Pat Hanns greets us at the entry gate of her winter home. She is a diminutive woman and world traveler with a warm voice and soft blue eyes. She immediately grasps my hand and holds it firmly as she gazes directly at me.
For a moment, I’m puzzled as her weathered hand holds tightly onto mine. Her greeting is purposeful. It transcends a customary handshake between strangers and takes on a spiritual quality that immediately pulls me in.
I am there with my friend Jaunie Itsell to meet the woman who left an indelible mark on Jaunie’s heart during a pilgrimage to Peru five years earlier.
After several minutes of beautiful silence and acknowledgement of the sisterly bond between these two women, we followed Hanns inside and settle in for an afternoon of wisdom and enlightenment.
At 85, Hanns is a respected elder studied in ancient cultures, spirituality, world religions and women’s rights. She is wisdom and whimsy embodied in a soul destined to leave the world a better place than when she entered. She’s a firecracker with a wild sense of humor and a feisty attitude to match.
“I’m done dying,” she starts off. “I’m starting to live again!” With a twinkle in her eye, she breaks the ice by telling a story of buying a pre-paid cremation package years ago in hopes of simplifying things upon her demise.
“I was going through some things, and I found the receipt. I called to see if it was still good, and they said it was. There’s something very liberating about knowing that’s not my worry anymore. I told my daughter to just take a hike and scatter my ashes somewhere.”
We sit in her dining room at a small table set with delicate, blue linen napkins and a proper placement of silverware. Behind us, an alter of sorts is laden with mementos from her journey to Peru and a candle that holds special meaning.
Tapestry of a World Traveler
The tapestry of her travels is woven with wonder and light as she tells the story of traveling to Ireland in the early 1990s to research the holy wells.
It was there that she learned about Brigid, a goddess of pre-Christian Ireland. During the Christian era, it is said 19 nuns at Kildare tended a perpetual flame in Brigid’s honor. “When conquerors came to Ireland in the 1100s, they extinguished the flame,” Hanns tells us.
The flame was re-lit in 1993, about the time Hanns was wrapping up her research. “I went to the church to get some of the last info I needed, met the cleaning lady, and she said I needed to meet a woman named Sister Mary. Oh Lord, I thought, who wants to meet a nun?
Then, there was movement from the back of the church, and two people came in and one was Sister Mary.” Ultimately, the nun gives Hanns the candle that was used to relight the perpetual flame.
Hanns showed us the candle, lit it, and from that flame she re-lit three small candles, offering one to each of us. “I have the responsibility now to share the light and to carry it forward to all women.”
Life Before 50
A native of Oregon and a lifelong Catholic, Hanns reflects on life before 50. “When I was 50, most of my life had been lived in my head. I realized I hadn’t a clue about the experiential side of life. I had spent my career as a special education teacher, and I worked. When I retired, I had about a 50-word vocabulary,” she laughs.
Post-retirement, Hanns’ interests magnified in areas that many might consider controversial. A staunch supporter of women’s rights, she became active in the National Abortion Rights League and founded a Catholics for Choice chapter in her Oregon hometown.
“If the human race is going to have anyone to care for it, I don’t want a congressman, a church elder, the Pope or anybody dictating what happens with a woman’s body,” she exclaims. Hanns elt as though she had a calling to fulfill and a legacy to shape.
She worked in the trenches of women’s reproductive rights well into her 70s, upholding her faith and her convictions. She worked with the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and served as an escort volunteer for women entering abortion clinics. “During the time I worked in the field, I can’t tell you the number of women who told me they were happy I was speaking out.”
Hanns is a pioneer, world traveler, a spiritual mentor and a woman who sees life as an opportunity for daily renewal.
Her journey to Machu Picchu, Peru, at 80 years old was purposeful as she sought to explore the country’s indigenous people and traditions. It was also the place where her path crossed with Itsell’s
“The first day we got there, we started down the mountain, and my back muscles ached,” she recalls. “We had to go down that frickin’ mountain 6 miles, on stone steps, like a staircase. I fainted.”
She describes how three native shaman, or medicine men, accompanying the group administered a “soul retrieval” healing on her and coaxed her to continue on.
Five hours later, at the end of the trail, they turned to her and said, “We love this. How do you feel?” Her response: “I love it, too, and we all laughed.”
A Deeper Meaning
But that journey brought more than steep hiking trails and lighthearted banter. An Incan despacho ceremony near Machu Picchu brought Hanns closer to the apus – or mountain spirits – that she had come to meet. “I have been on this quest for a long time,” she says. “I am drawn there to find peace in my relationship, soul, spirit and body.”
In the religion and mythology of Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia, apus are the spirits of the mountains that protect the local people. A despacho is a ceremonial offering to Mother Earth and the apus.
“We are in a very dark room,” she recalls. “There are offerings of snacks, sugary candy and pop left out for the apus. We hear flapping wings and heavy, loud breathing.” Then the apu spoke: ‘I will never leave you.’ “There was no mistaking the presence of spirit when bottle caps started flying around the room,” Hanns says wide-eyed.
Mind Over Matter
Our afternoon visit with Hanns continues for hours, as she shares her keen interest in Native American cultures and traditions and her study of religious scholars.
Her sharp intellect and breadth of knowledge kept me on my toes as I followed along and seized every snippet of wisdom that came from her lips.
Asked about her secret to a long and healthy life, Hanns says one of the most important things she does is to respect the evolution of her “story” and be vigilant about the vision of who she wants to be as an old person. She pictures that woman as healthy, energetic, fit and full of vitality, and she aims each day to be true to that vision.
Hanns has been physically active all of her life and credits to her farm-girl upbringing to her quest for healthy aging through movement. She began practicing yoga when she was in college and has a lifetime affinity for modern and interpretive dance.
“Modern dance is so expressive. It’s a storytelling dance,” she says. She has also enjoyed tai chi, sword dancing, swimming, scuba diving, running and golf over the years.
“Everything I do, I do with intention,” Hanns says. “When I stand, it’s with intention. I get on the floor to pick up stuff or get on my hands and knees if I have to. I try to be mindful about every movement in my body.”
That awareness keeps her physically active and free to continue her travels. “It’s scary to get older,” she says. “I don’t want to be weak. Remaining strong is very important to me.”
She draws from that strength daily, as she listens closely for the body-mind-spirit cues. “It’s synchronistic,” she says matter-of-factly. “What I have learned is that you will hear what you need to hear. And you will see what you need to see. Pay attention to synchronicities. There has to be a balance between energy, spirit and body. And you have to honor that.”
That wisdom is Hanns’ gift and is the legacy by which she will someday be remembered. But For now, she has a lot of living left to do.