We are nestled, this week, under the brilliantly watermelon-colored Sandia Mountains in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Nearby, we discovered the weathered lava fields resplendent with American Indian petroglyphs – remarkable symbolic stories that indigenous peoples etched in stone thousands of years ago. The symbols took us by surprise. Many are identical to those at the mouth of the Wailua River on Kaua’i. These indigenous narratives have certain things in common, but I won’t overstate their similarities. This is the desert; our Islands are surrounded by ocean. The stories share common threads, but they are not the same.
It is the point I want to make on the matter of our four-score-if-we-are-blessed human lives: the defining work of the young; the defining work of the elders. We share common threads, but our work is not the same. These differences have been particularly transparent to me on this journey.
Between us, ‘Iokepa and I have reared three adult sons and one adult daughter. We are neither unconscious of, nor insensitive to, a young adult’s search for individuation.
Quite a number of youthful spiritual seekers have found their way to our gatherings. Barely past adolescence – hardly emancipated from their parental home – these bright-faced young men and women are working overtime to find an elder who will have their answers. They have traveled from one set of indigenous ritual to another, from shaman to guru, from meditation cushion to crystal, from India to Sedona. They sit meditation, they pray, and they retreat from authentic human experience – from trial and error, risk and failure.
“The gift is life.” ‘Iokepa tells them. “The experience of life is in the living it – almost to the edge sometimes.”
He says, “Being young is about experiencing. But these young men and women are seeking it, not living it. They’re busy looking for someone who has their answers.”
To my mothering eyes, these seekers look like terrified children. They are afraid to experience the life they’ve been handed. They want to skip the trial and error, the fall-down and get-back-up of any authentic life. They want to bypass that exciting messiness and reap the fruits of an elder who has lived, who already has his or her answers.
They are mistaken – and ‘Iokepa attempts to turn them back to their own resources, their own potential knowing.
In youth we experience. With age, we digest our experience. When we no longer run so fast, we are freed to contemplate our years of running. But what if we have never run?
These scared young spiritual seekers idealize all that ‘Iokepa surrendered at age forty-six to take his walk. Repeatedly, they gush, “You must be so much happier now!” (Without fast cars, fast life, or the pursuit of the dollar.) Their mouths hang open when ‘Iokepa answers: “No, I’m not. I loved that life! I loved my cars. I loved my work. I loved going fast. That was then. This is now. It’s different – not more nor less.”
‘Iokepa still awakens in the early morning from dreams of the life he surrendered. It is not a yearning. It a re-experiencing: the gift of age.
The comedian and actor Redd Foxx said it best: “I don’t want to be lying in a hospital bed – dying of nothing.”