For the last ten years, I’d put a lot of energy into working with a charity called A Band of Brothers (ABOB), doing rites-of-passage weekends for young men involved in the Criminal Justice System in order to help them move on from adolescent behaviour to healthy masculinity. It was powerful and rewarding mentoring work around life transition. A group of us would go to the woods on a Thursday to prepare the physical and emotional ground for fifteen or so young men to arrive on Friday. Most of the young men went home on Sunday evening with the hope of a new beginning in their lives and a willingness to be mentored into a healthy community. I loved the challenge of the work, the processes we used, and the camaraderie of building community together. I made deep connections and considered myself fortunate to have my ABOB family.
But then there was a problem. At the age of 70, I was finding the long days and nights camping in the woods with a demanding schedule that sometimes didn’t finish until after midnight – too much. Of course, I didn’t want to admit it. I tried to keep up with my ‘brothers’, who I generally considered my contemporaries, but they were often thirty years younger! I was struggling – and even the younger men were knackered at the end of a weekend. What I could do when I was sixty-five was no longer possible. I would sometimes take on the ‘elder’ role, but the physicality proved too much for me. I felt like I was failing myself, my colleagues and the young men. I felt shame at being too old to full participate, though I was never going to publicly admit it.
I would still turn up for meetings, but I started to feel critical about the work and I would long for the event to end. The feeling of connection and joy that I had felt for many years had gone, and I felt huge grief at the thought of losing my ‘tribe’. I had spent nearly ten years of my life contributing to the organisation, and now I felt alone and past it. Like many people who have to retire from the work they love, I felt like this was the beginning of a slow decline to the end of my life. These were dark times for me. The joy of life had gone but it was in this darkness that a new seed started to germinate.
What did growing old mean to me? I could no longer pretend to be middle-aged. I realised how unaccepting I was of ageing and how unprepared I was for this stage of life. Why was I surprised to be this old? I thought of my friends and me, and how we engaged in distractions to avoid the reality of our existence. News, celebrity gossip, sport, box sets – anything but the truth of our existence. The idea of fully accepting my age was a challenging one, but I started to explore how I could shed my old skin and move forward into a new stage of life.
As luck would have it, I was offered a place on a brilliant course in supporting people at the end of their lives. Through being alongside people who worked with the dying, I started to come to terms with my mortality. I was able to let go of some of the old attachments and this gave me a new lease of life and a surge of creative energy that I hadn’t felt for decades.
In 2018, I wrote and rehearsed a show called The Seven Ages of the Dance of Life and Death with a community of actors, dancers and musicians. We did fourteen public performances, and the show attracted an appreciative audience. This was a creative and joyous time of my life and I forged some new and deep connections. I had let go of the past and moved into a new and empowered stage of life.
As I had been involved in helping young men transition from adolescence to healthy adulthood, I started to wonder if there wasn’t a need for a rites-of-passage in later life in which participants could let go of their old beliefs and identities that no longer served them. I read books by psychologists and by the pioneers in the conscious ageing movement. I researched some of the anthropologists on rites–of–passage and found that within many indigenous tribes, the process of marking key stages in life was seen as absolutely necessary for communal well-being.
I felt certain that myself (and possibly others could benefit) from a deeper exploration of the stages of life and our role in the community, so I completed a facilitation training course with The Institute of Noetics Sciences. After that, I was fortunate enough to meet a wise, elder woman who was already working in the field of conscious ageing. Together we devised and marketed our first workshops, which were well attended. We found that in each group, there was so much that connected each of us even though the participants came from diverse backgrounds. The future looked really exciting until February 2020 when the fear of a new virus took hold.
In isolation, I spent the next few months writing and sorting through my ideas so that in November, I was able to publish The Power of Ageing. It sold around a hundred copies, but more importantly, it brought together a small group of like-minded people who felt passionately about the subject matter. We started a monthly discussion forum from which the Life-Stage Project was formed. Having lost my tribe a few years back, I finally felt reconnected again.
As we emerge from the pandemic, Life-Stage is offering regular workshops, an online course and a free monthly forum. We continue to explore how to empower ourselves in later life and now, we are taking the work into Retirement Villages and are hoping to spread the word further so that instead of us fearing ageing and death, we can become fully alive with wisdom, courage and a love of life.
Attachments and Letting Go workshop 30 April 10.00-3.00 in Glynde, Lewes, Sussex. Find out more about the Life-Stage Project at www.life-stage.org.