When my partner and I first considered moving to Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, our dear friend Patricia responded in great surprise, “But, you’d be the ELDERS!”
Yes, I agreed, we probably would; Dennis was 60 and I was 50 at the time, and most of the folks at Dancing Rabbit (Rutledge, Missouri) were in their 20s and 30s. And so what? As a teacher, I had spent a good part of my adult life with younger people, and had developed some close friendships with my former students as they grew into adulthood. The role of “elder” didn’t daunt me at all. In fact, the thought of living intergenerationally really excited me.
Soon after I moved to Dancing Rabbit I began to understand what Patricia was saying. I began to have a strange craving for conversation with ANYONE who looked to be over 40. I started an elders group of the few folks who were over 45. I began to be very conscious of the fact that I could have been the first grade teacher, or even the parent, of many of my neighbors, setting up an expectation for myself that I should behave at all times in a “grown-up” way.
At the same time, I was very conscious that I didn’t want to be teacher or parent, and that my neighbors weren’t looking for that either. I couldn’t quite figure out how to be “me.” While I really wanted to be “age-blind,” age kept seeming to matter.
It became particularly hard for me when the mostly young interns we call “work exchangers” populated DR each summer. With great energy and enthusiasm, they created their own 20-something social world, and most of them, understandably, had little interest in hanging out with someone their mom’s age. Though I still think of myself as just out of college, it appears that years have actually elapsed since the ’70s, and music, dance styles, lingo, and all the rest of young culture has indeed changed! Suddenly, I am the generation whose “old road is rapidly agin’,” as Bob Dylan so eloquently put it.
At some point I realized that I not only craved social connections with 45-year-old “elders,” I was actually needing a true elder, a guide, a “crone,” right here in my community. I was a woman going through that interesting transition called menopause, with all its wonders and hard-hitting manifestations. I realized that, in fact, I AM aging, but I’m not yet a true elder. I wanted to talk about it with someone in my community, someone who had experienced these changes and could share some wisdom.
I went to the weekly women’s circle in its early days, and found a group of dear and earnest 30-somethings winding their way through issues around birth control and raising young children. That seemed helpful for them, but it wasn’t what I needed. They weren’t asking for my wisdom, and they didn’t have the kind of wisdom I was seeking. I don’t blame them; I don’t think at that age I would have had much wisdom—or even interest—around the issues of, as some have called it, “crone-olescence.”
Most of us who live here—Rabbits, we call ourselves—grew up somewhere else. We have come largely from a culture where age has been a social separator. Third graders spend most of their social time with other third graders. Teachers and other adults are NOT your friends—they’re not supposed to be. By 18 or 20 you have no need of parent-figures in your life on a daily basis. Grandparents are faraway folks to be visited occasionally as you explore your own life in the big world. We come from—and still are—a culture that really doesn’t know how to interact deeply with age diversity.
Still, I’d wager that most Rabbits would say that intergenerational living needs to be a fundamental part of a new culture. That’s a value I am convinced we hold, and it manifests in small, delightful ways. We have the advantage here in community of seeing each other grow through life’s changes in a very up-close and personal way. I have “hang-out” dates with my neighbor Aurelia from time to time; I’ve watched her grow from a tiny two-year-old to a graceful and independent front-teeth-missing seven-year-old. (And who knows? Maybe she’s seen me change!)
In a week’s time the community celebrated one-year-old Dmitri’s birthday and 60-year-old Bob’s birthday, both with great joy. Many of us welcomed Dmitri just after his birth, and we’ve been present to the changes in Bri and Alex’s lives as they moved through the first year of parenthood. We celebrated Morgan’s 16th birthday with a rite of passage ceremony and cheered him as he left for college last year; he credits much of his ease of transition to college to his intergenerational experiences in community. And at every full moon and seasonal ceremony, the eldest and youngest present are honored as they jointly add a stick to the ceremonial fire.
As with so much of what we do here at Dancing Rabbit, we’re in an experimental transition. The 30-somethings are pushing 40 and may soon find themselves part of Bob Dylan’s “old road.” (“As the present now will later be past, the order is rapidly fadin’. And the first one now, will later be last…”) And that’s a great thing for Dancing Rabbit!
We’re already developing infrastructure with the less physically-abled in mind. We’re moving out of the pioneer phase of development and becoming a village with abundant living spaces and a robust internal economy. We have the creativity to experiment with more ways to incorporate the older crowd into the vibrant social fabric here. As a maturing community culture, we’re ever-learning to value the wisdom of life experience for whatever it may offer us. I’m hopeful that, as we transition, we’ll naturally attract older folks who are looking for a meaningful place to spend the rest of their lives. It’s certainly been a meaningful one for me!
And as for me, I’ve stopped trying to convince myself that age doesn’t matter. It DOES matter. We ARE different throughout the various stages of life. And with that acceptance, I finally embrace the role I apparently jumped into when Patricia identified me as “elder” at Dancing Rabbit. Though I have no crone to guide me, I will move, as gracefully as I can, into true elderhood, gathering wisdom as I go.
I’ll be there to “lend a hand,” as the Dylan song says, to those who make the aging transition after me. I find myself more and more dedicated to working with my fellow communitarians to build a place—and a culture—that counters the subtle practices of age separation. The times ARE a-changin’, and I believe that soon we’ll be celebrating a deeper kind of intergenerational living at Dancing Rabbit.
Sharon has lived at Dancing Rabbit for the past five years. A former elementary school teacher and environmental educator, she coordinates and teaches programs on sustainability to the visiting public at DR. With a passion for permaculture, she is creating a permaculture homestead and forest garden learning center with her partner, Dennis. Sharon is also owner of a small organic farm in Ecuador, where she and an Ecuadorian family collaborate to produce artisanal chocolate. A version of this article appeared in “The March Hare,” Dancing Rabbit’s electronic newsletter, on May 1, 2014.