Our community building began when eighteen of us gathered by the ocean, whales and stingrays joining us. All strangers, we were led in meditation, connecting us to Earth, wind, stars, and sand, all the elements of nature. That’s when the magic began. The Modern Elder Academy, or MEA, as we now call it, is a week-long quest in Mexico created by Chip Conley to share his own search for meaning in his second half of life. According to Forbes, “At age 26, he founded Joie de Vivre Hospitality and turned it into the second largest boutique hotel brand in the U.S. He sold his company in 2010 when he was 50. A bit adrift, unsure of what to do with his energy and ambition, he got an unexpected call from a young entrepreneur named Brian Chesky who had founded a home-sharing start-up called Airbnb.” After serving as Strategic Advisor for Hospitality and Strategy there, he wanted to share his rewarding experience as a “mentern”, being both a mentor to his young colleagues and an intern, learning the tech world from them. In his book, Wisdom at Work, he shares the qualities people middle age and beyond can bring to those younger such as emotional intelligence. The Academy creates a mid-life rite of passage to help people redefine their value as “elders” and heed a call to share their gifts with the world. 

Finishing up breakfast, that first morning and every morning thereafter, a song (Hallelujah was the first one) reverberated throughout the buildings, the resort, a musical call to Mecca, time to gather. Ingenious in its tightly designed structure, right out of the starting block we got down and raw, sharing negative soul-destructing beliefs about ourselves with our new “compadres”. We then wrote and purged them in a ceremonious burning. That was the start of a week of authenticity, reconstructing ourselves. Not by ourselves, we did this together through honest, revealing sharing of our worries, our sorrows, our hopes, our dreams.

We began redefining who we are, who we want to be. We entered a liminal space,“…the time between the ‘what was’ and the ‘next.’ ” We dug up what we have mastered over a lifetime, passions and skills to share with the world. We opened our mindsets to skills we may have forgotten or neglected to learn like collaboration, listening with focus and empathy, inclusivity and fostering intergenerational relationships. We aspired to learn the art of appreciative inquiry, opening up to not knowing, wondering and asking of the institutions and people around us what is possible. We committed to creating a “what’s next”.

Swaddled in the beauty of the surroundings, the warmth of the Mexican staff and fed by morning meditations/yoga by the ocean, we ate beautiful, nutritious food lovingly presented over candid conversations about how we ended up in this place in Mexico and in life. The discomfort melted away as we began wondering about the possibilities ahead in this next phase of life, dare we call it elderhood? We tried improv, surf lessons, rock balancing, and Shaman sessions to open up ourselves further. We were coddled with hugs, massages, sensory pleasures like ocean breezes, colorful arty décor, flowing architecture, beaming faces, laughter, so much laughter, art, bread making, bread eating, and music. We danced in the evening to music as a release, we danced to music to celebrate ourselves as a community, we danced together to music to smile.

We call ourselves the Dancing Howlers

We became a community. We created a positive connection and are now wired together invisibly to a bigger community of MEA graduates. It feels the opposite of what I remember learning in college, about urban sprawl moving in concentric circles away from big cities, into the isolation of suburbia. This is a scattering, much less symmetrical but equally as big. Profoundly needed by a wounded society. Connections. For the good. A call to right action. A coming together of people from very different backgrounds and varied geographic locations. We have been given the opportunity to use what we’ve gained to spread love to people, to see their inner essence, respect our differences, to make an offering, celebrate the bravery of putting oneself out there, exposing our tenderness, our rawness. So, whether you share our crazy journey (did I mention there was a Shaman involved?) or are carried by a different flow of love and spirituality, isn’t this what we’re all hoping for, yearning for? Unconditional acceptance, a little love and a commitment to building our communities and world with a noble purpose?