From Elder to Ancestor by S. Kelley Harrell

Excerpt from Chapter One of my upcoming book, From Elder to Ancestor – Nature Kinship for All Seasons of Life

Our Cultural Relationship to Animistic Elderhood

Owning Our Personal Role in the Broken Path

A word I see coming up often in social contexts is adulting, as in, “I washed the laundry and voted, today. I adulted.” As if the step from child to adult and all it entails is extra. As if only certain people are expected to mature. As if we all carry the same expectations, time frame, privilege, and projections around what adulthood means. Instead of furthering those projections, I go with a verb I feel encompasses the experience better—humaning—as it reflects the range of responsibility, growth, and maturity demanded by life through all stages of development. Humaning reflects a process. At four years old, we can human well through personal action that benefits the family by taking our own dirty dishes to the sink. At forty years old we can human well by tithing and volunteering to benefit the community. At eighty years old we can human well by sharing with our descendants what worked and what didn’t, what we know now and wish we’d known then.

Several years ago I read fellow NC author, Patti Digh’s, Life Is a Verb. The book is the result of a challenge Digh issued herself to generate more meaning in her life by doing, as in, ‘If I had only 37 days left to live, what would I do with them? How would I live differently?’ It’s a fabulous book. She’s a fabulous person, and I highly encourage reading it for exactly the reasons Digh intended.

I came away from the book with exquisite clarity on something I’d known for a long time: it’s the verbs that count. Not the roles, or the titles, not the nouns. It’s what you do; it’s what we’re doing.

What initially came out of that introspection for me was the confidence to assess my relationship with the word ‘shaman,’ which I’ve discussed in detail in a podcast episode some years back, and to stand in the truth of not needing a title for myself but express what I do, what I verb, a la soul tending. There’s more to it than that (including divesting of ableism), but essentially, I overhauled my thinking, then redesigned of my website, as one does. Not erasure of old ways, mind you, just a refresh of my outlook.

What also came from it was knowing I would write a book called Eldering Well. What I realized was that ‘elder’ is not a title we aspire to, but a lifelong practice of becoming. It’s not about being an elder, but about eldering well. Needless to say, I met my confidence around other verbing revelations from the book more easily than that one. I knew I would write it, I just didn’t know how I would write it.

When I composed my last book, Runic Book of Days, I had a totally different brain. The brain I had when writing that book could word fairly well and easily, and it enjoyed doing so. After urological failure and perimenopause (then COVID), I couldn’t write easily. I couldn’t even locate words in my brain, let alone arrange them artfully in written prose. I literally told my agent that may be my last book.

The thing about me and writing is that it’s tuned into my cosmology relationships in a way that it’s a group effort. Everybody else was on-board and ready to go, I was the one dragging–kind of literally. As the boots-on-the-ground human of the team, I had to figure out how to make it happen. I don’t know if you’re familiar with fire in the head, but it was that kind of unrelenting, steal-you-into-the-underworld write or die.

The other thing about me and writing is that so much of it has been spiritual autobiography. Specifically, it’s been about how I’ve approached various life experiences and how they shaped my spiritual path. It’s not that hard to write about your life as it has been. It’s a lot harder to write about what it’s becoming, when you don’t exactly know how or even if it will all get there. When I put pen to paper for From Elder to Ancestor I encountered what I thought was imposter syndrome: Am I an elder? Maybe of some things, absolutely not of other things. But what if other people don’t get it? Why am I writing this book?

The more I delved into what I was really feeling, it wasn’t imposter syndrome. What I found was something deeper, along the lines of I had to change how I’ve seen myself, to write beyond myself. The thing about being an adult survivor of childhood sexual assault, the experience and aftermath of which I’ve written quite a lot about, is that you can’t write that experience forever, not emotionally, not spiritually, and not creatively. That snapshot of life couldn’t stay a pillar of my writing without causing me harm. I realized this after writing my first book almost twenty years ago–Gift of the Dreamtime.

The reality however, is that those experiences stay with you forever in a way that is never completely healed, yet is also not entirely consuming. There was a point in writing From Elder to Ancestor that regardless of my own experience and how I arrived at adulthood within it, I had to figure out how to be an elder to move through in the way that my next phase of life could thrive. I had to write about versions of me that I don’t know yet, so that I could understand what actions I had to take in the present to create them later.

And that conundrum is what allowed me to write From Elder to Ancestor. I’m an elder. In some ways I always was. In some ways I will never be, and that’s okay.. I will still always be eldering well.

There’s a little more to the book’s title than that, which only I know. And my agent. And of course, Patti Digh.

From Elder to Ancestor is available for pre-order, and comes out 4 June 2024.

From Elder to Ancestor by S. Kelley Harrell
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S. Kelley Harrell, M. Div.

I’m an animist, author, deathwalker and death doula held by Tuscarora, Woccon, and Sissipihaw land. For the last 25+ years, through Soul Intent Arts I’ve helped others to ethically build thriving spiritual paths as fit, embodied elders, who upon death become wise, capable Ancestors. My work is Nature-based, and focuses soul tending through the Elder Futhark runes, animism, ancestral healing, and deathwork. I’m author of several books on soul work and runes, and when moved I host the podcast, What in the Wyrd. I also write The Weekly Rune as a celebration of the Elder Futhark in season. Full bio.

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elder well, die well, ancestor well


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Elder Well

To bear your unique gift to the world.

Die Well

To leave the planet better than you found it.

Ancestor Well

So that your descendants never elder alone.