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From the High Hill

From the High Hill: Odyssey Writing for Elders, by Reverend Anne Odin Heller, engages elders in mining the stories of a lifetime to create a presentation to share with peers, loved ones, and co-congregants. Two weekend retreats—one for preparation, one for presentations—frame an individual period of remembering, sorting, reflecting, and writing. Participants are guided to gather and reflect on stories that delight, that challenge, that invite new wisdom and understanding, and then to act on new goals that emerge from this process. Includes practical implementation guidelines, a thoughtful participant guide for writing a personal Odyssey, and suggestions for celebrating and honoring Odyssey writers in the small group formed for this purpose and in the congregation. From the High Hill is a significant tool for enriching your congregation’s ministry to elders.

About the Author

The Reverend Anne Odin Heller is the author of Churchworks: A Well-body Book for Congregations. She has served the Unitarian Universalist Association as District Executive (DE) for the Pacific Northwest District and as Interim DE for both the Massachusetts Bay District and the Southwest Conference. She has been a parish minister in small congregations (Sierra Foothills UUs) and large (First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis), and was Associate to the President for Public Affairs at Starr King School for the Ministry. Previously, she served the San Francisco Bay Girl Scout Council, earning awards for program, organizational, and membership development work and camp direction.

In Appreciation

From the High Hill was made possible through the generosity of the Unitarian Universalist Funding Program, the Unitarian Sunday School Society, and the Unitarian Congregation of Taos. I am especially grateful to the first group of High Hill participants for their commitment and enthusiasm, and especially to Shaddon Ross, who, as co-facilitator and colleague in the development of the curriculum, contributed her time, expertise, and spirited presence. And finally, I am grateful to those who read the book and generously shared their thoughtful comments and kind words.


Before I moved to northern New Mexico, I faithfully attended the chapter retreats of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association. I always looked forward to those weekends: to the collegiality, the learning, the support and affirmation. Yet for me, the most moving moment occurred when we settled in after dinner to listen to an Odyssey, the spiritual and life journey of a dear—and frequently older and wiser—ministerial colleague. The Odyssey presenter's story was often amazing, smart, and funny, sometimes heart wrenching, and frequently surprising, but never dull. One colleague, using a photo process that transferred pictures to cloth, made a quilt of pictures from her life and hung it on the wall as a backdrop to her presentation. One colleague used slides; another used music extensively. Some presenters passed photos to highlight people and places as they unfolded their story. Each presenter used different words to narrate a journey all their own and each life story spilled into the appreciative room. After the presentation, the audience had a chance to ask questions of their colleague. There were always questions.

As I listened to each year's Odyssey, I wondered how it would be to share mine. When my turn came, the writing was challenging. I told a friend it felt like writing a blend of a journal and a psychoanalytic report! Part painful revelation, part satisfying insight, and part beloved rich memories, ending in a kind of closure.

Although I was over sixty when I wrote my Odyssey, I was mindful of something I had been told just after my fiftieth birthday: The most important question you can ask yourself before you reach fifty is, What do I want to do with my life? And the most important question after you are fifty is, What do I not want to leave undone? This question informed my writing process and the reflections that followed. After I presented my Odyssey, I sat down and made a list of the things I did not want to leave undone before I died. Then I set about doing and crossing off things on my list. What a great feeling! I wrote a book. Terrified, I rafted down a whitewater stretch of Oregon's McKenzie River. I had a couple of very difficult conversations, one successfully, one not. I moved to northern New Mexico and designed and built a home. I haven't learned to tap dance yet, and may never, but I am learning, bit by bit, about the mysteries of logic and mathematics. My Odyssey-writing process turned out to mark a passage for me into elderhood. It was a profound experience.

When I talked about the experience with contemporaries, I discovered that others found the idea intriguing: "That sounds like something I'd like to do!" "I'd like to try that!" "I've always thought about writing my life and leaving it in a book for my children—I just don't know how." I decided to create a process that would enable Unitarian Universalist elders to engage in the same rich experience of mining a lifetime for stories and wisdom, and preparing it to share with others in a supportive community. From the High Hill presents that process.

I envision congregations acknowledging the Odyssey writing experience as a life passage and finding ways to honor this passage in the worship and community life of the congregation. While Unitarian Universalists have a variety of ways to observe and honor life passages for children, youth, and young adults, few observances recognize the life passage to elderhood. Unitarian Universalist congregations are full of spiritual and intellectual seekers, many with gray and white hair. The Bible tells us, "Gray hair is a crown of glory." This resource is for the gray and white crowns among us.

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