Honoring Our Elders

The time is ripe for elders to reclaim their rightful role of speaking for Earth and future generations. — Fred Lanphear

The first time I laid eyes on Fred Lanphear was a late summer morning at the Songaia Community. He passed by a large picture window, wearing a wool shirt against the morning chill and pushing a well-used wheelbarrow down a pathway lined with green plants. The bright morning light wreathed his head in a golden arc causing a glow to emanate from his tall, stooped shoulders. It could have been a Rembrandt painting, “Man with Wheelbarrow.” I thought to myself: “Now that is how an elder should look!”

When I inquired as to who it was that was fulfilling my archetypal fantasy of an elder, I was told “Oh, thatís Fred!” Fredís reputation had preceded him. I had heard about his incredible life of international service, his role in the founding of the Songaia Community, and his many contributions to Rite of Passage Journeys. But I did not know at that time how he would become my own “revered elder” and the man to whom I would turn when I sought my elder initiation.

My relationship with Fred began with a lunch date at which we shared our latest thinking. I found Fred to be fascinating, with his ideas about Thomas Berry, the dream of the earth, and a revolution of Earth Elders. He seemed genuinely interested in my own ideas and made helpful suggestions about new directions to pursue. Within a year of our meeting, he was diagnosed with ALS. As the disease progressed, I asked him if it would be OK to talk with him about his approach to the disease and his own impending death. He welcomed it, seeing in the deterioration of his own body his return to the earth and the cosmic dust from which he originated.

Emboldened by his warm welcome, I then asked if he would help me transition into my own elderhood. I told him that he was the only initiated elder that I knew, and that it was important to me that I be initiated by someone I truly respected as an elder. Despite the fact that he was now in a wheelchair and using oxygen, he agreed to help me. Fred called together a group of elder men to advise me, and we had several discussions about the meaning of elderhood and how a ceremony marking a transition into elderhood might look. I also called together an advisory circle of women who, in an intact culture, would be considered elders. I asked them what they would want an older male to know as he went through an initiation into elderhood.

When I think back about these rich discussions, full of wisdom and laughter, I realize how much community was being created by my commitment to this ceremony. As Fred pointed out to me, such a ceremony is not only about the person undergoing the ritual. Rites of passage are the glue that hold a community together; they mark the transitions and growth of the whole.

My elder rite of passage was held on my 60th birthday, May 23, 2010. I had planned to hold it later in the year, but Fred said he might not be around then and that he would prefer it be held in the spring. I didnít think I could go through with this without Fred, so I moved the ceremony to my birth date. About 60 or so people showed up in a large, decorated hall. The elder groups of women and men had each taken responsibility for different parts of the ceremony; and they pulled it off without a hitch. Iíll never forget the moment when all the elders were asked to stand. I began to feel sorry that Fred could not take his rightful place with the other elders, when he pushed a button on his electric chair and rose majestically above the crowd. Cheers and clapping broke out, and a big smile spread across Fredís face. The rest of the evening was spent in ceremony, feasting, and dancing. It was the greatest of wakes, but for a person who was still alive. It was everything I had hoped for, and I found myself wishing that everyone could have this opportunity to be seen and witnessed and appreciated while still alive. In my closing “elder address” I could feel new powers of speech coursing through my body, powers that have remained to this day.

Fred was right that he would not make it through the fall. I continued to meet with him on a regular basis to talk about death, Thomas Berry, and the dream of the earth. To our Thomas Berry study group he gifted the materials he had created for “The Cosmic Walk” ritual and instructed us to “Tell the Story!” Fred was near the end as I was preparing to lead a vision quest trip. We said our good byes and it felt so good. Because Fred had been so open and conscious about his dying, the end felt very natural. It was simply the right season to die. Fredís last lesson to me was that the greatest gift of “conscious elderhood” is “conscious dying.”

Fred Lanphear — friend, mentor, and Earth Elder — died on September 9, 2010. His life was a lesson in wisdom, generosity, and conscious wholeness. It is an honor to dedicate this issue of Itineraries to him.

The time is ripe for elders to reclaim their rightful role of speaking for Earth and future generations. Those of us who are willing to accept the challenge need to come together in local groups, connect via the Internet, and periodically gather in council to share our experiences, learnings, and the emerging vision of our role.

As I face my mortality, I feel a sense of urgency in taking steps to help build the movement of Earth Elders now. This is not something we can put off to another time, as many of us are in or approaching the final time of our lives. It is urgent because of impending planetary shifts that may be irreversible, such as global warming and the accelerated extinction of species.

 — Fred Lanphear

Randy Morris, Ph.D., is a core faculty member at Antioch University Seattle where he supervises a Spiritual Studies program and teaches classes on depth psychology, the history of ideas, and liberal arts. He also serves as President of the Board of Rite of Passage Journeys, an organization dedicated to the renewal of rites of passage across the lifespan. He has been guiding vision quests for over 15 years. Randy also serves on the national Stewards Committee of the Work that Reconnects, working to bring the ideas and practices of Joanna Macy, the Universe Story, and the Great Turning into public awareness.