Once Michele George, Oriah Mountain Dreamer and I had launched into the first morning of “The First Canadian Conference on Women Elders,” we knew we were in trouble. 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. … 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, 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.
* * *
Not one of the three of us got the message that first night but by Saturday morning, it was delivered with a flourish by an unexpected messenger. Just after Oriah and her assistants opened the day with powerful drumming and chanting, I gave an introductory talk laying out the key themes for the conference. When I invited comments and questions from the audience, my old friend Joan Bodger stood up.
Sitting in the first row as my guest, Joan was in her seventies by then, a well known professional story teller and author who usually carried a stout walking stick as tall as she was. She had the stick with her that morning and she smacked it against the floorboards as she shouted towards the stage, “What are you three doing up there? You’re not elders! You don’t have a grey hair on your heads.” She turned and faced the shocked audience. “Look! Where are the grey hairs? Where are the white hairs? We’re down here, in the audience. We should be sitting up there and they should be sitting down here, listening to us!”
A shudder of excitement rippled through the 300 women who were being addressed. I felt scared but somewhere inside I was laughing out loud. — Joan! You are so outrageous! You’re here for free and you’re already disrupting the conference because you’re not the center of attention.
The audience had turned toward me now, as had Joan, who had placed one hand on her hip, stuck her belly out, and was looking immensely pleased with herself. “Ok,” I said. “You have a good point. Let’s all take a break and Michelle and Oriah and I will talk this over.”
As the women filed out for the bathrooms and tea in the outer hall, whispering, murmuring and apparently thrilled at the promise of a confrontation, the three of us huddled at the back of the stage, trying to decide what to do. It was clear that we needed to open the conference up right away and hear some other voices, as well as Joan’s. She had, after all, named the thing that had worried us most about the conference. We were not elders. “But we never said we were,” we wailed to each other. Well, too bad. Joan had poked a stick into what looked like it was going to be a very angry hornets’ nest and we needed to hear what the hornets had to say.
Once the women returned, the first three or four were furious with Joan. —We didn’t drive all the way to Toronto to listen to a bunch of women we never heard of spout off their opinions, they told her. Sit down! Others, the white hairs, spoke politely and said they did think they should have a voice too. And some others didn’t bother with any niceties. —Ladies! Can we just get on with this? We’ve paid good money and we don’t intend to sit through a bloody boring debate for two days!
After a long back and forth, Michelle announced that we would open the program for all the elders to take the stage on Saturday evening. They would be invited to speak and respond to questions from the younger women.
Joan leapt to her feet. “That’s too late,” she objected. “We’ll be tired by then. We need to speak in the afternoon.”
Heads were nodding vigorously so we agreed and, with our program agenda in utter shambles, proceeded.
Michelle, a genius of improvisation, led everyone in shouting and sounding and stamping and singing out their feelings, all their feelings that were coming up now and had been coming up from what seemed to be beginningless time and getting suppressed and patted down and talked over. The church was rocking with the pure sounds of rage and tears and words that seemed to tear themselves through the women’s bodies. Later, when there was time for sharing, some said they had never felt so much power roar through them. Others were frightened, bewildered, ecstatic. Finally, blessedly, it was time for lunch.
Michelle and Oriah and I made our way back to my friend Ann’s house, about a block away. Ann was in her sixties, midway between Joan and me, and the three of us had been friends for decades. Over hot soup and sandwiches, Ann talked about what had happened. She was mothering and grandmothering us, and we felt immensely grateful. We slurped our soup and worried out loud. We thought this conference would be about women coming together, we told her, and that we’d be helping everyone to reflect on genuine questions about getting old.
“You want to know what’s coming up that you haven’t heard yet?” Ann asked.
We groaned. There’s more?
Ann looked at Oriah. “Imagine how you look to them,” she said, “to the fat old ladies like me who are sitting in the back of the church.”
We all looked at Oriah. She was slim, wearing a form fitting dress with big leather belt that accentuated her tiny waist. Her bright, beaded earrings fell gracefully through her long, perfectly coiffed blond hair. She may have been pushing fifty but she didn’t look it. She looked like a movie star.
“Women like you stole their husbands,” Ann said. And she turned to Michelle and me, “And just because you two have a few grey hairs and are packing a few extra pounds, you’re not immune either.”
She paused and spoke the next phrase slowly, enunciating her words. “You… are… the… enemy.”
She waited. We stared at her, deer in the headlights. “You are the young wives who replace the old wives,” she continued. “You are the ones they used to be and aren’t anymore. Your energy makes them feel tired and your smooth faces accentuate their wrinkles. This stuff has been shoved under the rug for generations, for centuries. Old women are supposed to love young women, supposed to gracefully give up and let go of all they used to be and have and let that pass on to the ones who are coming after them. You want to be their sisters and their friends. Well, there’s a lot of fury and grief and helplessness that has to get opened up before that has a prayer of happening!”
Over the next day and a half, every plan we made was in shreds within about five minutes. All we could do was to go in as naked as Marion Woodman had been on Friday night. Nobody knew what would happen next. Everyone was on the edge of their seats. Many of the women seemed to love it, saying it was the most transformative, true experience of their lives. Others hated it and left shaken and disturbed.
On Sunday afternoon, the three of us so-called leaders sat together for awhile, reflecting on the conference. “In case you’re wondering where I am,” Oriah said, “as I was walking down to the kitchen for breakfast this morning, I found myself wishing I would trip and fall down the stairs so I could break a leg and not have to show up today.”
Michele was serene through the thing, laughing uproariously at times and leading all of us into the next big question or drama that came up. Afterwards she’d tell Oriah and me, it was chaotic like this when our theatre company was improvising in Mali, or it was bewildering like this when we were in Iran, inventing a new language. This is it, she’d say, this is how it feels to be living in wide open space, wild and free and right on the edge of the cliff. Anything can happen and you’re right here for it.
As for me, the conference made me think of something Ann had told me once about sailing across the Atlantic. The year she turned sixty, she and her husband Sven set out in October in a 40 foot sloop. It turned out to be too late to miss the winter storms. For endless days and nights their boat was sucked up the arc of fifty foot high waves and slammed down again, slashed with the force of tons of water washing across their bow. From moment to moment, they had no idea whether they’d make it through or drown.
Although we were sitting in a church in downtown Toronto, I had no doubt that The First Canadian Conference on Women Elders was also riding into massive waves and slamming through towering forces. The hundreds of us gathered in those old pews might just as well have been clinging to the hold of the sailing ships that carried our ancestors to the new world. We were pioneers, I was sure of it, facing into the lies and envy and fear that have kept women across generations from speaking honestly to each other, from trusting that we could ride out the chaotic energies and make it to a new place. It was exhilarating and terrifying and I couldn’t think of a place I’d rather be.
The energies were so immense, I think, because hundreds of us were looking into the truth together. But it probably had to be that way. Penetrating our culture’s shadow issues about aging is not something that can be done alone.
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