My husband is a liar. When I complain about the wrinkles on my neck, he says, “What wrinkles?” Then I laugh because I don’t want to press the point. Would it be a good idea to have him examine, truly, the decay that is my neck skin? Think wattle. Think chicken with pinfeathers that spring out overnight.
I care about these things now, but can imagine a future where I won’t. When the dementia was first catching my mother, there were days when she might open a suitcase and put a hanger in it and then a shoe. A while later, when her mind clicked back again, she’d say, “It’s terrible getting old. I don’t know things anymore, and I get so upset.” It was awful seeing her in that phase. Later when she didn’t know me but would smile when I visited her in the home, it seemed better. But maybe it was just better for me.
In childbirth, there’s a phase called transition. The cervix isn’t quite fully dilated so it’s not safe to push yet. The experts talk about this as a time when a woman may feel as if the walls are closing in, and then they talk of the pushing that comes after as though it will be a relief, and everyone in prenatal class nods and says, “Oh, good, pushing.” And so begins another of those lies you buy into until you’re in labour and realize that this “pushing” word is just another euphemism for agony.
Everyone yells encouragement at you when you’re in childbirth as if you’re in a race, and so you do the best you can, but you want to scream at them all to shut up so you can concentrate. But you can’t scream, because something in your personality or your upbringing has bred you to be silent when stressed. Besides, you know if you start, you might never stop. You might become the screaming woman, the woman who goes into labour and stays there.
Chaos, disorder, mind-ripping pain. That was pushing. And that might have been transition. I don’t know if I recognized the borders of either during the labours of my children, but I recognize them now—a feeling that the edges are closing in. Maybe that’s what my mother felt, and the hanger and the shoe in the suitcase and the following around of the cat with the tin of food were all part of her trying to make the walls bigger, trying to make sense of them. I’m not sure. How can I ever know unless I follow her into Alzheimer’s myself, and then what good will that be? None, except to find (as I do, the older I get) how much there was to admire in her, and how little I understood her when she was alive.
“We’re giving birth to the next phase of our lives,” a friend says over coffee—soy lattes, as it happens. The menopause experts would approve. We laugh, and then she tells me she feels like a teenager again, and I say that makes sense. Though what do I know? I’m menopausal myself, and sometimes can’t remember where I am in a sentence. People say we forget things in midlife because we have too much information in our brains, and some of it has to be offloaded. I think it may be because I haven’t had eight consecutive hours of sleep since 1991. But the mind is plastic, experts say; not the menopause or birthing experts, the brain experts—usually men. They note how other parts of the brain will step in and take over the job that an injured part can no longer accomplish. Maybe my mind is learning new skills too—like how to make do without the names for things, or my keys. Physically, menopause is the ending of a woman’s periods, and scientists say the word actually only refers to the time when a woman’s periods have been gone for a full year. Scientists call points like these “thresholds,” which makes it sound simple (the same way that “transition” initially does). You imagine stepping over this threshold and moving from one state of biological being into another. And this sounds fine. Anyone can step. The body does it of its own accord, whether you want it to or not. Many of us step and then make a big hurrah out of it, as if we’re celebrating. I even had a party, because it happened to coincide with my fiftieth birthday. At this party a friend gave me a book about women in their fifties who accomplish amazing things. Another friend gave me a paper mâché container shaped like an egg—and a significant look, which I ignored.
It’s time to admit that the reason I started this essay is entirely superficial, which is embarrassing, but there we are. Some things, I hope, can be confessed and then dismissed. It began with a conversation with a man, an attractive man as it happens, but an academic conversation—the sort that can fire up in a hallway and spin out into the larger air so that everything seems to open up and new ideas rush in. We were talking about aging and then gender, and so for me, the obvious topic of menopause came up. And because this was minds seeming to spark one against another in a higher, rarer air, I thought it was safe to mention something personal, so I said I was menopausal. It’s not as if he jumped back or anything. He didn’t run. But there was something. A squinching, if you can call it that. A momentary tightening in his pupil (only one, because you can’t look at two at the same time, which seems wrong, but there it is—another limitation of the human body) and I felt suddenly and overwhelmingly ashamed. Why was that? Why be ashamed over a completely common experience? This man is a man’s kind of man, all burly and hearty, but also sensitive and intelligent, and so I admit I felt attracted. Or, more particularly, I felt a need to be attractive. But in that moment when his pupil squinched, I understood—perhaps for the first time—what the meaning of menopause really is.
In The Change, Germaine Greer describes menopause as “the beginning of the third age. The age when we are aware (finally) of our mortality, when time becomes precious and moves too quickly, when our looks change and we realize how much we’d relied on them most of our lives, when we lose power and identity (in western cultures particularly), when we grieve for the loss of our fertility, and maybe also for the loss of libido. Our bodies are changing out from under us. It is the change that ends changes. It is the beginning of the long gradual change from body into soul.”
Safe at my desk, no mirror anywhere near, I imagine this graceful slide towards purity. I think of my father’s skin as he aged, getting smoother and thinner, the folds on his hands like fine silk, under them the ripple of vein, everything coloured: tea-brown age spots, aubergine veins like the rivers on maps. But my middle-aged hands are more like my mother’s, my right index finger an exact replica, the slight bend to the left, as if it’s not sure of the way forward, the folds around my knuckles, which aren’t thickening yet, but tingle some days in anticipation of future immobility. The top of my back curves forward like hers did. My husband says it’s because I look down all the time. He was following my mother and me in Toronto as we navigated a narrow, snowy sidewalk. “You and your mother, you never look up. What’s with that?” I told him it was because we didn’t want to slip, but I know it’s also a dowager’s hump and don’t want to say those words to him: “dowager,” “hump.”
I know I’m failing on this passage, this journey towards soul. I’m stuck, not just groping for words, but stumbling around in endless circles of thought, and then into grief over looks, which is vain and silly and useless. I take some comfort in thinking that surely in this culture of plumpers and fillers and freezers, I’m not alone, and that some part of me may be excused for clinging to old vanities and habits. But the phrase “aging gracefully” haunts me, and I think I should hold myself to that higher ideal, forget my small vanities: my chicken neck, my disappearing eyebrows. Aim for a mindlift, instead of a facelift.
On the library shelves there are countless books on menopause, offering guidance and advice: cheering words about the benefits of giving up caffeine and red meat, taking up yoga and meditation. The women on the covers look competent and tidy, their hair neat, their faces remarkably unlined. Inside, they talk of menopause as if it’s something we can manage like a stock portfolio or a new diet. If we eat enough yams, take enough vitamins, begin each day with sun salutations and affirmations. In theory, I’m all for health and responsible living, but in practice it turns out I’m the same person I was as a teenager: resentful, irresponsible, lazy, easily distracted.
In parts of South America and Africa,women are freed by menopause. In Botswana, for instance, the older !Kung women join the older !Kung men to tell stories and swear, to make lewd comments and smoke cigars. This sounds like a lot more fun than worrying about whether or not I look good or if I’ve achieved anything worthy in my life. In Western culture, one of the menopause books cheerfully tells me, middle-aged women free themselves from old patterns in their lives. They tell their husbands to do the dishes and they stop buying groceries and feeding the cat. They find new strength, shuck off old, inhibiting habits, and become more fiercely alive and productive than ever. As I passively wipe the counters in our kitchen one more time because it’s easier than haranguing the teenagers into doing it, I think, yet again, I’m doing something wrong. I can’t even get menopause right. I think of my mother on the beach at our family’s summer gathering place with her sisters and cousins, all of them in their upholstered bathing suits, the kind with skirts and lots of pleating. Their hair fluffed out from their heads in clouds of gray or blue, or plastered flat under a fishing hat with hooks stuck into it (my mother). They all had bags of knitting beside them, and they seemed entirely content with themselves, their larger shapes, their wrinkled faces—all of it part of some big joke. Before dinner, they might have a large glass of gin, and after, they might gather again for another. As I head off to exercise class, drinking a glass of soya milk before I go, I think of girdles, cigarettes and gin. Why was I born into this relentlessly earnest time of herbal remedies and yoga classes? Why can’t I take advantage of stimulants and supportive underwear?
My friends and I sit around my kitchen table lamenting our late starts in maternal life. The hard west light blasts in. None of us looks young in such light. We’re wrinkling. The flesh is sinking. I have the beginning of jowls, one friend a series of crosshatched lines on her forehead. We talk about surgery, what it would do for us, and then we change the topic. We’re home with teens. Trapped, it seems, by over-sized toddlers who require our minds as punching bags, our spirits as invisible fences. Boundaries, the parenting books remind us. Limits. You’re there to provide them. But what if I want to leap over those fences myself? What if I’d rather be running or dancing or singing through fields of flowers, (Oh stop, I tell myself. You’d strain a knee.)
On the internet, I find sad stories by men about their wives suddenly leaving them at fifty, riding off into the sunset on motorcycles, clinging to the leather jackets of unsuitable men, or wearing the jackets themselves—and here I picture them gleefully waving goodbye, leaving responsibilities and the dinner dishes behind them.
On my bicycle one day a fellow cyclist gave me a hot-eyed stare while we were both stopped at an intersection. True I’d been studying his calves, but innocently, I tell myself now—my admiration purely aesthetic. I looked away, but, as I followed him for the next few blocks, imagined a life where I didn’t make dentist appointments and keep them, a life involving men who rode boldly into intersections, light bouncing off their calves.
Maybe the hormones are making small leaps, desperate last gasps at lust and liveliness as I stare down the haunting visions of old age: a friend’s arthritic fingers in my mind’s eye, another friend’s chronic fatigue, another’s brushes with cancer, another’s missing lung, another gone, years gone. A tree she bought us as a sapling full grown in the yard, a photo, her business card in my drawer. Is this all we leave behind? No wonder we leap for men at intersections, small dreams of our former selves.
I know I’m also mentioning this encounter because I want to think there might still be something about me capable of drawing a strange man. How strange? I imagine a Harpo Marx type asking, but never mind. This isn’t meant to be funny. It’s more pathetic really, a woman seeing the end of the road of her desirability. I wonder if the bicycle man was issuing an invitation at all. I could be deluded. My menopausal brain could be making up stories to ease me through. In Susan Love’s Menopause and Horone Book, she calls menopause “adolescence in reverse” and says that estrogen is the “domesticating hormone” that turns premenstrual girls—confident, lively, engaged—into weedy romantic idiots. (The latter is my turn of phrase.) Menopause is actually a recovery stage, says Love, a stage where we return to our true selves. Who is that true self, I wonder, and does she do the dishes and care for her family or does she go running off in search of fields of flowers—or, in my case, mountain cabins and night skies filled with stars?
Most of the menopause books begin with an explanation of the female reproductive cycle; several include a chart that shows four different coloured lines to represent the four female hormones: estrogen, progesterone, luteinizing hormone and follicle stimulating hormone. During the reproductive years, the lines follow a predictable series of ups and downs. In peri-menopause, the lines look like a two-year-old has gotten hold of the crayons—they shoot sideways across the page and then go straight up and cataclysmically down. At post-menopause everything goes flat. It looks like the heart monitor lines on hospital shows when the music gets loud and the characters go silent. Maybe that’s why few books publish them. They’re too harsh, too close a reminder of death. They make me think of the vistas of grief that open at unexpected moments: seeing the shape of a man like my father on the street, for instance, or thinking of my teenaged children, their faces turned towards the world, away from me. To let go of people first you have to let go of the part of yourself that needs them.
No one can tell me what happens to the individual cells when the hormones leave them. I’m not sure why I need to understand this, but it seems important to know what’s happening deep inside my brain. What about those neurons that used to be flushed with estrogen at regular times every month? How do they cope? The medical people give me vague answers or strange looks. I search journals, the internet—nothing. Eventually I decide to think of my cells as little homes that have been visited by hormones for the past thirty-five years. Now the hormones don’t come by anymore. They don’t even call. I think of my cells drooping, looking for substitutes, sidling inappropriately up to other cells, or just lying in their little cell beds with the lights off and the blankets drawn up over their nuclei. I wonder how long this phase will last, this pause between infertility and acceptance. How long before I discover something to fill the gap, to spackle over the craters hormones have left behind, with knitting, say, or bird watching? I visited an elderly cousin last summer. She’s sinking into Alzheimer’s, but when she said something about youth and slenderness, her sigh was full of consciousness. We laughed a sort of hopeless laugh together, the kind that’s full of grief. Maybe the years and years of hormones have left traces behind, like tattoos. Maybe sometimes they burn.
Some women say just before ovulation they feel a spike of desire, and that even after menopause they have fluctuations in their hormones. Some time after the bike man incident, I sat on a small patio next to the pool where my daughter was having her swimming lessons. A young man entered. I recognized him from the day before; though it was a corner of the eye recognition, and when I studied him more closely, I was a little surprised I hadn’t taken greater note of him earlier. He was deeply tanned and muscled, his skin glistened with droplets of water from the pool. He asked if the chair beside me was taken, then moved it into the sun nearby when I said no. I kept writing, ignoring him, almost. He sat facing the sun, his feet up on the rail, his head resting on one hand, as if he was napping. I didn’t look at him, though I thought he wanted me to. At least that was what I imagined, remembering what I was like at that age, self-conscious in almost everything. A while later when he asked the time, I answered him and walked away thinking that if I were younger I might have woven a fantasy out of that moment, a life, and a story. But I was more intrigued by my lack of interest and how much I was looking forward to taking my daughter and her friend out for ice cream. I wanted to hear their thoughts, glean whatever bits of their minds they’d allow me to see.
“Only when a woman ceases the fretful struggle to be beautiful,” wrote Germaine Greer, “can she turn her gaze outward, find the beautiful and feed upon it. She can at last transcend the body that was what other people principally valued her for and be set free both from their expectations and her own capitulation to them.”
Last summer I was sitting in a wicker chair on the screened-in porch of a rented cottage listening to the creek next to me and watching a wasp bump against the glass of the door. Cottonwood seeds drifted from the trees, looking like puffs of dust, slutswool floating through the air. The day before, as the sun was setting and I watched through the small frame of the kitchen window, the light had caught them so they looked like snowflakes against the green lawn and the wood behind it, as if someone had made a snow globe and set it with grass and trees. So that next day I was still fascinated, still thinking of them as floating feathers or fairy dust, something incongruous and magical, something to be watched—carefully—and as I sat there I felt all the other moments when I’d felt the soft air of summer all around me and had time to look and listen, and so I was happy, really truly at peace with myself and everything around me, and I’d been writing about love and desire, which also made me happy, but the fluff caught my eye and that was more important.
Every day I unlearn. Today I read Germaine Greer again and am inspired. To let go of beauty is to find beauty. Yes. True beauty is outside us: we find it when we turn our minds away from ourselves. Yes. And isn’t that a relief, to no longer consider oneself as if on a market shelf? To age gracefully is to say it doesn’t matter if you become invisible in the world, and it doesn’t matter if no man except your husband (who is bound by habit and good manners) says you are beautiful. It doesn’t matter. During childbirth, people cheer you on through the transition. No one cheers you on through menopause. You are meant to do it privately in the quiet of your room. I imagine the voices telling me to do so now (You can’t write that! You can’t say that!) But why be quiet about a birth? Besides, our bodies announce themselves. People used to call hot flashes “blooms.” How apt. We flushing, heated women blooming out everywhere.