Adopt an Elder!
Copyright © 2005, 2009 c.e., Isaac Bonewits
Everyone thinks of adoption as something involving babies or at least children. The idea that an old person might need "adopting" isn't intuitively obvious. In this essay, I hope to explain how and why older Pagans could use some help from the rest of the community.
I'm going to open by defining how I am using the terms "senior," "elder," and "Elder." The first term, "senior," can refer to anyone over 55 or 60 years of age in a modern Western culture. The second, "elder" with-a-small-e, can refer to someone who has taken a leadership role in a coven, temple, grove, or other religious community; usually it carries an assumption that the person so refered to has more years of religious training and/or experience than the bulk of the group. When I use "Elder" with-a-capital-E, I'm refering to a combination of the first two terms. A Pagan Elder, therefore, is someone who has devoted most of his or her life to serving a local, regional, national, or even international Pagan community, earning many of their grey hairs in the process, and who is now getting slow and creaky (if not cranky).
Every local Neopagan community has one, two, or more older members who may be struggling to survive on a day-to-day basis. Whether thay are seniors or Elders, and regardless of what tradition they belong to or teach, or what local "witch wars" they may have been part of years ago, now they are getting old and needing help to get by. If they are Elders, the main reason for their poverty is usually having devoted most of their lives to serving a Pagan community instead of earning their livings in nice middle-class jobs at corporations with good retirement plans and health coverage. Even worse, sometimes they did have such jobs, and juggled holding them down with serving a community, and then got downsized and/or had their pension plan looted by the top executives. Either way, like most Neopagan clergy, the odds are high that they are living at an economic level dramatically lower than most of the other Pagans they serve or have served, often for decades. And, of course, there are plenty of Pagan seniors around who may never have been leaders or teachers, but who are still struggling to keep their heads above water, especially in the current economy.
January through March are the worst months for Pagan Elders. The weather is cold, there are few (if any) festivals to pay them for teaching, authors' royalty checks from the Yule shopping season don't arrive until late March or April, any food gifts from relatives have run out, and everybody in the mainstream culture is broke (or feels that way) . What does or should this mean to non-elderly Pagans? It means that winter is the most important time to check on your local Pagan seniors (and any Elders living in your area) to see how they are doing. Is their rent or mortgage paid, or is their landlord/the bank trying to evict them? Is there heat in their home? Is there food in their pantry? Is their walk shoveled?
In other seasons, they may need help planting their garden, or weeding it, or mowing their lawn, or raking leaves. In every season you should find out if there is gas in their car or whether it need work to make it safe and legal. Is their internet connection up and running? Is anyone visiting them or taking them to local events? Has anyone bothered lately to interview them and record their words of wisdom for future generations of Pagans? Or are they simply ignored until someone wants something from them--a ritual, or a handfasting, or a reading, or an herbal treatment, or something else.
One of the ways that random assortments of people become "communities" is by caring for their own. So if you belong to a coven, grove, hearth, lodge, nest, or temple, consider adopting a senior Pagan or an Elder in your town, whether they belong to your tradition or not. Local groups could get together to locate and support local seniors/Elders, run fund-raising events, and organize charitable resources to support those local Pagans in need. One of the discoveries I made in writing The Pagan Man is that something like a third of the Pagan men who filled out my questionnaire said that they would belong to a Pagan men's group if they could find one. Well, here's a perfect justification to start one in your area, because doing charitable work is a classic men's group activity, and one that doesn't tend to make our sisters as nervous as other men's activities can. You may be surprised at how many Pagan men living near you will be happy to join a men's group dedicated to an honorable cause. See the website of the Royal Order of the Knights of Herne for an excellent example of just such a group.
Why is it important to have Pagan charities, rather than just contributing to secular ones? Often I am asked by members of other religions, "Where are your charities--your hospitals, soup kitchens, or food pantries?" Unfortunately, I have to tell them honestly that we have only a handful of them across the country or around the world. There is a Yahoo e-list called Elder-Pagan that is now discussing the long range plans necessary to create retirement communities and support systems for our most vulnerable members. You don't have to be old to join--in fact, they want young people who will be around long enough to see long-range plans put into action.
Establishing Pagan charities, or even just creating a culture of generosity inside Pagandom, requires us to face all our individual and group attitudes towards money and fund-raising. Being a Pagan shouldn't be about just taking the goodies that others have to give, but also about returning our gifts to others, thus passing the good karma along. Among the ancient tribal peoples so many of us seek to emulate, "hosting" and "guesting" involved giving and receiving in complex systems of reciprocal relationships. In fact, those words come from the same Proto-Indo-European root, ghosti, which is also the root of the word "ghost," referring to a family spirit who must be shown proper respect and be fed with offerings.
Yet the Christian Dualism that saturates our mainstream culture, combined with left-over anti-money ideals of the 1960s counterculture, leads many to assume that money is "profane," that spiritual people "don't need" money, and that anyone asking for money in a religious context is "just like" the televangelists (whom we view as dishonest and greedy) or whatever mainstream religion we were brought up in. In an "us vs. them" worldview, remember, anyone who has something about them that resembles anything about someone else we consider evil, is of course, just as evil--or at least comfortably ignorable. These attitudes, of course, justify hanging on to our money rather than sharing it with those in need. Indeed, it usually takes a major disaster to shake us out of our complacency.
Here's an unpleasant fact that most Neopagans would prefer to ignore: the reason religious leaders and groups ask for money is that we live in a money economy and it takes money to handle most aspects of survival (yes, I know about barter systems, but landlords, utility companies, and pharmacies don't take barter) . It doesn't matter how well-known Lady Pollyanna might be among Pagans in her town (or even internationally) , her fame as a microcelebrity won't pay her rent or buy her groceries, no matter how many hours she puts into teaching classes or counseling those in need. Dru Hornblower may be an annoying old fart, but he still needs help to pay for ceremonial supplies, sound equipment, transportation, and space rentals for the eight holy day rites he puts on for his community each year. The vast majority of Neopagans are middle class or working class residents of the wealthiest cultures in human history. Our poorest members--yes, even you students--would be considered middle or upper class in most countries of the world today, and royalty in most historical cultures.
So the next time you are considering the purchase of yet another piece of Pagan jewelry, a night of beer and pizza, a trip to the movies, or a new video game, consider instead giving the same amount of money to a Pagan charity or to a local Pagan senior or Elder. If some Pagan Elder comes out and leads a spectacular ritual that blows everyone's minds, start passing a hat for her while the obligatory hugs are going on. She might be embarrassed, but her cats and her kids will appreciate the food the extra cash will buy. Don't be afraid to ask for money for those in need at public Pagan events, for you will find that many people are grateful for the chance to contribute to a good cause. This can not only give you a short-term pleasure but also be a long-term investment in your community's future.
I have seen too many Pagan seniors and Elders living and dying in poverty to have much hope for my personal future or that of my colleagues, unless our community makes a major turnaround in attitudes and customs soon. It's way past time for a major debate on Pagan charities in general and the support of our Pagan seniors and Elders in particular. Otherwise we will work until we drop, for there are no Druid pensions or Wiccan 401Ks, and retirement will be impossible for us. Go ahead and cast aspersions in my direction for bringing up the topic--plenty of people have accused me and other Pagan Elders of "wanting to live off of the community"--but, whatever your attitude is, start arguing with your Pagan sisters and brothers about this topic now, while there are still a few Pagan seniors and Elders left!
One person asked, "How do we find a Pagan senior or Elder to adopt?" My first thought was to search the Witchvox listings for your state, province, or nation--they have thousands of them! Once you know who your local covens, lodges, temples, groves, etc. are, then you can contact them to see if there are Pagan seniors or Elders in the area who might need help.Another way would be to run the name of some of your favorite Pagan Elders through Witchvox or Google to see what news there is of them. Or you could just ask!
Groups can collectively adopt an Elder or a local senior. I know our local Unitarian Universalist congregation of some 50 people or so have successfully kept a single mother and her kids off the streets for a few years now. There are plenty of Pagan groups of 40-50 members, or local networks of students or former students of Pagan teachers, who could jointly adopt someone in need.
This isn't just a problem for Wiccan Elders, by the way. We know Druidic, Asatruar, Khemetic, and other Reconstructionist Pagan Elders who are having a hard time surviving.
How can people help best? I hate to say it but cold, hard, cash is the major thing most seniors and Elders need, however much they might want to be independent. Just putting money in an envelope and slipping it under their door or mailing it off to them will improve their lives. Many Pagan seniors, like other seniors, have to choose between rent and medications, between paying the gas and electric bills or the telephone bills (we know we have, on many occasions). Your anonymous gift can help a senior or Elder pay both, when they fear being unable to pay anything.
Just because someone may know and even teach about "money magic" doesn't mean they can do it very well themselves. Money spells are among the hardest to do effectively, for several reasons. One is "simple" inertia, for the number of people to be effected to make a series of coincidences occur, that will result in money being given to the magician, can be huge. Spells on specific individuals to make them give you money are unethical, and most Pagan Elders will refuse to do them. Money is also an extremely abstract concept, which makes it harder to work with than something like health or love. Even those who have a natural knack for money magic may not be able to do it for themselves, for various psychological or ethical reasons. Most of the really good money magicians we have known didn't realize that was what they were doing and weren't part of the magical or Pagan communities.
Don't assume that published authors are living off their royalties--the overwhelming majority of writers, even Pagan and magical ones, make only a few thousand dollars per year (if that) in book royalties or speaking fees. Just because a title listed on Amazon may be #1 in its topic category (like Bonewits's Essential Guide to Druidism has frequently been) doesn't mean the book is selling more than a handful of copies a week, from which the average Pagan writer is lucky to get a buck a book. My old friend Randall Garrett, a science fiction writer, used to tell me that a professional writer needed three things: "a tweed suit, a briar pipe, and a spouse with a steady income." Most of your favorite Pagan authors either have such a spouse or they have a day job that pays the rent so they can spend a few hours a week writing. Such households, especially if there are children involved, usually live at an economic level far below that of most of their readers.
Cash aside, gifts of jams and jellies, baked goods, homemade soaps and such can make Elders feel loved and appreciated (and lower their grocery bills). If you know they have pets, bring over some dog or catfood. If you know they have years of notes and correspondance sitting in boxes, go over and give them a few hours of organizing and filing time every week for a few months. There are many ways we can make our Pagan seniors and Elders feel better and show them our appreciation for the lives they have dedicated to our movements.
But as my friend Magenta commented in our blog, it's not only cash that seniors/Elders need.
Even when the economy is staggering, Pagan Elders and seniors will be worse off than you are. So if you want them around for a few more years, give whatever help you can. One reader of previous versions of this essay went so far as to make an "Adopt an Elder Pledge Sheet" which he gives to people to fill out with the name of their preferred recipient and mail to them along with whatever help they are pledging for the first month. He also gives a copy of this essay and the pledge form to reproduce and pass on to three more Pagans. This is a great idea and we strongly encourage it and other creative approaches to solving the growing problem of genuine Pagan poverty among our Elders and seniors.
If you would be interested in helping Isaac and Phaedra, visit Our Blatant Hucksterism Page for up to date news on our situation and multiple ways to help.
Copyright © 2005, 2009 c.e., Isaac Bonewits. This essay was first posted at Witchvox.com. This text file may be freely distributed on the Net, provided that no editing is done, the version number is retained, and everything in this notice box is included. If you would like to be on one or more of Isaac Bonewits’ emailing lists, click here to get subscription information.