I’m 57 years old going on 58, and I keep waiting for my hair to turn grey. It refuses. Instead, the red in it which I always loved has simply faded to duller and darker. The same thing has happened to everyone on my father’s side of the family with my colouring – but I’d rather have grey. It adds gravitas. Makes a little more real those conversations I’ve been having with myself about elderhood. Because that’s the subject of my next (nonfiction) book – you know, the one I wasn’t going to write, because I was never going to write nonfiction again, because it takes so much out of you, and besides, I didn’t think I had anything left to say.
Well, anyway. That book will be about the mythology and psychology of female elderhood. About the hag. I love that word; it seems to me to carry so much more potential, so much more power, than the more commonly used crone. I don’t ever want to be a crone, but I’m so very up for being a hag. Even if my hair (so far) refuses to cooperate. I want hagitude – a word which came to me in the middle of the night, when I woke up from a dream about the Old Woman. Yes, that one: the one who comes sometimes with a birch whip and a sharp ‘Buck up, child’, and other times with a pair of arms so warm and wide that you wake up weeping. So, Hagitude is the title of that new book about reimagining female elderhood for the troubled times we live in – the one I’m writing right now.
What lies the other side of menopause? It’s something I’m beginning to find out. Now that all the dross has burned away (and there was plenty of something burning away there, in the fires of all those hot flushes); now that I’ve shed yet another skin. I’ve been finding it out this winter, which has been a rich and transformative season for me. It began when I woke up one morning, looked in the mirror, and realised that my body didn’t seem to be working like it used to when I was younger. (Well, I never claimed to be a genius.) Where had that extra weight come from, and how had I allowed my back to get so stiff? Why did I feel as if I wasn’t properly nourished, as if something very centrally located just wasn’t … working … any more?
What lies on the other side of menopause, let me tell you, begins with the body. If you let yourself navigate the wild whitewaters of menopause naturally, as I’ve insisted on doing, no matter what, then a whole lot of really serious stuff happens in your body. Your metabolic rate goes to hell in a hand-basket; your hormones set off down the proverbial creek without a paddle. When the storm finally settles, what’s left of you isn’t exactly what it once was. Your body has changed. It needs different things. In my case, it seems to have needed different exercise (if you’re curious, a combination of core strength-building reformer Pilates, and mad flying-around-the-room aerobic dance to 70s, 80s and 90s rock music I thought I’d never dream of listening to again. From the sublime to the perfectly ridiculous. And trust me: no-one gets to see that. Ever.). And it needed different food. Two months in to listening to what this new body actually wants, rather than carrying on blindly slogging it to death as I always have done, and I feel like a new person. More energy than I’ve had for the best part of a decade. Mental clarity. Creativity. Hagitude.
Here’s what we so often forget, in all our profound talk about psychological and spiritual transformation during major life transitions. You can’t do it if you don’t take your body along with you. Sometimes, it even starts there. That’s a good thing. Because we are embodied creatures. I may seem to be stating the blindingly obvious, but the truths in the deeper connotations of that statement are things we so often forget. Our bodies are very literally the ground of our being. If they’re all awry, as those who are unfortunate enough to suffer from chronic illnesses know all too well, then unless we shift and adapt to what’s going on physically, we’re stuffed.
There’s some profound beauty in looking at your own ageing body and beginning to become properly acquainted with it. Beginning to take it seriously – beginning to listen to it, maybe even for the first time. In acknowledging all the things it’s seen you through; all the gifts it’s given. It brings a strange tenderness, as well as a deep appreciation. So that chin is always going to sag, and your finger joints are only going to get knobblier – but hey, you can still twist and turn and leap to Joy Division and U2’s greatest hits for 45 minutes at a time, and you’re damn well going to carry on doing it till you can’t. And when you can’t, maybe you’ll finally learn to be still.
Life changes us. Constantly. It never ends. Our bodies change, along with our minds and our souls. That deep mystery there – the shy one, half-hidden in the shadows, slowly working its way to the centre of our lives – depends on it. It’s a miraculous thing, when you think about it. We are shapeshifting creatures, through and through. Shedding skin after skin, till finally we reach the one that will see us out. The skin that is fused to the bone, that will not shift and will not shake – the skin that contains the essence of everything we were ever going to become. The skin with hagitude.
Bring it on.
Image: Gina Litherland, The Fates