Recently a good friend loaned me her copy of Two Old Women written by Velma Wallis. The book’s subtitle says it all: An Alaska Legend of Betrayal, Courage, and Survival. Briefly, it is about elders of the Gwich’in Band, one of “eleven distinct Athabaskan groups . . . found in the western interior of the state along the Yukon, Porcupine, and Tanana rivers.” Sometimes, a story from a different culture can best hold up a mirror to our own cultural practices regarding aging. So it is with Two Old Women.
Wallis tells the story the way her mother told her, and her mother’s mother told her, and so on into the furthest past. The main characters of the legend become remarkable when they decide, together, to embrace the life threatening challenges of abandonment in an inhospitable climate. Sa’, named for the starry evening sky her mother focused on during labour , and Ch’idzigyaak, named for the chickadees she reminded her parents of when she was born, are profound examples of what can happen to us when we decide to focus on goals as we age.
Seventy-five and eighty respectively, these old women confess to constantly complaining before they are rudely awakened from their sense of entitlement. Their bond is a familiar one to many; before they were left behind, they got together daily to complain about all their aches, pains, and general unhappiness with life. Because they focused on the negative during this time, they expected their clan members to do all of the necessary survival tasks while they sat, drank tea, did a little hand sewing, and lamented their lot.
The story begins during a harsh winter in the north, and with their chief’s even harsher decision to abandon the old women because the clan’s resources can no longer support them. It is a painful decision, one the chief feels he must make to save the larger group from starvation. It is a familiar motif in cultures whose landscape requires unimaginable effort and resourcefulness to survive. What is wonderful about this legend is its focus. Rather than concentrating on the larger group as it moves on to the next campsite in search of game, the story tells of the aftermath of abandonment from the old women’s point of view.
Instead of giving up and freezing to death, the two women rally, inspire one another by remembering the hunting skills they learned as children and young adults, and rediscover their legs as they search for a safe place to live out the rest of their lives, however short those lives may be. Both agree they should “die trying” to survive, and so begins their adventure. By the time the tale ends, the women are stronger and more resourceful than they imagined they ever could be, and their cache of food, hard won with daily attention to the many rigorous chores that must be done to survive in an unforgiving northern climate, helps to ensure their clan’s survival when the People return to find them and make amends.
The process of finding our strengths may be empowering, but it is also tremendously challenging because our culture does its best to convince us that we, as Sa and Ch’idzigyaak initially believed, are entitled to a life of endless sunny days without work or worry when we reach a certain age. When our culture is not pushing the fake sunsets of some entirely fictitious retirement bliss, it is pushing the prescription drugs that now account for more addictions in the west than illegal drugs.
People who age with joy and vitality are engaged, fully present people. We set challenging tasks for ourselves – far beyond doing the crosswords or reading a mystery novel. We begin walking programs despite concerns that we may never be able to walk a mile; we take on the after-school program at the Y or community centre because we want to help children and youth discover the world beyond technology even when a part of us believes we have nothing to offer. When we can, we train for new work, to earn money, yes, and to increase and deepen our relationships with the world and our sense of civic involvement.
Unlike Sa’ and Ch’idzigyaak, we may not have to fight for our very survival, but we do have to fight for meaning and purpose when we are told we should focus on everything that might go wrong rather than everything that we can and want to do before we say goodbye to the world. Tapping is indispensable in working through the fear of starting something new – whether an exercise program after a medical event, a new job after a life of comfort in another, or an unfamiliar, scaled-down way of life because of financial disasters – because it helps us to create space to discover the positive in any change we must face.
My husband is an example of tapping’s helpfulness when embracing the changes age brings. During the introductory session of a fitness program we took a couple of years ago, we were asked to state why we signed up for the week long training. We were among the older participants of a group largely made up of marathon runners and fitness instructors. When my husband took his turn, he responded with a short but memorable phrase: “I’m here because I want to live until I die.” His emphasis was on the word LIVE.
At 75, he’d been experiencing his share of aches and pains – rotator cuff injuries, hip joint pain, lower back stress – because he still worked (and works) as a designer and builder. One of the pacts we’ve made with each other as we age is that we will support one another in adapting to whatever curves life throws us in order to be joyful participants in life until we die. To do this we’ve developed a personal tapping club; whenever something comes up that frightens, confuses, or angers us, we tap together, expanding our intimacy as a couple. Before the running program, Lynn had tapped many times on fearing the loss of his ability to do what he loves to do: create unique sacred spaces for his clients. To this day tapping helps him to achieve his goals to remain an active maker for as long as possible by neutralizing his fears. By resolving any body issues that arise after a hard day’s physical labour, tapping helps him to experience the reality that we can indeed LIVE until we die.
In our incoherent culture of mixed messages regarding how to age well, we have formed a small island of sanity with our tapping process. It is something we recommend to everyone. Tapping buddies, whether partnered, friends, or neighbours, do what Sa’ and Ch’idzigyaak did for one another: we help each other other work through fears and physical challenges into a state of joyful confidence that attracts all that we need to move forward.
Life is not a straight road that leads to those garish sunsets in retirement home ads where everyone sits around in elegant clothes and sips cool drinks while others wait on us; it is a vibrant, twisting, turning journey that leads to death, the end of what we can know for certain, at least while we are embodied. This journey is meant to be a lifelong learning adventure that helps us to discover and express our authentic selves. It is profoundly important, especially as we age, to develop supportive relationships for the remainder of this wild and unpredictable journey. One of the most vital is the relationship we have is with ourselves; another is a loving and supportive relationship with a trusted other. Tapping supports both.
Until next week