Four years ago, as I went to touch up my roots with a shade of red I’d been dying my hair since I was 18, I noticed that what had started as a few random strands of gray amidst my natural reddish brown had become streaks of brilliant silver. I began dying my hair red as a style choice, long before I’d ever even thought of going gray. I loved the way my natural hair reddened in the summers, with copper highlights flashing under the beach sunsets. There was never an intention to hide gray or look younger, but there was a time in my thirties when the first few strands of gray seemed to make my darker roots look muddy, like they were dirty instead of graying.
But brilliant streaks of silver? This, I could do. I switched from my usual permanent henna dye to a temporary red to keep my roots touched up while the henna’d hair grew out, and waited. Three years later, all the permanently red hair had grown out, and I was ready to have fun. I went to the stylist, had him bleach out the parts I’d been dying red, and had him color it all with a wild ombre of colors that would look good with silver. My hair was a darkened nebula, silver roots reaching down into four different shades of purples of blues. After each new dye – a brilliant nebula, each time fading over a few months into a soft mix of gray-blues and silver. Even at the end of the fade-out, people still ask me if I just had my hair colored. Every week, the color seems a new shade.
Currently, I’m at the end of a fade out. Honestly, I probably would have colored it a few weeks ago if I weren’t so busy, but at this point my hair is mostly gray with some slight bluish highlights.
And twice in the last week – TWICE! – I’ve been offered the senior discount by well-meaning cashiers.
And unlike the first time I was called ma’am (at 21, while wearing a sexy bikini, by college boys I was attempting to flirt with), I wasn’t offended. While I definitely felt a wow, I didn’t feel resistance. While I’m not yet ready to embrace the title of elder, I do recognize that I’m moving towards it. I mentor. I teach. I support. And when the time comes that the label elder falls naturally into my life, used about me with conviction by those whose lives I’ve enriched, I’ll embrace it.
Today at work, my team discussed the dynamics of working in a truly intergenerational workplace. I work with people my age and up, some who are in their second or third careers, and with people a couple of years older than my oldest child, who were likely in diapers when I marched in my first pride march and took my first suicide hotline call. Now, however, we all work together, bringing our pieces of the puzzle to the work of ending sexual violence and fostering healing in its aftermath.
So, while I’m not yet an elder, I’m old enough to start thinking about the kind of elder I want to be, and about what it means to hold space as an elder. It means to hold memory, to preserve traditions, to remind us of those who came before, and to foster the continuation of the parts of our communities that are nourishing and good. But if that’s all we do, we run the risk of becoming relics, static holograms rather than dynamic elders within living traditions – whether we’re speaking of our religious traditions or our feminist movements. When we hole up in our elder identities and archival knowledge, overconfident in our ability to know the world through our historical lenses, we miss out on the opportunities that mutual engagement with younger generations and their evolving lenses could provide. Elder isn’t just a title, it’s a role within a community, and to play that role we need to engage with the broad spectrum of wisdom and knowledge our communities have to offer. None of our traditions or disciplines are static. Wisdom is both truth and process.
For me, I’m not a young woman or an elder. I’m too young to get the senior discount, but too old to be offended about being ma’amed by college kids. I no longer have the youthful fire of thinking I know everything, or that I’m indestructible, or that life will be fair or without pain. I’ve grown into a deep respect for the insight, stories, and company of those who’ve lived longer than I have. I see brilliance on both sides of me — the generations of activists who have come before me as well as those who have come after. I stand with gratitude for the ways older feminists opened doors and broke through barriers for me and my children. I stand in awe of the ways younger feminists have expanded and shaped my understanding of social justice, gender, and race to be more intersectional, less essentialist, and more consistently self-reflective about the roles I play in structures of oppression. I look to my elders for guidance, and to my children for hope. May we continue to engage with each other with a spirit of compassion, openness, and strength.
Christy Croft is a writer, teacher, and healer whose interfaith, personal spiritual practice is inspired by nature, informed by science, and grounded in compassion. She holds a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies with a focus on religion and social justice. She has facilitated safe and sacred space for over twenty years, as a suicide hotline counselor, doula, rape crisis companion, support group facilitator, minister, mentor, mother, and friend. Her research interests are ever-evolving and include spirituality, new religious movements, religiosity and popular culture, compassion, trauma, gender, sexuality, and intimacy, and she sometimes blogs at The Sacred Loom.