the art of older ( + how to become a “free radical”)
The older I get, the greater power I seem to have to help the world. I am like a snowball — the further I am rolled, the more I gain. —SUSAN B. ANTHONY
Not long after I turned 40, a female photographer I trusted and respected (Christa Meola) took some photos of me with a snake. I was wearing fringed high-heeled booties, black leather pants, some false eyelashes, and nothing else.
After Susannah Conway invited a group of us to blog about the positive side of growing older, I found myself thinking of those pictures, the Western mythology they evoke.
Eve was a woman after experience and knowledge, and I could relate to that.
Eve had a rebellious streak, and I could relate to that too.
As I get older I feel my growing sense of space and authority, my determination to live — and love — on my own terms (thank you much). I think it’s this way for a lot of women. Former Ms magazine editor Suzanne Braun Levine refers to the “fuck you 50s”; I would suggest they start earlier than that.
In her book INVENTING THE REST OF OUR LIVES, Levine writes:
“The dynamic that many women are reporting – new outlook, new confidence, new dreams – is supported by scientific research from many disciplines. What we are learning about our bodies tells us that nature has by no means abandoned us at this stage…we are not programmed to fade away. On the contrary, we might be as well or better suited to new challenges at this stage of life than before.”
The brain is “generating in ways that are supportive of big achievements after midlife”. In the part of the brain “responsible for making judgments, finding new solutions to old problems, and managing emotions – not sweating the small stuff – there is a great leap forward.”
Maybe, when Eve ate the apple, she had just leaped forward herself.
You learn that you are tougher than you thought. There’s so much more to you than you realize, or that they – whoever “they” are – might have led you to expect. You take pride in your grit and resiliency. You show off your battle scars. You are no longer the sweet young thing you were at 20 — too insecure to understand how desirable you were just because you were 20 — but that’s okay. People look at you now because you have something to say. Your growing sense of personal power no longer requires the sexy black dress, the overpriced handbag (although they are still there for you to enjoy should you want them). You know who you are, and what your strengths are. You are damn good at what you do.
You are so much more interesting now.
As a symbol, the snake has an interesting history. The relationship between it and the feminine goes back to ancient times: snake symbolism has been found carved into pots, painted in caves and temples. Ancient artifacts contain images of women holding snakes, or wrapped in snakes, or sporting snakes for hair. There’s the mysterious Minoan Snake Goddess, also known as the Household Goddess, since the snake was a domestic symbol of protection (it ate the mice that got into the grain) as well as renewal.
Historically, serpents and snakes have been used to depict the creative life force. Hindu mythology stars a serpent goddess who sleeps at the base of your spine. Her full name is Kundalini Shakti, and she represents the divine feminine — the ability to energize, illuminate and create – that lies within us all. Snakes represent rebirth, transformation, and healing. The famous ouroboros – the snake with its tail in its mouth — is a symbol of immortality and constant regeneration of life.
There are, I think, worse things.
We are complex human beings who leave a lot of ourselves in shadow, in the realm of what Robert A Johnson calls “the unlived life”. Every door you have ever walked through, was another door closing. Every choice you made, was another choice no longer available to make. Every element of your personality you expressed, was another element that got repressed and packed off into shadow.
That shadow life never goes away. Sooner or later, it starts to knock on the doors of your soul. Hey? Remember me? That painting class you never took? That outdoorsy person you decided you were not? That path of spirituality that had no “relevance” for you? Well…guess what?
You learn that you can still surprise yourself.
In 1900, the average age an American woman could expect to reach was 48….assuming she didn’t die in childbirth (roughly 6 to 9 of every 1000 women did). Now a woman aged 40 or 50 has a decent chance of living to 100. What a woman faces now is her Second Adulthood (as Levine terms it). Time to explore new possibilities, as well as a chance to loop back and pick up, in some form or other, what you might have missed the first time around.
Time to spread your wings — or develop a whole new set.
Levine refers to anthropologist Kristen Hawkes, who lived with a tribe called the Hadza in northern Tanzania and observed their daily routine. The men went off hunting, the mothers stayed behind and cared for many children. Perhaps too many. Hawkes identified the older women, the no-longer-fertile women, as “free radicals” who would go where they were needed – tribal troubleshooters. They could tend to the children who risked being neglected, and in this way help the community survive and thrive.
Levine points out that it is not the physical survival of the species that we are “called upon to tend to”, but other kinds of tribal or global flourishing. She quotes psychologist James Hillman as saying that older women are “packed with memes. Memes are the cultural equivalent of genes.” It’s this wisdom gathered from our trip through First Adulthood that we can apply in our Second, whether it’s choosing a new and ambitious set of problems to work on professionally or explore artistically, or transmitting to others what we’ve already learned.
As I step into my early forties, I have to say that life, despite its hiccups and inevitable low points, feels pretty awesome. I suppose at the back of my mind I thought that 40 would be like dropping off a cliff (into an ocean of fillers and Botox). But there’s more intimacy and close friendship and general satisfaction in my life right now than when I was younger (and married). A lot of that has to do with me – what I have become capable of giving, what I have learned in my relationship with the world. First Adulthood wounded me in many ways – how could it not? – but the healing process made for the kind of education that I wouldn’t trade for anything.
I was exchanging emails with my friend Nilofer Merchant, who just landed on the north side of 45. She wrote this:
“…But I’ll tell you what I’ve learned after passing through that gateway of birthdayness: I’m glad for these wrinkles because it shows that I am alive. I’m glad for the curves left by baby and life because it also means i know a good lasagne recipe. And what bra to wear, and what jeans look best. I am glad for the years of experience that let me know when someone is lying, or when someone is worth backing. I know what I know and thus 46 is beautiful. I know more than I knew last year, and so to diminish the years would be saying I wanted to return some of these experiences, some of these things that now make me completely me. I wouldn’t turn in any of these years as if I could — like returning a sweater to Nordstrom. So instead I will relish ALL of it. And celebrate all of it. And go on from here. Because that’s the real joy of 46. To go on, to keep going. To aim higher, to try again. It doesn’t matter where you’ve come from or how hard the journey is… all that matters is where we end up. And for now what it means is I’m on the journey. So that’s what 46 is.”
There are, I think, worse things.
Maybe you’re familiar with the story of the goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone. Persephone is kidnapped by Hades, lord of the underworld, and Demeter lets the whole world feel her fury (imagine how that would play out in contemporary media). Grieving, depressed, disguised as an ordinary old woman, Demeter takes a job as a nanny. And what a hell of a nanny she is: the sickly baby thrives in her care, grows robust and happy and handsome. Every night, Demeter holds him in the fire, to strengthen him and make him immortal. Finally, inevitably, the parents catch Demeter putting their child to flame, and — not understanding the goddess logic at work here — are less than impressed. Things do not go well.
Demeter throws off her disguise and reveals her true self, in all her blinding, immortal beauty. She decides it’s time to bounce (although she doesn’t phrase it like that).
In her book SPINNING STRAW TO GOLD, Joan Gould notes the bare elements of this story – the old woman, the child, the flames – and wonders if the raging, grieving Demeter didn’t slowly evolve into another kind of character: the crazy psycho witch who lives alone (scorned, no doubt, by a man who traded her in) and wants to cook a boy in her oven so she can eat him.
It’s time for new stories.
Or maybe it’s time to reclaim the old stories.
To shuck off the dead skin, and see what new, vibrant life waits beneath. Scratch a so-called ‘witch’ and find a goddess.
It will take courage, and imagination, and some fire in the soul. But I think we’re well equipped for the job.