Elders, An Old Story

October 29, 2020 | Notes from

An old story goes that a young man tentively knocked on the door of the beloved American poet Robert Frost.  The great man invited him in and poured him a cup of tea.  After more formal introductions, Robert Frost asks the young fellow … “what do you do young man?”  “Well sir”, came the reply, “like yourself, I am a poet.”

A cloud crossed the old poets face as he gently admonished the visitor.  “I am afraid you cannot call yourself that”, he suggests.  Through obvious discomfort, the young man asks why.  “Because” says Mr. Frost, “the word poet is a gift word”.  You cannot claim it or use it for yourself.  It is a word that must be given to you, not adopted by you.  You can call yourself a writer, but it will take others, who will read your writing and if you’re a so blessed, they may say … this man is a poet.   It is a gift word and must be bestowed, not taken.

I cannot attest to the veracity of this story but like the essence of elder knowledge the truth may lie more in the wisdom of a good story than the purity of solid facts.

I might suggest that there are a number of words in our culture today that might be better served if we saw them more as gift words.  Words like leader, mentor and for the purpose of this essay, elder.  Executives often decide to call themselves a leadership team when no one else calls them leaders.  Maybe they should focus on managing things well and trust that the folks they manage will, down the road, call them leaders if merited.  Organizations often start mentoring programs when perhaps they should develop good coaching and learning practices and down the road people will say, “She/he was a real mentor to me not because of some training but as a result of good practice and behavior.

 Gift words.

So needless to say, I truly believe the word elder is also a gift word.  When I check my age on my driver’s license and my face in a mirror there comes to mind a number of words you could call me because…well because they are true.  They could include mature, old-timer, pensioner, retiree or heaven help us … golden ager.  What you won’t hear me called is an elder.

We just don’t use that word in the larger culture very often.  Maybe we are just respecting the use of it as a gift word … maybe.

My only experience with this word in daily use was the two decades I spent working with and for First Nations across the country.  It was embedded in that culture.

It was probably around the fall of 1972 and we had just finished the final round in a sweat lodge hand built by some elders on the shores of Lake Diefenbaker.  I felt privileged to have been invited to participate and it turned out to be the moving and thought-provoking experience I had hoped for.

An elder named Ernest Tootoosis, a grandson of Chief Poundmaker, led the sweat.  I had met him before but I was looking forward to spending some rich, wisdom time with this well respected elder.  He was everything a young idealistic white guy would want.  He had the braids, the cane, the beads, the turquoise, the voice and the gravitas that made you want to sit still and learn something.

 So we were sitting …

We watched the sun complete the rising and as is common on the prairies, in the fall, the geese were rising.  As the flocks passed by overhead, Ernest turned to me and in a deep soulful voice said, “Bob, isn’t it wonderful how those geese fly in that V formation?”

I respectfully agreed.

“Have you ever noticed Bob, that in every V, there is always one line longer than the other line?”

“Yes sir, I have noticed that.”

“Do you know why one line is always longer than the other line?” he says softly.

 I am just thrilled and ready to receive some ancient Cree tribal knowledge from this amazing old man.

“No, I whisper, I don’t know why one line is always longer than the other.”

 “More geese in that line!” he laughs.

Elders …

In those decades I was privileged to work with First Nations governments and to have small glimpses into the role of elders in their culture.  I remember walking with a Mohawk elder along the banks of a river as he pointed out the medicinal properties of some of the local plants.  At one point, I asked him his age.  He laughed and said thirty-five.  I suggested that seemed a bit young to be an elder.  He smiled and said that in his culture the word elder was given for wisdom not age.

I met with elders in First Nations schools and also had a fascinating warrior conversation with an elder who had been in Vietnam.   I was a lucky man to have had face-to-face encounters with people who had no difficulty acknowledging their fealty to the concept of elder.

Since then, I have kept my eyes open for signs of other cultures including my own, that may have also decided that elders may be a good thing.  One amazing encounter was during a week in Maui when I was privileged to hang out with Kimokeo Kapehulehua, one of the most beloved elders I have ever met.  Offer coffee and ceremonial moments he taught me another way of looking at the relationships of native people to non-native people.  He was one of the most positive people I have ever met.

Elders are something else …

Nelson Mandela was the genius who brought the high-level concept of elders to a bigger cross-cultural fire pit.  In 2007 he formed The Elders, a group of esteemed thinkers and world leaders whose influence and grounded wisdom were fully acknowledged as gifts to the whole world not just their home countries and cultures.

Sixteen Elder members and five Elders Emeritus would meet together, think together and use their new political independence to speak truth to the powers and explore issues that need wisdom and honesty.  They would engage in big conversations around issues such as such as peace, poverty, injustice, climate change, gender equality and migration.  Current and former elders include Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter, Muhammad Yunus (Grameen Bank) and current chair Mary Robinson former President of Ireland.

So it gets me thinking…

We see the concept of elders working at the high level (The Elders) and communities in the indigenous world.  It seems that it is in the between, if you will, that the concept of “elder presence” is not so strong.  I have been thinking that if we could magically create a real space for elders in this crazy world, where would we want to put them?

My first choice would be in the schools.  My experience with using older folks in schools has not been that inspiring.  In the classic volunteer tradition, we are often invited in to help serve hot dogs on sports days. We are great with the flippers.  Nice work… but not even close to tapping into the goldmine of elder wisdom.  When I look at my own neighborhood of Inglewood, I see engineers, nurses, tradespeople, philosophers, artists and true characters all living close to a fine historical school. 

Here are two stories about elders in schools…

  1. Elders in schools …

 Imagine a world where every neighborhood school spent some time searching for the wisest folks in the local community…not volunteers but vetted people known for their humanity, knowledge and wisdom.  They would be invited to be this year’s school elders.  They would be invited to come into the school at any time…a room and teapot would be on.  They would be there to meet kids, form cross generational relationships and have great conversations about whatever the students wanted to talk about.  Nothing more…no programming, no curriculum needs, no burger flipping just the wonderful exchange of wisdom across the generational divide.  

  1. Schools in Elders …

In Saskatoon, we saw a true first in Canada.  The brilliant teacher Keri Albert convinced the school board that it might be interesting to teach a class of Grade Six students right in the middle of a care home.  She teaches grade six kids for the whole school year from inside the elder’s home.  I won’t even attempt to describe the impact of such an initiative both on the students and the elders in the home.  Look it up …

My second choice would be to look at more elders in the workplace …

The workplace has a tradition in how they take care of their old folks…they reach a certain age and we give them a cake on a Friday afternoon and a gift bag of Nike golf balls.  We wish them well as they go home and try to figure out how to unlearn and let go of a lifetime of amazing skills and intelligence.   I asked a couple of young workers about whether or not an elder room with a pot of tea might be well received in their workplace and of any value to them.  Nope … these old folks, they insisted, would be so out of touch with our new ways that it would be a waste of time (my interpretation)

Perhaps so, but I don’t believe elders in the workplace would be there to bring some kind of cheap, skills training program.  We might consider that the gift of decades of incremental organizational culture and wisdom would be of just as much value as the contribution of some recent engineering breakthrough or sweetheart app. design.

We have more empty offices in downtown Calgary then is healthy.  Of course we would love to fill the spaces with thriving business tenants but imagine the benefits if we were to fill some of that space with an elders room, perhaps an artist in residence or a struggling not for profit.

Imagine the people in the building at coffee or noon getting some sage advice, finding some creative possibilities or just getting a heart re-alignment…cost not a factor, benefits a real possibility.

My third choice of space for elder possibility and conversation is the most modern of the works … the current explosion of virtual world.

I met a young woman who has an amazing vision for youth leadership and leadership practice.  Rebecca Kirstein started the Rethink/Thinking project in Victoria to bring youth together with a few Yodas.  They try and find their creative centers in the lifelong search for something better.  She believes it is the Yoda spirit and the search for true elders that is worth taking the search around the world.

One brilliant idea has her collaborating with a partner that will find the magic app that would pair a struggling 16-year-old garage musician in Lethbridge with a 68-year-old rockabilly elder in Nashville. Or a 12-year-old animal lover in touch with an orangatang studies elder in Kenya.  If she pulled this off, the ripples will become a tsunami of learning, knowledge sharing and maybe even a little wisdom transfer.

Barry Lopez writing in the Globe and Mail had this to say about elders … “Elders take life more seriously.  Their feelings toward all life around them are more tender, their capacity for empathy greater.  They’re more accessible than other adults, able to engage in a conversation with a child that does not patronize or infantilize the child, but instead confirms the child in his or her sense of wonder.  Finally, the elder is willing to disappear into the fabric of ordinary life.  Elders are looking for neither an audience nor for confirmation.  They know who they are, and the people around them know who they are.  They do not need to tell you who they are.”

Two more stories …

I grew up in the Battlefords in Saskatchewan.  As kids we had the run of old Fort Battleford as a historical and very cool backyard to play in.  Our imaginations ran wild as we thought about those people who actually spent time behind those logs in the olden days.

Across a few backyards from our house was a very old lady named Jesse Degear.  My mother used to say, “you really should go over and visit that old lady.  She was a little girl who was sent to live in the Fort during those times of conflict.

I never did …

Can you imagine what I would give today to be able to recall even ten minutes with that elder whose experience in the Canadian West could not be equaled by any story teller today.

And finally, I had a wonderful professor named Bill Alexander at the University of Toronto.  Bill left Chicago for Canada, had some wonderful radical ideas about how we in the world could better talk to ourselves.  He taught me the basics of my practice that I use till this day.  Too soon, however, he caught the cancer and was saying his good-byes.  I went to visit him and he insisted we pack a lunch and head off to Mt Pleasant Cemetery.

A little unnerved I agreed.

We went straight to his plot, soon to be his new home, spread out a blanket and began an interesting conversation about the nature of cemeteries.  We considered the afternoon angles of the sun on his headstone.  Then we speculated on the possible personality of woman buried next door.

He was giving me the gift of some wisdom about how a human being might approach the inevitable…teaching me how to die.  I am forever grateful.

Yeah, he was a teacher and a writer by trade but to me he was a mentor, an elder and I have nothing for him but the gift of these crude gift words.

I have been lucky with this elder thing … let a few go by but met a couple of greats.