Sometime during the last year, young friends began asking me if we could get together and “talk.” Not just talk. “Talk.” They came to me with big questions. They asked me for stories about my experience. It slowly began to dawn on me that they were coming to me for….wisdom. Holy cow.
My immediate response was to send them along to someone wiser and more mature than me. Even so, the very act of their asking held up a mirror to a new and astonishing truth: I am becoming a baby elder.
One of my friends and wise teachers, Angeles Arrien, talked about how long it takes to become a true elder. In one of her last interviews before her death in 2014, she told the interviewer she wasn’t “old enough” to write her memoirs in her 70’s. In many of the indigenous cultures she studied over her long career as a cultural anthropologist, people didn’t really mature into elderhood until they were at least 90.
I’m only in my mid-fifties now, so I’ve got a few decades before I consider myself fully cooked as an elder. Even so, I feel called to show up for these young adults who come to me with their questions, stories, doubts, and dreams.
Mostly I listen to these young ones and ask good questions. I offer some stories about what I’ve learned from being alive. Sometimes I talk about singing jazz as a great metaphor for – as linguist and author Mary Catherine Bateson so beautifully put it – “Composing a Life.”
When I first starting singing solo in public, I did so as a jazz singer. My first piano player gave me strict instructions not to listen to what he was doing. He told me to listen to the bass. That way I’d always know where I was in the song. During that time I also learned how to improvise – how to make stuff up within the structure of a song. Those experiences provided the core metaphor for how I have lived my life ever since.
The “bass line” of our lives is made up of recurring and deep themes – the things that keep catching our attention over and over again, the values that are unshakable. A good life is made up of listening for that bass line and then just taking a breath and improvising over it. The cardinal rules for improvising work well for living as well:
Get to know the underlying structure of the song.
If you screw up, just keep going until your find your way to the other side.
Listen to the whole ensemble.
Be generous with your band mates…make them look good.
Trust your instincts.
Keep your sense of humor.
I tell my young friends that you don’t have to know exactly what you’re doing as you do it. Just keep listening, breathing, and experimenting. And even in the middle of the uncertainty, do all you can to make something beautiful.