Questions for Elders

There are two things that I’ve loved for decades. One, is asking questions. The second is hanging out with old people. Not just old people, but elders. For me, an elder is anyone older than me.
With three older siblings, I learned how to listen and to learn from their lived experiences. At 25, I remember thinking how I had more than 100 years of lived experience by the time I reached a quarter-century by looking to them. By having relied upon the choices they made, what it meant, what they learned, how they suffered and persevered. [It was 114 years to be precise. See, crafting mathematical equations to navigate the word problems of life by calculating quantifiable amounts is a third love of mine. Since the days of elementary school when math was my favorite subject, and I spoke in numbers more easily than I did in letters.] So I get how to be around older people—one key way is embracing my youthfulness.
So, what’s all this got to do with RG? After years and years of being part of and around this beloved community, I learned how to combine my love of asking questions with my tendency to be drawn to elders and the storytelling of people who are years and generations older than me. [Side note: to express it as an equation, it would look like this: question asking x elders storytelling = CUJlove4(RG)]An early RG memory was leading a workshop with a colleague where one person was attending because she was simply wanted to learn more about philanthropy —it was an Intro to Social Justice Philanthropy at MMMC. The night before, she had called her father and asked him a series of questions based on her exposure and experiences of the day before. Questions about stock portfolios, inheritance, and family planning. Big hairy, audacious kinda questions. Big life matters.
That instance of asking new questions made a life-altering impact on me. It was a moment where I saw someone begin to change the trajectory of her life by initiating a conversation where she didn’t totally know what she was talking about, because she didn’t know what the answers were to the questions being asked. She was asking all this of someone she had known all her life, her father, but had never known to ask him these questions. All of this, transpiring at MMMC. A golden rule that I learned from some elders of mine in Coro a decade-plus ago, and through Action Learning Coaching a year ago is: the juiciest questions are those that we don’t know the answers to.
Ask questions that lead into dark and unexplored unknowns. It’s like the old The Legend of Zelda games where new sections of the landscape are illuminated only by walking over there.
Questions are a straightforward way to touch taboos. Taboos like money, emotions, sex, mental health, and family history. Kudos to RG, I’ve cultivated a sensibility for embracing taboos like these. See, it isn’t that the taboos are inherently evil. Rather, it is culture that concocts this notion that taboos are inherently evil. The cultural norms of how we attach so many associations and so much guilt to these dicey subjects. Culturally, how we learn behaviors to avoid topics that our peers refrain from naming. How we perpetuate the silence, the awkwardness, and the discomfort that our parents and elders embody. It’s like Voldemort in the Harry Potter books—”he who shall not be named” is a blanket thrown over dysfunction, debt, death, and other fears because we delude ourselves into thinking that we are all better off by maintaining the status quo. In my family, the status quo of communication and the stories that we tell require a shake up. My hunch is that most families would be shaken up by peering into some of the unspoken taboos.
Shoot, because of RG, I asked my father about his virginity on my 30th birthday. (His answer? An ambiguous response that was very fitting of a lawyer-turned-diplomat.) I don’t understand how, but our cultural norms have inverted the awkward stiffness around sex between parent and child. There’s the clumsiness of “the birds and the bees” (how in the world did that phrase come to be? why those two animals? someone, please explain that to me in the comments below). Then, in adulthood, there’s a birds-bees-redux where young adults pretend that our parents are asexual beings. It’s fine to not talk about sex lives if it’ll get tacky or tasteless. But there is a lot about these taboos of money, family history, and sex that are of critical importance. Our families are rife with stories of union and disintegration. Triumph and betrayal are much closer than we know when we don’t prod.
So, I ask new questions. Particularly about the things I don’t understand. Facets of my parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents’ lives that I have never heard about. We are big spiritual beings in this infinitely vast earth and universe. We live big lives. Therefore, there is so much that is unknown about one another. And about our inner selves. We can begin to know it when we settle down and choose to pay attention to the lesser known subjects that are shrouded in secrecy or have been forgotten.
Questions for my elders is one way I can uplift new stories, and some things that they have forgotten until that moment of being asked a question that illuminates an old level of their Zelda game called life. That happened months ago when I asked my mother when it was that she stopped using the term Negro and began saying black.
RG has embodied two things that are so dear to me. Elders and questions are two values of mine that I have come to know better by the countless ways that RG and this beloved community mirror the wisdom of people older than me coupled with the practice of asking succinct questions.
By sticking to asking simple questions, I get to use a chisel that forms a story from what had been an unsculpted form. The art of storytelling is what transforms a stone, tree trunk or clay into new memories that have some staying power in my consciousness.
Stay curious. Cultivate new ways to navigate shifting terrain as the taboos of money, family, bigotry become familiar and known entities in this thing called life. And keep asking—particularly the family members who do the least talking. They, too, have stories to tell and it requires persistent, patient curiosity and love of intrigue to elicit it. Stories of our own lives have such a fascinating beauty that we cannot know if we never get to tell them, to share them so that others can listen and learn.