As a small child, I made a frequent habit of rifling through my mother’s personal belongings in search of adoption papers. Though I could barely read, I was sure I’d recognize said documents once obtained. While I loved my mother deeply, revered her even, I was under the vague suspicion that I was from another galaxy and somehow my transition to earth was the unfortunate mistake of some new guy at the helm of the transporter who botched my coordinates during the beaming down process, whereupon I arrived in the outskirts of Queens near the neighborhood where 50 Cent got shot.
I once confronted my mother on the issue. Did I or did I not arrive in a basket from an alien ship? Though I was quite serious, she laughed and told me to look in the mirror. Although I had my mother’s teeth, hands and black-booty genes I remained skeptical regarding my origins. Sure, I looked human enough. I just didn’t really get them. The humans. They seemed to take everything for granted, even important things like…the ringlets that flutter outward from a stone dropped in a lake. Did they go on forever, those rings? Am I like that? Why is it scary to think about that? Hello! Anybody home? Stupid humans.
My grandmother, Tilly, a quiet, chain-smoking devourer of science fiction novels, seemed like the closest to my species and I naturally gravitated towards her. I’ve heard Native Americans refer to tobacco as “the witness” and Tilly, like me, seemed to have that quality of one who watched. Once-in-a-while, I smoke a cigarette in her honor. Back then, we watched a lot of Star Trek re-runs. Her kitchen always smelled good. There was ice-cream in the freezer and ginger ale in the fridge, always. She didn’t bug me about my homework or discipline me. She didn’t feel the need to do anything to me, to shape me. She let me be who I was and that was a great relief. She never chastised me for sucking my thumb or later, for picking my lips. She saved me from my grandfather’s merciless tickling. She let me jump on the bed. Gave me candy. Made homemade pickles and preserves. I don’t remember any conversations between my grandmother and I. We didn’t speak in words. I was content in her presence.
Nowadays, I see her mostly in the shadows of dancing leaves or in the slanted sideways light of early evening. When I say I “see” her, I don’t mean that literally. It’s more like I sense the essence that she shares with nature through a half-forgotten sense beyond sight. A few times a year, though less and less lately, I revisit her presence at the old house in dreams. It is my shimmery place. My leave-taking of that world is always met with a profound sadness that lingers like an aftertaste upon waking. I’ve often wondered if this is why I can’t have greater, more consistent contact with the shimmery place for which Grandma’s house was a decoy: because the emotional cost of returning “here” is too great to my system. It must therefore remain a special, rare and cherished event. My grandmother, you see, was not like other people. She was the portal, the gate-keeper, to my true home.
In the traditional Dagara culture of Burkina Faso, elders and children have a special relationship. They share something important in common: their proximity to the other world (Healing Wisdom of Africa, p. 124). In traditional cultures, elders are cherished. They hold the greatest responsibility in the community. Indeed, the health and well-being of the entire village depends upon their counsel. A rare few Western elders may attain a sort of eldership status by achieving notoriety through the wisdom expressed in writing books or producing art for instance, but that wisdom is impersonal. It’s not the same as going to grandma’s house. A book can’t make you feel safe. A book can’t understand your specific needs. Can’t listen. Most modern elders are sequestered, unrecognized, rendered useless. It is no surprise that we’re afraid to age. Why should we let go of the illusion of the infinite possibility of youth for a diminished role in society, one that doesn’t honor our hard-earned wisdom?
For women, especially, this shows up as a fear of no longer being sexually desirable. We are taught from a young age that our power resides in our physical attractiveness. But indigenous culture teaches us that there is something special waiting for us after we pass into old age. Nature abhors a vacuum. With the loss of our physical powers a new power may be cultivated but there has to be a sacrifice. One must let go of certain things for that kind of power. Spiritual power.
I guess this is all coming up for me now because I’m at a cross-roads, in need of the guidance of my elders. I want to grow and I don’t know how.
“Can I make a suggestion?” asks Mr. Octopus.
“Why don’t you try talking to Tilly? Maybe she’s not as farrr away as you think.”