Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon


The Heroism of Older Women
by Rebekah Shardy

"What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open."
Muriel Ruskeyer

Franz Kafkaís "The Hunger Artist" tells of a circus sideshow freak that carefully manages his appetite to shock crowds with the specter of controlled emaciation. In the end, he succumbs to the seduction of outright starvation, explaining that he just could not find the food he really wanted. Nothing offered to him would quite do.

In middle age, it is common for women to struggle with a similar, strange discontentment. We are no longer satisfied by the pat answer, the way things are, the charade of human behavior and the thinking of the herd. Shopping, sex, and the applause of others -- it no longer quells the inner vacancy, if it ever truly did. Many of us boldly choose exquisite solitude over the insensate crowd. We would rather starve than consume those things that do not nourish our genuine heart.

The heroism of men who master jagged peaks and swollen, swift rivers is not the only kind. Women can certainly exult in that kind of exploration of physical limits and even learn about their souls while doing so. But sometimes the most challenging wilderness forded by women at midlife lurks within the murky dangers of a restless spirit. We decide to end relationships that do not advance our well-being, as well as release other's opinions previously thought of as precious cargo. We let go of old grievances or recognize ancient pain for the first time in order to get past ourselves. We finally discover Godís face to be as soft as our own, and honor forgotten gifts in our heartís hidden depths.

Some chalk up this willful neglect of convention to hormonal madness -- nothing a little Premarin wonít fix. In less clinical times, it was considered an overture to sorcery. The Ute Indians believed that women transformed into witches after menopause, and left them to starve on mountaintops while the rest of the tribe sought warmer hunting grounds in the Fall. Change in women is not always pleasant to view.

And the change is not just in the bodyís shifting priorities. Certainly, that is an affront to those who prefer the earlier, perkier version. But transformation goes deeper. Youth may enjoy tighter skin but its tolerance of the unacceptable is more elastic than mine can ever be again. As we mature, we know what we know and thatís so annoying to those who would tell us what to think.

Elena is a petite, well-dressed woman approaching 60 with a motherly, earthy, wit. For years she was a high-profile copyright lawyer in Los Angeles. A midlife encounter with fibromylagia and chronic fatigue syndrome led her out of the concrete canyons and into the Ponderosa pine woods of Colorado. After a stint as an animal rights lawyer, she is writing two books -- one is a humorous exposition on dating and men. "Humor is at least as powerful as an orgasm. You can make a man have an orgasm against his will; you can also make someone laugh against her will." The other book is a "how-to" guide on her heroic breakout from life in a wheelchair and suing -- not one, but two -- health insurance companies, and winning.

Sandra, a doe-eyed, zaftig blonde in her 50's, is a professional mediator and daycare teacher. She is also a priestess of the goddess and drummer. After decades of marriage and raising her son, she is living with a female partner and medicine woman with whom she is building a unique, spiral-shaped house. "After my divorce, I made a decision," says Sandra of her boldly decorated nest. Recently, she hung a bed from the ceiling by ropes, festooned with silk flowers and twinkle lights. "I decided I would never buy another thing in my life that didnít fully express my true instincts." She prefers rocking chairs and huge floor pillows to lazy boys and coffee tables.

I see other women at this age achieving a second flowering, brighter for its brevity. Single-minded women, with eyes and ideas as piercing and intense as candle-flame. Their eyes murmur of different rooms, unfinished conversations, shattering silences even as they listen to your chatter, nodding politely. Time with them feels heavy, condensed, almost too rich to bear. No wonder they feel apart or even discarded; their lives have lost the communal laugh track. They are too busy with the unseen work of the chrysalis heart.

Elizabeth is approaching cronehood with no illusions. Both divorced and widowed, she is content to work as a modest companion to the elderly to support herself and her lifelong discipline and study of arcane astrology. "I wonít be preparing truffles en brochette, sporting a diamond bracelet or adding a greenhouse for my orchid collection like some peers with plumped 401(k)s and well-tended IRAs," she says. Increasingly, she is drawn to fewer possessions and demands, including friends and opinions. As an aspirant of the Buddha, Elizabeth seeks the simple and heartfelt over the artful and complex. Worrying about what others think was the first extra baggage to hit the curb.

And then there is gypsy Lauren, her still girlish figure at 50 draped in long skirts and scarves, her deep-set laughing eyes framed by long gray hair. After a nearly fatal car accident in midlife, she surrendered her old life of care-giving for the one of an artist. She paints vividly-colored jungle cats in her preferred company of three guinea pigs with Sanskrit names and a loyal, rescued wolf-hybrid.

The common bond of these women is wariness of the lies they have allowed others to tell them. They now demand hard truths from their own softer hearts, unbowed by bitter realizations and the insights that come with empty rooms. Often, their closest intimates are animals who give them silence and accept the instinctual. All live in simplicity, if not outright poverty, choosing mysticism or beauty over securities and real estate. They made the leap into the heroineís journey, trusting the Goddess would catch them or that they would learn to fly. And then there are those eyes.

I arrived late at the writerís workshop run by two geriatric hippies in northern New Mexico and was blessedly given a cabin on the far outreaches of the old Apache reservation we bordered. It was a long walk to indoor plumbing every morning but I was bathed in high mesa stillness at the edge of cedar and pine forest.

The high ceiling cabin was utterly empty except for one battered dresser and a bed. I settled in by lighting a candle and reading haiku by flashlight. My dreams raised images I had forgotten, now begging forgiveness.

In the morning, I loved the simple ritual of sweeping the raised wooden floors. Each afternoon I took a long nap that exhausted me with deep, bone-penetrating peace. Iíd never realized I was so tired before this medicinal dose of total solitude.

I spent less and less time with the writerís group, disdaining the few strutting men and the glut of cooing women who competed for their attention. Increasingly, I chose the wizened eyes of the horned toad that lived outside my door to the calculated banter of preening artistes.

At night, I sometimes heard that gang laughing in shared lit rooms, drinking wine, flirting and boasting or making witty. Instead, I sat on an old rocker on the cabinís front porch and drank in the strong starlight of the desert sky, its silence nearly audible, sizzling in my heart like fiery meteors delving into a deep lake.

If Iíd had a mirror, Iím sure my eyes would have glowed with their secret smoldering. The eyes of aging women tend to be like that: they see within, through, and behind surfaces, holding the flame that strengthens what it does not destroy, a passion not for things or relationships, but the whole of life.
Rebekah Shardy is a professional trainer and writer who teaches creative writing to women recovering from prison and addiction through the nonprofit "Mighty Muse Writing Project for Women" in Colorado Springs, Colorado.