The year I turned fifty, I was invited to Toronto to be a keynote speaker at a conference for women. A conference organizer, a barely controlled fireball named Victoria had invited two other women to be speakers as well. Michelle George, an actress and singer, was a virtual legend in Toronto for her spontaneous theatre work. She had been a member of Peter Brook’s original company of actors, dancers, musicians who toured across the Middle East and Africa in the early 1970s.
The third woman, Oriah Mountain Dreamer, was a white woman who had been studying with Native American Grandmothers and had recently begun her own teaching program. Michelle, like me, had just turned fifty and Oriah was in her mid forties. The organizer made us an unusual offer. We could choose any topic we liked, so long as it was about women and so long as we all participated, and she would create a conference for us.
We scarcely knew each other but gamely agreed to meet and see if we could find some common ground. I flew in from California for a weekend and we met at Oriah’s apartment on Queen Street next to the trolley car tracks. We sat around and drank coffee and told each other some of the stories of our lives. Eventually we tiptoed up to what we felt our edge was, the place where we needed to open spiritually, the matter that scared us most.
It was about getting old. How did we feel about that? No, how did we really feel about that, apart from our fond ideas about Grandmothers of the Dreamtime and wise elders and how beautiful wrinkles are. We dove in, doing our best to be honest with each other, exploring questions we hadn’t whispered to anyone. This was the stuff underneath our shiny shells, our barely surfaced fears and worries. Will we end up as bag ladies standing alone on windy corners? Or as the dotty spinster auntie, living on the top floor of our niece’s house, trying not to eat to much or draw anyone’s notice? Or wearing polyester pants suits and playing golf all day and cards at night, our lives empty and meaningless? Or living in a shared room in a nursing home, everyone we know already gone?
Because these images were the scariest (we said “most challenging”) ones we could think of, and because we were (bravely, crazily, grandiosely) determined to do something that hadn’t been done before, we decided to create a conference for women elders. What does it mean to become a wise elder? We thought we’d ask that first. How can we become wise elders? That seemed like it could come next. What stands in our way? What support do we need?
We phoned Victoria in high spirits and announced that we had agreed on our topic: “The First Canadian Conference on Women Elders.” She was thrilled, she said. She liked the decisiveness of the topic and would book a location in downtown Toronto right away.
As I look back now, I tremble at what we were setting in motion that day. The stereotypes of aging we were carrying came from some mix of 19th century novels, old movies and the direst fears in our culture that equated growing old with becoming useless and dependent. Not that these fears aren’t still our culture’s most toxic aspects of aging and do indeed need to be addressed. The truth was that we had no experience of what it was like to grow old so we couldn’t know which questions to ask, what would open something genuine in the women coming to the conference and what would merely waste their time.
And I can see now, with a vision that was impossible then, how terrifyingly naïve we were about what would happen when women in their mid life (us) tried to create a conference for elders. We thought that we’d all be women together, tackling the big questions about aging and sharing our discoveries with each other. Asking questions as sisters and friends. We had no notion of the sleeping furies we’d be disturbing.
About five months before the conference, we came up with some questions we wanted to explore and Michelle put in an array magical theatre exercises to spice up the days. Oriah was bringing her big drum and her young assistants would lead chants she had learned from the Native Canadian Grandmothers. We were excited. Victoria had certainly been right, we told each other. We were a good mix and it was going to be fun to dive into these questions about aging together.
To open the conference, we invited Marion Woodman, a respected Jungian analyst who had been a mentor for many Canadian women, including Michelle and me. Marion agreed to open the conference on Friday evening but said that she didn’t want to prepare a talk. I was to interview her and it would all be very free form. Marion had been my analyst and friend for several years when I lived in Toronto, and I was delighted to be given this job. I re-read all of her books —she’d written about seven at that point—and thought carefully about my questions. Then, about four months before the conference, Marion was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Letters and phone calls flew back and forth between her hundreds of clients and friends, and prayers and blessings from countless others formed a network of care and concern as she went through surgery and radiation therapy.
A month before the conference, Marion told Michelle that she would still like to give the opening talk. She explained that she no longer wanted an interview format, that might be too tiring, but if I could ask a question or two to get things started, she would simply respond with what came to her spontaneously. It might be a very short talk, she warned, but if we still wanted her, she’d be there. We want you, Michelle told her. We absolutely want you.
On the opening night of the conference, Marion and I walked up to the stage. As we took our seats facing each other, she smiled at me and I tried not to cry. She was wearing a loose white pantsuit which did not do much to conceal the fact that she had lost about fifty pounds. Something happened first, I think, some music. I stood to introduce Marion and talk about what she meant to so many of us, how she was showing the way as a truth teller we had not heard before. In one of her early books, Addiction to Perfection, she described how women tried to make themselves into ideals and were killing themselves doing it, through bulimia and hating their bodies.
Applause filled the church and Marion nodded to me. I hadn’t been able to prepare a question ahead of time. I waited for one to come. It was very simple. I asked, “After all you’ve been through this year, how is it for you to be here with us tonight?”
The oddest thing happened. Marion got up a little shakily and just stood for awhile, getting her bearings. The stage lights seemed to brighten several orders of magnitude and I could swear I saw Marion calmly unzipping her white pantsuit and letting it fall to the floor. And then she was slipping off her flesh and stepping out of it, letting that fall to the floor too. Then she was only light, standing and not saying anything at all. At some point I sat down and Marion started talking. I remember that she seemed to gather strength but I have no recollection of what she said nor did I remember anything that night either. At the end, she seemed to have reached down and put her skin and her pantsuit back on and taken her seat. The applause didn’t stop for a long time. In the midst of it and for some time afterward, a vast silence seemed to enfold us.
If I’d had the tiniest smidgen of humility or been able to notice the quaking in the core of my body, I might have been able to make out the message of that night. I imagine it would have been written in ancient script, echoing the mythic wisdom of the descent of the goddess Inanna to the underworld. It would have said something along the lines of “No one enters this gate clothed. Let go of all the symbols of competence you’ve accumulated, all you’ve read, all you think you know. Until you are naked, you cannot enter the mystery that awaits you here.” (To be continued in Shadows of Aging: Part 2)
**Inanna, Queen of the Above World, descends to the Underworld to visit her sister, Ereshkigal, Queen of that realm. This is a risky and dangerous undertaking. Being of high order they each wear the girdle of their power around their loins. This belt of precious lapis contains the symbols of the seven gates which must be passed to gain entrance.
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