Remembering our Elders

August 19, 2013
Dear Friends,
I’m looking out into a tangle of green leaves, the blue waters of Hammersley Inlet  glinting below, thinking how my former journalism professor Wilmott Ragsdale—who was known as Rags to all his friends— would have loved this view. (For those of you who have read The Pen and the Bell, you’ve  become acquainted with him!) Today would have been Rags’ 102nd birthday, and I’ve come down to Shelton, where he grew up, to be with my memories of him and see old friends on Harstene Island, where he had a cabin.

I’m fortunate to be staying at a lovely retreat center for women: Hypatia-in-the-Woodsa place I’ve wanted to visit for many years. Hypatia was the vision of Elspeth Pope, who I met through Rags, and who passed on earlier this year, but like Rags, whose spirit is ever present. I feel it in all the artistic touches here, the brass sign at the door: Peace to all who enter here, the bronze sculpture of a young girl, an Italian painted vase, a soft handwoven throw on the couch. Elspeth’s vision lives on, thanks to the board and a dedicated group of volunteers who are keeping the spirit of Hypatia alive.

One of my projects here is to put together a collection of Rags’ poems, which he wrote over many decades, but especially after he’d retired at 77 from his career as a journalist and beloved teacher. In the last two decades of his life—he passed away at 97— he climbed Mt. Kinabalu in Borneo, sailed to Antarctica, lived in Spain, and traveled to Mozambique.

I’m working on a preface and to do so, I’m re-reading some of the remembrances that were sent when he passed in 2009. Here’s one that resonates more with each passing year: “Because of Rags, we know we can live our years as elders delighting in life’s adventures, continuing to see the world with new eyes. That part of Rags will always be alive in us.” 

Like Rags, Elspeth lived fully, creating Hypatia-in-the-Woods after her husband passed away to provide women with space to honor their creative lives. The Holly House—named for her husband Jim Holly —is just a stone’s throw from her house, and for the many residents who’ve come here over the years, one of the highlights was sharing an evening glass of wine and good conversation with Elspeth.

I turn back to my words, filled with gratitude for our elders who remind us to live fully while we can. May their spirits always be alive in us…


Here’s an excerpt from a poem by Rags that he titled “Mindless” and which offers a great description of how mindfulness practice moves us into our senses:     

Traveling alone dislocates my mind.
This is how it goes at first; my mindfall rushes on:
salmon leaping one another, ideas splashing.
A shadow of exhaustion unfocuses my mind,
my eyes tire into slow time. Freed,
I live in the world again, senses only.

From the railroad window: green fields,
stone walls, a white, white house.
What I see totals my mind:
green, stones, roofs, clouds.  Perhaps a stream
passes like a quiet exclamation in a sentence of
pure description. All the senses locate…

Nothing exists but my steps, glints
from paving stones, tweedy texture of brick wall.
How valuable they are, for they are now, now.
Each glint, every rough texture,
motionless yellow light that slants
into the street. I remember nothing.
I am almost there.

Wilmott Ragsdale


10 thoughts on “Remembering our Elders

  1. Beautiful post, Holly! I’ve heard so much about Rags through our dear friend, Merna Hecht. So happy you are doing this work!

    Ann Teplick

    • Thanks so much for your nice note, Ann. Of course you’ve heard about Rags through Merna. I’m glad you enjoyed it–and am glad you’re part of this community, too.

  2. I love my elders. They have given and shared so much either through their memories of word or on little notes of paper. Enjoyed your sharing of Rags.

  3. My elders have influenced me in spirit. My father was an author, writing teacher and mentor, but he died before I knew was a writer too. His students put together a book of their memories of him and quotes of his advice written on their manuscripts. I leaf through it when I’m stuck. His brother, my eighty-five-year-old uncle, has written graphic novels since he was young and they were called comic books. I write essays, and recently discovered my great grandmother was an essayist, published in the Chicago Defender, a back newspaper of the 1920s. At sixty-two, I’m an elder myself, and hope I can help someone along the way.

    • Thanks for sharing these wonderful stories of your elders, Dawn. I especially loved hearing the story of the book your father’s students put together for him, especially. What a great idea to include the advice he’d written to them.