Language matters. So I’m generally a fan of changing words that carry a hurtful history or present-day charge. Things like “enslaved person” rather than “slave,” “developmentally disabled” over “mental retard,” “elder” instead of “geezer.” Sometimes it feels like it goes too far— “vertically challenged” instead of “short,” for example.
So yesterday when I boarded the bus in Portland, I gratefully received the Senior Citizen discount. Then noticed the letter H on the transfer and in small print, “Honored Citizen.”
Well, wouldn’t that be nice. That our culture actually honored the elders as keepers of a kind of wisdom impossible to access when you’re younger and simply haven’t lived enough.
Of course, such wisdom doesn’t come for free merely from the turning of calendars. It is earned through a lifetime of attention, reflection, work well done and well considered. But in a youth-oriented culture, that equates intelligence with tech savvy and value with buff sexy bodies, the value of an elder’s wisdom is poorly understood.
With some exceptions. In this jazz world, for example. There is enormous respect for those who have paid their dues over decades and often, informal classes backstage where the young guys listen to the stories and heed musical advice. In my own small field of Orff Schulwerk, I helped organize a “Council of Elders” that met on Zoom to respond to various changes in the mother organization and offered some unsolicited advice that was actually well-received. And I’m happy to report that at the ripe old age of 71, the invitations to give workshops and write articles keep coming in. Since I feel at the top of my game teaching both kids and adults, this is a happy circumstance.
When I look back at things I wrote, even in my first couple of years of teaching, I find that I talked about the same things I do now. The vision and convictions and values were already in place. But what was missing was the next 45 years of experience and the stories that illuminate and confirm the ideas. And as a human being, I needed to go through life’s curriculum of disappointments, betrayals, unwise choices, thwarted ambitions, loss and grief before I could become more fully human. I had to care about the things that would break my heart and then realize, slowly, that my heart was never wholly broken and healed enough to keep caring and loving.
So thank you, Portland, I think that such experiences qualifies my peers and I to be Honored Citizens, indeed. Not just the seats on the bus or reduced prices, but the deep appreciation of having come through so many of life’s storms intact and the hope to pass on some worthy advice to the younger ones. H it is.