In 2014 we moved to a little village in Switzerland, just outside Geneva. We moved there at the beginning of July, just when the sunflowers were at their peak. I walked our dog Max by these sunflowers fields every morning. It was like strolling by a crowd of celebrity models. They were young and supple and glowed with life. You couldn’t take your eyes off them.
But by the end of August their leaves were streaked with yellow, their flower heads bowed, heavy with ripe seeds. I often walked with an American friend and when she saw them she said, “Oh, they are so ugly now—all withered and getting brown. They look so depressed.” This same friend also wore the chicest clothes—even for walking our dogs! Cashmere sweaters, expensive European jeans, shiny boots, Hermes scarves and Chanel #5. She also may have had a face lift—but I digress. You get the picture.
I didn’t agree with her—about the sunflowers.* I didn’t see them as depressed and looking downward, but thoughtful and looking inward. I saw them as a field of wise elders at their greatest power, their wisdom ripe for picking. It was only at this point could they offer true nourishment. Earlier in the summer they were lovely to look at, but now—well, now they offered a different kind of beauty and sustenance as well.
We know our culture values youth and beauty. But we’re not so interested in the aged in spite of what they have to offer. There are exceptions. My sister lived in Hawaii for a several years and in Hawaiian culture, the kapuna are highly respected. The older people were offered the best seats, went to the front of the line, always greeted warmly. Most important, they were consulted and expected to speak out on important decisions for both the community and the family.
I love the term kapuna because it has three related meanings: 1) an honored elder who has practiced love, righteousness, caring and spirituality, 2) our ancestors, and 3) the source of experience, knowledge, guidance, strength and inspiration—a source of nourishment! The old sunflowers have the ability to deeply feed us.
For both kapuna and fully grown sunflowers it’s useless to stand back and simply regard them. We have to access their wisdom/nourishment and then ingest it. We have to pick the seeds and eat them. We have to ask for guidance and counsel and think on it.
My maternal grandmother was born in Pepeekeo, on the island of Hawaii. My mother was born on Maui. I always wondered why my mother always asked her parents for advice and my father never asked his. She thought nothing of picking up the phone and asking either parent, “What do you think _____?” I believe it was cultural and not just because my father’s mother was so hard-of-hearing that we had to shout at her. Well, there was that and the fact that she wasn’t very thoughtful or wise.
So, okay, not every mature sunflower offers sustenance because the seeds can mold before they are ripe or animals and birds have started gnawing on them. And hey, sometimes there is an amazing young sunflower who offers food for thought.
Just look at that whipper-snapper Jesus in Matthew 13:54:
“He came to his hometown and began to teach the people in their synagogue, so that they were astounded and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power?”
I’m not saying that all older people are wise and younger people are not. I’m saying that on the whole, as a culture, we value youth and beauty. As a hospital chaplain I spent time with people who are often not young nor beautiful—outwardly. I receive wisdom from them all the time. They are in my eyes, mature sunflowers in hospital gowns.
As a multi-generational community, with a strong passion and commitment to children, youth and families, we must be passionate and committed to our kapuna as well.
*I coveted those boots.