One of the first things I decided to do after the 2016 election was to stop coloring my hair. In the months that followed, the light brown I’d adopted for the past 20 years, something close to the color I was born with, gave way to snowy white. I am delighted with my new look, the result of genes inherited from my white-haired father and grandparents.
I told friends that I’d been waiting to stop coloring my hair till I was pretty sure it was growing out all white rather than gray. But there were deeper reasons for choosing to go white at that particular time, even though I couldn’t articulate them at first. They had to do with the election–something about no-nonsense, focusing on the essentials, getting to the bare bones of who I am in this time.
Last weekend, exactly a year after the election that changed how we think of ourselves as a nation, the need for my white hair suddenly became clear.
I was attending the Third Women’s Congress for Future Generations, held in Minneapolis and sponsored by the organization I worked for from 2000 to 2012, the Science and Environmental Health Network. I was there with my daughter-in-law and year-old grandson. I encountered dear colleagues from those past years as well as more than 300 spirited women and men who were taking ideas I’d help to form–Guardianship of Future Generations, the Precautionary Principle, Ecological Medicine–to new heights and applications. The Congress was beautiful, inspiring, compelling, full of music, art, ideas, and stories of pain and hope. I came away both exhausted and energized.
Just before the Congress my friend Carolyn, executive director of the Network, asked me to join five other women to serve as the elders, the Grandmothers, of the Congress. I am always happy to accept easy assignments–things that don’t require specific preparation but draw on life experience and the spiritual preparation I practice daily–and so I agreed.
On the second day of the Congress, we six Grandmothers were called forward, commissioned, and given beautiful pashmina shawls as symbols of our role. We were two Native Americans, two white women, one African American, and one Latina.
We listened to five young women tell their stories of pain and triumph. Later that day we received the reports, performances, and pledges of the caucuses of guardians representing sectors of medicine, religion, justice, agriculture, and more. And on the third day, after the final pledges were read to us, we six responded–some of us with a few words, some with elaborately prepared blessing and instruction.
Although I am a literal grandmother–and I was moved to tears when my daughter-in-law and grandson were called to stand behind me at the last session–serving as an archetypal Grandmother was a revelation to me. As I told several people who thanked me for my service, everyone should have a chance to play this role.
What it revealed was the hunger, the need, for Grandmother presence in these times. What, exactly, this presence serves cannot easily be summarized and depends on the individual elder. But from the time I appeared on stage through the end of the conference, people came to me with stories of pain and longing. I sensed a hunger for the wisdom of elders, gratitude for the attention of elders, some kind of opening right now, in these tormented times, for the kind of deep listening, consolation, and challenge that can only come from seasoned feminine energy and love.
My white hair and the Grandmother shawl were a visible symbol of this. The experience initiated me into a role that I am determined to continue, not only with my own grandchildren but somehow in the larger community.
I think of women I know who are doing this in their own ways. One has developed a nearly daily phone relationship with her representatives and their staffs, chiding and urging about legislation–and asking about their families. Others take in children who are not their own or are mentors in the ways of their people, carriers of the stories of their pasts. They are crusaders and gardeners and healers and counselors.
What could happen if we put ourselves together, now in then, in visible ways? I can envision groups of older women, representing different ethnicities and sectors and wearing a kind of uniform–basic black and a colorful shawl?–showing up at events and city council meetings, mourning victims of violence, blessing the young, protesting injustice, and . . . ?
What do you think? How would you do this? Where is Grandmother energy needed in these times?