our collective impulse to turn towards a more life-sustaining culture. I can — and do — look for ways to contribute to the healing of our world that feel right for me and are therefore personally sustainable. In my relationships with others and with myself, I can choose what I pay attention to and what I cultivate. I can’t get rid of the old thought patterns, but I can create new ones over time, drawing on what I know about energy work, sound healing, emotional release, ritual, and art.

Making giant soap bubbles is another reliable spirit-lifter.

Music has been my companion and ally through a lifetime of singing, performing, and noodling around on guitar, piano, mandolin, accordion, and most recently, banjo. These days, it helps me connect with my mother. Mom is 95 now, living in a nursing home in my hometown of Oxford, Ohio. She is cheerful, well cared for, and blessedly free of pain. But the feisty, opinionated woman I have known all my life is mostly gone, lost to dementia. Inspired by the film Alive Inside about the power of music to reach people with memory loss, I have started bringing my electronic keyboard along when I visit. I set up in the activity room as the residents come wheeling in. I make sure Mom is right up front so she knows it’s me. She doesn’t remember what she said two minutes ago, but she still knows all the words to “Paper Moon” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” After each tune, she announces to the other residents, “That’s my favorite song!” “But you said the last one was your favorite, Marge.” “Well, this one is too.”

Making giant soap bubbles is another reliable spirit-lifter.

Pattie and I have been doing our public bubble “pop-ups” for about three years. Our social media moniker is A2Bubbles. A former science teacher, Pattie researched the best bubble solution recipe and made bubble wands from fishing poles and clothesline. We show up around town whenever the spirit moves us — at the U-M Museum of Art, County Farm Park, the Diag, Cobblestone Farm Market, and Top of the Park. Once we hook up our gear and start dipping, it is only a matter of minutes before we hear the cry: “Bubbles! Bubbles!” Sometimes the toddlers are the first to arrive, their parents huffing close behind. Other times, it’s college students who dive into the bubble-popping zone, delighted for an excuse to play. It’s not unusual to hear four or five languages during a session — Spanish, Arabic, Russian, Chinese, Hindi.

The question comes up every time: “Did someone hire you to do this?” We explain that we only bubble for fun. Some folks urge us to come up with a bubble business plan. Others respond with a grin and a hint of relief. They have guessed the secret of our community give-away. Making big, buoyant, beautiful bubbles and enticing passing strangers to join us is the nicest present we can give ourselves.

Joseph Campbell said, “We can’t cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy.” I have that quote on a bumper sticker on my guitar case. Another favorite is Amy Tan’s challenge: “If you can’t change your fate, change your attitude.” If some of my friends are right, and I volunteered to be born into this reality — well, I must have been pretty naïve about what I was signing up for. But as long as I am here, I know what matters and what I want to presence. And maybe someday I will find out that my all-time favorite bumper sticker is true:

"Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”

Jeanne Mackey rocked the 1970s East Coast topical music circuit as a young musician advocating feminist values and social justice. Throughout the 1980s, she performed with Lifeline, a four-woman rock band that played at conferences, demonstrations, women’s music festivals, and labor union events in the Washington, D.C. area and nationwide. An instructional designer at the University of Michigan. To reach Jeanne, email or visit 

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Posted on August 31, 2015 and filed under Wellness.