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.