Sharon Blackie, PhD, is an award-winning writer of fiction and nonfiction, and a psychologist who has specialized in neuroscience, narrative, mythology, and Celtic studies. Her unique approach to working with myth, fairy tales, and folklore highlights the insights these traditions can offer us for authentic and meaningful ways of being. Her work has been published extensively in professional journals and consumer media, and she offers workshops and seminars worldwide and online. She lives in Wales, UK. More information at SharonBlackie.net and www.Hagitude.org
Why do elder women matter? What do they have to offer in today’s challenged and challenging world?
In our more distant past, as of course in many indigenous cultures today, female elders were respected, and had important and meaningful roles to play. They are the ones who hold the myths and the wisdom stories; the ones who know where the medicine plants grow and what their uses are. They serve as guides for younger adults; they’re the caregivers and mentors for the community’s children. They know when the community is going to the dogs, and they’re not afraid to speak out and say so. When they do, they’re listened to. Their focus is on giving back – on bringing out, for the sake of Earth and community, the hard-earned wisdom which they’ve grown within themselves.
It has to be said, too, that there are a lot of ageing women out there. Between 1918 and 2018, average life expectancy increased by around twenty-five to thirty years in the United States and other developed countries of the world. In most of those countries, women also live on average four or five years longer than men. The elderly – by most societal definitions, adults aged sixty and older – are now the fastest-growing segment of most Western populations, and a majority of them are women.
It’s important for us as elder women to think carefully about what we should do with those extra years of life. How should we choose to spend them, in this culture which offers few inspiring role models, and no well-trodden paths for us to follow? Because in contemporary Western society, to be old is rarely to be thought of as gifted and wise. We see old age as a time of loss, of decay; we focus on holding ageing and death at bay. That narrative needs to change, so that elder women can be beacons of strength and wisdom again.
What are the conversations about menopause and elderhood that you think we should be having right now?
We should be looking for opportunities, rather than for endings. Although more women are now beginning to write about menopause as a natural and profoundly transformational life-passage, in the culture at large it is still primarily viewed as something to be managed, held off, even fought. Well, you can either see menopause as a possible ending or you can see it as a possible beginning. Arguably, it should be a bit of both. The ending of one phase of life, but also the beginning of a whole new journey – a challenging but ultimately fertile journey across the threshold of elderhood.
Ever since the ground-breaking work of Carl Jung in the first half of the twentieth century, most depth psychologists have argued that the journey into elderhood is a spiritual passage above all, and that the purpose of the second half of our lives is to grow into the person that we were always meant to become. Jung believed that ageing fulfilled a necessary function, saying: ‘A human being would certainly not grow to be seventy or eighty years old if this longevity had no meaning for the species. The afternoon of human life must also have a significance of its own …’ I believe that our journey through the second half of life reveals to us our most authentic self, and offers up a journey that, while challenging, is filled with meaning.
How might we work with the stories of the little-known but powerful elder women in myth and folklore – both to inspire us to create new stories of our own, and to reimagine our journey to and through elderhood?
Stories matter because the ways in which we think about ageing depend on the stories we tell about it. How we think about ageing women depends on the images we hold of them. And the images we hold of ageing women today aren’t healthy. Truth is, there is no clear image of enviable female elderhood in the contemporary cultural mythology of the West; it’s not an archetype we recognise any more. In our culture, old women are mostly ignored, encouraged to be inconspicuous, or held up as objects of derision and satire. But our old mythology and folklore tell us something very much more interesting: that it hasn’t always been so.
Myths and folk tales help us not only to understand life as it is, or was – but to dream life as it ought to be. We perceive, explain and make sense of the world through stories. They are the stars we navigate by, and that’s why storytelling is a universal human phenomenon, a vital aspect of communal life across all cultures and throughout the entirety of our known history. Stories teach us everything we know, and their lessons are deep and rich. Stories can reveal to us longings that we never knew we had, fire us up with new ideas and insights, and inspire us to grow and change. The characters in stories are great teachers, too: they are role models for our development, helping us to reimagine ourselves. Helping us to unravel who we are, and to work out who we want to become.
And so, if we turn to the old European stories, we find that there exist many different kinds of archetypal old women who play pivotal roles in the stories: characters who pull the strings, weave the webs, test or advise the heroes and heroines. These elders are usually presented as wise – though they manifest their wisdom in very different ways. Myths and fairy tales offer us insight into the nature of an elder woman’s wisdom, and the ways that each of us could uniquely embody it. And so they inspire us to grow, and so to find meaning and authenticity at a time of our lives when the over-culture tells us we’re largely irrelevant.
How can we uncover, and embrace, our own unique, archetypal Inner Hag?
Unique as we all are in reflecting the infinite variety of the universe, we consequently embody elderhood in unique and infinitely various ways. We each have our own exceptional gifts and singular vision, and now’s the time to uncover them, to fulfil a potential that’s been developing throughout our many years on this beautiful, animate earth: the ultimate revelation of who we truly are and always were meant to be. The task here reminds me of a line attributed to Michelangelo: ‘I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.’ The essence of a rich and meaningful elderhood is finally to set our inner angel free.
As we stand on the threshold of elderhood, it’s natural to wonder how we go about revealing that inner angel – or, more appropriately perhaps, that Inner Hag. Where will we catch a glimpse of her; where do we find the clues? For me, some of the strongest traces of the person I believe I was meant to become were already unveiling themselves in my childhood years, before I was told what to be – or more precisely, in my case, what not to be, and especially what it was not, apparently, possible for me, as a working-class girl, to be. If we look back carefully, most of us will find that we can reconnect with some memory of the child we were which seems to reflect the deepest longings and values that define us today. We can find fragments of those longings and values in the things we were profoundly, and perhaps unexpectedly or inexplicably, passionate about as children. We can also find clues in the poems that break our hearts or bring us joy; in the works of art that capture our imagination and transport us into another world – and in the objects we scatter through our houses: the things we collect that somehow reflect us.
For me, the greatest clues of all can always be found in stories, and the many stories I present throughout Hagitude offer some helpful places to begin. Which of those archetypal expressions of female elderhood did you most resonate with? – which of those rooms in the House of Elders do you feel most called to occupy? Baba Yaga’s shapeshifting hut in the woods, with its man-sized oven dominating a kitchen haunted by disembodied hands? Or the Henwife’s cosy parlour, with cake on the table and a steaming mug of tea ready and waiting for the troubled young woman who comes to ask her advice? Most us find that we relate to more than one of the archetypal old women I write about, but the chances are that just one of them will most clearly reflect the essence of our individual calling.
In what way is menopause an initiation into a new phase of life?
Menopause, like all initiations, is a time between stories, when the old story fades and a new story is waiting to emerge. Its challenges might be significant, but its invitations are manifold. It’s a liminal time, when we hover on the brink of profound transformation. During this period of intense physical change, it’s necessary to turn inwards, to embark upon the inner work of elderhood – the work of reimagining and shaping who we want to be in the world, of gaining new perspectives on life, of challenging and evolving our belief systems, of exploring our calling, of uncovering meaning, and ultimately finding healing for a lifetime’s accumulation of wounds. We have to learn to stay rooted in the midst of chaotic obscurity, in the shadow-haunted wild places of the psyche. We need these rootings more than ever during the bone-deep metamorphosis that is menopause.
Inhabiting this in-between space can be uncomfortable, especially when we’ve grown up in a culture which values doing so much more than it values being – and infinitely more than it values the process of apprenticeship, the time we spend learning to be. But in order to benefit fully from this time between stories, it’s necessary to let go not just of action, but attachment to outcome. Knowing when to gather together our resources and go all-out to change a situation seems easier somehow than recognising instead when to sit quietly and surrender to its momentum. But the best of all strategies is simply to stay present, because the only certain way through uncertainty is through it.
Menopause, then, at its best, is more than just a pause in our menses; it’s a sacred pause in the hurtling trajectory of life. As we slowly begin to burn away those old identities and outdated structures, and as our pale, exhausted visions begin slowly to recede, we enter a state of conscious incubation in which a nascent life can be dreamed into being. These multiple acts of deconstruction and reconstruction are what menopause is for. Because menopause, as I wrote in my book If Women Rose Rooted, ‘is not a medical condition, it is an earthquake, shaking us to our deepest foundations, wiping out the edifices we’ve so carefully constructed on what we once imagined to be the solid ground of our life. Menopause hacks us open; it is the cleaving to end all cleavings. One by one, it systematically strips away all the trappings of womanhood and sexuality which we’ve clung to – or had foisted upon us – for the whole of our lives.’ Menopause tells us, above all, that there are new wisdoms in which we can now immerse ourselves; new ways of being in the world to be uncovered. Life is not over; it is simply, and irrevocably, changed.
What is the ‘witch wound’ that you write about in the book, and how has it affected women over the past few hundred years? How can we begin to heal it?
What we might think of as the ‘witch wound’ that is borne down through the generations, is the psychological wound in the collective consciousness of women that prevents us, even today, from fully and fearlessly embodying the person we feel ourselves really to be. The witch wound is dread at the idea of speaking out against ‘authority’, and of being too different – because those were precisely the kinds of women, as far as we can tell, who were victims of the witch trials. The ones who didn’t quite fit in. The eccentrics, the unconventional ones. The women who had the audacity to speak their minds, who refused to be complicit in the injustices of the patriarchy. The witch wound is the result of centuries of marginalisation by both religious and secular authorities – centuries in which women had no power, no autonomy; in which we never felt truly safe and were constantly subject to abuse. Above all, then, the witch wound is fear.
I believe that recognising the source of our fear is the first step to healing the witch wound. And embracing our differences, rather than being ashamed of them.
Reimagining the Second Half of Life
By Sharon Blackie
Category: Personal Growth/Women’s Interest
Pub Date: October 18, 2022 * Price: $18.95
Format: Trade Paperback (also available as an ebook)
Pages: 320 * ISBN: 978-1-60868-843-2