FALL 2007

The Journey to Becoming an Elder

by Fred Lanphear

I embarked on a one-year rite of passage when I turned 60. The year was envisioned to have three dimensions of reflection and celebration: past, present, and future. It began with a grand celebration of my 60th birthday with reflections of my 60-year journey from family, friends, and colleagues who were either present or sent letters. It was a time of naming and letting go of the past.


The primary work was in designing a mythological quilt that depicted the community of reference and the two primary cultural or vocational images for each decade. I used this design and added another decade of images for my 70th birthday . (See graphic on the left.) The other focus or work on the past was in honoring my roots. This was accomplished during a trip to Rhode Island, where I walked the sacred land where I grew up, participated in a family reunion, and reconnected with my two older brothers who helped me construct our family timeline. I also connected with a 95-year-old boyhood pal of my father who spun many stories about my father I had never heard. It was awesome.

The work of the present was acknowledging that 60 years had taken its toll on my body, mind, and spirit, and that some repair, renovation, and re-patterning was needed. Care of the body included being fitted for hearing aids, after being in denial for at least 10 years that I had a hearing impairment, and some major dental work along with some attention to nutrition. Care of the mind and spirit included a year of reading some great books and facilitating an Institute of Noetic Science study group focused on the “Spiritual Aspects of Healing.” Integrating daily practices of meditation and Tai Chi was high on the list of intents.

The future work involved opening myself to the universe. It began with an astrological reading provided by my colleagues, a reading of the I Ching, and culminated with a four-day visioning retreat. The retreat site was a cabin on Lopez Island. The daily protocol included fasting, yoga, meditation, journal writing, reading, and communing with the natural world.

The intent was to bring vocational focus to the new phase of life I was entering…and it happened.  Synchronicity was the tone of the retreat. Awakening to a destinal calling of being a midwife in the rebirth of communities as a vehicle to reconnect people with the natural world became the vision.

In addition to the visioning, I reflected on how to achieve balance in my primary relationships: individual, family, community, and planet. I created a model as a way of putting rational form to the continual juggling or balancing that I find myself doing (see model below). I use these values in setting my priorities quarterly under the categories of vocational focus, community needs, and individual/family needs. My vocational focus currently includes my landscape work in creating sacred space, earth elder activities, and involvement in the intentional communities movement. Community needs are related to my engagement in Songaia Cohousing Community doing gardening and landscaping, but also in many of the social and cultural activities. My individual and family needs include how I honor and nurture my 48-year relationship with my wife Nancy, stay connected and care for my three adult children, and how I enjoy and mentor my eight grandchildren in the ways of the natural world, all the while maintaining an integrated approach to mind, body, and spirit care of myself.

The rite of passage I completed in my 60th year launched me on a new path of reconnecting with nature for the fourth phase of my life. This path ultimately took the form of declaring my new role as an Earth Elder on my 70th birthday. In preparation for this new role, I participated in a 3-day vision quest on the sacred land of our community, Songaia. The day after the quest the men of Songaia escorted me to a fire circle in our woods and initiated me as the first elder of our community. I shared my vision of initiating an Earth Elder organization with Songaia as a base and helping to catalyze a movement of earth elders across the country. This work is underway and can be tracked at www.earthelders.org. We meet monthly for reflection, study, and planning. One of the initial topics we looked at was the preparation of an ethical will.

As a social activist and results-oriented person, my greatest challenge is how to maintain a sense of balance in this phase of my life, acknowledging that I do not have the same physical stamina that I had earlier in life.

Learning how to ask others to help is one of the ways I am working at accomplishing this. It cares for me at the same time it provides others a way of caring. The men in the community have committed their support to me as an elder, so it behooves me to yield to their wishes. It requires a sense of detachment that does not come easy to me. Aging is frequently described in terms of physical changes, which are very real, but perhaps the most rewarding and challenging changes are those associated with finding new ways of focusing the wisdom and experiences of my life’s journey into a fulfilling culmination of my life’s work.

  Fred Lanphear died on September 9, 2010, at the age of 74. "His life was a lesson in wisdom, generosity, and conscious wholeness," as Randy Morris, who dedicated the Fall 2011 issue of Itineraries to him. Fred worked for 20 years with the Institute of Cultural Affairs (an NGO), empowering villagers in remote African and Asian communities to participate in and direct their own development. On his return to the U.S. in 1989, he became president of the Northwest Institute of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. He lived his remaining years with his wife, Nancy, at Songaia, a cohousing community in Bothell, WA, which he helped co-found. (See his commemorative web site.