Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Shifting Ground of What Makes Me Woman

There is a time in a woman’s life when the things she has relied on to remind her She Is Woman start breaking up – like a picture on a television screen with a faulty digital box. The monthly cycles of her body – the ones she has been deeply intimate with for so long – begin a process of fragmentation. Signs, symptoms, sensations – they disband, scatter, roam about like gypsies. An upheaval takes place in her temperament; in everything she has known herself to be. The steward of her code abandons ship, and an unruly voice emerges, determined to betray her innermost thoughts. Many of the beliefs she has called her own become estranged; a process of liberation unfolds. She enters unchartered territory.

It’s called menopause, or more accurately, peri-menopause.

At 48, I’ve gotten pretty good at weathering the storm, and I think I’ve even done one better – I’ve welcomed the disruption of a life tightly lived, and been grateful for the wreckage of carefully constructed ideals. But the turbulence in my body is another story. The natural ebb and flow; the yin and yang of my body’s natural rhythm is in disarray, and it has been quite an unsettling experience.

That rhythm was central to how I related. Where I was in my cycle either propelled me out or drew me in. I always knew what I needed, my cycle as my guide. Every month, the waxing, the building of the tides; the arousal of ancient passions, and the ache for a man’s penetration. Every month, the waning, the turning inward to the call of the wild. In the days approaching ovulation, my inlands would hum. I wanted contact, communion, engagement. A week before menstruation, I craved solitude, and the space to create. No matter where I was, I had my bearings.

Now, I have lost those bearings. I don’t know where I am in my cycle anymore. I don’t know when the blood will flow or where it comes from. I think I am ovulating and then...the feeling dissipates. Casual sex is out. My system is in a profound state of confusion or indecision, I’m not sure which. I can’t tell if I’m coming or going. Is the sensitive animal of my body lost? Or is she simply re-positioning herself? As I prepare for the end of my fertile phase, I know this does not mean the end of my womanhood, as popular lore might have me think. To the contrary. I am of the mentality that I am entering into the prime of my life.

Why, then, do I feel so disoriented? How do I make of this something real?

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Imagination As Gospel

There is nothing in this world, arguably, that has the capacity to move in the same way a good story does. Stories are multi-layered, speaking to us on more than one level at once, and indirectly. Ideologies communicated to us in books or lectures don’t always stick – we can listen to them again and again while remaining utterly impenetrable, even as we nod our heads in agreement. But a good story has a way of sneaking in the back door and reaching that part of us tucked far away from life’s disappointments. It can lift us out of our self-imposed drudgery and show us what we’ve forgotten.

My favorite form of storytelling is film. If it’s done skilfully, with a deep respect for the power of narrative, the end result can hold enormous impact. With repeated viewings, we often find different parts stirring us in different ways at different times. We love a good story because it takes us away and brings us home at the same time. The line between truth and fiction is absurdly thin. Even the most bizarre scenarios can resonate, and those of us who think deeply are propelled into a place of meaningful contemplation.

This year is the 35th anniversary of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and some television stations are airing it on a rotating schedule. Tuning in to the first half recently – I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve watched the entire film – there was one scene that stood out to me this time. Jack Nicholson, a criminal serving a short sentence, is transferred to a mental institution for evaluation, where he amuses himself by goading the ball-busting Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). The tables eventually turn, and though Nicholson successfully campaigns to have the World Series baseball game shown on the ward television, Nurse Ratched refuses to acknowledge it. Nicholson responds by creating a ruckus, and a gleeful one at that.

Standing in front of the blank television screen, he starts commentating on an imaginary game with unbridled enthusiasm. It is so real, and so infectious, that when the other patients start gathering around him and cheering, you actually get caught up in it too. And it dawns on you that it doesn’t matter that the television isn’t actually on. The excitement Nicholson rouses in his peers is epic.

Thomas Moore once said that imagination is more weighty than fact. If we could mine the annals of our consciousness, we might discover experiences there that had little in common with the circumstances of our lives – experiences so vivid they stunned us with their repercussions. So what determines our experience more, I wonder – what we imagine or what actually happens? I am inclined to think it is how we imagine what is happening to us, and how we imagine what will happen.

And that includes our experience of aging. Though the forces that shape our experience are vast and complex, it might be wise to take our imagination a lot more seriously, and in this sense, consider living artfully in a world bent on rationalism.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Soccer & the Art of Courting

One of the things I love the most about World Cup Soccer season is being treated, on a daily basis, to images of male comradery in the media. Intimacy between men – especially heterosexual men – is not something depicted in the public realm very often, and personally, I get a real rush from it. There’s something about what I see that I think we need a lot more of in today’s world – Nelson Mandela was really on to something. And there is nothing like soccer to inspire it. Though I know very little about the game, what I have seen about the culture that surrounds it fascinates me.

I will never forget my 2002 World Cup experience. I decided I was going to get up at 5am to catch the final match in a large Toronto bar populated by Brazilian fans. There was a massive screen up and a group of drummers poised in the middle of the room. Whenever a player began picking up some momentum on the field, the drummers would start in with a rhythmic beat, gradually increasing both pace and intensity to reflect whatever they were watching on the screen. Women scattered around the room would dance. Then, when an attempt made at scoring failed, instead of deflating or cursing, the crowd would erupt in celebration.

What I learned that day was how important attitude is to developing real skill. It’s less about whether or not you score, and more about how you play the game. No wonder the Brazilians are repeated world champions. Every play was celebrated, regardless of the outcome. Rapture marked the occasion, and the ebbs and flows that are a natural expression of raw passion undulated through the room.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about that experience lately, and about what we could learn from the Brazilian mindset in the way we approach our relationships, especially with someone we’re attracted to. When we’re young, “courting” tends to be about looking good, snagging, ruffling our feathers, scoring. But as we get older, if we learn to go with it, hopefully we know better. We have the capacity to recognize what we’re missing by refusing to grow up. If we’re smart, we treat “courting” as a sort of a deft artistry, less interested in where we are going than we are in how we are getting there. Like the Brazilian approach to soccer.

Of course, we court in all kinds of contexts – not just lover-related. But think of the sexual as a template of sorts, because even those in committed relationships “court” their partner from time to time. One of the perks of aging for those who aren’t fighting it is a growing depth of perception that graces our day to day lives. Our sexuality takes on new dimensions. What we once thought of as “sexy” becomes laughable. We start paying attention to nuance in our social interactions. Conversations happen on more than one level – what we say comes second to how we say it; a pregnant pause can speak volumes. Even the smallest physical gesture can emit subtle, but powerful, erotic energy.

It’s not about ego anymore. It’s about a life lived on poetic terms, and the humbling experience of realizing we’re not important in the way we once thought. That love is not at all what we once made it out to be. And the willful, curious engagement of what comes our way when we’re busy making other plans.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Mirror as Portal

We’ve all had our own secret relationships with mirrors at some point or another through our lives: the reflection through which we obsess with our own self image. Sometimes a mirror is the first thing we get to when we wake up in the morning; other times, we avoid looking into one. Full-length mirrors are strategically placed in our homes, a portal into exploration of self; the tiny ones we carry become our reality check. If we find ourselves alone with one in a public restroom, we are sometimes struck with what we see there – the changes we hadn’t noticed before; a curve or a bulge we stop to admire; the stranger we fear or had not anticipated.

Mirrors provide all kinds of useful functions, many of which fascinate us, or at the very least, play with our perception in some way. We use large, unframed mirrors to create an illusion of space, or to make a room appear larger. We put mirrors on the ceiling over our beds for a source of erotic stimulation. Amusement parks build Halls of Mirrors, deliberately distorted for our own entertainment. Rotating disco balls at clubs covered in small mirrors cast moving spots of light across a dance floor. In the ancient Chinese system of Feng Shui, practitioners believe that a mirror will help to energize a room. And the metaphor “smoke and mirrors” – used frequently in pop culture references to indicate deception or pretense – came from the magician’s illusion: making objects appear or disappear by extending or retracting mirrors amid a confusing burst of smoke.

Jimi Hendrix wrote a song called a Room Full of Mirrors, and in a biography of the same name, Charles Cross describes a man who “had an extraordinary sense of self-awareness, and an uncanny ability to use music to express emotional truths.” He talks about a two-by-four-foot mirror that Jimi had created. “Inside the frame sat fifty-odd pieces of a shattered mirror, set in clay in the exact position they would have held upon the breaking of the mirror. The shards all point toward the center, where an unbroken plate-size circle rests.” It was, according to Jimi’s father, his Room Full of Mirrors. The song, Cross says, “tells the story of a man trapped in a world of self-reflection so powerful, it haunts him even in his dreams.”

By far the most fascinating use of a mirror I ever heard was from a teacher I once worked with, who said that if you ever find yourself in a lucid dream (awake in a dream and able to direct it), you can look for your reflection in a mirror to “lock” you in.

Recently, I had the good fortune to interview one of the most interesting people I have ever met. A scholar, architectural historian, and a specialist in Western esoteric traditions, he struck me as a sort of a mystic Sherlock Holmes. Frank Albo penned the Hermetic Code, a book about his groundbreaking discoveries of Freemasonic symbolism in the Manitoba Legislative Building. He spoke to me about the cornerstone of Hermetic philosophy, the concept “as above, so below; so below, as above” -- that the entire universe, and all things in it, is a sea of mirrors.

In other words, he said, everything is inter-connected.

Ah – yes, everything is inter-connected. Well I’ve lived by that philosophy for most of my life. But hearing it described in this way – namely, a sea of mirrors – inspired me to think more deeply into it. For as long as I can remember, even in the throes of dire escapist behavior, I’ve wanted in. I’ve wanted to know that stranger in the mirror. I’ve wanted to have the courage of heart to embrace what I see there; to perceive the “as above” reflected in her face. I don’t want to wake up at 62, or 75, to discover I am still removed from what I know.

For that is surely what the second half of life is about – learning to relax into what we know, and to meet the stranger in the mirror at last.


The time will come
when with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own front door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was yourself.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letter from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

Derek Walcott

I invite my readers to share their thoughts on the word “mirror”: stories or myths they’ve heard, favorite metaphors, intriguing associations. It is my intent to write a follow-up post on this subject, depending on the response.

Frank Albo will be teaching a course called Forbidden Knowledge, which will put into proper context the shadowy world of occult philosophy and embark on a fascinating journey through five centuries of mystical traditions, from Renaissance sorcery to modern ceremonial magic. It will explore religious mythology, occult history and code-breaking symbolism. For more information visit

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Choreography of the Soul

It’s always been curious to me why it is the events in our lives unfold the way that they do. Not in an analytical sort of way, but in a way that beholds the Great Mystery of a larger design; that sense of meaning found in trusting a higher purpose. That random things do happen, but most of the hand we are dealt is not random. That stuff goes down, and people come into our lives for a reason.

That we have an active role to play in living out our destiny.

Maybe there are folks out there for whom life works out pretty much according to plan. But for most of us, I think, life is what happens to you when you are busy making those plans – as the dictum goes. For most of us, things don’t work out at all the way we had expected. You think you got it all sorted out: where you’re going, what success looks like, the kind of person you will end up with, the kind of relationship you see yourself thriving in. And then someone or something happens along the way that turns everything on its head.

As Thomas Moore says, we may discover we are most ourselves when we are furthest from the self we think we ought to be.

I suspect most people reading this blog will know what I’m talking about. People who get married young, endeavor to live the American dream and follow all the rules – they’re another breed. I’m speaking to those who find themselves, at mid-life or older, without a partner, or questioning some major aspect of their life, or embarking on a journey that on some level they know risks shaking up their worldview. Because they’re the ones who are called upon to go deeper, to re-visit old assumptions or belief systems, to question what they held dear or what they were taught. They’re the ones to realize that happiness may come in a form unlike anything they had ever anticipated.

This is why, I think, it is so important to allow relationships to develop organically – to not impose our agenda on them, as much as we can. Especially romantic liaisons. To pursue someone for the sole purpose of steering it toward an end result is as much of a loss to our spiritual selves as it is to have sex with the sole purpose of getting off. The journey, or the lovemaking, is what really matters. As you get older you start to see this more and more. You start to define things differently. You see that a relationship that doesn’t last isn’t necessarily a failure. That we come into each other’s lives for a reason, at intervals that are often impeccably timed.

And if you’re lucky, you become an initiate, entering a world in which autonomy and intimacy can co-exist if you really work at it. Sources of unease become your teacher. You lose interest in molding other people into whatever it is you thought they ought to be. A lifelong courtship with the freedom of discovery begins.

You abandon the quest for life according to plan, and return instead to the call of the wild.

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Hub of Aging with Grace: Travel

It’s a well-known fact that one of the perks to getting older is that you learn to stop wasting time on the things that don’t matter. In relationships – with friends and lovers alike – you start getting really clear on what it is you value, which is often not at all what you once thought. And then there are the “dealbreakers” – the indelicate term that speaks for itself – that tend to come with experience, and sometimes offer the most surprise of all.

I have two such “dealbreakers” that I’ve long operated by but only recently become aware of: a lack of curiosity in a person’s nature, and a lack of interest in travel.

Now, when I say travel, I mean it in more ways than one: travel to, or curiosity about, other countries and cultures; travel through different perspectives or ways of looking at life. We “travel” when we read a good book or immerse ourselves in a challenge that stretches us to see beyond our usual framework. And we “travel” when we smoke some really good, organic weed (forget about the stereotypical “stoner high” – I’m talking about weed the way it is meant to be used at its best, as a sacrament).

Whatever your fancy, it occurs to me that a commitment to travel, in some form, may just be the ticket we all need to aging with grace. Many of us know what it means to become “set in our ways”, and travel seems to offer a good antidote to that. But what I’m probing at here goes even deeper. If we accept how easy it can be to become embedded in our later years, we only have to ask ourselves how this might impede the growth and fruition of our character. Is this where we begin to shrivel? If we are dis-inclined to move, to “travel”, physically or otherwise, how does this ripple out into our experience of getting older?

Because it seems to me that as the years wear on, we have a depth of perception available to us that we never had before – entire new worlds open up, that when we’re young, we miss, because we’re too busy being a tourist.

Every time I look at myself in the mirror lately, I am aware of two opposing forces at work: a drive to fight the inevitable process I am bearing witness to, and a drive to connect; to dive headfirst into the life that beckons: a presence no longer concerned with mis-placed idealism. A place where the heart reigns, the soul compels and a hunger for substance prevails.

The way I see it, a commitment to travel, in the true sense of the word, means a commitment to exploring other ways of life unfamiliar to us; to be willing to abandon everything we know, and look at ourselves from an entirely different light.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Aging & Character: Coming Into Being

It’s always been curious to me how it is we can yearn for things we’ve never had any direct experience with: a certain kind of intimacy; an adventure defined by the challenge it offers; the call of the land or architecture in another country. We might rationalize that it’s the idea of the thing; something we read or saw depicted. But I’m not talking about anything that superficial. I’m talking about the stuff you can’t shake; an ache or a pining that persists over many years that runs so deep it almost becomes an obsession. You can’t justify it. You wonder if it’s in your genetic memory, part of your ancestral code, or the experience of a past life is still with you. You have more questions than answers.

A transgendered person – for example, a physiological male who simply must find a way to live life as a woman – would know exactly what I’m talking about. So would the person who has long been besotted with living in another century; another time and place. Longings of this ilk can be a wretched thing indeed. Some folks, like educator Stephen Jenkinson, believe that the absence of the thing you long for is your teacher, and a life-changing one at that.

Well I have many such “teachers”, one of them being my longing to be part of a culture wherein ceremony – and the ritualizing of transition – is a way of life. Where villagers gather to welcome and name a newborn in liturgy. Where adolescents are considered to be “coming into the world”, and their changing status is honored with celebration, and a symbolic ceremonial gesture. Where it is common to choose carefully the land on which you want to live, and the surrounding community joins you in blessing your new home.

Where life passages are considered to be sacred, not routine, and where ritual enables due diligence in contemplating responsibility as it was meant to be – to our community, our land, and ourselves.

Clearly, this worldview would be invaluable in changing our experience of midlife here in North America: a time or an age that, in other countries through history, has been considered a rite of passage; an entering into, as Suzanne Braun Levine puts it, our “second adulthood”.

Interestingly enough, astrologers will tell you that Saturn – the planet of responsibility, and coming into being – will return to the same spot it was when we were born every 27 years or so (a transit known as the “Saturn return”). Between the ages of 27 and 29, our lives can experience a real upheaval of values and priorities, often forcing us to face this thing called cause and effect, and to take responsibility for our lives. And so it happens again in our early to mid-50s, but on an entirely different level altogether.

So what is this “second adulthood”, and how have we gotten to the point where the opportunities it brings are all too often shrouded in our fear of aging? Inevitably, then, we endure this midlife passage as more of a “crisis”, and it is portrayed in media and film as our last desperate grasp on youth before the final resignation to the “reality” of getting old. James Hillman once said that the main pathology of later years is our idea of later years. Instead of viewing aging as a “coming into being”, we resort to drastic measures in order to defy nature, and to prove to ourselves that we’ve “still got it”.

Which is tragic. Because, as Hillman points out, this crisis “compounds two fears: I am getting on in years, yet am I getting on with what I really am? Aging and character together. This popular syndrome is less about the middle of the life span than about the central crisis of one’s nature, less about being too old than about being still too young. Not loss of capacity; loss of illusion.”

What does all of this mean? What is the relationship between aging and character? I am getting on in years, yet am I getting on with what I really am? Instead of being victimized by aging, what would it be like to own it; to mark our entry into midlife as a sacred life passage?

What might it be like to live a life unencumbered by the obsession with youth?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Beauty & the Fickle Beast of Perception

We’ve all had days where we feel disheveled, beastly or worn, either from stress or lack of sleep. And maybe we get a concerned look from a colleague, or we simply blend into the sea of self absorbed faces at rush hour. But there are other days when we might be surprised by someone in a way we least expect. Here we are, feeling like crap, and they tell us...something to the contrary. We look good, they say. Or in our element. Or a complete stranger smiles at us. Or whatever. And we wonder who or what it is they are seeing.

Well I was standing at the streetcar stop the other day feeling pretty bland when this young, 20-something African man strolls by. And he looks at me like....well, like he found me mighty darned attractive. Like I imagine guys his age look at girls their own age. Like I was beautiful. He locked eyes with me until I looked away, my shyness getting the better of me.

I started thinking about what a lot of African Canadian men have told me – men from countries in east, south and west Africa alike, especially south. They say they don’t see age. They don’t see age. It’s irrelevant to them. Either a woman is beautiful to them or not. I’ve had often had them approach me on dating sites, and when I point out the age difference between us on the phone, their disinterest is palpable.

In a culture where who we are and what we are deemed capable of is largely shaped by our perceived age, this trait is no less than remarkable. The age we consider someone to be is foremost on our minds. It influences our professional choices, who we make conversation with at parties or who we go to bed with. Of course, there are plenty of other factors, as well. But I would argue that age is front and centre for a lot of folks. Just try for a moment to imagine what life would be like if you saw the soul of a person first: their beauty or intelligence or “vibe”, or whatever you want to call it. And then maybe later you noticed they were in a generation completely different than your own, but it didn’t matter, because you made this connection.

Can you imagine what living like that would be like?

Now I know there are many times when factoring a person’s age into our decisions is entirely appropriate. I’m not suggesting age is irrelevant – that’s not the point of this post. I am just fascinated by how culture shapes the perception of age. More specifically, I am fascinated by how culture shapes the perception of what is beautiful.

Consider for a moment one aspect of genital reconstruction, which I wrote about in my recent post, Designer Vaginas. Girls as young as 15 are so influenced by distorted and narrow sexual ideals in western culture that they are going into surgeon’s offices to have their labia amputated. Sites like Scarleteen, a sexual education resource for teenagers, typically feature ongoing inquiries from girls worried about their labia being too large.

In contrast, listen to this. I interviewed an educator (and former consultant to the World Health Organization) last week about the history of genital surgery across cultures who told me that in some countries, labia are stretched because large labia are considered to be more beautiful.

Now think about that for a moment. Think about the lengths we go to to conform to someone else’s ideas about what is beautiful, and how fickle that can be. Trends change. People change. Many of us live in an increasingly multi-cultural society, so we never really know for sure how a person’s perception of beauty has been shaped, or how aware they are as a human being. I met a Caucasian man in his early 40s once who admitted to me he found the signs of aging (wrinkles, grey hair) to be sexually arousing.

So, as hip hop mogul Russell Simmons says in his book, just Do You. Authenticity sells. And I can dig it. Find a way to get off on who you are. Life is short.

When SeptemberMay launches next year, we will be celebrating the older woman for all that she is: the beauty, eroticism and intelligence she embodies that a younger woman can only dream of. Not the 40-something “cougar”, but the authentic older woman, be she in her 40s, 50s, 60s or 70s. I am convinced there are a solid pool of men out there who can really rock with that idea.

And we’ll be opening our doors to them.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Hallmark of Age

Age, and how we talk about it, is a funny thing. When you’re young, of course, you’re always topping it up – 18 years and 7 months is automatically translated into 19 when someone asks how old you are. Age is referred to in the context of status or personal rights. You want to be older to gain certain privileges, or you are older so you brag about it. As you get on, however, the ambivalence starts setting in. You are less and less certain about when and how to talk about it. You notice the disparity between how old you feel and how old you actually are, which tends to fluctuate.

And then, one morning, you wake up, look at yourself and say, “Shit, I’m getting old.”

What always surprises me is at what age people reach that point – and how much that varies. I am interested in how people see themselves in relation to how old they are. I’ve talked to people in their 40s who still consider themselves relatively young, and listened to a 29 year old lament about their 30th birthday. In my early to mid-40s, the only time I thought about how old I was or how old I felt was when I was comparing myself to other people. As a woman without children, it would always be a bit of a jolt for me to hear someone younger than I was talking about her kids. I didn’t see myself as having lived that long. And yet, the difference in my quality of life was a world apart from that in my 20s. Youth is overrated.

So when someone dear to me tells me that at 54, he’s “getting old”, and that finding people to do business with is increasingly challenging, I am shocked. 54 is young, I thought. But then I sort of got it. It’s all relative. He is in a line of business that is youth-dominated. Being discriminated against is the norm. I wonder how deeply that affects him. I wonder if, in his private moments, he is stuck in a time capsule. Or does he reconcile with the man he is becoming, slowly growing into a new way of being?

We so often talk about embracing a process or embracing who we are. What about embracing our age? What would it feel like to own it, work it, take pride in it? To find confidence in the experiences that have made us more rounded? We live in a time where we can’t look to young people to show their respect. They’ve never been taught. To the contrary, they’ve been conditioned against getting older and all that it represents. We all have.

It’s up to us to change that. They’ll either get it or they won’t, but if they don’t it’s their loss. Hopefully they’ll come around. The hallmark of age is something to regard, and our quality of life depends on it.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Older Women as Sexual Mentors

I have often imagined what it would be like to be a teenage boy with a sexual appetite that is out of control, trying to get enough verve to ask the girl out at school while masturbating under the bed covers at every opportunity. It seems to me that hormonally-challenged young men have no business running around with girls their own age – at least, not until they’ve found a way to relieve some of the pressure, and learned a little bit about how to harness their energies. Because as we all know, it is common for girls to feel coerced into sex before they are ready – and many of us caved out of the need to be wanted. It’s still going on today. Girls as young as 11 or 12 are giving out blow jobs to boys in order to be cool, and to gain acceptance from their peers.

But I digress. What I mean to be driving at is that many teenage boys could benefit from a channel through which to express their needs, and some practical advice on how to please a lady. And who better to offer that than an older woman?

Movie star Michael Douglas knows about this all too well. Recently, on being interviewed by Elle magazine, he confessed to having been bedded by two friends of his mother’s when he was 16. And since then, pop sensation Justin Bieber (also 16) has revealed a similar wisdom, having come out with his own interest in older women. These are just two examples. That young men (especially major stars) talk so much more easily about this kind of attraction demonstrates one thing for certain – times are changing. It’s not just a Mrs. Robinson phenomena anymore.

There is something that just makes sense about this picture. A woman in her sexual prime has just as much to gain from initiating a young man as he does, and it’s fun for both of them. If boys had the benefit of this experience more often, they would be far more versed in matters of both the heart and sexuality – and that is something we can all gain from. It would be good for their self esteem, and good for the women they end up with.

Now this little liaison I am painting is, of course, distinctly different from that of an older woman – younger man relationship that endures, even if they both work for similar reasons. But I think it deserves to be taken just as seriously. In some Indigenous cultures, women were required to assume a temporary post as a teacher of sexual secrets to young men, as a form of initiation. If receiving this kind of direction were the norm in modern day society, the impact on a young man's growth and maturation would be something to observe indeed.

Just imagine the possibilities.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Designer Vaginas

The push toward cosmetic surgery to “mask” the effects of aging is not news, and as the likes of Heidi Montag will attest, its practice is growing at an alarming rate with young women as well. What is talked about a lot less, though, is cosmetic surgery below the belt or, put another way and a lot more specifically, “designer vaginas” – a moniker granted it in a 2005 Globe and Mail article.

Both men and women today have wildly distorted impressions of so-called “normal” genitalia. Research repeatedly shows that women in particular are widely unfamiliar with real genital diversity, so they tend to rely on marketing and images provided by doctors and other professionals with ridiculously narrow aesthetic and sexual ideals. The reality is that the size, shape and form of a woman’s genitalia vary greatly, and change over time – we are as diverse “down there” as we are in our faces or our fingerprints.

That’s what I learned from the New View Campaign when I interviewed them several years ago. A grassroots organization formed in New York about 10 years ago, its purpose is, among other things, to challenge distorted messages about sexuality, and to expose aggressive marketing tactics that normalize women's dissatisfaction with their bodies.

We’re talking women as young as 15 years old, going in for procedures such as drastic labia amputation or clitoral unhooding, with poor research on the consequences.

My question is this – how did we get here? How did we get to the point where we are so fucked up about our bodies, women of all ages are lopping off bits and pieces of their private parts in order to feel desirable?

The pressure to conform to a commonly agreed upon norm can be a highly oppressive force. We see and allow for diversity in nature much more easily than we do in our bodies, or for that matter, our sexual experiences. We’re always thinking about whether we measure up. Biologist and sex researcher Alfred Kinsey dedicated most of his life to educating people in this realm in the 1940s and 50s, yet we’re still dealing with a lot of the same (recycled) attitudes today.

Why are we so afraid of being different? As we age, and develop a more intimate relationship with our own bodies and our selves, this question might be more relevant than we think.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Grief As Skill

Someone I interviewed once actually talked about this – grief as a true skill of life, “an equal of the ability to love.” Now I’m the sort of person who sits up and takes note when I hear this kind of talk. I am interested in how people deal with what they find difficult; what their attitude toward death is; how they respond to crisis or what they do with the dark undercurrent of their emotions. I have always felt that to be really alive or to live our lives fully we need to make peace with the things we find hellish. That there is a great deal to learn from that we find arduous. So I invited him back for another interview. I wanted to ask him what this “grief as skill” thing was all about. I wanted some insight that might help me in adjusting to the death of someone very close to me.

The man I refer to here is Stephen Jenkinson.

Turns out that the skill of grief and the skill of dying are pretty much in the same camp. It all has to do with living your life as if whatever it is won’t last; that “the cradle of your love of life is death – the fact that it ends.” Okay – so living as if today, or this moment, could be your last – I can dig it. But I think there’s more. I want in on this “grief as skill” business. So I ask him.

He’s happy to indulge me. He talks about “letting the grief be part of the story,” and “a moral intelligence; a willingness to know the fabric of life for what it is.” I am struck by the beauty of how this all sounds. But what really gets me is when he describes the skill of grief as a “the willingness to remember – an understanding of what a discipline of the heart it is to remember, even when it pains you to do so.”

Not the same as memory, he tells me. First, he starts by defining “to remember”. He says it actually means, “to gather back together again.” That when someone you love has died, “doing” grief means being willing to remember. Because the opposite to “remember” is “dismember”. Once you understand that, he tells me, you understand the full consequence of forgetting someone.


So I’ve been thinking a lot about this forgetting business. About how references to it can be found in music, art, literature and even social media. We “forget” about our troubles by drinking them away, or sing about “forgetting” someone who has hurt us. “Forget about it,” we say, as an expression of good will when someone we know feels guilty about their behavior. The examples are endless. And what about the daily routines of living in a fast-paced, western culture? Do we habitually “forget” about one thing in order to focus on the next? Put our family “out of mind” in order to bring our best to the job? Block out the disturbing exchange we just had with a friend, because it’s just too uncomfortable to allow it any room?

How much of our lives is a series of disjointed events, a stage play of multiple personalities acting through varying mindsets, never the twain shall meet?

Surely there has to be times that “forgetting” is a positive, constructive thing to do? The thing that helps us move on? Forgive? Come together? I don’t know anymore. But it did occur to me that when “forgetting” turns into a habit, it becomes pathological. To forget is to dismember. Shit – that’s heavy. How many body parts have I got strewn across my life – my psyche? Does my left hand even know what my right hand is doing?

It is in this vein that the love of my life – my beloved Mishka – saved my life. Her death continues to riddle me with anguish, but at 48, I now find myself thinking about what it might mean to not be leaving stuff behind anymore. To bring this part along with that part, and so on – to introduce all the bits and pieces.

To be “willing to remember” whatever I need to, regardless of how much it pains me, in order to learn “the deep skill of living.”

That sounds like a life’s work – one I welcome with an open heart. Because I will never forget her.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Flexibility: The Holy Grail

It seems to me that one of the hardest parts about aging is the tendency to become enslaved by habit; those parts of our lives that we do over and over again on autopilot, simply because it is what we know. And I do mean enslaved. Like getting so locked in to a pattern of behavior that any effort to resist it feels like swimming in jello. The God of Apathy takes over.

I suppose that’s partly why we fall into these habits in the first place – the apathy or depression about getting older. A realization that, in my experience at least, comes in stages. It starts with this sense of time speeding up, somewhere between 40 and 50. Then you start noticing shit about your body that’s difficult to deal with – it doesn’t work the way it used to; the wrinkles, sags or grays start sneaking up on you. Or you start surprising yourself with the stuff that comes out of your mouth. Or it dawns on you that people don’t look at you the same way anymore. It’s insanely easy to start panicking. You want to rewind the tape. What happened to my waist? My biceps? My face? Did it all just catch up to me? Who is that looking back at me in the mirror? Did I just say that? Who the hell am I?!!

So you start comparing. And thinking a lot about who you were. And if you’re not careful, you wake up one day confronted with how regimented you’ve become – the days bleed into each other, and the phrase “same old, same old” takes on a whole new meaning. You think about getting out but the prospect is unnerving. As the saying goes, “old habits die hard”. That’s because the older we get, the harder it is to mix it up. Flexibility of mind, heart and body becomes something we have to work at. We’re hanging on to how it was five years ago, or whenever, trying to slow down the rate at which time seems to be slipping through our fingers. We resist change by courting the familiar. And before we know it we are going through the motions, resigning ourselves to the process of aging, as if we lacked choices in how we experience it.

All of this, ironically, as we avoid facing death. We tell ourselves that doing so is giving up on life. Educator Stephen Jenkinson sees it very differently. “The skill of dying is the same skill as deep living,” he tells me. That the extent to which we can embrace death is the extent to which we can live our lives. “Not success...not growth...not happiness. The cradle of your love of life is death. The fact that it ends.”

I’m thinking that gives me options. Options I never had before.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Pamela Anderson Just Doesn't Get It

Okay – I have a serious confession to make. I am an avid fan of Dancing with the Stars. Every week I go to embarrassing lengths to make sure I am primed, Mondays at 8pm, to catch all the glory on my small screen. I schedule my clients around it, I plan my evening meal, I rush home from whatever appointment I happen to be at. Just like I did when I was a teenager, ridiculously and hopelessly addicted to The Monkees on television.

And I have been keeping this a secret for years.

Now I should say, in my own defence, I have plenty of well thought out reasons for why I do it – meaning that I’ve actually thought about it – but it’s also just great fun to watch. For those of you unfamiliar, the basic concept behind the show is the pairing of people from all walks of life (boxers, actors, Olympic medalists, comedians, journalists, etc) with professional dancers to take a crash course in how to dance ballroom. In front of 20 million people. It’s a competition – a serious one, with good taste. It features decent judges who give constructive feedback without exploiting the contestants, as frequently seen on “reality programs” like American Idol (aka Simon Cowell). What makes a couple advance is a combination of the judges scores (50%) and audience votes (the other 50%). And part of what makes it interesting is that it is always surprising to see who takes easier to dance than others – and it’s often not who you expect it to be.

I am not a fan of ballroom dancing. But I am fascinated by the correlation between body language and character, and how a person’s physical conditioning (for example, in sports training) can interfere with their effort to expand their range of movement, or to learn a whole new “language”. Whether we are athletically trained or not, we are all prone to patterns in the way we move that can become habitual, and this in turn can have a real impact on our mental and emotional states. Any effort to change these patterns can wreak havoc on our field of perception. Take, for example, the Olympic skater on this season’s show who stepped on his own foot during training, or the NFL star who struggled to find his “feminine” side while gliding across the floor. Our biggest obstacle in any creative endeavor is often not what we don’t know, but rather what we do know.

Another really interesting aspect of the show is to see how people connect (or don’t connect) with their partner and their audience – and how both, in turn, influence voting. Dance is far more than just technique, after all. Are they merely going through the motions, or are they, through their partner, connecting with the emotion in, or the tradition behind, the dance? Are they peddling a façade, or do they make some attempt at being real, or reaching out to the people who are watching them?

Pamela Anderson’s debut on DWTS couldn’t be a better example. Famous for her “look at me, aren’t I hot” antics on camera, and her flagrant willingness to expose herself as much as possible for all her adoring fans (ie. men and boys who like watermelons for breasts) – she has been no different here. What is surprising, however, is that despite the lack of any training whatsoever, this woman can actually dance. The first two segments earned her decent scores from the judges. But she just couldn’t resist carrying on in her usual way off stage. At one point, while being briefly interviewed about her performance, she was overcome with the sudden need to search for some unknown object in her brassiere, then cup her prized possessions with her own hands in order to “adjust” them on live television.

The voters didn’t go for it. Though she earned admirable praise from the judges, she managed to land herself in the bottom two after audience votes were tallied. The look on her face betrayed a real disconcertion. As if her life-long perception of her own popularity was being shaken to the core.

Pamela Anderson, you just don’t get it. Not everyone wants to be treated as if they were a 16 year old boy cradling their member. Give it a rest. You’ve been carrying on with this tomfoolery for most of your adult life. What are you really made of, anyway?

Thus, another aspect of the DWTS appeal. Even those who can dance are challenged, albeit on a different level. Will Anderson rise to it? Or will she revert back to what is safe, and what she is used to?

To the rest of us (older) women in the real world, we are challenged all the time in ways that Anderson will never know. Midlife brings hormonal changes and aging bodies. We are asked to dig to the core for who we are and what we value - and we often don't see it coming. We’re in another league altogether. And thank god for that.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Crisis: The Wellspring of Renewal

Most of us know what it’s like to find ourselves behaving in ways contrary to our nature from time to time; to forget ourselves in choices that lose sight of consequence. That 3am bout of insomnia – coupled with the realization we have settled for a life we never intended – can happen to the best of us. We all fall off the path; or more accurately, we all, at some point, make the mistake of following someone else's path, or asking someone else’s questions, or living in accordance with someone else’s agenda.

This is where “the watershed moment” can be a real blessing – the way that life has of stepping in and tripping us up – to open our eyes to some powerful truth. The death or loss of something or someone we love is guaranteed to have this effect. A dear friend called me the other day to tell me that someone very close to him had died. Riddled with heartache, he lamented over unseized opportunities and (as he saw it) unspeakable failures. He bemoaned all the times he wished he’d been there for her or spoken what was in his heart. His torment was palpable.

Listening to that unbridled anguish, I felt as if I might crack wide open. Yet there was something quite poignant about it. He projected an air of self possession I had never heard before. He was being honest with himself at an entirely new level, and the whole world looked different. I felt this opening to life, and to healing. So I told him that. I told him this was his chance. He had access. He could take advantage of this shift in perspective. And he could live his life in a way that honors her memory. Only he knew what that meant.

I could hear in his voice, he was determined to make meaning from this pain. And I thought to myself, this is the nuts and bolts of life. Taking a moment such as a tragedy or a crisis and allowing it to open you to the change your soul longs for. Powerful catalysts come in all forms. Some of us glide through half of our lives without one, until one day, we finally come up against the inevitable truth: we’re getting older. Is this what we want to be doing the rest of our lives?

Also known as the entry into midlife crisis. My take? Give thanks for this rude awakening, because it’s offering you choices you never knew you had. Cling to your youth, and you’ll miss it.

“Crisis” in the Concise Oxford dictionary, by the way, is defined as a “a decisive moment; a time of danger or great difficulty; a turning point.” Websters adds, “to bring to a culminating point”.

A convergence? A fork in the road? Whatever it be, it often brings with it all sorts of goodies – turmoil, anxiety, grief. All of it, arguably, a nudging toward life. Educator and counselor Stephen Jenkinson describes grief as a skill. A skill. “Grief is a sign of life stirring toward itself,” he adds. I am going to be interviewing him soon, and I plan on asking him precisely what he means by that.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

A Bout of the Crazies

There is a time in a woman’s life when everything she has known (and counted on) is called into question; when the earth opens up and threatens to swallow her whole; when the neatly-drawn perimeters of her sane life are seemingly cast into a mesh of shady intersections, all of which obscure loopy or erratic creatures waiting to emerge at unexpected turns. It’s called Menopause – also known as The Change or, as I think I will name it today, A Bout of the Crazies.

Hormones are freakishly-powerful things. They can make you bawl your heart out for no apparent reason, out of nowhere; they can make you feel chilled and on fire at the same time; they can turn you into a no-holds-barred nymphomaniac one day and an utterly barren entity the next. They can torment your mind with the big What If? ....until you’re absolutely convinced that a) you’re on the verge of a nervous breakdown, or b) some adolescent version of yourself has time traveled back into your 40 or 50-something body. Oh, and I’m just getting started.

At 48, I’ve been aware that on some level, my system has been gearing up for The Change for a number of years now. Mood swings, the occasional night sweat, and skin once baby-soft now impossibly dry in places – nothing too scary. Until recently. Now, I want to start a movement. I want to rally together all the women like me who have been caught off guard by this Bout of the Crazies; this on-again, off-again feeling of cracking up, or becoming unhinged, however fleeting. Of being temporarily possessed or taken over, and then left to recover my level-headed self, wondering what all the fuss was about – over, and over again. Is this when womens husbands tend to leave them, because they no longer recognize the woman they married, or they’re ill-equipped to deal with the swings? And if you’re single like myself, do you resign yourself to another 5 or 10 years of solitary life, until which time the storm has passed?

The medical profession – along with the pharmaceutical industry – has worked tirelessly over recent decades to pathologize (and medicate) this life transition, which makes me sad. Because while it has been quite hellish, I passionately believe it is not an illness, and I would never trade the experience for a more convenient, synthetic way of life, the way some women do when they take those pills to stop menstruating. A life with soul, I think, of real creativity, is often born of that which is messy, beast-like or wretched. I don’t want to be a cardboard cut-out of myself. I want to live my life, and learn to find strength and wisdom in what nature intended. And I want to find a man who is strong and unwavering; who will not bolt in the other direction at the first sign of troubled waters, but who also won’t take on my crazies as if they were his own.

My friend Amy Ferris, whose book on menopause (and on marrying George Clooney) has lightened my load many times over, says that menopause is all about giving birth to yourself. That you go through a lot of the same shit you did when you were a teenager, but on a deeper level, and this time, you are challenged to respond to it in a life-giving way. I keep telling myself that.

But I’d also like to hear from other women who’ve been through it. Is it sort of like being in labor? What’s your story?

Friday, March 12, 2010

Bringing Sexy Back

It could be argued that one of the most common hallmarks of growing older is how your perception of “sexy” changes. Not a slight alteration here and there, but rather an upside-down, inside-out, shake-up-my-world kind of shift in experience, where every time you look back, you can’t believe how off the mark you were.

I refer here not to the qualities we are drawn to in others – for some of us, this is determined by what is intrinsic to our nature, and remains pretty constant through our lifetime. No, what I’m talking about here are the things we have trouble pinning down; that “something about them” feeling that we can’t put our finger on. Though we may point to specifics now and again – a woman’s walk or the nape of her neck; the cadence in a man’s speech or the way he fills a room – it always just seems to flirt with the real essence of it. But no matter. Because whatever the “it” is, we’re finally feeling it. With age comes a deeper relationship to the senses; the capacity to see or feel in a thing so much more than we had ever seen or felt before.

When I was in my early 30s, I was totally caught up in appearances. I thought sexy meant jean shorts, fishnet stockings and doc martens, topped off with a biker jacket and John Lennon-esque sunglasses. Hip looking, perhaps – for the times. But it was never enough. I was always missing the glove, or the guy, or the cleavage, or whatever. I was hanging on to sexy by a very thin thread indeed, and I was searching for the same kind of sexy in others, too. For everyone I knew, it was all about image, and personality – and whether or not these met the criteria set by your peers. Quadruple this when you’re in your 20s.

Now, roughly 20 years later, what I experience as sexy is much more real and far more reliable. It’s a vibe that doesn’t depend on a passing trend or approval from others, because it is intricately woven with my values and the woman I have grown to become. The more I focus on how I want to feel over how I want to appear, the stronger I feel its presence. In the movie It’s Complicated, Alec Baldwin’s character – after a bout of passionate lovemaking with his ex-wife (played by Meryl Streep) – sighs, “why is it that it’s so much sexier than it used to be?” ….to which she muses, “I don’t know……”

The implication is clear. Sex over 50 is hot. And like a good bottle of wine, our relationship with “sexy” gets better with age if we can just learn to relax and go with it. As many of us have found, when we stop wasting time on how things were, we discover that “sexy” can actually have real substance. We abandon the need to prove ourselves and focus instead on relating to others.

It’s refreshing, invigorating and liberating. It’s bringing sexy back to the place it was meant to be.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Power of All Things Make-Believe

I had a dream two nights ago about Johnny Depp. I was surprised – I never dream about movie stars. But there he was, in all His Deppness. Not the red carpet royalty and eccentric pirate we know now, but Johnny Depp the person – original, full of character, highly creative, the height of coolness. We were supposed to be hooking up for a sort of a date. Sort of.

Now I say “sort of” because my sense of who I was in this dream is vague: my age, state of physicality (which has varied greatly in my lifetime), my nature (I am multi-faceted) and even my societal status are not defined in any real way, so I don’t really know which “me” His Deppness is into. In any case, we are supposed to meet in this public place, where he is going to take me to meet some Very Cool people, and somehow, I manage to not make it in time. And being the Very Cool guy that he is, he leaves me this phone message extending me the benefit of the doubt, and telling me where they’re all going to be.

Except I don’t know how to find this place.

Well suffice it to say that I wake up in a state of utter frustration at (what seemed like) a missed opportunity. It’s funny how dreams work. Even after you come to and realize it was “just a dream”, you still can’t seem to shake the feeling, which was strong enough to wake you up – and you walk about your apartment or loft or wherever, telling yourself how silly you’re being and to just forget about it, but it’s already crawled under your skin. Part of you struggles to put it out of your mind; the other part keeps trying to grasp the fragments, make sense of it, translate it somehow to your real life.

My friend Amy Ferris has a thing for George Clooney – she even put him in the title of her book. Me, it’s Johnny Depp. Not so much in a sexual or romantic way, but in a creative longing sort of way. His extraordinary trust in the power of the imagination; his courting of all things odd or offbeat – both, I find deeply stimulating. In Benny & Joon, he climbs trees in a top hat, and makes french toast with an iron and an ironing board. I am drawn to, and delighted by, this kind of strangeness in others; people who are a little bit mad, but who always maintain a good measure of sanity when it’s called for. People who can balance living on the edge with finding their centre; who experiment with re-contextualizing stuff for fun, or to see how it challenges their perception of things. Those who see life in the so-called inanimate, or who flirt with mythical creatures in some way. People who question their own assumptions, test the boundaries of reality, indulge their idiosyncrasies or abandon the need to be socially acceptable.

Like performers. Or artists. Or menopausal women.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Where Pain and Pleasure Become One

I’ve been thinking a lot about death and dying lately – how it shakes things up; makes you look at life differently. There is this Hindu goddess named Kali who is widely regarded as the bringer of death – but not in the same way we think about it here in the west. More accurately, her mythology speaks to the ability to “look with the eyes of death” on that which no longer serves us; to face, and learn to accept, the gradual demise of that which we once held sacred....beliefs formed in youth that no longer make sense; values long cherished now feeble, cursory remnants of their former selves. All of this resonates with me strongly right now. As a woman in her late 40s, it seems to me that the older I get, the more important it becomes to be able to roll with the punches; to welcome new ways of seeing things, and to allow life’s lessons to open me up to change my soul longs for.

Maybe that’s because the alternative is stagnation; an arthritic clenching of everything I know in my addiction to comfort and all things familiar. Now, more than ever, I feel a great need to resist this inclination. I want that “something more” out of life. I don’t want to live in fear that something I identify with today could be gone tomorrow. Because it could be. Everything’s happening so darned fast. I look back on my concepts of self even as recent as two years ago....I mean, it’s all turning on its head.

The beauty of aging is how it opens your eyes to all sorts of stuff. You realize how stupid you were when you were young; how utterly fooled you were by the appearance of things. For so many years, I chased after what I was so sure I thought I wanted, only to realize, as time went on, that the form my life takes matters far less than how closely I can live in accordance with my values. Whether it be my professional aspirations, in what country I reside, the man I am intimate with or how I spend my days – as someone I know once said, “I just want to be where I am supposed to be.”

So bring it on. This anguish I feel, with the recent passing of my beloved – this, I cannot numb, for it can take me to that sweet spot I’ve pined for all my life; that place where pain and pleasure become one, and rupture the shell of my long-embittered self.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

What We Fall In Love With

When Meryl Streep’s public interview with a veteran journalist in Toronto was announced last year, I was one of the first people in line to get a ticket. Even if I were 10 rows away from her with a shoddy view, I had to be in the same room as her; to bask in her radiant presence. I was not disappointed. Though she was dressed casually with her hair back in a pony tail, she glowed – just as she always does. I was intoxicated.

I remember many comments she made that night, but one that stands out for me now is this: what we fall in love with in people is the light that surrounds them, comes from them. That’s the thing we fall in love with. This resonated with me quite strongly, but until just a couple of days ago, I never experienced this truth so directly; so powerfully.

On Monday night, after many sleepless days and nights, my beloved cat passed away – on the same day as what would have been my grandmother’s 100th birthday. She was the love of my life, and I have never dealt with death before in such an intimate way. The experience of her passing; of the hours just before her death and the actually process of dying itself, was bittersweet – brutal, poignant and beautiful. As I cradled her in my arms and felt her spirit leave her body, anguish filled my heart and soul. For two hours I held her, rocked her, sang to her; and when rigor mortis began to set in, I curled her up onto her favorite blanket and gently kissed her precious, golden body.

In the hours that followed, I would continue to return to this ritual: on my knees, bending down to kiss her, my tears dropping down on her fur, soft as silk. But I was surprised by something – a profound revelation I had not seen coming that brought both disappointment and awe. And that is, she was not her body. This kissing her was not the same. I stroked her body but she was not there. The spirit, heart and life force that I loved so madly was gone.

Okay, so this is what death is. Of course this wasn’t her, I told myself. This is the body she inhabited. But to understand this intellectually and experience it firsthand were two different things. The comfort and sheer pleasure I found in kissing her before could no longer be found with this body, however beautiful it might be to look at. This wasn’t her. It was time to open up to a different way of experiencing her; to a new way of perceiving, and feeling, her presence.

But back to my point. As Meryl Streep so wisely pointed out, what I fell in love with was the light that emanated from her being; what I communicated with was this vitality; this force of life – the spirit that danced in her body. And though I can’t quite articulate yet why this realization is so astounding for me, I can say this: if humanity in general were more attuned to this truth, we would be much more accepting of death as a natural part of life, and we would be far less hung up about growing older.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

All Life Comes From Death - Homage to an Old Girl

My beloved cat – a beautifully delicate yet fiercely resilient force of nature – is dying. I imagined this process for a long time: how I thought it might go, how I hoped it would go – and it’s nothing like I expected. Except that it is. In the sense that this dying, and this terror of death, is a deeply spiritual experience. Her suffering is my anguish, and yet, something is being asked of me, here. More than loving her. More than nursing, and nurturing her. More than singing to her, and being midwife to her passage. Staying present is hard, because we are deeply attached to one another. Like sisters – the kind of sisterly love portrayed in The Color Purple. And she is dying – I cannot deny it. Soon, she will be gone, or rather her body will quit, and the real teaching will begin. I must render myself teachable.

As I bear witness to her faith in this process – and I do mean faith – I am struck by several things.Her resilience, and remarkable dignity throughout. Her openness to life and to discovery, even as she prepares to cross over. Her gentle strength. Her finely tuned awareness of what she needs, and when she needs it. That uncanny sense that she sees me for who I am. And her unbridled expression of soul, unadorned and without agenda.

These are all the things I love about older women, at least in their finest moments. The qualities I hope to grow into and own. And though staring death in the face is brutal, I’m not sure life would have much meaning without it. As Stephen Jenkinson points out, all life comes from death, literally. Or put more eloquently, “death feeds everything that lives.”

A sobering thought, in my effort to embrace this thing called aging.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Fallacy: Boys Want Sex More Than Girls

There are “isms” in life that we are all handed from a very early age: from our churches and parents, schools and televisions, friends and newspapers. Some of them we get so often, and from so many different sources, we don’t even bother questioning them.

Except when we do.

The “ism” I always found suspect was this: boys want sex more than girls. And today, some 30 years later, I’m still hearing the same thing. Except that it’s not “don’t get into the back seat with that boy, he only wants one thing”, anymore, it’s the dark side of feminism, demonizing lustful men; or grown men themselves, deceiving the object of their desire in order to bed them. It’s the ridiculous notion, propagated by both genders, that men have a higher sex drive than women. “Don’t date him,” Carrie Bradshaw tells her friend Charlotte in Sex and the City. “He’s a sex maniac.”

Certainly it is true that we all go though ebbs and flows, and it’s commonly known that hormonal levels, in both men and women, determine libido. Enter the older woman younger man equation. But I met a man 16 years younger than I was once when, after it was determined we had a strong, mutual attraction to one another, he asked me if his “intense sexual appetite” would be an issue. “Excuse me?!!” I thought to myself. Were the heavens blessing me with their fortunes that day?!! Had I earned enough good karma points that month?! How about, “Would my appetite be an issue for you?!”

But I kept my mouth shut, in part because it would all come out in the wash anyway, and I’m happy to let a man think he wants it more than I do if that’s what rocks his boat (it might even rock mine). It’s not a competition. Let him have his one track mind, and I’ll adore him for it. As some scientists who study gender brain differences claim, men tend to think on one track at a time, and so if sex is on the brain, it becomes the lens through which they see the world and everything around them, often to the exclusion of all else. With the right man, I’m loving this quality. But does a man’s sexual appetite really exceed a woman’s? Where does this idea come from, and why is it so widely disseminated?

Friday, February 19, 2010

A Salacious, Disgruntled Witch of a Woman

Much has been written about menopause, or menopausal women: “the change” as it is often known – how to adapt or cope; what to expect; what we know as women. What is written about a lot less are the years leading up to menopause – some claim as many as 10 – called peri-menopause. A definite prelude of what is to come, it is a time period marked by hormonal swings and inconsistencies of all kinds; on a spiritual level, an initiation into a deeper questioning of our lives and its purpose. This “coming of age” stirs, for many, an irritability and an intolerance for nonsense simultaneously, just as it might spurts of madness with an insatiable sexual appetite, or bouts of depression with a new-found ability to slow down and take stock.

This, and more, makes up the paradoxical nature of life as an “older” woman. Life began, for me, in my 40s. That sense of glimpsing who it is you really are, for the first time. And though I’ve finally found my way home, I have yet to take up residence. I suppose you could say I am still surveying the wreckage. As if a medley of strange four-legged creatures came through the house, some of them not of this world, leaving their mark for me to decipher. I’ve got boxes to unpack. There are days I feel like a crow in human form; a worldly-wise yet disgruntled witch, black and intense and unapproachable. Other days, all I can think about is sex, and I seriously sympathize with every man alive who has suffered from blue balls, agonizing over every tantalizing curve or bulge.

I’m not even sure where I’m going with this. Perhaps Thomas Moore is right. When we don’t know exactly what we’re doing, “the soul takes over and from a dimmer place, takes the lead,” he writes. “By remaining in this psychic fog, we may end up in a place we have been searching for all our lives – with the right person, in a good job, with a new level of self-possession.”

Here’s hoping.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Re-imagining Valentine's Day

There’s something about Valentine’s Day – a calendar date marked by cupid, Hallmark expressions of “love” and heart-shaped cookies everywhere you look – that irks me. Matters of the heart, made saccharine by any means, are somehow diminished; robbed of their sanctity and capacity for valor. And yet every year around this time I can’t help but wonder what it could mean without all the hype. I find myself thinking about the people I love, and the words that remain unspoken. And I pine for things that never were but might have been; connections lost or faded with time; love imagined that destiny might realize.

Being single for a long time – which I have been – tends to frame things in a particular light. Couples and families tend to have a surreal tinge to them. You become accustomed to the freedom of doing your own thing; of never having to consult anyone else before making key decisions. And after a while, as life would often have it, you find yourself gazing through the looking-glass, asking questions about the person blinking back at you in the mirror.

I can’t speak for men, but it seems to me that one of the real treasures about getting older as a woman is the new-found ability to be real with yourself. Its often difficult, uncomfortable and unpleasant – at the same time, you start to own it. You start to own what makes you bleed, and what makes your loins burn. You start to own the life you have lived, with all its betrayals, and the path you want to create. You start thinking less about what you need and more about what you’re supposed to give back. You stop messing around. You just want to tell it like it is.

And whether or not you’re single, you watch while your romantic ideals crumble around you, making way for a muse of unbridled proportions; a relationship with self that simply becomes you.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Love and Discovery of a Self We Never Knew

With Valentine’s Day fast approaching, I thought it timely that I sit down to watch, yet again, The Bridges of Madison County, starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood. There is something deeply romantic about this film – and when I say “romantic” I mean in the best possible sense of the word: an awakening of the sensual being; a poignant reflection on the values one has lived by; an erotic stirring of a passion never known. Meryl Streep is in her early 40s, and although much younger than her cultured male co-star, she falls into the category of an “older” woman in that she embodies the beauty and strength of a person who has known and lived real love, without pretense, and who measures her actions against a moral compass held close to her heart.

Her husband gone on a trip, she sits down at the dining room table to hours of conversation and storytelling with her new male suitor, neither too cognizant of what is to come. They talk to one another (or, more accurately, listen to one another) in a way that is so often lost in the fast-paced world of technological development – they absorb eachother, allow for pauses, and indulge their innermost recesses. Observing them, their delight in one another and the feelings their faces betray is a distinctly soulful experience. When finally they surrender to the longing that consumes them, Meryl can be heard in a voice over: “I was acting like another woman -- yet I was more of myself than I ever had been before.”

Could it be possible that, as Thomas Moore puts it, we find we are most ourselves when we are furthest from the self we think we ought to be? At the very least, I think, a life worth living is blessed with at least one transformation of self – catalyzed by something or someone we didn’t expect, opening us to forgotten dreams and shades of character, and leaving us utterly heartbroken, alive and mad with love.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Warped Ideas About Aging Make for a Phobic Culture

I often think about our obsession with youth as a culture, and how demented it all seems. I mean, besides wanting the vigor and agility and all our body parts working and such – these are things we’d all like to hang on to, and there’s nothing crazy about that. I’m talking about the way we romanticize being young, to the point where we become consumed with the ludicrous notion of “perfection” (enter cosmetic surgery here – above and below the belt) and rob ourselves of the benefits of aging by assuming ways of thinking and operating that we have long outgrown. We make ourselves miserable over every grey hair, bald spot or wrinkle we find, as if these things make us less attractive. So we buy in – often for the wrong reasons – waging war on ourselves, and any discernible evidence that we’re getting older. Anti-aging products and programs are big business. If you’ve got money you can really go the distance, branding yourself in every conceivable way, dressing the part, and frequenting clubs or parties to flaunt your goods – all of it par for the course in Hollywood. Yet this is where a lot of our ideas about age come from.

When I was a teenager – or younger – I used to look at people over 40 (hell, even 35) and think to myself how uncool they were. I was stupid, and naïve, and uncultured, but also the product of a massive marketing machine in our films, television and media that propagates the idea of young as hip and “older” as washed up, tired or out of the groove. It’s unbelievably twisted and backward. One of the most popular sitcoms of all time, Friends, features an episode of the gang sitting around the kitchen table, lamenting over the hideous prospect of turning 30. In Sex and the City, Charlotte York (played by Kristin Davis), a knockout of a woman by any standard, battles the feeling of being an “old maid”, refusing to age another year on her birthday. Hallmark cards joke about the so-called horror of turning 40 with the greeting, “are you 39 again?!!”

This is all old news. Phobias around aging or so deeply entrenched in North American culture we hardly ever see them for what they really are: distorted, out of touch and deranged. Funny – just exactly what one might define as senile.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The "Need" for an Older Woman

I was approached by a young man on a dating site recently who admitted to me that after many failed relationships, he has learned that he actually needs an older woman. We got to talking about why that was true for him, and it got me thinking. This is something I’ve heard before, and when I haven’t heard it, I’ve intuited it. Though the reasons differ from man to man, there are many common threads. Some have told me that they love the “no bullshit” factor. Others are attracted to a woman who knows who she is sexually; to her depth as a sensual being; to a woman who is responsive and sensitive to his needs. And many have talked about the independent nature of the older woman: someone with a life of her own, who doesn’t depend on his approval or involvement for validation.

But how does all of this translate into a “need” for the older woman? I imagine it to be men who treasure their freedom, and have found their right to such respected by the older woman. I also believe there are men who get too messed up trying to figure out what a woman wants – an older woman, more often than not, just puts it out there. More than anything else though, there are men whose sexual appetite runs far deeper than the need for physical gratification. Being with an older woman, I am told, feeds that hunger. A man has space to grow and evolve and experiment with who he is, without having to shoulder the burden of a young woman’s confusion or identity crisis.

He also learns that, rather than "tolerating" or merely allowing his need – as so many of us did when we were young – we appreciate it; indeed, we take advantage of it.

That is, those of us looking for a sexual connection, who are “of a certain age”.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Limitations of the Cougar Stereotype

No one wants to be defined by a stereotype alone. A stereotype by nature categorizes a person or thing, discouraging inquiry, or any inclination to probe the superficial. That said, many of us allow ourselves to be stereotyped for reasons of personal empowerment, as many women have done in identifying themselves as “cougars”. Part of me gets this. Perhaps you’ve spent half of your life being subservient to a man you lost respect for, then finally got up the courage to leave. Perhaps you felt powerless sexually for a long time, taught to believe you had no sway or no say; that you ought to consider yourself lucky for finding a decent man – as if you had nothing to do with it. Then you get older, you wake up, and discover an entire world out there of men who adore you for your experience and smarts. You start getting bolder in how you dress; you feel on top of the world, visible for the first time in decades. You are a cougar. You can choose to sleep with anyone you want. I get it.

The problem with identifying with a predatory animal is its benefits are, most of the time, short lived. It’s fun for a ride, but the sexuality of a predator is fairly one-dimensional. You start to get tired of the tight skirts and the high heels or the pressure to look younger than your years, and you yearn to just be yourself, or at the very least, explore the other dimensions of your nature openly. You realize that you can’t keep doing this forever, and at some point you are going to have to face the inevitability of death, and that the quality of your life depends on your ability to embrace it.

Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I think there is something to be said for being pursued, rather than having to be the one in pursuit. Older women possess a grace and a beauty that runs much deeper than that of a “cougar”, and regardless of what the media, film and television industries would have us believe, there are many men out there who’ve known this for centuries. Whatever you’ve got, own it. Find and keep company with women who believe life over 50 spells the best years of your life – and don’t listen to anyone who tells you otherwise. Because the alternative is never really living at all.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Why I Love Helen Mirren

When I look at actress Helen Mirren at 63, everything about her resonates with why I love older women. There is an air of “self possession” or confidence about her; of owning all that she is. There is also a gracefulness and a strength of character that you don’t see in her photographs of almost 40 years ago. And it makes me think about why aging can be so liberating if you go with it. You hit your 40s and you begin to realize that what makes you desirable has very little to do with the size of your nose, the color of your labia or how much cellulite you have. If you hit your stride, you feel yourself coming alive for what feels like the first time, and wondering if the men in your life can handle it.

You see that’s the thing. The Inquisition was born of men who couldn’t handle it. Branding a woman “in her stride” a witch – however you define the term these days – hundreds of thousands were burned alive or drowned. Today, thanks to the courage and smarts of many of our ancestors, we don’t have to worry about that. But we do have to work on not apologizing for ourselves: for our strengths as older women; for our deep knowing of all things sexual. And we can do that without emasculating men in the process.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Men Who Get Older Women

I was talking to a friend the other day about men who “get” older women and how they stand apart from men who don’t. She knew exactly what I was talking about. In my experience, older women often have a certain aura to them, much the same way a pregnant woman does, but different. There is a strength and an energy to them that is almost impossible to describe, but it is real, and tangible. When I look into the face of an older woman, I sometimes sense an unconscious effort to minimize or suppress this power and yet, it remains: an unstoppable force that is determined to survive, to persevere, to keep getting back up, again and again.

But the aura I feel goes beyond that, and it has a sexual undertone to it. As a heterosexual woman, I like to imagine myself as a man, and ask myself what I would find attractive. The truth is, I cannot imagine that, as a man, I could find sex with a young woman to be even remotely satisfying. The actor Alec Baldwin recently went on record saying that he could not imagine going to bed with someone he couldn’t talk to in the morning, and that some men get stuck in chasing some romantic ideal of their youth. Or something like that. It seems to me that men who find older women attractive – and there are many, many more out there than the media would have us believe – have a lot more depth to them.