This past June my husband and I attended the Kundalini Yoga Solstice celebration in New Mexico, an international gathering of Kundalini Yoga enthusiasts that I attended since 1989 for ten years straight. I skipped a year, went again in 2001 and had not been since. This was my husband’s first Solstice. We decided to commit to going, which meant opening our retreat Sewall House a little later than usual that season.
Though some things had changed, much of what Solstice was remained the same; challenges in the desert heat, nature’s spellbinding beauty, processing emotions in the three days of white tantric meditation with our partner, the sense of spirits of Native Americans past as well as the elder who gave the invocation for the healing walk.
One of the things that had changed is that this was the first Solstice I had attended Yogi Bhajan, our teacher, was not present, having passed from his physical body in 2004. I had studied with Yogi Bhajan since I was thirty; his teachings and technology of Kundalini Yoga were something that had entered, greatly influenced and gradually transformed my experience of life. This year I ran into Dyal Singh, who is now a respected healer. In 1989 he had been Harvey, a guy in a baseball cap. We reminisced a bit and came to the realization that we were now part of the elders of the movement. It was true. Looking around at many of the people I had connected with over the years at various Solstices I saw the effects of becoming an elder. Many of us had the same basic personality but our looks had evolved, in some of the men especially evident in the gray hairs in their beards. I have heard said: The 40’s are the old age of youth, the 50’s are the youth of old age. Dyal and I were there. At 53, I can only hope that I can be as positive an influence to others as the elders I have known whose wisdom has given me so much.
The same year that Yogi Bhajan passed my mother passed. Since she had me when she was forty-five she was always something of an elder to me. As any daughter and mother may have, we had our differences, yet I know her quiet wisdom is still with me. My mother always had said I was a “seeker.” In my thirties I was still seeking the answers to life. I found Kundalini yoga and, still trying to understand unresolved emotions, I studied acting in New York City at the same time as I started teaching yoga. One of my acting teachers, Michael Moriarty, urged us to write our own show. Mine evolved out of a love for Maine, a biography my mother had written about her grandmother and likely the continuation of a dialogue and bond that I had had with my great Uncle Fred, a potato farmer who in his later years lived in an old guide’s shack on the lake in Maine where I spent my summers. Uncle Fred was someone who I could ask questions of and feel his calm answers in my heart and soul. I asked him about death, a young girl discovering the concept and not at all comfortable with it. He was honestly unafraid. Knowing nature like the back of his hand (he would tell us tomorrow’s weather by looking at the sky and wind) he trusted nature and its rhythms, including death.
My show evolved out of an imaginary conversation with my great grandmother, asking questions about life in the present from a woman who had lived in the past (and who I had never actually known). There is something about roots that gives us fortitude. I thought searching my roots might give me this. The dialogue evolved into her story and I titled it “In This Our Home.” My great Aunt Nancy, Uncle Fred’s youngest sister, was another amazing elder in our family. She, like Uncle Fred, knew and loved the trees and flowers and cherished nature and its gifts and teachings. A wonderful home-maker, she and her husband had lovingly kept the family home alive that she and Uncle Fred and the others, like my grandmother, had grown up in. It was always the first place we went when entering town to go to our rustic camp for the summer. It was Aunt Nancy who I sat and interviewed for my show, the last sibling alive now. As she shared the story of her parents’ lives, we both welled with tears, the story full of love and devotion. “Oh, my dear,” I remember her saying “ I feel sorry for you, You are sentimental like me.” In a New England family this is not always considered a positive trait!
When Aunt Nancy turned 100, people came from all over the country on a warm Indian summer day to celebrate with her. One of the wise things we can learn from our elders, and which Michael Moriarty taught as well, is never to lose our inner child. As everyone sang “Happy Birthday,” Aunt Nancy joined in, with a sparkle in her eye and pure joy on her face, singing “Happy Birthday to Me!” At 100, she also shared with us individually her memories of being ten at Theodore Roosevelt’s inauguration and shaking Geronimo’s hand. Life gives us each these uniquely memorable moments.
When Aunt Nancy passed in 1996, her home stood empty. Childless, she had left the home to her three “boys,” all in their eighties now, nephews who had taken care of her with devotion, especially after her husband had died. When the contents of the house had been appraised and the house was to be put on the market, once again I had the opportunity to ask questions of the elders in my family. This time it was not about death or life growing up in the family home–this time, it was to ask to purchase the home. With a great love for yoga, for nature and for all the fabulous elders who had helped guide my life, I eventually was granted permission to buy it from cousin Bill, my mother’s cousin, a great story teller, with sparkling blue eyes, hands as big as a ham (you could get a quarter through his wedding ring), known as the strongest man in the County (that would be Aroostook). Bill loved to pull practical jokes, make you laugh and feel he really cared. Uncle Don, for whom I was named, was my mother’s brother, a proper, intelligently well-informed retired agriculture teacher, well respected by his students and visa versa, no matter what level they had attained in their lives, reserved, like my mother, yet kind and good hearted all the same. Then there was Sam, self-sufficient in every way, thrifty but ever generous, never a complaint despite several personal tragedies. As my sister said “Let’s find a man like Sam, thirty years younger for me and forty years younger for you.” Sam was devoted, honest and ever learning about and participating in life. For me, buying the house was a big step, a scary step (“I hope the house never becomes a burden,” Uncle Don once said to me before he passed). I was forty-one and single at the time. But these wonderful men and other elders in my family, Cousin Christine, Aunt Lib, Cousin Cleo, embraced what I was doing with non-judgment, only acceptance, curiosity and perhaps only a little concern if I really knew what I was taking on.
Though this story is mine it would be so very different without the influence of Uncle Fred, Yogi Bhajan and all the others. In Yoga, I have learned from Dharma Mittra, almost 70, so very much, with deep reverence and respect. Perhaps because of my childhood influences, in Yoga I have gravitated toward older, wiser teachers rather than the latest trendsetter. I admire and respect teachers like Angela Farmer, also 70, who I have never studied with but know of through one of her protégés, and the lesser known elders, like the lovely woman from St John, in her 70’s, who brought seven of her devoted students to a workshop we did in Fredericton. Iyengar and Pattabhis Jois, both elder Yoga Masters, continue to share their wisdom in their upper 80’s and 90’s respectively. Just as the wisdom of the ancient yogic texts guide our yoga practice I believe it is important to look around us in our youth-oriented society and learn from, not ignore, the messages from the elders around us. Aging is an inevitability in life. Gaining and sharing wisdom and encouragement in this process is the gift we can give back.
Donna (Amrita) Davidge runs www.sewallhouse.com yoga retreat with her husband Kent Bonham in Island Falls, Maine, where her great grandfather William Sewall met a young Theodore Roosevelt and became a lifelong friend, elder and mentor to the future President (Mr. Sewall was called ”the old Mennonite” on TR’s ranch in North Dakota). Sewall House is open June through October and can be booked the rest of the year for special inquires and retreats. 888- 235-2395.