My name is Hedwig and I am a member of the Elder Wisdom Circle. Now that isn't my real name, and you may recognize that Hedwig is the owl who delivers letters in the Harry Potter series. I chose the name for two reasons:
1. Because owls are noted for being wise (even though this fictional Hedwig doesn't show any particular intelligence), and
2. Because Hedwig delivers important letters, and I knew that if I were accepted, I would be reading and answering significant email.
The Elder Wisdom Circle, a large group of over 600 "cyber-grandparents" between the ages of 60 and 105, offers their collective 45,000 years of experience in the form of thoughtful advice to anyone in need of help. If age supplies wisdom, we are the right team.
I am one of these seniors. When I first read about the Circle in a newspaper article touting their success, I thought, "What an interesting concept." I was in my early 70's, had lived a full life, and felt it was loaded with lessons that I might share. I had been widowed for nearly 20 years, and was now in a significant relationship with a man I had known for over 50 years and who was struggling in the final throes of Alzheimer's. I had known many ups and downs — had enjoyed the ups and survived the downs.
Joining this Circle of Elders was a new and important way for me to survive my present low point -- the pain of living with an Alzheimer sufferer. As helpful as I might be to others, I found that I gained an equal measure of help for myself. I could, and did, forget some of my own anguish as I tried to puzzle out answers to others facing traumatic moments in their own lives.
And their traumas were so varied – love affairs gone awry, marriages in trouble, families in dysfunctional struggles. Youngsters wrote about first loves. Teens wrote about school and college woes. Adults grappled with economic and parenting problems; elders faced retirement and fears of the future.
The letters that agonized me most were those from women who in three or so paragraphs detailed an abusive relationship, only to conclude with the words, "But I love him. What should I do? How can I keep him?" I was continually dismayed at so much lack of self worth, such poor self-images. However, there are rays of sunshine and I was heartened after I had written a young lady, "What do you need to do, have house fall on you," and she replied, "Thank you for being the house!"
As a retired college professor who returned to school in my 40's, I feel especially prepared to answer those who fear returning to start, or to complete, their educations. I was so happy when one woman who took my advice and returned to school wrote that she had posted my answer on a bulletin board so she could review it every day.
While I feel comfortable dealing with some areas – especially those concerning being a wife, mother and grandmother, or coordinating personal and professional concerns—other areas are beyond my expertise. Fortunately, I do not have to know all the answers. There are 597 other elders, and each of us looks over the list of letters coming in daily. We take those we can best answer, and return those we cannot for others to handle. We may suggest getting professional help, and we often suggest pertinent sources and web sites. None of us attempts to answer medical questions or gives financial advice as both are beyond our areas of expertise.
Some problems recur over and over again and I often find myself writing, "You can never change another person, only yourself" or "You should not rely on another person for your happiness."
I quote the Serenity Prayer:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
The courage to change the things I can
And the wisdom to know the difference.
And I often quote Kahlil Gibran's poem about giving space in relationship – which ends with these wonderful words:
And stand together, yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other's shadow.
Frequently, the person writing to us truly does know the answer, but needs encouragement and validation.
Whatever our answer – each letter is screened by another senior in Quality Control – so that there is another person assessing that we have given solid help. Sometimes we are asked to develop our response more completely. Other times, when I have been tired, I have not been surprised to get a letter returned to me asking if perhaps I have been too harsh. And while it is tempting to become addicted to writing answers, it is also too easy to become glib or harsh. We grow in this learning process, becoming ever more compassionate and helpful.
And all of this can be seen in our book detailing the experiences of 60 individual elders and nine elder groups: The Elder Wisdom Circle Guide For A Meaningful Life, By Doug Meckelson And Diane Haithman (available at Amazon.com)
However, the very best way to witness the Elder Wisdom Circle in action is to head for http://www.elderwisdomcircle.org. That's where you can learn more about the organization, ask for advice, read examples of recent advice given, and, if interested, learn how to join the Circle in reaching out to those in need. Tell them Elder Hedwig sent you.
If you'd like to read more, below are two books written by the author.
"No Girls in the Marching Band" were the first – and last -- words Beverly Friend heard in 1952 as she stood, attempting to enroll in that ensemble at the University of Wisconsin. She never thought of objecting, and since that day has wondered what other thoughts she has been unable to think. This autobiography deals with her awakening as she successfully struggled against societal conventions and surmounted them.
"Don’t mourn my Death, celebrate my Life" – the words on James Friend's tombstone – sum up his philosophy. "China Journal: A World of Difference," details the delight and joy he felt in his year teaching in China. It is a book for those who love teaching, those who love China, those who love adventure, and those who love life!
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