By Anne Wennhold
The Vermont sunshine blanketed me with its golden warmth as I climbed onto the sandy bank of the swimming hole. Glorious day! I shook my head flinging water drops into the still air. Reaching for the towel I saw a small transparent spiral curled up in the grass. As the rays of the sun touched its surface it brought out a translucent glow that revealed a small snakeskin perfect from head to tail. It must have belonged to a young garter snake completing its yearly growth.
Alerted by my Native American teachers to be aware of information relayed from the universe through nature’s beings large and small, I wondered if this could be just such a notice. After all, I had just completed my first experience facilitating a Choosing Conscious Elderhood retreat! Something I had wanted to do ever since retiring and attending my first retreat several years ago. Message or not, I decided to act as if the universe actually did send this snakeskin as confirmation of time to move into the work I desired. Carefully I wrapped the snakeskin up to take home and place on my altar.
For the next eighteen years I was honored to facilitate retreats with Ron Pevny, director and creator of the Choosing Conscious Elderhood program. From Ron I learned about the micro management of time, place, content, process and, more importantly, the nuances of flow learned only in the act of doing: things never taught in the classroom or found in a book.
And Magic happened! Based on Ron’s carefully crafted framework, my own spiritual path was deepened and integrated even as I worked with nature, the spirits and human beings: actually because I got to work with them all! Bringing my own spiritual tools of ritual and ceremony learned from Shamanic and Native American teachers and combining them with Ron’s spiritual format, we constructed an atmosphere of safety within which all participants could open their minds and hearts to the work at hand.
One such ritual was to go outside early in the morning and drum a welcome to the sun as it rose over the mountains in New Mexico: a daily task as satisfactory as greeting a loved one home after a long absence.
After breakfast there was the ritual of drumming and lighting sage leaves, cleansing ourselves with their burning fragrance and inviting all supportive spirits to join us in our work for the day. Rituals such as these are a repeated action or activity done to empower us and connect us to the spiritual dimension of life.
Ceremony on the other hand tends to be a more specific celebration of one kind or another. For me, the Fire Ceremony is a bright/dark heat shaped by the Spirit of Fire leaping to the thunder of the beating drum and answering the call to be of assistance in transformation: always a mesmerizing event. Often a fire ceremony is held to mark a time of ‘letting go’: a celebration of releasing something that no longer serves one’s life purpose. That could be anything from an obsession with sweets, to a habit of judging others or a role that no longer fits. Opening to the nature of Fire can be cleansing, healing or an announcement of the completion of a time or a job.
In addition to gifts of nature and the spiritual helpers surrounding us, some of the best teachings I received through those years of spiritual feasting came from individuals who attended the retreats either alone, in couples or small groups: teachers, writers, healers and workers of all kinds, each intent on conscious growth as they aged. We learned from each other’s stories of persistence, of doubt, illnesses, forgiveness, and strength and even as we witnessed each other’s truths, we were changed. And we grew!
This last year as I retired from those mystical eighteen years as a facilitator in the CCE retreats, it was clear that it was time to let that work go. My body no longer had the energy or inclination for travel or managing weeklong events. Shortly after that retirement, while I was visiting with friends, I was asked to conduct a Fire Ceremony for them. Standing in the north, the place of the elders, of wisdom and transition, I realized I was there not just to conduct the ceremony for others as I had done for years, but that I now needed this Fire Ceremony to celebrate my own letting go of the work I loved. As our drums sounded and the Spirit of Fire danced, I felt cocooned in a timeless peace. It stole over me like a benediction sealing the release of the past and slowly opening into the spaciousness of whatever was to come.
Still later when I returned home and looked at the snakeskin lying on the altar, I saw it had disintegrated into minute particles lying, crystalline and sunlit, in the outline of the young snake it had clothed.
I have spoken my Truth,
I have been witnessed and
I am forever changed.
Anne Wennhold is our conscious eldering guide emeritus, who for many years co-guided our retreats with Ron Pevny. She now runs support groups for older adults and facilitates online Memoir Writing, Drumming and other new courses. Anne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org